Saturday, October 15, 2011

October 15th D'var Torah

Last week we had our High Holidays. We’re now in a new year, we’ve atoned and forgiven for the sins of last year, and we are ready to start again. We spend this week hanging out in fun little huts, enjoying the last warmth of Fall, thinking about the impermanence of things, and traditionally this would be a time of preparing for the coming winter by harvesting our wheat, but most of us aren’t farmers anymore. Unless any of you have to hurry off after Religious School to harvest your wheat? Next, it will be Simchat Torah, when we will unroll the whole Torah and bless the children of the religious school.
Why do we do this? It’s important to be able to sort of rewind the Torah and pass it on to the new group of students. We start reading it over, and you all get to be a part of the new year’s study. The Torah has a lot to say and a lot to teach us, but it also says a lot that may no longer feel relevant. For example, there are rules about how we should farm, but probably no one in this room has decided to become a farmer in the last thirty seconds since I asked. That doesn’t mean we can’t still learn from those parts of the Torah, too. It may say, “leave the corners of your field untouched, so that the poor can come eat,” but we can now interpret that in new ways. Since we don’t have fields, we can’t leave the corners untouched, but we know that the idea is that poor people should be able to accept charity with dignity. So now maybe instead we make an anonymous food donation to a soup kitchen, where the poor can come and eat there without us knowing who were feeding.
There are also parts of the Torah that we may think really have no more lessons to teach us, like laws about how to treat your slaves. Now the people realize how bad slavery is, and those laws are pretty outdated. But they still can teach us about the society our ancestors lived in at the time the Torah was written. It’s good to learn about our history and see how our people has evolved.
Next week, when we start the Torah over again on Simchat Torah, there is a part of the celebration that’s all about you kids. A lot of you are still too young to read from the Torah, but you’re certainly never too young to start learning about the Torah, and soon enough, you’ll all become Bar/Bat Mitzvahs and will join the ranks of adult Torah study! We want to be able to pass down the Torah to you and invite you into the study groups. Because its not only important to reread the whole Torah every year, but to have fresh eyes looking at it, to hear a new perspective, to study with different people. It’s helpful to hear the next generations’ approach to G-d and Torah if we want to continue learning new things. So think about what you learn in Hebrew school and what it means to you, how it fits the G-d of your understanding. Ask questions. Learn. Interpret. And may you all continue to fulfill the mitzvot of learning Torah. Amen!

Friday, October 7, 2011

Kol Nidre Children's sermon

Shana Tova. It’s so good to see you all here tonight! This is a very special Shabbat, because it is Erev Yom Kippur. For a lot of Jewish adults, Kol Nidre, the big prayer of tonight, that we heard Cantor Noni chant earlier, is one of the most important, spiritual, holy moments of the year. Something about that prayer makes people feel reminded of their Jewishness in a way a lot of us don’t remember day to day. The same can be said for High Holy days in general, and the blowing of the shofar, that calls people back to a memory of our ancestors, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah. But there is something extra special about Kol Nidre.

You’ll see it in movies and plays and stories (The Jazz Singer, Cutman). Young Jewish people like all of you that want to be singers or play an instrument. Or maybe they want to be boxers, or join some kind of club, and maybe those meetings or practices or performances conflict with their Jewish lives. In these stories, we see the main characters trying to find the balance between being Jewish and being a regular kid like their non-Jewish friends. But the big decision making always comes down to Kol Nidre. The big performance or boxing match that could make or break their careers and make them rich and famous, happens to fall the evening before Yom Kippur. Not to ruin any classics for you, but I’ll tell you, in the Jazz Singer, the main character chooses temple over his big performance, and it looks like the right choice but then movie ends so we don’t really know. In Cutman, the main character chooses his boxing match over temple and he gets beat real bad and decides to never miss shul again. I’m not saying that something bad would happen if you and any Jewish person decided to skip an Erev Yom Kippur service; that’s just a story. But you might regret it here [point to heart].

I’m sure some of you have had to choose sometimes, or maybe your parents have chosen for you, whether to go to soccer practice or Hebrew school. And maybe even tonight, your friends are having a sleepover or are all at the movies, but you’re here. It’s hard sometimes to remember to put your Judaism before your secular interests and hobbies. But it’s important to do, and probably in your future, this day will serve as the reminder for that. A lot of grown-ups don’t come to services every Friday night. Even if they know how important it is and they want to be able to do so, they maybe have to work late, or take care of their kids. Sometimes it feels like life gets in the way of being Jewish, especially for us as Reform American Jews. Or are we Reform Jewish Americans? Sometimes we forget or get confused about which part comes first. But when we hear Kol Nidre being chanted, we always remember we are Jews. May you continued to be reminded every Shabbat and holiday this year, and again, Shana Tova (Happy New Year).

Rosh HaShana Sermon

In the beginning there was darkness. On the first day, G-d created light and separated the light from the dark and called the light day and the dark night and G-d saw that this was good. There was an evening and then there was a morning, a First Day. The autumn brings with it the fallen leaves, the dead grass, and the chills that foretell winter is just around the corner. The sun sets earlier and earlier every night, and light that follows the dark is months away in the Spring.

Rosh HaShana marks the evening of the year. Aside from the fact that it began at sundown, as every Jewish holiday and traditionally each day really does, autumn is the seasonal equivalent of evening. It’s not quite winter (nighttime) but it is twilight. The darkness approaches. What does it mean to us that we begin each day and each year with a darkening instead of with the dawning of light? Why isn’t New Year (Jewish or Gregorian) in the Spring with the dawn of new life? There was evening and then morning, one day.

We’ve all heard the expression, “It’s always darkest before the dawn.” In the beginning there was darkness, and G-d created light. When I was finishing up college, beyond the jubilation of graduation, there was an intense fear of the unknown. This fear became anxiety and depression as various Jewish jobs and internships and rabbinical schools could not seem to find a place for me in their communities. Throughout all of college and, indeed, most of my academic career, I planned on becoming a Rabbi and just assumed that each step would follow the last exactly as I pictured it. Well, life doesn’t work that way. I was forced to take a year off from “The Plan,” and just live for a while after college. In the beginning there was darkness.

One day early last Spring, a college friend came to visit from Great Neck, NY the apartment I shared with two other former Hampshire students. I was discussing with him how I was not accepted to the rabbinical school of my choice, and would have to spend a second year out of school. I had no idea what to do, as I certainly wasn’t about to spend a second year in Western Massachusetts hanging out with college friends feeling anxious. Should I go to Israel? Should I apply last minute to Yeshiva University and get an MA in Jewish administration and become a rabbi in twenty years instead of now? This friend looked at me funny and said, “Why didn’t you just apply to my mom’s school?” All the years we had been friends and I had known his mom was a teacher, I just assumed she taught at a Jewish day school. I had no idea she worked at a trans-denominational rabbinical school. I didn’t even know the Academy for Jewish Religion existed. I applied, was accepted, and shortly thereafter received an internship offer at a lovely synagogue in Brooklyn. From spending the winter sitting on my couch reading Radical Judaism, to sitting in class at learning radical Judiasm, working with B’nai Mitzvah students and a youth group, essentially back on track toward living my dream. I’m working toward being radically rabbinical, shedding a new light onto Judaism, Jewish life, and Tikkun Olam. At Hampshire, the student body is largely self-proclaim radical social activists, and I sought to break down the beautiful idealism I shared with them into digestible pieces that fit more realistically into the world. I find that Judaism teaches us well how to repair the world rather than tear it apart and start anew (which is how I felt many of my peers viewed their call to activism). This friend from Great Neck, the son of a rabbi and a rabbinic teacher, was always one of my most fervent supporters. If he had not been such a good friend, if he did not believe in my dreams or in my ability to fulfill them, if he had not been there that particular weekend, when I had received my letter from the other rabbinical school, if his mother did not teach at Academy for Jewish Religion, if, if, if… Would I have found my way back on track on my own? Where would I have decided to spend this year if not AJR? But then G-d created light.

As Jews, we’re good at remembering darkness in light. Each year we light a candle on the anniversary of the death of a loved one. There is a light in front of us, a celebration of that person’s life, but there’s a darkness in our hearts that they are gone that needs a physical representation that is the Yartzeit candle. When we celebrate our freedom each year during Passover, we are also reminded of the slavery that preceded it, and eat the bitter herbs lest we ever forget. In the beginning, there was darkness and G-d created light.

With this New Year, this synagogue is undergoing a transformation of its own. I know I am not intimate with nuances of this transition for all of you, but as this is all new for me it is unifying to say for all of us, we are now in the process of each creating our light together anew. After darkness comes light, and creation follows. The new year starts with a seasonal dusk, followed by complete night, but we all know that the day follows, that there will be light and spring and new beginning to come in this year. May you all find the light you seek within and around you. Amen.