Just last night at Rodeph Shalom, we experienced the remarkable performance of Broadway and TV star Tovah Feldshuh in Dancing With Giants. What is striking about the play is the friendship of the characters, crossing racial and religious barriers to come together, particularly during the 1930’s and the rise of Nazi Germany, a time of disinformation and political upheaval.
With this perspective, we are writing regarding our view, articulated in the press release below, on how we respond to the alt right rally by the “Proud Boys,” an organization with anti-Semitic, white supremacist, and anti-immigrant views, held at Washington Square on Shabbat, November 17.
It is vital for our congregation to teach our Jewish values, to be aware of bigotry, and to stand against hate. But it is also important to avoid bringing extra attention to hate groups and to avoid allowing them to hijack our community’s practice of Judaism, especially on Shabbat.
How powerful it is when we are together on Shabbat, teaching Torah, caring for others in our community, and living our Jewish values.
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Philadelphia, PA- November 15, 2018
In anticipation of the upcoming Alt-Right rally in Philadelphia, Congregation Rodeph Shalom is encouraging its community to join together in worship at our congregation, as we do each week. We believe that we resist hate when we more deeply and joyfully engage in our Jewish lives. Our Jewish tradition teaches us to come together, to pray, to perform acts of justice, and to study Jewish values such as this one taught by the Talmud: “The first person was created alone, for the sake of peace among people, so that no one could say to another, ‘My ancestor was greater than yours.”
It is the goal of those holding extreme right wing anti-Semitic, white supremacist, and anti-immigrant views, to create conflict. To avoid helping them to create a newsworthy counter-protest, we have chosen to ignore them, to live our Jewish lives, and on our own terms, to make clear our Jewish values.
We remain grateful to the multi-faith community in Philadelphia who, in the wake of tragedies such as Charlottesville and Pittsburgh, has stood with us in solidarity and whose steadfast presence in our lives reminds us the bigots remain on the fringe and cannot be normalized. When those from other religions and groups feel vulnerable, we stand with them as well. The bonds of love that we share cannot be broken.
I imagine many of you are feeling a lot of emotions right now. Sadness, anger, fear, comfort, faith, hope… I pray that we all continue to feel, and that we have the strength to share our pain with our fellow congregants who surround us now.
I imagine many of you came here tonight looking for an answer. How do we respond to the horrific murder of 11 congregants at the Tree of Life synagogue in our sister city of Pittsburgh?
I don’t have the answers. However, in times of sorrow and pain, I look to our tradition. To our Tree of Life, our Torah. In this week’s parsha, Chayei Sarah, the Life of Sarah, we are confronted with the deaths of Abraham and Sarah, the matriarch and patriarch of our people, and we learn how to mourn, how to honor the dead, how to comfort the bereaved and perhaps most importantly how to carry on; how to keep living proud Jewish lives.
First, we mourn:
Sarah died in Kiryat-Arba—now Hebron—in the land of Canaan;
ויבא אברהם לספד לשרה
and Abraham proceeded to mourn for Sarah and to bewail her. (Genesis 23:2)
Although often translated as mourn, the Hebrew לספד is translated by the commentator Sforno as eulogize. This week, our community buried 11 righteous martyrs who died while worshiping. We remember them and we eulogize them. The very name of our portion tonight, the Life of Sarah, reminds us, that at a time of mourning, we focus not on how someone died, but in how they lived. I encourage all of you to go online and read about these amazing 11 Jews who brought so much light into this world.
In Judaism, after burial, our tradition teaches that we then turn our attention to the mourner. There are a few prayers in our tradition, most notably, the mourner’s kaddish, that are only said in the presence of a minyan – a group of 10 Jewish adults. Our tradition forces us to be in community at this time. Thank you all for being here tonight.
In comforting our community, we deal with the very real trauma that hangs over our people. The rabbis, in a commentary connecting this week’s portion with last week’s story of the Binding of Isaac, the akeida, when Abraham almost sacrificed his son Isaac, illustrates how trauma can have drastic effects on all of us. Rashi writes, “The death of Sarah follows the Binding of Isaac, because through the announcement of the Binding she received a great shock (literally, her soul flew from her) and she died.”
Trauma is powerful and should not be minimized. Please know that we are here if you want to talk. Our clergy is available and we have therapists in the congregation ready to listen.
It has been almost a week since the deadly attack. We have been sitting shiva this week. We have sat and mourned. We have received condolences calls from so many in our greater community. However, tradition teaches that shabbat takes precedence over shiva. We end shiva tonight to come together as proud Jews and allies, to worship and celebrate Shabbat.
After mourning for his beloved, our Torah portion continues:
ויקם אברהם מעל פני מתו וידבר
Abraham rose from beside his dead, and spoke… (Genesis 23:3)
Tonight, we rise and speak. Everyone one of you that showed up tonight, everyone of you that said fear will not define us, everyone of you that said, “I am proud to be Jewish,” and everyone of you that stands with your Jewish neighbors has affirmed this central message.
The Reform rabbi and post-Holocaust theologian Emil Fackenheim proposed adding a 614th commandment, “Thou shalt not let Hitler have a posthumous victory.” For Fackenheim this meant living proud Jewish lives in the wake of the Holocaust. This meant not being defined by victimhood. In honor of the martyrs and survivors, on whose shoulders we stand, we proudly stand and say, I am a Jew.
After Sarah’s death, her son Isaac gets married. We read, “Isaac loved [Rebekah], and thus found comfort after his mother’s death.” (Genesis 25:67) Although we lose the father and mother of our people, our text reminds us that our people will survive – there is going to be the next generation. Abraham and Sarah’s legacy will continue on after their death. We will survive, we have always survived. And we will not only survive, we will flourish.
This week we saw record numbers of people reaching out to the congregation about membership. Yesterday, a young woman completed her conversion to Judaism. And I, inspired by my friend Len Lipkin, have felt compelled to wear my kippah while out on the street – something I never did before this week. The 11 victims in Pittsburgh died while practicing their Judaism. To honor their memory, let us boldly practice our Judaism.
Living proud Jewish lives also means standing up for our Jewish values of multi-faith dialogue, of protecting the vulnerable in our society, of working to end gun violence, and getting out the vote.
When Abraham dies at the end of this week’s Torah portion, he is laid to rest by his two sons, Isaac and Ishmael. Isaac, the son who is tasked with carrying forward our Jewish tradition, and Ishmael, the progenitor of the Muslim people. In times of sorrow, our tradition teaches, we need each other.
The Muslim website Launchgood has raised over $200,000 to cover the costs of the funerals. And last Sunday’s vigil brought over 1500 community members from all walks of life into our sanctuary to stand as one, united against hate.
This attack was antisemitic. It was an attack on Jews. And it was also an attack on all the vulnerable communities in our country. This attack did not occur in a vacuum. I remember sitting with many of you at Mother Bethel AME church 3 years ago after another white supremacist attacked an AME church in Charleston. And even last week, Maurice Stallard and Vicki Lee Jones, two black Americans, were murdered in a Kentucky grocery store after a white supremacist failed to get into a black church down the road.
Boldly practicing our Judaism in the public square means standing up for the vulnerable in our midst. We are commanded no less than 36 times in the Torah to love the stranger for we were strangers in the land of Egypt. Abraham is a stranger in the land Canaan when Sarah died. When seeking her burial plot, Ephron, of the native Hittites offers the land for free. (Genesis 23:11)
Tree of Life synagogue was targeted because they support immigrants. Specifically, HIAS, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society. The recent attacks on immigrants are directly related to antisemitism – both seek to demonize the ‘Other.’ Our country’s leadership needs to stop calling the Central Americans approaching the US border a “migrant caravan”- they are asylum seekers escaping conflicts partly caused by the US. They are us. I remember being at a shiva a couple years ago for a Holocaust survivor and refugee. His son showed me a notebook that his father had brought with him on his journey from Europe to South America and ultimately to the United States. At the back of the notebook was the word HIAS, with a phone number written next to it. That man was named Andres ‘Bandi’ Weisz. His son Philippe is the managing attorney of HIAS PA and will be speaking alongside a panel of other immigration experts here on the evening of November 28th.
A friend recently sent me an article about a gun shop owner in Colorado offering free AR15s to rabbis. Although perhaps coming from a place of love, I am not interested. Our tradition is one of peace, and assault style rifles are partially to blame for the murder of those 11 Jews. Instead of AR15s, another way we can respond to the Pittsburgh shooting is through our continued advocacy for gun safety. Our congregation is part of a national coalition called Do Not Stand Idly By, and I encourage anyone who wants to respond to this tragedy through gun violence prevention advocacy to join us.
Lastly, vote. VOTE. VOTE. It is no coincidence that anti-semitic incidents have been on the rise over the past two years. In 2017, we saw a nearly 60 percent increase in anti-Semitic incidents over the previous year. Even this week, after the attack in Pittsburgh, synagogues and cemeteries were vandalized. Antisemitism is real.
In a recent interview, George Selim of the Anti-Defamation League said:
There has been a normalization of hate and extremism both online and offline. The normalization of rhetoric – from the highest levels of retweets of individuals like David Duke, from posts and restatements that are associated with white nationalists in this country – has almost become normal or part of a global discourse.
Words matter. Voting can make a difference.
So how do we respond? Although our mourning may never truly end, with Shabbat, our period of shiva comes to a close and we begin to emerge back into the world. Find your path – but don’t remain seated. Stand up. Speak out. Our Torah commands us, “Do not remain indifferent.” (Deuteronomy 22:3)
They say a ship is safest in its harbor but that’s not what ships were built to do.
As we sang at the Interfaith Vigil on Sunday night, Rabbi Emeritus and past Pittsburgh rabbi Alan Fuchs asks “If not now, tell me when,” in this reflection– Rabbi Maderer
This past week should be a wake-up call for all of us. It is clear, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that we now have an atmosphere of hate in this country. The threat of violence (bombs and tweets) and the murders that have occurred, in the African American community and in the Jewish community, were completely predictable. I alluded to it all in my sermons of the past three years.
So here we are – a major congregation in Philadelphia and in the Reform movement, and what do we do?. I write this as a rabbi-emeritus of Rodeph Shalom, so you may agree or disagree, but I do not speak for the congregation or its clergy or leadership.
It is my firm belief that we are living through a period that closely resembles Germany in the 1930’s. Tragically, the Jews of Germany and the world believed this was just another blip in the arc of history. We know it was not. When I see the Trump rallies and the people behind him reveling in the language of violence that is a part of every such gathering, my heart and mind tell me that all that is missing is the sig heil salute of Nazi Germany. It is a frightening scene.
What more do we need to confirm those fears than the slaughter of eleven worshippers at Tree of Life synagogue in Squirrel Hill? Many years ago I served as rabbi of Temple Sinai in Pittsburgh, just blocks from that murder scene. I am intimately familiar with a neighborhood that is rich with Jewish culture, and that is tolerant of racial, religious and cultural diversity. It is welcoming of the stranger. And yet – a resident of the city, inspired by the language of hate of the stranger coming directly from the White House, decided to take matters into his own hands and stop the immigrant, stop the decades of good and inclusive work by HIAS, and kill the Jews.
These murders have not in any way changed the language or the intent of Donald Trump. He may claim not to be anti-Semitic because he has Jewish family, but that does not stop his xenophobic speeches and his constant appeal to the white nationalists who support his cause. They will take his words as a blueprint for action, while he will try to deny this responsibility. Only we can hold him accountable. Only we can change the direction of the country. If we do not act, think of 1933 (Hitler’s rise to power) and 1935 (the Nuremberg laws) and 1938 (kristallnacht), and the ashes of the death camps. Some of those ashes are housed below the floor of a memorial building at Yad VaShem in Jerusalem, as an eternal reminder of the consequences of inaction.
Your clergy have spoken with moral clarity, from the bimah, in writing and in their actions. It is time, perhaps past time, that we join with them and that we say with unanimity, “never again”, not here, not now, not ever. This is not political or partisan. It is human. It is Jewish. We remind ourselves that we were strangers in the land of Egypt every Passover. It provides us with a moral imperative – to welcome the stranger, to not build walls, to not teach hate or fear of the “other.” At this moment in our history it gives us an urgent command – to correct what has become a hate-filled leadership in our country. Pirkei Avot says it well – “If not now, when?”
Rabbi Alan D. Fuchs
“Naamah’s Voice”: Cantor Erin Frankel’s sermon from Friday, October 12
I went to the movies recently. I went to see A Star is Born, because I felt an overwhelming compulsion to see it. I last saw a movie, two actually, over the summer, while my children were at overnight camp and I had time to do things like see adult movies. I saw Won’t You Be My Neighbor, a beautiful tribute to Fred Rogers that, while honoring the beauty of his soul I must admit depressed me just a bit because it seems we don’t have too many souls of pure goodness leading us in this moment of history. I cried at the end of that one, tears of loss and of admiration. The other movie I saw was BlackkKlansman, the Spike Lee movie about the black man who infiltrated the KKK in the 1970s. What a brilliant movie that was, what powerful images, and in my opinion one of the best responses to the current administration that I have seen. Wow, did I cry at the end of that one, tears of bewilderment and of a new sense of understanding.
So why the compulsion to see A Star is Born? The reviews told me I would cry, and I felt an overwhelming need for that emotional release again. And this movie was a good cry. The story rides on deeply passionate feelings about love, the passage of time, personal demons, and loyalty. It’s easy to understand why this story has been remade three times, it still lands. But this current remake arrives at a moment in our society when one aspect of the story lands more powerfully than all the others. For this is a movie about a woman finding her voice.
Yes, the men around her guide her, lead her, make things possible for her, and manipulate her, and that is part of the story. They do that because they see that she has the ability to say something in her music that people want to hear. The movie keeps returning to this message as the ultimate power of music making and the key to success: the power to make people stop and listen. Everyone around her believes this woman can do that and she should be propelled forward so she will do that.
She is hesitant at first to walk through the door opening for her, but then she grabs hold of the moment and decides to take control. I so respect the brilliant casting decision to feature Lady Gaga in this role. She is an artist who has taken her own individual path, embraced her unique sense of art and music, and presented herself in ways both novel and shocking. Here, as her character faces the series of decisions that allow her to seize her moment and create a successful career, Lady Gaga is able to portray the understanding of personal loss that comes with choice. She questions her moves at every turn, but you feel her choices are hers to make. She is fierce, she is a woman who will fight in a bar and injure her hand and smash glass in anger and grief when the world tumbles around her. She is a woman of this moment.
This week in Torah we find a woman who is not able to find her voice. This parsha is named Noach, Noah, it is clearly about Noah, who was righteous in his age, it’s about the ark, the animals, the flood, Noah’s drunkenness and the sexual misconduct that results…. And it’s about how we are descended from his line.
The midrash tells us the name of Noah’s wife, Naamah, a beautiful Hebrew name, meaning “pleasing”. But the Torah tells us nothing about her.
The Torah tells us about Naamah’s brothers. They are listed in the genealogy that ends last week’s Torah portion as we finished the story of creation and trace the descendants of Eve, Adam, and Cain. Naamah’s brothers are each given specific jobs or areas of expertise. We read in the text:
“Lamech took to himself two wives: the name of the one was Adah and the name of the other was Zillah. Adah bore Jabal; he was the ancestor of those who dwell in tents and amidst herds. And the name of his brother was Jubal; he was the ancestor of all who play the lyre and the pipe. As for Zillah, she bore Tubal-cain, who forged all implements of copper and iron. And the sister of Tubal-cain was Naamah.”[Genesis 4:19-22]
Jabal’s expertise was agriculture, Jubal’s was instrumental music, and Tubal-cain’s was metal smithing. Naamah is given no area of expertise in Torah, so the midrash gives her one, and it’s song, melody, and singing. Her voice is pleasant.
In the rabbinic literature there are two very different opinions of how Naamah used her voice. Some say her conduct, her voice, was pleasing to God and used to comfort her sons and future generations after the flood. [Abba Bar Kahana, 3rd century] Others say she was idolatrous, using her voice to sing to idols and seduce men [Genesis Rabbah 23]. Others, that she harmed infants and other people in their sleep [Zohar, B’reishit 4].
There is a long standing tension in our tradition with how to deal with the voice of a woman, especially one that sings well. It’s why in Orthodox synagogues men and women are separated, why women are not allowed to lead worship, certainly not to serve as cantors. Our voices are too seductive to men, who apparently are not required to make themselves focus no matter what they hear.
Naamah is the first of all of us women with lovely voices, the lovely singing voices and the lovely speaking voices that share opinions and perspectives that are different from men’s. Our country and culture is focused right now again on raising up those women’s voices. How do we do that within a Jewish context?
We consider the tension in our tradition around the voice of a woman. The organization Women of the Wall, which is fighting to allow women’s voices to be heard at the Kotel, the western wall in Jerusalem, points out the contrast between the Talmudic prohibition against hearing a woman’s voice, called “kol isha, the voice of a woman,” and the passages in Torah (a much older text than the Talmudic writings) that value a woman’s voice, such as when God commands Abraham to listen to Sarah’s voice [Genesis 21:12], and the admission of Judah that Tamar, who told her story of being wronged by Judah, that she is more right than he [Genesis 38:26]. And the tension surrounding Naamah’s voice. What can that tension teach us?
We explore with new curiosity the stories of the women in our sacred texts, fleshed out or, in contrast, only mentioned in passing, and we write new midrashim to fill in the blanks of women’s experiences that the texts leave unwritten. We honor the women in our tradition who show anger, who fight, who upset men in the process of revealing truth. They are there.
In our sanctuary we embrace the power of emotional release to move us forward cleansed and focused, we foster a good cry. Whether through music or liturgy or the combination of the two we open ourselves up to the emotional power of song and good storytelling each week to allow us to deal with the world we have and change the world to become as we wish it to be.
It’s time for us to claim Naamah’s voice from tradition and to use it, perhaps pleasingly and perhaps not so pleasingly. The important part is that she resembles the character from A Star is Born and has her moment standing alone on the stage, with a huge crowd listening, because she has something to say that we all want to hear.
And on the 6th day… “God created mankind in God’s own image, in the image of God (B’tzelem Elohim) God created them; male and female God created them.” (Gen 1:27)
Just a few columns later in the Torah we then read:
The Eternal God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him.” …So the Eternal God caused the man to fall into a deep sleep; and while he was sleeping, God took one of the man’s ribs and then closed up the place with flesh. Then the Eternal God made a woman from the rib taken out of the man, and God brought her to the man. (Gen 2:18-22)
Anyone notice a problem with these two narratives? In the first account, written in Genesis, chapter 1, God created male and female at the same time. And then in the very next chapter, we read a totally different account in which man is created first, alone, and a women, Eve, is created out of his rib to be his helper. For thousands of years, Jews have tried to reconcile discrepancy.
Although there are many commentaries on these verses, I want to focus tonight on a story told in Midrash Rabbah and later sources, of another woman, before Eve. According to this opinion, God did create a man and women at the same time in Genesis, chapter 1 but then something happened to that first women leaving man alone and thus prompting the creation of Eve in Genesis, chapter 2.
So who was that first women and what happened to her? This is where is gets really interesting… (and pretty messed up, tbh)
In Jewish folklore, Adam’s first wife, who was created at the same time (and from the same clay as Adam) was named Lilith. Although first written about in the early rabbinic period, the legend developed extensively during the Middle Ages. According to one source, The Alphabet of Ben Sira, after they were created, Adam and Lilith immediately began to quarrel.
Adam said: “You lie beneath me.” And Lilith said: “You lie beneath me! We are both equal, for both of us are from the earth.” But they would not listen to one another. Adam then approached God about this ‘uppity’ women who was to be his wife, requesting that maybe God could do something about her. As soon as Lilith heard this, she uttered the Divine name and flew up into the air and fled to the Red Sea. According to tradition, Lilith then became a demon, praying on men in their sleep and killing babies in their first week of life before they are brought into the covenant.
The story of Lilith is tragic but sadly not surprising. Adam, the first man, felt threatened. Lilith was an affront to his power, his entitlement, his masculinity. And so he sought to make her subservient.
When that didn’t work, he just went and got a new wife, who wouldn’t yell so much, who wouldn’t be so angry, who would stay in her place. He acquired Eve, someone who he could blame all his problems on – remember that whole eating the forbidden fruit thing.
And what about Lilith? The rabbis of old were so uncomfortable with a woman who was equal to a man, a woman who had her own thoughts and opinions, a woman who showed her anger, that they demonized her. They literally demonized her; seeking to try to promote a worldview that a woman who gets angry at inequality is a monster that tempts men and kills babies.
A millennium later and after tireless efforts by countless advocates for gender equality, we haven’t gotten much better. Our society still demonizes women; using the same tired tropes from the Lilith story – these devil women as temptresses – loose and promiscuous; they are pro-choice, anti-life, baby killers. And perhaps most striking, from this past week, they are uppity and angry. How many times have we heard (especially over the past two years), “why is she so angry, just smile a bit honey, her voice is so shrill…”
In an opinion piece in the NYT, Rebecca Traister, points out the ridiculous double standard of who is allowed to be angry in our society. Using the Kavanaugh hearings as an example, Traister writes:
Fury was a tool to be marshaled by men like Judge Kavanaugh and Senator Graham, in defense of their own claims to political, legal, public power. Fury was a weapon that had not been made available to the woman who had reason to question those claims. What happened inside the room was an exceptionally clear distillation of who has historically been allowed to be angry on their own behalf, and who has not.
Adam can get as angry as he wants and he still has his place in the Garden of Eden. Lilith, the moment she exerts her equality with even the slightest bit of anger, gets banished.
Recognizing that I am a white, cisgendered, privileged man, I feel it is important that I speak out on issues of gender equality. At the same time, I also understand that there are many women like Rebecca Traister, whose voices need to be amplified so that all may hear their wisdom.
I want to share some words from my friend and colleague, Rabbi Leah Berkowitz. In a recent article from the Jewish Women’s Archive, Rabbi Berkowitz comments about how women, including herself, are taught from a young age to ‘play nice.’ And these are ideas are still perpetuated to women even as adults. She writes:
Sometimes, I’ll describe a difficult conversation or situation at work to my mother. Hearing the anger and agitation in my voice, feelings I might have been suppressing all day, she’ll say, “I hope you were nice about it.”
She continues, explaining why this behavior is so dangerous:
While socializing women to be nice plays a huge part in perpetuating rape culture, it also has an effect on the larger continuum of behavior that perpetuates gender inequality.
Rabbi Berkowitz imagines a world where girls are taught from a young age a new, unapologetic vocabulary, “You can’t talk to me like that. You can’t touch me like that. You can’t treat me like that. I’m leaving now. You need to leave now.”
Men in our country are saying it is a scary time to be a man. Anyone could be falsely accused by a vindictive women with an agenda; their reputation ruined.
This is not about the fear of being wrongfully accused – which by the way, studies have shown only occurs 2-6% of the time, commensurate with other crimes. This is not about the supreme court. This is about equality. For our entire history, from our mythical primordial beginnings on the 6th day of creation when human beings first came into being, male power and privilege have not been challenged enough in our society as a whole, and now, it is happening. And it is a good thing.
I know it is painful right now for so many of us, but I truly believe that our society is getting better. I believe there is a new generation that will not accept misogyny as the norm. A new generation that will boldly say, “You can’t treat me like that.”
I believe we will live to see a day when courageous, strong, independent, smart women will no longer be demonized. I believe in the better angels of our nature.
In Judith Plaskow’s short story, The Coming of Lilith, she imagines a new ending to the Lilith midrash in which Lilith seeks to return to Eden. She tries to breach the walls of the Garden and each time she is rebuffed by Adam. He builds the walls stronger, yet Lilith persists. Adam, fearful that Lilith will infect Eve with her ideas of equality, tries to keep Eve away from her. Yet, Lilith persists. Plaskow ends the story, “And Adam was afraid of the day Eve and Lilith returned to the garden, bursting with possibilities, ready to rebuild it together.”
Rabbi Eli Freedman: Yom Kippur Morning Sermon
This past spring, we had the unique opportunity to host Anat Hoffman, a civil rights pioneer in Israel. Through her organizations, Women of the Wall and the Israeli Religious Action Center, Hoffman works to protect the rights of women, Reform Jews, Arabs and other vulnerable populations. Hoffman does not shy away from exposing Israel’s tough truths, and believes that we can love the country even more when we recognize that, like all of us, Israel is not perfect.
During the question and answer portion of the evening, in response to a question about the difficulties of making aliyah and living in Israel, Hoffman paused for a moment and began her answer by quoting our Declaration of Independence. Perhaps seeking to agitate the hometown crowd, Hoffman said, “I’m don’t really like the whole ‘pursuit of happiness’ thing, I’m more interested in the ‘pursuit of meaning.” Hoffman then went on to challenge the audience. “If you want a life of just happiness,” she said, “don’t move to Israel. Stay in the US. Your life will be easier. But if you want a life of meaning, make aliyah and work to make Israel a better place.”
Anat Hoffman posed an essential question to all of us for this Yom Kippur: what are we pursuing in our lives: happiness or meaning?
In surveys, most people list happiness as their top value. One study says that last year 45% of Americans’ New Year’s Resolutions were related to living a happier life. However, according to research, the happy life and the meaningful life differ and that the surest path to true happiness lies in chasing not just happiness but also a meaningful life.
In one study by Veronika Huta and Richard Ryan, college students were asked to pursue either meaning or happiness over ten days by doing at least one thing each day to increase meaning or happiness. Some of the most popular activities reported by people in the meaning group included forgiving a friend, studying, and helping or cheering up another person. Those in the happiness group listed activities like sleeping in, playing games, and eating candy.
Although the students in the happiness group experienced more positive feelings and fewer negative ones immediately after the study, three months later their mood boost had faded. The students focused on meaning, meanwhile, did not feel as happy right after the experiment, which makes sense: meaningful pursuits, like helping a friend, require sacrifice and effort, and can even be painful in the moment. Yet three months later, the picture was different. The students who had pursued meaning said they felt more “enriched,” “inspired,” and “part of something greater than myself.” They also reported fewer negative moods. Over the long term, it seemed, pursuing meaning was more deeply satisfying than chasing happiness. Or as Rabbi Harold Kushner writes, “You don’t become happy by pursuing happiness. You become happy by living a life that means something.”
This idea should not sounds so radical – it has been central to our Jewish tradition for thousands of years. In her book, “Happiness in Premodern Judaism: Virtue, Knowledge, and Well-Being,” Hava Tirosh-Samuelson makes the case that Judaism has always been a religion focused on happiness. And, like those recent studies, happiness is not defined by brief moments of pleasure, but rather by living a good life. Tirosh-Samuelson writes:
In Judaism happiness does not mean possessing material goods, having fun, feeling content, or enjoying physical pleasures, although some of these elements may be a part of the happy life. Happiness is not a subjective feeling manifested in a given moment or for a short period of time.
Happiness is not found in a given moment, it is found in a life well-lived; a life of meaning.
Our sages teach as soon as the fast of Yom Kippur concludes, pound the first nail into the sukkah. Ok, maybe get a quick bite to eat first, then pound the first nail into the sukkah. It is not by coincidence that the holiday of Sukkot, called Z’man Simchateinu – the season of our rejoicing, falls immediately after Yom Kippur. Throughout the long day of Yom Kippur, we search our lives for meaning, and then we are taught that on Sukkot, “v’samachta b’chageicha, v’hayita ach sameach – we should rejoice in our holiday and we should feel nothing but happiness.”
The message is clear – find meaning, and then happiness will ensue.
On Sukkot, we read the biblical book, Kohelet, or in English, Ecclesiastes. Perhaps the rabbis associated Kohelet with our season of rejoicing because of its focus on the search for meaning and happiness. Kohelet, traditionally ascribed to King Solomon in his old age, spends the first eight chapters exploring dead ends – the paths that do not bring meaning to our lives.
When he was young, Solomon thought focusing on himself and his own self-interest will bring meaning but of course, in time he finds that pursuit meaningless. In reaction he explores the extreme opposite of renouncing all bodily pleasure; but again to no avail. Solomon pursues wisdom; but again, in the words of the king, “For in much wisdom is much vexation, and he who increases knowledge increases sorrow.” Another dead end. He then focuses on religious piety – as much as I’d like to say this one worked – nope, Solomon is still searching. Lastly, the king tries eschewing all feelings in order to avoid pain but realizes this too does little to give his life purpose.
It is not until the ninth chapter, after fully exploring all the other options, that the old king comes to a quite simple conclusion. The answer is: כל אשר תמצא ידך לעשות בכחך עשה
Whatever is in your power to do, do it with all your might. (9:10)
If you work in healthcare with knowledge and power to heal people, do it with all your might. If you are an artist with the power to inspire people and bring beauty into this world, do it with all your might. If you cook delicious food that brings joy and comfort to people’s lives, do it with all your might. If you are a good listener and are able to be present with loved ones when they need you, do it with all your might.
Remember the scene in the movie City Slickers where Billy Crystal’s character, Mitch, is alone with Curly, played by Jack Palance. Curly is giving Mitch some life advice.
Curly: Do you know what the secret of life is?
[holds up one finger] This.
Mitch: Your finger?
Curly: One thing. Just one thing. You stick to that and the rest don’t mean squat.
Mitch: But, what is the “one thing?”
Curly: That’s what you have to find out.
Whatever is in your power to do, do it with all your might.
One person who truly understood this message was author, psychiatrist, and Holocaust survivor, Viktor Frankl. While in imprisoned in Theresienstadt, he established mental health care services and organized a unit to help camp newcomers overcome shock and grief. Through his experience in the camps, Frankl discovered the importance of finding meaning in all forms of existence, even the most brutal ones, and thus, a reason to continue living.
In his book, “Man’s Search for Meaning,” Frankl writes:
“For the meaning of life differs from man to man, from day to day and from hour to hour. What matters, therefore, is not the meaning of life in general but rather the specific meaning of a person’s life at a given moment.”
Whatever is in your power to do, do it with all your might.
“Everyone has his own specific vocation or mission in life; everyone must carry out a concrete assignment that demands fulfillment. Therein he cannot be replaced, nor can his life be repeated, thus, everyone’s task is unique as his specific opportunity to implement it.”
Whatever is in your power to do, do it with all your might.
I am not talking about grandiose gestures. You don’t need to raise millions of dollars for charity or save thousands of lives. Everyday actions, that are in our power to do, do them with all your might and we can make a difference in the world.
Rabbi Evan Moffic, in his recent book, “The Happiness Prayer,” explores meaning through the prayer, Eilu D’varim. The prayer, which Moffic believes holds the secret to a meaningful and therefore happy life, lists a series of very ordinary actions that we can all do – with all of our might:
Honoring parents; doing acts of lovingkindness; arriving at the house of study early–morning and evening; providing hospitality; visiting the sick; helping the wedding couple; attending to the dead; probing the meaning of prayer; making peace between one person and another.
Remember the study on meaning and happiness by Huta and Ryan? I find it interesting that some of the most popular activities reported by people in the ‘meaning group’ included forgiving a friend, studying, and helping or cheering up another person. All tasks laid out in the ‘happiness prayer,’ Eilu D’varim.
As Rabbi Moffic points out, there is nothing extraordinary about any of these mitzvot:
But when we follow this path, when we commit to living with intention and discernment, we learn that happiness does not come from ease. It does not come from getting whatever we want whenever we want. It comes from meaning. It comes from doing things that make a difference. It comes from knowing we are here for a reason.
Whatever is in your power to do, do it with all your might.
There is a story told of a factory that had a problem of employee theft. Valuable items were being stolen every day. So they hired a security firm to search all the employee as they left at the end of the day. Most of the workers willingly went along with emptying their pockets and having their lunch boxes checked. But one man would go through the gate every day at closing time with a wheelbarrow full of trash, and the exasperated security guard would have to spend a half-hour, when everyone else was on their way home, digging though the food wrappers, cigarette butts, and Styrofoam cups to see if anything valuable was being smuggled out. She never found anything. Finally one day, the guard could no longer stand it. The guard then said to the worker, “Look, I know you’re up to something but every day I check every last bit of trash in the wheelbarrow and I never find anything worth stealing. It’s driving me crazy. Tell me what you’re up to and I promise not to report you.” The worker shrugged and said, “It’s simple. I’m stealing wheelbarrows.”
Like the security guard looking through the trash in the wheelbarrow for something of value and all the while missing the obvious answer, how easy it is to search our days, our years, looking for the reward, for the success that will make our lives worthwhile. We totally misunderstand what it means to be alive when we think of our lives as time we can use in search of rewards and pleasures. When we have learned how to live, life itself is the reward. When we figure out that one thing.
Whatever is in your power to do, do it with all your might.
I agree with Anat Hoffman. Our goal in life can not just be happiness. Our goal should be meaningfulness. And if happiness should ensue, wonderful. But if not, that’s ok as well, because we will leave this world knowing that we did our best. That we brought our whole selves to all that we did.
This Yom Kippur, and in this New Year, may we pursue meaning. May we take to heart the words of Kohelet, “Whatever is in your power to do, do it with all your might.”
Mark Twain once wrote, “The two most important days in your life are the day you are born and the day you find out why.”
May we find out why, find our one thing, and do it with all our might.
Delivered by Rabbi Maderer Rosh Hashanah morning
Some of you may have known one of Rodeph Shalom’s oldest, long-time members, Floss Feder, of blessed memory. In my last visit with Floss, who this spring died at the age of 103 ½ , I shared with her our plans to celebrate the 90-year anniversary of our sanctuary. Her face lit up as I asked her: if our sanctuary walls could talk, what would they say? And she shared with me this funny story she remembered from her Confirmation class of 1930. She told the story of when Rabbi Louis Wolsey brought them into the sanctuary to point out one of its distinguishing features: the first four words of Psalm 16, verse 8, painted on the tops of the four pendentives, that say “Shviti Adonai lenegdi tamid,” translating: “I set God before me always.” When Rabbi Wolsey brought Floss’s Confirmation Class into the sanctuary to ask them, “What do the four Hebrew words mean?” One classmate responded that the four words of the Psalm surely mean: “Thank you, call again!”
If these walls could talk. If I were to ask you the question, what might you reveal? For some of you, your relationship with this glorious space is just beginning. For many of you, these walls could tell the stories of your lives – pages, chapters, volumes — recounts of memories, the joys, the sorrows, the profound connections experienced within them. These walls are something of a Book of Life—that very Book of Life from our High Holy Day prayers.
This morning and throughout these Days of Awe, we recite “V’katvenu b’sefer chayim/Inscribe us in the Book of Life.” Generations of Jewish commentators have confronted the problematic concept of a Book of Life. Who, still living with more chapters left to write, found themselves with too few pages? The injustice of a Book of Life, that we know ends too soon, for too many, turns some of us away from the concept altogether.
But consider this different perspective on the Book of Life, suggested by some rabbinic scholars, and expressed in poetry, by my colleague Rabbi Joseph Meszler:
“On Rosh Hashanah it is written, on Yom Kippur it is sealed:
That this year people will live and die,
some more gently than others
and nothing lives forever.
But amidst overwhelming forces
of nature and humankind,
we still write our own Book of Life,
and our actions are the words in it,
and the stages of our lives are the chapters…
Everything you do matters…
For the things that we can change, there is teshuva, realignment,
For the things we cannot change, there is tefilah, prayer,
For the help we can give, there is tzedakah, justice.
Together, let us write a beautiful Book of Life.”
We cannot determine how many our days will number. But perhaps it is we who inscribe. By how we live our days, by the story we create with our actions, we inscribe the Book of Life — for the Holy One of Blessing, not to write, but to read. Because it is we who are the authors. We inscribe the pages of our personal lives. We write the chapters of our families. We fill the volumes with the story of a community.
When the walls of our sanctuary talk, they reveal something of our Book of Life—of the core values and forward thinking that have persisted and have inspired generations. They tell us volumes about who we are.
From 1928, inscribed on the building’s façade are the words of Isaiah: “This shall be a house of prayer for all people.” The text selection reinforced the charter mission established at our founding in 1795, stipulating: no one shall be turned away because of inability to pay. These walls tell us: this is not only a space of physical beauty, but of spiritual and communal welcome.
Not long after its opening, when the Great Depression hit, the vision was expanded beyond worship and education. In response to poverty, the synagogue housed a community service project for underprivileged youth. The justice project engaged congregants young and old, including a teen-age Floss Feder who would meet her future husband as they volunteered together. These walls tell us: we welcome the neighborhood into our synagogue.
In the 1970’s, the congregation included a support group for step-parents. Forward thinking for its time, the community endeavored to serve the needs of blended families. These walls tell us: before we even had a Caring Community, we knew it was our mission to support each other, especially when we feel isolated or vulnerable.
In his 1928 sanctuary dedication sermon, Rabbi Wolsey made clear: we cannot let the past hold us back. We need to always be moving forward. These walls tell us: this community has always been a place that evolves and renews.
And… sometimes change can take a long time. Some of you may know, it used to be common practice to sit in reserved seats for the High Holy Day. In 1912, members received a letter titled: “About Seats and a New Idea,” proposing the end to assigned seating. Nearly 70 years later, democratic open seating became regular policy. These walls tell us: the culture of the times influences our practice.
Seventeen years ago, just after 9/11, the Board of Trustees debated whether we should include both an American and an Israeli flag on the bimah. These walls tell us: we are proud Americans and proud Jews.
Over a decade ago, the sanctuary was restored to its former glory…with a few changes. The new low bimah used on Shabbat and additional aisles do not only provide for egress; rather, they also offer space for the closeness and mingling, that helps to cultivate community. These walls tell us: when it comes to creating profound connections, our work is never complete.
When these walls talk, they reveal something of our Book of Life. They tell us volumes about who we are, as individuals and as a community. Reflect on the moments you have experienced in, what one of our past-presidents calls: this physical and spiritual heart of Rodeph Shalom. What do those moments reveal about what is important to you, and what is important to this congregation? This year, we will all have opportunities, to share such reflections in connection with our 90th celebration.
I feel blessed to have shared many holy moments with you in these walls. We have studied Torah, observed Shabbat and holidays, weddings, B’nai Mitzvah, marriage vow renewals, Confirmations, funerals. We have shared joys and struggles. We have welcomed dignitaries. We have welcomed into the sanctuary groups from other religions and our annual Introduction to Judaism class.
When I reflect, I think of the entirety of extraordinary experiences, and I think of the particular moments as well. Grateful for the families’ permission, I’d like to share one such moment I had the joy of witnessing this year.
Some months ago, one of our Bat Mitzvah students developed a stutter. Beyond the usual demanding Hebrew preparation, and bravery, to lead the congregation, this Bat Mitzvah was going to require tremendous courage and creativity.
With the support of her parents, and also of her Bar Mitzvah partner’s family, we experimented with headphones and bluetooth. Just picture it—trial and error, lots of different strategies. This Bat Mitzvah girl perseveres. Ultimately, in the middle of the final rehearsal, she says, let’s put the technologies aside and try something else. She realizes co-chanting and co-reading, help to liberate her speech.
She invites me to chant Torah along with her, un-mic’ed. It works! Then she invites her mother to do the same with her, for her D’var Torah—her sermon. That works too. But wait, it gets better: A lot of sensitivity and flexibility is being asked of her Bar Mitzvah partner in this process. His response? He starts to find prayers, that they had been assigned to recite individually, and he makes suggestions, for parts that the two of them, could instead recite together. At the end of this rehearsal, both families—who frankly, by this point seem to me, to be as one family—are applauding, cheering these kids on. During the actual B’nai Mitzvah, this girl pushes forward with courage, and this boy encourages her with smiles, nodding so much his head must have hurt.
These walls tell us: We are part of a congregation of Torah, we are a caring community of profound connections, and our families understand that a Bar or Bat Mitzvah—and Jewish spiritual life in general– is about being a part of something greater than yourself.
At the original dedication of this sanctuary, to a composition that we will hear in a few minutes, the words from Psalm 118 were sung: Pitchu Li shaarey tzedek/ Open for me the Gates of Righteousness, and I will enter in thanks. Today, too, as we pray, the gates be open to us this Rosh Hashanah, we give thanks. Nine decades ago, they created this glorious space for the future. For us. As we, this year, more deeply learn our history, and honor these 90 years, we will also look forward, and ask ourselves: What will we create for the future?
Mindful that these walls tell us:
this is not only a space of physical beauty, but of spiritual and communal welcome;
we welcome the neighborhood into our synagogue;
we support each other, especially when we feel isolated or vulnerable;
this has always been a place that evolves and renews;
the culture of the times, influences our practice;
we are proud Americans and proud Jews; and
when it comes to creating profound connections, our work is never complete…
Just imagine, what our walls will say, of the next 90.
Perhaps, in our next chapters we will discover new ways to connect people who are not yet members; we will push the bounds of Hebrew to be more inclusive of transgender; we will find new ways to invite our neighbors into our doors. Perhaps in our next chapters we will tell our own stories in theater on our bimah, and encounter more of our Judaism through the arts; we will lead with moral courage on the toughest justice dilemmas of our day. Perhaps in our next chapters, our walls won’t see everything, because we will be bold enough, to reach outside into our city, our region, our nation.
Building on this year’s celebrations, we will be launching an initiative to shape the next era of Rodeph Shalom—to write the next chapter in our congregation’s Book of Life. We already have a vision – creating profound connections.
Our leadership and congregation’s next work, will be to reinterpret that vision for a world where Jewish involvement is optional, and yet meaning–seeking and passion for spiritually-driven social justice, abound. It is our responsibility, to renew that vision for our congregation, and for the Jews and seekers in our region beyond our walls, that we might ensure the past glorious 90 years serve as a foundation for the future of the Jewish people… That we may write our next chapter, for the Holy One to read. For:
On Rosh Hashanah it is written, on Yom Kippur it is sealed…
We write our own Book of Life,
and our actions are the words in it,
and the stages of our lives are the chapters…
Everything you do matters…
Together, let us write a beautiful Book of Life.