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A High Holiday Message from Rabbi Goldstein

Click HERE to view the video

High Holiday Sermons 2023

 

Rosh Hashana Day 1 and 2  - YouTube Links

You can hear Rabbi Goldstein's sermon for Rosh Hashanah Day 1 on video here: 

Day 1 - click HERE

Day 2 - no video link, text is below

 

 

Kol Nidre, Yom Kippur  - YouTube Links

You can hear Rabbi Goldstein's sermons on video here: 

Kol Nidre - click HERE                 

Yom Kippur - click HERE               

 

Rosh Hashana Sermons

 

Rosh Hashana Day 1

My homiletics teacher in seminary, Rabbi Lenny Kravitz (not the singer!) had a saying which has stayed with me all through my 40 years in the Rabbinate. He told us “Boys… (yes he started every class that way even with the 9 women in my class) “every Rabbi really has within them, for their entire Rabbinate, only three sermons to give. So make sure those three are good.”

Now that's true for me, I’ve only given 3 sermons: the one I wanted to give, the one I actually gave, and the one I wished I had given!

Looking over my files, I found that I had another type of three sermons— the handwritten kind (show), the typewriter kind (show), and the computer kind (show). I’m retiring just in time I think not to have the ChatGPT kind. And that’s good because according to a recent German research study, it was found that ChatGPT, like most Rabbis, uses the same 25 jokes over and over.

Rabbi Kravitz, I really did give just three sermons in 40 years. I hope they were good, 'cause I’m gonna give them again, right now, right here, in honour of my last Rosh Hashana at City Shul.

Three things that I’ve pitched all my Rabbinic career, three ideas that are the very essence of Rosh Hashana and the very essence of my Rabbinate. They are from Pirke Avot chapter 1 Mishnah 2 : Al shlosha devarim ha-olam omed: On three things the world stands: on Torah, on worship, and on acts of compassion.

Three tools to ensure not just the survival of the Jewish people but also our vibrancy. Three tools for personal growth and our human responsibility as members of a civilized society. Torah as the time-tested wisdom of our people, worthy of study; worship as the meaningful and joyful way we form community, worthy of participation; and acts of compassion— Tikkun Olam which repairs the broken world, worthy of action.

Three types of Jews who will ensure our continuity:

Literate Jews. Spiritual Jews. Compassionate Jews.

Jews who know something. Jews who feel something. And Jews who do something.

Head. Heart. Hands.

That’s it, you can all go home now! (Just kidding!)

Not everyone can manage to pursue three goals with equal passion, Torah and worship and Tikkun Olam; it’s healthy for a community to have different individuals who focus on one more than the other two, or one at one time and the others at another time. We are not all equally drawn to study, or prayer, or social action. But with all three kinds of Jews each sharpening their own tool, the Jewish people will move forward into a future worth working for.

First: Judaism is essentially a religion of skill, a how-to of rituals and observances. That's why we need literate Jews, cerebral Jews who understand that we are not a religion of belief and doctrine where all you need to do is say a creedal formula or express a personal belief to be “in”. That’s why it’s so hard and also so meaningful to convert to Judaism; it takes study and practice to figure out how to light the Chanukah menorah and why the challah gets covered and when next year’s Rosh Hashana will fall and where to find the portion for your kid’s B'Mitzvah.

Literate Jews study Torah, and I mean all the kinds of Torah there are in the Jewish world, and so their study engenders the flowering of even more creative ways of understanding Torah. They study the Torah of Jewish literature and the Torah of Jewish music; the Torah of Jewish movies and the Torah of current events; the Torah of Jewish philosophy and the Torah of Jewish history; the Torah of Jewish feminism and the Torah of queer Jewish thinking; the Torah of Reform Judaism and the Torah of traditional Judaism. Literate Jews can answer their Christian and Muslim and Hindu and Sikh friends and family’s questions without embarrassment. Literate Jews can write letters to the editor and decry anti-semitism and denounce anti-democratic measures and meet ignorance with facts and depth and self-confidence.

Literate Jews are able to successfully hold tradition while changing tradition. They know enough to figure out how to challenge and when to remold and what to renew and why to hold on. Challenges to tradition from Jewish literacy are not based on convenience or personal preference or individual personal needs and wants, but from knowing and pondering and comparing and researching and exploring.

Literate Jews can find G-d in study. As Rabbi Louis Finkelstein, the late Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary once said,  “When I pray, I speak to G-d; when I study, G-d speaks to me.”

This year, perhaps your Jewish path will lead you to become a more literate Jew. Maybe you’ll take a class with me or come to hear a speaker who will challenge you or read one Jewish book and discuss it with our Book Club. Make it a priority to go to the Jewish film festival or Holocaust Education Week. You’ll visit the new Holocaust Museum up at the Prosserman JCC or you’ll book a trip with me to Jewish Croatia (sorry for the shameless plug.) You’ll subscribe to Haaretz or the Jerusalem Post and keep informed about Israel as frustrating as that will be. You’ll subscribe to a weekly dvar Torah—or maybe you’ll challenge yourself to give a dvar Torah. And then, may you hear Gd speaking to you through study.

Second: Since synagogues are the best place to practice the art of praying, the joy of singing, the depth of practicing rituals and the demands of being in community, we need Spiritual Jews, emotive Jews who elevate our prayer experience with their open hearts;. Spiritual Jews build spiritual synagogues which consider themselves to be first and foremost a meeting place for the heart and soul; which choose relational over transactional behaviours and have covenantal trust in their congregants and their staff.

Now some folks prefer to call themselves SBNR— Spiritual. But not Religious. I understand folks who don’t want to identify with any organized religion— don’t worry, Judaism is a very disorganized religion!— and I understand that organized religions can be repressive or even oppressive. Indeed right-wing religion has taken centre stage over left-wing religion, and being the spokesperson for religious values, that old-time religion has hurt people and abandoned them and marginalized them. But the life of the spirit is just as healthy as the life of the body. The same serotonin and dopamine which decreases depression and anxiety sticks around in your brain for a couple of hours after you exercise and equally for a couple of hours after a service.  Maybe you hated your Bar Mitzvah a hundred years ago or you remember painfully what some Rabbi in your childhood said or did that offended you, or maybe you are that non-Jewish spouse whose Jewish mother -in-law is pushing you in or out— our shul offers a sophisticated, mature Judaism that can actually help you heal, make you feel whole and valued and help you see the sacredness in every day life.

The Kotzker rebbe was once asked “Why does it say in the Shema: ‘These words shall be on your heart’? Why ‘on’ and not ‘in’?” He answered: “The heart is not always open. Therefore the Torah says: Lay these words on your heart, so that when your heart opens, they will be there, ready to fall in.”

This year, perhaps your Jewish path will lead you to become a more spiritual Jew. Maybe you’ll come to Shabbat services and close your eyes and sing your heart out even if you don’t understand the words or believe in them or even if you were told that you don’t have a good voice. You’ll start a hike with a blessing. You’ll start lighting Shabbat candles on Friday night or hosting a Friday night dinner at your place. Maybe you’ll take up a mindfulness practice online with the Institute for Jewish Spirituality or you’ll start G-d wrestling, thinking deeply about your own beliefs.  And then, may you find G-d’s indefinable Presence through the presence of a community at prayer.

Third, the meaning of the word compassion, from the Latin, is “sympathetic consciousness of others' distress, together with a desire to alleviate it.”  That’s why we need Compassionate Jews, activist Jews who live the Yom Kippur morning haftarah of Isaiah and challenge us to live it too.  “…To unlock fetters of wickedness, And untie the cords of the yoke To let the oppressed go free; To break off every yoke..to share your bread with the hungry, And to take the wretched poor into your home; When you see the naked, to clothe him, And not to ignore your own kin.”

Compassionate Jews pray with their feet when they hearken to the words we say after the Aleynu at every service: לְתַקֵּן עוֹלָם בְּמַלְכוּת שַׁדַּי To repair the world through establishing Gd's presence”… They understand that Hesed is not a description of a feeling, but of conduct.

They live in a way which reduces harm to others and to the environment. Because Judaism commands us, in the book of Genesis, to steward this planet— l’ovdah u’l’shomrah (to serve and preserve)—as an act of tikkun olam.

Compassionate Jews see injustice against any fellow human being as an affront to God and to Judaism which asserts that every person is b’tzelem Elohim, created in Gd’s image. They take risks and hold unpopular views when they defend the underdog and quote Torah to help them. In the words of author Jonathan Krasner: “tikkun olam is supposed to challenge us to move out of our comfort zone. If it becomes little more than a vaguely Jewish way of embodying politically progressive orthodoxies, it loses its meaning.”

This year, perhaps your Jewish path will lead you to become a more compassionate Jew. Perhaps this winter you’ll stock the back seat of your car with socks and gloves to give out to homeless folks as they approach your car on the highway ramps. You’ll support our food drive on Yom Kippur. You’ll pester people at kiddush to mindfully recycle their cans. Maybe you’ll join our Mitzvah group to make or deliver soup and visit our ill and bereaved. You’ll give tzedakah regularly and cyclically, not just at the end of December at tax time. And then may you will feel the push of Gd’s hand—HaRachaman, the Compassionate One—moving you to action.

Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, founder of the Jewish Renewal movement, used to teach that these three pillars— Torah, Worship and Gemilut Chasadim, acts of compassion— can be thought of as three directions: Inward, Upward and Outward. Torah (point in) Avodah (point up) and Gemilut Chasadim (point out).

There you have it.  A Judaism that goes Inward, Upward and Outward. A Judaism of the Head, the Heart, and the Hands. Jews moved by Mind, Spirit, and Action. A Judaism that enriches us personally, communally, and globally. Literate Jews, Spiritual Jews and Compassionate Jews who will move us ever forward because they know something, they feel something, and they do something.

The 16th century Maharal of Prague, Rabbi Judah Loew, teaches on these three pillars: “In order to acquire the true level of tov, of Divine goodness planted within us on the day of creation of humanity in the Garden of Eden, humans must perfect three different facets of existence: 1) our potential within ourselves 2) our potential with our Creator, with something greater than ourselves; and 3) our potential with our fellow human beings, fulfilling our responsibilities to the people with whom God has surrounded us. Torah perfects our inner potential; worship perfects our relationship with the Divine, and acts of compassion perfect our relationship with all our fellow human beings. With these three pillars – Torah, Avodah and G’milut Chasadim – we become complete, we fulfill our purpose as Jews in this world.”

Thats my three. Dr Kravitz—I hope I’ve made you proud.

Shana Tova.

 

 

 

Rosh Hashana Day 2

(Klezmer band plays opening bar to “Tradition” from Fiddler, invite people to sing)

When Tevye sings these words “tradition, tradition” he isn’t actually talking about Shabbat or kashrut. He doesn’t sing “Shabbat, Shabbat” or “Pesach, the Matzah!” He’s actually singing about gender roles (“the son…the son”) and the cultural ways the Ashkenazi shtetl lives. In his world, as in much of the Orthodox world, tradition encompasses just about everything you do and gives it an aura of authority and gravitas. You wear a large fur hat from the 1800’s in Poland?  “Tradition”! Women can’t be Rabbis? “Tradition”! 

There’s plenty of Jewish law to govern us, believe me. It’s actually the idea of tradition that sometimes binds us in, as much as it expands us out.

While there are scores of words in the Torah for law— chok, chukkah, mishpat, mitzvah, the word “minhag” which we use for custom appears only once in II Kings and there it means “to drive a chariot” in fact it means to recklessly drive a chariot! And the word “masoret” which we use for tradition only appears once in Ezekiel, and there it is paired with “brit” to mean “the bond of the covenant.” Not having any Torah foundation to rest upon in their creation of customs, the Rabbis of the Talmud interpreted and innovated and even changed the older traditions on which they drew, but then their innovations became set and are now almost immutable, like lighting candles on Friday night, or having a Seder on Pesach. The Torah only says “tell your children” but not do it in a 4 hour marathon meal where you get to eat at only the last hour!  The Talmud in Beitzah 4b calls this “Minhag avotenu b’yadenu”—the customs of our ancestors are what we do today—and it governs for example, the Conservative movement retaining the 2nd day of holidays even though we all have digital calendars which tell us exactly when the new moon is and there’s no danger anymore at all of celebrating Sukkot or Shavuot on the wrong day. The same phrase governs the Reform movement, for example, when we choose not to blow the shofar on Shabbat.

So we as Reform Jews sometimes do things cause they’ve always been done that way and that feels familiar and good. And sometimes we do things to be “in step” with the rest of the community, to not deviate and cause more fractiousness in the Jewish world even though and even when we could do things differently. In the Talmud Pesachim 51-52 we learn:

מִפְּנֵי שִׁינּוּי הַמַּחְלוֹקֶת..

Changes cause disagreement. “…Rav Safra said to Rabbi Abba: Communities in a situation like us, who, based on calculations, already know the determination of the month and are no longer concerned lest the Festival be observed on the wrong day, clearly, on the second day of a Festival, we still do not perform labor…due to the need to avoid deviation that causes dispute…”

No the Reform movement in the US is full of deviations that caused and continue to cause dispute. Here in Canada the Reform movement for example chose not to deviate on patrilineal descent and then that caused dispute within our own movement! But when the Reform movement followed the Conservative movement to allow the eating of legumes (kitniyot) on Passover we all danced the hora! That didn’t seem to cause any disputes and just made alot of Ashkenazic people very happy.  Enough to drive even Tevye crazy.

We are constantly on the tightrope between the words of  Proverbs 22:28

אַל־תַּ֭סֵּג גְּב֣וּל עוֹלָ֑ם אֲשֶׁ֖ר עָשׂ֣וּ אֲבוֹתֶֽיךָ׃

Do not remove the ancient boundary stone that your ancestors set up” and the need for 21st century Judaism to reflect 21st century values and thus moving these boundary stones to make room for women, LGBTQ, interfaith families, spiritual questioners and modern interpretations and ideas. 

So we invent “new traditions.”  I love that phrase “new tradition.”  It’s so odd if you think about it. But we do continually create traditions, just as our ancestors did. The Torah doesn’t say to light Shabbat candles 18 minutes before sundown. And it doesn’t say to eat a braided egg bread on Shabbat. What makes a tradition “stick” and then after how many years does it have the “weight of tradition”? Babynamings for girls is a great example. It was a very new tradition I had a hand in creating 30 years ago. Today its an established tradition in all the Jewish denominations.

Some new traditions are born out of necessity. Like this service at Palais Royale. It was started because of COVID and not being able to be inside and yet wanting to have a second day service. A service that had to be shortened out of necessity. Then Jeff Cipin in his expansive creativity said hey lets blow more than one shofar when people can really hear it not on zoom, and our surround-sound shofar was born.  And now, it’s (sing) “tradition, tradition!”

Taking a breath during V’shamru? Tradition! Instruments for Psalm 150 Halleluyah? Tradition! A scotch l’chayim before Birkat Hamazon? Tradition, unless you change it to tequila, then its a “new tradition!”

And there are customs which differ from eidah to eidah (Jewish background subgroups like Sephardi, Ashkanazi, Mizrachi, Roma, Greek) like whether or not you name a child after a living or a deceased relative or whether or not you eat rice on Pesach. These are born out of food culture, like eating dairy on Shavuot or hiding a key in the first challah after Pesach or making honey cake for Rosh Hashana. They are born out of local culture, like Yemenite Torah trope which uses an Arabic modality. They are born from a certain point in history—like the celebration of Yom Ha’atmaut, Israeli Independence Day; or the observance of Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day. And they are born from the ideas of a community’s Rabbi, like sharing Modim moments during the repetition of the Amidah. These “new customs” also change through time and space and place, and they run the risk of becoming as stale as the old ones when they become too rarified in a community. You know the joke about the community where the person carrying the Torah around always bent down during the Torah processional just as the Torah reached the middle pew. No one knew why but Shabbos in and Shabbos out the person carrying the Torah bent down as the Torah reached the middle pew. The new Rabbi comes and wants to understand this very specific tradition. So they call the oldest member of the shul and he explains: oh thats because in the old building there was a low beam right about the middle row; the guy carrying the Torah had to bend so as not to hit his head! I guess now we just kept doing it!”

It’s like our Chazzanit always tell us: the “traditional” tune you love may be traditional only in the shul you grew up in, and it’s not traditional for the person sitting next to you who converted. It’s not traditional for the person sitting next to you who grew up Sephardic or even who grew up in a reform synagogue in the US.

There’s a mythical bird in Ghanian tradition called the Sankofa. The word Sankofa literally means to turn around to retrieve something and the Sankofa bird is depicted with its head turned backwards to symbolically capture an egg above its back while it’s flying forward. The bird literally flies forward with its head turned backward. I can’t think of a better symbol for us as Jews. We fly forward with our heads turned back all the time.  That sometimes makes for a bit of a balance problem; and sometimes we will crash because we are not looking ahead; but we will always know from whence we came and it gives us direction.

So this year, as we hear the “traditional” surround-sound shofar at this ”traditional” 2nd day Shofarpalooza; let’s think about what City Shul traditions we will hold as our own into the future, which we will “inscribe as law” as it were; and which we be willing to change or alter or even discard as “well thats the way Rabbi Goldstein did it…” so that the new Rabbi can create and innovate and try things that will, when I come back to visit and pray as a member of this congregation, be “new traditions” that are beloved.

Shana Tova!

Kol Nidre - Yom Kippur sermons

 

Kol Nidre 

 

There is a story about King Solomon who once tested his minister by asking him to bring him a special ring. What kind of ring,asked the minister. One that contains all the wisdom in the world,” answered the king. The minister searched high and low for such a ring but could not find one. One day he was walking through the market when he saw a jewelry merchant and asked the merchant, Can you make a ring that contains all the wisdom in the world?The merchant smiled and said “of course I can.” He took a small gold ring, engraved it with 3 Hebrew letters, and handed it to the minister. When King Solomon next saw the minister, the minister said, Here it is, your majesty,and gave the king the ring. At that moment King Solomon knew that the wisdom of the entire world was inscribed in that ring. Inscribed on it were three letters: gimmel, zayin, and yud, which stand for Gam zeh yaavor this too shall pass. Gam zeh yaavor the words that make the sad happy, and the happy sad. The words which are always true, no matter where, no matter when, no matter who.

Those three letters are inscribed on this little pinky ring I never take off, worn by my sister Marsha and never taken off by her until she passed away suddenly at the age of 45. She lived this mantra with all her heart—she knew that all the painful and difficult moments will one day pass, and so will the joyous ones.

Gam zeh ya’avor, this too shall pass: these words of hope and possibility and stark reality helped many of us get through the most difficult days of the pandemic.

Gam zeh ya’avor: change is the vital lesson that life gives us every day. All things change. You never step into the same river twice. You are never the same even if you go to the same place year after year.  Children leave the house and start their own lives. Parents grow older.  Friends move in together and other friends drift away, kitchens get renovated and jobs get startedvor finished and parents become grandparents and cottages get sold and camp friends go to university. Those who are well become ill and those who are ill become well (hopefully) and marriages start and marriages dissolve and your founding Rabbi retires…and nothing stays the same. Laws change. Customs change.  Organizations change. Countries change. I started doing high holiday sermons the year before my son Micah was born and now he is getting married. Night becomes day and day becomes night.  Our lives go up and our lives go down and we have no way to prepare. It is not a choice. It is the painful, exhilarating, frightening, growthful truth of living.

On our sabbatical travels many years ago, we were transfixed in China by an elderly gentleman painting what seemed like an endless text in Chinese characters on the sidewalk with a giant brush in water. By the end of the block, his first words were slowly disappearing as he continued his mission.  Sentence after sentence made with water disappeared, and yet he continued to write.

Buddhist monks create mandalas in the sand and then, in an elaborate ceremony, dissolve and dismantle them by sweeping up the sand painting and delivering it into the sea, in an honouring of impermanence.

Or as comedian George Carlin quipped: Just when I discovered the meaning of life, they changed it.

Yehuda Amichai, Israel’s most celebrated poet who died in 2000, wrote a poem called The Eleventh and Twelfth Commandments:

“And my fathers voice was white like the hair on his head.
Later, he turned his face to me one last time
like on the day he died in my arms and said, I want to add
two to the ten commandments:
The eleventh commandment: Dont change.
And the twelfth commandment: You must surely change.

We live between the eleventh and twelfth commandment; the desire to never change and the reality of constant change. We are always learning to navigate and steer a course between the two. And as we steer, we hopefully acquire a new skill and a new perspective to carry us though the transition. The Reverend Ted Bolsinger calls this new skill  “canoeing the mountains” and he explains it with this story:  In the early 1800’s explorers Lewis and Clark set out to find a way west to the Pacific. They assumed they would find a water route, so they brought canoes. Instead they found themselves in the mountains. They had planned to row their way there. Now what? They were fortunate to have an Indigenous guide named Sacajawea who helped them trade their canoes for mountain gear. The expedition was not over, but it was changed. We too may have to trade canoes for mountain gear, and also learn, if necessary, how to canoe the mountains.

Now we can resist this and refuse to believe there is a mountain where the river used to be. We can pine away for “the good ole days” like the joke “how many boomers does it take to change a lightbulb? None, they just keep talking about how great the old one was” and we can deal with the devil we know rather than the devil we don’t know to avoid anxiety about an unseen future. But true resilience is gained by trading the canoe for mountain gear, or by learning how to canoe a mountain.

The Unetaneh Tokef prayer drives this message home. As Rabbi Alan Lew writes, This year, some will die, some will live, but all will change”. It is the wisdom of King Solomon’s ring to contemplate not what changes the new year will inevitably bring, but to contemplate how we will meet them, how we will greet them, how we will navigate them, and how we will live with them. 

And of only one thing can we be certain: that there is not much we can be certain of.

We humans are not well designed, it seems, to live in this constant state of uncertainty.  In an article in the Harvard Business review in 2021, titled “Our Brains Were Not Built for This Much Uncertainty” researchers Heidi Grant and Tal Goldhamer wrote in the midst of the pandemic: “For most of human history, we have been hunter-gatherers, living in groups where individuals had established roles and lives. While sometimes dangerous, life was largely predictable. The brain evolved to be remarkably good at recognizing patterns and building habits, turning very complex sets of behaviors into something we can do on autopilot. (Ever drive home from work and end up in your driveway, with no memory of actually driving home? Thats the kind of thing were talking about.) Given that habits and recognizable patterns are kind of its thing,the brain evolved to be uncertainty-averse…”

While there certainly are adventure seekerswho seek out novel (and often) dangerous experiences, most of us sit in the same place when we enter a classroom or a sanctuary; we make the same foods on a holiday, we go away with the same people, often to the same place. It’s comforting and part of the brains strategy to making sense and even prepare for an inevitable or sudden change that may come our way: someone else is siting in our seat! Its human nature to want to go back to where everything is familiar, predictable, and recognizable even if thats a more uncomfortable or dangerous place. Think about the four-fifths of the Israelites who resisted the change taking placing in Egypt, and stayed enslaved rather than join their compatriots marching into the unknown.

The world in front of us will be nothing like the world behind us.

Our Israelite ancestors knew that. Our Israelite forbears knew that the only way to get to redemption was a long walk to an unseen desert mountain and a new way of life no former slave could yet imagine. The world in front of them at Sinai was nothing like the word they left behind in Egypt.

And the Rabbis of the second century knew that when they left behind the Temple in Jerusalem and did not close up shop but instead asked how to canoe the mountain, and wrote the Talmud as an answer. We traded priests for prayerbooks and sacrifices for synagogues. We have been the ever-changing people who have worshiped an ever-changing God from the very beginning, the One whose name is Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh – “I Will Be What I Will Be.God’s own essence is imagined as continually in process. Imitatio Dei: we are supposed to emulate God.— whose very name defies staying static. The core of Jewish history is lech-lecha: go to a land that I will eventually show you. Have faith and trust in a future you cannot see.

Of course we are anxious when we live in that lech-lecha moment, in-between time, the liminal moment between the old year not yet gone and the new year not yet born, the time that the late anthropologist Victor Turner termed between no longer and not yet.

The time between no longer and not yet is the new relationship you are starting, the move from one home to another or from Toronto to another city, the new job you hope to land, the surgery you are waiting for. It can be the most exciting time of your life, and the most terrifying, both equally. The time between no longer and not yet tests your inner strength and tugs at your memory and tantalizes you with possibility. It will also bring loss. And it will bring disappointment.

What will we do this year with the losses and disappointments which come from change? What will we do with our anticipatory loss about the changes that this congregation will experience?

What will we do with our disappointment in our beloved Israel as it teeters dangerously close to internal crisis and hovers between a utopian vision and a dystopian society and its changes that are alienating and dangerous? We cannot live in the past and we cannot love the past so much it strangles the future. Comedian Lily Tomlin once said, “Forgiveness is giving up all hope of having a better past.” We cannot change the past. Kol Nidre is written in the future tense, asking forgiveness for what we may yet do this coming year.

We cannot change that we are mortal and therefore make mistakes. We cannot change that we will not live forever though there are people who look to religion for an exception to this law. And we cannot change another person—not our partners, not our children, not our parents and not our friends. We can only change ourselves and then, in our imagination we can design the person we desire to become. Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapira, the Aish Kodesh, taught “teshuvah is our return to the person we have not yet been.”

So how will we do it? Actress Amy Poehler wrote, Our ability to navigate and tolerate change and its painful uncomfortableness directly correlates to our happiness and well-being.How will we navigate and tolerate change this year, in our personal lives, in our family lives, in our communal synagogue life; in our lives as Jews connected to Israel and connected to the Diaspora and connected to each other?

First, by not resisting the truth of gam zeh ya’avor. At the end of this past August, Brad Stulberg, the author of the book Master of Change: How to Excel When Everything Is Changing — Including You wrote a guest essay in the New York Times called “Stop Resisting Change.” He begins, “…so many people have fraught relationships with change. We deny it, resist it or attempt to control it — the result of which is almost always some combination of stress, anxiety, burnout and exhaustion. It doesnt have to be that way.”  He goes on to counsel that we “shift our default position from futile resistance to being in conversation with change.” Rather than being rigid, our healthy baseline should become a moving target. Homeostasis says healthy systems return to the same starting point following a change: X to Y back to X. But in contrast, he teaches allostasis, in which that stability turns out to be somewhere new: X to Y to Z.

Stuhlberg contends that the way to stay stable through the process of change is by changing. In other words, as he says, "If you want to hold your footing, youve got to keep moving.”

Second, we can learn from what Franciscan priest Richard Rohr has coined the “Wisdom Pattern”— order, disorder, reorder. That pattern, he says, is the growing pain of how we mature; the life-cycle of spiritual development. Order, disorder, reorder. Every healthy organization goers through this and every healthy family too. After disorder, there is no going back to the way things were — no one form of order, but rather, many forms of reorder. The world in front of us nothing like the world behind us.

Third, we can focus on what we can be sure of. Yes, death and taxes. But we can be sure of the moment we are in. We can be fully present in the now. In the month of Elul we recited Psalm 27 every day. I was always struck by verse 3:

בְּ֝זֹ֗את אֲנִ֣י בוֹטֵֽחַ׃

“In this I am secure.” What is the “this”? Only this moment; that is all I know and so I live it fully. Yes there is anxiety around me for what comes next; yes there is uncertainty and that brings anticipatory grief—maybe things won’t work out! Maybe things will get worse! בְּ֝זֹ֗את אֲנִ֣י בוֹטֵֽחַ׃—only in the now can I be sure, and so, I will.

And fourth, we can practice compassion. Compassion for ourselves and compassion for others as we strive to understand that all of us are going through some kind of transition at some point in our lives. You all know the quote attributed to Robin Williams, “Everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about. Be kind. Always.” Maybe it’s not exactly a battle but everyone is carrying something that is going on in their lives. We meet them and ourselves with patience, with forgiveness, acceptance, and love.

Gam zeh ya’avor: The Unetaneh Tokef prayer ends with paths toward reordering:  teshuva, tefila, and tzedakah—repentance, prayer, and charity. Rabbi Cheryl Weiner wrote, "When we find ourselves wandering and lost, teshuvah — turning and returning — has the power to reorient us… When change throws us off balance, tefillah helps us to regain our footing… When our hands curl inward to protect ourselves…tzedakah forces us to open our hands…”

Teshuva reminds us we can turn around and therefore we are not stagnant. Tefillah reminds us we can reach out to something Higher and therefore we are not alone. And tzedakah reminds us that we can remake the present and therefore approach the future with confidence.

The Hebrew word for year, shanah, shares its root letters with the Hebrew word for change, shinui, and the Hebrew word for different, shoneh. Each time we wish one another shanah tovah, we are wishing one another a good change. As the Brits say “well over the fast” perhaps we should be wishing one another “well over all the changes that will happen in all our lives this coming new year.” Gam zeh ya’avor: we actually all wear this ring though in different ways.

So God grant us the serenity to accept the things we cannot change, courage to change the things we can, and wisdom to know the difference.

G’mr Chatimah Tova. Shana Tova.

 

Yom Kippur 

What’s the difference between Brits and Jews? Brits leave without saying goodbye and Jews say goodbye without leaving.

I grew up with a mother who was always the last at the temple Friday night Oneg Shabbat, and maybe you did too.

It’s called “the Jewish goodbye.” We pick up another cookie, say goodbye, schmooze a little more, make future plans, say goodbye, call over another friend who is just leaving, catch up, say goodbye, take another cookieyou get the picture. On the final season of Curb Your Enthusiasm,Larry David introduced The Big Goodbye” — he would dodge a person for an entire evening and then make a grand parting gesture to them as he was leaving. You might be a member of the tribe, Dovidel, but this is not the way it’s done outside the Hollywood shtetl. The amount of time for a Jewish goodbye increases exponentially the more Jews try to leave.

Elissa Strauss wrote this beautiful analysis of the Jewish goodbye in The Forward: “there is no awkward small talk or vague vows to meet again, and it doesnt end with the conversation fizzling out and us shuffling apart. Instead, we rush to learn just a little more from one another, to tell each other how lovely it was to see their face and how we really wish it could happen more often. The duration of the goodbye is directly connected to the feeling of genuine affection between the parties parting—the longer it lasts the more we are blissing out on the magic of human connection.”

How much we missed that bliss of human connection over the pandemic years and how much longer now our goodbyes are because of that.

 

he Talmud in Berachot 31a tells us to say farewell with words of Torah, teaching the person you are leaving something new, to ensure that the friendship is remembered.

וְכֵן תְּנָא מָרִי בַּר בְּרֵיהּ דְּרַב הוּנָא בְּרֵיהּ דְּרַבִּי יִרְמְיָה בַּר אַבָּא: אַל יִפָּטֵר אָדָם מֵחֲבֵירוֹ אֶלָּא מִתּוֹךְ דְּבַר הֲלָכָה, שֶׁמִּתּוֹךְ כָּךְ זוֹכְרֵהוּ.

“And so Mari, the grandson of Rav Huna, son of Rabbi Yirmeya bar Abba, taught in a baraita: One should only take leave of another when discussing a matter of halakha, so that, consequently, you will remember them…” ; the commentary Eliyahu Zuta adds: “whenever you recall the one from whom you took leave, you will think fondly of them because of the new thing that they taught you.”

The Oxford English Dictionary says the origins of the word goodbye is actually a contraction of God be with you. Imagine if when we finally did say our goodbyes, we ended them with a blessing.

Once again the Talmud guides us. In Berachot 64a we read:

וְאָמַר רַבִּי אָבִין הַלֵּוִי: הַנִּפְטָר מֵחֲבֵרוֹ אַל יֹאמַר לוֹ ״לֵךְ בְּשָׁלוֹם״, אֶלָּא ״לֵךְ לְשָׁלוֹם״, שֶׁהֲרֵי יִתְרוֹ שֶׁאָמַר לוֹ לְמֹשֶׁה ״לֵךְ לְשָׁלוֹם״.

Rabbi Avin HaLevi said: One who takes leave from another should not say to them: Go in peace, but rather: Go to peace.

Go towards peace. May peace be the direction of your life, till we meet again.

That’s why I love the modern Hebrew l’hitraot- see you again. But it's pretty much been replaced by “Nu - Yalla - bye” a quickie slang made up of no Hebrew—a Yiddish Arabic English portmanteau–and sadly it short-changes us of the promise that we will still “bliss out on the magic of human connection” together one day.

We even say l’hitraot when we complete the study of a sacred text. At a siyum, a conclusion ceremony when one finishes studying an entire tractate of Talmud, there is a prayer which goes: Hadran alakh Masekhet _____…We will return to you, O Tractate ____ [fill in the name of the tractate], and you will return to us; our mind is on you, Tractate ____, and your mind is on us; we will not forget you, Tractate ____, and you will not forget us not in this world and not in the next world.

Of course I’ve been thinking about how one says goodbye these days. This summer I read a small book by Dr. Ira Byock, a doctor in palliative care, called The Four Things That Matter Most with a subtitle “A Book about Living.” In it he summarizes a lifetime of working with dying patients, teaching their families to say a good goodbye.

While his book is focused on deathbed goodbyes, what he teaches is deeply relevant and I think will resonate with all of us on Yom Kippur. Because in our lives there is always something that brings with it the need to say a meaningful goodbye. Your kids go off to college, or you leave a job, or your friend moves away. Camp ends or you graduate from university and the temporary communities you’ve built slowly dissipate and often without closure. You move to a new city or move out of your parents home or … you retire. There are the goodbyes that you choose to make. And there are the goodbyes that are thrust upon you. Either way, these Four Things, he teaches, make for a good goodbye.

The Four Things are:

Please forgive me

I forgive you

Thank you

I love you

 

11 words. 11 in gematria equals chag, or holy day. Today. 11 words. Byock calls this “stating the obvious.”

There is a traditional Hawaiian practice of repeating the mantra, “IM SORRY, PLEASE FORGIVE ME, THANK YOU, I LOVE YOU called Hooponopono which translates into English as “making things right”, and like the verbal confession we make three times over Yom Kippur—one during Kol Nidre, one this morning, and one again at Neilah—there is so much power in the spoken word, in stating the obvious, in the mantra of remorse, forgiveness, gratitude and love. The special haftarah for Shabbat Shuva, the Shabbat between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, has the prophet Hosea saying to us:

קְח֤וּ עִמָּכֶם֙ דְּבָרִ֔ים וְשׁ֖וּבוּ אֶל־יְהֹוָ֑ה

Take words with you on your return to Gd.

11 words, is all we need, to return to each other and to return to a spiritual grounding and centredness.

Please forgive me. To ask for forgiveness is to stand at your most embarrassing and most vulnerable. You must broach the barrier of “assumed impossibility”— you are sure they won’t forgive you, or they won’t want to have the conversation. To ask for forgiveness is to accept and admit that you are imperfect and still trying and so then is the person you have wronged. Human to human, across pride and anger and old grudges, with the words “please forgive me”, we change our relationship not only with the party we have wronged, but with ourselves.

I forgive you. Forgiveness is not exoneration. The transgression still happened —it’s just that we no longer live in it. The Rambam, Maimonides teaches in Hilchot Teshuva, the Laws of Repentance,  that we must ask for forgiveness three times, and then, if the person we’ve asked does not forgive us, the sin is on them—the sin of hardheartedness, the sin of not forgiving. With the words “I forgive you” we lighten our own burden.

Thank you. If the only prayer we ever say is Modim, that is enough. Thanking someone is an act of generosity. We know that expressing gratitude improves one-on-one relationships, but a new study by Sara Algoe of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill shows that even witnessing gratitude affects people’s feelings toward the grateful person and the recipient of the thanks. You know firsthand how special it is just to hear the Modims of congregants each Shabbat. With the words “thank you” we create a ripple effect that can actually change an entire social system. We loved reading the children’s book Because Brian Hugged His Mother with our kids; it tells the story of how just that one hug Brian gave his mom that one morning caused a chain reaction of human kindness all day long.

And, finally, I love you. Rabbi Dow Murmur of blessed memory once told me about a funeral where the husband is so distraught he almost throws himself on the casket. Rabbi Murmur tried to calm the man down but the man turns to him crying and says “you don’t understand Rabbi! I loved her so much I almost told her!” Saying I love you also shows our vulnerability—what if your loved one doesn’t say it back? I know we are all into the “5 love languages” of author Gary Chapman—and there is much to be said for the other 4— quality time, gifts, acts of service and physical touch—but what he calls “words of affirmation” or the simple phrase “I love you” can, as the prophet Hosea suggested, bring us back on a return not only to a friend or a love one but to a more centred and aligned relationship with just about everyone else.

Dr. Byock concludes his book with this statement: “It is always too soon until it’s too late."

With that in mind, on this holiest day of the day, although it feels too soon for me to get personal, please allow me. Although this is not my last sermon—I am very much still here and I am very much still at City Shul until June and I will give many other sermons and divrei Torah and I look forward to many personal conversations with you throughout this year— still I feel the weight of this moment, of this our last Yom Kippur together as your rabbi and my congregation.

And so, I want to say these four things to you because although we will have a “good goodbye” together in June, as Dr. Byock said, “it is never too soon”.

So, dear friends:

Please forgive me. Ronald Heifetz and Marty Linsky in a book called Leadership on the Line wrote, Leadership is disappointing your own people at a rate they can absorb.I’m sorry for the times when I was abrupt, or impatient. Forgive me for the times I forgot to ask how you are before asking you to do something. For the times I didn’t visit you when you were ill. For the times I messed up and gave away your honour. For the times I dismissed your concerns or misunderstood why you wanted something so badly. Forgive me for the times I was rigid and the times my standards hurt you.

And I forgive you. I forgive those who had beautiful life cycle events and then left the synagogue saying thanks, but we dont need you anymore.I forgive you for not always remembering that my job does not include tech support and air conditioning and kitchen logistics and where you left your book. I forgive you for telling me about anonymous critics— “people are saying”. And I forgive those who need me— and my while family— to be on a pedestal at all times, because we just can’t.

And Thank you. For being part of the most wonderful experiment that worked. For catching me when I jumped off the cliff 13 years ago and said “hey, wanna start a shul?” Thank you for trusting me to bury your loved ones and name your babies and push your 13 year olds hard and make them come to shul enough to be a real part of a real community. And thank you for staying after that important day to attest that a synagogue is more than a BMitzvah factory. Thank you for not being overly critical when my sermon wasn’t such a home-run. Thank you most of all for letting me “rabbi”, for allowing me the privilege of being the marah d’atrah, the religious authority who knows enough to make the hard Jewish religious decisions. Thank you for being the kind of synagogue that makes other Rabbis jealous.

And yes, finally—I love you. I love every one of you equally, but some more than others (just kidding.) On Rosh Hashana I introduced you to my homiletics professor (homiletics: the art of preaching) Rabbi Lenny Kravitz (not the singer, again) who had many aphorisms that have stayed with me throughout my career. Here is one more: “If you’re going to be a Rabbi, you have to love Jews as much as you love Judaism, and that’s not easy.” I love loud pushy Jews (after all, I am one from New York) and I love all the non-Jewish partners who support them in their Jewish journeys. I love the non-Jews who chose to become Jewish and take the rigorous process seriously and then comfortably take their seats at the table of Jewish identity. I love those just putting one toe into shul life or Jewish study and those who dive in head first, the ones who walk in line day and the next day are head ushers! I love the seekers and non-believers and skeptics who come anyway and I love those who, like Jacob in Genesis 28, found Gd was in this place and did not know it:

אָכֵן֙ יֵ֣שׁ יְהֹוָ֔ה בַּמָּק֖וֹם הַזֶּ֑ה וְאָנֹכִ֖י לֹ֥א יָדָֽעְתִּי׃

I love the diehard Conservative Jews who joined a Reform synagogue. I love all of you who came with me to Israel and Jewish India and China and South Africa and let me teach Torah through travel, and by the way I intend to continue leading trips and will always invite you to come on them. I love you and all the people like you who have been the reason I have loved being a Rabbi  for 40 years and I will continue to love it for the rest of my life.

11 words. Stating the obvious. Hooponopono. Making things right. קְח֤וּ עִמָּכֶם֙ דְּבָרִ֔ים וְשׁ֖וּבוּ אֶל־יְהֹוָ֑ה

Taking words with us on our return.

Please forgive me

I forgive you

Thank you

I love you

Yom Kippur is the time to adopt the four things that matter most as this year’s goal. As Rabbi David Wolpe said, “…the point of Yom Kippur is to remind you as forcefully as possible that you don’t have forever.” This day challenges us to remember— we still have time to do something about our lives. There is never too soon. There is only too late.

May we strive to say these things which matter most to those who matter most; those still with us in this world and even those still with us but in the next world. קְח֤וּ עִמָּכֶם֙ דְּבָרִ֔ים וְשׁ֖וּבוּ אֶל־יְהֹוָ֑ה

May we take these words with us on our return this year. And may the world be full of words of forgiveness, gratefulness, and love. And then, may we will all go towards peace.

Shana Tova, Gmar Chatimah Tova

Tue, February 27 2024 18 Adar I 5784