Kol Simcha - קול שמחה

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Weekly Torah Talk on Noach 5773

on Tuesday, 16 October 2012. Posted in Torah Talks

Be At Least Moderately Good

It's an old story, and we know it well: God sees that wickedness and corruption have spread throughout the world, and that human beings are acting in ways that should have been predictable to an all-knowing deity—lying, cheating, stealing, committing adultery, outsourcing jobs to Asia, the usual. In response, God decides to destroy the world in a great flood, rain falling for 40 days and nights, the whole of humanity drowned in the deluge.

One man is chosen to survive the flood, because, the Torah text tells us, he was "righteous in his generation". Noah—Noach in Hebrew—is chosen to carry the banner of humanity to the next generation. Gathering his family about him, and two of each animal—plus seven pairs of each kosher animal, so there's something to eat and something to sacrifice to God if they make it out—Noah builds the ark, loads the boat, and goes on not a three-hour cruise, but one long enough to float away every trace of the depravity of humanity in those days. Eventually, he sends out first a raven and finally a dove to see if the world is dry enough to land on. The dove brings back that famous olive branch, they land and exit the ark, and life begins again.

Weekly Torah Talk on Sukkot 5773

on Wednesday, 03 October 2012. Posted in Torah Talks

Gratitude and Wisdom

This week we read special selections from the Torah in honor of the holiday of Sukkot, or Succos.  This season is an embarrassment of holiday riches for Jews, and the Torah readings reflect this. 

Sukkot marks the great fall thanksgiving festival, the feast of Tabernacles or booths, when we are commanded to remember the transitory nature of our ancestors’ wanderings through the Wilderness of Sinai, as well as the transitory nature of our own lives.  In the season of the fall harvest, when we eat the first and best of the produce of the natural world, we take a week to demonstrate our gratitude for the necessities of life: food, shelter, and clothing.  And in this week’s Torah readings we receive the mitzvah of building a Sukkah, a temporary Tabernacle, a booth or hut, outdoors, designed to last just a week—actually, eight days—to eat in and perhaps sleep in.  We decorate it with the symbols of the harvest, fruits and vegetables, and enjoy a fall harvest festival to celebrate the goodness of the world God has given us. And enjoyment is key.  This is our z’man simchateinu, the season of our joy, when we are literally commanded to celebrate our good fortune.

Yom Kippur Yizkor 5773: Parents and Children

on Wednesday, 26 September 2012. Posted in Sermons

I mentioned last night that the proper name for Yom Kippur this year might well be “The Hunger Games”.  And by this time of the afternoon it certainly feels that way. 

But in a larger sense, and a more intimate one as well, on Yom Kippur there is a significant, and sometimes, troubling focus on survival.  I don’t just mean whether you can survive the many long prayers and songs and self-criticism and endless sermons and especially going a full 24 hours without food or water.  I mean that this survival challenge is in the liturgy itself, the prayers and readings we speak and sing.  It starts with our greeting, g’mar chatimah tovah, to be “sealed in the Book of Life” for a year of, well, life and therefore not death.  Many times already we have prayed to be written in the Book of Life, and not left out; we ask again and again for life—which means we are also thinking about the possibility that we won’t make the cut and will be left out of the Book of Life.  That, of course, means death.

This morning in the BeRosh Hashanah section of the Unetaneh Tokef we chanted about the fate of all who will pass away in the coming year, “Who shall live, and who shall die?  Who by fire and who by water, who in war and who by wild beast?  Who by thirst and who by hunger?  Who by earthquake and who by flood?”  We wear these white robes on this Yom Kippur not just because we seek the purity of forgiveness, which we do, but because we also imitate the white linen shroud in which the dead are buried.  On this holiest holy day of the year there is an overtone of potential ending for each of us.

So why all this focus on death?  Certainly, some of us will not survive this year; this is a sad and tragic fact, but it is also a fact the other 364 days of the year.  So why today, when we are all together and praying and fasting and seeking forgiveness, do we look so much at death?

Kol Nidre 5773: The First Community and Ours

on Tuesday, 25 September 2012. Posted in Sermons

A group of elderly, retired Jews gather at a café in Tel Aviv every morning.  They sit for hours drinking coffee and analyzing the world situation.  Given the state of ings, their talks are usually depressing.  One day, one of the men startles everyone by saying, “You know what?  I am an optimist!”

This shocks the other guys, and one of them notices something fishy.  “Wait a minute,” he says, “If you are an optimist, why do you look so worried?”

And the first man answers, “You think it’s so easy to be an optimist?”

That reminds me of the situation of our congregation, and very likely every synagogue today.  Right now things are going pretty well.  We are having beautiful High Holy Day Services, our music program offers the most active, professional and creative Jewish music in Arizona, our membership is up, our Strauss ECE preschool is going beautifully, our Religious School is educating kids in Jewish life, our Adult Education Academy offers a fantastic array of courses that are filled with adult learners.  Our Outreach Program continues to bring new people into active participation in Jewish life.  We even have a brand new solar array, a newly paved parking lot, and—this is no small thing—brand new bathrooms.  We should be optimistic.

Weekly Torah Talk on Shabbat Shuvah/Vayeilech 5772

on Wednesday, 19 September 2012. Posted in Torah Talks

Near Death Experiences

It’s almost a cliché: sometimes it takes facing death for us to learn to appreciate life. Twice this week our Torah portions have compelled us to look at death.  We are being taught that when we face death we can learn to value life, and to live it as though it truly matters.

Earlier this week, in Rosh Hashanah’s Torah reading of the Akeidat Yitzchak, Abraham was told to sacrifice his son but the killing was actually averted.  Our Shabbat Shuvah portion of Vayeilech, near the end of the Torah in the very last stages of the book of Deuteronomy, tells of the final days of Moses.  Here the killing—that is, the death of Moses—will surely come.  In spite of his pleas to God to be allowed to enter the Promised Land, his fate is sealed. 

In this season we speak and sing of the image of the Sefer Chayim, the Book of Life, asking God to write us into it for a good year.  We great each other with “L’Shanah Tovah Tikateivu,” may you be written in the Book of Life, and “Gmar Chatimah Tovah,” may you be sealed in the Book of Life.  We ask again and again for life—which means we are also thinking about the possibility that we won’t make the cut and will be left out of the Book of Life.  That, of course, means death.

Rosh Hashanah Morning 5773: The Search for God in the Accelerator -- and in Life

on Monday, 17 September 2012. Posted in Sermons

Hayom Harat Olam, we sang a few minutes ago, today is the birthday of the world.  According to the calculation of the rabbis of the Talmudic period, the entire universe began a very long time ago on this day, Rosh HaShanah.  So how do you celebrate the birthday of the world?

Do you bake a giant honey cake, and put 5,773 lit candles on top of it?  Fill up blue and white balloons and hang “Happy Birthday World” streamers? Purchase and wrap gigantic presents?  Buy a truly humongous card, and get 7 billion people to sign it?  Invite everybody to come over and blow loud horns and sing songs?  Ok, so we do actually blow loud horns and sing songs.  I guess we have that part of the birthday party thing covered.

But what does it mean, exactly, that this is the birthday of the world?  Does it mean that this is the anniversary of the beginning of creation?  And when was it exactly when creation began?

I was asked in a class recently just what we are counting 5773 years from exactly.  I mean, Judaism has only been around for 3800 years, at longest, from the time of Abraham.  So where does this number 5773 come from?

Weekly Torah Talk on Nitzavim 5772

on Wednesday, 12 September 2012. Posted in Torah Talks

The Covenant of Presence

This coming week we celebrate the final Shabbat of the year, which means that our Torah portion is one of the great sections of the entire year, Nitzavim: you stand here today, all of you, the oldest to the youngest, from the wealthiest to the poorest, the most famous to the humblest, the leaders of your community and the strangers visiting with you. You are all part of the covenant with the Lord your God. You, and every other generation to come who will be descended from you. This great b'rit, this covenant affirms that you will be God's people, and God will be your Lord.

This confirms that we are part of a profound and eternal tradition, a connection to our ancestors that will be carried forward to our descendants. Each of us, all of us are part of this remarkable compact. It is an extraordinarily democratic and egalitarian agreement with God, a b'rit that is shared with everyone regardless of gender or age: children and women stand with men here, not always the case at the time of the Torah-or even today.

So it's a very special covenant. But what is the content of the mitzvah that we are now to observe?

9/11 Multifaith Service 2012

on Tuesday, 11 September 2012. Posted in Community Events

at Streams in the Desert Lutheran Church

9-11 memorial 2012My friends, my brothers and sisters,

The greatest challenge for any person of faith is this: how do I take good from evil?

Eleven years ago today we were confronted with that question and the stark reality that our beloved America is no island, exempt from the terror and tragedy of this turbulent world around us. We learned that we are all in this together, a mere polyglot array of passengers on this fragile ship in which we sail the seas of faith and fate.

In Jewish tradition we are close to the beginning of the New Year, Rosh HaShanah which begins Sunday night. On Rosh HaShanah and again on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, we will chant and read the prayer BeRosh HaShanah yikatevun uvyom tzom Kippur yechateimun, on the day of judgment it is written and on the Day of Atonement it is sealed, who will live and who will die, who by fire and who by water, who by sword and who by falling, who in the fullness of time and who before their time.

Ki Tavo 5772: The Politics of Holiness

on Friday, 07 September 2012. Posted in Sermons

In polite society if you wish to avoid controversy, you are taught early on in life, two subjects are off-limits—religion and politics. Well, here we are in synagogue on Friday night and you know we are going to talk about religion. So why not go for the homerun and talk about that other great taboo subject, politics?

Frankly, this week that's hard to avoid. This week some of you have been watching the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, which concluded last night after President Obama's acceptance speech, and last week I suspect some of you watched the Republican National Convention, which was held in Tampa, Florida and concluded with the nomination of Mitt Romney. I must admit that what impressed me the most about these political extravaganzas of self-congratulation and vilification of the opposition most was the quality of the production values in both shows. I recall watching national political conventions as a child and thinking that they seemed really, really boring—lots of politicians getting up and talking for a very long time; in those days the only interesting stuff happened outside the convention hall where people were rioting. The convention itself was a dreary succession of speech after speech after speech.

Weekly Torah Talk on Ki Tavo 5772

on Wednesday, 05 September 2012. Posted in Torah Talks

The Missing Center

The great Labor Zionist thinker Achad Ha'Am's taught that Judaism is made up of three great elements, God, Torah, and Israel. So what are we to make of a central Jewish text that completely omits one of these three?

This week we read the Torah portion of Ki Tavo in Deuteronomy, which begins with an unusual declaration: when we come into the land that the Lord our God will give us as an inheritance we are to take the first fruits of our produce, and bring them to the priest, and say this formula: "Arami oveid avi, my father was a wandering Aramean, and he came to Egypt few in number, and became a great nation there; the Egyptians dealt harshly with us, and enslaved us; but God brought us out with a great hand and an oustretched arm... and brought us to this place, flowing with milk and honey." In addition to its central role in an important Biblical ritual, this passage was quoted often in rabbinic literature, most famously in the Pesach Haggadah.

Weekly Torah Talk on Ki Teitzei 5772

on Wednesday, 29 August 2012. Posted in Torah Talks

The Moral Value of Labor

A question: what are the most important laws?

Our weekly Torah portion of Ki Teitzei in Deuteronomy obligates us to ask this question, for it is filled with an array of laws and ordinances affecting every aspect of life. They range from rules limiting unorthodox ritual practices to rules limiting conduct in wartime, and from personal morality to behavior in society. Family laws are established concerning marriage, inheritance, and divorce. Tort laws on damages are instituted, providing moral and financial responsibility for property owners. Laws of kindness decree human decency in every area of life.

Weekly Torah Talk on Shoftim 5772

on Wednesday, 22 August 2012. Posted in Torah Talks

Applied Justice

Our fall school season is now fully under way here in Arizona—for some reason we start school in early August here, and all of our educational systems for adults and kids begin again while its 108 degrees outside, with a high probability of nightly monsoons and lightning storms and power outages; slightly insane...

Anyway, as our fall school year begins I've been thinking about the complexity of trying to explain the influence of Jewish law in our entire tradition. We Jews, whether we are Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, or something else, come originally from a religious culture largely shaped by its process of applying divine law to a very human, fallible, changeable earthbound population. That means that our heritage is based on the kind of thinking that takes great, idealistic proclamations designed to further morality and tries to apply them to mundane daily life with fascinating results.

Coming Home

on Wednesday, 22 August 2012.

September 2012/Elul 5772-Tishrei 5773

     “You can’t go home again.”  -- Thomas Wolfe
                                     “All that God desires is your return.” – Babylonian Talmud

 

September represents a rare opportunity to change our destiny.  In spite of the passage of a year and the erosions of time,hhd God grants us, through these holidays, the ability to turn back the clock and reverse the natural order of things.  The greatest purpose of this unique season is to allow us a second chance—to give us the ability to go home.

The Jewish High Holy Days are a time of spiritual elevation, religious intensity, and ritual beauty.  Everything is at an improved level, from the music to the sermons to the shine on the wooden pews. Expectations rise: perhaps this explains why this period is known as the High Holy Days…

In fact there are many names for the two most religiously powerful festivals of the entire Jewish year that fall during these Yamim Nor’aim, the Days of Awe, which incorporates the Aseret Yemai Teshuvah, the Ten Days of Repentance, the time from Rosh HaShanah, the Jewish New Year, through Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.  These specific holiest of days have multiple names, too: for Rosh HaShanah they are Hayom Harat Olam the birthday of the world, Yom haZikaron, the Day of Remembrance, Yom Teruah, the Day of Shofar blowing, and Yom HaDin, the Day of Judgment; Yom Kippur is also called Yom Tzom Kippur, the fast Day of Atoning, and Shabbat Shabbaton, the Great Sabbath of Sabbaths, while the evening service beforehand is often known by the name of its signature musical text, Erev Kol Nidrei.

Re'eh 5772: Banking on Blessing

on Friday, 17 August 2012. Posted in Sermons

Shabbat Shalom. I know it's unbelievable, but public school started over a week ago, Religious School begins this coming week, and the High Holidays are coming up in just over a month. We bless the new month of Elul on this Shabbat because Rosh Chodesh Elul is Sunday, the beginning of the last month of the Jewish year. It's the time of year for us to think about the state of our relationships, to prepare to do a cheshbon hanefesh, an accounting of the state of our souls, to reflect on where we are in our lives, where we are headed, where we've been.

We are beginning the yearly journey of getting ready for the chagim, the Jewish fall holidays, examining the choices we continually make and the way our choices have worked out for us in the past year.

Weekly Torah Talk on Re'eh 5772

on Thursday, 16 August 2012. Posted in Torah Talks

The Right Thing to Do

This week we read the Torah portion of Re'eh, the fourth sedrah in the book of Deuteronomy, which follows a sequence of marvelous Torah portions with yet another remarkable text. Re'eh includes one of the most radical statements in the entirety of the Torah: "ki yihyeh v'cha evyon mei'echad achecha, b'echad sh'arecha, if there is among you a poor man, one of your brothers, within one of your gates, in the land which the Lord your God gives you, you shall not harden your heart or shut your hand from your needy brother; ki fato'ach tiftach et yadcha lo, you shall certainly open your hand to him, and give him enough for whatever he lacks-whatever he wants."

The commandment is not simply to provide for the needs of the needy, not just to alleviate their suffering, but to give them what they actually want: sustenance, security, a decent life. It is much more than we seek to provide in our American society, in which the safety net seemingly has as many holes as net. It is more than the social protestors in Israel last summer believed that their society was providing. It is a powerful, dramatic statement. Open your hand, and surely give the needy poor what they ought to have.

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