Monthly Archives: September 2017

Listen to the Shofar

It’s a crisp, clear Friday morning. Autumn is announcing its official presence. But for me, Fall comes, not with the equinox, the weather, the foliage, or the sudden omnipresence of pumpkins and Halloween decorations. I know it’s Autumn when I hear the shofar.

The tekiya is an unambiguous sound. It is loud and raucous – there’s nothing smooth or beautiful about it. Maimonides said it best: the sound of the shofar is an alarm, a wakeup call.

  1. Hey! Guess what? You are mortal. You are finite. That means every day is a gift. That means what you do and say should not be nahrishkeit, Yiddish for foolishness. Everything counts.
  2. You’re not perfect. In fact, you blew it this year. You hurt people’s feelings. You hid behind the “I couldn’t help it” banner. You didn’t always do the best you could do. Own it! Acknowledge it.
  3. Say you’re sorry. Not like a little kid forced by parents to say the magic words, but like an adult with a heart and soul. Find the people you knowingly hurt and ask their forgiveness. Your partner, parents, kids, associates… whoever in the world you injured.
  4. What about now? Make some decisions about where you’re going from here. How will you try to do better? How will you change to adapt to the needs of the people around you?

This is the agenda for tonight and tomorrow. Not an easy one. But I can promise you that if you do this work, if you think about this during services, by the time you hear the shofar on Saturday night you will feel exultant. You will feel nourished and alive – and that’s even after fasting!

It is that time for me, too. I want to ask your forgiveness, too. For times when I was not sufficiently attentive to your needs. For times when I was late responding to your call or email. For times when I disappointed you. For all these and more I ask your forgiveness.

Twenty years ago I walked into our sanctuary for Kol Nidre. Everything was new and beautiful. That first Yom Kippur is a blur. But I do remember thinking, “This feels right, this new marriage.” Twenty years later I will walk into that same beautiful, blessed sanctuary. It still looks good with all of its various renovations and enhancements. And it still feels right.

My friends call me the happiest rabbi in America, because… well, because maybe I am. I consider myself lucky and supremely blessed to be with you after all these years. And it’s all because of you. It’s because of your love and support. It’s because I have a staff that is nonpareil. Thank you.

My shofar alarm is ringing: time to get back to that agenda. Have an easy fast. Please stay for the last part of the service, Neila. It’s one of the best things that happen here.

How We’re Wired?

One day a scorpion asks a Frog for a ride across the river. The Frog responds, “Are you kidding? Of course not! I know you, Scorpion, and you would sting me and I’d die. No way will I carry you on my back!” The Scorpion challenges the Frog, “Why would I do that? If I sting you and you die, we both drown. You have nothing to fear by carrying me across the river.” The Frog decides that what the Scorpion said makes sense, so he agrees to the request.

Midway across the river, the Scorpion stings the Frog. As the Frog gasps his last breath before drowning, he implores the Scorpion, “Why? Why did you sting me, knowing we will both drown?” The Scorpion replies, “It’s my nature.”

This well-known story is a proof text for a commonly held belief. We are who we are, wired from birth with our flaws and talents, likes and dislikes, and attitudes and character traits that are immutable. This deterministic perspective essentially seals us off from any true chance to alter the trajectory of our lives.

The notion that the die is cast from birth is so depressing. Jerry Maguire says to his recently wedded wife who sees their marriage tanking because he can’t open up his soul to her, “What if I’m not built that way”? In other words, what if his fear of intimacy is in his DNA? What if whatever he’s doing is all he can do?

Are our lives predetermined by our biochemistry?  Are we doomed just to keep kicking the same old dented can down the road? Is there nothing we can do about our rough spots? Is it all about repetition compulsion, just repeating the same mistakes over and over again?

While this debate continues in philosophy, psychology, and neuroscience circles, in our tradition there is no argument or ambiguity. Judaism teaches that we are a work in progress. We are not held captive by inborn twisted character flaws. “What if I’m not built that way,” doesn’t work in the Jewish tradition.

Judaism doesn’t work if we don’t have the freedom to choose right from wrong. God does not predetermine ANYTHING about what we do in the world. The Holy One provides an ethical foundation, and then it’s up to every individual to decide how to interface with that foundation.

It is, of course, no accident that I chose this topic for today’s Before Shabbat. With High Holy Days coming up, with all of our liturgical references to repentance and forgiveness, it’s worth reiterating that we truly do believe in this process. We can become better human beings. We don’t have to keep shlepping the angst and pain. There are no rewards for stubbornly sticking to one’s story, even when we know we’re maybe a little wrong. For the Jewish people, biochemistry aside, if you decide you want to change, then you can change.

This process of self-improvement, of repenting one’s sins and forgiving people who have hurt us, is not easy. In fact, it’s extremely difficult. We adopt so many bad habits. We pursue foolish goals that divert us from the task of living life to its fullest. We get caught up in the cycles of avarice and greed. We don’t take a stand.

And yet, all of this aside, we do have the ability to change, to reach for something more. We can be more than what we are. It “just” takes time and effort and dedication. This is a lifetime struggle, not just a quick reflection before the new year.

You can think and think about change, but ultimately you’ll have to start. Yes, change is hard. Yes, it involves taking responsibility for your life. Yes, it requires you to give up the familiar, which no matter how unpleasant can still feel comforting. And yes, change will put you face-to-face with loss. But what’s beautiful about this loss is that while you might have to give up the hope for a better past or a less painful present, the future is squarely in your court.

There is no finish line on this. There is no completion, no perfection. There is only free will and our courage and resilience to look in the mirror and acknowledge that we have lots to do to make the world – and ourselves – better, more viable.

The theme of Teshuvah – repentance – is not some hypothetical suggestion. It’s a real challenge to each of us. So come to temple. Come be inspired to stand tall. Come rededicate yourself to living a life of openheartedness and meaning. Come remember how to be a mensch.

Don’t forget that Saturday night is Selichot. At 8 pm there will be lots of contemplative space for prayer and meditation. Join us; it will absolutely put you in the right frame of mind and soul.


Shabbat Shalom,




 Like many of you, I have an obsessive need to know what is going on. In this postmodern, media-blitzed cable news world, it feels almost possible to attain this admittedly unattainable goal. When news coverage of big – and not so big – stories is available 24/7/365, I am like the proverbial moth drawn to the flame. Or in this case, drawn to the glow of the tv/computer monitor.
I’ve spent inordinate time and emotional energy in front of screens this past week or so. The sheer devastation of Harvey and Irma, and, this just in, an earthquake in Mexico and another hurricane, Jose, churning in the Gulf of Mexico, has kept me clicking back and forth like crazy.
It beggars the mind even to attempt to grasp the real and the potential losses in life, in dollars, in livelihoods, in property, etc. My friend Carol, from Houston, texted back a description of her situation. “It’s really horrible. I lost my car and all the contents of my apt. My kids and grandson all live in Plano and so my son Howie took over and decided to come pick me up! I’m leaving Houston for now to stay with them up in Plano until I figure out my next move!! I’m totally out of sorts and don’t know what’s coming next just know I’m putting my life in my kids’ hands for a change – what do I need – prayers!!!”
So I’ve been praying… Not for miracles or flood relief or just and equitable insurance. I’m asking the Holy One to give Carol strength, Carol and all of the many victims in Houston and the Caribean and the residents of Florida… The list spirals out of control like the wicked winds of the hurricanes.
What does prayer do in this case? If I’m supposed to know the answer to that, then I’m in trouble. All I can explain is what I hope it does for Carol et al. By praying to God, my words, along with the collective prayers of the world, add a kind of energy and intentionality to the compassion the victims experience. Our combined prayers are a reminder to the victims that they are not alone or forgotten. In this way, the compassion is a sacred compassion.
Or not. I can’t prove any of this to you. I just know that my faith leads me to believe that my love and hope for others is channeled through God who then channels it back through us. It’s a continuous loop.
I imagine folks like Bill Mahrer, famous for detesting religion, would roll their eyes at the above sentiment. “So great! You’re praying, and people are homeless and overwhelmed. How helpful.” Let me hasten to reassure you that prayer alone is essentially meaningless without deeds. It matters less that I’m praying for victims of hurricanes and more that I’m sending them tzedakah. I get that.
Maybe the praying is more for me and my soul. Maybe it’s a way to connect to the sacred in the midst of these terrible natural disasters. It gives me a chance not to feel so overwhelmed by the darkness. By asking God to give Carol strength and resilience, I am in fact asking the same for me, because day by day, minute by minute, who knows what will happen next? Flood, storm, hurricane, fire, water… I know I can’t figure this out alone. And I know God’s presence comforts me.
This is one of those “Praise God and pass the ammunition” moments. We are all needed to help alleviate suffering and injustice. We do it with cash, with donations of clothing and food, and with heartfelt prayer.