Marching With The Next Generation: Women’s March Chicago 2017

My 12 year old says she doesn’t feel well and is not going to march. Her sister says the same thing and their brother says they must go. He yells at them, “All our rights are at stake!” After a few minutes of yelling to get into the car we are off! My husband is driver for the day—he drops us off at the Women’s March in Chicago and is available if we need him. In the car, we regroup.  I read my friend Rebecca’s article out-loud and we talk about how history proves that being silent is being part of the problem and how as Jews we can never be silent because when one person’s rights are threatened, all are threatened. We can never take freedom for granted.

We get to the rally. We get pins that say, “Girl Power” and “Love Trumps Hate” and other slogans that I won’t write here…. The kids are excited to be a part of this historic event, proud to be speaking up and out! Periodically, my son spontaneously yells into the crowd “I’m mad as hell and we aren’t going to take it anymore!!” He gets applause and high-fives. He smiles and keeps on walking. My daughters chant about immigration rights and each feels free enough to shout her own slogans about rights and freedom and we walk together with hundreds of thousands of people. My kids know they are doing the right thing. They are moved by participating in democracy. They even have a group hug. I repeat: my children hug each other. Although I am angry that we have to be marching in the first place, yesterday was one of the best days I can remember.img_3790


Posted in civil discourse, parenting, Uncategorized | Tagged ,


The feelings of anger and despair I have will in time morph into action and revolutionary love. We are strong and courageous and in this together and right and there are too many people who need us. We need us. It is not easy, but I don’t think we have any choice but to F.E.A.R: Face Everything And Rise. This is the only answer now and always…one breath at a time.

Posted in Fear, Love, Mindfulness, Uncategorized

Don’t Throw A Good Wish Away: A Yom Kippur Morning Sermon

There is a story told of a simple man, living in a simple village. His name was Itzik. He was a man who loved God and devoted his life to the care of his synagogue and his family and his community. Each morning he worked as a baker, each afternoon he would spend some time with his wife and children and some time immersed in the study of Jewish texts, and each evening he would go to the synagogue to clean up, dusting the shelves, straightening the books. It was always dark by the time he got there, but he would light some candles and go about his business.

One evening, when the sky was clear and the moon shone brightly, Itzik went over to the shul for some housekeeping.   But on this night, he kept hearing a noise – a faint cry –coming from the holy ark. Itzik stepped closer and closer – and as he did the sound grew louder and louder. Then Itzik saw a light appear from the cracks of the ark, and he opened the doors, and was almost blinded by the brightest light he had ever seen. Itzik yelled out, “Who’s there? Who is this?” And a soft voice came out from the ark, and said, “I am an angel, a messenger from God, and I have come to offer you one wish.”

“A wish? What kind of wish? Why me?” And the angel responded softly, “The heavens have taken note of how dedicated and kind you are, and you are being given one wish and one wish only – as a reward for your good deed. You may wish for anything you want – the choice is yours. I shall return tomorrow night, and you will tell me what you desire.” Poof – and just like that, the light disappeared. Itzik thought it might be some kind of dream, and he ran home to his wife and children – but he thought better of it and told no one of the encounter.

The rest of the night, he lay awake in bed deciding what his wish should be – he laid out the pros and the cons of each option. And all during the next day at work baking, while he was with his family, while he was studying text, he pondered his choices. When the sun went down, Itzik closed his books of study, picked up a broom, and began to clean the shul. Right on schedule, the moaning and crying began again – and when the light came forth from the cracks of the ark, Itzik opened the doors, and the angel again spoke from the light.

“Itzik,” said the angel, “have you decided on your wish?” And with a quivering voice, Itzik responded. “I have been thinking about this all night and all day and let me tell you – it has not been an easy choice. At first, I wanted to ask for money – lots of it – I could buy fancy clothes and donate a large sum to tzedakah. But then I thought about it, and I realized that although I am a simple baker, I have enough money to buy clothes and food for my family, we have a small but loving house, and I give what I can to tzedakah now. And so I realized that I should not ask for money, because although I am not rich, I am comfortable.

Then I was going to ask for fame. It would be nice to be famous – everyone would know who I am – and everyone would respect me. But fame is fleeting – and why do I need to be famous? I am needed here in this town, for my family, for the bakery, for the shul. And although no one knows me outside of this village, I am comfortable with that.

Then, I was thinking about asking for wisdom, but I spend every day reading the texts of our tradition. I grow in wisdom with every word on every page. And I love to study. If I was wise all of a sudden from this wish, what need would I have to study? I would miss that. And although I am not the smartest person in this village, I am comfortable with that.

And so, dear angel, I wish for nothing. I do not need money, or fame, or wisdom. I am comfortable with who I am and what I do. Since I do not need anything, I will not wish for anything. God has blessed me with all that I need and want. Thank you, but no thank you.”

At that very second, the light went out in the ark and the angel disappeared. Itzik felt proud of his decision. But as soon as he picked up his broom and began to sweep the floor, he heard another voice crying. But this time it was coming from the back of shul. He lit some more candles, and he saw sitting in the back row was the rabbi – the wonderful rebbe – and he was crying. Startled, Itzik asked what the rabbi was doing there at this hour. The rabbi told him that he had witnessed the whole encounter Itzik had with the angel. Itzik stood upright, ready to be praised by the rebbe for his selflessness, but the rabbi kept on crying. Itzik asked the rabbi what was wrong, and the rabbi said, “Itzik, you were given a gift – any wish that you wanted – and it would be fulfilled from the high heavens – you could have wished for anything, and yet you refused and said you needed nothing.” As the rabbis tears fell down his cheek, Itzik asked, “What was wrong with what I said?”

At that moment, the rabbi stood up and said, “Itzik you are a very selfish man.” “but rebbe, why do you think that? I am a humble man who is content to live in a modest way.” Itzik replied. “Itzik,” said the rabbi, “you could have wished for an end to hunger – and no one on this planet would go to bed without food tonight. You could have wished for an end to war – and it would have been granted – and nations would have beat their spears into pruning-hooks, they would have beat their swords into plow-shares – no one would ever die in a senseless war again. You could have wished for an end to all disease – no one would ever again suffer from affliction and die before their time. Itzik, you could have changed the world with your wish. But you were comfortable, and so you squandered a gift for all humanity. That is why I am crying. We lost a chance at improving our world because you were too comfortable.” And with that, the rabbi left the shul. Itzik thought about the rabbi’s words began to cry. And as the angels in heaven witnessed this, they too, began to cry, and their tears came down as rain upon the little village.

Now is the time for asking. Asking for forgiveness, asking ourselves what could we have done better? Where did we fall short? Now is the time for returning, for searching our souls and making an accounting of all the ways we have settled. Settled in to the status quo, settled in and ignored the needy, neglected our synagogue, our community, the poor, the suffering. We are supposed to be uncomfortable today not because Judaism encourages us to feel badly about ourselves – but just the opposite. Judaism gives us this time to reflect in order to better ourselves – to make the effort to become more loving, more generous, more just. Today we are reminded that being comfortable is not the point of our life. It is nice if it happens but comfort cannot be at the expense of seeing the suffering and heading the call to Tikkun Olam, to fix this broken world.

Often we do not take full advantage of the gift that Judaism offers because – like Itzik in the story – we are comfortable enough with our lives as they are … or, and perhaps this is the more likely story, the process of looking at our lives and souls in such an honest and “stripped of all pretenses/excuses” way moves us from a place of relative comfort to a place of great discomfort … and who among us wants to be uncomfortable if we don’t have to.

But here we are, in synagogue, praying a liturgy that will soon remind us that the gates are closing; that this holy day is for each of us to feel a little uncomfortable. Uncomfortable at how quick we are to judge others sternly without fully knowing them. Uncomfortable with how easily our attentions can get diverted from those who need us most. Uncomfortable with the way we deflect our responsibility for the ills of the world by blaming them on politicians, or the rich, or the poor … or thinking because we didn’t cause the problem, or that it doesn’t effect us, that it is not our problem! Uncomfortable with the silence we keep in the face of increasing hostility and violence and injustice.

Today, the holiest day of our year is not only a most auspicious time, it’s not only a time to feel remorse or uncomfortable, today is an opportunity. An opportunity, as our Torah portion urges us, to choose life for ourselves and for the world.  In this morning’s torah portion we read, “Atem Nitzvaim hayom! “You stand today, all of you, before the Lord your God; your heads, your tribes, your elders, your officers, and every Israelite; your young ones, your wives, the stranger in your gate; from your wood hewer to your water-drawer….I have set before you life and goodness, and death and evil…Life and death I have set before you, blessing and curse. And you shall choose Life.”

No matter our circumstance, no matter our challenges or how much we might feel we are living in darkness. No matter if we believe nothing could possibility get better with our life, that our lives of filled with ease and contentment, there is always more life to be lived! Each day, a new opportunity to live in relationship with our world, to exist with open eyes and hearts and not turn away to the call of what begs our attention. Today we can be make a commitment to risk and feel uncomfortable so that we will seize the opportunity to be moved into action. Action for blessing and so we choose life! Atem Nitzvim hayom. We stand here and we stand up this day and ask, What will our life be filled with? Will it be filled with missed opportunities to bring love into the world, into our family, our community?

Standing up means asking, are our eyes are open to the reality around us, to pain and to suffering, to the cries of those in need.

Standing up means we believe we are loved even when we don’t feel like we are, and that we have a responsibility to build this world through love. We are loved and we give that love back to the universe and so we choose life and blessing.

Atem nitzvaim hayom! We stand up and we take a stand against hate, injustice and bigotry.

Every Friday night at our worship service I read the names of those who died during the past week in Chicago gun violence. A few months ago, as I was reading close to 30 names, I thought to myself, “This is not good enough! I cant read one more name.” As I continued reading, I found myself feeling ill, physically ill. Reading the names to promote awareness of gun violence means nothing unless I am willing to do something to stop it, without working to prevent their deaths in the first place.” A group of concerned Beth Am members met with me after services that night to see what we could do, beyond just reading the names of each week’s victims. For starters, we settled on finding out more about the victims—that their lives should not go unnoticed, but this is still not good enough. To take a stand means to work for the end of gun violence. And to this end I have had an initial meeting with United Power, a non-partisan community organization composed of 40 religious congregations, not-for-profit groups, hospitals, health centers and civic organizations from across the area. United Power is an affiliate of the Do Not Stand Idly By Campaign, launched by faith leaders and citizens it is based on two simple premises:

  1. We can’t end the plague of gun violence in America until the manufacturers of guns make safety and responsible sales among their highest priorities.
  2. The companies that step up to lead in these areas will thrive.  They’ll tap a growing demand for safety, and expand their market share among major public-sector gun buyers.

United Power is also involved with procuring affordable housing and health care for those in need.[i] Standing up means being part of the solution and choosing life. I would like Beth Am to be a member organization of United Power. If you are interested in helping make this happen, please email me or let me know.

Standing up is about being counted and this year it means that each one of us, who can, must vote. Beth Am is part of the Union of Reform Judaism get out the vote drive, titled, Nitzvaim. There is more information about the campaign on our Facebook page and we have voter registration forms on the back table in the foyer should you need. Stand up and be counted. Everyone one of us matters and so does our vote.

Standing up mean heeding the call: Never Again! Here, standing up does not only mean agreeing with the concept of Never Again it means doing something about it. Stand up to bullies whether they are on the schoolyard or in our public life. Stand up to people who try to intimidate and belittle, who do not see that all people are created equal, and who do not act with justice and decency first.

And be aware that if your intuition tells you that someone in a position of power is not safe, pay attention! If someone presents dangerous view points, spews hatred and not love, who tears people down instead of building them up, do not ignore or dismiss your reaction, but stand up! Speak out! And help stop this person and his rhetoric before it is too late.

Next month in New York city, The Anti-Defamation League, the ADL, is hosting a summit called Never is Now. They note, “At a time when anti-Semitism is experiencing resurgence around the world, when some Jewish communities in Europe feel pressured by anti-Jewish scapegoating and terrorism motivated by fundamentalist Islam and hate groups and a time when Israel is faced with a campaign of boycotts, sanctions and divestment like never before, THE TIME IS NOW to convene some of the world’s leading experts to address some of the urgent challenges facing the Jewish people and to identify new strategies to stop anti-Semitism.

The resurgence of anti-Semitism is happening and we have to stand up because indeed Never is Now. And we can not be silent.

We have a most magnificent opportunity—no an obligation not only this day, but everyday to choose life: to stand up this day and know that our voice matters and we are builders and healers in this world.

This day may we commit to standing up more than we did yesterday. This day may we stand up and be a voice of good and an agent of Tikkun Olam, fixing the world, even, no especially, if it makes us uncomfortable.

Itzik did have everything he needed. He showed gratitude for certain, yet he did not walk with open eyes and ears, his heart was not dedicated to fixing, but it was rather content in maintaining his status quo. May our gratitude be used to push through our compliancy and contentment. The world, our families, our community, our synagogue and the Jewish People need us to stand up. This day. We stand together and choose life and blessing.


Ken Yihe Ratzon. May this be God’s will.



[i] United Power

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Fear: Face Everything And Rise: A Kol Nidre Sermon

Do you remember the Billy Crystal movie, Mr. Saturday Night? Billy Crystal plays Buddy and David Paymer plays his brother Stan. As kids, they put together vaudeville routines and performed at family get-togethers, but when they finally get their chance to perform for an audience, Stan becomes paralyzed by fear. His brother Buddy goes on to become a star, while Stan works as his agent. When Stan meets the girl of his dreams, he again succumbs to fear and is unable to ask her out, however Buddy does and eventually they marry. Stan’s fear causes him to live bitterly in his brother’s shadow, watching resentfully as his brother Buddy lives the life he wished for himself. The sad ironic message is that in action because of fear of failure is what actually causes the failure.

F.E.A.R: Forget Everything And Run. Tomorrow afternoon we will read the story of Jonah, the prophet called by God to admonish the Ninavites to repent or suffer the consequences. Jonah, like all prophets, had absolutely no desire to be a part of this plan. Who would, when you think about it? The prophets where charged with the unpopular task of telling the people they had to stop doing something that they enjoyed. Jonah was afraid to deliver God’s message and tried to flee. He escaped by boat, hopeing that God would not find him. But God brought a great storm to the seas and Jonah was thrown overboard, swallowed by a whale who eventually spewed poor Jonah out onto dry land. Eventually Jonah had no choice but to meet his fear and fulfill his prophetic obligation.

Jonah ran from his fears and he spent a lot of unnecessary time running and hiding, trying to escape from God, from his fear, from the unknown.   Yet he still wound up having to do the very thing he was afraid to do. What a waste of time and effort! How many of us can relate to Jonah? Putting off what we are afraid of and then having to do it or experience it anyway?

Fear. It is a helpful emotion when it saves us from entering a dangerous situation, or alerts us to danger. Fear is a basic physiological response that has existed long before humans walked the earth. It is the foundation of the “fight or flight response,” a primitive, automatic, innate response that alerts our body to either fight or flee from perceived danger, attack or threat to our survival.   When our fight or flight instinct is activated, we do whatever we can to escape danger. This basic instinct has helped keep us alive…. But as humans began to settle and attacks by wild beasts and barbaric neighbors became less the norm, the helpful fear instinct mutated and evolved. It’s permutation took the form of panic, apprehension, self-consciousness—all useful to a certain point. Today however the flight or fight response is activated by many things other than real threats to our safety. Hormones produced in our bodies by stress, for example, activate the fear response.[1] When we operate in fear mode—we see most everything as a threat to our survival and we lose our sense of rationality and view the world from a place of danger and vulnerability and we are unable to feel a sense of safety. We push panic past the point of prudence to a place of paralysis.

We all have fears; we are afraid of a loved one getting hurt, or God forbid, dying, we are afraid of getting older, of losing our job, of not making ends meet, we are afraid for the safety of our communities. We are afraid of what might come from out of the complex and tragic political climate in which we live, we are afraid of the violence ravaging our cities and suburbs, of terrorism, of global warming… the list is endless. We also have fears born from the flight or fight response that have blurred our lines of reality today and causes us to run and hide, rather than be still and face our fears. Our rational being is often consumed by fears about what other people think of us, about what they might say to others about us, we fear we are not good enough, that we won’t ever fit in, that we will never find our purpose in life, and that others will laugh at us. These kinds of fears too, limit our potential, stop our behaving in compassionate and loving ways and therefore are stumbling-blocks, preventing us from living our best lives.

We could spend our energies in fear: F.E.A.R FORGET EVERYTHING AND RUN or we could F.E.AR. – FACE EVERYTHING AND RISE. Facing our fears and rising above them certainly takes courage –that strange energy that fuels us to act in the face of danger, but more significantly it takes awareness and stillness. We cannot just decide to create more courage, but we can consciously chose to slow down, collect ourselves and not act impulsively. If we do this, then we will be able to pass through our fears and be our best selves.

If we are human, we have fears. What matters, teaches Reb Nachman is that we know that we fear, and we do not let our fears limit us, we do not let fear get the best of us. Rabbi Nachman of Braslov wrote, K’she’adam, tzarich l’avor gesher tzar moed… the well-known translation of this is “all the world is a narrow bridge, the most important thing is not to be afraid.” However, a more exact translation is: “When a person must cross an exceedingly narrow bridge, the general principle and the essential thing is not to frighten yourself at all.”[2] In other words, do not bring fear to yourself. Reb Nachman knew that we do not succeed from a place of fear. Fear will hold us back; an awareness of love that only comes from stillness will hold us. Fear is about scarcity and being alone. Love is about abundance and connection. Connection to others, the Holy One and ourselves.

There is perhaps no more common a verse in our Tanach, our Bible from God than, “Al tirau”, do not fear. When Avram sets out to an unknown land, God says to him, “Al tirau, do not fear, I am with you.” (Genesis 15: 1-5)

When God heard the cry of thirst from a dying Ishmael, an angel of God called to Hagar, “Al tirau, Fear not, for God has heeded the cry of the boy….” (Genesis 21:17):

When Isaac sets out alone to build new wells, God said, “Al tirau …Fear not, for I am with you.” (Genesis 26:24):

When Jacob prepares for Journey down to Egypt to see his beloved son Joseph for the first time in decades God says, “Al tirau, Do not fear going down to Egypt, I am going with you….” (Genesis 46:3): God says “Do Not Fear” to David, to Ruth, to Daniel (10:19) and to the prophet Isaiah (41:10). God says “Al tirau” to them and to us: do not fear, I am with you. God offers this statement of love as Love itself.

It is not easy to face everything and rise but the Torah teach us how.

In the book of Exodus, we read, “As Pharaoh drew near, the Israelites caught sight of the Egyptians advancing upon them. Greatly frightened, the Israelites cried out to Adonai, ‘We want to go back to Egypt how could you do this to us! Fear and trembling set in and Moses replied: “Have no fear![3] Stand by, and collect yourselves, and see the deliverance, which Adonai will work for you today… be still.. Hold your peace. These few verses, Rabbi Alan Lew of Blessed Memory, teaches are a working prescription for managing fear.[4] Let’s unpack if for a moment. The Israelites Cry out, they are afraid, and they are panicking! Caught in between the Egyptian army and the Sea that has not yet parted, God calls out to them: “Al tirau!” Don’t be afraid! Don’t let your fear stop you from moving forward! Do not succumb to your fears! Do not let fear control you. God begs, “Al-tirau—do not fear,” you are not alone. Next God says, “Collect yourselves.” Pull yourselves together. Release into this fear and notice it. Return to the self, for I am there, with you, says God. The Israelites are then asked to See. “See” the salvation which Adonai will make for you today….Adonai will fight for you and it will be okay! And then we are commanded to be still. Do not fear, collect yourselves, see and be still. Here, it is our time to return to the self. Quiet the mind and come back to the breath. Stop talking; quiet the thoughts and the worry. SHHH. Lastly God asks Moses, “Why do you cry out to me? Tell the Israelites to just get going.[5] Give in to the action that is the next right step. We do not stay in a place of stillness, but rather after we collect ourselves, notice what it is that we fear, and return back to the self, only then can we get going. Sometimes we get going after the fear subsides; sometimes we get going and walk on the narrow bridge, through the fears.

Similarly to our Torah teaching, theologian Henri Nouwen writes:

The challenge is to let go of fear and claim the deeper truth of who I am.  When you forget your true identity as a beloved child of God, you lose your way in life.  You become scared and start doing things not freely, but because of fear.  But when you make space for God in your life and begin to listen to God’s loving voice, you suddenly start to realize perfect love. You can claim it, and you can gradually let go of your fear.  The fear may come back tomorrow and you will have to struggle, and you can again return from fear to love.  Every time you feel afraid, you can open yourself to God’s presence, hear God’s voice again, and be brought back to perfect love that casts out fear and brings in greater freedom.[6]

It get’s easier to live through fear the more we do it. Our Torah teaches how, and reminds us that there is no one, no one at all, exempt from fear. This is one of the reasons why in our bedtime prayers we recite a paragraph, the same paragraph as the one the ends the hymn Adon Olam: “In Your hand I place my sprit, when I sleep and when I wake. With my spirit, my body too, God is mine, God is near, I shall not fear.”[7] Fear is inevitable and part of our life and God knows this and asks us to trust enough to hear the voice whispering to us, al tirau, do not be afraid, I am with you. Collect yourself, see and be still. And get going.

As we walk across the exceedingly narrow bridge that is our life May each of us be blessed with the ability to hear the eternal truth, al tirau—do not be afraid, for I am with you.

[1] The Developing Mind: How Relationships and the Brain Interact to Shape Who We Are, Second Edition. By Daniel J. Siegel

[2] Likutei Moharan (II:48)

[3] 14:10-14

[4] Be Still and Get Going: A Jewish Meditation Practice For Real Life. By Alan Lew.

[5] ibid

[6] Spiritual Formation: Following The Movements of the Spirit. Henri Nouwen.

7] Psalm 118:6

Posted in Fear, High Holidays, holidays, Love, Mindfulness, sermons, Shana Tova, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , ,

Rosh Hashanah: Come to Shul!

Rosh Hashanah: Be Here Now

When the kids were younger, going to Beth Am on Friday night was a big deal, they loved it. So much so that if I was really struggling with them I would threaten them and say they would be punished and couldn’t go with me to temple on Friday night. Not really great parenting, using temple as a bargaining chip, but it was the only thing that worked. This was before they had cell-phones, before they were so exhausted from the week that going to shul became more difficult. I remember now how much they got-and still get from going to shul. On Fridays, on holidays, especially the high holidays, they look forward to coming to temple.

A couple of weeks ago (9/15/16) Rabbi Jay Michaelson, in the Jewish Forward newspaper, wrote an article on why you should not go to shul on Rosh Hashanah. He writes,

“There are at least three reasons for you to avoid your local temple or synagogue this Rosh Hashanah. First, the holiday’s themes and liturgy focus on the least believable, most misunderstandable aspects of Jewish theology. Sure, introspection is great, and asking for forgiveness from friends and relatives can be extremely powerful. But the Man in the Sky with the big Book of Life? The Birthday of the World? Who are we kidding here? Does anyone believe this stuff?”

He continues,

“Second, Rosh Hashanah is a series of mixed messages. The day itself is confused, an amalgam of celebration and repentance, conviviality and sobriety. Are we supposed to celebrate the Birthday of the World or get busy with apologizing to God? Do we wish each other a happy new year or a serious, pious new year?”

Michaelson concludes with an argument that the high holidays are just a show more than anything else.

So, he states three reasons to stay home: 1. The holiday themes of The Book of Life and Birthday of the world are not believable. 2. Rosh Hashanah gives us mixed messages. It is a holy day of contradictions and 3. Worship on the holy days is more of a show than of a prayerful experience.

Most of Jay Michaelson’s points are actually right on target but his conclusion is wrong. He is both misguided and a bit of a truth teller. I want to explore with you tonight Jay Michaelson’s admonition to boycott the holidays… especially now that we are all here!

I think it is true that many of us here will pray words that we don’t connect to, that might not make much sense in the context of our busy lives. Prayer does go against our rationality, but after all, that might be the very definition of prayer. On some level many of us believe that prayers go mostly unheard or that prayer just helps the pray-er feel better. Some of us don’t know why we pray yet we find ourselves relating to the words in the siddur and even noticing prayers of our heart when we are quiet enough to listen. On Friday nights we read in Mishkan Tefillah, our prayer book, “Prayer invites God’s Presence to suffuse our spirits. God’s will to prevail in our lives. Prayer may not bring water to parched fields, nor mend a broken bridge, nor rebuild a ruined city, but prayer can water an arid soul, mend a broken heart, rebuild a weakened will. (165) If this is all that prayer does for us, dayinu-it is enough. It is enough and it is a reason to come to shul.

Praying together can be powerful and it is another way of reminding us that we are not alone in this world. We are part of something bigger and greater than ourselves.

Michaelson is correct when he notes that our prayers in the machzor, the High Holiday prayer book, might not be relatable, or accessible. This year more reform congregations have transitioned from the Gates of Repentance book that we are using this year, to the new Reform Machzor, Mishkan HaNefesh, a two volume set that is extraordinary beautiful in language, layout and accessibility. Beth Am’s ritual committee will begin next month to explore our new machzor study the feasibility of joining our area synagogues in using it next year.

Michaelson is also mostly correct I think, when he flippantly notes that most of us don’t believe in the Man in the Sky and a literal Book of Life. To this point I ask, “so what?” Why must we believe this to come to shul? I do have a strong faith and theology of a loving God who hears my prayers and I do not believe in the existence of the literal Book of Life that we all so desperately want to be written into.

And yet whether or not we attend shul on the holydays, we offer the words, L’shana Tovah Tikatavu. “May you be inscribed for a good year.”   We don’t take everything literally in our lives and this Rosh Hashanah salutation that has been with our people seemingly since the days of Mt. Sinai, is no exception. We do not have to believe in the theology that we are literally inscribed by God for a new year. In fact, there is nowhere in Torah that says “Thou shalt believe in God.” It assumes we have faith. And it is our faith, our hope that we will have a good year, a better year, which brings us here together. Religion is not based on rationality. Coming to the synagogue at this time, wishing each other well and a L’shana Tova Tikatavu helps us reaffirm our Jewishness and connectedness to our history as well. We share something that has been passed down by our ancestors when we sing L’shana Tova Tikatavu together and when we congregate and wish each other a happy new year, and offer a blessing for more time.

Rabbi Michaelson’s second challenge to us: that the holidays are of mixed messages is true and it is also irrelevant to an argument that seeks to convince us to stay home on Rosh Hashanah. It’s 2016! We live lives of mixed messages.  We are experts at multi-tasking, we thrive on busy-ness and we all live in a world that is telling us we should be individuals and celebrate our differences, that we should be proud of who we are and yet we are often punished and even killed for such a celebration.   Yes, our world is one of mixed messages! How great it is that we can be in shul together on Rosh Hashanah, incorporating all the messages while away from demands, expectations and obligations; away from the world where we are rewarded for doing and attaining more and more. No, whether we read the words on the prayer book page or whether we close our eyes and rest while with our community in shul, we are here, acknowledging that it is exhausting to live in our world of mixed messages. Here and today we slow down and begin to focus on what really matters. You see, we can distill all the mixed messages into one that is most basic and fundamental, and the very point of this Holy Day. The message of this day says, slow down and return. Return to the Source that is within us and all around us. There is no mixed message to the holy days. Rather there is only one message expressed in many different ways so that we might all have access to it. Whether we sing Happy Birthday to the world or we beat our chest at the ashmu prayer that reminds us of all our waywardness, the message of Rosh Hashanah is clear. Return. God does not care how much money we make or what we wear. What matters is Teffillah~prayer, Tzedkah~ giving charity and Tesuvah, returning. We celebrate and we remember and we return. One message. I do not believe we should stay away from shul because we might experience a mixed message here. On the contrary, come to shul on the high holidays so we can hear the message delivered in several different ways.

Lastly, Rabbi Michaelson says that Rosh Hashanah is more of a show than worship. He writes, “Before the High Holidays, my rabbi and cantor friends spend weeks practicing every detail of the services, like b’nai mitzvah with receding hairlines.”

Here, Michaelson is right too– this IS the most stressful time of year for rabbis and cantors. It is also a time that we, leaders of sacred communities, are required to think hard and long about what it is that we want to say, to offer and we ask ourselves, how might our prayersong or words speak to people so that we might be inspired to live more meaningful lives and help mend this world. I think Michaelson is wrong to poke fun of rabbis rehearsing. After all, these High Holidays are about showing up—all of us—showing up. And your clergy want to show up to you who mean so very much to them. It is hard to lead worship and so we rehearse. Rehearsing and preparing are aspects of this blessed profession that the vast majority of us wouldn’t give up for anything.

Michaelson writes, “Take the High Holidays out of context, and you’re left with a religion of finger-wagging. The guilt; the sins; the chest-beating….!”

I think today the Judaism of finger wagging and guilt inducing, is over, done-with, or it should be. I wouldn’t ask anyone to come to a shul that did that. One of the first things Kyle shared with me about his Judaism growing up was that his rabbi gave finger-pointing sermons and families would just get up and leave. I don’t know rabbis today who do that kind of preaching or have that kind of rabbinate—although I am sure they exist. Our holidays are about recognizing that we miss the mark—about transgression and asking forgiveness. We cannot live a good life with out admitting our guilt. That we are wrong sometimes, that we did something we shouldn’t have done, that we didn’t do something we should have, and that we didn’t do enough! Surely this is a holdy day about guilt, but it doesn’t end there. There are things we feel guilty about and what better way to deal with guilt than to admit to ourselves how we feel and be in connection with others who are also guilty, also asking for forgiveness. What do we do with guilt on the Holy Days? We get rid of it! We admit it, say we are sorry and then try not to do it again. Yes! We have failings and they can be pointed out! However, our fundamental essence is good and we come here on these days to renew in ourselves an awareness of our innate goodness. And anyone who shames you, makes you feel guilty for who you are and not what you have done, who wags their figure at you is wrong and that is not the message of Rosh Hashanah.

And still, Rabbi Michaelson does like other Jewish holidays. He recommends Sukkot, Passover and Shabbat for their joyous and life affirming qualities. I certainly agree—Sukkot and Simchat Torah are often missed because they come right on the heels of the Days of Awe. It is a shame because they are joyful and beautiful; celebrating life, gratitude and all that we have been given. If you have never been in a sukkah or danced with the Torah on Simchat Torah—try it with us this year!

Tomorrow we will hear the call of the shofar together: Together in synagogue on Rosh Hashanah. Together we will worship, repent, transform and renew. We will be grateful for the past year and express hopes for a healthy, blessed year ahead. We will note the auspiciousness of these days and maybe even feel holy ourselves.

I am glad you are here.

L’shana Tova Tikatavu. May this coming year be of blessing for each of us, our loved ones and our sacred congregation.

Ken Yihi Razton.






Posted in High Holidays, holidays, jewish stories, parenting, prayer, sermons, Shana Tova, Teshuva, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , ,

Words Matter: Rosh Hashanah 2016 5777

If you have two Jews stranded on a desert island, they will build three synagogues—one for each of them and one synagogue that no one will visit on principle. Jews often disagree with other Jews. “Two Jews three opinions”—that is, if you ask two Jews about something, you’ll get three opinions—its a popular saying.

Jews have been arguing with each other for millennia . We perfected the art of argument. We argue with each other and we argue with God. In the Talmud we learn

Rabbi Eliezer was in an argument with five fellow rabbis over the proper way to perform a ritual. The five Rabbis were all in agreement with each other, but Rabbi Eliezer vehemently disagreed. Finally, Rabbi Nathan pointed out “Eliezer, the vote is five to one! Give it up already!” Eliezer got fed up and said, “If I am right, may God himself tell you so!” Thunder crashed, the heavens opened up, and the voice of God boomed down. “YES,” said God, “Rabbi Eliezer is right. Rabbi Eliezer is pretty much always right.” Rabbi Nathan turned and conferred with the other rabbis for a moment, then turned back to Rabbi Eliezer: “All right, Eliezer,” he said, “the vote stands at five to two.” [1]

Our entire oral tradition is based on argument and at its core, these disagreements are conducted with civility and a common good or purpose.

Today, our civic conversation is neither civil nor a conversation. It is often a feud of twitter banters of 140 characters or less, it is of harsh blaming and name-calling, rarely face to face but through social media wars and the real purpose behind the arguments—why we engage in the first place, is lost, long forgotten.

Today there is so much discordant discourse, and virulent rhetoric in our political conversations, we have come to see the other as the enemy. I heard a recent statistic by Parker Palmer that 30-40% of Democrats and Republicans desire their children not marry someone from the other political standpoint.[2] It seems like we are at an all time low with our public discourse, and it is undercutting the very values of democracy that America was founded on.

Although civil discourse alone will not solve the world’s ills and all that is wrong with our country, it must be present in order for problem’s to be solved in a lasting, peaceful way.

Engaging with civility is a critical component to bringing about a better country and world. Civility to one another in the home, in the community, in our country and in the world will bring forth a measure of peace in the world and in our lives and we pay a heavy price when members of society do not engage in civil discourse. For not only does it bring the level of communication down to who is loudest, most insulting and humorless, it, this rhetoric and disrespectful conduct, rarely if ever, changes anyone’s opinion. In fact it creates a road block to hearing each other and to advancing ones heart-felt position. When yelled at, called names, or feeling not heard or respected, people turn away, they don’t want to be a part of the conversation. Can you blame them? Who wants to engage when all signs indicate that the one who shouts loudest wins, that the one who refuses to respect the other is applauded and rewarded with more sound bites? Ultimately if we are not able to sit down at the table and discuss together; engage with one another in civil discourse, the alternative of war, bloodshed and brokenness prevails. We have what the rabbis taught as Sinat Chinam, war and destruction: Baseless hatred. The second Temple in Jerusalem was thought to be destroyed because of how the Jews treated one another at the time and how they spoke to each other. Rav Kook, teaches that the only way to repair and build this world is through the opposite of baseless hatred; through baseless love. He teaches, “If we were destroyed, and the world with us, due to baseless hatred, then we shall rebuild ourselves, and the world with us, with baseless love — ahavat chinam. [3]

How might Ahavat Chinam, building the world with love look today? Civil Discourse must be at the helm and it requires humility, self-restraint and love.

Many of you know about the first century schools of Jewish learning named after the rabbis that led them. Rabbi Hillel and Rabbi Shammai are well-known for their many disputes in Jewish law. The Talmud records over 300 differences of opinions between the House of Hillel and of Shammai and in nearly every case, the ruling was in favor of Beit Hillel. Hillel was known for his kindness, his gentleness, and his concern for humanity. The Talmud further explains that the disciples of Hillel were gentle and modest and studied both their own opinions and the opinions of the other school, and humbly mentioned the words of the other school before their own. Their arguments were not attacks of one another or personal, they were about differences of opinion in the realm of a greater good.

Humility is a critical component of civil discourse. Inherent in humility is an understanding that we are all part of the universe and we are owed nothing in this world; with humility we are able to be open hearted enough to recognize we are all equal—not less than, not greater than and when we understand this, discourse will be about issues rather than personalities, concerns and problems discussed for a greater good. A beloved teacher of mine at HUC, the reform rabbinical school, once got so frustrated with me when I kept dismissing compliments. She said Lisa, the thing about a compliment is just say Thank you, and if you can’t take the compliment at that time, or you don’t feel it is true for you at that moment, just say, thank You. For whether a compliment or critique, what is important is that we are aware that each of us is placed in this world to be of service. Humility is required! Humility: it helps us get out of the way and listen. Humility: it helps us get out of the way and be our best selves.

Along with humility, the use of self-restraint is critical if we are to advance civil discourse and heal society. It is too easy to take pot shots and low blows at your opponent. It serves no purpose other than to anger and elicit a similar response resulting in a ceaseless cycle of demeaning someone else and forgetting about the real issue and the greater good.

Parker Palmer, Founder and Senior Partner of the Center for Courage & Renewal notes that we’ve fallen into the trop of not just disagreeing with another, but demonizing one another. He teaches, “it is more important to be in right relationship that it is to be right. We say more important to be in right relationship not because I’ve stopped believing in my position, but because the truth is complicated and if I’m not in right relationship with those with whom I disagree, we can’t hold the space long enough to work through those complications.” [4]

Many of us know the story about the town gossip who had the tables turned on her and was distraught. She went to her rabbi and asked for help. The rabbi, knowing the trouble she caused with her careless speech, looked at her and asked, “Do you have any feather pillows in your house?” “Rabbi, I am not poor; I have a whole bunch of them. But what do you want me to do, sell them?”

“No, just bring me one.”

The woman was mystified, but she returned a bit later to the rabbi’s study with a nice fluffy pillow under her arm. The rabbi opened the window and handed her a knife. “Cut it open!”

“But Rabbi, here in your study? It will make a mess!”

“Do as I say!”

She cut the pillow. A cloud of feathers came out and blew out of the office window in a big swirling, whirling trail.

The rabbi waited ten minutes. Then she ordered the woman: “Now bring me back all the feathers, and stuff them back in your pillow. All of them, mind you. Not one may be missing!”

The woman stared at the rabbi in disbelief. “That is impossible, rabbi. I can’t get the feathers back, you know that!” The rabbi said. Yes. I know the feathers are just like your words…. You can not get them back.

We are in the midst of a Presidential election campaign that has reached new lows with slander, meanness, and candidate commentaries that have taken us far from the real issues needing to be discussed. Self-restraint would eliminate comments that have no purpose other than to hurt and take us away from becoming a country that is putting the welfare of its citizens first. Self-restraint does not come easily. We need determination and thoughtfulness to be civil, asking ourselves is what we are about to say, really necessary before it is uttered. For we know all to well, we cannot take words back, we say them and they are out there and they can either cause pain and debilitation or they can raise us up towards serving with purpose and help us heal.

Along with humility and self-restraint, love is required for a civil discourse that leads to healing and reconciliation. What does Love got to do with civil Discourse? The most basic and fundamental teaching in Judaism is to Love your neighbor as yourself. (Leviticus 19:18) It does not say we need to agree with our neighbor, but rather to love our neighbor. Dialogue and disagreement are expected in a relationship for certain, but at the core of each relationship is a shared humanity that might only advance if we offer love and not hate. Love here is not an in-love, or even a liking of another person. It is a basic recognition that other people with different views exist and may have different truths then we do. In order for us to move forward toward healing and also well-being we must admit and act on the idea there is something far more important than our disagreement and that is that we share a planet, it is ours to take care of and we will only succeed if we have a greater good, the well-fare and healing of society as our goal. Though love we heal. Through hate we destroy.

Once upon a time, two brothers who lived on adjoining farms fell into conflict. It was the first serious rift in forty years of farming side by side, sharing machinery, and trading labor and goods as needed without a hitch. Then the long collaboration fell apart. It began with a small misunderstanding and it grew into a major difference, and finally it exploded into an exchange of bitter words followed by weeks of silence.

One morning there was a knock on one of the brother’s door. He opened it to find a man with a contractor’s toolbox. “I’m looking for a few days work,” he said. “Perhaps you would have a few small jobs here and there. Could I help you?” “Yes,” said the older brother. “I do have a job for you. Look across the creek at that farm. That’s my neighbor. In fact, it’s my younger brother. Last week there was a meadow between us and he took his bulldozer to the river levee and now there is a creek between us. Well, he may have done this to spite me, but I’ll go him one better. See that pile of lumber curing by the barn? I want you to build me a wall – an 8-foot wall – so I won’t need to see his place anymore, that would give me some peace of mind.”

The contractor said, “I think I understand the situation. Show me the nails and the post hole digger and I’ll be able to do a job that pleases you.” The older brother had to go to town for supplies, so he helped the contractor get the materials ready and then he was off for the day.

The contractor worked hard all that day measuring, sawing, and nailing. About sunset when the farmer returned, the contractor had just finished his job. The farmer’s eyes opened wide, his jaw dropped. There was no wall there at all. It was a bridge – a bridge stretching from one side of the creek to the other! A fine piece of work – handrails and all – and the neighbor, his younger brother, was coming across, his hand outstretched. “You are quite a fellow to build this bridge after all I’ve said and done.” The two brothers stood at each end of the bridge, and then they met in the middle, taking each other’s hand.

They turned to see the contractor hoist his toolbox on his shoulder. “No, wait! Stay a few days. I’ve a lot of other projects for you,” said the older brother. “I’d love to stay on,” the contractor said, ” but I have many more bridges to build.”

Everyday we have the choice of building walls or bridges. One leads to isolation and the other to openness, productivity and healing.

The Talmud tells us that once, approximately two thousand years ago, the peaceful and constructive conflict between Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai erupted into a violent and destructive battle over a vote on eighteen matters of law.

According to later rabbinic sources, these tragic events took place on the 9th of Adar and as many as 3,000 students died that day.

We do not know if this story is historically accurate or if it is a myth or moral tale to teach us the value of civil discourse. Nonetheless, we understand that whether there was grave aggression between the two schools on the 9th of Adar or it marked their first disagreement, we will take its lesson to heart. Congregation Beth Am will be joining with synagogues, schools, campuses, and Jewish organizations around the world in the fifth annual worldwide Jewish Week of Constructive Conflict, February 19-25, 2017. We will engage in activities that help us learn about and act with the Jewish values of constructive and sacred disagreement. I hope you will join us for this special programming. Please look for information on our FaceBook page and email update.

With humility, self-restraint, and love we will walk with open minds and open hearts and affect a lasting, healing peace in our families and in the world.

With humility, self restraint, and love we will seek out both those who agree with us and those who don’t because when we engage in civil discourse we might find workable solutions to all of our problems.

With humility, self –restraint and love we will ask to hear the story of the other and listen not because we want to prove ourselves right, but because when we see the story of another we are brought closer together in our humanity.

May we be blessed this coming year with increased civility in all areas of our lives. May our civil discourse bring healing and peace to our world may we build it together with Ahavat Chinam, baseless love.

May this be God’s will….



[1] Based on BT Baba Matzia 59a-b

[2] Bridging the Political Divide:

[3] Orot HaKodesh vol. III, p. 324

[4]Bridging the Political Divide:


Posted in civil discourse, High Holidays, jewish stories, Love, Political campaign 2016, sermons, Shana Tova, Teshuva, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , ,

A Happy New Year wish for blessings, peace, love and health from Beth Am of Buffalo Grove, IL!

I am so grateful to be part of a family that believes in bringing meaning, holiness, joy and good work into this world!  Enjoy our Shana Tova Video Greeting!


Posted in elul, High Holidays, holidays, Love, Shana Tova, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , ,