Friday, October 13, 2017

Yom Kippur - the Lucky Day

Here is my 5778 Yom Kippur morning sermon given at Congregation Or Shalom. I hope you enjoy it, and that it brings you mazal tov!

A Lucky Day
My younger brother, Brian, is a lucky guy. Seriously, growing up, whenever we played a game that involved pure luck, he would win. When he was in 5th grade, he got chosen to fly to Seattle to meet with Bill Gates.
Now that he’s an adult, it seemed as though his luck had caught up with him. A few years ago, he started a new advertising business. Not too long after opening, his computer was hacked, and all of his data was held ransom by an anonymous malicious source. They extorted him for $750, making him pay in bitcoins. Not knowing how he would be able to keep his clients as he was just starting, Brian chose to give in to the demands, and paid the $750 in bitcoin. Now, I don’t know if any of you know much about bitcoins and how they work, I do not. But apparently, when you purchase them from currency, you can only buy them in whole amounts. At the time, one bitcoin cost about $500. So, my brother had to buy two bitcoins, and then he paid spent 1 ½ bitcoins, and was back up and running. My brother learned from this moment that seemed for once not to be filled with luck. He invested in stronger security for his computer and eventually his server, and, mentally, he chose to just wash the feelings of being taken advantage from his memory, focusing on building and growing his company, which he has done nicely.
A few months ago, Brian came across an article about bitcoins, and he remembered that he still had the ½ bitcoin from the time of his incident with hackers. Anyone know how much a half a bitcoin is now worth?  Over $2,000. My brother is the only person I know who can get hacked and extorted for $750 and still turn a profit of over 200%!
I asked my brother for permission to share his incredulous story with you today, because I wanted to talk about luck. In many ways, this day of Yom Kippur involves luck. In Hebrew, one of the words for luck is mazal.  We use the expression Mazal Tov, which literally means, “good luck” or “good fate.”  And this is a part of what we are asking for on this day – we want more Mazal Tov in our lives, rather than Mazal Ra (Bad luck).
Our Hebrew expression for “good luck” actually stems from the ancient arts of astrology, as mazal most literally means, “star or planet,”[1] In Judaism, we see many differing accounts as to whether or not to put our trust in mazal. You may be surprised to learn that many of our Jewish sages believed in the power of the stars to influence individual lives. Yet, as Francine Klagsbrun points out, “they managed to incorporate popular beliefs about astrology into an overall Jewish view of the world, maintaining that the stars and constellations, like everything else in the universe, are subject to the will of God.”[2] As such, we can play a role in shaping our fate, if we can find a way to influence God.
Well, in our U’netanetokef prayer, we declare that it is on this day that much of our fate will be determined – who will live and die, who will gain and who will lose, who will succeed and who will resemble the Bears.  But we also see that in the end, we can lessen the harshness of today’s decree through tefillah, teshuvah, and tzedakah.  Through our prayers, our serious reflection, our return to our true selves, and our commitment to helping others, we can play a role in determining our own luck, our fate.
     There is a Talmudic expression that broadens this perspective on our ability to change our luck – m’shaneh makom, m’shaneh mazal. If we change our place, we change our luck.[3]  We can take this maxim literally, if we want – after all, changing one’s physical location will certainly bring about a different fate.  However, many rabbis interpret this phrase metaphorically – we have to make our places, our routines, our normal actions different if our luck is going to change.
     So, if changing our routines can grant us better luck, what else can help? Well, there are a number of researchers who have spent time actually analyzing people who consider themselves lucky, trying to figure out what makes a person able to change one’s mazal.     
Richard Wiseman, a psychologist at the University of Hertfordshire, is one of these luck-theorists. In his book, The Luck Factor, he formulates a few main conclusions on what it takes to be lucky.  He says that lucky people tend to build a “network of luck.” By this, he means that those who are best at creating mazal tov tend to talk with a lot of people and hold extensive, diverse social networks.
The more people we know, and especially the more diverse our group of friends may be, the more opportunities we find are brought our way.  For example, if you have 30 friends who all know one another, and you are looking for a job, you’re going to hear about the same job from 30 different people.  If instead, you have 20 good friends, but each one runs in very different crowds, you’re more likely to hear of 20 different opportunities.  This is one of the advantages of being in a community like ours - we have people here at Or Shalom from all over the northwest suburbs. I’ve seen people here changing one anothers’ luck by bringing opportunities to one another.
Another luck researcher, Max Gunther, points out that we don’t even need to make friends to strengthen our network of luck – even just starting conversations with people around us, at the check-out line, in the airport, at the gym or at an oneg . . . all create more exposure to opportunities.
The people in our lives bring us possibilities to change our makom – probably more often than we notice.  But noticing and running with opportunity is just as critical as having a great chance brought to us in the first place.   Why can I say this? Because Professor Wiseman measured it. He conducted an experiment to test out just how much of one’s luckiness has to do with personality. He “gave people who describe themselves as lucky and those who describe themselves as unlucky, a newspaper,” and asked them to count how many pictures were inside. The results: On average, unlucky people took about two minutes to count the photographs whereas the lucky people took just a few seconds.
Why? Because on the second page of the newspaper, in large print that took up half the page, it was written: “Stop counting – There are 43 photographs in this newspaper.” Weisman’s data showed that the unlucky people tended to miss this message while the lucky people tended to spot it.[4]  To change our luck for the better, we have to be clear-headed enough to be on the lookout for opportunities.  We cannot allow ourselves to get so caught up in what we are doing that we block out lucky, fateful moments that are staring us in the face.  Yet another great reason that Shabbat can be important, so that I can not only work in a shameless plug for joining us on our Friday night gatherings throughout the year, but it also to offers us that clear-headed space, that openness, we need in order to notice the world around us differently.
We have seen that lucky people tend to work hard to build a network of luck based on diverse relationships and pay attention to one’s surroundings.  But just as importantly, Professor Wiseman’s research has shown that lucky people tend to be optimistic about their world – they are Monty Python fans, they Always Look on the Bright Side of Life. He asked a number of individuals, “Imagine yourself at a bank when robbers come in, firing a shot, and it hits you in the arm.  Is this lucky or unlucky?”  <Pause – let people think> Overwhelmingly, what do you think happened? Lucky people said it was lucky – I could have been killed, but the arm isn’t so bad. Wiseman to concluded that “Lucky people tend to imagine spontaneously how the bad luck they encounter could have been worse and, in doing so, they feel much better about themselves and their lives. This, in turn, helps keep their expectations about the future high, and, increases the likelihood of them continuing to live a lucky life.”[5]  Similar to the story of my brother, Brian, who learned from his early exposure and was grateful that his lack of cyber security only cost him $750 and no clients. Rather than allow life to define a moment as unlucky, perhaps what keeps lucky people lucky is their ability to re-define what good luck really is!
Many of us do this all the time – Have you ever played the “it could be worse” game?  “Well, I broke my foot, but it could be worse – I could have broken both feet!” Believe it or not, this is a central attribute of Jewish thought. We are the people who have for centuries striven to make blessings out of curses.  That is the story of earlier, of our Mah Tovu prayer. ohalecha ya’akov, mishkenotecha, Yisrael.  How good are your tents, Jacob; your dwelling places, O Israel? We could have thrown this beautiful prayer away because of its source and original intent, but instead of choosing to respond to a curse with destruction, we made it into a lucky moment – A moment where not only weren’t we cursed, but we found a beautiful prayer and have created stirring melodies to go with it. We are a people who search for opportunity and truth wherever it is available, creating our own narrative of luck.
On this day of Yom Kippur, we recognize that there is only so much that we can do to influence luck.  Remember what our rabbinic sages have taught, mazal is subject to the will of God, but the will of God is not the same as the will of humans.  There are issues we cannot control, much bigger than ourselves.   
Right now, in our world, we know that it can seem as though we are living in unlucky times – the terrible condition of what is happening in Puerto Rico, the terrible earthquake in Mexico, the ethnic cleansing that is happening in Myanmar.  But then, you hear stories of people who are helping one another, and we find hope . . . and luck.
If we want this to be a lucky year, we can do our part by connecting with one another, remaining open to opportunities around us, and creating chances for luckier days.  We can take Shabbat into our hearts, clearing our minds so we can notice our surroundings better.  We can stand up for what we believe and work to change our makomot – our homes, our communities, our city, so that our luck can change. And while we may not be able to influence all that fate throws our way this year, we can control how we respond and how we interpret.  The mazal happens . . . We add the tov.
Will this sermon help you to win the lottery?  Hopefully – and if it does, please remember to support Or Shalom, the place where your luck turned around!  But if you don’t, may you do the hard work that helps you to find Mazal Tov in all aspects of your life, so that you feel as though you’ve won the lottery every day.

[1] Francine Klagsbrun. Voices of Wisdom: Jewish Ideals and Ethics for Everyday Living. Jonathan David: Middle Village, NY, 1980. p. 284
[2] Francine Klagsbrun. Voices of Wisdom: Jewish Ideals and Ethics for Everyday Living. Jonathan David: Middle Village, NY, 1980. p. 284
[3] Teaching based on BT Rosh Hashanah 16B, found in R. Alcalay. Words of the Wise. Massada: Israel, 1970. p. 299
[4] Richard Wiseman. “The Luck Factor.” In SKEPTICAL INQUIRER: The Magazine For Science And Reason, Volume 27, No.3 ~ May/June 2003

[5] Richard Wiseman. “The Luck Factor.” In SKEPTICAL INQUIRER:The Magazine For Science And Reason, Volume 27, No.3 ~ May/June 2003

Eating Breakfast and Creating Legacy

Below is my Kol Nidre sermon from 5778. I hope you find it moving and relevant.

Eating Breakfast and Creating Legacy

I recently came across a charming new documentary narrated by and starring 95 year old comedian, Carl Reiner. It’s an uplifting film focusing on life beyond 90 years old with a wonderful array of senior comedians and artists, many of whom are Jewish, reflecting on the sources of their vitality, and revealing how they are still creating and adding to the world.
In the opening scene, Carl Reiner describes his daily routine. We see Mr. Reiner pick up the newspaper and bring it inside. As he opens the paper at the breakfast table, you hear him say, “Every morning, I pick up my newspaper, get the obituaries section, and see if I’m listed. If I’m not, I have my breakfast.”1 … a very Carl Reiner thing to say, in fact, it serves as the title of the film: “If You’re Not in the Obit, Eat Breakfast.”  
As we learn this intimate detail of his life, though, the film then shows him shaking the newspaper, in shock. the camera pans to show us what he is seeing …and there in the paper is his face. He puts his hands up to his head in horror, before giving a little chuckle as he says, “There was a picture of me . . . alongside Polly Bergen who had passed away … I had not … I don’t think.”  He then calmly assesses the scene by mentioning, “they obviously didn’t have a good picture of her alone. But I wish they had not picked a picture that scared the <expletive removed> out of me.”2  
It’s a funny opening, the kind of absurdity that we might expect from the comedic genius who once interviewed the 2000 year old man, played by his comedy partner, Mel Brooks (who also appears in the documentary). The two have created a legacy of bringing laughter to us, even while portraying situations that involve difficult social commentary. And here they are at 90+, still making us laugh and think at the same time. Let’s examine this gag for a second, in earnest, though: Can you imagine? Opening the obit section and seeing a picture of yourself? The shock and the existential crisis of being confronted so directly with your end... What kind of questions come to mind? ... What would we see if we read on? How would it feel, imagining yourself as being here no more?
Well, this is a part of what we do today, on Yom Kippur - we are supposed to be shocked into looking at the end. Part of our process of purification and preparation for this new year involves measuring our days, and seeing if they measure up.
Our liturgy attempts to create such confrontation - “Who shall live and who shall die.” I mean, this is bold language! And whether or not we believe in the mystical significance of this day to determine our fates for the year, if we are going to say these words with intention, they must raise the question in our hearts, what if this is my year? My only year? … What do I want to make of it? What will I be leaving to the world? What is my legacy?
I know, I know, it’s a morbid and uncomfortable topic. But remember, we’re not fasting for comfort, either. Yom Kippur is not intended to be a comfortable day. For some of us, we have barely spent a moment allowing ourselves to consider such an idea, while some of us have experienced moments that have forced us to face such thoughts, recently. Either way, this day is supposed to be a confrontation. Just pay attention to our Haftarah tomorrow, as the words of Isaiah lash out at us with challenge. Today is our last chance before jumping head-first into this New Year to think about interrupting the patterns that have held us, especially those that have held us back.
As we wrestle with such big questions on this day - what is my legacy? - It can be hard to know just where to begin. We find in the Talmud, Shabbat 31a, that one of the six questions to ponder when thinking about our mortality is to consider, above all else, whether or not we have lived with an awe of God.  The rabbinic commentary mentions that our experience of this relationship with God should help us to understand that there is much to appreciate about the world around us and its wonders. That, just as we do not control the number of days we have on this earth, we also were gifted the chance to be here, to be part of a world, a society, a community that is filled with wonders. Do we live with awe in our hearts? Such self-reflection is about the extent to which we take for granted the world in which we live. Do we see it as mundane and just there, filled with obstacles, injustices, hardships, coldness? Or do we actually appreciate in spite of life’s flaws, the amazing miracles that do surround us each moment of every day? How are we adding to this wonder? Do we not only see, but live with the potential of our world in our hearts, and do we strive to lift one another towards that vision?
Appreciation is a much stronger force than we sometimes give it credit. And in the context of this evening, if we were to truly imagine our end and see our time as limited, how much more likely would we be to appreciate the small details around us.
This perspective on yirat Shamayim - awe of God - It is very similar to what prolific American playwright Thornton Wilder mentions as the goal of his 1938 play, Our Town. In the preface to the 1957 edition, Mr. Wilder writes, “The play is an attempt to find a value above all price for the smallest events in our daily life.”3
Rabbi Lawrence Kushner echoes Wilder’s remarks, identifying the same searching as one of our goals on this day. In his book, I’m God, You’re Not, Rabbi Kushner mentions that “We come together as a community to be aware of the great mystery of life and to remind ourselves about what is truly important in our lives— before we die.”4  
He refers to the last act of Thornton Wilder’s play Our Town to illustrate this. Spolier alert - if you have been dying to read the play that has only been out for just under 80 years, you may need to cover your ears for a bit <pause> Right before the play’s conclusion, a young woman, Emily Webb, dies from complications during childbirth. Upon joining the other souls in the cemetery, she feels as though it is still possible to go back to the world of the living. The others there affirm for her that it can happen, but they warn her not to go. The stage manager informs her that if she was to go back, “You not only live it, but you watch yourself living it. . . And as you watch it, you see the thing that they— down there— never know. You see the future. You know what’s going to happen afterwards.”5
Despite the warnings, Emily chooses to go back, and she picks the day of her 12th birthday to re-live. And boom, she is there on her twelfth birthday, February 11th 1899, surrounded by her family, seeing her mother for the first time in decades. As her family goes about its business, she only wants to experience them again, but she is let down by how much they are taking these moments for granted. With the awareness of the future in her heart, surrounded by so many who were no longer living, she tries to intervene and change what is happening around her. She tries to yell at her mother:
Oh, Mama, just look at me one minute as though you really saw me. Mama, fourteen years have gone by. I’m dead. You’re a grandmother, Mama. I married George Gibbs, Mama. Wally’s dead, too. Mama, his appendix burst on a camping trip to North Conway. We felt just terrible about it— don’t you remember? But, just for a moment now we’re all together. Mama, just for a moment we’re happy. Let’s look at one another.6

But, her mama doesn’t look at her. She cannot change a thing. She can’t shake them into appreciating that moment, to fully taking note of one another and expressing the love that they feel for one another. Eventually, it becomes too much for her, and she begs to go back to the grave. Commenting on life, she says, “It goes so fast. We don’t have time to look at one another. . . I didn’t realize... all that was going on and we never noticed...Oh, earth, you’re too wonderful for anybody to realize you.”7
Emily Webb could not change those moments, because she was no more. But we can. We can still use the time we have this year to appreciate what we have. To show appreciation to those around us, to express our love and our gratitude, our hopes and our dreams, and not hold such important sentiment inside for some undetermined and unguaranteed moment in the future. And when we appreciate the world and the people around us, this is the starting point from which we can find the strength to bring healing and repair to our world.
In preparing for this sermon, when I came across this scene, I thought about my own children, my own family. Do I make them feel this way? I went home that day, and I sat there around bed time, just watching them, looking at them, noticing them. I think I over-noticed them, as one of them said to me, “what are you doing?” I didn’t care, I was determined I was not going to let them have an Emily Webb moment. In my own hubris, I thought to myself that my own legacy to them will be that of a father who cares, who notices, who makes sure they feel loved and special and important. . .  
Now, I recognize that we cannot live with eternity in our thoughts at all moments. It’s a fallacy to say that we should live every moment like it’s our last. We could not function this way. For one, no one would ever do dishes. . .
And sure enough just a couple days later, I found that I was already leaving this thought behind. I was at the dinner table, having come home for a few minutes between afternoon and evening meetings. And lo and behold, was I there with them? Noticing them? Appreciating them? No, I was staring at my phone, thinking about the various things I was about to encounter in my meeting. And as I looked up and saw Rachel looking at me looking at my phone, I could hear the Emily Webb narrative in my ear. Notice me. Pay attention to everything going on around you. Be a part of it while you’re here. Appreciate where you are. Be here.
Yom Kippur is here to remind us that it is never too late to change our script into stories of appreciation, of presence, of legacy - until it does become too late. This certainly is a part of what comes blazing forth in the movie about Carl Reiner and other nonagenarians. It is absolutely a part of our Yom Kippur liturgy, an essential piece of what the final shofar blast tomorrow evening represents.
As we ponder our legacy, our reflections should push us to consider others in our lives, and the impact that we have on their stories, their journeys, their spirals, as we talked about erev Rosh Hashanah.
Are we finding time TO live with appreciation and wonder? TO appreciate those around us? TO make sure they know how much we love them? TO notice the people we do not yet know, but who need us just as much? And that is why we say, “Al chet … for the times I have failed to notice and affirm life.” We awaken our hearts to the changes we can make in order to build the legacy we wish to create.
This is our time to find the resolve within ourselves to choose the legacy we want to leave on this earth. To allow the wonder of our core values, of our tradition, of God, to frame for us the ways we hope to leave this earth and those around us better for our being here. To contemplate our legacies - the legacy of morality, the legacy of hope, the legacy of justice, the legacy of equality, the legacy of truth, the legacy of community, the legacy of thinking of more than just the next five minutes, the legacy of conversation, the legacy of laughter, the legacy of curiosity, the legacy of respect, the legacy of caring, the legacy of wonder, the legacy of love, the legacy of appreciation, the legacy of peace.
Our fates are not yet written in stone. Rather, let us see that this is our year. This is our year to choose the legacy we create, whether or not we end up in an obit. I pray that each of us has many breakfasts before us well into the future. And I pray that we all channel the calories from those meals into creating meaningful acts that add to the chain of our tradition, bringing forward the blessings we ask for in our Amidah - l’dor vador nagid godlecha - from generation to generation, let us declare Your goodness. May we help those who know us to appreciate the wonder in life, and may we inspire them through our actions, through our love, through our appreciation, to see the world as a place worth building up together. Then, we need not worry about our legacy, but we can eat breakfast in peace, knowing in our heart of hearts that we have added to the awe of our universe, lifting those around us by giving them something to appreciate. Leaving something l’dor va-dor - from us to the next generation.

1 Gold, Danny. Mayhew, Michael. “If You’re Not in the Obit, Eat Breakfast.” HBO Documentary, 2017
2 ibid
3 Wilder, Thornton (2014-03-18). Our Town: A Play in Three Acts (Perennial Classics) (Kindle Location 3739). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.
4 Kushner, Rabbi Lawrence (2010-09-15). I'm God; You're Not: Observations on Organized Religion & Other Disguises of the Ego (Kindle Locations 3256-3260). Turner Publishing Company. Kindle Edition.
5 Wilder, Thornton (2014-03-18). Our Town: A Play in Three Acts (Perennial Classics) (Kindle Locations 2460-2461). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.
6 Wilder, Thornton (2014-03-18). Our Town: A Play in Three Acts (Perennial Classics) (Kindle Locations 2652-2656). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.
7 Wilder, Thornton (2014-03-18). Our Town: A Play in Three Acts (Perennial Classics) (Kindle Locations 2677-2678,2682, 2685). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

The Magic Word ... Please

I have always felt that Rosh Hashanah had a magical element to it. As a child, I remember seeing the rabbi and cantor of my youth sashaying into the worship space in their wizard gowns, preparing to lead us in incantations that would somehow bring about a good year.  As I’ve grown, a little bit of that anticipation and hope has stuck with me - not rationally, mind you, just kind of a feeling I get when I hear those high holiday notes and tunes. And lo and behold, now I am the one wearing said robe . . .
I assure you, I am no wizard. (Though, just saying, in the two years since Rachel and I and our girls came to town, the Cubs made the playoffs and then won the World Series .... Just saying...) And though I do not honestly take credit for such things, with all that is going on around us in the world, I certainly wish I had a magic formula that I could say that would just make things better, helping our world to have a good new year. Especially now, as we have experienced a year that has pushed so many of us to question the direction our society is heading, a year in which the use of nuclear weapons is being mentioned flippantly and with insults, a year in which we have seen an increase in Anti-Semitism, recent weeks in which we have seen devastating storms in Texas, Florida and throughout the Caribbean, and even yesterday terrible earthquake and another major hurricane. There is SO much happening in our world for us to discuss - and believe me, we will over the course of our time together during these holidays. But for this moment, I just wish there could be some way to find some magic within our holiday. <Pause>
Well, maybe there IS a magic word that can help. THE magic word, actually - the word that we were prompted with as children when asking for what we wanted. [inflected like prompting of a parent to a child] “What’s the magic wo-o-rd?”  “Please.”
Sure, “please” adds a layer of kindness and politeness to our discourse, which is not to be taken lightly. It has the potential to be the difference between getting our way and not, especially when it is said by an adorable little toddling person with huge eyes that are staring at you with hope and anticipation and excitement. (Not that that ever happens in my house). . . But this is not the “please” that puts the magic into the next 10 days of awe.  
No, I’m talking about the gutteral, rooted “please” that comes from the deepest yearnings of our souls, the “please” that is a plea and a prayer. The, “Please” that is the focus of the first prayer recorded in our Torah … It is not until the book of Numbers, the fourth book of our Torah, that we encounter the first words that our rabbis identify as words of prayer. The words come from the mouth of Moses. In the middle of leading the Israelites in their wandering in the desert, Moses discovered that his sister was ill, stricken with leprosy. So he stopped and prayed … his prayer had no Baruch Atahs, no responsive readings. What was the prayer? Simply the five words, “El Na, Refah na, lah.”  “Please, God, please heal her.” It was his soul’s expression of what he needed to say most - his deepest hopes and his fears mixed together into an emotive statement that was 40%, “please.”
So, did Moses’ prayer work? Did his “please” heal his sister? Or was it that his plea of “please” informed what Moses did next. He led the entire camp of Israelites to pause there. For seven days, they encamped - our rabbinic commentary mentions that the fire and smoke of God that had been leading the way kept moving forward, but Moses stopped. He made a choice and he kept the people together in one place, enough time for Miriam to have the rest and care to heal up.
Perhaps, our Torah is showing us that her healing did not come purely from the utterance of “please,” but more importantly, from the actions that came following the magic words. By identifying and even saying out loud his “please,” Moses found clarity in what he needed to do next.  
This is the invitation that our High Holy Days offer us, to feel, to emote, to pour out our hearts about that which is truly most important to each of us.
To find the “please” that expresses our vision for what the world could be.
To find the “please” that is our soul’s yearning for justice, our heart’s plea for compassion, our moral compass that can help us to live with meaning and purpose and offer us the strength to a source of light and hope even in dark times for those who need us - even to ourselves, if we are the ones who need ourselves most.
And if we have been too ensconced in the busy-ness of life, then this is our time to re-discover what is so important to us that we would be willing to stop and re-align our priorities, if needed.  To get involved differently in the world around us, and to play a role in shaping that world... This is the essence of prayer, and this is the heart of our High Holy Day season.
Unfortunately, that’s the magic trick that I cannot do, our wonderful choir and amazing cantorial presence in Laurie - we cannot do this for you. It is in each of our hands, in each of our hearts, to reach inside and drag forth the “please” that is tugging at us, urging us to change course and make this year different than the last.
But that is only the first step of prayer, once we have expressed what we need and want and believe, then we have to bring our “pleases” with us. To let them direct our focus, our actions, our time and our attention, and most importantly, help us create a path of hope for this next year.
Such a “please” is seen in the rabbinic story that used to explain why the great Temple in Jerusalem was built in on what we now call the Temple Mount, on Mount Moriah.
In ancient days, there lived two brothers on either side of a mountain. They shared a field filled with produce, and got along incredibly well. One of the brothers got married and soon had a whole brood of children at home to feed. The other brother, he lived happily and quietly with his spouse, and they did not choose to bring new lives into their home. One year, while their crops were doing okay, the brother who had no children found his thoughts turning  one night to his sibling with all the mouths to feed. He thought, “Wow, it must be so hard for them right now - “please,” I wish there was some way to make things better for them.” And so, he designed a plan - he’d take some of his flour and grains, sneak across the mountain and deliver it on his brother’s doorstep in the middle of the night, as if it was a magical gift from God.
But wouldn’t you know it, that same night, the brother with all of the kids in his family thought of his sibling. He said to himself, “Wow, it must be so hard for my brother to make flour and bread and product from all that we harvest with no children to help him. We are so blessed with such great helpers, please, God, please help him?”  So, he devised a plan, similar to his brother’s, since, well, these things run in the family, and sure enough, he too snuck out in the middle of the night to deliver some flour and cakes and bread to his brother. The next morning, each brother awoke to this incredible blessing of food and supplies. Each was astonished, to find an incredible gift from God. And each thought, “Great! Wow, this will help my brother even more! - and so they shipped the extra bags over to the other’s home.  But in the middle of that night . . . the moon was out, and they left at just the right times - they met on top of the mountain in the light of the moon. They realized what had happened, they embraced there on top of the mountain, filling one another with way more than their food supplies could - with love and hope. And that spot where they embraced is what our tradition teaches is where the Temple in Jerusalem was built.
These two brothers discovered how to say “please” and mean it … to go beyond politeness and let it inform action. The brothers stopped, they turned from their ordinary path to do something good and kind - and in doing so, they brought additional hope and peace to this world.  This story reminds us that we do not pray just to pray, but in order to use our prayers to act.
This is the rabbinic formula of t’shuvah, of return - awakening our hearts to our brothers and sisters, to the plight of others, to our connections to the world around us, and being moved to examine our own stories and what we want them to become. This is our not-so-magical process that can make this year better than the last. We must first figure out the magical “please” that lies within us, but to also know that words alone will not make miracles or move mountains. It is what WE do with our “pleases” that will shape our experience of this next year.
And so I invite you, during these High Holy Days - not to sit and read responsively, but find a way to say PLEASE from the innermost place in our souls. To lay our hearts bare and make ourselves vulnerable. . . but then to take our prayers with us, and let our “pleases” become the forefront of our vision, the hope for a better year, the why behind the what of what we choose to do and become in this next year. It may not always turn out like we planned, just as the brothers discovered, but going on that journey might even lead us somewhere higher.  <Pause>
We have all seen the images on our TV screens of the hurricanes that have devastated our world of late. It is upon us to make sure that we pause to say, “Please, God, please heal them” . . .  And then go do something about it, don’t just shrug and move on. It’s why we have places for donations to relief funds through the local Jewish United Fund, it’s why our movement, the Union for Reform Judaism, has set up funds to support those on the ground, making an impact for those who need to be lifted up.
When we see stories of white supremacists marching, it is upon us to say, “Please, God, Please heal us.” . . . And then to go and do something about it. Be moved and go move. Donate to groups that are educating and fighting bigotry, volunteer in a school, stand up against a bigoted word or phrase in an otherwise seemingly casual conversation, no matter the source … it’s not magic that our world needs. It’s us. Our caring hearts, our engagement in the world, not our removal from it.  
In a time where some of us may feel hope is thin, it is up to each of us to be that hope. And if we do not see enough hopeful examples around us, then let us stand up, together, to be our own sources of hope. I know from the many conversations I’ve had in recent months, that if you feel this way, then you are not alone. And that is also why we are here, together, to know that we are all here seeking and creating the hope for our next year.  
So, together, let us heed the call of our shofar - whether it is the music or the readings and words of our prayers, the wordless blast of the shofar, let us use this contemplative space to allow us to tap-in to what we care about most, this is our time to feel. To move ourselves so that we can go forth and move and heal the world around us, shaping the year that we hope to see.

Please, God, Please heal us. PLEASE from the bottom of my heart, PLEASE make this a good year... And now, let's do something about it. Let’s take this please and move one another towards bringing a year of justice, a year of love, a year of hope and honor and legacy and good fate. Know that I am here and your community is here to help join with you in moving our “pleases” into action. Together, we can bring healing to our world, at least more healing than there would be without us. L’shanah Tovah.

(Rosh Hashanah Sermon 5778 by Rabbi Ari Margolis, delivered at Congregation Or Shalom - please email if you wish to cite material)

Monday, June 19, 2017

Israel Day 5: Jerusalem of old/Shabbat ever new

Why do we as Jews face east when we pray?

If you know the answer, then you know where we started our day. 

This morning, our intrepid adventurers traversed the excavated Western Wall tunnels that run the distance of the ancient retaining wall that held up the massive Temple Mount where the ancient temple in Israel once stood. Since this is the only remnant remaining of this holiest place in Jewish tradition, we have developed the practice of facing this wall when we pray. So, we do not all face east ... if we're north of the wall, we face south.

Group shot inside the tunnels on the Roman road that once ran at the base of the Western Wall 

Together with my father at the Kotel (right before I learned a new lesson about prayer at the Western Wall ... always look up before you start. Just as I finished saying a few prayers, I received a special package from above ... from a pigeon above me. Fun!)

Or Shalom at the Kotel together 

#selfiewiththerabbi #selfiewiththekotel 

Bill and Ron who met during their high school years reunite on this trip and spend time at the holiest of sites, together with Bonnie

Traversing the Cardo, the Roman road in and out of Jerusalem

Today was a day of holies, as we also visited the Church of the Holy Sepulchre,  the site Christianity believes Jesus was crucified, laid to be washed, and some say buried.

Anyone who has visited in the last few decades might remember this part of the Church as being almost black... they just reopened it after cleaning it off in a major  project. This is its actual color!

Anyway, we learned first hand the craziness of this weekend in Jerusalem. The tunnels normally let out into the Muslim quarter, but because of the extra anticipated traffic due to the holiday of Ramadan, we had to backtrack and go back out of the entrance.
Our wonderful bus driver, Salman, who is Muslim, has been fasting each day of our trip because of the holiday. (Also, his newest grandchild was just born,  so we wished him Mubruk, which is Mazal Tov in Arabic).

From there, we toured the Old City of Jerusalem and went ALL OVER. Those with fitbits racked up over 9 miles (about 14.4 kilometers), since we had to walk back to our hotel, recognizing all the street closures due to Ramadan.

We had some time to prepare for Shabbat and watch the city wind down before making our way to Kol Haneshamah, a Reform congregation here in Jerusalem, for services. Shabbat Shalom to all!