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5776 Yom Kippur - Prayer and Ritual Cannot Change God, But They Can Change Us

Prayer and Ritual Cannot Change God,

But They Can Change Us

Sermon for Yom Kippur Morning 5776—2015

Rabbi Arnold S. Gluck
Temple Beth-El, Hillsborough, NJ

5776 YomKippurMorning RabbiArnoldGluck

What do we expect to happen when we pray? What are prayer and ritual supposed to do? Some think their purpose is to change God’s mind; that if we pray sincerely, and are worthy, God will grant our wishes. It’s an audacious proposition, if you think about it. That we have the power to manipulate God?

It’s highly problematic to think that religion works this way. How egocentric to imagine that God exists to serve me? Am I the center of the universe that God should answer to me? If we could control God with our rituals and our words, if we could have such power, we would be God!

And there is another problem with this view of religion. It is bound to disappoint, sooner or later. As an old story makes this clear.

It was a hot day at Jones Beach and Bessie Cohen was there with her three-year-old grandson. She had bought him a cute sailor suit with a hat and she watched with delight as he played with his toys at the edge of the water.

Suddenly a giant wave swept onto the shore and before Bessie could even move, the boy was swept out into the cold Atlantic.

Bessie was frantic. “I know I’ve never been religious,” she screamed to the heavens. “But I implore You to save the boy! I will never ask anything of You again!”

The boy disappeared from view, and Bessie was beside herself. He went under a second time, and Bessie began to wail. As he went under for the third time, she screamed mightily, appealing to God to save the boy’s life.

Her final supplication was answered, as the sea suddenly threw the child onto the shore. He was badly shaken but clearly alive. Bessie picked him up and put him down gently on a blanket, far from the water. After looking him over, she turned her face toward the heavens, and complained loudly, “He had a hat!”

Bessie is an all too familiar character. She has long since given up on religion because it doesn’t work the way she thinks it should. Then in a moment of desperation she prays to God to save her grandson, and voila! It works! It works, until it doesn’t work! The boy came back without his hat! So Bessie goes back to being a skeptic—a skeptic who is still clinging to a flawed theology!

Imagine that Sam is praying for rain to water his lawn, and Joe is praying for a sunny day at the beach. Which one is supposed to have God rearrange the laws of nature to make him happy? So it’s no big deal. Today, God said “Yes” to Joe and “no” to Sam. Maybe next time Sam will have his way. God gets a lot of traffic on the cosmic hotline, you know, so who are we to second-guess which request was more deserving?

But when God is too busy to stop a three-year-old Syrian refugee from washing up dead on a beach in Turkey, or God doesn’t intervene to prevent the rape of children at the hands of ISIS, or a 45-year-old wife and mother dies of cancer, something is terribly wrong. The idea that they weren’t worthy of being saved; or that God answers prayer, but sometimes the answer is “no,” simply doesn’t wash. All these rationalizations, all these attempts to justify God, strike me as obscene in the light of real human suffering. As Harold Kushner asks, “When your reality clashes with your theology, do you deny your reality or change your theology?”

Historically, we Jews have chosen to change our theology, but many of our people suffer from what I would call “arrested theological development.” Old ways of thinking linger on, and bad theology has an afterlife. Consider all the anthropomorphic images of God we encounter as we grow up. It’s no wonder that some get stuck on the image of God as a great big man with a long white beard and flowing robes sitting on a giant throne in the clouds, micro-managing the planet. Such images abound in our culture, they remain in Scripture, and they certainly persist in our language.

Some years ago my colleague Rabbi Shira Milgrom offered a telling example of this from her own life. “When our youngest child was about two and a half years old,” she wrote, “my husband, David, was giving her a bath. Out of the blue, she turned to him and said, “Abba, God likes boys better than girls.” David, in one of his more brilliant parenting moments didn’t say, “Oh no, honey, that’s not true.” Instead he asked, “What makes you say that?” To which Liore answered simply and directly, “Well, God has a penis and boys have a penis, so God likes boys better.” Two comments,” adds Milgrom. “First, what would have made my daughter think that God has a penis? Trust me, there is no picture of God hanging on the walls of our home-- and certainly not one of God standing naked. So why would she think that? Don’t under estimate the power of a pronoun,” says Milgrom. “Liore had always—like you and me—heard God described as “He,” and having two brothers and a father, she knew exactly what a “He” looked like.”

The second and more difficult part of Rabbi Milgrom’s story is the impact this knowledge had on her daughter’s image of herself as a woman, already at such a young age! “Because she imagined God as male, she thought of herself as worth less in God’s eyes…” That’s why the newer version of the machzor we use on these holy days, and all of the prayer books we produce at Temple Beth-El, use gender sensitive language to refer to God. It’s not a trivial matter. Words are powerful. They paint pictures in our minds that can be highly problematic.

No Jewish teacher understood this better than the Rambam, Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, a k a, Maimonides, who was born in the mid 12th century, in Spain, and died in Egypt in the early 13th century. Long after the worship of physical idols and statues had ceased in Israel, the Rambam understood that a more insidious form of idolatry persisted, that of misguided mental images that foster wrong ideas.

Maimonides was a rationalist. He sought to reconcile faith with reason by proving that God must exist and that God cannot be limited to a physical form. Since everything physical is dependent on a prior cause, he argued, there must be a first cause. That “unmoved mover,” as Aristotle called it, is what we call God. God is not dependent on any prior cause, so God must be eternal and unlimited. God cannot lack, or need, or desire anything, because that would entail limitation. Step by step, in a logical and reasoned proof, Rambam demonstrates that God cannot be like anything else, that God is unique, in the true sense of the word.

Here lies the crux of our problem. If something is unique, meaning it is absolutely unlike anything else, then no language can describe it. Every attempt to talk about God must fail, and every description is a false image, an idol constructed of words. Like little Liore, who heard the pronoun “he” and intuited that God must be a boy, our minds translate God-talk into false images!

So what are we to do with the Bible? The Bible is filled with anthropomorphic images of God. It speaks of “God’s hand,” (Ex. 9:3), “God’s eyes,” (Gen 38:7) “God’s ears,” What are we to make of these? “The Torah,” say the rabbis, “speaks in human terms.” It uses human language to refer to God because those are the only terms we understand. They are all metaphors, says the Rambam. They should not be taken literally!

Neither sleep nor waking, neither anger nor laughter, neither joy nor sadness, neither silence nor speech in the human understanding of speech are appropriate terms with which to describe God. …were God to at times be enraged and at times be happy, God would change. … God is … above all this,” says Rambam. (Maimonides, Misneh Torah, hilchot yesodei hatorah 1:11-12)

Returning to my opening question, “What do prayer and ritual do?” What would Maimonides say?

If God doesn’t change. If God is “l’eila min kawl birchata v’shirata, beyond all the praises, songs and adorations we can utter,” as we say in the kaddish prayer, why should we bother to pray at all?

This is the perplexity that Maimonides seeks to resolve in his magnum opus, The Guide for the Perplexed. What is the purpose of religion if God is unchanging? How are to understand prophecy if God doesn’t speak? What is providence if God doesn’t act in history? And how are we to understand prayer if God is beyond our influence?

700 years ago Maimonides offered an understanding of religion that speaks powerfully to us today, maybe more than ever. Prayer doesn’t change God, it changes us. Prophecy occurs when we use our hearts and minds to understand God’s ways. Providence is when we live in harmony with nature and each other in accordance with that understanding.

We can’t see God with our eyes, or hear God with our ears, but we can feel God with our hearts, and we can apprehend truth with our minds. And when we do, we will realize that God is not revealed in miraculous events that disrupt the order of nature. The order of nature itself in all its magnificence and splendor is miraculous, wondrous, and amazing.

This is where the religious impulse is born, in the realization that God’s infinite wisdom is revealed before us to behold. And when we do, when we experience such awe, says the Rambam, we “will immediately love, praise, and glorify God.” Prayer, according to this understanding, is not an attempt to control God. It is a response to the great wonder by which we live; to the realization that we are not the center of the universe; that we are in fact tiny creatures who might exclaim in the words of our neilah service this afternoon, “O what are we that You have given us eyes to see something of Your truth? What am I that you have given me thought to fathom something of Your purpose?”

Prayer is not the assertion of a proposition. It is an exclamation. Ma rabu ma’asecha Adonai, How manifold are your works, O God!

When prayer is the dry repetition of words, it is lifeless. Prayer must be alive with emotion, with feeling, with a sense of amazement. It won’t happen every time we pray. That is simply too much to ask. But this must be our aspiration. As said Heschel, the words of prayer must be a “challenge to the soul” that leads to “an outburst of the heart.” Prayer is a call to remove the blinders that impede our vision of the wonder of God’s creation.

But, “Prayer is no panacea,” said Heschel, it is “no substitute for action.” On the contrary, prayer is a call to action, a goad to conscience, and our rituals a rallying cry to shatter the hardheartedness of our indifference to the pain and suffering around us. God’s world is filled with such abundance, such beauty, and such opulence. How outrageous then that so many of God’s children live in squalor, plagued by war and discord and deprivation. “Prayer,” said Heschel, is meaningless unless it is subversive, unless it seeks to overthrow and to ruin the pyramids of callousness, hatred, opportunism, [and] falsehood.”i

Just before the destruction of the 1st Temple, the prophet Jeremiah hears God’s call to go to the Temple and warn the people of the calamity that is about to befall them. They believe that they are immune to harm because God would never allow the destruction of the place where God’s glory dwells. They think their rituals, their sacrifices, will protect them. But Jeremiah says, “Don’t put your trust in illusions and say, “The Temple of God, the Temple of God, the Temple of God…” Rather, he says, ‘if you mend your ways and your actions; if you execute justice between one person and other; if you do not oppress the stranger, the orphan, and the widow… only then” will you have protection “will I let you dwell in this place, in the land that I gave to your fathers…”ii says God.

God doesn’t need our offerings and our prayers. They don’t affect God. They are supposed to change us, to make us more sensitive. God abhors our sacrifices when they are pompous ceremonies of self-righteousness, says Isaiah. “Your new moons and festivals fill Me with loathing,” he says in the name of God. “Cease to do evil; learn to do what is good. Devote yourselves to justice; aid the wronged. Uphold the rights of the orphan; defend the cause of the widow.”

In the haftarah we are about to read, God tells Isaiah to cry out, to tell the people of Israel that they are completely misguided in their religious practice. They’re doing all the rituals. They’re praying and fasting on Yom Kippur, and it isn’t working! They don’t feel the nearness of God. “Why, when we afflict ourselves” they ask, “do You take no notice?”

The answer is powerfully clear, says Isaiah. God is not interested in your self-affliction. God wants you to care for the afflicted among you. “…unlock the shackles of injustice, undo the fetters of bondage, let the oppressed go free… share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house. … Then when you call, God will answer; when you cry out, God will say: ‘hineini, here I am.’”iii

Like Jeremiah who went to the Temple to denounce the misguided practices of the Temple, Isaiah condemns the self-centered rituals of Yom Kippur, right in the middle of service of Yom Kippur! And it is in that very same spirit that the rabbis chose this reading for the synagogue on Yom Kippur. Could there be any clearer, more powerful statement of the purpose of our rituals?

Our hearts must break for the pain and suffering, the injustice and unfairness of life. God cannot feed the hungry and clothe the naked unless we join with God to do so. We were created to be God’s angels, God’s messengers, God’s hands in the world. And so we must pray, not to move God, or to move mountains, but to move ourselves!

If this day is to fulfill its purpose, if it is to be the Yom Kippur that Isaiah envisioned, that truck outside should be so heavily laden with food that we have to make two trips to the food bank. And when we next host IHN, when we shelter homeless families here at temple, we should have to turn away volunteers.

There is a crisis of prayer in our day. Fewer people, Jews and non-Jews alike, are actively choosing to engage in prayer, especially in communal worship. Could it be a coincidence that we are also experiencing a crisis of compassion, of active care and concern for others? I think not! When our hearts are open to God they are also open to one another.

As Heschel said, “In prayer, in the turning of our hearts to God, we seek not to impose our will on God, but to impose God’s will and mercy upon [ourselves].” And God, says our tradition, wants us “to do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with our God.”iv

There is much more that I could and should share with you about the meaning and purpose of prayer and ritual. Some of that will have to wait for another time. But there is one more aspect of prayer that I must reflect on briefly, and that is prayer as the outpouring of our souls.

In the opening chapter of the Book of Samuel, Channa goes to the Temple at Shiloh to pray because she is desperate to have a child. Eli, the High Priest, sees her praying with great passion and he thinks she is drunk, because in his world, if you make the right offerings to God, and you are worthy, God will grant your wish. Channa insists that she is sober, saying, “I have had neither wine nor liquor, but have been pouring out my heart before God.”v

Sure enough, soon after, Channa becomes pregnant and gives birth to a son, who grows up to be the great prophet Samuel. Are we to believe that Channa’s prayer stormed the gates of heaven and bent God’s will in her direction? It is tempting to think so. But it’s highly problematic. What about all those Channas who never became pregnant? Did God turn a deaf ear to their prayers? I don’t think so!

Channa pours out her soul before God, not because she thinks her words will change God’s mind. If that were her intent, she would have taken the conventional route and offered sacrifice. She prays because she must, because she knows God cares, that God loves her. Eli, The High Priest, is literally and figuratively blind. He doesn’t see true spirituality when it’s right before his eyes. He is so caught up in the formalities of the rituals of the Temple that he fails to see what the prophets saw, what our rabbis understood, what the Rambam taught, and what humble Chana knew— that prayer and ritual are about intimacy with God. Precisely because God is so transcendent, we must bridge the gap to feel God’s nearness, by opening our hearts and pouring forth our souls. It is in this way, through us, that God becomes an active presence in our lives, and in the world.

Prayer is an urgency. A necessity. It is, as Heschel says, “the home of the soul, its place of continuity, permanence, intimacy, authenticity, [and] earnestness.”

Our words of prayer will not change God, but they do have the power to inspire us, to heal us, and to move us to be healers. No, our words of prayer and our rituals will not change God. But they do have the power to change us, and that can change everything.

V’chein yehi ratzon! Amen!

i “The Spirit of Prayer,” in Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity, p. 262-3.
ii Jeremiah 7:4-7
iii Isaiah 58
iv Micah 6:8
v I Samuel 1

5776 Kol Nidre - Rekindling the Fire of Jewish Life

Rekindling the Fire of Jewish Life

Sermon for Kol Nidre 5776—2015

Rabbi Arnold S. Gluck
Temple Beth-El, Hillsborough, NJ

5776 KolNidre RabbiArnoldGluck

I’m sure it will come as no surprise to you that we Reform rabbis have an online forum. What do we do there? We argue, of course! What else would rabbis do! We share ideas, talk about Israel and respond to world events; we ask each other questions about source citations, share stories, and then we argue about them.

One recent argument began when a colleague was looking for a story for her Rosh Hashanah sermon. She shared the elements she remembered, and, as often happens, at least a half a dozen colleagues posted a version of the very story she was looking for. You might think that would have been the end of the matter—a happy ending at that! One rabbi was looking for a story and other rabbis helped her find it. But not this group. This group went on to debate the merits of the story. And, as you can imagine, some loved it, while others loathed it. I won’t tell which side I was on. Not yet, anyway. First I’ll share it with you and give you the opportunity to form your own opinion. Then I’ll tell you what I think. The story is one of many tales of the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of the Chassidic movement.

Legend has it that when the Baal Shem Tov saw misfortune threatening our people, he would go to a certain place in the forest to meditate. There he would light a fire, say a special prayer, and the miracle would be accomplished and the misfortune averted. Later, when his disciple, the Magid of Mezeritch, had occasion… to intercede with heaven, he would go to the same place in the forest and say: “Master of the Universe, listen! I don’t know how to light the fire, but I am still able to say the prayer.” And again the miracle would be accomplished. Still later, when Rabbi Moshe-Leib of Sassov sought to save his people, he would go into the forest and say: “I don’t know how to light the fire, I don’t know the prayer, but I know the place, and this must be sufficient.” It was sufficient and the miracle was accomplished. Then it fell to Rabbi Israel of Rizhyn to overcome misfortune. Sitting in his armchair, his head in his hands, he spoke to God: “I am unable to light the fire and I don’t know the prayer; I can’t even find the place in the forest. All I can do is to tell the story, and this must be sufficient.” And, so goes the story, it was sufficient.

So, what do you think? Does this story speak to you? It most certainly speaks to me, but not in a good way. I find its message depressing and disturbing: our glory days are over. They are in the past. Once upon a time, we had it right. We had the magic, we knew the words and the place; we got it just right. But with each succeeding generation, alas, our knowledge and our powers diminish, and we become a mere shadow of the great ones who came before us! We know this is true, but it’s all right, because we can reflect back and wax nostalgic about the good old days when God was in heaven and all was right with the Jewish world. All we need now is for Tevye to sing a chorus from Fiddler on the Roof, and everyone one can smile and take comfort.

But I’m not smiling, and I take no comfort in nostalgia. For me, it is not enough for us to have a glorious past. I want a great future for our people here in America and throughout the world. I want us and our children, our grandchildren, and our great-great-great-grandchildren to know how to light the fire of Jewish life, to be able to say the prayers, and even more, I want them to achieve a level of knowledge, sophistication, creativity, and vibrancy beyond our wildest dreams. I want us to be more from one generation to the next, not less.

Evidence suggests, however, that this vision of a vibrant American Jewish future may prove to be an illusion. With notable exceptions, Jewish literacy, loyalty, and observance are not growing. Fewer of us know how to light the fire and say the prayers, and a startling number of us want no part of our story at all. The portrait of American Jewry painted by the latest demographic research is, in fact, one of significant decline. So much so, that if we fail to act, the Baal Shem Tov’s legend may indeed become our story.

Here are a few of the disturbing findings of the 2013 Pew Research Center’s report on American Jewry.

    • Of the 7 million Americans who have at least one Jewish parent, 2.1 million of them no longer identify themselves as Jews, at all.

    • Of those who do define themselves as Jews, 22% of them say they have no religion.

    • Two thirds of these Jews without religion are not raising Jewish children.

    • Among Jews ages 25 to 54 who are intermarried, 36% are not raising their children as Jewish at all, 44% say their children are being raised partly Jewish or as Jewish but with no religion, leaving only 20% who are raising their children exclusively in the Jewish religion. Considering that the intermarriage rate has reached 72% among non-Orthodox Jews, the implications for our future are alarming.

Unfortunately, there is even more bad news. The birth rate among non-Orthodox American Jews is now 1.7 children, well below the replacement rate of 2.1 per couple. Add to this the fact that fewer than 50% of Jews between the ages of 25 and 39 are married, and the conclusion is undeniable. With fewer non-Orthodox Jewish families, and with those families having fewer children, we are marching toward what Steven M. Cohen and Jack Wertheimer have called “a demographic cliff.”

And what of those who still identify as Jews? Here, too, the picture is one of diminishing commitment and loyalty. Jewish giving, Jewish literacy, rates of communal affiliation, synagogue attendance and support for Israel are all in decline. So much so, that if we do not succeed in reversing these trends, within a generation the landscape of American Jewry will be very different than the one we have known and valued all our lives. We will have fewer and smaller institutions and there will be far fewer of us. As a result, our political power and influence as a community will be diminished, with all that implies for us and for Israel.

Now, I haven’t shared this information in order to depress you. On the contrary, it is intended as a wake-up call. For only if we understand what is happening can we take the necessary steps to bring about a different outcome. It is not too late. Not if we are determined and act decisively.

I have spoken so far on the macro level about the non-Orthodox Jewish community in America. But I know well that there is a very personal side to these matters. Many of us have given the fullness of our hearts to the effort of raising Jewish children, only to see them make other choices.

When parents come to seek my advice in such situations I tell them the story of the man who complained to the Baal Shem Tov that his son had forsaken God. “What shall I do?” asked the father. “Love him even more,” replied the Rebbe. This must be our response to all of our children who choose to leave our Jewish community. We must love them even more. Anything else would be a betrayal of our Jewish values. And when we do exemplify those values of love, compassion and acceptance, we have reason to hope that our children may find their way back to our faith.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks reminds us that there is a spark that remains in every Jewish soul, no matter how far removed they may be from their people and their heritage. “Some years ago,” he writes, “one of the leaders of world Jewry [went searching for the] “missing Jewish children” of Poland, those who had been adopted by Christian families during the war and brought up as Catholics. … He organized a large banquet and placed advertisements in the Polish press, inviting whoever believed they had been born a Jew to come to dinner. Hundreds came, but the evening was about to end in [disappointment] since none of those present could remember anything of their earliest childhood—until the man asked the person sitting next to him if he could remember the song his Jewish mother had sung to him before going to sleep. He began to sing ‘Rozhinkes mit Mandlen’ (‘Raisins and Almonds’), the old Yiddish lullaby. Slowly others joined in, until the whole room was a chorus. Sometimes,” Rabbi Sacks concludes, “all that is left of Jewish identity is a song.”

Even if nothing more remains of a Jewish identity than the memory of a distant lullaby, we must never stop trying to reach our children whom we’ve lost. With hearts and arms that are open and welcoming, we must do everything in our power to reach out and encourage those who might find their way home. So, too, must we welcome and encourage the intermarried. We have seen so many examples of wonderful Jewish families in which one of the partners isn’t Jewish. These non-Jews are our Jewish heroes, and they need to know how much we appreciate the contribution they have made to Jewish life.

Turning back to the macro level, I’d like to spend the next few minutes sharing a few strategies for building a strong and sustainable Jewish identity that can help us bend the curve from decline to resurgence. They are the insights of a group of Jewish thought leaders I have been involved with since the release of the Pew report.

Evidence indicates that Jewish engagement tends to produce long-term commitment to Jewish life when characterized by three qualities. First, that it be intensive and immersive in nature, offering participants powerful experiences of living in Jewish time and space with Jewish peers. Second, that Jewish engagement begin early in life and continue steadily into adulthood. And, third, that it be rich in meaningful Jewish content that provides a solid base of Jewish knowledge and literacy.

Almost 2,000 years ago, at a time when the continuity of Jewish life was threatened, Rabbi Akiva taught us the importance of immersive and content-full Jewish experience. As the Talmud relates, in the second century, the Roman government forbade the Jews to study the Torah and practice Jewish rituals. But Rabbi Akiva defied the decree and continued to teach the Torah at public gatherings. When asked why he risked his life in this way Akiva answered with the following parable:

One day a fox was strolling by the banks of a river and saw how the fish were anxiously swimming around from place to place. He asked them: ‘What are you trying to escape from?’ The fish answered: ‘From the nets that people cast to capture us.’ The fox said: ‘Why don’t you come up and find safety on land, so that you and I can live together in peace?’ But the fish replied: ‘Are you really the one whom they call the most clever of animals? You’re not clever at all, but really quite dumb. If we are already afraid in the element in which we live, how much more would we have to be afraid in the element in which we are certainly going to die!’

And thus, Rabbi Akiva continued, is the case with us. If we are already in a dangerous situation when we sit and study the Torah, of which it is said ‘For thereby you shall have life and shall long endure’ (Dt. 30:20), how much more dangerous would our situation be if we were to neglect the Torah!” (Talmud B’rachot 61b)

Jews thrive and endure as Jews when we live in a Jewish environment together with other Jews. When we do, we are like fish in water. We flow naturally with the rhythm of Jewish time, in which Shabbat is Shabbat 52 weeks a year, and our holidays are holidays that we all recognize and celebrate together. This is the experience our children have when they go to Jewish summer camps, to Israel, or attend Jewish day schools.

But here in America, we Jews are like fish who have learned to live on dry land. For the most part, we take an occasional dip in the water, but it is rarely enough for us to feel that we are in our own element. Hoping to endure and pass our identity on to our children we send them for swimming lessons— to Hebrew school— and we prepare them for one big swim— bar or bat mitzvah. But as the evidence suggests, it is insufficient to sustain them as Jews unless it is followed up by ongoing immersion in the waters of Jewish life.

Attending services only rarely, observing a few Jewish holidays, often in a cursory manner without much passion, enthusiasm, or content, has little chance of producing a strong Jewish identity in a non-Jewish environment. Only when we live among our people do we form bonds of friendship with each other and come to see our shared culture as our own.

In the past, as in the days of Rabbi Akiva, Jews were forced to risk their lives in order to demonstrate their devotion to Jewish continuity. In our day, what is asked of us is to keep the waters of Jewish life deep, abundant, and inviting so that our young people, especially, will want to enter and thrive in them. This requires, and will increasingly require, determined action on the part of all of us who want to see our Jewish community continue to exist and our children and grandchildren grow up to be Jews. Each of you, by virtue of your membership in this community is contributing to this effort, and I want to thank you for your commitment to our cause. But let there be no mistake about it. What we are doing currently is not enough to ensure our future. We need to do more to add fire and passion to our collective Jewish life. So I urge each of us to think about our involvement not just in terms of what we want to receive, but also in terms of what we can do and what we can give to strengthen our community. Of course, funding matters, but your active engagement matters even more.

I’d like to close with a story that reminds us of the importance of Jewish knowledge and learning.

Once, a long time ago, on the eve of his wedding, a groom’s passage was blocked by a raging river. Just as he was about to give up, he saw a rabbi approach the water from the nearby forest. The rabbi looked carefully at the river and then dutifully removed a prayer book from his pocket and recited a prayer. He bowed left and then right, and miraculously he walked across the river.

Please, Rabbi,” he said, “my wedding is just hours away and I’ll miss it if you don’t help me.”

How can I be of assistance?” the rabbi asked.

If I could borrow your prayer book for a moment and if you could show me the prayer to say before I cross this river, that would be all I need.”

The rabbi gave him the book and the groom recited the prayer, bowing left and then right. Having completed the ritual, he took one step onto the water and sank straight to the bottom. The rabbi grabbed him by his coat and hauled him onto the shore.

What did I do wrong?” the young man sputtered. “I said the right prayer. I bowed in the exact sequence. Why did I sink?”

Ahh,” said the rabbi with a smile. “You asked me for the prayer book and you wanted me to show you the appropriate blessing, but you never asked me to show you where the rocks were under the water.”

To find our way—to traverse the waters of Jewish life—we need to know the meanings of our practices and customs. We need to know why we do them. For if we don’t, we won’t do them for long. And isn’t that the sad story of our time? Have you encountered learned Jews who are not committed to Jewish life? They are few and far between because the power and depth of our tradition shines forth brightly when it is revealed. Torah and wisdom, knowledge and understanding, are the stepping stones to Jewish commitment and continuity. So I challenge you, young and old alike, to immerse yourselves more deeply in our teachings and our way of life. Our young people need our adults to be role models of what we hope and wish for them. So let us all embrace a Judaism that is serious and aspirational. Not just because that is the only kind that will survive here in America, but because it is the only kind of Judaism that is worthy of survival.

May each of us rekindle the fire of Jewish spirit on the altar of our hearts, that it may burn bright and blaze the way to the renewal of our extraordinary people in this great land of freedom.

V’chein yehi ratzon! Amen!

5776 Rosh HaShanah Day 2 - Student Rabbi Shira Gluck - Speaking in One Voice: From Collective Guilt to Collective Responsibility

Speaking in One Voice:
From Collective Guilt to Collective Responsibility.

Sermon for Second Day Rosh HaShanah 5776—2015

Student Rabbi Shira Gluck
Temple Beth-El, Hillsborough, NJ

5776 RoshHaShannahDay2 StudentRabbiShiraGluck

Ashamnu. Bagadnu. Gazalnu. Al cheit she-chatanu, s'lach lanu. M'chal lanu. Kappeir lanu. We have sinned. We have betrayed. We have stolen. For the sin we have committed, forgive us. Pardon us. Grant us atonement.

Every year we say these words on Yom Kippur. We recite together as a community the litany of offenses we have committed. And every year there is a moment where I pause, and I think to myself: "I didn't steal. I didn't kill. I didn't bribe or extort, I did not run to do evil. So why should I say these words?"

For all the sins on the list that I haven't committed, there are plenty that I have done. I have been presumptuous and obstinate. I have unquestionably engaged in idle chatter and lashon ha-ra. And there stands a very good chance that I have also transgressed in other ways without even knowing.

The many sins that make up the Yom Kippur confessional are a collection of bad things that someone, somewhere, has done. There is not a single transgression on the list that hasn't been committed by at least one of us at one point or another.

But still -- why don't we each just say only those words that apply to us individually? Why do we say them all, out loud, and together, and why is it written in the "we" form, instead of the "me"? In short, why do we together accept and claim collective guilt for these acts?

The Talmud tells a story that wrestles with this very question. In the days of the Temple in Jerusalem, it was considered a great honor to clean the altar of the ashes from the previous day's sacrifice. It came to pass that there were too many young priests who wanted to do the task, and a competition was established. Whoever ran at least four cubits ahead of his fellow would win the race and the honor of clearing the altar.

The competitive nature of the priests escalated more and more, until, one day during the race, one young priest drew a knife and stabbed the other in the heart. Upon witnessing this horror--and on the sacred Temple Mount, of all places--Rabbi Zadok, a great and wise leader, spoke out, invoking the biblical category of murder by an unknown hand. He asked: in lieu of the anonymous murderer, who is responsible for this act? Will it be the people of Jerusalem, or will it be the priests of the Temple? Instead of answering, the people burst into tears, wailing in great sorrow.

Now, this ritual he refers to was to be conducted only in the case where the identity of the murderer is unknown. Why then, does Rabbi Zadok ask this question, when everyone saw with their own eyes and knows who did the killing?

According to one interpretation of this text, the Talmud asks the question through the voice of Rabbi Zadok to teach us a lesson about collective responsibility. Collective responsibility does not cancel out individual guilt. The young priest still murdered his fellow. However, the community

must also examine its own role in what happened. Here the text presents two arenas for collective blame: the priesthood and the civilian population.

What is the case against the priesthood? They took a humble task--clearing ashes from the altar-- and in their zeal to serve the Temple became competitive and arrogant, elevating the ritual to such an extreme that they allowed it to supersede the greatest value of all: the sanctity of human life.

And the case against the people of Jerusalem? By coming out to watch the race and delighting in the spectacle, they contributed to an atmosphere of corruption, in which violence and evil speech, hubris and intolerance were pervasive.

All of these circumstances combined to create a situation where it was possible for one priest to kill another. Those assembled at the scene knew it, and so they wept with the understanding of their communal failing.

A more recent example of this story is the assassination in 1995 of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin. He was murdered by a Jewish extremist named Yigal Amir, who was radically opposed to the Oslo Accords and the peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians.

Amir was not alone in his opposition to peace with the Palestinians. Over the three years of the Oslo negotiations, protests against peace, and against Rabin himself, became more and more extreme. The anti-peace movement drew large demonstrations, and Rabin's political opponents went so far as to make posters depicting him as a Nazi SS officer.

To be sure, there was an atmosphere of animosity. Israeli society was not engaging in a balanced or civil public discourse. Yigal Amir himself was a product of hesder, the Religious Zionist yeshiva movement that, in the wake of the Six-Day War, was often a breeding-ground for extreme, rightwing Zionism that opposed peace and upheld settlement of the West Bank as its highest value. Higher, even, than the loss of life that resulted from their political views.

In the wake of Prime Minister Rabin's assassination, Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein, head of a prominent West Bank yeshiva, spoke to his community. He expressed pain, grief and shame over the murder. And then he asked the same question to his community that Rabbi Zadok asked the priests and people of Jerusalem. Who is responsible for this act?

The question in the Talmud was rhetorical, and so was Rabbi Lichtenstein's. He told his flock not to consider Yigal Amir as a renegade, as a "wild weed," who did not fit into their world. The rabbi admitted that, a day before the murder, they would have proudly pointed to Amir as one of their great successes. Indeed, Rabbi Lichtenstein wanted his elite yeshiva world, which was supposed to live out the values of Torah, to search for what was broken in their world that, at best, failed to prevent Amir's horrific act, and at worst, helped him to do it.

Instead of separating ourselves from society, pointing out its corruptions, and holding ourselves above it all, he said, we must take responsibility for our role in society²s failings and not separate ourselves from the community in a time of crisis. With this statement, Rabbi Lichtenstein shifted the conversation from the collective guilt of the Talmud story to the collective responsibility of our Yom Kippur Confessional.

So, each year, when I'm tired and cranky from fasting, I wonder why in the world I have to say it. But now I have a second thought. I see beyond the action to the actor. When I read, "For the sin we have committed against you through our thoughtlessness," I speak for myself. When I read, "For the sin we have committed against you by giving in to our hostile impulses," I see my neighbor. When I read, "For the sin we have committed against you by abusing our power," I think about someone out there I don't even know.

I see myself. I see my neighbor. I see a person I don't know. And I feel comforted, because I now understand the Confessional as a reminder that we are all in it together. The Confessional, despite its name, is not entirely about guilt. Just like Rabbi Zadok on the Temple Mount and Rabbi Lichtenstein at the yeshiva, it tells us that we are responsible for one another. But this doesn't only mean that we are in trouble when another person does something wrong. It means that we have responsibility to create a certain outcome.

This shared responsibility is Klal Yisrael. The Jewish people, together. The idea is encapsulated in a phrase we hear very often: "Kol Yisrael areivim zeh bazeh," all Jews are responsible for one another. This is the central thesis of Jewish peoplehood: we are bound together through a shared history and shared destiny.

A story from the Torah teaches us the value of our familial bond. After forty years of wandering in the desert, the Israelites are on the verge of entering the Promised Land. It has not been an easy forty years. The food is lousy, the weather is unbearable, enemies threaten the Israelite camp, God sends fiery serpents to attack. Moses is banned from entering the Promised Land. And, above all, the children of Israel complain--constantly.

At this moment, when the time has finally come to cross the Jordan River and enter the land, there is yet another obstacle. The tribes of Reuben and Gad, who own large herds of cattle, have seen that the land of Gilead, what is now the country Jordan, is nicely suited to cattle grazing, and they would rather stay there instead of taking their portion of the Land of Israel. When the leaders of the two tribes go to Moses with this proposal, he nearly loses his mind. He unleashes a furious speech asking them, "Are your brothers to go to war while you stay here?" Will you turn a blind eye to the needs of your fellow Israelites--your kin--bound to you by the same promises God made to our ancestors Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob? Will you turn away from your God and your fathers, and abandon your people in their hour of need?

No, they tell Moses. The tribes of Reuben and Gad vow to join the rest of the Israelites in the impending battle, to help their brothers claim the land that Reuben and Gad won't even take a portion of. All because they feel bound to their Jewish family.

What is our relationship to Jewish peoplehood today? And what is our responsibility? When I look across the spectrum of Jewish experience, I am saddened to see more division than fellowship. Forget a familial relationship--we are often cordial at best with our fellow Jews. We give ourselves adjectives: Reform, Conservative, Orthodox; Zionist, liberal, traditional, halachic, cultural, atheist, religious. These words describe how we express our Jewish identity, but they also serve to separate us from one another. You're an Orthodox Jew? Well, I'm a Reform Jew, so we don't have anything in common. You're a Republican? We can't talk. You're AIPAC, and I'm JStreet. So we can't even sit in the same room! We, the Jewish people, are labeling ourselves into oblivion!

It doesn't have to be like this. Today, I'm coming out of the closet of divisive labels and emerging a Jew. Encountering Jews who do Judaism differently than we do doesn't have to be a threat or challenge in the negative sense. It can be a very positive challenge--an opportunity to learn and to break down the barriers of prejudice to find behind them a real person who turns out to have more in common with us than we might think. It is also a chance to show others who we really are, and help break down some of their prejudices. If we embrace the things that unite us as Jews, our collective identity as a people, our differences won't divide us.

This value applies to the Jewish people, but also to the Jewish home--the State of Israel. Israel is our shared heritage, and in many ways it holds the fate of our people and tradition. Our relationship to Israel is indivisible from our relationship to the Jewish people. This is not an abstract relationship: this is family. We often disagree with our parents or our siblings. We argue about politics, ideas, the choices we make. Sometimes we can't even talk to each other. But the bond of family should be strong enough to withstand conflict and endure petty disputes. We may not always like our family, but I hope that there will always be love.

And so it is with Israel. Sometimes, I can't believe the things that happen in Israel: the decisions the government makes, the narrow mindedness, the prejudice. But I love Israel. I feel bound to it. I see so much good in the people and society of Israel. I've witnessed many beautiful examples of kindness, fellowship, and striving to make the world a better place.

Sometimes we may wish we could cut ourselves off from Israel--avoid all association with the place, for fear that what happens there will reflect poorly on us. But why would we think that? Because Israel is part of our family. When someone in our family struggles and suffers, we don't cut them off, pretend they aren't ours, and leave them alone to their fate. No--we struggle with them and work to make it better.

In the Passover Haggadah, we speak of four children: the wise, the wicked, the simple, and the one who does not know enough to ask. And who is the wicked child? The one who asks, "What is this Passover tradition to you?" "To you," he asks, not "to me." The wicked one cuts herself off from her people and her story. This is the greatest transgression. Jewish tradition repeatedly teaches us that Klal Yisrael is of the utmost importance. In one of the foundational teachings of Pirkei Avot, Hillel says, "Do not separate yourself from the community."

Jewish peoplehood is an understanding that it is possible to love the Jewish people and Israel, as we love our own families, without necessarily agreeing with every choice. Real, substantive relationships require us to help one another make good choices, and not give up when poor choices are made. Instead, we work together to improve ourselves and the world around us.

Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin tells a story that speaks to this charge: A nobleman driving a carriage drawn by four large horses was caught in a rainstorm. The carriage veered from the main road and its wheels sank in the mud. The man kept lashing his horses to no avail. The horses were stuck, unable to pull the carriage out. A peasant with three small ponies approached and asked if the man needed help. The nobleman laughed. "If my strong horses can't move this carriage, what can your small ponies accomplish?" Skeptical as he was, he was out of options, so he unharnessed his impressive steeds, and allowed the ponies to be hitched to the carriage. The peasant gave one strike of the whip and his ponies dragged the carriage out of the mud. The nobleman was astonished and asked the peasant how these three small ponies could accomplish what his four large horses could not. The peasant asked the nobleman where he acquired his horses. The nobleman replied that they were bought from four of the finest stables in all of Europe. "Well, there is your problem," the peasant said. "Your horses are rivals. They are hostile to each other. When one is lashed the other three are happy and they don't even try to help. My ponies might be small, but they are brothers. When one is lashed, the other two try to save him with all their might."

When we recite the Confessional and ask God for forgiveness, we are asking for ourselves, but we are also asking for each other. We recognize that the Jewish people are bound by the bond of family and we are compelled to care for one another. This is why our most important prayers speak in the "we" voice. We talk about Eloheinu, our God. Avoteinu, our ancestors. Ahavah rabbah ahavtanu. The great love that God has for us. We beseech God, sh'ma koleinu! Listen to our voice. We speak in one voice, and we ask together for forgiveness and for kindness, because we are in it together.

Hashiveinu Adonai eilecha v'nashuvah. Cause us to return to you, O God, and we will return. Chadeish yameinu k'kedem. Renew our days, as of old. Blessed are you, Adonai our God, she-hecheyanu, who has given us life, v'kiy'manu, who has sustained us, v'higianu lazman ha-zeh, and who has brought us together to this moment. And let us say: Amen.

5776 Rosh HaShanah - Justice and Righteousness - Finding the Balance

Justice and Righteousness -
Finding the Balance

Sermon for Rosh HaShanah Morning 5776—2015

Rabbi Arnold S. Gluck
Temple Beth-El, Hillsborough, NJ

5776 RoshHaShannahMorning RabbiArnoldGluck

On the last day of his life, Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai summoned his disciples to his bedside for an urgent meeting. All his life, he tells them, he has struggled over a certain teaching, and now as his life is fading, he must reveal it to them so he can leave this world in peace.

Quoting a verse in Psalms he says: “Tzedek u’mishpat m’chon kis-echa, chesed v’emet y’kadmu fanecha; Justice and righteousness, tzedek u'mishpat, are the foundation of Your throne. Love and truth, chesed v’ement, go before Your presence.”

The world needs tzedek. There must be justice, says Rabbi Shimon. Without justice there will be no peace, only conflict. But if tzedek exists in isolation- if it is not tempered by righteousness, by forbearance and understanding, by mishpat, it becomes a raging fire that will destroy the world. We need tzedek u’mishpat, justice and righteousness, for the foundation of the world to be firm and secure. We need to balance our qualities to save the world from the flames of absolute and unyielding justice. Who will do this? Who will save us? Who will bring the balance? That, says Rabbi Shimon, is the role of the tzadikim, the righteous who bring love to balance truth, and righteousness to temper judgment.

Some six hundred years after this story appeared in the mystical Zohar, Rabbi Shimon’s teaching is more urgent than ever. The flames of justice, fiery, angry, harsh and violent threaten to consume us. In our politics, in race relations, in our discourse, and in our personal lives we are increasingly unyielding, intolerant, angry and indignant. Our public debates are filled with rancor and arrogance, leaving little room for understanding or compromise. We are, it seems, more concerned with being right than with being righteous. As Rabbi Shimon would say, we are out of balance.

Consider the debate about Iran. This is a crucial conversation about a very serious matter. As a Jewish community we should understand that we need to stand together to seek the best possible outcome. We should also accept that reasonable people may disagree about the right course of action. But instead of seeking common ground and working from there, we have allowed this issue to divide us in ways that may cause lasting harm.

On both sides of the issue there are people of good will who are serious, thoughtful, and experienced in matters of security and diplomacy. All agree that Iran is a sponsor of terror and a force for evil in the world. Both sides agree that Iran must not be allowed to get the bomb. Why on earth then has the discourse become so nasty and malicious, to the point where some have accused Senator Chuck Schumer of being a warmonger and a traitor to his country for opposing the deal, while others have called Congressman Jerry Nadler a collaborator and a Nazi for supporting the accord? Chuck Schumer, a traitor?! Chuck Schumer is a great American, a true patriot. And Jerry Nadler, a Nazi?! Jerry Nadler is a devoted Jew with an impeccable record of support for Israel. How dare anyone malign these two good men and so polarize our Jewish community. And these are just two examples among many. The American ambassador to Israel, Dan Shapiro, himself a deeply committed Jew and Zionist, has received death threats for representing the Obama administration. And both he and the President have been accused of planning the next Holocaust. Really?!

Both sides of the debate have the purist of intent, and shame on us if we fail to see that. The answer to the vexing and portentous question of Iran was not handed down from Sinai, and I for one would like to see all involved take a more constructive approach to their arguments. The debate will end, but the rift we’ve opened by the way we have dealt with our differences may cause irreparable damage to our relationships. And for what? Will insulting and demeaning each other advance the cause of truth? What is certain is that we debase and diminish ourselves when we act this way.

Consider also the growing racial divide in our country. We should all be greatly distressed about the emergence of a permanent underclass in our society that is mostly Black and Hispanic. And we should all be greatly concerned about the disproportionate number of African American casualties to gun violence and police violence. Justice demands that we all agree that black lives matter. But things have gone terribly wrong when that demand turns into a call for violence against police officers, or into looting and burning the shops of innocent citizens as we saw in Ferguson, Missouri. When justice is not tempered by righteousness and truth is not balanced by peace, injustice only grows and the fires of hate rage out of control.

This is how our rabbis understand the verse in Deuteronomy, “Justice, justice shall you pursue.” Justice must be pursued with justice. The means will determine the end. Fairness and equity will be achieved only if the way we pursue them is just and right and decent. As the psalm says: “The foundation of God’s throne,” of this world in which we live, “is Justice and righteousness.

The Talmud presents a classic case that helps us understand the price of absolute justice. It is the matter of the meirish ha-gazul, a stolen beam that is used to build a large house or a palace. I’ve distributed the text to you so we could take a few minutes to discuss it.

The scenario seems simple. But as we’ll see, it’s really not so simple at all. A person steals a beam that he or she then uses to build a large house or a palace. When the thief is caught, what is the right and just thing to do regarding that beam? What does justice demand? Do you agree with Beit Shammai that the palace should be demolished so the beam can be restored to its rightful owner? Or do you agree with Rabbi Hillel that the rightful owner should receive only the monetary value of the beam, and not the beam itself? And more importantly, what are the implications of this teaching for our world?


How is justice to be done? Beit Shammai says demolish entire building and restore the beam to its rightful owner. Beit Hillel thinks otherwise. Beit Hillel says the owner should receive the monetary value of the beam, and nothing else, so as not to impede the path of repentance.

Why does Shammai say destroy the building? Because the plaintiff says, “I want my beam back. You stole it from me, it’s mine, and I want it back! Shammai agrees. Justice, says Beit Shammai, demands that the plaintiff get back what rightfully belongs to him.

So why does Hillel take a different view? Why does he say the owner should receive only the value of the beam? Doesn’t Hillel believe in justice? Of course he does! But it is precisely because he is committed to justice that Hillel seeks compromise. Hillel wants a world in which injustice can actually be addressed, one in which the thief will agree to take responsibility; one in which the thief will repent. For the sake of teshuva, for the thief to repent of his sin and make restitution, there must be compromise. An eye for an eye, makes the whole world blind, and only leads to more hostility. We have only to look to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to see how the demand for strict justice actually perpetuates injustice and blocks the path to peace.

As my teacher Melila Hellner Eshed notes, “the whole world is built on a stolen beam.” Think about it. Most of what we have once belonged to someone else. The Romans took our land from us and exiled us. America was taken from its native peoples. And so on, and so on. The Palestinians don’t want to settle for the West Bank. They want Haifa and Jaffa. And who can blame them! They want their beam, their orange grove. They want their land! But it’s a non-starter. No one will agree. No one will concede. A demand that can only be fulfilled by destroying the whole building, or in this case, dismantling the State of Israel? It doesn’t stand a chance.

When each one insists that he or she is right, there will be no peace, only conflict.

But when tzedek and mishpat, justice and righteousness are balanced. When there is moderation and compromise, then there is hope for peace and reconciliation.

The late great Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai captured this idea in a poem entitled, “The place where we are right.”

From the place where we are right

Flowers will never grow in springtime.

The place where we are right

Is hard and trampled

Like a courtyard.

But doubts and loves

Loosen up the earth

Like a mole, like a plow.

And a whisper will be heard in the place

Where the ruined

Temple once stood.

Amichai alludes to a tradition that the Temple was destroyed because justice was applied there too strictly, without compromise. And he is right. Nothing beautiful grows on ground that is hardened, just as nothing good emerges from hearts that are hardened and are closed.

Today’s Torah reading is a story of hardened hearts. Sarah is barren and she’s utterly bereft. She desperately wants a child, and feels duty bound to give Abraham an heir. Reluctantly, she gives him her handmaid, and she’s consumed with jealousy when Hagar has a son. Even his name, Ishmael, which means ‘God has heard,’ mocks Sarah, whose prayers have gone unanswered.

Sadly, the birth of Isaac does nothing to open Sarah’s heart. She cannot abide the presence of the older son, whose very existence means that her son will always be second. How wrong and how unjust that her handmaid should be the mother of the firstborn. She feels cheated, diminished and she is furious. She lashes out, demanding that Abraham banish Hagar and her child— who is his child! Reluctantly, he agrees.

Sarah’s actions are so wrong, her judgment so cruel, were God to treat her measure for measure – by the standard of pure justice, as she treated Ishmael and Hagar, Sarah would surely be condemned.

But God knows the pain Sarah feels, not just the hurt she causes, and so God balances tzedek and mishpat, justice and mercy, and shows her compassion. Instead of exacting justice, God acts righteously to save the lives of Ishmael and Hagar. Here, God is the model of the tzadik, the righteous one of whom Rabbi Shimon spoke, the one who brings love to balance truth, and righteousness to temper judgment.

In this story God is the picture of the tzadik. At other times God does not appear to be so righteous. After the sin of the Golden Calf, for instance, God is ready to annihilate the entire people and start over with Moses. There it is Moses who plays the role of the tzadik and saves the people from God’s demand for justice.

Finding the right balance between tzedek and mishpat, between justice and righteousness, is so very difficult that our sages imagine even God needs help to get it right.

The Talmud relates how one Yom Kippur Rabbi Yishmael, the High Priest, entered the inner chamber of the Temple to seek forgiveness for the sins of Israel, and had a vision of God sitting on a high and lofty throne of compassion. God said to him, “Ishmael my son, bless me.” So Rabbi Ishmael said to God: “May it be Your will that Your mercy may suppress Your anger, that Your compassion may prevail over You your harsher attributes, so that You may treat Your children with kindness, and grant them forbearance and forgiveness.”

This is an amazing text. It is Yom Kippur, the day when God is to render judgment upon us. The High Priest enters the Holy of Holies to seek God’s favor, and what does he find there? He finds God struggling! God is sitting on the throne of mercy, but clearly is having difficulty mustering compassion. So much so, that God asks Rabbi Ishmael for a blessing. Ishmael, who knows the people have sinned, understands God’s dilemma. It is the same challenge parents have with their children, and husbands and wives have with their spouses. Love must not be blind. We must set boundaries and we must enforce them. But if we are too rigid. If we are unyielding and unforgiving, our children will grow up to be cruel, and our marriages won’t last.

In a related passage the Talmud asks whether God prays, and after concluding that God does pray, the rabbis ask what God prays. What do you think God prays? What do the rabbis say God prays? It is the very blessing of Rabbi Ishmael, turned into a prayer, in the first person. God prays: “May it be My will that My mercy may suppress My anger, that My compassion may prevail over My harsher attributes, so that I may treat My children with kindness, and grant them forbearance and forgiveness.”

This is the prayer of one who strives to be a tzaddik, a righteous person. It recognizes the challenge of balancing tzedek u’mishpat, justice and righteousness, but it inspires us to rise to meet that challenge. It comes with no guarantees, but it offers hope, hope for balance. So I suggest that we embrace this prayer and make it our own. We all need it. Every single one of us. Especially those of us who don’t think we need it! And here’s how I think we might use it: as part of a meditation I invite you to try with me now.

I invite you to let your eyes close. Think now of a hurt that you’ve experienced; a time or a way that you feel that you were wronged; maybe a bitter disappointment you’ve felt with your children, your spouse, a parent, or a friend. Allow yourself to reconnect with how you felt when you experienced that hurt.

Think now of a time or a way that you’ve caused hurt, or wronged, or disappointed someone else; your child, your spouse, your parent, a friend. Remember how you felt when you realized the hurt that you had caused, and how you wished to be forgiven.

Now I invite you to recite this prayer with me: “May it be my will; that my mercy may suppress my anger; that my compassion may prevail over my harsher attributes; so that I may treat all people with kindness; and grant them forbearance.”

V’chein yehi ratzon! May this be a year of blessing and forgiveness, of righteousness and justice. And let us say: Amen!

5776 Erev Rosh HaShanah - Who Shall Live and Who Shall Die -- Responding to the Refugee Crisis

Who Shall Live and Who Shall Die -
Responding to the Refugee Crisis

Sermon for Erev Rosh HaShanah 5776—2015

Rabbi Arnold S. Gluck
Temple Beth-El, Hillsborough, NJ

5776 ErevRoshHaShannah RabbiArnoldGluck

Tomorrow morning, we will read these haunting words from the u’netaneh tokef prayer:

On Rosh Hashanah it is written, on Yom Kippur it is sealed… Who will live and who will die? Who will have long life and who will die young? Who by fire and who by water?... Who by hunger and who by thirst?... Who will be secure and who will be driven?”

Tradition ascribes these words to Rabbi Amnon of Mayence, who lived in the time of the First Crusade—a horrific time when Jewish communities in the Rhineland were ruthlessly attacked, and tens of thousands were massacred.

For nearly a thousand years Jews gathered on Rosh Hashanah and read these words with fear and trembling for what might lie ahead for them and their loved ones. As Jews they were exposed, unprotected and vulnerable, subject to expulsions, inquisitions, pogroms, and ultimately the Holocaust. Who would live and who would die? Who by fire, and who by water? Who would be tortured, and who would survive?

For generations Jews read these words literally, mournfully, plaintively, pleading and praying to be sealed for a year of life and blessing. Today, thank God, most Jews have the luxury of reading this prayer metaphorically, as a reflection on the state of our souls. As my rabbi, Chaim Stern, wrote in our machzor:

On Rosh Hashanah we reflect,

On Yom Kippur we consider:

Who shall live for the sake of others,

Who, dying, shall leave a heritage of life.

Who shall burn with the fires of greed,

Who shall drown in the waters of despair.

Whose hunger shall be for the good,

Who shall thirst for justice and right.”

It’s a beautiful interpretation of the traditional prayer, but this year, I think we should go back to the original version, not in order to ask God “who shall live and who shall die,” but to ask ourselves. We need to ask ourselves because life and death for hundreds of thousands of people lies not in God’s hands, but in human hands. And we need to ask ourselves: will we stand idly by and witness their suffering, or will we do what we can to save them?

I am speaking, of course, of the refugees from African and Middle Eastern countries, especially from Syria, who are fleeing their homes in desperate search of a better life. Some are making their way on foot, others on flimsy boats, others by truck. Thousands of them will not make it. Many have died already. Some by water, some by suffocation, some from hunger… They are unwanted and despised. They’ve been met with violence, denied passage, and been left exposed to the elements without sufficient food and water.

In today’s u’netaneh tokef, the question “Who shall live and who shall die” is not one for us to ask of God. It is a question that we must ask ourselves. Sitting here in synagogue, we can do more than contemplate the fate of these unfortunate souls... we can resolve to use our power and influence to affect their destiny.

Our tradition calls us to take action to alleviate the plight of others, reminding us repeatedly to love and care for the stranger because we were strangers in the land of Egypt. We know the price of callous indifference. We have been the refugee, repeatedly. And how we wished that somehow, someone would have found the compassion in their hearts to save us then! Far too often there was no one.

Anshel Pfeffer, the grandson of a Holocaust survivor and a reporter for the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, described his thoughts last week as he witnessed the anguish of the refugees on the dusty roads and in the crowded train stations of Europe on their way to what he called “the promised land of Germany.”

I was looking … for my grandfather,” he said. “I couldn’t help myself. Driving and then riding the rails through Austria, the country where he had been incarcerated during the Holocaust, I asked myself if 70 years ago, he was waiting for a ride, just like those Syrian refugees at the crossroads. Had police herded him onto a train in the same way, keeping him and his unwashed friends in a separate compartment, apart from the “normal,” genteel passengers. Was he as clueless as to where he was going and whether he would ever get there?”

Pfeffer is well aware of the differences between the circumstances of his grandfather and those of today’s refugees. There is no systematic genocide being perpetrated against these asylum seekers. They are fleeing from their own lands to escape persecution at the hands of their own people. But the comparisons are inevitable, and his conclusion is clear: “We now have a duty to be on the side of today’s refugees who are fleeing warfare and persecution… It’s our duty to the refugees we once were.”

So far neither America nor Israel have taken steps to help absorb this wave of refugees. As a nation founded and largely populated by people who came to these shores seeking freedom, it is unthinkable that our country would fail to do its share. To paraphrase Rabbi Tarfon, “we are not expected to complete the task, but neither are we free to desist from it.” So I ask you to join me in asking our elected officials to take action. There are three immediate steps that I urge you to take.

First: On Sept. 30, the President will be submitting his determination of the number of refugees our nation will accept in the coming year. I urge you to join me in calling the White House and asking the President to add 100,000 Syrian refugees to the number he submits. Today I heard that the White House is talking about capping that number at 10,000. It’s not enough.

Second: Call your members of Congress and ask them to support increased funding for refugee absorption.

Third: Go to the website of HIAS (The Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society) and sign the online petition asking President Obama to “Commit to resettling in the United States 100,000 of the most vulnerable Syrian refugees, allowing more individuals and families to start new lives in safety and freedom.”

There are fliers in the lobby that include all the necessary details for you to be able to take these steps, as well as information about three different Jewish agencies that are actively involved in this cause. I encourage you to contribute to one or more of them.

One very bright note in the midst of this crisis has been the response from Germany, which has pledged to open its doors to receive 800,000 refugees. In an article this week in Haaretz, Rabbi Eliyahu Fink suggested that Jews should look to Germany for inspiration this Rosh Hashanah. “A short 75 years ago, Germany and many of her citizens were efficient murderers,” wrote Fink. “They were stoics with no soul. But two generations later, we’ve discovered that change is possible. If they did it, we can do it.”

But despite the many Jewish voices that have called for a strong Jewish response to the refugee crisis, the current government of Israel has not responded with compassion. To be sure, there are real concerns about the security of Israel’s border with Syria, and there is always the issue of terrorism that must be considered. But given our history and the powerful insistence of our Jewish tradition that we side with the oppressed, it is hard to fathom why Prime Minister Netanyahu has not taken action.

Israel’s involvement in this issue has been going on for years, ever since a wave of refugees from Africa began crossing Israel’s southern border, fleeing war, poverty and persecution in their home countries. Today there are some 45,000 asylum seekers who are stuck in Israel without any formal status, subject to the threat of deportation.

No one is asking Israel to absorb them all. The fact that Israel is the first reasonable place an African refugee can reach on foot doesn’t mean Israel should shoulder the entire burden of resettlement. But it would be a strong statement of our values as Jews if the government would identify a number that it will accept. That would provide a moral basis for Israel to then ask other nations to do their share in responding to this crisis.

Similarly, it would be a very powerful message for Israel to accept even a token number of Syrian refugees. The difference between a Jewish state and a state of Jews is that a Jewish state applies Jewish values to its actions. And Jewish values demand that we not be indifferent to the suffering of any of God’s children. Israel has lived up to this standard on many occasions in the past, from welcoming and resettling Vietnamese boat people during the administration of Menachem Begin, to providing the most effective disaster relief when earthquakes struck in Haiti, Turkey, and Nepal.

I encourage you to contact the office of the Prime Minister of Israel and ask him to take these actions. You can do this online through the website of the Israel Religious Action Center.

Let us not be guilty of the sin of silence or the act of callous indifference. Let us not stand idly by while borders are closed and hearts are hardened. Let us open our hearts and tap into the divine wellspring of compassion that God has given us, and let us act now to save lives.

You may recall the story of the man whose heart broke over the grave injustice he witnessed in the world. Moved to tears he cried out, “Dear God, look at all the suffering, the anguish and distress in your world. Why don’t you send help?” And God responded, “I did send help. I sent you.”

May we hear God’s voice calling us to action to save our brothers and sisters who are suffering, and may we help them to find a home where they can live in dignity and peace.

V’chein yehi ratzon! Amen!

5775 Yom Kippur Morning - For You Were Strangers

For You Were Strangers
Sermon for Yom Kippur 5775—2014

Rabbi Arnold S. Gluck
Temple Beth-El, Hillsborough, NJ
5775 KolNidre TheMarchOfFreedom RabbiArnieGluck

As many of you know, I study personally with every bar and bat mitzvah student and their parents. Together we dig into the kids' Torah portions and discuss the meaning of bar and bat mitzvah. During a recent session, as we were talking about the passing of the Torah from generation to generation, the father of the bat mitzvah noted that his grandfather was the only member of his family to come to America in 1906. The rest remained in Europe, and all perished in the Holocaust.

How many of us sitting here today could tell a version of that same story? Raise your hand if members of your family didn't make it out of Europe.

My personal story involves my father, who fought in Europe WWII. He was in the camouflage corps that helped stage the dummy invasion at Calais, so he found himself in France as the war was coming to an end. As news of the death camps spread to America, his family, like so many others, feared for the fate of their relatives in Europe. Desperate to know what had become of them, my dad's family sent him a list of names and addresses with instructions that he should try to locate them. He didn't find a single one, and he never got over it.

Almost every one of us is here today because one or more members of our family found refuge here in America.

Some came through Galveston, Texas; a few by other routes. Most came through New York harbor to Ellis Island. There, they encountered Lady Liberty, her torch of freedom held high and the words of Emma Lazarus inscribed on her pedestal:

"Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!" (Emma Lazarus, "The New Colossus," (1883))

Most of us are descendants of those lucky ones, the ones who escaped the poverty and pogroms of Eastern Europe and came here to America. They got out in time, but the journey was often harrowing, and filled with uncertainty and fear. When they arrived, many found that the door to America—what they believed would be the 'goldene medina'— wasn't so golden, and for some it was closed altogether.

Those who came in the early 1900's faced harsh immigration policies and terrible living conditions. They were subjected to dreaded medical examinations and psychological tests that resulted in many being turned away by immigration officials. Those slated for deportation had difficulty defending themselves because of language barriers and legal formalities. Were it not for the Jewish organizations that intervened on their behalf, many more would have been sent back to Europe.

By the 1930's, when German Jews sought to escape the rising tide of anti-Semitism, America had become isolationist and inhospitable to Jewish immigration. Visas were increasingly hard to get just as the need became more desperate. Many perished because America's door was closed and there was nowhere else to go. One of the darkest chapters from that time is the story of the fateful voyage of the St. Louis.

It was 1939, the year after Kristallnacht, the night when the windows of Jewish shops were shattered by the thousands. 30,000 Jews were arrested, 91 were killed, 1,000 synagogues were burned, and Jewish homes, schools and hospitals were ransacked in pogroms all across Germany and Austria.

The events of November 9-10, 1938, sent shockwaves around the world. But they but didn't generate enough sympathy in America to relax the immigration quotas.

The St. Louis set sail from Hamburg to Havana in May 1939 with almost 1,000 asylum-seeking Jews. After being denied entry into Cuba, the ship sailed up the coast of Florida while the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee negotiated with the American government, to no avail. The St. Louis was forced to return to Hamburg, and estimates are that 25 percent of her passengers died in concentration camps.

The other obvious place for the Jews of Europe to seek shelter from the Nazis was Palestine. There, too, under the British Mandate, they encountered strict immigration quotas. With no other options, the Jewish community of Palestine, with support from American Jews, launched a wave of illegal immigration known as Aliyah Bet. Using mostly rickety old ships, like the famed Exodus, 110,000 Jews were smuggled into Palestine over the 14 years from 1933 to1948.

Not just in modern times, but in ancient times, as well, we were a people that struggled to find shelter. Abraham, the founder of our faith, was a refugee from Ur Casdim. He left his home for an uncertain future in a foreign land and experienced much hardship before he settled in the land of Canaan. But even then, he remained an immigrant. When his beloved Sarah died and he needed land to bury her, he turned to Ephron the Hittite and said: "I am a resident alien among you; sell me a burial site among you that I may remove my dead for burial." Even in the land that God had promised him, Abraham remained an outsider, a stranger, dependent on the goodness and kindness of others.

With barely a foothold in the land, God revealed to Abraham that a dark future lay in store for his descendants. "Know well," God told him, "that your offspring will be strangers in a land not theirs; and they shall be enslaved and oppressed for four hundred years."

And so it was. We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt, brutally and ruthlessly exploited and oppressed with hard labor. Because we were different, outsiders, we were easy targets. Such experience could understandably scar a people forever, leaving them bitter and angry, self-centered and xenophobic. Our enslavement could have left us fearful and untrusting of strangers. It could have caused us to become insular and uncaring about others.

It didn't happen! On the contrary, we turned our pain into purpose, into a sense of duty to make the world less cruel and more compassionate. Justice became our cause, and so it has remained.

So often in this world the abused become abusers. What has made our people different?

I believe there are two key insights that have shaped our ethos and inspired us to become pursuers of justice.

First, we learned to see the world and people as God sees them— from a God's-eye view, if you will.

And second, we learned to see ourselves in the faces of the stranger and the oppressed.

A true story told by Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen teaches us what it means to see the world from a God's-eye view.

It's the story of a man named Yitzchak who was a Holocaust survivor. Liberated from a concentration camp in 1945, he had come to America, where he became a research physicist. Now an old man, Remen met him when he came to a retreat she ran for cancer patients. It was an intimate, hands-on kind of environment, which was quite uncomfortable for Yitzchak. As a survivor, he had lived for many years in a world of profound alienation and dissonance, a world of strangers. Nonetheless, he allowed himself to open up at this retreat, to be hugged and even to hug in return. It was clear that something significant was happening to him. As a boy, he had been a very loving person, but his experiences during the war made him wary and closed to those outside of his own family. Now it seemed he was coming to grips with all of this. On the last day of the retreat, as she was wrapping things up, Dr. Remen asked Yitzchak how things were. He laughed and said, "Better." He had taken a walk on the beach the day before, he said, and in his mind he had talked to God, asking God what all this was about, and he had received comfort. Touched by this, Remen asked him what God had to say. He laughed again. "Ah, Rochel-le, I said to God, 'God, is it okay to love strangers?' And God says, 'Yitzchak, what is this strangers? You make strangers. I don't make strangers.'"

In God's eyes there are no strangers. We are all God's children, all equal in God's eyes. All precious. All beloved. When we see each other as God sees us, we see that we're all kin. When one of us suffers, we all feel pain. This is how God feels, and this is the literal meaning of the word compassion. As the great scholar Joseph Campbell noted, compassion is from the Latin meaning, to "suffer with." As the Protestant minister Frederick Beuchner explained it, "Compassion is the sometimes fatal capacity for feeling what it is like inside somebody else's skin."

In this afternoon's haftarah, God calls the prophet Jonah to go to on a mission to save the people of Nineveh. God loves them despite the wrongs they have done, and expects Jonah to feel the same way. But Jonah doesn't see the Ninevites as kin. He sees them as strangers, and he totally misunderstands God. He thinks that God is simply engaging in due diligence by warning the Ninevites before destroying them. Jonah fails to appreciate what the message of God's love and caring will mean to them, and how it will open their hearts to turn in true repentance. Jonah is God's reluctant messenger who never gets the message himself. But you and I, we can get it.

In this morning's haftarah, Isaiah repeats this same message. The purpose of our fast, he says, is to open the wellsprings of our compassion "to share our bread with the hungry, to house the homeless, to clothe the naked, and not to hide from our own kin"— by which he means the entire human family. Do not see the world through a lens so narrow that you see only your self, says Isaiah. See the world as God sees it. God loves you, but not you alone. So see as God sees, and love as God loves. If you do, he says, you shall be a light to the world.

The second insight our people gleaned from our suffering is to see our selves in the faces of the stranger, the downtrodden, and the oppressed. We were there. We experienced the pain they know, and so we are commanded to put ourselves in their place, to walk in their shoes. Not to sympathize, but to empathize. Every Pesach, we don't just recall our enslavement, we relive it. We go back to that dark place, so we will know and feel the pain of being the stranger. From that place we can heed the command we will read this afternoon from Leviticus 19: to "love the [stranger] as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt." We are 'the stranger,' and 'the stranger' is us— we are all the same.

In every case where we might be indifferent or callous to an outsider, when we might close our hearts, the Torah reminds us: "you know the heart of the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt." We do know that heart. It beats within each of us. It is the heart of a people that has known hatred and hurt. It is a heart that knows that the heart of the universe loves us all.

This past Wednesday I placed a call to the deputy director of ICE, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency. It wasn't the first time I made such a call, and I'm pretty sure it won't be the last. This time I was calling to ask for a stay of deportation for a man named Luis Lopez Acabal.

I've never met Luis, but I know he is kin, and I know his heart. I see myself in him, and I see our story in his. Luis Lopez Acabal fled to the United States from Guatemala as an unaccompanied minor at the age of 16 to escape gang violence, and has been in the U.S. for seven years. He is the husband of Maria Canales, a legal permanent resident. With Maria, Luis is helping to raise her two children, who see him as their father. Both children are U.S. citizens. One of them has autism. Luis is the sole breadwinner, which allows his wife Maria to act as full-time caregiver for their son. In addition to his financial support, the emotional support Luis provides for his wife and children cannot be measured. Unfortunately, Luis has been in deportation proceedings as a result of a minor traffic incident.

This July 7, his attorney submitted a request for a stay of removal to keep Luis in the United States with his wife and children, but that request has been denied. Luis now lives under the threat of immediate deportation.

I am one of a group of rabbis that has embraced the cause of Luis and others like him. We understand that our nation cannot have an open border. We understand that there must be an immigration policy enforced by law. We also know that our current system is broken and must be fixed. Our efforts so far have resulted in stays of deportation in a number of compelling cases. But there is so much more that needs to be done.

The United States is a country of immigrants. An essential part of who we are as a nation has always been to embrace those seeking refuge and bring them into our collective home. Today, more than 11 million undocumented immigrants live in the shadows of our communities across the country. Families face up to decades-long backlogs in acquiring visas, workers are left without protections, and children are left behind as parents are deported. It is past time for sensible comprehensive bi-partisan immigration reform, and I invite you to join me, and my fellow rabbis, in this cause.

Our Torah reading this morning presents a dramatic scene in which Moses reaffirms the covenant between God and our people. "You stand this day, all of you, before your Eternal God— the heads of your tribes and officers, every one of you in Israel, men, women, and children, and the strangers in your camp... to enter into the sworn covenant which your Eternal God makes with you this day..."

The strangers, the resident aliens, the ones the Torah repeatedly commands us to love and treat with justice, the ones God loves, stood with us and joined in our covenant with God. Will we now stand with them? The Torah calls them gercha, not the stranger, but your stranger. Will we embrace the stranger in our camp as our own? I pray we will, that we may fulfill God's promise:

"The strangers who live with you shall be as those born among you, and you shall love them as yourself..."

V'chein yehi ratzon!

5775 Kol Nidrei - The March of Freedom

The March of Freedom

Sermon for Kol Nidrei 5775—2014

Rabbi Arnold S. Gluck

Temple Beth-El, Hillsborough, NJ

5775 KolNidre TheMarchOfFreedom RabbiArnieGluck

We Jews have a strange way of beginning our holiest day of the year, the day we ask forgiveness for our sins. We begin by letting ourselves off the hook.

We recite an ancient formula that annuls all our vows; and not the ones from last year that we failed to keep. The ones we will make in the year ahead!

The traditional Aramaic text of Kol Nidrei does not equivocate. It has no clauses like: 'should we, after honest effort, find our ourselves unable to fulfill them.'

We flat out cancel our promises!

"All vows, ... promises, obligations, and oaths, taken from this Day of Atonement till the next... we regret them in advance. They are null and void, no longer binding. Our vows are not vows. Our promises are not promises. And our oaths are not oaths."

Did I say those words? I did! And so did you! We all did, together with every Jew who attends synagogue this holy night.

In the middle ages, anti-Semites saw Kol Nidrei as proof of the lowly character of the Jews as people who would perjure themselves in their dealings with Christians and go to the synagogue to declare themselves pure.

Of course our detractors were wrong. But Kol Nidrei is a curious practice that demands explanation.

I offer a parable from the Dubner Maggid that I believe can help us to understand the true spirit of the Kol Nidrei. A king once owned a large, beautiful diamond of which he was justly proud, for it had no equal anywhere. It was absolutely perfect. One day, the diamond accidentally fell and sustained a deep scratch. The king summoned the most skilled diamond cutters and offered them a great reward if they could remove the blemish. But none could repair the jewel.

After some time, a gifted craftsman came to the king and promised to make the rare diamond even more beautiful than it had been before. The king was impressed by his confidence and entrusted his precious stone to his care.

And the man kept his word. With superb artistry, he engraved a lovely rosebud around the imperfection, using the scratch to make the stem. When he presented it to the king he explained his secret. You see said the craftsman, your precious diamond only appeared to be perfect, but it never was. It had a flaw at its heart, and when it fell it was revealed on the surface of the stone. My job was never to restore the diamond to some imagined pristine state. It was to make something beautiful of the imperfection that was there all along.

Each of us is like that diamond. We are precious and beautiful creations, but none of us is perfect. We all have flaws. We all make mistakes. And we will continue to do so, no matter how sincere we are in our repentance and how determined we are to be and do good in the year ahead—because we are human.

Kol Nidrei makes room for us. It makes it possible for us to enter the synagogue because it grants us acceptance. We all fall short of the mark. We all can do better, and Kol Nidrei gives us the chance. Instead of condemning us for our failures, or banishing us because of our misdeeds, we are invited to join the community of imperfect people who are striving to do better.

Kol Nidrei doesn't give us a pass on keeping our promises in the coming year. It is honest, and so it encourages us to be honest with ourselves about our shortcomings. If we are—if we face our imperfection and identify our flaws—then we, like the craftsman, can work to transform them and ourselves into something of greater beauty.

It is told of the great Chassidic rabbi, Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev, that once during the ten days of repentance he was standing at the door of his house, dull, lifeless, and lethargic.

As he stood there, a cobbler came by, looking for work. Spying the rabbi he called:

Have you nothing that needs mending?

Have I nothing that needs mending? Levi Yitzchak echoed reflectively. Then his heart contracted within him and he wept.

He wept for his sins, for all those things in his soul and life that needed mending. Only, why, instead of weeping, did he not do with his soul as he would with his shoes? Why did he not get busy at once making the necessary repairs?

We all have that which needs mending in our souls and in our lives. Our glory is that we are capable of recognizing this and doing something about it. We are all works in progress, capable of reaching greater heights. The Chasidic tradition teaches us to see ourselves as if we are on a ladder, and that each of us currently occupies a certain rung. We are each at a certain point in our lives, and there is no sense in making judgments about who has climbed higher than another. What matters is the direction each of us is going. Are we striving to climb higher? Are we growing? Are we improving? Are we becoming kinder, more compassionate, more just? Are we rising to reach our potential?

This is the kind of soul searching— the cheshbon nefesh— that Yom Kippur calls us to do. These are the kinds of questions we are challenged to ask of ourselves as individuals, and also to ask about our families, our communities, and our nations.

Because what is true of us as individuals is also true of communities and nations. They are all works in progress. None of them is perfect because they are all composed of flawed human beings. They all make promises, and none of them lives up to their commitments all the time. They all occupy a particular rung on the ladder, and the most important question regarding each of them is, in what direction are they going?

Each of these dimensions is important and worthy of exploration—the personal, the communal and the national—and my hope is that what I have shared with you so far will provide inspiration for your personal reflections on whatever level speaks to you the most. But with the time that remains tonight I'd like to focus on the journey of the two nations to which we belong, America and Israel, and where they are as relates to the promises they have made.

Today, both America and Israel are vibrant democracies. Though neither is perfect, they both have universal enfranchisement and representative government. Both nations began with declarations of independence, which set forth far-reaching visions of freedom, equality, and dignity for all its citizens. Both protect free speech, which gives us a window into how their people judge the progress of their nation. While neither country has reached the top of the ladder, both are moving upward toward greater levels of equality.

It is not my intention to compare these two countries to each other. That would be unfair on many levels. They were born in different times, inhabit very different parts of the world, and have defined their missions in different terms. What is instructive for both is the Kol Nidrei insight that encourages us to judge them fairly as institutions created and led by flawed human beings. As works in progress, we should judge them by their progress.

America's Declaration of Independence declared that "all men are created equal," but slavery was practiced legally and extensively for 87 years before it was abolished in 1863. It would take another 57 years before the 19th amendment guaranteed women full enfranchisement in 1920. And from the Black Codes of the early 1800's to the Jim Crow laws that followed them, racial segregation was pervasive throughout the country until 1965. Only with the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was racial discrimination declared illegal in America.

To this day America is still on its way toward living out its creed of liberty and justice for all. Gay and lesbian couples are not guaranteed the right to marry. Women struggle for equal pay for equal work. Poverty crushes the hopes and aspirations of millions. And racial profiling and discrimination deny African Americans full and equal justice under law, to name just a few of the challenges that remain. Freedom doesn't drop like rain from the sky in this land. It is, and always has been, achieved through struggle. Freedom marches on when Americans rise to march for its cause.

But I rejoice in the fact that we are free to criticize and advocate to make our country better. For each time we achieve a new freedom as a nation, it is like that craftsman etching the rosebud on that flawed diamond. Imperfect people had an exalted vision for this nation, and we have witnessed their flawed descendants implement it stage-by-stage, climbing ever higher as freedom marches on. As Levi Yitzchak taught us, we can do more than cry for that which is broken. We can mend it. And we must all see it as our duty as citizens of this great nation to continue to do just that.

The State of Israel in its declaration of Independence promised that "it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture."
This is an exalted vision that is also a work in progress.

From the moment of its birth, the Jewish State found its values challenged by the presence of non-Jewish minorities. 20% of Israel's citizens are Arab Muslims, Christians, and Druze. Israel has a consistent record of fulfilling its promise of religious freedom, but it has been less successful in providing full civic equality. Arab citizens enjoy full enfranchisement, and serve in the Knesset and in the judiciary – including the Supreme Court – but state allocations to Arab municipalities—for education and for infrastructure—lag well behind the Jewish sector. And Israeli Arabs are way over-represented among the nation's poor.

Though racist incitement is illegal, the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinians fans the flames of hatred. Far-right parties and ultra-nationalist rabbis have pushed for loyalty oaths and called upon Jews not to sell or rent property to Arabs. The fact that most Israeli Arabs are exempt from military service is constantly held against them, even though it is based in logic. Their nation, the State of Israel, is at war with their people, the Palestinians. An alternative program of national service, as has been proposed, would go a long way toward advancing equality.

In recent years Israel's government has made significant efforts to address these issues, including substantial new allocations of funds to the Arab sector, but more needs to be done to make sure that Israeli Arabs aren't second-class citizens.

Ironically, religious freedom is more of a challenge for Jews in Israel than it is for Arabs. From the founding of the state, Jewish religious affairs were given over to an official rabbinate, which is Orthodox. This means that the only official way for Israeli Jews to marry is in an Orthodox ceremony. The same is largely true with matters of conversion, burial, and divorce. Considering that fewer than 25 percent of Israel's Jews see themselves as religious, the imposition of Orthodox Judaism on the rest of the population is coercive and unacceptable.

When I left Israel in 1991 to come here there were 17 Reform congregations there. At last count there were 42, with more on the way. Through the Israel Religious Action Center of our Israeli Reform Movement, court cases have been won on issues of conversion, allocation of land and funding for Reform synagogues and schools, funding for the salaries of Reform rabbis, non-Orthodox burial, and much more. The march of religious freedom and equality is picking up steam in Israel, and we can play an important role in seeing that it is fully realized.

As part of your annual support for this congregation there is an item called ARZA membership. ARZA, the Association of Reform Zionists of America, is our vehicle for promoting Reform Judaism, the cause of religious freedom, women's rights, pluralism, social justice, minority rights, and more. We don't have to cry about Israel's unfulfilled promises of freedom; we can help fulfill them.

This year, especially, there is something we all can do to make a huge difference in advancing freedom and justice in Israel. In addition to supporting ARZA with your annual giving, you can vote for Reform Judaism in the World Zionist Congress Elections this coming spring. The World Zionist Congress is the parliament of the Jewish people, and our success there is critical to our cause. Millions of dollars in allocations are at stake, funds that will either advance or delay the march of freedom in Israel. As you leave the synagogue tonight you will receive a card asking you to make a promise — one that I sincerely hope you do not annul! It asks you to commit to vote in the Zionist Congress elections. I hope you'll join me in making this pledge—and in fulfilling it! Please note that in a few weeks, on Friday, October 24, Rabbi Josh Weinberg, the President of ARZA, will be speaking during our Shabbat service. I hope you'll make an effort to join us.

Our tradition urges us to approach Yom Kippur imagining that our virtues and our vices form a perfect balance, so that whatever good we do or failing we overcome will tip the scale of judgment in our favor. We all have our failings. And we need Kol Nidrei to save us from the burden of our unfulfilled and broken promises. None of us is perfect and we never will be. But that doesn't mean that we cannot be very good. It doesn't mean that we can't improve. We can. We can mend the brokenness in our souls and in our lives. We can make works of beauty from our faults. We can join the march of freedom for America, for Israel, and for all people, that God's promise to Abraham may be fulfilled:

"V'nivrechu v'cha kawl mishpechot ha-adama."

That "through you all the families of the earth will be blessed." (Genesis 12)

V'chein yehi ratzon!

5775 Rosh HaShanah Day 2 - Who Will Be Our Angels?

Who Will Be Our Angels?

Reflections After Operation Protective Edge|

Sermon Rosh HaShanah 5775—2014 Day 2

Rabbi Arnold S. Gluck

Temple Beth-El, Hillsborough, NJ

5775 RoshHaShannahDay2 WhoWillBeOurAngels RabbiArnieGluck
When I worked at the Leo Baeck Education Center in Haifa I would take visitors on tours of our facility. After showing them our Reform synagogue, our community center, and our school, I would bring them to a corner of the lobby where I would pause before a gallery of photos of young men and women in army uniforms. I would stand there in silence for a few moments, allowing our guests to see the faces of these mostly 18 year-old boys and girls.

These, I would say, are our angels, our children who will be forever young. They are our sacrifice on the altar of freedom, the price we've paid to live here.

You can trace the history of Israel's wars on the memorial walls of every high school, and in the military cemetery on Mt. Herzl where another section of graves is added for each new war. I've been to Mt. Herzl in wartime and witnessed the chilling scene of a young soldier's funeral. Throngs of people gather, and the outpouring of grief is gut wrenching and heartbreaking. Israel knows the solidarity of sorrow. In such a small country that has endured so much conflict, everybody knows somebody who has paid the ultimate price.

Now that the latest Gaza war seems to be over, the newest section of graves lies silent. The mounds of earth neatly lined up in rows await the monuments that will bear the names of the fallen, their age, the names of their parents, and if they are immigrants, the year of their aliya to Israel.

Israelis are resilient. They have learned to live with loss. And this is both good and bad. It is good because the whole point of the struggle is for life, to live as "a free people in our own land," as our anthem says. So life must go on. And indeed it does... sometimes maybe too easily.
Last Friday's Ha'aretz included a column by Gideon Levy entitled, "War, What War?" in which he notes how less than a month since the fighting stopped life is strangely back to normal. "One moment the entire nation is an army at war," he wrote, "the next it's as if nothing had happened. ... Except for the direct victims, nobody seems to remember that a war went on." Where is the soul-searching? Levy asks. Where the accounting for the cost of the war in lives, Israeli and Palestinian?

In 1991 Sarah and I experienced something similar during the first Gulf War. One day the scud missiles were flying overhead and we were in our sealed room wearing gas masks waiting for the siren to sound all clear, and then one day it was over and life went back to normal. It's a strange kind of normal when you integrate the assumption of the next war into your routine and live with the anxiety that next time your child may be the sacrifice.

In today's Torah reading Abraham is commanded by God to take his son, his favored one, the one he loves; and offer him as a sacrifice on a hilltop God will show him. He sets the wood, binds Isaac to the altar, lifts the knife, and is about to bring it down upon the boy when, at the last moment, the voice of the angel cries out, "Avraham, Avraham, al tishlach yadcha el ha-na-ar! Abraham, Abraham, do not raise your hand against the boy!" (Genesis 22)

This is a harrowing story. A father is about to sacrifice his son in the name of what he believes to be a higher cause, and we have to ask, is this man deranged? Thank God the angel stopped Abraham before it was too late. But it doesn't always happen. In real life often there is no angel to save the child.

This is the harsh reality of life for Israelis and Palestinians. Every day parents take their Isaac or their Ishmael off to Mt. Moriah not knowing if he will return. This summer, too many of them did not return. No angel intervened to save the children, and precious lives were lost.
And we have to ask as Gideon Levy asks: will the Israelis and the Palestinians just absorb their losses and move on again? Has this 3rd Gaza war changed anything, or will life just go back to its precarious normality until the conflict flares again and more children are sacrificed?
We need angels! We need angels to cry out to keep the children safe. We need angels who will stay the hands that would harm our sons and daughters. Who will be those angels?

This summer revealed a new group of Israeli heroes, the scientists of Raphael Industries who developed the Iron Dome anti-missile system. Their technical ingenuity saved scores of lives by preventing the Hamas missiles from landing on Israel's cities. This made it possible to avoid an extensive ground war that would have claimed hundreds if not thousands more Israeli and Palestinian lives, and caused untold destruction. Are the scientists of Raphael our angels? I'm afraid not.

No doubt, the Iron Dome saves lives, but it is not the answer to our problems. In fact, it may cause new ones. Its success may foster the illusion that there is a military answer to every threat that Israel faces. My teacher Tal Becker calls this the Iron Dome mentality— the idea that Israel can seal itself off behind walls and Iron Domes and isolate itself from the chaos of the new Middle East. Even worse, it means giving up hope that things can be better.

Will Israel's leaders allow the Iron Dome to become a mentality? Will they be lulled into inaction by the return of quiet? We know that Hamas will continue to pursue its mission to destroy the State of Israel. They have stated their intentions clearly. The question is whether Israel's leaders will join hands with the moderate Palestinian forces to prevent the cycle of violence from repeating. I don't know whether Netanyahu and Abbas will be our angels, but right now I think they are our best, and maybe our only hope.

I do believe there is cause for hope because something promising happened at the end of the war this summer; something that portends a possible convergence of Israeli political views that have defined its left and right of center.

To explain this I ask you to return with me for a moment to that scene in the lobby of Leo Baeck in Haifa. Standing there with our guests gazing at the young faces of the fallen I used to say, 'If you want to understand Israel and Israelis, you must understand what these photos mean to us. They make our politics personal. Left or right, our passion is for the path we believe, hope and pray, will prevent new faces from being added to this wall.'

23 years later I believe this is still true. With the exception of an extremist fringe that holds territory to be more sacred than life, and the orthodox that have their own agenda, mainstream Israeli parents vote left or right to keep their children safe.

The Israeli left decries the immorality of occupying the Palestinian territories. They warn of the corrosive effect it has on our souls and on our young soldiers who must serve there. Granting the Palestinians self-determination will liberate us, as well, they say, and allow us to live in peace.

The Israeli right reminds us that we face an enemy that is committed to our destruction. The Oslo accords that were supposed to lead to peace instead unleashed the suicide bombings of the 2nd Intifada. Only military strength and vigilance can provide security to Israel's citizens, they say.

When the two sides look at Gaza, predictably, they see it through the lens of their respective narratives. The left concludes that Israel's blockade of Gaza has an oppressive impact on its residents that can only lead to further conflict. The right notes that the withdrawal from Gaza in 2005 didn't bring peace. It led to the terror of missiles raining down on Israel.

In my view, they are both right. Their narratives are not mutually exclusive. For Israel to fulfill its vision as a Jewish and democratic state it needs both humanity and security, and one is not possible without the other. Israelis must be neither victims nor victimizers— no small challenge, as we saw again this summer.

This summer, virtually all Jewish Israelis, left and right, alike, agreed that Israel had to go to war against Hamas. There was no choice. No sovereign nation can allow its people to be attacked by rockets fired across its borders. And when the full extent and purpose of Hamas' tunnels was discovered, there was no question that they had to be destroyed.

Israel's leaders knew there would be a high cost in Israeli and Palestinian lives. They knew that they would be fighting an asymmetrical war, in which an army in uniform faces an enemy embedded among its own civilians. It was a terrible moral quandary that Israel's leaders took very seriously— so seriously that they endured more than three weeks of rocket attacks before striking back.

But here is what has been largely missed in the discussion of this war. Not only did Israel's leaders delay going to war, they agreed to every opportunity to end it. They accepted every ceasefire, even after repeated violations, until the current one, which we hope and pray will hold.

What is remarkable about this ceasefire is that Israel agreed to stop short of a clear victory. Hamas did not surrender, and has not been disarmed. They still have thousands of missiles, and likely even some tunnels left intact, so Israel's citizens are still vulnerable to attack. Why did Israel's leaders agree to this?

I believe that PM Netanyahu and his cabinet balanced the conflicting values of security and humanity and concluded that the price of destroying Hamas was more than they were willing to pay. In so doing, Israel's leaders embraced the dual narratives of humanity and security. They have said, in essence, there is a limit to what we can achieve by force of arms and still be who we are, a Jewish State that holds life as the highest value.

Ari Shavit, author of the important and highly acclaimed book, My Promised Land, noted how the broader context of the Middle East has changed. There is no coalition of Arab armies that can defeat Israel at this time. There is no current existential threat. There is only the chaos of well-armed radical groups like Hamas and Islamic Jihad that can seriously disrupt the order of life in Israel, as we saw this summer.

As a result, Israel finds itself in a kind of a goldilocks zone where it is strong but not too strong, vulnerable but not too vulnerable. When Israel holds all the cards, there is little impetus to take risks. When Israel feels overly threatened, taking risks seems reckless. The current situation may be the perfect balance from which to make a move for peace.

This war has created a moment of possibility for Israel to work with the forces of moderation among the Palestinians, and the moderate Arab states in the region, all of whom fear the rise of radical political Islam in the form of ISIS, Hamas, Al Qeaida, and others.
Israel has demonstrated that it can raise up mighty warriors who will not compromise their humanity. They will defend when they must defend. But they will also guard the sanctity of life. What we need now are bold and courageous politicians and diplomats to be our angels.

Our tradition calls us to be the students of Aharon, oheiv shalom v'rodef shalom, lovers of peace and pursuers of peace.

I don't know whether Bibi Netanyahu will take the necessary steps to be rodef shalom. I pray that he will not be lulled into inaction by the return of quiet, and have the courage and the vision to make hard choices for peace. If he does, I don't know whether he will find in Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian Authority partners who are willing to make compromises for peace.

The time it matters most to be rodef shalom is precisely when the outcome is unclear.

I pray that our people will always balance our strength with our humanity, that our leaders will rise up to be our angels, and that God will bless us all, Israelis and Palestinians alike, with peace.

V'chein yehi ratzon!

5775 Rosh HaShanah - To See People and Things 'As They Are'

To See People and Things 'As They Are'

Reflections After Operation Protective Edge

Sermon for Rosh Hashanah 5775—2014
Rabbi Arnold S. Gluck
Temple Beth-El, Hillsborough, NJ

 5775 RoshHaShannah AsTheyAre RabbiArnieGluck
Well into his old age, David Ben Gurion practiced a form of exercise that included standing on his head. When asked why an old man would choose to do headstands, Israel's founding father explained that he did it for two reasons. First, he believed it was good for his health, and, second, it helped him to understand the Middle East.

I think Ben Gurion was on to something. When it comes to Israel and the Palestinians, I think we would all do well to stand on our heads. For one thing, it might help relieve the headache we get from the media coverage of Israel. But more to the point, we would all do well to see this conflict from multiple perspectives.

Over the next two days I'd like to do just that, to look at this summer's war through three different lenses, the human, the moral, and the political. Today I'll address the human and the ethical aspects, and tomorrow I'll speak of the political. I begin with the personal, the human dimension of the conflict.

Naturally, I approach this effort with a bias. Israel is the nation-state of my people, so her cause is my cause. And this is as it should be. We should all have greater sympathy for our own kin. The loss of 71 Israeli souls, including 67 precious young men who fell defending our people, is personal.

But loyalty to our own must not exhaust our sympathy for human suffering. Regardless of who is at fault, the war has wrought a horrific toll of death and destruction upon the residents of Gaza, and we would be less than human if we weren't pained by their losses.

But it's not easy. I must confess: There were times I was so angry about the indiscriminate rocket attacks on Israel that I felt good when the IDF struck back.

The fact that our daughter Shira was among those forced to take shelter, in Jerusalem, made it all the more difficult. I reacted the way any parent would if their child's life was threatened. And then I would catch myself and remember that fear for the safety of one's children doesn't stop at the border with Gaza.

How could I not feel for the anguish of the Palestinians whose anxiety and anger mirror my own?

Being in Israel as the war began, and then returning to the coverage back here, I was reminded how differently we see things from afar. Distance makes us farsighted, unable to see fine details. From far away people are too easily perceived as objects— issues to be considered and debated, instead of real flesh and blood human beings. This is the way most of the world sees both Israelis and Palestinians, as objects.

Israelis and Palestinians, on the other hand, are nearsighted. They see the events and the people up close and personal, and tend to lack longer-range vision.

For Israelis and Jews around the world, the three students who were kidnapped and murdered by Hamas terrorists, Gil-ad, Naftali, and Eyal were "our boys." The crying children running for shelter as the alarm sounded code red are "our babies." The soldiers who fought in Gaza are "our sons," our children; bone of our bone, flesh of our flesh; the living, breathing, laughing, crying, loving embodiment of our hopes and dreams—our very souls!

And for the Palestinian people, the 16 year-old-boy, Muhammad Abu Khdeir, who was kidnapped and brutally murdered by Jewish terrorists, was their precious child. The innocent children killed or traumatized by the attacks on Gaza were their babies; bone of their bone, flesh of their flesh; the living, breathing, laughing, crying, loving embodiment of their hopes and dreams—their very souls.

We are about to have our annual encounter with the story of Hagar and Ishmael who are banished to the wilderness because of Sarah's jealousy. In the harshness of the desert Ishmael is on the verge of death when God hears the boy's cry. In describing this moment, the Torah includes words that seem superfluous. It would have sufficed to say, "God heard the cry of the boy." Instead it says, "God heard the cry of the boy, where he was— ba-asher hu sham." (Genesis 21:17) God heard him where he was.

This is our challenge as relates to this war, to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict in general, and to all cases where we would make judgments about things distant from us, to see people as real people, not as objects. To see them "ba'asher heim," where they are, as they really are.
I wish I could put a face on every party to this conflict. I wish I could show you every villain and every victim for exactly who they are. How much easier it would be to make fair and proper judgments.

Last Rosh HaShanah I tried to do just that by describing my encounter with men and women who lived through the previous rounds of rocket attacks from Gaza. Among them were Ronnie Kedar from Moshav Netiv Ha'asara, and Chen Solomons from Kibbutz K'far Aza. I shared with you the trauma they described of having only seconds to find shelter, or in its absence, dropping to the ground and praying that the explosion wouldn't kill or maim them or their loved ones.

Standing with them on the Gaza border in the calm and quiet of January 2012, none of us could foresee the hell they would experience this summer. I can just imagine the stories they would tell now, especially about the tunnels the IDF discovered under their homes, with exits inside the gates of their communities.

Only when Hamas terrorists emerged from the ground and were killed while attacking a kibbutz were their full intentions made clear. In addition to their weapons, they were found to be equipped with handcuffs and injectable sedatives. Their plan... to kill as many Israelis as they could, then kidnap others and take them back to Gaza. Can you imagine the shock, the sheer terror this struck in hearts of Israeli families living along the border with Gaza? How does one heal from such trauma?

I could go on for hours telling you the stories of Israelis and Palestinians who have been devastated by this war, real people with names and faces and feelings. Let us not be farsighted when we think about this conflict. Let us not allow our distance or our anger to blind us from the human face of war. For even when one is fighting a just war in the most ethical way possible, the human cost is devastating.

I turn now to the moral and ethical aspects of this conflict.

Here our discussion must begin with the assertion that life is sacred. As the Talmud says, "one who destroys a single life destroys an entire world. One who saves a single life saves an entire world." (Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:9) We are obligated to act when life is threatened. This is the highest mitzvah. The one who rises up to kill must be stopped, even at the cost of his or her life. But we do so reluctantly, and with fear and trembling.

A midrash on Genesis captures this aversion to destroying life, even in self-defense.

Jacob is returning home to Canaan when he learns that his brother Esau is coming toward him with 400 men. All indications are that Esau means to take revenge on Jacob for stealing his birthright many years before.

As Jacob is contemplating the hostile encounter that seems to lie ahead, the Torah says that he was "fearful and distressed." (Genesis 32:8) The midrash picks up on this double expression of fear, and learns from it a lesson about the horrors of war. "He was afraid of being killed," says the midrash," and he was distressed that he might have to kill another." (Bereishit Rabbah 76:2)

Even our mortal enemy never stops being a human being created in the image of God. Even when he debases that image by his actions, his death diminishes God's presence in the world. The thought of being responsible for that is horrifying. The reality of actually having done so can be unbearable.

This ethos underlies the spirit of Israel's Army, the Israel Defense Forces. Its code of ethics, which every soldier must carry at all times, demands that force be used only for defensive purposes.

International law and just war theory agree that a just war is one fought to defend one's citizens.

In light of this, how are we to judge the justice of this summer's war? There can be no doubt that Israel acted in self-defense, having joined the fight only after hundreds of rockets and missiles were fired on its cities and towns.

And what of the justice of Hamas' attacks on Israel? There was no proximate cause, no Israeli attack on Gaza's citizens to which they were responding. Firing rockets at Israel was a bald faced act of aggression intended to provoke hostilities, not to defend against them. As such, it was immoral.

This leads us to the bigger moral question of this war, which is: did either side act in accordance with the accepted rules of morality in warfare?
Here the key principles are:

  1.  Avoiding harm to non-combatants
  2.  Striking only legitimate military targets
  3.  Using only the amount of force necessary to complete the mission
With regard to Hamas there is no question that their rockets were aimed intentionally at civilian populations. As stated in their charter, they are committed to killing Jews wherever they are found, not just Israelis, and there can be no question that the more than 3,ooo rockets that rained down on Israel were intended to do just that. Were justice to be done, Hamas would be found guilty of war crimes on that basis alone. But, as you know, it gets worse.

Not only did Hamas target civilian populations, it embedded its fighters and its missile launchers in the midst of their own civilian population so that Israel's strikes against legitimate military targets would cause harm to innocent Palestinians. Hamas knowingly placed their own people in harm's way by placing their rockets in schools, hospitals, mosques, and densely populated areas. This is the face of evil.

And what about Israel? Does the fact that Israel fought a just war mean that it did so in a just and moral way? Not necessarily. What we do know is that the IDF has a clear set of directives that guided its military operations in Gaza. These include targeting sites that Hamas uses for its operations, including command and control, weapons storage and rocket launchers, and its tunnels, all of which are legitimate military targets.

The IDF's code of ethics forbids the targeting of non-combatants. In practice, it has been well documented by the local Palestinian population that the IDF took significant measures to protect civilians by warning them to evacuate before attacking. They dropped leaflets, sent text messages and made phone calls, all in Arabic, and in case these were not taken seriously, they dropped an empty shell on the target, which the IDF calls "a knock on the roof." These are highly unorthodox measures that are rarely, if ever, used by other nations. After all, what army announces its plans before attacking? Only one that is greatly concerned about protecting the lives of non-combatants.

The areas where Israel's policies in Gaza can be questioned are the value of certain targets relative to the risk of harming civilians, and the question of proportionality, the degree of force used to carry out a given mission. These questions cannot be answered with blanket statements like: "Israel acted with excessive force in Gaza." To determine whether Israel conducted its operations in appropriate and moral ways can only be judged on a case-by-case basis.

Internal IDF investigations are already underway, and we can only hope that they will be fair and comprehensive. If past practice is indicative of what will happen now, there is every reason to expect disciplinary action or even criminal prosecution of soldiers found to be in violation of the law and the IDF code of ethics. What we should not expect is that Israel will agree to a kangaroo court convened by the United Nations, like the Goldstone commission sham of 2009.

We can also assume with certainty that Hamas will not be examining its own behavior. An organization that executes suspected collaborators without trial does not conduct such investigations.

There were two wars fought between Hamas and Israel this summer. One was waged with bombs and rockets. The other was fought with words and images. The shooting has stopped, for now, thank God, but the media war rages on. The armed conflict Hamas knew they couldn't win. Their real aim is to defeat Israel in the court of world opinion, to breed hatred of Jews, and to advance the insidious movement to boycott, sanction, and divest from Israel, known as BDS. Here there is real cause for concern and need for concerted action on the part of all who are sympathetic to Israel.

When we see things as they really are, we see that Hamas are monsters that make canon fodder of their women and children to gain sympathy for their cause. But, as Leon Wieseltier noted, "the population of Gaza are not monsters and the Palestinian people are not monsters." They are victims caught between Hamas and Israel.

In our Torah reading God sees Ishmael where he is and hears his cry. God sees and hears Ishmael, and so must we. Today Ishmael is a Palestinian who lives in the West Bank and cries for his freedom. Today Ishmael is a citizen of Israel who lives in Jaffa and longs for full equality. And today Ishmael is one of the residents of shattered Gaza, who is bereft and despondent, desperate and traumatized by the death and destruction all around him.

War forces you to take sides. And there must be no question that our first loyalty must be to our own. But as our rabbis remind us, God made our hearts with more than one chamber so that there would be room within them for more than one love. So make room within your hearts alongside your love for your family and your people for God's children who are Palestinian. Hatred will only breed more hatred, war and death. Only sympathy and love will pave the way to reconciliation and peace.
So let us pray for the peace of Jerusalem and for the peace of Gaza. May all God's children live in security and serenity, free from fear and deprivation. And may the words of the prophet come to pass in our own day:

"They shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation shall not lift up sword against nation neither shall they learn war any more. And every man [and woman] shall sit under their vines and fig trees, and none shall make them afraid." (Micah 4:3-4)

V'chein yehi ratzon. May this be God's will! Amen!

5775 Erev Rosh HaShanah - Lessons of Loss

Lessons of Loss

In memory of my father, Stanley Gluck, z"l

Sermon for Rosh HaShanah 5775—2014

Rabbi Arnold S. Gluck
Temple Beth-El, Hillsborough, NJ

5775 ErevRoshHaShannah LessonsOfLoss RabbiArnieGluck 
I have not been ok these last 11 months. In fact, it's probably been the most painful time in my life.

No cause for worry. There is nothing really wrong with me. I've not been ok, but I wasn't supposed to be ok, because I've been in mourning for my father, who died 11 months ago today.

Something would be terribly wrong if I could lose my dad and be ok. This pain is one I welcome. It is, as I have said to many of you in your times of loss, a measure of my love for my father. For if it wasn't for the love I have for him, it wouldn't hurt so much. This thought has been a daily comfort to me over these months on my journey toward healing.

It has been a painful time, but also a meaningful one. It's been a time of growth and learning, and I have found many blessings along the way.

Tonight I'd like to share with you some of what this experience has taught me. Some of it I knew before and it was only reinforced by my experience of loss. Some was new to me.

My thoughts fall into two categories. The first is the journey, the stages from illness through death and mourning, and the second is the destination, what death teaches us about life.

I consider myself to be incredibly lucky. My dad lived for almost 90 years, and if there is such a thing, he had a blessed death. Despite an array of ailments, he lived independently and relatively actively until just days before he died. And when the end did come, it came quickly and painlessly. I know many people are not so lucky.

I am also fortunate to have an amazing and supportive wife, loving, devoted and caring daughters, and a great family that pulled together to honor my father and walk together through the early days of mourning. We are also blessed to have incredibly supportive friends, and this great temple family that stood by us and supported us in our time of grief. For all this, I am more grateful than words can say.

The first thing I learned from my journey was the importance of being present. Among the hardest things I encounter when helping others in their times of loss is when they feel regret. If only we had... How I wish I had... I should have, could have... If only I had it to do over...

We can't be everywhere all the time, but how important it is do what we can when we can, and to go the extra yard just to be there.

My father had just enjoyed a wonderful Shabbat with our daughter Shira, my brother, sister-in-law, and niece when he suddenly had difficulty breathing. After going to the emergency room, he was sent to Columbia Presbyterian in NY where they hoped to perform a cardiac valve replacement. At that point we had no reason to believe he wouldn't make it through. Nonetheless, we dropped everything and stayed with him in the hospital day and night. The Talmud says of bikkur cholim, the mitzvah of visiting the sick, that a visitor takes away a sixtieth part of the patient's pain. I'm convinced that it's at least that much.

What I hadn't anticipated was how much my own pain would be softened by the fact that I had been there with him in his last days and hours. It was hard to see him as his breathing became difficult, and I still feel a pang when I picture him in that state, but it quickly melts into a warm feeling of knowing that we were there to comfort him and tell him that we loved him. Where guilt and regret might have been our lot, instead there is peace.

It doesn't always turn out this way, as this story reminds us. A rabbi was officiating at a funeral, and when the service was over, the mourner would not leave the grave. The rabbi tried to lead the man away, but he wouldn't go. The rabbi said, "The service is over now, it's time to leave." But the man shook him off and said, "You don't understand. I loved my wife." "I'm sure you did," said the rabbi, "but we should go now." The man shook him off again and said: "You don't understand. I loved my wife." The rabbi said, "I know you did, but still, we have to go." The man shook him off again and said, "But you don't understand. I loved my wife — and once I almost told her."

The second thing I learned is how important it was to bury my father. I knew this intellectually from my studies and my experience with others, but that didn't prepare me for how I would feel.

The Torah tells us how after the death of Sarah, Abraham goes to great lengths to purchase the Cave of Machpela as a place to bury her. Refusing to accept the land as a gift, Abraham established for our people the value of procuring an achuzat kever, a sacred burial place for the generations. (Genesis 23)

When it seems that there is nothing more that Abraham can do for Sarah, he teaches us this isn't true. On the contrary, the things we do for the dead, when they are completely helpless, are the highest and purest kindness, a chesed shel emet, because they are inspired only by love. People die, every one of us, but love doesn't die if we don't let it.

Physically burying my dad. Literally, laying him to his final rest with our own hands, was one of the hardest, most emotional, and most important things I have ever done in my life. It was a pure act of love that I feel deep in my heart every time I think of it.

I can no long hold or hug my dad. But because we buried him he has an address, a place where we can go that represents his physical presence in the world. As King David said after the tragic loss of his infant son, "I will go to him, but he will not return to me."

The third thing I learned was the power of saying kaddish for my dad. I have done this faithfully, not every day as I thought I might— that turned out to be too difficult to arrange— but every Shabbat. Here, too, when it seemed that there was nothing more I could do for my dad, there was something I was able to do just for him. In the old days, when a son was born, the parents would say, 'now I have my kaddish.' It is a powerful consolation to know there is a living soul in the world, who will stand for us when we are gone and declare that our life still matters and our memory endures. I am proud and honored to be my father's kaddish.

There are many other insights I could share about the journey of mourning, but I turn now to my second category, the destination— what death teaches us about life.

Maybe the most important thing that death teaches us is the value of time. I think about all the time we waste when it seems like we have forever, and then when we lose a loved one, how much we wish we could have just a few minutes with them, even just a few seconds. This will be the first Rosh HaShanah that my dad won't be here for the second day. What joy it gave me to see him sitting here in shul, smiling at me with such pride. It's hard to imagine he won't be here this Friday. Now that he is gone, the wonderful times we did have seem all the more precious. How grateful I am that we shared so much of life together. And how grateful I feel for the wonderful life he had with my mom over more than 65 years of marriage. For their 65th anniversary they took the whole family away for a long weekend that left us with precious memories. Little did we know that they wouldn't make it to 66.

Looking back, I think, too, of the unfinished business, the things that didn't get done before time ran out. My father had a difficult childhood. His mother died when he was two years old and he spent time in an orphanage. He was scarred by his experience of anti-Semitism early in his career in advertising, and he never fully came to terms with it. Until his dying day I prayed that these wounds would heal, that he would get help and find true peace. It never happened. So now, as I mourn for what was and is lost, so, too do I mourn for what might have been and wasn't. For what was left incomplete.

In the Talmud Rabbi Eliezer is reported to have stood before his students and told them, "Repent one day before you die," and all your sins will be forgiven.
At first blush it sounds like this great sage has just given his students carte blanche to go wild. As long as they stop in time to mend their ways, to do teshuvah the day before they die, they can go out and sin to their hearts content. But then it dawns on them that there is a serious problem with this proposition. "How do we know when that day will be?" they ask. How do we get the timing right? Aha! Says the rabbi. Precisely! "Repent today lest you die tomorrow."

If it seems that Eliezer has just burst their bubble, we should think again. In fact, the great rabbi has given them and us the most sage advice. Do not wait. Do not put off, and do not delay life. Do the kindness today. Pursue your worthy dreams now. Be the person you want and aspire to be while you can. We never know when it will be too late, so get busy living!

The second thing that death teaches us about life is perspective. What is unimportant in the face of death is undoubtedly less important in life. No one on his or her deathbed ever said, 'I should have spent more time at work.' Many a person has said: 'I wish I spent more time with my family.' Or, 'I wish I had taken better care of my health.' Or, 'I wish I had been more generous, or more caring.'

A beautiful midrash on Ecclesiastes reminds us that we can't take it with us, or as the Yiddish saying goes, that burial shrouds don't have pockets.

"A hungry fox was eyeing some luscious fruit in a garden, but to his dismay, he could find no way to enter. At last he discovered an opening through which, he thought, he might possibly get in, but he soon found that the hole was too small to admit his body. 'Well,' he thought, 'if I fast three days I will be able to squeeze through.' He did so; and now he feasted to his heart's delight on the grapes and all the other good things in the orchard. But when he wanted to escape, he discovered that the opening had again become too small for him. Again he had to fast three days and as he escaped he said: 'O garden, o garden, what have I now for all my labor and cunning? Just as one enters you, so must one depart.'

"So it is with us," concludes the midrash. "Naked we come into the world, naked must we leave it. After all our labor we carry nothing away with us except the good deeds we leave behind."

Thank God, my father left so much behind. He was a good and kind and gentle man. He was a wonderful loving husband, father, grandfather, and great-grandfather— yes, he lived to see our granddaughter and to celebrate her naming. He was a loyal friend, a proud Jew, and a World War II veteran. Most of all as far as I am concerned, he was my dad.

So I have concluded my 11 months of mourning. My kaddish will become my yizkor and yahrzeit, and I pray that I will honor my father's memory by the way I live.

On this Yom Hazikaron, this Day of Remembrance, I pray that each of us will be blessed with sweet memories of those we have loved and lost, and that reflecting on their lives will inspire us to live our lives most fully. Y'hiyu zichram baruch, may their memories be for blessing, and may God bless us all with peace.