Safe Space

Just yesterday, the Houston police responded to a 911 call and found a 14-year-old girl with self-inflicted wounds.  This particular situation became news-worthy when people found out that the young girl’s father is famous.  But, I don’t really care who her father is.  I care about the fact that a 14-year-old girl harmed herself.

The truth is that suicide is the second leading cause of death among people aged 10-24 in this country.  And LGBTQ teens are four times more likely to attempt suicide than their straight peers.  However, the rate of suicide attempts among LGBTQ teens who have family support is reduced by half compared to those LGBTQ teens who experience no family support.  Having another supportive adult in their lives – a teacher, counselor, or clergy – can help, but nothing can replace the support of one’s family.  All of these statistics come from the Trevor Project.  

In the Jewish community, I am proud to be listed in Keshet’s Equality Directory.  That means that individuals or families can feel safe discussing LGBTQ issues with me.

This week’s Torah portion describes Jacob returning home after 20 years.  He had to leave home because he didn’t feel safe there.  If we go back to Jacob’s childhood years, the Torah tells us that, “Isaac favored Esau because he had a taste for game [and Esau was a capable hunter] but Rebecca favored Jacob (Genesis 25:28).”  One parent – Isaac – loved one of his children because that child behaved a certain way.  The other parent – Rebecca – loved unconditionally.  It is no surprise, really, that the child who was loved unconditionally is the one who became the true heir to his parents.  

Every child should feel safe in their home.  Every child should be loved unconditionally.  When we adults fail to provide that safety and that love, young people respond by harming themselves.  We cannot allow that to continue.

Please join me in creating safe and loving spaces for the young people who need it the most.

Shalom, RAF.

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The Base of the Ladder

In this week’s parashah, we read of Jacob’s famous dream.  As he was running away from his angry brother, he stopped and spent the night in the woods.  As he lay asleep, he dreamt of a huge ladder which started on the ground and went up to the clouds.  Angels were going up and down the ladder — from the earth to the heavens and back down again.

The word for “angel” in Hebrew is “mal-‘ach” which literally means “messenger.”  So, in his dream, Jacob saw God’s angels relaying messages between God and humanity.

As a result of this image of God’s messengers traveling back and forth between God’s realm and the Earth, the rabbinic interpretation of this dream was that Jacob slept on the future site of the Temple.  In other words, the messages being delivered were human prayers and Divine responses.

I have always been intrigued by the image of angels having to “schlep” our prayers up a ladder to God, and then bring an answer back down to us.  It implies that prayer is hard work.  It reminds us that we really have to make an effort to reach God, if we want God to respond to us in some way.  God sends messengers to help, but still, we have to make the first move.

It also follows that the closer we are to God, the easier it is to send messages back and forth.  In the Torah, the ideal place to reach out to God was Beth El (House of God) – the future site of the Temple.  Sure, our ancestors reached out to God from other places, but some places are clearly better than others.

Over the past few years, we have learned how to create sacred space anywhere – the living room, the basement, the home office.  All we needed was an internet connection.  It’s possible to reach out to God and one another that way, but just like in the Torah, some places are better than others.  

In the Jewish world today, that better place is the synagogue.  We’ve really seen an uptick in activity in the synagogue in recent weeks.  We’ve celebrated baby-namings, B’nai Mitzvah, anniversaries, and a life well-lived.  It almost felt like 2019 again – back when we didn’t think twice about coming together as a community.  

As God said to Moses when giving the instructions for the first designated place of worship: “Let them make for me a Sanctuary, and I will dwell among them (Ex. 25:8).”  I have felt the Divine Presence among us.

The base of Jacob’s ladder is right here in the synagogue.  Come and join us as we send and receive messages.

Shalom, RAF.

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Happy Sigd!?

[Should have been posted yesterday…. sorry! Happy Thanksgiving too!]

Some scholars believe that the Jewish community of Ethiopia dates back to the 1st Temple period over 2,500 years ago.  Other estimates are little more conservative – suggesting that the Jewish community was established in Ethiopia “only” 1,500 years ago.

Either way, the Ethiopian Jewish community – known as the Beta Israel – are a unique group of Jews.  Until the 19th Century, Jews in other parts of the world did not know anything about them.  There were rumors of a Jewish community in Africa, but no one was certain.  On the flip side, the Beta Israel believed that they were the only Jews in the world, and they longed for the day when they could return to Israel and Jerusalem.  When the first European Jew came to Ethiopia and reached out to the Beta Israel, they did not believe that a person with such light skin could actually be Jewish.

Due to this centuries-long separation, the Beta Israel did not know anything about rabbinic Judaism – the split happened before the completion of the Talmud.  So, for example, they had never heard of the holiday of Hanukkah.  Their Torah – which they call Orit – is written in an ancient Ethiopic language called Ge’ez.  Their religious leaders are called Kessim – not rabbis.  But, they observe Shabbat, the Biblical festivals, Kashrut, and the family purity laws.  They are undoubtedly Jewish.

While they may not celebrate Hanukkah, they have preserved another holiday that the rest of the Jewish world did not know about.  It is called Sigd, and it falls 50 days after Yom Kippur.  It parallels Shavuot, which falls 50 days after Passover.  Like Shavuot, Sigd celebrates the giving of the Torah.  The word Sigd comes from a root which means “supplication.”  It is a renewal of the covenant with God.

On Sigd, it was the custom to climb the highest nearby hill or mountain to reenact the giving of the Torah on Mt. Sinai.  Upon reaching the top of the hill, the Kessim would chant passages from the Bible.  Everyone would then descend and enjoy a festive meal.

In case you are trying to do the math in your head, Sigd falls today!  

In 1984, Israel brought approximately 8,000 members of the Beta Israel community to escape famine in a covert operation called Operation Moses.  In 1991, Israel brought nearly 15,000 more to Israel to escape the civil war.  Today, there are over 150,000 Israelis of Ethiopian descent.  In 2008, Israel declared Sigd a state holiday.  

We may not be celebrating Sigd today, as we may be focused on another holiday that most American Jews will celebrate tomorrow. However, it is a good opportunity to learn a little more about another Jewish community – the Beta Israel.

So, let me be the first to wish you a Happy Sigd!

Shalom, RAF.

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Happy Thanksgiving!

In this week’s Torah portion, Abraham sent his trusted servant Eliezer to go find a bride for Isaac.  As he began the journey, Eliezer paused and offered up a prayer: “O Adonai, God of my master Abraham’s, grant me good fortune this day, and deal graciously with my master Abraham (Genesis 24:12).”  It was such a powerful prayer that, to this day, Jews invoke Abraham’s name when praying to God.

Eliezer’s prayer reminded me of last week’s Torah portion when Hagar the Egyptian cried and God heard her voice and guided her to water.

And then, of course, I couldn’t help but think about Bilaam – the non-Israelite free agent seer – who gave us words that start our service each morning “Mah Tov – How good are your tents O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel (Numbers 22:5).”

None of these three were Israelites and none of them were considered a part of the covenant of Abraham. Yet, the prayed to God and God heard them.

In other words, we’ve been doing interfaith prayer for a LONG time!

So, as Thanksgiving draws near, please join one of the interfaith services in our area: 

  • New Providence/Berkeley Heights Interfaith Thanksgiving – Monday, November 21st, 7:30pm at Faith Lutheran Church, 524 South Street, New Providence.
  • Summit Interfaith Thanksgiving – Tuesday, November 22nd, 7:00pm at Fountain Baptist Church, 116 Glenside Avenue, Summit.
  • The Chathams Interfaith Thanksgiving – Tuesday November 22nd, 7:00pm at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, 200 Main Street, Chatham.

Have a wonderful Thanksgiving!

Shalom, RAF.

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Homeless in our Hometown

“Looking up, he saw three men standing near him.  As soon as he saw them, he ran from the entrance to greet them… (Genesis 18:2).” Abraham didn’t know who they were.  He didn’t know where they were going.  He just knew that he couldn’t let them pass by without offering them some hospitality. 

Together with his wife Sarah, they offered their guests water to wash their feet, shade from the hot desert sun, cakes, meat, and cream.  Abraham and Sarah’s hospitality is held up as the model toward which we should all strive.  It ought to be simple, but we know it’s not always that way.

Here, in the city of Summit, we have more than three men who are in need of hospitality.  We’re not exactly sure how many, but there are at least twenty people who sleep in Summit’s train station and bus stops.  The problem was recently exacerbated when a local boarding house closed its doors permanently.  There’s no other place nearby where the former residents of that boarding house can live for same amount of rent that they had been paying.  In addition, some of them have jobs in Summit and they can’t afford transportation if they move too far away.

And now, winter is coming.

On our local Facebook page, I counted at least four conversations in recent months about this problem.  Some of my fellow residents were sincerely asking how to help their fellow human beings who are currently experiencing homelessness.  Some of my fellow residents just don’t like having to see homeless people when they are commuting.  Regardless of their motivation, most people don’t know what to do to help.  

The truth is that we have an organization here in town that was created specifically to help shelter these people especially when the weather gets cold.  It’s called Summit Warm Hearts, and it was established by the Summit Interfaith Council in 2017 to help our fellow human beings get off the street (you can read more here).  But, it costs approximately $2,500 a week to shelter these people.

I’m not asking anyone to be Abraham or Sarah.  No one person (or couple) should feel as if they have to run toward these people,  bring them into their own homes and provide food from their own kitchens.  However, if we all contribute a little toward Summit Warm Hearts (click here), then maybe no one would have to do that. 

So, as the temperatures dip and the heat kicks on in your home, please consider sharing some of your warmth with your neighbors who are currently experiencing homelessness.

Shalom, RAF.

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Conspiracy Theories

(AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar, File)

Four years to the day after the Tree of Life shooting – the most violent and deadly antisemitic attack in American history – and we are still dealing with antisemitism.  In fact, as of 2021, antisemitism was on the rise.  And, 2022 doesn’t feel any different.

Over the last few weeks, we experienced Kanye West’s antisemitic social media posts and follow-up interviews.  We watched and waited for Adidas – a company founded by brothers who were members of the Nazi party in Germany – to respond to Kanye’s antisemitism.  It seems that the company only responded when the economic pressure grew too strong.

Although Kanye got a lot of press attention – and deservedly so! – he is, sadly, not alone.

In a hotly contested gubernatorial race, a political adviser referred to the Jewish candidate as “at best a secular Jew.”  In other words, non-Jews get to decide who are the “good” Jews and who are the “bad” Jews.

On one of the most prestigious college campuses in the country, nine student organizations amended their bylaws to ban anyone who is pro-Zionist or pro-Israel from speaking publicly at their sponsored events.  Needless to say, “pro-Zionist” and “pro-Israel” are just code words for “Jew.”

I could list many more examples, but we’d still be left wondering why is this all happening in 2022?

And as I contemplate that question, I could not help but think about the Bible’s flood story, which is found in this week’s Torah portion.  At the very beginning of the story, we read: “The earth became corrupt before God; the earth was filled with lawlessness (Gen. 6:11).”  And that was enough for God to spring into action, ready to cleanse the earth with a flood of water.  Rather than have to re-create everything, God told Noah to build an ark and save (at least) two of each animal in addition to his family.  

So, there was Noah building a gigantic ark and gathering up animals.  Surely, his neighbors noticed.  Yet, no one believed him.  They could not tell the difference between a conspiracy theory and fact.

We, too, live in a world where conspiracy theories are treated like facts and vice-verse. We shouldn’t be surprised, therefore, that one of the world’s oldest conspiracy theories is getting a re-boot. Antisemitism is rooted in an ever-evolving conspiracy theory that we Jews killed another religion’s god, that we control the world economic system, that we manipulate the political leaders of countries like puppeteers and we are responsible for wars in order to profit them.  

If you believe some of the other conspiracy theories that are popular these days, these assertions may not seem so fantastical.  

While Adidas took its time to respond to Kanye’s antisemitism, another company – MRC Studios – immediately cut ties with him and cancelled a film about him that they were set to release.  MRC studio executives Modi Wiczyk, Asif Satchu and Scott Tenley issued an amazing statement.  Here’s an excerpt:

“Kanye is a producer and sampler of music. Last week he sampled and remixed a classic tune that has charted for over 3000 years – the lie that Jews are evil and conspire to control the world for their own gain. This song was performed acapella in the time of the Pharaohs, Babylon and Rome, went acoustic with The Spanish Inquisition and Russia’s Pale of Settlement, and Hitler took the song electric. Kanye has now helped mainstream it in the modern era.”  (You can read the entire statement here.)

This is why it’s so important to call out every lie and every conspiracy theory – even the ones that make us laugh (Jewish space lasers, anyone?).  We never know which one is going to be repeated over and over again until it is believed.  We never know which one will anger an unbalanced person and lead that person to violence.

At the end of the flood story, God created the rainbow to symbolize that God would never seek to cleanse the world through a flood again.  Instead, it is up to us to cleanse the world of hatred and bigotry.  We do that every time we call out the lies and the conspiracy theories for what they are.

Shalom, RAF.

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The Torah Channel

My family LOVES the Billy Joel Channel on Sirius XM.  We get very happy every time it comes back on and we don’t understand why it’s not a permanent channel.

When we listen to it, though, it’s not just the music that we enjoy.  We like listening to Billy Joel talk about his songs and how he came to write them.  I’ve heard him talk about old British folk songs, Chopin, the Four Seasons, Christian spirituals and other disparate musical influences.  

My favorite part is when he discusses the way he has written his own original songs in all of these different styles without taking someone else’s music.  It’s his music.  It’s a new song.  But, he borrows from – and builds on – older musical traditions.

As we start the cycle of reading the Torah over again, I couldn’t help but think about this.  We will be reading the same stories, laws and traditions over again, but every time we read them they end up a little different.  There’s a different riff, a different tempo or a different chord.  We build on how the stories were understood in previous generations, but they need to make sense to us today.  

So, yesterday morning, I sat with our pre-school students and we read about the beginning of the world in a way that made sense for them (hint: LOTS of animal sounds!).  The previous morning, I studied the same portion with my adult learners in way that made sense for them (hint: more grammatical analysis).  Not everybody likes to dance to the same music and not everybody learns Torah the same way.

This Shabbat as we unroll our brand-new Torah scroll, we’ll chant the words of the Torah the ancient cantillation.  But, then it will be up to each of us to find the Torah melody that works for us, that helps the text speak to us.  We could think of as “The Torah Channel.”  It will be different for each of us.  But life is better with Torah study in our lives.  Just as it’s better with music – whether or not you like the Billy Joel Channel.

Shalom, RAF.

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Safety & Comfort

Kanye West’s antisemitic outburst on Twitter got a LOT of attention this past week.  Good!  Kanye has over 30 million followers on Twitter and they all presumably saw his words talking about perpetrating violence against Jews because we have too much power in the world.

Sadly, this was not the only example of antisemitism by prominent or powerful individuals.  Doug Mastriano – who is running to be the governor of Pennsylvania – called out his Jewish opponent, Josh Shapiro for sending his children to a Jewish day school.  According to Mastriano, that school imbues Jewish children with “disdain for people like us.” We can only assume that the “us” refers to Christian voters.

On the opposite side of the country, Los Angeles City Council President Nury Martinez resigned under pressure after a recording of her making racist comments about a colleague became public.  While her racism got most of the headlines, she also made antisemitic comments about Jews orchestrating things behind the scenes to their advantage and the disadvantage of other minority groups.  

It is a reminder that antisemitism lurks in all corners of American society.

It is no small coincidence that this occurred as we Jews are celebrating the festival of Sukkot.  As part of that celebration, we are supposed to dwell in temporary dwellings – called Sukkot in the plural, a Sukkah in the singular – for the course of the week.

There are two explanations as to the origin of the Sukkah.  One possibility is that they were the structures in which the Israelites lived during the 40 years of wandering in the wilderness between Egypt and the Promised land.  A second possibility is that they were the structures which the Israelites built for the harvest in the land of Israel after settling in the land.  They were used for sleeping so that workers would not have to waste time going back and forth to the fields, and for keeping the produce out of direct sunlight.

Either way, they were temporary structures.

So, now, centuries later, traditional Jews build Sukkot to remind ourselves of what it’s like to live in a temporary shelter – as opposed to the permanent homes many of us enjoy.  In other words, we should never take our comfort and safety for granted.

It’s the same thing when it comes to antisemitism.  We can never take our comfort and safety for granted – even in this amazing country.  Although we are only 2% of the US population, nearly 60% of hate crimes motivated by religious bias were directed toward Jews (click here for more details).

It’s enough to make us feel a little uncomfortable and a little unsafe in our own homes.  That is why we must call out antisemitism whenever we hear it or see it.  We can’t let it go just because we like the way someone sings.  We can’t let it go because someone is from the political party we favor.  If we want to continue to enjoy the safety and comfort of our homes here in this country, we must call out ALL antisemitism.

Shalom, RAF.

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Missing in Action: Kol Nidre 5783

I. L. Peretz is considered one of the big three on the Mt. Rushmore of classic Yiddish writers along with Sholom Aleichem (who gave us Tevye the Milkman) and Mendele Mocher Sforim.   In a riff on a classic Hasidic story, Peretz wrote about Lithuanian Jew – a Litvak – the paragon of an enlightened Jew – who traveled to the Ukrainian town of Nemerov – the epicenter of Hasidism (the epitome of anti-enlightenment Judaism) – just in time for the High Holidays.

He arrived on a Friday, and he wanted to speak to the rabbi about securing hospitality for Shabbat and the holidays.  He was told that the rabbi was not available because every Friday the rabbi went to heaven.  Sometimes, the rabbi missed morning services, and sometimes he was late coming back.  Everyone thought it was a little strange that the rabbi would disappear to heaven for a full day so close to the High Holidays when there was so much to be done, but no one seemed to doubt that he was, in fact, in heaven for the day – except, of course, the newly arrived Litvak.

So, the next Thursday night, the Litvak hid himself so that he would be able to follow the rabbi and see where he was actually going.  He saw the rabbi wake up and get out of bed well before dawn when no one was out and about.  Instead of putting on the usual clothing of a Torah scholar, though, the rabbi went to his closet and pulled out the clothes of a Ukrainian villager.  He coiled a long leather strap over his shoulder, grabbed an axe and headed out of town.

The Litvak quietly followed at a distance.

The rabbi found a tree that was perfect for firewood, chopped it down into logs that would fit in a stove and tied them together with his strap.  He threw the logs over his shoulder and headed further away from town.

The Litvak quietly followed at a distance.

The rabbi approached a ramshackle hut and knocked on the door.  A weak voice asked who was there.  The rabbi called out in Ukrainian – not Yiddish, “It’s Vasili the woodsman.  I have firewood for sale.”  The weak voice responded, “I have no money for wood.  You know, I’m just a poor Jewish woman – too sick to work this week.”

“I’ll give you a week’s worth of wood on credit,” the rabbi said.   “How will I repay you?” she replied.

The rabbi scoled her, “Silly woman: you are a poor sick Jewish woman, and I am willing to trust you with a little bundle of wood; I believe that in time you will repay me. And you, you have such a great and mighty God, and you do not trust! Not even to provide you the amount for a bundle of wood? Here – I will even light the stove for you.”

As the rabbi unbundled the wood next to the woman’s stove, the Litvak heard the rabbi mumble the words of the preliminary service.  As the rabbi carefully placed some logs in the stove, the Litvak heard the rabbi mumble the words of the Shacharit service.  After lighting and kindling the flame, the Litvak heard the melody of Avinu Malkeinu under the rabbi’s breath.

At that point the Litvak headed back to town, telling nobody what he saw and heard.

A few days later, the rabbi was late for Yom Kippur services.  People were getting nervous and asking where the rabbi could be on the most important day of the year, when everyone was counting on him to conduct services.  One of his students tried to calm everyone down by saying, “Don’t worry.  We know exactly where he is.  He’s in Heaven.”  And the Litvak called out:  “If not higher.”

That Litvak never left Nemerov.  He stayed and became the rabbi’s most devoted disciple.

Needless to say, when I found out that I had COVID and I would likely not be able to attend High Holiday services, I was devastated.  After all, it’s the most sacred day of the year. Usually, more of us come together in one space than at any other time of year.  It’s a special moment on the synagogue calendar.

Could there be any worse luck for a rabbi?  Was God trying to send me a message?  Did I do something seriously wrong?

Now, I don’t really believe that God punishes us that way and I don’t think I did anything that terrible this past year, but this story brought me some comfort.  Because as important as High Holiday services are – spiritually, socially, educationally – missing Yom Kippur services is NOT the end of the world.  

Missing Yom Kippur services would NOT define my Judaism or my relationship with God.  The Rabbi of Nemerov makes sure that we know that.

So, I know I’m not the only one who’s feeling a little out of sorts – not observing Yom Kippur in the way that we had hoped.  Sure, we’ve been dealing with this for 2+ years now, but I think we had all hoped that we were starting to move beyond COVID protocols. Nonetheless, here we are.

Once again, we will take advantage of this amazing technology to be together as best we can under less-than-ideal circumstances.  But, the true challenge of Yom Kippur is not what we do with these 25 hours.  It’s what we do with the coming year.

This past Sunday, Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt, the chief rabbi of Moscow for the past 30 years, wrote a guest essay for the NYT magazine entitled “My First Yom Kippur in Exile.”  He is spending this Yom Kippur in Jerusalem – the spiritual capital of Judaism! – but he still feels as if he’s in exile.  He and his wife were forced to leave Moscow because he would not express public support for Russia’s war in Ukraine.  He wrote: “When we blow that shofar this year, let us remember that it is the role of faith to counter evil, to fight for the basic human rights of liberty and life.”

In other words, attending services is not an end unto itself.  Attending services is supposed to motivate us to change the world.  As you’ve probably heard me say before, the rabbis could not have been any clearer about this when they chose the passage from Isaiah 58 as the Haftarah for Yom Kippur morning.  I try to call attention to it each and every year.  The Prophet asks on God’s behalf:

Is such the fast I desire,

A day for people to starve their bodies?…

Do you call that a fast,

A day when Adonai is favorable?

No, this is the fast I desire:

To unlock the chains of wickedness,

And untie the cords of the yoke

To let the oppressed go free;

To break off every yoke.

It is 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.

So, while I am grateful that we can be together via Zoom this evening, I’d be even more grateful if our community focused on the following three things going forward: 

(1) Participate in our Food Drive.  When it first became a tradition to collect food on Yom Kippur, it was called Project Isaiah because of the text I just read to you.   The idea was that we should donate the amount of food that we are NOT eating on Yom Kippur.    Of course, much more is needed.  I know that many of you are not going to be in the building during Yom Kippur.  You can still swing by and leave food at the green awning without coming in.  Or you can choose the hunger-fighting organization of your preference to make a contribution – my favorites are SHIP, Bobrow Kosher Food Pantry and Mazon: The Jewish Response to Hunger – local, local Jewish, National.

(2) Check in on people.  One of the best things we have done as a congregation during my time here is the way that we checked in on one another during the worst of the pandemic.  We had an amazing committee that made sure we didn’t miss anyone.  But, a lot of it was informal.  People just made sure that other people had what they needed and were doing okay.  Like many of you, I was ready to move on from COVID living – until I saw that little line on the test last week.   I was ready to live as if we didn’t have COVID still hanging over our heads.  It was clearly hubris on my part.

For me, getting COVID – however mild a case it has been – was a stark reminder that we still have members of our community who for various health reasons are not able to rejoin us in person.  They still need us to check in on them.  We can’t forget.

(3) The Reorganization of our Social Action committee. Stacey Sacks and Heidi Block got us started and bunch of other folks have already come aboard.  We are reinvigorating our relationships with Family Promise and SHIP – two local organizations that support temporarily homeless families and food insecure individuals.  We are connecting our JLC students with adult members to work together on community service through a grant called “Better Together.”  We are inviting anyone who has a passion for a particular mitzvah project or organization to bring that passion to our community when we have Mitzvah Day for the entire congregation toward the end of the school year to showcase all the ways that we can put our Jewish values into action and make the world the world a better place.

In short, we are challenging everyone to put on their woodsman’s clothing, pick up their strap and axe and get to work helping someone who needs it.

Once again, I love the High Holidays and I am grateful that we can be together even when we’re not completely together.  As a rabbi, it’s the high point of my year.  But, if this coming year, together, we check in on community members in need, feed the hungry and engage in projects that will make our world a better place, then we’ll clearly go even higher.

L’Shanah Tovah, RAF.

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Confidence, Comfort & Optimism: Rosh Hashanah Day 2

Believe or not, there is debate in my family as to whether you are supposed to sing “Happy Birthday” and THEN blow out the candles or blow out the candles and THEN sing “Happy Birthday.”  Regardless of your feelings on the subject, I think we all agree that both of these elements are crucial in properly celebrating a birthday.

In practice, these two actions – blowing out candles and singing Happy Birthday – are rituals as strongly ingrained in us as any of the rituals that we perform during this High Holiday season.  But why do we blow out candles in celebration of our birthdays?   

I bet that most of us have absolutely no idea why we blow out candles on our birthdays.  And you need not admit it.  You can sit there and pretend you knew the whole time.  In truth, no one is 100% sure.  There are two main theories as to how it became an almost universal birthday ritual.

One goes all the way back to ancient Greece, where worshipers would bring cakes with lit candles to temples as offerings to Artemis, the Goddess of the Hunt.  Smoke from the extinguished candles carried prayers for a successful hunt up to Artemis.

The second theory goes back to 15th century Germany.  There was an annual celebration called “Kinderfest.”  In celebrating all of the children in a community, there would be large cake with candles – so that the flames would ward off evil spirits.  Eventually every child got their own candles to ward off evil spirits on their birthdays when they might have caught the attention of those evil spirits.  The smoke that rose from the blown-out candles carried the wishes of the birthday celebrant up to heaven.

And even though none of us really knows why we blow out candles on our birthdays, we know that it’s really important.  Just think back to a couple of years ago when all of our birthday celebrations were cancelled.  Do you remember drive-by birthdays?  We would invite friends to drive by our house for a child’s birthday, honk their horn and hold up signs.  

In the midst of a frightening global pandemic, when we needed the comfort of rituals the most, our rituals were taken away from us.  So, we tried to create new ones until we could return to our familiar ones.  Because whether or not a ritual has any real causal effect – do our prayers go up to the heavens with the smoke?  Do our wishes go up to God? – they still have an impact ON US.  They calm us down, they lower our anxiety.

When you blow on the dice, hold your putter up to the sky, bounce your tennis ball four times (not five) or put your hat on backwards, you may intellectually know that you’re not influencing the outcome of your roll, your putt, your serve or your favorite team’s performance.  But, it makes you feel better to do it anyway.

When we are ready to transition from childhood to adulthood, we put on a special garment, special headdress, we are called up to stage or dais by name and we receive a special document – sometimes a scroll.  I’m speaking of high school graduation, of course.  The ritual may not make us any more ready than we were the day before, but it makes us feel better about meeting the challenges ahead.

I know that when I say the word ritual, we usually think of religion, but in truth, not all of rituals are religious in origin.  Both religious and non-religious rituals can be extremely powerful.    As part of the research for his book about rituals, Dr. Dimitris Xygalatas, an anthropologist and cognitive scientist, showed a video of a free throw shooter to a mixed group of people – some of whom were basketball fans and some of whom were not.

Half the time, the video showed the free throw shooter doing some ritualistic movement first. And half the time they started the video after the movement.  In all instances, the researchers stopped the video with the ball in the air. They asked the viewers if they thought the ball was going to go in.  The viewers who saw the ritualist movements before the shot were much more likely to say that the shot was going to go in – even though it was the exact same shooting motion.

There something about a ritual that gives us confidence, comfort, optimism.  

So, the more stressed out we get, the more we turn to rituals to help us cope.  Under the stress of living on lockdown, how many of us turned to baking or walking or doing puzzles?  These became our new ritualized behaviors because our school and work and social and religious rituals were all torn away from us at once.  It should not be a surprise to anyone, therefore, that many of the religious rituals that we take for granted started off as responses to stressful situations.

We’ve come here this morning to worship together as a community.  It’s a ritual. It’s actually a collection of rituals.  It all started well over 2,000 years ago when the Temple still stood in Jerusalem.  A community would send a representative to Jerusalem to make an offering on everyone’s behalf.  While that pilgrim was on his way to Jerusalem and back, the members of the community who remained at home joined together in a central location to recite psalms and other prayers.  The success or failure of the pilgrim’s journey would have an impact on the whole community.  The wait was stressful.  The ritual of prayer calmed everyone down.

It’s no surprise that after the destruction of the Temple, our ancestors would turn to those gathering places and pray – following the rituals that they had established over the years.  It calmed everyone down.  We’ve been doing it ever since.

Along those lines, with the destruction of the Temple our ancestors lost the ability to bring grain offerings and wine offerings to the Temple on the Sabbath and holidays.  So, special breads and wine became a part of Shabbat and festival meals.  Our ancestors adapted the lost ritual and created a new one that has endured for nearly 2,000 years.

But, it’s not just early Jews centuries ago who did this.  We did it right here in our community these last few years.  Just after the COVID lockdown started in March 2020, we immediately started a daily Evening minyan at 8:00pm on Zoom.  Truth be told, we had struggled in the years before COVID to have a regular evening Minyan.  We had tried lots of things.  We had gotten to the point that we only had evening services if someone was sitting Shivah or if someone requested a Minyan to say Kaddish for a yahrzeit.

However, suddenly, in the absence of many other rituals, we got a core group of people who started attending our daily Zoom Minyan.  We have not missed having a minyan a single time – though it was close a couple of times —  and our streak will hopefully continue tonight at 8:00pm.

And this is a perfect example of the power of ritual.  Because it’s not just about the ritualized recitation of prayers – though I’m a big fan of reciting prayers.  Honest!  It’s about the 7-8 minutes before services start when we check in with one another.  It’s about asking one another about the person who was added to the Mishebeirach (healing prayer) list.  It’s about noticing when someone has completed their year of saying Kaddish.

In short, it’s about calming people down during a stressful period.

And let’s be honest, while COVID may have calmed down a bit, we are still living in a stressful time.  So, here are three rituals to consider adding to your life:

(1) Say the Sh’ma before going to bed at night.  In the ancient world, nothing was scarier than the night time.  We take our artificial lighting for granted, but at the end of Adon Olam (our closing hymn), we still say “In your hand, I entrust my soul, both asleep and awake, and with my soul, my body too, You are with me and I am not afraid.”  Even if the night is not as scary as it once was, it’s an opportunity to say thanks for getting through another day and to envision what awaits us tomorrow.

(2) Light candles, say kiddush and make hamotzi on Friday nights.  As I mentioned earlier, these are vestiges of the Temple worship that abruptly ended in the year 70 CE.  However, for us, it is an opportunity to create a family moment.  I know of families who live far apart who do this by Zoom now.  We know how important it is for our mental health to take a break.  Shabbat is the original mental health break.  Light the candles, have your favorite beverage, have something to eat, be with the people you love.

(3) Put on a tallit (prayer shawl).  The tallit represents God’s protection, God’s warm embrace.  It is a reminder that we don’t go out into the world alone.

Now, will doing any of things help your free throw shooting, your putting or your serving?  No.

Will doing any of these things help you win the lottery?  Probably not.

Will anything you do from the comfort of your home help Aaron Judge hit another home run?  I don’t think so.

But Psalm 15 asks who lives good life? And it goes on to give a lot of suggestions.  But the last five words of the Psalm are:  “עֹֽשֵׂה־אֵ֑לֶּה לֹ֖א יִמּ֣וֹט לְעוֹלָֽם” – the one who does THESE will never be shaken.  And I think, the Psalmist was talking about the rituals that give us confidence, comfort, and optimism in our most stressful moments.

L’Shanah Tovah, RAF.

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