B’nai Sholom Reform Congregation – A Model Haggadah for Pesah
Rabbi Donald P. Cashman B’nai Sholom Reform Congregation January 24, 2020 – Parshat Vaera
Our lives are colored by special moments. A Jewish way of marking certain milestones of life is with the recitation of the blessing Sheheheyanu, in which we praise God for “keeping us alive, sustaining us, and bringing us to this time.” We might recite it at a big birthday, a wedding anniversary, graduation, a bar or bat mitzvah, retirement, or a baby naming, even moving into a new home. It’s not traditionally part of the wedding ceremony, but I can tell you that we include it. I think I said it when I paid off my student loan from rabbinical school. While the wording of the prayer is “Thank God, I made it,” my father’s 50th yahrzeit doesn’t seem like a Sheheheyanu moment.
Sure, I’m glad to be alive, I’m pleased I can commemorate this, but to be honest, I would have preferred to observe this milestone at a very old age, if even then. Had he lived to be my age, and not died at the age of 42, the 50th yahrzeit would have been when I am 86. My father never saw me get Confirmed, finish High School or go to college, or rabbinical school, get married, or have children. He never saw me conduct services aside from my Bar Mitzvah, and probably never saw me play guitar in public.
He did, however, see me on stage in choruses, bands, orchestras, choirs, and in theater. His Master’s degree was in Speech and Drama from Teachers College at Columbia, and Dad coached me in recitation and encouraged me in the theater. He saw me fly in Peter Pan, and appear as a Von Trapp child in The Sound of Music at a dinner theater.
As a great a gift as his coaching and support was, I think his great legacy to me was as a role model in public involvement. He was deeply involved with the Optimist Club, serving as their Executive Secretary. He was an active scouter, training scoutmasters and den mothers. Locally, he devoted time each week to teaching 10-year olds how to tie knots. He’d been in the Navy, and before that the Sea Scouts and Boy Scouts, so boy, did he know his knots. At one point, so did I.
He was a Past Master of the Masonic Lodge. For nearly 20 years he’d been in kinds of roles with the Newburgh Civic Theater – actor, director, chair of the play reading committee, and President Dad was always going to meetings and rehearsals, so it seems so natural to me to run my own life that way.
My father and mother were deeply involved in our Temple. Dad was a Vice President when he died, and this was back in the days when eagerly worked up the ranks over the years and eventually ascended to the coveted and honored role of Temple President. I guess in another 3 years he would have been President. He was also Chair of the Youth Committee. My father also took on the role as 7th grade Religious Teacher, a year or 2 after I was in that grade.
I remember one day see in him with Tefillin. I had never seen tefillin, though I knew from pictures what they were. I certainly had never seen him wear them; I didn’t know he had them. Apparently, the students in his 7th grade class had never seen tefillin either, so he was going to bring them in, and I suppose, put them on. He had worn tefillin daily from the time he was 13 until he went into the Navy just before he turned 18.
I mention the tefillin because on his first yahrzeit, the morning of January 9, 1971, – I observed the Gregorian date until college – I went to the morning minyan at Newburgh’s conserva-dox synagogue, which was a block away from our own Reform temple. I had never been to a morning minyan, and probably had never been in their new building. I knew I would be expected to wear tefillin at the minyan, so somehow I must have gotten a couple of books -there was no Youtube- and figured it out, and practiced with my father’s 30 year old tefillin. When I arrived, I was the only teenager at the minyan. One old man came up to me and asked “Are you a Sfard?” I told him no, and thought nothing of it till about 15 or 20 years later when it was pointed out to me that he was probably telling me I was putting them on, as far as he was concerned, backwards.
Near the end of the minyan they pulled out a bottle of whisky, and asked me if I wanted a shot. I figured that this was part of it, and they would all take a shot. But no, just the other guy, and me. So off I went to 10th grade after having a shot of whisky for breakfast. It was the only time all year I enjoyed geometry class.
One more old personal story: Two months after my father died, I went to my second CNYFTY [Central NY Federation of Temple Youth ] event, a regional Youth Group weekend, the CNYFTY Kallah, which was an intensive study weekend. It attracted a small group each year, 20 or 30 people, as opposed to the big conclaves of 150 or 200 at one of the big regional temples or at Kutz Camp. Kallah was held at Eisner, and this was my first time there. We spent the weekend studying Martin Buber under the direction of a student rabbi, who later grew up and was President of the CCAR and then also of HUC. He was a 9th generation rabbi. We spent our time eating, sleeping, praying, and studying Martin Buber. Sometime on Shabbat afternoon, while sitting in the Manor House Great Hall, I felt the Presence of God.
We learn in the Mishnah, (Avot 3:2)
שְׁנַיִם שֶׁיּוֹשְׁבִין וְיֵשׁ בֵּינֵיהֶם דִּבְרֵי תוֹרָה, שְׁכִינָה שְׁרוּיָה בֵינֵיהֶם,
When two sit together and there are words of Torah [spoken] between them, the Shekhinah – the Divine Presence – abides among them.
For me, that was a seminal moment, a formational moment. Coming on the heels of my bereavement, it was supremely comforting. It was the key that opened the door for me to the rest of my life. The study of sacred text brings holiness into …not just my life, but into all lives. Sharing the struggles that people have had for centuries to understand God, to understand the purpose of life, to comprehend the meaning of our existence: is this not the most important quest?
The Torah gives us this week the second story of the call of Moses. Last week we had the spectacular Burning Bush episode. This week, the story is much more low-keyed. God just appears to Moses and explains that earlier appearances were made to his ancestors, but not by the Name Y-H-V-H. Again, the Burning Bush episode is similar in that it attempts to explain the derivation of that Divine Name as a form of the verb “to be.”
For me, experiencing God’s Presence helps me come to the conclusion that simply by God’s Being, God’s Existence, human life and the entire Universe are not simply an astronomical bio-chemical accident of the hugest proportions. God is, and God – using the consonants of the Name – Will Be. Our task is to imitate God, and to become all we can be.
World Jewry has just begun the fourteenth cycle of Daf Yomi, the practice of studying one page of the Talmud daily. The 100 year old practice of the 7 ½ year cycle has gotten lots of coverage in the Internet and social media, and many of us who never did it before are doing it with the support of friends, colleagues, websites, apps and podcasts. Earlier this week we learned in Berakhot 16b
רַבִּי זֵירָא בָּתַר דִּמְסַיֵּים צְלוֹתֵיהּ אָמַר הָכִי:
״יְהִי רָצוֹן מִלְּפָנֶיךָ ה׳ אֱלֹהֵינוּ, שֶׁלֹּא נֶחֱטָא וְלֹא נֵבוֹשׁ וְלֹא נִכָּלֵם מֵאֲבוֹתֵינוּ״.
that after Rabbi Zeira concluded his prayers he said the following: “May it be Your will, Adonai our God, that we not sin or shame ourselves, and that we not disgrace ourselves before our ancestors.”
With Rabbi Zeira, who lived around the year 300, I pray that I have never brought shame or disgrace upon my ancestors.
Remembering is a crucial element in Judaism. Constantly in our liturgy and our holidays we remember the Exodus from Egypt, and the work of creation. We remember Jerusalem. We remember Amalek. We remember the Sabbath day. We remember the Giving of the Torah. We remember our martyrs. And we remember our loved ones on their Yahrtzeits, as we are taught in the Book of Ecclesiastes: “the day of one’s death is better than the day of one’s birth.” How so? We come into life naked not just in body, but also in deed. We exit life clothed in the life we have made for ourselves. For the biblical writer, it was a life aimed at attaining wisdom. May we all find wisdom, and be blessed with leaving behind good memories. And may we also be blessed with strong memory, that in our later years we retain the good memories that we have treasured all throughout our lives.
Would You Stand Up and Walk Out On Me?
Yom Kippur Morning 5778 – September 30, 2017
Rabbi Donald P. Cashman
B’nai Sholom Reform Congregation, Albany, NY
Jewish founders and heroes are so terribly fallible. Abraham throws out Hagar and Ishmael, and is silent to the command to offer up his son as a sacrifice. Joseph is bratty little brother, who later is vengeful, taunting and playing with his brothers. David is a murderous and lecherous Mafia Godfather; one wonders about the process that later made him the future ideal king who would make Israel great again. And Moses, considered the greatest prophet, the central human character of what is called תורת משה the Torah of Moses, the only one who God speaks with face to face: how does this Moses come to be noticed? What event propels him to the path of leadership? He violated the basic law of all moral civilizations: he killed someone. He saw the slave being mistreated, and he acted out of conscience. He resisted oppression.
Our world is filled with mistreatment. We’ve got dictators, cruel and insane rulers. Rampant greed and exploitation. There are criminal enterprises. There is trafficking of humans. There is hatred and bigotry based on race, ethnicity, and religion, on gender, sexual orientation or identity; and that hatred leads to violence, to threats of violence, and to the growth of fear. There is so much evil in the world: it breaks the heart.
אין חדש תחת השמש – There is nothing new under the sun. (Eccl. 1:9)
Today, we call ourselves in English “Jews.” That was not always the case. “Hebrews” was the accepted 19th century term, but “Jews” is still a very old term. The problem is that the Hebrew word יהודי can mean either “Judean,” i.e. someone from Judea, or “Jew,” meaning someone who practices the religion of Judea, that which developed into Judaism. Mordecai, who you know from the Megillah, the Book of Esther, is called “Mordecai the Jew,” but in context they understood that as “Mordecai the Judean.” The Jewish legal literature, the Mishnah and the Talmud, refer to a member of the group as a ישראל, “an Israelite.” The group is collectively called “Yisrael,” or “Am Yisrael,” the People of Israel. Yisrael is a larger, more encompassing term, since Judah was only one of the tribes, while Israel, i.e. Jacob, was the father of all the tribes.
Ivri, Hebrew, probably derives from “across”: to the Canaanites, they came from across the river. Yehudah, Judah, is a place name that we’re told is derived from his mother’s thanks when he was born. Yisrael is the new name Jacob gets after wrestling with the messenger of God, because, he is told, “You have wrestled beings divine and human, and prevailed.”
As God-wrestlers, we have to wonder “What kind of God would allow, or permit, or tolerate the evils in the world, the genocides, the tortures, the wars and upheavals, the massacres, the hatred of all kinds?” This is a very old question. We look for answers:
Some have used the evils of the world to say “there is no God.” Modern religious thought has moved away from the personal God, the Being depicted in the Bible, the Midrashim, the Talmud, and the prayer book. We still use that old familiar language, but it is not the God we believe in. The real God, for most of us, is whatever it is that gives us the capacity to learn, to love, to teach, to nurture, to create, to wonder, to hypothesize, and yes —-to determine right from wrong.
What is right, or wrong – meritorious or sinful – is culturally based. To be sure, most ethical systems share a common core of prohibitions. Still, we’ve seen enough to know that some sub-cultures have very different norms. I like to point to the fictitious Klingons, for whom the ideal death is gloriously dying in battle with honor. For Jews, the ideal death, kineahora, comes in the fullness of years, surrounded by one’s family, with the words of the Sh’ma as your final utterance. A world of difference between the two!
My privilege is to teach and promulgate Jewish views of what’s right and wrong; to interpret texts to get us there; and to convince and cajole the community to righteousness, since the language of commands and God’s wrath and punishment never really seemed to work anyhow, going back to the days of Moses. There are constraints that rabbis face when discussing right and wrong. Rabbi David Einhorn came to America from Bavaria in the mid-1850’s. His rabbinate in Baltimore was cut short in 1861 when he gave an anti-slavery sermon, and had to flee a mob that was threatening to tar and feather him. If I were to give that kind of sermon, would you stand up and walk out on me?
A constraint that American clergy face today is the so-called “Johnson Amendment” to Section 501(C)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code. That section, of course, pertains to tax-exempt organizations, and allows us to make tax-deductible contributions to them. I know we all treasure the deductibility of our contributions. The Johnson Amendment, 31 words enacted in 1954 after being proposed by the Senator from Texas, prohibits 501(C)(3) organizations from engaging in partisan political activity. In other words, synagogues, churches, universities, symphony orchestras, amateur athletic teams, and so forth – over 1000 entities in Albany alone – cannot campaign for or against candidates or political parties.
Reform rabbis have been extremely scrupulous about following the Johnson Amendment. I, for one, am astounded when candidates get embraced on church pulpits prior to election day, whether by evangelical preachers in the South, or in African-American churches in northern cities. Right or left, we don’t know how they get away with it.
A couple of years back, we rabbis wondered if there was line. David Duke, a member of the American Nazi Party, a Grand Wizard of the KKK, a Holocaust denier, white supremacist, and anti-Semitic conspiracy theorist, ran for office a couple of times: Louisiana State Senate, Louisiana governor, US Senate, US House, President. He actually did win one of those elections in 1989, and served till 1992. We wondered when the obligation under the law to refrain from campaigning against a candidate is superseded by our obligation to speak out against those who hate us, those who promote anti-Semitism, racism, and human equality.
David Duke was largely Louisiana’s problem, but from time to time in various locales, other candidates would surface espousing racism, nativism, and anti-Semitism. How should we deal with this? A year ago, in the summer of 2016, rabbis were wondering how we were going to deal with Trump. It really didn’t matter if I was wrong; I’m right where I belong in a true blue state, so I didn’t need to convince anybody of anything. My colleagues in swing states with tight races: Florida, or Ohio and Michigan, or Colorado – they were caught between their urge to speak out, and their urge not to rile too many congregants, even without crossing a line. Let me tell you: congregants got riled in some places.
There’s a difference between a candidate and an incumbent. There’s also a very big difference between disagreeing over policy, and the great fear most of the people I talk to and read share about this President and the government he has installed. There’s a great fear from the newly opened Pandora’s box of racism, sexism, anti-Semitism, homophobia, nativism, and white supremacism; there’s dread about doing away with many of the anti-poverty efforts that have come out of Washington since the New Deal such as Medicaid, Headstart, and food stamps; and there’s amazement at the elevation of ideology above science, endangering our precious environment to a degree that we just cannot believe. There’s the lengthy list of unqualified people working at the highest levels.
Anti-Semitic incidents jumped 86 percent in the first three months of this year, and there’s been a massive increase in the amount of bullying and vandalism in K-12 schools, according to ADL.
We thought we were progressing to a great age for human equality and dignity: Jews had risen to the highest levels in business, government, and society; an African American had become President; Gays and Lesbians could get married; women can serve in any Military Occupational Specialty for which they are qualified. Now, step by step, we are going backward to yesteryear. And we are frightened by what that looks like.
I truly believe we are endangered by this government, and our most fervent prayers will not save us.
And just as clergy are preparing to skirt the Johnson Amendment, psychiatrists are ignoring the American Psychiatric Association’s “Goldwater Rule,” named after Johnson’s 1964 Presidential opponent, which forbids a member from offering a diagnosis of a public figure they haven’t themselves examined.
You know the story – I’ve told it before – of the 18th century Hasidic leader Rabbi Zusya Lipman of Hanipol. His famous saying is “When I stand before the throne of judgment, I will not be asked, ‘Reb Zusya, why were you not like Moses?’ I will be asked , ‘Reb Zusya, why were you not like Zusya?”
Preachers use this saying to teach that we must strive to be who we are. It’s like the US Army recruiting slogan from the 80’s and ‘90’s: “Be all you can be.” That’s what Zusya was saying. But maybe Zusya got it wrong. Maybe, when I stand before the Throne of Judgement, the Holy One will ask “Nattan Meir (God will call me by my Hebrew name), why were you not like Moses, resisting the evil of Pharaoh’s taskmaster? And why were you not like Abraham, who spoke up and challenged Me for the lives of the innocent? And why were you not like Jonah, who schlepped all the way to Nineveh to get the people to change their ways? And why were you not like Esther, who endangered herself to expose and foil an evil plan? Why, Nattan Meir, when I have given you my Holy Writings with these role models, do you and your colleagues and congregants read the words but ignore the lessons?
“Be all you can be” was a slogan crafted at a Philadelphia advertising firm. It was a New York firm that created in 1965 the slogan, “We answer to a higher authority.” Sometimes, our religious imperatives outweigh the customary expectations. There are special tax rules for people who take vows of poverty. You can have religious objections to receiving Social Security, and can be exempted from paying into it. There are religious exemptions from Jury Duty, or from swearing on a Bible. I think when a candidate’s core of support is found in Klansmembers, neo-Nazis, and others who would threaten our very existence, we have a right and a duty to speak out, the Johnson Amendment aside. LBJ had a long history of helping Jews, and along his maternal line, his great-grandparents may have been Jews.
My friends, on Yom Kippur, we focus on what’s wrong, what’s broken, what needs to be fixed. Our tradition and our liturgy focus on the self: each one of us looks at where we fell short. I’m suggesting today that while we may start with “I tried to do the best I could, but after all, I’m only me,” that is not the level for which we should aim in the coming year. It is said that one of the reasons we fast on Yom Kippur is to make us like the angels, who do not eat or drink, or do any of the other things prohibited on fast days. We are, and this would be a good slogan for the coming year, “a little lower than the angels.” We cannot aim for angel-hood, but we can aim to be like Moses. We can resist injustice. We can bring people to freedom. We can gather with others at Sinai as God teaches us what is right. This year, be like Moses.
Fixing a Hole Where the Sin Gets In
Erev Yom Kippur 5778- September 29, 2017
Rabbi Donald P. Cashman
B’nai Sholom Reform Congregation, Albany, NY
Early in my career I concluded that it was impossible to relax on the beach in August when these Days of Awe were looming in September. We now make our nearly annual trip to Cape Cod in July. But even then, I’m thinking about sermon topics and approaches, and certainly this year I was thinking our new prayer book for the Days of Awe. I even brought one along. Two months ago, Sharona and I were ordering breakfast in a restaurant on the Cape, on Route 28 in West Dennis. Our waiter was a tall young man, about 19 or 20, very eager and earnest. Sharona ordered the Cranberry Walnut Pancakes. “Awesome!” said our waiter. He turned to me. “Could I have the Vegetarian Omelet, please?” “Awesome!” he responded.
I like to think these Days of Awe are more awesome than pancakes or eggs.
Kol Nidrei teaches us that the words that come out of our mouths are important. Language is terribly important. What sold me on the new prayer book was its use of language – the translations, the prose, the poetry.
Virtually everyone here, I’m sure, has spent some time learning a second language. For some of you, I know, English is that second language, and you learned it by coming to these shores and having an immersive experience. Immersive, meaning it was sink or swim. For the vast majority of us, we learned our second language in a classroom. I’ve sat through courses in 6 languages besides English – Spanish, Classical Greek, German, Arabic, Aramaic, and of course Hebrew, Oh, yeah, the Klingon language cassette tapes, too. The worst part of learning a language, based on my broad experience with a wide range of languages on various levels over more than 40 years, is the vocabulary lists. It would be a whole lot easier to learn a language if it weren’t for the vocabulary.
Learning words from lists is the pits. And it doesn’t even have to be in another language. We all suffered with English vocabulary lists, too.
As an adult, I encounter new words chiefly though reading. I spoke to you a year or two ago about the word “ethno-religious,” that Jews are an “ethno-religious group.” Another new word- I thought I’d coined it, but I’ve seen it around, so maybe a bunch of people came up with the idea simultaneously – is “Ashkenormative,” which means “the presumption that the normative Jewish cultural and religious experience is that of the Ashkenazim.” In my house, where we regularly make hummus, baklava, kefta kabobs, shakshuka, and mujadra, we resist Ashkenormativity. Now, I need to worry about excessive cultural appropriation, though I am pleased to inform you that earlier this month I was welcomed as an associate member of the CCAR Sephardic Caucus.
Earlier this summer, I learned that the Oxford Dictionary folks name a “Word of the Year,” and the new winner of that status was “Post-truth,” which means “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” Post-truth is the valuing of emotion and personal belief over objective facts. Never mind shaping public opinion; think about how much our own lives are governed by our emotions and beliefs, as opposed to objective facts.
What drives us to be here today? Facts, or emotions and beliefs? Which governs our lives: facts, or emotions and beliefs?
Some of the core statements we make at these Holy Days are beliefs, not facts: We say it is the birthday of the world. We say the world is 5,778 years old. We say “On Rosh Hashanah it is written, on Yom Kippur it is sealed…” Nice beliefs, I guess, unless you really believe the world is only about 6000 years old because that’s the Biblical chronology. It’s the birthday of the world? Sure, why not?
We are not here because of these non-facts. Some of us may feel drawn here on this day, and feel the need to be with others observing the day. Others need or want this day as a connection to the past, or to their heritage, or even maybe to God. Some are here out of guilt, or to avoid the guilt they would feel if they didn’t show up. Some are here to support a spouse who feels the need to be in synagogue on Yom Kippur. People are drawn to the synagogue on Yom Kippur for all kinds of reasons, and it doesn’t matter how intense their relationship is with Judaism, or how tangential, it boils down to beliefs, and emotions. I had a student at SUNY a few years back, and Orthodox kid, who said YK is his favorite holiday. The melodies, the emotions! And some come because, well, this is what you do on Yom Kippur: you don’t have aseder, you don’t go to a pond, you don’t march down Fifth Avenue, you don’t dress in costume and give out food, and you don’t dance with the Torah or give out gifts: those are for other special days in Jewish life. Today, we sit in the synagogue. That’s a fact.
Here is another fact: we are sinners. We have, each one of us, transgressed this past year. We have violated not just some religious code, some laws and customs derived from ancient Israelite sources and their later Judean interpretations from late antiquity and the medieval Babylonian commentaries on those interpretations, and their redaction and codification in Egypt, Germany, Spain, Tzfat, Poland, Lithuania, and other places. No! We have violated our own moral codes, whatever that code might be, no matter how rooted or non-rooted in Judaism it might be. Of the many things each of us considers to be a positive virtue or a moral obligation, we fell short. And for those who are unsure of what should be or could be or might be indecent or unethical behavior, or prayer book makes many suggestions. You might think, “I never thought of that as being wrong before, but yes, it’s wrong.”
Will we deal with our sins as post-truths, not rooted in fact? Or, will we, when reading the various enumerations of sins from our prayer book tonight and tomorrow, dismiss them, gloss over them, label them “fake sins,” branding them as non-occurrences, actions not really wrong, or beyond possibility?
But we know the truth, don’t we? DON’T WE??
Fact, or Fake? Can’t we be honest with ourselves, today of all days?
One of the hallmarks of this Day of Atonement is its prohibition against bodily comforts and pleasures: The Torah tells us to “afflict ourselves.” The Mishnah, the early stratum of the Talmud, teaches this forbids eating, drinking, washing, anointing, sex, and leather shoes. We say, or we’ll thinking tomorrow by mid-day, “How can I concentrate on my past behavior when I’m hungry? My stomach’s rumbling, I can’t get past the discomfort.” This is a perfectly logical appreciation of the situation. I get that, and I’m with you. But look at it this way: we have to take ourselves apart in order to rebuild ourselves.
Earlier this year, we had our kitchen re-done. It was, we believe, the original 47-year-old kitchen of the house where we’ve been living for 19 years. The room was stripped down to the studs; the walls, the wall stuffing (the insulation), ceiling, the insulation above, wiring, plumbing, everything taken out. Over the course of a couple of weeks, new insulation, new walls and ceiling, a new window, sliding door, floor, cabinets, sinks, appliances, counter. Everything had to be broken down in order to be rebuilt into perfection, even though it will be perfect and new for only a short time.
So too with us. We have to get broken down. We have to remove and replace the old, imperfect stuff:
And just like the Electrical Inspector showed up to check things out the day I was writing this section, we pray that at the end of the day the Great Inspector from City Hall on High will approve of our personal renovation project, and grant us atonement.
Last month we were treated to a great solar eclipse. It deservedly attracted lots of attention, and among rabbis there were two big areas of discussion: one was eclipses in the Bible, Talmud, and Midrash; the second was “What’s the proper blessing for an eclipse?” The choices in the second question boil down to this: Is an eclipse a random occurrence of great natural power, like hearing thunder, or experiencing a hurricane, or is it part of מעשה בראשיתsomething natural built into creation. I myself, and most of the Reform rabbis who spoke to it, believe the latter was more appropriate, understanding that the sun, moon, and stars follow predictable paths, so predictable that we can say when these events will occur. A NASA website lists the dates and locations for 2500 solar eclipses in the next thousand years.
In the Kabbalah, מעשה בראשית , the work of creation, is preceding by not one, but several breakings down. First, of course, God’s Presence fills everything in the pre-universe, and God must contract to make room for the universe. There is a primordial light, and the light and the vessels containing that light and the sparks break up, and provide the matter for creation. All matter- including us, contains that light and those sparks. The universe is made from these broken primordial materials. Our goal, according to the Kabbalah, is to release those sparks, that will lead to a reparation of the universe; in Hebrew, Tikkun Olam.
That self-contraction God engaged in is called “Tzimtzum.” We contract our egos today, to let room in for the atonement to occur. The word “Tzimtzum” is a reduplicated verb form, built from the two letters צ tzadee and מ mem, which together make up the word TZOM, that is, “fast,” as in “Yom Kippur is a fast day.”
But more far reaching than our observance of this day as a day of fasting, is our observance of this day as a day of truth. Not of post-truth, not of fake news to ourselves, but rather a day of real truth. Our traditional wish for each other on this day is that we be “inscribed and sealed on this day for a good year, a year of life.” Rabbi Hanina, a Talmudic honey merchant, teaches us (Shab. 55a) חותמו של הקב”ה אמת “the seal of the Holy One is truth.” Indeed, in one of the 18th century versions of the story of the Golem of Prague, the being made from clay is animated by writing the word אמת/truth on it.
Today, we break ourselves down so that we can rebuild ourselves. The old goes out and the new comes in. Ideally, today we’re fixing a hole where the sin gets in. We notice and acknowledge and confess our shortcomings and failures and mistakes and sins, and we create that new self, and resolve to try, at least try, to be better human beings in this new year.
And if we can do that, “Awesome!”
Summer of Love, Summer of Hate (But It’s Getting Better)
Rabbi Donald P. Cashman
B’nai Sholom Reform Congregation, Albany, NY
Rosh Hashanah Morning, 5778 – September 21, 2017
Here we sit on this beautiful first day of fall, and outside, America and the world goes on. We are taking time out to observe our holy day in the way that Jews have observed this day for hundreds of years. When we’re done, we’ll return to our workplaces, our schools, and our other activities for what we call “real life.”
Jews live in two worlds: that outside world, and our own parochial world, where we celebrate different holidays, and practice a whole variety of customs ranging from potato pancakes to placing rocks on gravestones to circumcision. We can enjoy our unique ways, and then go out into the world and enjoy what the world has to offer. Occasionally we encounter a conflict between the religious and other aspects of our lives: when Meet the Teacher night falls on Rosh Hashanah, or a really important meeting is scheduled when you wanted to leave early for the seder. Sometimes, though, our wider culture is in consonance with our Jewish values, and even helps: so not only is giving money away as tzedakah a mitzvah, a religious obligation that brings merit, but you can get a tax deduction for it, under certain circumstances. Or, both Judaism and American law believe in equality: the Talmud tells us, in its world-view, all people are descended from the same ancestors, so no one’s blood is any better than anyone else’s.
Sometimes these two worlds we live in seem to be siloed. Separated. Kept apart by a wall. We have our Jewish side, and we have our secular side, and the gate between the two sides of the wall could be small, or closed, or locked, or even non-existent. Very few of us have a big, open archway – not even a gate – between these two facets of our lives. I like to think that as a modern Reform Jewish professional, these two aspects of my life are pretty well integrated. It therefore came as a shock to me last spring when I realized that two, very different 50th anniversaries were occurring at the same time. Two events of incredible significance.
It’s Certainly a Thrill: Welcoming a New Prayer Book
Rabbi Donald P. Cashman
B’nai Sholom Reform Congregation, Albany, NY
Rosh Hashanah Eve 5778 – September 20, 2017
Good evening, good Yontif. It’s certainly a thrill to be using this new prayer book, Mishkan haNefesh. It’s a once-in-a-generation event! The last time Reform Judaism published a new mahzor was in 1978, and before that was in 1945. I’m grateful to all who provided insight, opinion, and judgement while we were considering the book: the Ritual Committee, participants in a class, attendees at town meetings, some reviewers, our Board of Trustees who actually made the decision, and to the nearly half of the congregation that generously contributed to our campaign for these books.
The changes from 1945 to 1978 seem to be pretty modest when compared to what we’ll experience with this new liturgy. In 1978 we jettisoned the archaic pronouns “Thee, Thou, & Thine” and archaic verb forms such as “Doest, sayest,” and my favorite, “withereth.” We took a hold of gender inclusion for humanity, though a gender-neutral God would not appear until the 1996 minor revision. Our new volumes use exciting, invigorating translations. The options and alternatives are moving and enlivening; they make us think, and wonder. We won’t be able to read them all, so I hope you’ll come a little early to read through some of the blue and gray pages. Do us a favor, please, and don’t just walk off with a copy. If you want to borrow one, speak to me after Yom Kippur.
After selecting the readings, I began to consider a big question, which I have carefully and creatively formulated as “Why is this prayer book different from all other prayer books?” What motivates a new prayer book? How much is a new mahzor a mirror of the mood and mindset of the moment, and of our movement? Our prayer books, I believe, are created by people whose sensitivities, ideas, and theologies are shaped by the transformational events of the times. How much is a prayer book a product of the cultural touchstones of its editors, and its anticipated audience? How do temporal and cultural icons become significant in our worship? How does history impact our High Holy Days? Indeed, the whole reason we are praying is a response to geo-political circumstances: the first-century Judeans rebelled against Rome, so the Romans destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem, so sacrifices ceased and prayer was substituted.
Our old prayer book, Gates of Repentance, was crafted by and for people who had witnessed the birth of the State of Israel. We were beginning, just beginning, to appreciate the establishment of the Jewish State as a modern miracle, an event to be spoken of with theological importance. I was living in Israel at the time the book was published, and the focus was still on survival, as Israel’s existence had been threatened and challenged from the start, with the memories of wars in 1967 and 1973 still fresh, and the incursion in Lebanon while we were there.
The Holocaust also shaped their theology and teachings. They had seen the rise of the Third Reich. They could not forget the horrors, the martyrs, the uprooted, the survivors, the vanished Eastern European Jewish culture, the failure of the western civilization, the silence of the world; they remembered the refugees, and the destruction of Hiroshima, too. They made sure that we would remember them, as well as the three million Jews who were silenced behind the Iron Curtain after the war.
Israel and the Holocaust are just the Jewish touchstones of significance when our old book was put together. Exactly a month ago, as I was writing these words, the CCAR issued a news release that it was not going to co-sponsor an annual pre-High Holy Days phone conference call with the President of the United States. I’d been one of the several hundred American rabbis on these calls for the last 8 years, and it was always a thrill to have Barack Obama wish you a “L’shana Tovah.” The news release stated that “The President’s words have given succor to those who advocate anti-Semitism, racism, and xenophobia.” Now that word “xenophobia”: fear of strangers – I first encountered that word in Gates of Repentance, when they needed, for an alphabetical list of sins, a sin that began with the letter X. It’s a good sin, well not a “good sin,” but a legitimate sin that some or even many of us could be guilty of. We could easily see why rabbis creating a prayer book in the 1970’s would include that as a sin: they had lived through the hey-day of Civil Rights movement. They had marched in Selma, sat at lunch counters in Greensboro, and gone to jail in Birmingham. The editor had been a Freedom Rider. One of my colleagues, the son of a rabbi, wrote a few years ago about one Shabbat dinner at his home as a boy when the Shabbat guest was the Rev Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
I don’t recall seeing “xenophobia” in Mishkan haNefesh, not that we’ve conquered our xenophobia, but rather we’ve found some less esoterically worded sins. Ironic, since xenophobia seems to be increasing around us.
The editors and original users of the old book had a broad range of other shared experiences that shaped their hopes, dreams, fears, and their sense of right and wrong. They were still living, back in 1978, in the Cold War. They had also lived through and perhaps fought in real wars. The desire in America for peace in the late 1960’s and early ‘70’s permeates our Gates liturgy, with the big blue Gates of Prayer coming out in 1975, just three months after Saigon fell. Civil discord and violence was part of the cultural baggage too: assassinations of the Kennedys, Dr. King, Malcom X, the shooting of George Wallace; riots in the cities…. all these miseries were in the minds of those who wrote and used GOR.
Not every formative experience of 1978 culture was negative. Vietnam and Watergate were behind them. The 1945 prayer book was created by and for people who listened to radio; by 1978, virtually every middle class home had a television. (I think that’s supposed to be a positive!) From the low of a November Friday in Dallas, there was, 80 days later in February, a Sunday night on Ed Sullivan, when 4 lads from Liverpool changed music and culture. The Betamax and VHS technologies were becoming household technologies.
A new set of formative experiences is the foundation of our new book. We are not who we were in 1978; society and the world are different. We have been shaped by 9/11, AIDS, and Chernobyl. We saw the Gulf War live on television, the expansion to a 24-hour news cycle, and the contraction of the print media. We are cyberconnected through our gadgets and our social media, giving us information and disinformation. Wikipedia is the go-to source. We shop on-line and have it delivered.
We saw the terrible destructive force of Hurricanes Andrew in Florida, Katrina in the Gulf, Sandy in New York. We saw the election of an African-American as President, and saw NATO and the European Union extend into the Eastern Bloc after the Soviet Union collapsed.
We’re watching great numbers of people fleeing ISIS by moving into Europe, changing the face of that continent. We’re learning that sexual orientation and gender identity is not binary, but rather a whole spectrum.
And we cannot forget the changes in Jewish life since 1978.
Here in the US, we are increasingly a secular people, with more dividing lines fragmenting the Jewish community. As the saying goes, “everyone makes Shabbos on their own,” meaning that people make their own decisions, avoiding commitments of community and institutions. We are aging; as a religious group, we have the oldest average age because we are marrying later and having fewer children. A lower percentage of the children are receiving any sort of Jewish education. Many get it through Birthright, a free 10-day trip to Israel for college-aged kids, courtesy of Jewish philanthropists who see the Israel experience as a magic bullet to Jewish renaissance and continuity. We’re also seeing increased presence of non-Jews in our synagogues, some seeking personal spirituality, and others supporting a Jewish family identity.
World Jewry, too, affects our Jewish consciousness differently these days. Two and half million Jews were able to leave the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, mostly for Israel, the US, and Germany. Ethiopian Jewry, barely on the radar screen in 1978, was brought to freedom in the early ‘80s.
And in Israel: So much has changed since Begin’s Likud victory in 1977. Now, 400,000 Jews live in 225 or so settlements in the West Bank, plus another 200,000 in neighborhoods of Jerusalem captured in 1967. These 600,000 are about 1/8 of all Jewish Israelis. There is a universe of difference of opinion -secular, political, religious, nationalist, messianic-about how to handle this situation. Israel is torn, American Jewry is torn, and the situation only gets more volatile.
The status of Reform Jews, the status of women, the status of Reform and other women to pray at the Western Wall , all issues that have synagogue and state, religious-based political parties and government enmeshed in an unhealthy and unsavory mess, affect our attitudes to Israel, which in turn affects our attitudes to what it means to be a Jew, especially a Reform Jew, today.
This is what made us – our congregation and our fellow congregations – who we are today. What do we want, and what do we need from a prayer book on these Days of Awe?
We want a book that speaks to us.
• Our prayers of praise must recognize the parameters of a God we can accept;
• our prayers of thanksgiving must humble us while moving us to awareness of how truly fortunate we are to be living in this time, this place, under these circumstances;
• our prayers of petition must acknowledge that what we urgently need and what we want the most are also the most difficult for humans to attain on their own.
We want a prayer book that recognizes our sophistication and complexity. We need acknowledgement of how human society has evolved since the eras when the classical liturgy was penned; and we need the reality of how distant we are from perfection. Our new book accommodates the humanists who want to leave out God; for traditionalists, it brings back “resurrection.” It speaks to both those who find meaningful moments in solitude, or instead in relationship. It addresses those who observe in solemn rest, those who observe in intensive Jewish action, and those who value vigorous pleasurable experiences. We’ll find time-honored prayers and religious terminology as well as new and creative understandings of what it may mean to be a Jew, or thinking or feeling person, today.
The tale is told of Rabbi Simcha Bunem of Pshiskhe פשיסחא, a Hasidic leader in the early 19th century. Everyone must have two pockets, he taught, with a piece of paper in each pocket. When you’re feeling depressed, or discouraged you reach into one pocket and pull out the paper that say “”For my sake was the world created.” (M. Sanh. 4:5).” That should cheer you up. On the other hand, said Simcha Bunem, if you’re feeling high and mighty, you should reach into your other pocket and pull out the paper that quotes the Torah “I am but dust and ashes.” (Gen 18:27)
Our prayer book must support us in our highs, and in our lows. At this time of year, more than any other, we are willing to those lows. Our failings. The notion of T’shuvah, or turning in repentance, is the key motif of the season. If we open our 21st century hearts to the words we shall encounter, we shall be comforted in our low status, and exalted to improve our conduct. Our prayer book will remind us of the universality of the miserable moments and occasions and events and situations humans find themselves in, and shall encourage us to be understanding of our own humanity, and the humanity of those who inevitably will annoy, insult, hurt, or injure us.
Our prayer book, in and of itself, will not bring us to the high point of spiritual enlightenment. It will not unlock the heavenly gates of repentance. It will not make you a better Jew, or a better person. It is a tool, a key: it is a key that may possibly, just possibly, unlock your soul.
May this volume in our hands, which each one of us has the merit of using for the first time, be for us that key. May our souls be opened up for good for the coming year, and ever more.