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High Holidays 2018 Sermons

Rosh Hashana

Rabbi Elyse Goldstein

What Went Right

Just a few days ago our Leadership Team let me know the good news— that shul attendance rose dramatically at the end of August. The bad news is— I was away on vacation the end of August!

Just kidding…but it is, in reality, mostly a good news/bad news life we’ve been given. Like the man who decided to jump from an airplane who had a parachute. But it didnt work. But there was a haystack down below. But there was a pitchfork in the haystack. But he missed the pitchfork. But then, he missed the haystack.

That’s it in a nutshell friends—simcha follows sorrow and sorrow follows simcha and so it rolls on and on, and it feels so mixed up so much of the time.

Rick Warren, the pastor of Saddleback church in California who wrote the best-seller The Purpose-Driven Church upon which I am modeling City Shul, became wealthy and famous almost overnight from that book. But shortly after, his wife Kay was diagnosed with an incurable cancer and his son, battling depression, tragically committed suicide.

In an interview about this he says, “Life is a series of problems: either you are in one now, or youre just coming out of one, or youre getting ready to go into another one…I believe that [life] is kind of like two rails on a railroad track, and that at all times you have something good and something bad in your life.”

This is Hagar’s life in today’s Torah portion, and she has something to teach us. Driven from her home, left alone in the desert with her son and no water, she waits under a bush hoping for water to stay alive.

And then:

וַתִּשָּׂ֥א אֶת־קֹלָ֖הּ וַתֵּֽבְךְּ׃- she raised up her voice and wept.

And right after that—

וַיִּפְקַ֤ח אֱלֹהִים֙ אֶת־עֵינֶ֔יהָ וַתֵּ֖רֶא בְּאֵ֣ר מָ֑יִם

God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water.

By the way, in tomorrow’s Torah reading, Abraham will also lift up his eyes and see what he needs:

יִּשָּׂ֨א אַבְרָהָ֜ם אֶת־עֵינָ֗יו וַיַּרְא֙ וְהִנֵּה־אַ֔יִל אַחַ֕ר נֶאֱחַ֥ז בַּסְּבַ֖ךְ בְּקַרְנָ֑יו

When Abraham looked up, he saw a ram, caught in the thicket by its horns.

וַיִּפְקַ֤ח אֱלֹהִים֙ אֶת־עֵינֶ֔יהָ...and God opened her eyes, Pokeach: the same word we use in the morning blessing- pokeach ivrim—Praised are You, who opens the eyes of the blind.

Because pain blinds us. We only see the trains going one way. And when that happens, pokeach ivrim—God commands us to lift up those heavy, tired, burning, exhausted eyes and look again.

Because if I lift up my eyes, I might see the well. If I lift up my eyes I might see the one drop of water that will save someone’s life. If I lift up my eyes, I might see the ram caught in the thicket and untie its horns and set it free and then, it can redeem me.

Now, this command to lift up our eyes in order to see the well is not a pollyanna everything’s hunky-dory “be an optimist” “accentuate the positive” command.

Of course, there is often real “bad” in our lives. To lift one’s eyes is to find the one good thing that remains or is created or is there all the time, and it is an act of self-liberation.

On this command to lift her eyes, Ibn Ezra, the 12th century commentator, says about Hagar:

קודם לכך נתן בה דעת להכיר מקום מים שהיה שם

G-d gave her the wisdom to recognize the water that was already there, for she had not seen it before.

The 15th century commentator Abarbanel writes this beautiful and profound comment on our verse:

שלשון פקח נאמר בפסוק הזה על הגלות ידיעה לא על ראות עין. וכונתו היתה מה שזכרתי שהעיר השם את הגר עד שחקר' בלבה ודרשה ומצאה הבאר

The word pokeach is used here for the opening of consciousness, not for the mere seeing of a well. The intention was that God is awakening Hagar so that she would search her heart to seek the well, and only then she found it.

God did not create the well at just that moment; it wasn’t a miracle that God took the dry desert and turned it into an oasis. Rather, the well existed there from all time, but Hagar could not see it in the midst of her pain.

Some of us find the looking up extremely easy—our lives right now are going along swimingly and filled with simchas, trains going in only that direction. But even those lucky enough to have a fully great year look at our environment, and politics both here and south of us, and the world in general and say—it has not been a great year for Planet Earth or for humanity.

Some of us find the loooking up extremely difficult—our lives right now are trains all going in the opposite direction— real disasters, unbelievable losses, the literally worst days of our lives— tragic deaths, illnesses, parents or children whose lives are disintegrating in front of us, emotional or physical abuse, incapacitating antisemitism or racism or sexism or homophobia or transphobia, losing physical independence. All these losses keep our eyes down so we do not see the well.

And the hard truth is, some of us choose to keep our eyes down purposely because we are afraid to let go of the anger, afraid to be without our disappointment and our anxiety—because these are a way of holding on to that which we once had. We know that if we look up and see the well, if we actually see the ram which will redeem us, we may lose sight of the pain as it moves into the distance, the pain that has defined us, the pain that has animated us, the pain that still links us to our past.

Most of us, however, live somewhere in the middle, between those two tracks bringing joy and bringing sorrow, and that is why this command is so critical.

And so, on this holy day, I want to introduce us to something from the lexicon of traditional Judaism that will help us look up to see the well. It is a middah—a character trait or soul-work we need to do—and it is called “hakarat hatov” in Hebrew, which means “acknowledging the good.”

Hakarat hatov is not about saying thank you but it leads to saying thank you. It is not gratitude itself but the first step towards gratitude because it creates a certain mindset. It is not the Modim moment, as beautiful as that is here at City Shul. Hakarat hatov is the moment before Modim, the moment we recognize what went right.

Appreciation is the outward expression of recognizing what went right, but the essence of hakarat hatov is the inner recognition itself, and that is what changes us. Because hakarat hatov—seeing what went right— is about the impact on the one who sees it, not on the one who receives thanks for it.

So strong is this middah of hakarat hatov that we are commanded not to hate the Egyptians who enslaved us because we actually did receive some hospitality from some Egyptians.

On Pesach the middah of hakarat hatov takes over when we sing Dayeinu—fifteen acts of Divine kindness, each of which would have been enough to warrant our acknowledging the good by itself.

And this middah extends to inanimate objects as well as people. A story is told of the late Rabbi Yisrael Zeev Gustman, head of Yeshivat Netzach Yisrael in Jerusalem, who used to water the bushes in front of the yeshivah every day himself, refusing to let the gardener or maintenance staff do it—because when fleeing Vilna, he had hidden behind some bushes and felt a debt of gratitude to plants.

Hakarat Hatov—Even though my kids are exhausting and aggravating me, I have kids… Hakarat Hatov—Even though I lost my car keys, I have a car… Even though I am sitting through an outdoor wedding in the pouring rain, the food at the indoor reception looks lovely. Even though I am siting shiva for a loved one, I had a beautiful moment with an old friend.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks writes “Jewish prayer is an ongoing seminar in hakarat hatov.” We begin the service with birkot ha-shachar, the morning blessings, and each one is an acknowledgment of at least one thing that went right so far today: we opened our eyes, we stood up, we got dressed, we are free, we are part of a historic community, we are not alone.

Why then, is it so hard to practice hakarat hatov, to find what went right?

I think we have two major obstacles.

The first: we humans actually like to complain. There’s something in our brains called negativity bias or the negativity effect. Our brains are simply built with a greater sensitivity to the unpleasant so that things of a more negative nature have a greater effect on our psychological state than neutral or positive things. As a result, we like to concentrate on identifying and analyzing a problem rather than finding a solution, or finding the right person to help us find the solution. We think complaining about something is doing something about it, that dissatisfaction equals action. I saw a great New Yorker cartoon once with two women sitting in a restaurant over a glass of wine, one saying to the other “Im not ready to change my life; Im really happy in the complaining stage.

We Jews, to be honest, can be experts at this. We play the “whose tsuris is worse?” game. It’s like the waiter in a kosher restaurant who goes from table to table asking “Excuse me, is anything ok?” A midrash in Shemot Rabbah tells the story of two Israelites crossing the Red Sea to freedom after slavery, complaining about how muddy the bottom of the sea that has just parted for them is. Remember how much we complained about the manna—the manna, which tasted however a person wanted it to taste, a food that came at no cost without any effort to prepare; low cholesterol, high fiber, gluten free, vegan, non-fattening – it literally rained down from heaven. Yet the Israelites said: “isn’t there anything else to eat?”

The second obstacle: we are so blessed and yet we often feel, in a word, entitled. Most of us have never experienced war, imprisonment, torture, famine; we are able to freely practice our religion without fear, there is food in our refrigerators, we can read and write, we have shoes, a bed, a roof above our heads; we are better off than 75% of people in this world yet, we wonder—why does everyone else have it so good, so much better, so much easier than me?

We all know people who fit the description of entitled—the student who expects a good grade without putting in the effort; the friend who always expects you to be available but is never there for you; the family member who expects to be waited on by everyone else. In an article by Joshua Grubbs in Psychology Today the author posits that a sense of entitlement inevitably ends in disappointment, emotional suffering, and self-protecting cocooning. He notes that not even God gets a free pass when expectations of entitlement are violated. Most of us, he writes, carry some expectation that life will be fair, that our car won't break down, that we'll have a steady income, that we'll be healthy and live till we're 90. While we can wish for these things, but we are not “entitled” to any of them.

So friends, let me end with three ways to hone the character trait of hakarat hatov, of finding what went right in an effort to look up and see the wells which will nourish us. I’ll use three metaphors from photography because, hey, I have an iphone camera and I know how to use it.

First, zoom in.

There is a story told about the famous violinist Itzhak Perlman. One concert, just as he finished the first few bars of the first movement, one of the strings on his violin snapped. He could have stopped and replaced the string to begin again. But, instead, he waited a moment and then signaled the conductor to pick up where they had left off. Perlman played his solo part with just three strings. Zooming in away from the audience, he rearranged his solo on the spot in his head. At the end of the piece he said to the audience: ”You know, sometimes it is our task to find out how much beautiful music you can still make with the 3 strings you have left.”

Perlman was able to zoom in.

Second, zoom out. This summer, Baruch and I were privleged to visit some castles in the Loire valley. We saw tapestries that up close looked coarse and poorly made. But when we took a step back, we could appreciate the whole, impressive picture.

A story is told of 3 stonecutters working in King Solomon’s quarry. Each was busy doing exactly the same thing— cutting a block of stone. The king asked the first worker what he was doing. “I am doing my work!” he said. The king then turned to the second stonecutter and asked him what he was doing. “I am cutting a block of stone to make sure that its square, so that it will fit exactly in its place in a wall.” The king then turned to the third stonecutter. He seemed to be the happiest of the three and when asked what he was doing he replied: “Me? I am building the Temple.”

That stone cutter was able to zoom out.

And third, change the angle. In Modena Italy, at the restauarnt Osteria Francescana —voted one of the Top 5 restaurants in the world—3 Michelin Star Chef Massimo Bottura and his staff were about to serve the last 2 lemon tarts to the last 2 customers seated together, when the pastry chef accidentally dropped one of the tarts right in front of Chef Massimo. In shock, he watched half of the lemon tart fall to the floor, while the other half remained on the plate, smashed into pieces.

The pastry chef contemplates suicide as he looks up from the fallen tart into the eyes of this 3-star Michelin chef.

At that moment, the chef shouts “Wait! Look! Thats incredible! Come over here and look! Look at that tart from my perspective!”

He quickly brings the pastry chef over to show him what he sees from his eyes: a beautifully, creatively and imaginatively deconstructed lemon tart. They name it “Oops, I dropped the lemon tart” –and it is now Osteria Francescana’s most famous signature desert that people travel all over the world to experience.

The chef was able to change the angle.

Now I’d like City Shul to play a part in helping each of us zoom in, zoom out, change the angle and find “what went right.” As a spiritual exercise, as a microcosm of our lives, and as a place of inspiration where it’s safe to try, I am going to ask you to do two things.

First, outside the doors you have seen or will see a poster board with the question “what went right?” Please take a moment after services to share something on the board about this service or this holiday or this time of the year. If you don’t have time or can’t or don’t want to do it today, email me at and it will go on the board for next week so when we walk into services we will have an inspiration for the practice of hakarat hatov right here at City Shul.

Second, this sermone has a party favour. I’m going to offer you a bracelet for the New Year. Yep, I have 400 of these. Let me tell you the story of my hakarat hatov bracelets.

In 2006, Will Bowen, head minister at One Community Spiritual Center in Kansas City, Mo., decided to challenge his congregation to go 21 days without complaining. He gave out about 200 purple silicon bracelets that said “Complaint Free World” and told his congregation that every time they complained, they should switch the bracelet from their right wrist to their left wrist, and see how many times they needed to switch over the course of 21 days.

He wanted to lead his church to be a “no complaints zone” and in fact, he created a movement. Now of course, millions of purple bracelets later, on Oprah and Dr. Oz, five self-help “Stop Complaining” books, his own website and Motivational Speaking series, Will Bowen is a very wealthy man with few complaints.

But that is not my goal. I want to turn around that negative messaging—that it’s not ok ever to criticize or complain—and turn it into the positive Jewish middah of hakarat hatov, finding what went right. So, the 10 days between RH and YK will be our challenge, and you do not have to change wrists. All you have to do is wear this blue and white bracelet for 10 days as a mindfulness opportunity to find what went right each day. The bracelet asks “What Went Right Today?” in English and has the Hebrew words of the middah “Hakarat Hatov”. For those who wish, please take one on your way out to wear and participate in this exercise. Then please—I’d love to hear from you after Yom Kippur about how it felt.

The horns of the ram remain stuck when the ram keeps its head down, entangling those horns again and again. The shofar call reminds us to raise our heads, raise our eyes, and see the good, no matter how small it may seem in the large scheme of everything, no matter how far away it appears, and no matter how stuck in the thicket it seems to be. Shana Tova.


Ron Vine


A Minister, a Priest and a Rabbi walk into a bar. Looking out I get that youve all heard this one before. I wonder though, what makes this joke work?

Before the joke, I ask you to just try to get a sense of the setting where this joke takes place. I mean, it cant just be a dark lonely, seedy place where three clergy hang out all by themselves. If youre a fan of cinéma youll know that all of the interesting bars are crowded, with flashy strobe lights, dancers all around, and sometimes a back room with high stakes poker games and cigar smoke. But, we can also assume, our Rabbi wouldnt be telling jokes in this type of bar.

And it cant just be a regular mixed bar, because, in reality, most people would feel awkward going up to somebody in a bar and finding out they had spent twenty minutes smiling and winking to gain the attention of a rabbi or a priest.

But even before we get inside, Im left to wonder, where is this bar.

Obviously there is only one reason why we dont see the Rabbis, the Ministers and the Priests lined up in the Entertainment district on a Thursday night; these must be secret buildings, in the middle of all the other clubs, cloaked behind a wall of invisibility, which we, the ordinary mortals cannot see. Like Harry Potter, there is a secret incantation that clergy receive when they are ordained, that allows them to gain access to these famous bars without being seen. Inside there is a wealth of both joke telling and intellectual conversation.

Oops, I took too long and I need to get to the Akida story, but I promise you that I come back to this joke later. The Akida, the story of the sacrifice of Issac by his father Abraham is a story that is both challenging and troubling , in that we have very flawed characters in a story that is supposed to tell us about a devotion to

G-d, but, as weve heard every year in this Congregation, brings us face to face with troubling characters, a man willing to sacrifice his beloved son , his wife casting her handmaid and her son to die in the desert, Issac himself who never protests, Hagar and Ishmael who are supposed to accept their fate by being born into a lower Social class. And there are the substories of barrenness, and isolation, otherness and the marginalization of childrens voices that our congregants Sandy, Richard, Jonathan, Randy and Noa have so brilliantly brought to your attention in the last five years we have come together at City Shul.

With these flaws, I ask you this question, as the foundational story of the Jewish people, what makes this story work? As a child I was told it was a story of devotion. G-d is testing Abraham, rewarding Sarah, listening to the cries of Hagar and promising her that her son Ishmael will also lead a great nation. But as an adult I discovered that I was not alone in finding that this story disturbed me greatly. It did not make many of us feel a devotion to G-d. Nor, in researching some of the thousands of dvars by the greatest rabbis, did I find that they too find this story “untroubling”. Leonard Cohens words echo in my mind.

Thought I saw an eagle

But it might have been a vulture,

I never could decide.

Then my father built an altar,

He looked once behind his shoulder,

He knew I would not hide.

You who build these altars now

To sacrifice these children,

You must not do it anymore.

Id like to suggest, like Leonard Cohen does, that we ask what makes this story work.

Id like to suggest that what makes this story works is the same thing that makes my initial joke work. We begin with a belief that the Minister, The Rabbi and the Priest are pious. We begin with a belief that Sarah and Hagar, Ishmael and Issac, Abraham, are all pious. They all have a strong relationship with G-d in this story, and G-d spoke to Sarah, G-d asked Hagar, G-d commanded Abraham. In all the criticisms Ive heard of this story, Ive never heard anyone suggest that these characters were not pious.

That, we might need to give a definition of the word pious. I found that in Hebrew there were at least six words used to define Pious. The first is Heredi, commonly defined as Orthodox or righteous. Now perhaps that word would resonate better with me if there were not a group in Israel who take this label to deny the rights of others. In their view of their own righteousness, they have used their influence to deny woman even a piece of the wall, thrown stones at people who dress inappropriately in their eyes, and forced woman to stay in impossible marriages through their control of divorce laws. They have rejected conversions performed by any other than their own rabbis. I find it difficult to see “ piousnessas something by which you judge others, versus something you judge in yourself.

Another term, Hered, was defined as fearful, afraid. There are numerous places in the Torah where we are given visions of a G-d who is thunderous and scary. But to me, the attraction to Theology should be based on reverence, not fear. Not to follow for fear of punishment, but because of a belief in individual or communal values.

Third term, Dati, means devout, religious. This assumes that all you need to do is follow the rules, that getting a list from your Rabbi is enough. I would suggest that just following the rules is not enough. re must be an intention behind them. By pairing the words religious and devout, we make impossible comparisons, for I believe piousness is internal and fluid. We would do well, not to judge other people, even Rabbis, by our own, ever changing and internally beautiful lists of expectations.

The term Zadik is often used, or the adjective Zadook. Upright or Godly. The beauty about Jewish heros and heroines in the Torah is that they are flawed. They are not perfect. They are human. I think it is great to acknowledge the positive contributions people make to our community, our country, our future generations. We do have a human tendency to idolize other people. But once we label a person as ‘Zadikwe are labelling others as not. And for members of marginalized groups within the Jewish family, this can often be isolating and demeaning.

Final term was Yrei Shmiem. Interpreted as reverent and god fearing. I do love the use of the word Shmiem, heaven. But I think reverence, looking up to the heavens and perhaps being fearful of G-d does not have the strength that creating Godliness in yourself has.

To give an example of creating Godliness, I want to share with you a special person I met at my first Kallah, a week long Jewish retreat from Kolel. Terry Goldstein, of blessed memory, our Rabbis mother, actually taught me alot about piousness. Terry's deep convictions, talents, and relationship with her own piousness created the conditions where any woman would not accept barriers in Judaism. She was proud that in her home, she created the conditions where both of her daughters could be whatever they set out to be. In her lifetime she worked tirelessly to create the conditions for all Jewish children to achieve their desires and their dreams, barrier free, and she was an example for me of a Reform Jew who was truly “pious."

G-d. Not be Godly. Not interpret G-d. Not question others beliefs in G-d. But in your deeds and actions, in your heart, awake or asleep, do G-d.

So I suggest there are three aspects to Piousness. The first is intention, and this can be done in many ways. Torah study, attending services, donating money without expecting rewards, or with singing or meditation or dance. Jay Michaelson writes in “G-d In Your Body

“Sometimes embodied activities like dancing, -ecstatically, elegantly, joyfully, intimately- are so familiar that we dont notice their religious potential. Of course, everyone has danced at weddings, and most have danced at concerts or clubs. Some have danced at Churches or Synagogues, a few even in the streets. Yet how many have joined these physical acts with the spiritual aspirations of King David, Miriam and the other holy dancers of the Bible – or their Hasidic descendants. How many have approached it what as it is : a quintessentially Jewish, ecstatic mystical practice.”

And we get this opportunity here, by the way, when we dance during Neilah, the closing service on Yom Kippur. If you havent danced with us during Neilah, I highly recommend it.

The second is doing G-d. Our Rabbi, no Rabbi, can give you the answers on how to do this. Judaism does not give you the answers. But it can help you to find which questions to ask. This year, approach the Rabbi, not to criticize something youve heard, not to share stories youve heard about another congregant, not to flatter her on her brilliant sermon, not to ask her to resolve your struggles, because in life we are all faced with the inevitable consequences of being human. But ask her to help you to come up with the questions you can ask yourself, as you define your own definition of piousness. I promise you, in doing so you will connect with her true brilliance and profoundery, and with your own.

Rabbi Goldstein offers us a tremendous opportunity to be face to face with G-d, at the end of Yom Kippour services, where individuals are offered the chance to face the open ark, face the Torahs, take all the time they want with this space, and be silent with their personal relationship with G-d. I promise you that you will never forget this experience, this offering Rabbi Goldstein extends to her entire congregation.

Help to create the conditions for others to achieve their dreams. Break out of your own comfort zone and get to know as many members of our community as you can. Sit and talk with a variety of people and learn their stories. Looking into their eyes you will find many with the veracity, the warmth and the determination that I found when I looked into the smiling eyes of Terri Goldstein. I promise you that your life will become richer with each person you get to know, flaws and all. Get to know one another, dont put up cloaks of invisibility.

When I think about that pious Priest the Minister and Rabbi walking into a bar, and I think about Abrahams “ piousness” in todays parsha, I think differently about the role models they are.

This is what the Akedah teaches me and how it challenges me: to define

my own piousness, to try and “do G-d” and to be part of City Shuls dream, to create a loving and a real community. Shana Tova.


Noa Wyman

I've grown up coming to City Shul high holiday services, and before that Kolel. From what I can remember, from my earliest days of paying attention, almost all of the Devrei Torah for today’s parsha of the birth of Yitzchak and the subsequent banishment of Hagar and Ishmael come from one of only two perspectives. I have heard a lot about either Sarah, or Hagar. I've heard a lot about their experiences as mothers, as women in the Torah where women are so seldom given a voice. I've heard a lot of interpretations about what we need to infer about how they think and behave and what may or may not be motivating their actions. These are incredibly important perspectives, but I have to admit that I have a hard time really relating to either one. I'm not a mother - hey, the first time City Shul had high holiday services, I was only 12. At this point in the service, I'm usually sitting next to my dad, braiding his tzitzit.

I can't relate to the parents in this story on what it means to be a parent, because I'm still so much closer to their children.

The lead up to this dvar for me personally began at that first City Shul Rosh Hashanah service what I realized that I see myself more in Ishmael than in anyone else in this parsha. Ishmael is 14 when this all goes down - when his half brother is born, when Sarah sees something she doesn't like, and when he and his mother are ultimately banished into the desert. I think it's time to hear this story from the perspective of the kids in it.

I was a camp counsellor this summer and I learned one thing for sure, when you live in close proximity with other people for a long period of time, you get pretty close. Sarah, Hagar, Avraham, and Ishmael live in extremely close proximity. They are a small family unit who live in the desert in an era not just pre social media or phones - but pre reliable distant communication of any kind. This family would have been at the very least physically close, out of necessity and circumstance. So how does Ishmael feel about all this? I know, I know, he gets a great nation too. But this isn't about the long term gain, this is about the fact that his father banishes him and his mother. He is kicked out of his home, in some interpretations for something he did, in others simply for existing. Ishmael should be able to celebrate the birth of a brand new brother, but instead, he is put through the emotional trauma of being exiled from his home, the severity of which I don't think should be downplayed.

Let's start with some background on Ishmael. Well into her seventies, Sarah still hasn't had any children. Knowing that in order for Avraham's children to be a great nation he needs children first, she encourages him to marry her servant Hagar. The child that Avraham and Hagar have is Avraham's first son, Ishmael. When at age ninety Sarah gives birth to Yitzchak, tension arises between her and Hagar.

This rocky relationship eventually leads to the banishment of Ishmael and Hagar. We read that Sarah saw Ishmael "מְצַחֵק", which directly translates to playing or making sport. Sarah doesn't like what she sees, and urges Avraham to send Ishmael away. What's so bad about Ishmael making sport though? The key is in the implications of the word. Flashing forward in the torah, Yitzchak is all grown up and married to Rivka, and there's a famine. He moves to the land of Avimelech - the same guy his father is making treaties with at the end of today's parsha. While there, he tells everyone that Rivka is his sister. People buy the story for a while, until Avimelech sees them "מְצַחֵק", making sport, and realizes they must be married. Here, the word is understood to have sexual connotations. If we take the connotation there and apply it to what we read today, then perhaps Sarah catches Ishmael engaged in some kind of sexual activity, and this is why she wants him exiled. Rashi goes as far as to suggest he was preying on Isaac, and this is why Sarah's judgement is so harsh. On the other hand, the twelfth century scholars Rashbam and Abraham Ibn Ezra suggest that Ishmael wasn't doing anything particularly bad, but was simply playing like all young men do. They suggest that Sarah was jealous of Ishmael being older than her own son, and feared he might contend with Yitzchak for his inheritance. Rashi also suggests that the language used implies idolatry, sexual impropriety, or murder, but Rabbi Shimon ben Eleazar argues that Avraham would not have made the parenting errors to give his son these ideals. Yet another explanation, from Nahmanides, says that Sarah saw Ishmael making fun of Yitchak, and given that he was the son of a servant, she worried about the power imbalance possibly getting “re-balanced: in Ishmael’s favour, so asked for him to be banished. In short, we don't really know what Ishmael did. The ambiguity as to the severity of his crime makes his banishment sit even less comfortably with me.

I don't want it to have been easy for Avraham to banish his son. We don't get a lot of insight into Avraham's thought process, but we do read, "וַיֵּרַע הַדָּבָר מְאֹד, בְּעֵינֵי אַבְרָהָם, עַל, אוֹדֹת בְּנוֹ", "And the thing was very grievous in Abraham's sight on account of his son." I spent my summer taking care of 14 year olds. 14 year olds are most definitely real people, with their own distinct thoughts and opinions. At 14, we have formed deep bonds with our guardians and care givers, but we still need those care givers. Ishmael would have had an intense family bond with Avraham. At 13, he was circumcised as part of Avraham's covenant with g-d. When Avraham dies, Ishmael returns to bury him with Yitchak. Until this moment, and after this moment, all the evidence points to Ishmael being very close with his family, but in what's probably his most memorable appearance in the Torah, he is removed from them. Avraham is essentially asked to sacrifice his son, by turning him away to an uncertain fate in the desert wilderness, and he does. While there isn't a consensus among Muslim scholars, some, including Shaykh `Abd al Wahhab al Najjar, have suggested that the son we read about tomorrow, who Avraham is asked to sacrifice on the mountain, isn't actually Yitchak, but Ishmael. The child brought up the mountain as a possible sacrifice isn't actually ever named, neither in the Torah nor in the Quran. In Jewish tradition, we accept this child to be Yitzchak, but I'd like to draw a parallel between what we read today, and what we read tomorrow. In both parshiot, Avraham is asked to sacrifice a son, Yitzchak on the mountain, and Ishmael in the desert. The key point in the story of the akedah is that Yitzchak ultimately isn't sacrificed. In the Hebrew school explanation I was always taught, Avraham is ultimately a good father, despite his apparent willingness to kill Yitzchak. Maybe it's just too challenging to teach young kids moral ambiguity, but Avraham was always painted to me as a loving and caring father, who is asked by g-d to make an impossible decision. I was always taught that his faith in g-d made this decision possible, because he knew from the beginning that he would be stopped, and no harm would come to Yitzchak. Avraham doesn't get the same reprieve today though. He has to go through with the banishment of Ishmael. In the desert, Ishmael and Hagar are on the verge of dying of thirst, when Hagar places Ishmael beneath a shrub so she doesn't need to watch her son die. As she cries, an angel comes, promises her that Ishmael too will be a great nation, and then opens her eyes to see water. Just like what we read tomorrow, an angel comes, and saves Avraham's son from death at the last moment, but Ishmael doesn't get the same happy ending. He doesn't get to go down the mountain with his father. He doesn't get to return home. He doesn't die, but does Avraham know that he'll be saved by an angel? Does his faith in g-d tell him that no harm will come to Ishmael and Hagar? Does he get the same redemption arc today as he will tomorrow?

The take away from the Akedah is pretty clear: don't sacrifice your children. I think the take away from today's sacrifice of Ishmael should be similar - don't sacrifice your children, emotionally or physically. "Sacrificing" a relationship with a teenager isn't just sending them into the desert, it's forgetting that we are real people, with unique thoughts and perspectives. It's letting us sacrifice our relationship with Judaism and community when we turn thirteen, and think we've "graduated". Dear thirteen year old me - you haven't graduated from Judaism. You don't have all the answers to all the hard questions, and you aren't allowed to stop wrestling with difficult concepts.

Ultimately, my biggest challenge in this parsha is how to accept that Sarah and Avraham banish Ishmael and Hagar from their home and from their family. I feel like I've grown out of the simplistic positive light I used to be able to see these characters in, and I haven't yet grown into being comfortable with what feels like a lot of moral grey area. I'm a teenager, so I'm pretty used to growing pains, but I don't know that getting older is necessarily going to fix this one. I remember being Ishmael's age very clearly, and I think the one of greatest dangers of growing up is forgetting that children and teenagers have a unique and no less important or developed view of the world.

Growing up means coming to terms with the fact that no one, not even your parents, are perfect. I can't yet relate to the perspectives of Sarah and Hagar as mothers, but I also can't relate to my eight year old self anymore who thought Avraham and Sarah could do no wrong.

Teenagers mess up, and that's part of growing. We make mistakes, and we regret our decisions, and we grow from them, so maybe that puts us in a unique position to forgive others for their mistakes. We are hormonal creatures, and we may look like adults, but we aren't. A 14 year old Ishmael did something, and it doesn't matter exactly what, but something he probably regretted. He was banished from his family and community in a way that he couldn't possibly have anticipated. I think if I were Ishmael, I would want us to learn from his story just as much as we do from the Akedah about how to treat and respect children. I would want the take away to be that when you forget the complex relationships teenagers have with the world around them - much like our commentators do when talking about Ishmael - you sacrifice deep and meaningful relationships.

And teenagers - when we forget that sometimes adults need a little help to understand our perspectives, we sacrifice our voice.

We revisit this story every year because it means different things to us at different stages in our lives. Every year, we see something new that we haven't seen before, that's growth. I know that most people here today are older and wiser than I am, but I hope I've been able to bring a unique lens to how all of us look at today's parsha.




















Kol Nidre/ Yom Kippur

Rabbi Elyse Goldstein

The Torah of Imperfection - Kol Nidre

A Rabbi was once preaching a sermon on no one being perfect. To prove her point she asked for anyone who was perfect to please stand up. A few minutes pass and finally one man stands up in the middle of the congregation. The Rabbi asks, “So, you really think you are perfect?" The man replies, "Oh no! I'm not perfect. I'm standing up on behalf of my wife's first husband, who apparently was!

Now, I share this joke as a recovering perfectionist. The other perfectionists in this room will relate to that moment when the pleasure of an event gets erased by a criticism, or the rolling eyes of a teenager, or the self-inflicted wounds of the one thing you forgot to mention. Why, while I’m saying that very sentence I’m hearing in my head what did I forgot to mention before the Rosh Hashanah announcements…

Being a perfectionist isnt about things being perfect; it's about thinking things need to be perfect and always pursuing that unattainable goal. And here’s the first problem with perfectionism: Because perfectionists judge their internal essence and worth against other people, a lot of the time perfectionists feel inadequate, unappreciated, and frustrated. Perfectionists get competitive and judgmental of those who fall short. Inner feelings of satisfaction are always temporary, because it could have been better.

And, compared to my sermon on Rosh Hashana where I encouraged us all to acknowledge “what went right”, perfectionists perseverate on what went wrong. (By the way I encourage the other perfectionists in this room, and the budding perfectionists, to keep wearing the bracelets as a reminder to focus in on what went right, and the good news is, I have made more and am happy to give to anyone who didn’t get or wants for others who they think need it. See Karen over the holiday.)

The second problem with perfectionism is this: how can we strive for perfection when what is considered perfect is so arbitrary, so subjective, culturally defined, and always changing? We all have different ideas of what “perfect” means. My mother’s idea of “the perfect dress for an occasion” is definitely not mine. The perfect female body to the painter Rubens is not the perfect female body of the 21st century models runway. Unitarian minister Rev J Carl Gregg wrote: “There is no universal, unchanging standard of perfection. Everything is in process: moving, flowing, evolving. And, as Buddha taught 2,500 years ago, when we demand unchanging perfection from a universe that is always already in the process of changing, we create suffering for ourselves.”

And the third problem with perfectionism is that when one feels like they have to constantly earn their place in the world, it means living with a sense that you dont deserve to just exist and you have to invent something extraordinary, or be a virtuoso of some sort, to be acknowledged.

If you saw the Mr. Rogers film “Would You Be My neighbour” you’ll remember every scene where Fred Rogers encourages us to love people just the way they are, especially the scene of him singing to a child in a wheelchair “it’s you I like, the way you are right now, the way deep down inside you, not the things that hide you, not your fancy chair that’s just beside you…”

That scene deeply affected me because for Jeff Erlanger, the child in the wheelchair whom Mr Rogers sang to, the world at just that moment was actually perfect, and yet so many of us looking at him through the screen would not see that.

Some of you may have read Brenee Brown’s wonderful book The Gifts of Imperfection or seen her TED talk on the subject, and I highly recommend it. She writes: Healthy striving is self-focused How can I improve? Perfectionism is other-focused What will they think? And that is the difference between outer-focused perfectionism which paralyzes us, and inner-focused striving for improvement that Yom Kippur asks of us, and which should animate us.

This is the essential message of Kol Nidre. Its a mistake to think that Yom Kippur is about “shame” for who we are or how we are. Our religion does not teach that one mistake in the Garden of Eden made us all sinners for all time. In fact, Judaism teaches the opposite, like the tag I recently saw on a pair of jeans in a store: Imperfections are part of the fabric.

Rabbi Harold Kushner in his book How Good Do We Have to Be writes: “Yes religion can make us feel guilty by setting standards for us, holding up ideals against which we can measure ourselves. But that same religion can then welcome us in our imperfection.”

Indeed, according to the early Kabbalists, God created an imperfect world on purpose. According to the Zohar, in order for God to create this world, God had to withdraw—known as tzimtzum— and then God exploded energy outward, creating the material universe. That divine exploding energy was so great that perfect reality shattered. There was, in essence, a crack created in the universe. Because of that crack in creation, the Kabbalists teach us, the physical world exists. And because of that crack in creation, the world is, by its very nature, imperfect. That crack is the very one that Leonard Cohen, a Jew who knew his Judaism, sings about: “Forget your perfect offering, there is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.”

In Japanese ceramic culture supposed flaws get filled in with gold in a tradition called Kintsugi. In Judaism, there is a commandment to remember the cracks in the fabric by leaving one unfinished piece of a house when it is built. In the Talmud Baba Batra 60b we learn: “A man may stucco his house, but he should leave a little bare. How much should this be? Rabbi Joseph says, A cubit square; to which Rabbi Hisda adds that it must be by the door”. The unfinished square should be obvious when one enters the home; ideally, it should be on the wall opposite the door of the house. A reminder that our houses are not perfect, our lives are not perfect, and our world is not perfect. (And now I see all the spouses who haven’t finished home-repair projects turn to their loved ones and say “see honey? There’s a reason its not done…”)

Now this is not to say we should be satisfied with mediocrity. The Torah tells us the world God created was “tov”—good—not “b’seder”—just ok. Commenting on the various magazines across North America who do "best of the city" awards, Diane White wrote an article called, "Why Not Mediocre?" She says "It's always Best This and Worst That…Why must it always be best and worst? Why not Mediocre? There is something to be said for mediocre. You know where you stand with mediocrity. It's not bad. It's not really good...You can count on mediocre to be mediocre, usually.”

I’m not pitching mediocrity. I don’t want a mediocre life or a mediocre marriage and I don’t want to be the Rabbi of a mediocre synagogue. There is nothing wrong with encouragingeven pushingpeople to try harder, to give more effort, to produce a better product. If there was no desire to improve, why would we be thinking about the deep themes of teshuva all during these holy days?

But on the other hand, rejecting mediocrity does not mean we should seek out and enjoy the special pressures of overachieving. I know many of us baby boomers here today are products of a childhood of neurotic overachieving, parents who, when we brought home a 98 on a test, asked “what happened to the other 2 points”?

We all live under the “tyranny of perfection—our media forever promising us perfect young happy lives if we just buy this or that product or go to this or that seminar; Facebook propels our perfect lives out for all to see; and instagram displays our perfect food.

This Kol Nidre, I want to challenge the conventional idea that we should spend the next 24 hours beating ourselves up for what we didn’t or couldn’t achieve. Rather than making Yom Kippur about the “guilt” of imperfection, let’s make it about the recognition of imperfection. Think about the notion that imperfection can be a gift. For us then, I wish to coin the phrase “the Torah of imperfection” to explore what the recognition of imperfection can teach us and how it can instruct us.

The Torah of imperfection can teach us is to stop chasing happiness in perfection. Instead, we can find contentment and happiness and joy even in the midst of weakness, and vulnerability.

The Torah of imperfection can teach us that we relate best to one another in our weakness. Once we fully accept that no person is perfect, we can stop being disappointed when someone we love is not.

The Torah of imperfection can teach us that we can ask for help. We don’t have to do it or face it all or have it all alone.

The Torah of imperfection can teach us that liberation comes from confessing our limitations. That is the meaning behind the viddui that we recite all through Yom Kippur. When we feel we must keep our failures secret, when we are afraid to share our vulnerability with family and friends, we miss the opportunity for healing.

The Torah of imperfection can teach us that the question is not: are you perfect? The question is: are you always moving on the ladder, always trying to improve just a little?

The Talmud in Baba Batra 14b reminds us that the first set of tablets shattered by Moses were placed in the holy Ark alongside the second intact set— “luchot veshivrey luchot munachim bearon—the broken pieces of the tablets and the whole tablets were placed together in the ark.” The Israelites were neither ashamed nor upset by the “imperfect” set of tablets, and neither were the priests and neither was God.

Yom Kippur is the time to forgive ourselves and those we love for their imperfections, and to learn to like them the way they are, the way deep down inside them, not the things that hide them.

It is the time to forgive our parents their imperfections. Nothing is more important to do before yizkor. Rabbi David Hartman once said: “It took me 20 years of therapy to realize I cant change my mother….and sometimes the perpetual desire to do so sucks the life out of us, leaving us frustrated and exhausted. Permission to disengage from that narrative is what gives us life again.” It gives our parents the gift of life and relationship again, whether they are here, or gone from us.

It is the time to forgive our partners, if we are blessed to have them, their imperfections. Alain de Bottom wrote a fascinating article in the New York Times entitled Why you will marry the wrong person.” In it he says: .We need to swap the Romantic view for a tragic (and at points comedic) awareness that every human will frustrate, anger, annoy, madden and disappoint us and we will (without any malice) do the same to them.”

And those of you waiting to meet that perfect partner have already found out, I hope, that they do not exist. There is a story in Native culture about a woman from the Lenope tribe, who was led to the edge of a large corn field, covered with blossoming corn. A Spirit voice spoke to her saying: "In the field before you are many good ears of corn. You may pass through the field only once, and pluck for yourself one ear of corn only. This ear of corn will provide good medicine for you for the rest of your life."

The young woman set forth and as she walked along, she saw many ears of corn, large, beautiful, ripe and good. But she kept wandering from row to row, in search of the absolutely perfect one. This one was too short and that one was too yellow. This one was too fat and that one had too much husk.

The day passed by very rapidly, and darkness descended, and she found herself at the edge of the corn field without one ear of corn.

Forgive yourself for not finding the right partner, and then forgive your potential partners their imperfection.

It is the time to forgive our children, if we are blessed to have them, their imperfections. Ilana Kurshan writes: “Just as we did not become our parentsand indeed we often defined ourselves in opposition to our parentsour children do the same. If we hold that against them, we are not being fair to them, or to ourselves…the liturgy of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is an annual reminder of how we can, and why we must. The high holiday liturgy speaks often of the metaphor of God having compassion on us like a father is compassionate on his children… To love our children, we must be able to accept them for who they are, and forgive them for who they are not.”

It is the time to forgive our communities— and forgive our synagogue, which we are blessed to have, its imperfections. Even the best, healthiest, and most empowering religious communities are messy and flawed. Every congregation and every Rabbi, priest, minister and imam has ample opportunity to disappoint, and be disappointed as well. Laila Ibrahim, the Director of Children and Family Ministries at the First Unitarian Church of Oakland, California writes about her own church but it’s totally true of City Shul as well: “. We disagree, we annoy, we flake out on one another. And we worship, we support, we hold, and we affirm one another. This is really only one choice: between imperfect community and no community…”

In a blog called5 Ways to Be Unsatisfied with Your Churchformer pastor Shane Blackshear writes: There is no perfect church, and if you find one, dont join it because (people looking for the perfect church) will ruin it.”

And finally, it is the time to forgive Israel its imperfections. To acknowledge at the very least the blessing of living in an era of a Jewish national homeland which is mind boggling if you know anything about Jewish history; and to recognize that Israel is called reishit tzmichat g’eulatanu, the beginning of the flowering of our redemption. The beginning, note—like our children and our partners and our synagogue and anything else that is alive it is not the finished product nor the end result. Yes, imperfections abound in that particular area of the Middle East and in Israel: in any given government, especially the present one; in any number of problematic policies, and in not only the reality of the present Chief Rabbinate, but in the very idea of a Chief Rabbinate itself.

But listen to Rabbi Loren Skyes who made aliyah in 2013 commenting on the difference between love and infatuation in relation to Israel: “In truly loving relationships, you love and accept the whole person, imperfections and all…Infatuation is different. You put the object of your desire on a pedestal. From a distance, you see only perfection. Upon closer examination, you discover imperfection and, as soon as flaws appear, you walk away and seek perfection elsewhere…” My dear friend and Israeli tour guide Zvi Levran is fond of saying hey if there was a perfect Jewish homeland, Id gladly move there”.

And by the way, Israel’s imperfections have actually had some strangely positive side effects: increased interest in Israel in the Reform movement, in feminism, a growing healthy scepticism around “messianic zionism”, a flowering of new Arab-Israeli peace and reconciliation initiatives and joint business ventures—some of which we will see on our February 2020 tour! (Yes that was shameless pitch.)

And, of course, it is the time to forgive ourselves. A midrash aggadah in the Talmud in Shabbat 88b imagines God about to give the Torah to the people of Israel. Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi portrays the angels as objecting. The human being isnt worthy of the Torah they say. The rightful place of Gods majestic Torah is in the heavens.

God asks Moses to respond. Moses points out that the commandments presuppose human fallibilities and frailties, Angels dont need mitzvot. Angels dont need a Shabbat for rest. Angels don’t need a minyan, or each other. Moses prevails. The angels accept that the Torah should come to earth.

Because people are not angels, we got the Torah, which constantly reminds us humans to live with less judgment and more compassion. For ourselves and for others.

This then, is the Torah of imperfection. It’s simple. To live with less judgment and more compassion. For ourselves and for others.

In just a few days, we will be constructing imperfection when we build our fragile, temporary Sukkahs. We will sit in the dark and the cold, under flimsy greens and canvas walls, praising the Lord of imperfection, having forgiven ourselves and others, our community and our world, for theirs. That is why we wear white these next 24 hours. We strive for purity, for the white of the angels, but we know and Judaism expects that eventually, some shmutz will get on our whites, and we will just wash them, and wear them again next year, and love and be loved once again for the way deep down inside us, not the things that hide us.

Shana Tova.


Rabbi Elyse Goldstein

Post-Judaism Judaism

A woman finds herself seated across from a nice young man on a train. "Excuse me," she says, "are you Jewish?" "No," replies the man and returns to his paper. A few minutes later, the woman asks: "Excuse me again, are you sure you're not Jewish?" "I'm sure," says the man. But she couldnt help herself and a few minutes later she asks a third time. "Im so sorry, but are you absolutely sure you're not Jewish?" "All right, all right," the young man says. "You win. I'm Jewish." "That's funny," she says, “You don't look Jewish."

Would that Jewish identity in the 21st century was as simple as merely “looking Jewish.”

All identity markers that a generation ago were “givens” are now fluid, shifting, understood as socially constructed and therefore changeable, malleable, and reconstructable.

I once heard Rabbi Yitz Greenberg say it used to be that someone born as an Orthodox Jewish man in Brooklyn would die as an Orthodox Jewish man in Brooklyn. Today that same person born an Orthodox Jewish man in Brooklyn could die a Buddhist female nun in Dharmasala.

Do you remember the fascinating case of Rachel Dolezal, born to two white parents, teacher of African-American studies and president of a local NAACP chapter who said “race is a social construct” and declared herself as “transracial” and presented herself as “black”. This set off a flurry of articles and introduced the question that is also crucial to Judaism: Who has the right to set the boundaries of identification? Does any group have the right to say who is in and who is out? Do only oppressed groups have that right?

I think about this question when I meet with potential conversion students and especially the who once challenged me on why they need to “convert” at all—after all, they feel Jewish already and identify as Jewish already and why do they need a piece of paper to prove anything to anyone?

Are there any “markers” that define us anymore as Jews? It used to be very simple: born of a Jewish mother or converted. Then the reform movement in the United States changed that to born of a Jewish parent, not necessarily the mother, and it caused a firestorm in the movement and the European, Canadian and Israeli Reform movements walked away from that decision and to this day follow the traditional definition of matrilineal or conversion and are constantly explaining why here the markers are different than there. Without consistency, how do we identify other than within the autonomous self?

An example of this is a survey taken in New York City a few years ago, asking 100 people on the street what their religion was. Of the 10 who said they were Jewish, 5—half!— did not have one Jewish parent or had ever converted. They chose “Jewish” but they had no identity marker of either birth or conversion. Never mind the Lenny Bruce assertion that “Blacks are all Jews. Italians are all Jews. Irishmen who have rejected their religion are Jews” and in New York everyone is Jewish.

There is an impact to our creativity and fluidity around Jewish identity markers.

Because we know the statistics from the Pew study. Pew found that 22 percent of the total of 5.3 million Jews in the United States said they are “Jewish with no religion.” Wow think about how Tevye from Fiddler would react to “Jewish with no religion”.

And we know that millennials and eventually their kids will raise that statistic.

There's an old joke about an army captain trying to determine the religion of his men for their dog tags,. He calls each one's name and each steps up and answers affirmatively: “O'Donnel, Catholic, sir...Jones, Protestant, sir...Smith, Unitarian, sir...then Davidson is called. Davidson! The private gets up and stammers, "well, sir, you see, my family isn’t really religious, we are more cultural, we do some of our traditions, but mostly we... and the captain interrupts and says, "Jewish!"

Ask a Catholic if they are Catholic and you get a straight answer: yes, no... or lapsed. Ask a Protestant and you'll get their denomination. Ask a Jew and you get a dissertation! They'll answer your question with a question, "what do you mean by that?" That the uncomplicated statement, "I am Jewish" can be so complicated is at once fascinating and also telling. You see, Christians can pretty well explain to you what it means to be a Christian. Muslims can tell you what it means to be Muslim. And though there will be a variety of opinions in every group, being Jewish seems quintessentially the question in search of an answer. Horace M. Kallen once remarked that a Jew is one of eleven and a half million people in search of a definition. He's right. We are a people whose definitions get cloudy, get personal, are amorphic and often contradictory and almost always quirky. We are "very Jewish" in some things, "not so Jewish" in others. When someone asks "are you Jewish" we instinctively react depending on the questioner: friend or foe? Do they ask in a friendly way, as in "gee I didn't know you were also a member of the tribe" or do they ask in an antagonistic way, as if to say "are you one of them?" We answer with a sigh, or a guilty shrug, or a defensive glance, or a laugh.

"Are you Jewish?" can mean a host of things. To the black Jew questioned by the white Jew, it's the "you" pronounced strongly: are YOU Jewish? To the nonobservant Jew, questioned by the religious Jew, its the "are" emphasized: ARE you Jewish? And to the Jew questioned by the well meaning but often uninformed non-Jewish person, its the "Jewish" spoken as an adjective that seems somehow disembodied from the person: are you JEW…ISH?

We’re on a need-to-know basis, and we want to know who wants to know and why. To get on Birthright? To serve in the IDF? To be on the shul Leadership Team? To read from the Torah? To give a donation to Federation? (Don’t worry about that one, they’ll take from anyone!)

Rabbi Joe Klein writes: “If Jewish were only ethnic, then chicken soup, yiddish theater, and dancing the hora would adequately describe and define and express ones identity. If Jewish were only religious, then Sabbath candles, synagogue worship, and the Kaddish would separate who “is” from who “isnt.”

When we answer “yes I am Jewish” does that mean "I practice Judaism" or "I believe in the Jewish faith" or "I feel Jewish?” What is "I AM Jewish?" “Am” is not an action verb but an existential verb. It’s easy for me to explain to you what it means to DO Jewish—the holidays, the life cycle events. It’s easy for me to show you what Jews eat, wear, practice. How we build a sukkah. How we eat matza and spin the gragger and put on a tallis and fast on Yom Kippur. How would I explain to someone from another planet, how we "are" Jewish? What do you tell your kids when they ask you what "being" Jewish means?

Rabbi Darren Kleinberg, the author of the book Hybrid Judaism, writes: “…a more accurate understanding of identity leads to the conclusion that the verb “to be” (as in, “I am…”) should be abandoned. Identity is not a psychological category that describes who one “is,” but rather it is a sociological category that describes ones affiliations, or encounters.

That, my friends, is a radical departure from what we once knew as Jewish identity, and I disagree. I think the deep question of Yom Kippur is what is the “am” in my own personal “I am Jewish”?

Let’s begin with the question I asked in June, the question Zack Korn asked us last night, the question for City Shul in 5779: what will our Judaism look like? Because we live in a moment in time when it is good to be Jewish, when there is no stigma to being Jewish – it might actually be “cool”—but we still don’t know what being Jewish actually means deep down other than (SING) “feelings.” My seminary philosophy teacher Dr. Eugene Borowitz of blessed memory once called today’s Jews “Marranos in reverse.” The Marranos of the 14th and 15th century Spain converted to Catholicism outwardly but secretly maintained Jewish practices at home, but, as Byron Sherwin wrote, “…(today) Jews publicly affirm their identities as Jews but live out their personal lives as non-Jews.” We are a new breed – comfortable in our Jewish exterior, but removed from the wellsprings of our inner identity.

Rabbi Elliot J. Cosgrove wrote: “Have we Jews have lost the ability to give voice to what it actually means to be Jewish? … heres the uncomfortable part: the answers that we have, that we continue to harp on, are unsatisfying at best and at worst, self defeating. The answers we give to ourselves are hollow; they are tinny; and they are neither necessary nor sufficient drivers of Jewish identity today.”

Let’s talk about the drivers we continue to flog that no longer work:

Anti-Semitism: the charge that we cannot give Hitler a posthumous victory and that is why we are Jewish. As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks wrote in Future Tense magazine:, “never again” does not necessarily lead to “ever again.” You know I like to say this is the oy of being Jewish, not the joy. It is a negative definition and it does not move our children who most likely will never experience true anti-Semitism and—this will be hard to hear but it is true— for whom the Holocaust is ancient history like the destruction of the Temple. Sociologist Egon Mayer wrote years ago: “We can no longer depend on the unkindness of strangers to keep us Jews.” The Jew as eternal victim is not a positive answer to the question “why?”

Nostalgia. The old days just ain’t what they used to be! As the late Arthur Hertzberg wrote: “A community cannot survive on what it remembers.” That was then. This is now. We will not survive just because our foundational mantra is “it’s important for Judaism to survive…because it survived…”

Peoplehood. Allegiance and loyalty toward the “Jewish people” must be taught; it is not innate. Yes we “bagel” each other—my son Micah taught me this term, it is when you want to figure out if someone you are talking to is Jewish and you just ask “hey where can I get a good bagel around here” and see what they answer—but Jewish geography, or “Jewography” as I call it only gets you so far.

Ethnicity. Look around at our shul. In the old days a “typical Jew” was white, male, Ashkenazi, and spoke Yiddish. Bchol Lashon, a research and community building initiative advocating for Jewish diversity estimates at least 20% of the Jewish population today is racially and ethnically diverse, including African, African American, Latino (Hispanic), Asian, Native American, Sephardic, Mizrahi and mixed-race Jews by heritage, adoption, and marriage.

And our ethnic identities were once tied up with our own food, music, literature, but mostly food. But look at the explosion of Israeli food which is now identified as “Jewish food” and everyone’s eating it everywhere, with Fat Pasha on my corner offering a Manischewitz cocktail that people actually drink! I eat techina on everything. Am I Sephardic? Arab? An Ashkenai white girl trying too hard? Which is the more “authentic” Jewish food—kosher sushi, or non-kosher brisket? We heard a klezmer concert in the Loire Valley with French musicians, not a single one was Jewish. I wrap the wedding couple at the end of a wedding in a tallit, am I appropriating a Sephardic custom, or am I just a pan-ethnic, post-ethnic Jew?

Religion. Now I know there are people who have always disliked organized religion, try being Jewish since we are the world’s most disorganized religion! But the hold of rules and regulations based in the second century has stopped working not only for Reform Jews but even for many Modern Orthodox Jews. Last year Jewish Week reporter Steve Lipman sent more than a few shockwaves through the Orthodox world with his article on texting on Shabbat by Orthodox teenagers. So common is the phenomenon that it even has its own name in the Orthodox world describing someone who follows all the rules of Shabbat except one: texting. It’s called “half Shabbos.” It’s funny that so many “Jewish with no religion” still have a Seder or come for Kol Nidre, but in essence, we are not “religious” about having a religious identity.

Tribalism. There are many Jews who still evaluate every matter of public policy or the news based on whether or not it is "good for the Jews". We still seek out “Jewish names” of the famous or the infamous. We may use the term “MOT”—members of the tribe—but we know we’ve longed ceased being kin in a blood line. In the old days, you lived around the corner from your Jewish family, you married the girl next door, you came home every Friday night for Shabbos dinner, you joined the same synagogue you grew up in—you were in a tribe. With intermarriage and conversion and the frequency of geographical moves that just doesn’t hold anymore, though for those of us who have come here from other cities that still sounds a lot like Toronto, making it difficult with our different family experiences and constellations to feel like we are ever part of the “Toronto Jewish tribe.”

Israel. We just don’t agree anymore that our relationship with Israel is the common and primary bond between all Jews. The Land of Israel, and the idea of Israel has always been central to Jewish life: L’shanah haba-ah biyurshalayim. In the last ten years that relationship has become more and more strained. But even when we argued and disagreed about this observance or that custom, we rallied around Israel as one community. That is now over whether we like it or not. There are Jews for whom Israel can do no wrong and Jews for whom Israel can do no right and many Jews somewhere or not even sure where they stand in the middle; its so fractured that I haven’t spoken about Israel as the main theme of a high holiday sermon since 2014.

Denominationalism. Look at the “Reform” of City Shul. It sure doesn’t look like the Reform of my childhood or of Temple Emanuel on Fifth Avenue in New York. Fully half of our congregation were raised—and may still identify more with—Conservative or Orthodox. And those who convert with us have no denominational memories. If I asked our members what was the most important thing about City Shul to them I don’t think the majority would say its alignment with the Reform movement.

And…Tikkun Olam. I hope all good people do good things and care about repairing the world. There are good people of every religion and of no religion at all, and if being a good person is all it takes to be a good Jew than all good Christians and good Muslims and good Hindus and good atheists would also be good Jews. When the Reform movement gave up ritual and practice it needed some other foundation to rest Jewish identity on, and it offered what is called “prophetic Judaism” and we all strove to, in the words of Heschel “pray with our feet.” But Heschel still also prayed with a Siddur and the Reform movement discovered that Tikkun Olam is not enough for the formation of a full and robust Jewish identity.

So here is the challenge: we are clearly post labels, post categories, post containers, post traditional identity markers. Sometimes it feels like we are just hanging on by our fingernails and one by one we are losing our hold on everything that once defined us clearly. We may be Jewish by descent. But in the 21st century we’ll need to be Jews by consent. What will we be as Jews?

Let’s look at the we have in our Jewish “maker-lab” of the 21st century to build the “am” of ”I am Jewish:”

  • An alternative to the overly secular, overly consumerist, and overly superficial aspects of North American society.
  • A way to find an authentic maximalist engagement in a world where we are not truly present a lot of the time.
  • A place of intentional spiritual experience and not the kind the bookstore fluffy-angels-books offer.
  • A relationship with a powerful and complex text, we people of the book who read everything from screens in 140-letter soundbites.
  • Rituals: mysterious, potent, compelling communal moments that leave us breathless and weeping.
  • Wisdom that comes from thousands of years of experience.
  • Rootedness to something old and time-tested and valuable.
  • A faith community with neshama—soul—where people strive to know the difference between a shmear and the Shema.
  • A holy community with commitment to each other and to an ideal above our individual needs, where transformative encounters occur.

Even at a great shul like ours, we cannot “give” you a Jewish identity; we cannot even teach your kids to have a “Jewish identity.” Identity only comes from within. It is a “Choose Your Own Jewish Adventure” DIY project that each of you will need to take on, young and old, child or adult, this new year.

The end result, hopefully shared in community, will answer the question: “Excuse me, are you Jewish?”


Shana Tova.

Lorne Opler


Gmar Tov to everyone…


In the Torah portion, well be reading the story of the scapegoat. And what is that story? In brief…once a year, on Yom Kippur, the Cohen Gadol (the High Priest) took two goats, indistinguishable from one another, and presented them at the door of Beit Hamikdash (the Holy Temple). Lots were cast and one goat was chosen to be sacrificed to G-d. The other one? Upon the other goat, the Cohen Gadon confessed the sins of the Jews and then it was sent away into the desert hills around Jerusalem where it eventually perished by falling off a cliff.


Off a cliff? An innocent animal to meet it’s fate in such a cruel and punishing way? We as Jews are commanded to treat animals ethically and compassionately. So, to that end, I am proud to announce the City Shul Scapegoat Sanctuary, a place where scapegoats who have plunged off a mountain top are rescued and healed back to health. But in order for this to happen, I can’t do this by myself. I need more room. Currently, I have already rescued 6 scapegoats who are now living on my balcony and the neighbours are starting to complain. In the true spirit of Yom Kippur, I am asking you for today to help build the City Shul Scapegoat Sanctuary. And to thank you for your donations, you will receive a range of lovely gifts: For $100 you will receive a “scapegoat tote” made of genuine cruelty free scapegoat fibers. (at this point, I hold up a canvas tote bag). For $1000 you will receive a “scapegoat coat,” made of 100% cruelty free scapegoat hair. (at this point, I put on my coat). And for your $10,000 donation, you will receive a “scapegoat boat” made from the dried out carcasses of scapegoats that unfortunately didn’t make it. (at this point, I hold up a plastic toy boat). Please give generously. Thank you.


OK, all kidding aside, I bring some levity to the seriousness and solemnity of this holy day, because just like humor makes us feel good...happy and does atoning for our sins. Like humor, asking someone for forgiveness leaves us feeling good…light, refreshed, cleansed.

  1. in all seriousness, this is what the scapegoat story is all about. Leaving us feeling cleansed. In fact, this is exactly why in the Biblical story of the scapegoat, two goats and not only one were offered to G-d.


Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, the former Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom and Commonwealth. has said, The Torah specifies two objectives by using two goats. The goat that was sacrificed was for the purpose of atonement, or “kapparah” in Hebrew. The goat that was sent away symbolised what is called “taharah” or cleansing of our moral weaknesses…symbolically, our sins are led into exile on the back of the banished goat.


In modern terms, what does a scapegoat mean? A scapegoat is someone or something which becomes the object of our own personal unwillingness and failure to take responsibility for something that is too emotionally painful for us to deal with. So we find a convenient person or institution or organization to become the scapegoat or target of our problems.


This not sinful in itself? Of course it is. And let's remind ourselves of why we are here atone for our sins...which includes scapegoating. So let me be respectfully blunt...who here has never scapegoated someone or something at some point in our lives? We all have. Maybe you have scapegoated a former Rabbi or the terrible Hebrew school experience you had when you were young, or Judaism in general or even God? Maybe you scapegoated a parent? A sibling? A friend? You may have found some peace at City Shul, like I have, but still bring old baggage from the last bad Jewish experience you remember. Like I have. Can anybody relate?


I can. The Jewish community was my scapegoat for many years. Still is. And instead of addressing the issues in my life that have left me estranged from the community, I conveniently blamed this community, scapegoating it. This is my personal confession and I’m not claiming any scapegoat coat or boat prizes for it, believe me. I continue to work hard to not slide into that familiar and easy pattern. I share my confession because today, we confess as a community – “kulanu k’echad,” - together as one. Today, it’s about each of us taking a moment…together…on YK, the most introspective, and holiest day of the year….to muster the courage, to look deep inside ourselves and ask…”is there someone I have scapegoated and have yet to apologize to?”


Prayers and petitions to G-d to forgive us for scapegoating others is much stronger and louder and more convincing and compelling when we do it all together. Because we are all responsible for each other. As we learn from the Talmud, Masechet Sotah 37:. “Kol Yisrael arevim zeh la zeh.” All Jews are responsible for each other. And as we are responsible for each other, we are also accountable to each other…which is why, in fact, we are coming together today – kulanu k’echad.…to account for our actions of the past year.


Our petitions may be stronger as one voice, but does this make atoning easier? Let’s be honest. No. It’s never easy to ask forgiveness or to admit we’ve used a convenient scapegoat. Why else would Elton John write a song called, “Sorry Seems to be the Hardest Word.” Asking for forgiveness is so hard because it deflates our ego and punctures our sense of self importance, both of which are actually left intact when we use a scapegoat—which is why we often do.


Of all the days of the year, today, Yom Kippur, makes it a little easier to say “I’m sorry I scapegoated you.” Because it’s the one day when we all admit collectively how fallible and frail we are. And that recognition of our frailty humbles us…making us emotionally vulnerable. And when we are vulnerable, the act of asking forgiveness becomes easier. And at the same time, hopefully… it makes accepting someone’s apology easier to do as well.


Carpe diem. Let’s seize this day. Let today be the day for banishing scapegoats. To quote the great Rabbi Hillel: “Im lo achshav…aimatai?” “if not now…if not today…Yom Kippur…then when? When do we ask people to forgive us for scapegoating them?


May there be no place for a Scapegoat Sanctuary in this City Shul community, seriously. Instead, may City Shul be a place of healing and cleansing for us ….kulanu k’echad – together as one. G’mar Tov.




Sun, 31 May 2020 8 Sivan 5780