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Trust and Truth

Rabbi Deborah A. Hirsch

Trust and Truth

Rosh HaShanah Morning 5777


Abraham should have reeled with confusion, sadness, anger and fear when God commanded him, “Take your son, your only son, the one you love, Isaac, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him up as a sacrifice on one of the mountains that I will show you.” After all, Abraham was 137 years old when he set out on that perilous journey. Sixty-two years prior, God promised Abraham that he would become a mighty nation—his descendants—like the sands of the sea.  Though 37 years old, Isaac was not married.  If Abraham fulfilled God’s ludicrous call—God’s earlier promise to Abraham would have been a lie…Abraham would have been committing legacy suicide—he would have sacrificed his family’s future—the Jewish people’s future, after only two generations. What was God thinking?  We know from the first verse of the text, that God decided to test Abraham’s faith. Midrash provides the needed commentary—God’s prosecuting attorney, Satan, goads God into submitting Abraham to an unimaginable ordeal just to test the limits of Abraham’s faith—to determine the extent of Abraham’s unflappable trust. Abraham, who argued unflinchingly with God, to save the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah—how could the same Abraham dutifully fulfill God’s outrageous request without one word of protest?  Jewish tradition applauds Abraham’s unyielding trust and faith in God.  And what of Isaac? When Abraham began to bind his precious son to the wood, Isaac could easily have physically overcome his frail 137-year-old father and dashed down the mountain, fast-track-it back to the refuge of his mother’s tent.  Perhaps the answer rests in the fact that following their time atop Mount Moria, Abraham and Isaac never speak again.  And poor Sarah—who knew nothing—who according to one Midrash, upon realizing what Abraham had set out to do, died of heartbreaking pain and profound sadness—her trust in Abraham –shattered—her life, devoid of meaning.  

On this first day of the New Year 5777—as we recalibrate our souls—as we strive to turn course and begin anew, as we take stock of that which we hold most precious—let us examine our own levels of trust—how we, like Abraham, have been tested—how our trust engines have stalled-out, as we are tested repeatedly to discern fact from fiction, to decipher truth, and to trust the words and actions of those in authority, to struggle with our exasperation when those whom we admire betray our trust.  

Trust is defined as, the ‘firm belief in the reliability, truth, ability, or strength of someone or something’ is indeed the cornerstone of human relationships.  Without it, we teeter in a state of imbalance.  From the moment we are born we begin to hone are trust cravings.  An infant, before she learns to speak, begins to develop trust in a parent.  According to psychologist Erik Ericson, “the trust versus mistrust stage is the most important period in a person’s life.”  An infant must learn to trust that his parent will be there to offer comfort and ensure that his needs are met.  University of Minnesota psychology professor, Jeffry A. Simpson, wrote: “Trust involves the juxtaposition of people’s loftiest hopes and aspirations with their deepest worries and fears.” Let me share a small secret-- I hate to fly—I’m scared to fly--and yet I have Million Miler status on American Airlines—having crisscrossed this country and beyond numerous times.  Despite my fear—my apprehension every time hear, ‘buckle your seat belt’-- I have enough trust that the pilot and crew are trained, the ground team is competent, and that I will arrive safely at my destination.  My trust keeps my fear in check.  My trust, coupled with the desired outcome of the trip, trumps, my apprehension.

There is a strong link between the trust we develop and the truth we are told.  My trust in an airline nose-dives when airline spokespersons cover-up, and lie about the plane’s maintenance records or captain’s health.   Or, when government officials insisted that the air near Ground Zero was safe to breathe, or toxic water is not contaminated, or new new nutritional finding that counters previous assured facts—caffeine, chocolate, pasta, eggs, sugar or red meat—in favor one decade and out of favor the next—just to mention a few. For those of us who have grown up in relatively stable homes, where parents did meet our most primary needs… we often experience truth and trust thrust into a mid-air collision course.  And too often, like Abraham, we remain silent and accept the revolving door of fact vs. fiction often, without a word of protest.    

Each of us here knows our feelings of disappointment and rage when those whom we admired, even loved, betrayed our trust.  Marriages that ended…friendships dissolved...parents and children estranged from one another due to lack of trust.  If lucky, and after much soul-searching, hard work and truth telling, some, just a fraction of those ruptured relationships are restored—healed.  Perhaps, those bonds will never be the same, but individuals can grow from hardship and emotional setbacks—often with therapeutic assistance. Trust can be rebuilt; but it is often a slow and arduous path. I have no doubt many sitting in this sanctuary will agree.  

It is difficult to enter these High Holy Days without two external forces weighing heavily on many:  Major League Baseball Post-Season and the National Elections just over a month away. As a devout Cub Fan—I will see how my trust and faith are tested in the weeks ahead…the same I am sure goes for Mets fans here today.  

There used to be a time when sports heroes unequivocally, were admired—trusted by youth and adults alike. Today, we too often are disappointed by one-time heroes: Pete Rose, Daryl Strawberry, A-Rod, Lance Armstrong and Barry Bonds—and then there are those whose actions and lies caused irreparable damage:  Oscar Pistorius, Joe Peterno, Aaron Hernandez. It’s no wonder New Yorkers were so emotional when Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera retired—we actually got to applaud—kvell over two sports heroes—with untainted records--role models that didn’t disappoint.  The same can be said of golf legend, Arnold Palmer, who died this past week.

Sports figures are not the only ones who let us down. If one Googled the 10 least trusted jobs—one survey lists separately as three of the top 10 spots--senators, congressman and governors. Why am I not shocked!

In a November 2015 Pew Study, only 19% of those polled said that they can trust the government, always or most of the time—the lowest number in 50 years.  55% stated that ‘ordinary Americans’ would do a better job of solving national problems. Sadly, no surprise, 74% believed that politicians put their own interests before that of the country.  April 24 of this year, 60 Minutes ran an interview with Florida Representative David Jolly who exposed his Party’s requirement of members of Congress to raise their own campaign dollars.  For Jolly that sum was $18,000 a day—requiring hours each day taken from doing the work of a Congressman—of serving his constituents.  In the interview he stated, “Your first responsibility as Congressman is to make sure you hit $18,000 a day—to accomplish the larger goal of 2 million dollars in the next six months.  His interviewer, Norah O’Donnell challenged him, “Your first responsibility.” He replied, ‘my first responsibility as a Congressman.”  How can we trust that elected officials don’t make self-preservation their primary goal?

It pains me that the Era of the ‘Statesman’ is dead: those stalwart men and women of stature of previous decades who have been superseded by politicians, whether in America, in Israel—or across the globe.  Whether or not one agreed with David Ben Gurion’s or Menachem Begin’s politics—each the sworn enemy of the other—it would be difficult to say that these very different Prime Ministers didn’t put country first.  Ben Gurion, Israel’s first Prime Minister, remains a larger-than-life hero—who worked tirelessly to birth and secure a nation.  And, Menachem Begin, founder of the Likud party, a conservative—Begin, the same person who blew up the King David Hotel during Israel’s fight for Independence—whose name was never uttered by Ben Gurion-- was the Prime Minister who, in 1978, secured a peace with Egypt that now has lasted nearly 38 years—despite the recent Arab Spring that unleashed instability and violence throughout the Middle East.    And this past Wednesday, when Shimon Peres died, we witnessed the death of Israel’s last founding father. Though often ridiculed for his positions, Peres was a visionary, who championed the cause of peace in the Middle East.   Israel’s link to its humble beginning was severed with his death.  As Vice President Biden lamented, “ Peres was the ‘soul of Israel’ the ‘world now a little darker.’

        Politicians, who repeatedly fuel people’s fears to ensure their own success, have replaced the era of statesmen.  Politicians tend to say and do anything to ‘get the vote.’   There isn’t a day that goes by in recent weeks that there isn’t a headline that reads, “Which candidate—which politician can you trust?”  And when trust erodes, suspicion, like molten lava, spews across racial, religious and ethnic borders.  

For nearly a year, we have watched as politicians, especially those aspiring for the highest office in our land, have lied, or minimally, manipulated the truth, attempting to dodge accusatory fingers. No political party or candidate is immune from positing falsehoods as truth.  This year, the American pulse is beating faster—as an unprecedented number of Americans are fed up with politics as usual.  Perhaps the seeds of the Arab Spring 5 years ago, has taken root on our soil, as we witness an America divided.  Surely, a wide net of distrust, xenophobia beyond hatred, has been cast, spreading inciting animosity and suspicion of ‘the other.’ It is true, that many Americans have lost faith in government. 

When we find ourselves enmeshed in societal fracture—when suspicion of ‘the other’ is emerging as an American value, we need politicians to inspire and unite—to be realistic and optimistic at the same time.  How sad, that following last week’s presidential debate, commentators didn’t focus on lofty words or visionary statements, rather, every network and media agency jumped on the fact-finding-team band- wagon to determine the veracity of what was said during the 90-minute debate.  I’m certain we all checked the papers Tuesday morning to see who lied more—whom we could trust less.

Indeed, there are those in America who feel disenfranchised, who believe America no longer has a place for them.  We must have compassion for those who struggle each day to make ends-meet, who scratch their heads, wondering, like deer in the headlights, what happened to the America they once knew.  Indeed, a divisive chasm has been created. There was no lower point in our country’s history, no era of greater divide, than The Civil War, when our nation was physically and emotionally decimated.  The Civil War was America’s bloodiest war—pitting brother against brother—destroying family ties.  620,000 lives were snuffed out during the Civil War—nearly half of the deaths of all of our country’s wars combined.  Abraham Lincoln’s inaugural address took place in March of 1861—just weeks after Jefferson Davis became president of the Confederacy as a divided America stood on the brink of Civil War.  Our country was on the verge of despair.  Lincoln could have rallied the North through hateful speech against the South.  He could have pointed the finger at those either less or more willing to go to war.  And yet, in the closing paragraph of that Inauguration address he eloquently stated:  

“We are not enemies, but friends.  We must not be enemies.  Though passion may have strained, it must not break, our bonds of affection.  The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”  

Would that we could hear such inspirational and aspiration words in this year’s election. There is a dis-ease in America—people fed up with politicians who don’t hear their cries of discontent.  Forty years ago, Howard Beale in the movie Network declared in his famous rant, “I don't have to tell you things are bad. Everybody knows things are bad. It's a depression. Everybody's out of work or scared of losing their job. The dollar buys a nickel's worth, banks are going bust; shop keepers keep a gun under the counter. Punks are running wild in the street and there's nobody anywhere who seems to know what to do, and there's no end to it. We know the air is unfit to breathe and our food is unfit to eat, and we sit watching our TV's while some local newscaster tells us that today we had fifteen homicides and sixty-three violent crimes, as if that's the way it's supposed to be. We know things are bad - worse than bad.”  He challenged the people to declare his now, memorialized quote,  “I am as mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore.”  Throughout the past forty years, Howard Beale’s admonishment still strikes a chord with many Americans—for some our predicament has only worsened over time. 

I fear this dis-ease running rampant in our country is giving way to a disease of hate and suspicion—targeting minorities in our country—immigrant groups who have sought refuge from persecution—a vast majority of men and women who want nothing more than a better chance for their families..  Who here in this sanctuary did not have immigrant ancestors?  I was uplifted by the TV story of the Malibu Diner in Chelsea, following the pressure cooker explosion 2 weeks ago—how the manager instructed the restaurant staff to cook round-the-clock meals for police, first responders and residents of the Associated Blind Housing, I smiled at such an outpouring of humanity.  When I heard the manager’s name was Roberto Huerta, I called the restaurant a few days later, and they confirmed what I already knew in my heart, Mr. Huerta is a Mexican immigrant.   

Torah teaches that we are to love the stranger for we were strangers in the land of Egypt.  More than love for parents or even God—we are commanded to love and care for the stranger.  Rabbi Reuven Firestone, HUC professor of Medieval Judaism and Islam wrote the following:  “God works in mysterious ways. On rare occasions oppression is relieved by the direct and miraculous power of the Creator. More often, oppression is relieved in other ways: through the grace of God's likeness in the faces of helping neighbors — or helping strangers. God's miracles in Egypt are a metaphor for the miracles of human kindness that can happen anywhere and at any time. In times of great stress, the miracle is greater than at times of ease.”

I started writing this sermon 36 hours after the pressure cooker blast rocked Chelsea and spewed forth its metal venom.  I wrote as I watched the capture of Achmad Khan Rachami.  As I left my building that Sunday morning, a woman who walked besides me lamented about the sad and scary events of night before.  She then commented—‘and we know what the common denominator is’. Playing dumb I inquired what she meant, knowing full well the answer.  Muslims, she uttered.  I looked at her and said and what of Columbine, Aurora, Oklahoma City, Ted Kaczynski, Newtown, the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston—and we can add now this past week’s attack on a South Carolina playground.  I realize it didn’t matter, as her short-term memory and that of too many Americans, only recall the most recent terrorist attacks perpetrated by adherents of Al-Qadea.

Playing the fear card of security—too many in our country are willing to trust hateful rhetoric and propaganda rather than the truth  —The issue is less about American security and more about targeting of minorities, minorities accused posing a threat to American values and democracy. The following statement describes the intent of propaganda:  “The function of propaganda is… not to weigh and ponder the rights of different people, but exclusively to emphasize the one right which it has set out to argue for. Its task is not to make an objective study of the truth…its task is to serve our own right, always and unflinchingly.”  

If statesmen belong to a by-gone era, and politicians will use whatever tactics necessary to get elected—fear being a potent elixir—then the above statement rings true.  The most frightening part of the quote I just read lays not in the words themselves—rather their author—for this quote was taken from Chapter Six of Adolph Hitller’s Main Kampf:  Hitler a mastermind of propaganda.  

Germany, following its embarrassing defeat in World War I looked for its savior and scapegoat.  Adolph Hitler nourished that ravenous hunger and created the perfect recipe to feed the people:  Eliminate Jews and the undesirables of German society and you create a master race.  Lies were hurled against the Jews—false accusations ignited a nationalistic pride anchored in prejudice, hatred and merciless annihilation.  Jews, throughout history, have been looked upon with suspicion and distrust.  The Kol Nidre, held precious by many of us here, historically was an accelerant for hatred and mistrust of Jews.  Kol Nidre, after all,  is a legal formula releasing us from vows we will make. Those who hated Jews repeatedly accused Jews of not being trustworthy in their business dealings.  Although the Kol Nidre formula applied only between God and Jews—demagogues twisted its intent to provide sufficient propaganda to fan the infernos of antisemitism.  

Unfortunately today, there appears to be a short distance between suspicion of minorities and the erosion of religious freedom.   Throughout the centuries religions have been fraught with distrust for the other’s beliefs.  Abraham Joshuah Heschel, in his 1966 essay, No religion is an Island, wrote: “We are heirs to a long history of mutual contempt among religions and religious denominations, or religious coercion, strife and persecutions.  Even in periods of peace, the relationship that obtains between representatives of different religions is not just reciprocity of ignorance; it is an abyss, a source of detraction and distrust, casting suspicion and undoing efforts of many an honest and noble expression of good will.” 

Historically, Jews are too acquainted with what happens when suspicion of religious belief rears its ugly head. Two years ago I delivered a Kol Nidre sermon on antisemitism, waving a cautionary flag as incidents of antisemitism increased overseas.  This summer, during a Small Cities Federation tour in Israel, Ariele Di-Porto, director of Aliyah at the Jewish agency, indicated that in the next 20-25 years French Jewry in France will be nearly extinct. Truth or propaganda re: impact of Radical Islam’s influence in France?  Only history will write the truth.   And American Jews are not immune from a growing groundswell of suspicion, and that suspicion grows more ominous when, at political rallies, religious minorities are identified as other and potentially deemed not welcomed.  I have always made a distinction between anti-Israel and anti-Jewish sentiment.  That boundary is becoming blurred.  College campuses—from Brandeis to Harvard to Berkley and every university in between—are witnessing a fierce antisemitic uprising couched in pro-Palestinian rhetoric. An article last November by Daniel Greenfield was entitled: “The fight against Students for Justice in Palestine; Anti-Semitism Comes to Brandeis: How a university named after an American Jewish icon became a home for Jew haters and terrorist propagandists.” And…and university faculty and administration, committed teachers, dedicated to showing students paths to truth, too often are doing nothing to help students discern truth from fiction.    

Trust is defined as the ‘firm belief in the reliability, truth, ability, or strength of someone or something.’  So what can we trust—what Jewish wellsprings can we drink from to quench our thirst for truth.  How do we find our equilibrium?  

Each time we take the Torah from the Aron HaKodesh on these Noraim, we recite the verse from Torah describing the Divine Attributes we are to emulate in our lives.  The verse, a part of the second set of Ten Commandments, comes in the same Torah portion containing the Golden Calf incident.  The Golden Calf—a time when the Israelites fell dramatically short of fulfilling the destiny promised to Abraham.  The people rejected their God, their leader Moses and nearly denied themselves their future.  What are these Divine Attributes that stand the test of time:  compassion, mercy, patience, forgiveness, kindness, graciousness and truth.  These are the values we must trust –that must be our blue print for our treatment of the other.   These Divine Attributes—God’s gift to us-- stand boldly against human attempts to derail our humanity.  Perhaps Abraham, almost to a fault, trusted God’s compassion and mercy to prevail—to revoke the command that would have destroyed Abraham.  Perhaps that is why he was called ‘a man of ultimate faith.’

Let me conclude with another quote of our 16th President, Abraham Lincoln; words delivered right here in this Great Hall of Cooper Union in 1860:  “Neither let us be slandered from our duty by false accusations against us, nor frightened from it by menaces of destruction to the Government nor of dungeons to ourselves. Let us have faith that right makes might, and in that faith, let us, to the end, dare to do our duty as we understand it.” 

And let us say, Amen. 

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Each summer holds the same routine for many in our city—warmer weather, time out at weekend homes, kids at camp, parents with more ‘me’ time, freedom from homework, trips to Citi Field or Yankees Stadium, dress-down work days or weeks, perhaps, even shorter work schedules as the weekend getaways expanded to include Fridays or Mondays.  This summer, for a span of two weeks, Americans and many around the world were glued to their televisions or tablets—watching as Athletes around the world participated in the Games of the 21st Olympiad.  Indeed there were favorites:  Michael Phelps who didn’t disappoint, Women’s soccer that did.  Simone Manuel became the first African American woman to win a Gold medal in swimming. Simone Biles who stole the hearts of millions.  And for the people of Puerto Rico, Monica Puig—a clear underdog—went on to defeat Tennis’ second seed, Angelique Kerber—to capture Puerto Rico’s first gold medal. Mara Abbott—who moved into first position in the women’s 87-mile bike race, after Annamiek Van Vluten crashed with serious injury.  Abbott, considered one of the strongest uphill cyclists watched as her 38 second lead precipitously declined in the last kilometer of the race—within 100 meters of the finish line she steeply descended from Gold Medal to 4th place—no medal--A heart-breaking moment to be sure.  Aly Reisman—fondly called ‘the grandma’ of her gymnastics team brought confidence and encouragement to her younger teammates.  The image of Aly hugging Simone Biles as Biles took the gold was an image of mentschlikite and sportsmanship personified. 

As we know Olympic athletes train for years—sacrifice much of their young lives—as do parents, and even grandparents, make sacrifices:  The competition meets, the travel schedules, the financial burden, the pressure, and ultimately, the feeling of exaltation or bitter defeat.  More than half of the athletes that participated in Rio did not medal—and, many returned to their native countries without fanfare or ticker tape parades—these hopeful stars will now take a deep breath and begin the grueling process once again.  Somehow, somewhere, they will find the resilience to tuck their defeats into a corner and forge ahead, eyes, body and mind set on doing better in Tokyo in 2020—visioning themselves on the platform clutching the elusive gold medal in their hands.  

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines resilience as “an ability to recover from or adjust easily to misfortune or change.”  What motivates defeated athletes to kick-start the cycle of Olympic training?  For some training has already begun for 2020.  Only a rarified few athletes will receive Nike or sports drink endorsement—fewer will become sports commentators.  The vast majority of those who train will barely succeed financially between this year’s Olympics and 2020—indeed, they must have the inner gumption – the stamina, the passion and resilience to start from scratch—never relinquishing their quest for personal best or world record.  

These High Holy Days—this first eve of the New Year 5777—is finding that place within each of us to start anew.  It’s about tapping into our spiritual, resilience gene.  The meaning of these Noraim—Days of Awe—is firmly rooted in our desire to turn from those actions when we missed the mark—make adjustments and continue on life’s journey.  Elie Wiesel, the vocal and written conscience of the Holocaust, who died earlier this year, wrote, “Because I remember, I despair. Because I remember, I have the duty to reject despair.”  

Tomorrow morning’s Torah reading, of the Akedah—the Binding of Isaac is perhaps the most controversial portion of Torah. Abraham returns from that life-altering ordeal to find his beloved Sarah has died—one tradition teaches that upon hearing of Abraham’s God-given mission, Sarah died from shock, sadness, rage and pain.  Sarah—alone with her thoughts, overwhelmed by her emotions could not find resilience.  In contrast, Abraham, while still mourning his beloved Sarah—looks to his future that almost went up as smoke on the altar, and sends forth his most trusted servant—perhaps his singular confidant, to find a wife for Isaac and to fulfill God’s promise of making Abraham a mighty nation.  

Resilience is most critical when we are faced with defeat, when we desperately try to find purpose and meaning in the wake of catastrophe.  

Sherri Mandell’s book, Road to Resilience, published this past November, provides us with direction. Mandell  was the mother of 13 year-old Koby, who in May of 2001 with his friend, Yosef Ishran, were stoned to death —the 62nd and 63rd fatalities  of the Second Intifada in Israel.  One can ask how a parent can ever overcome such unimaginable tragedy.  In her prologue to the book, Mandell wrote:  

Jewish philosophy teaches that resilience is not overcoming, it’s becoming. Becoming more, becoming our fullest, deepest selves as a result of adversity. We don’t escape, but contemplate and reshape. We don’t leap over troubles as if they don’t exist. We allow them to be our teachers. We experience resilience when we are enlarged rather than diminished by our challenges, when facing adversity causes us to change, grow, and become greater.

Building upon Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’ literary style found in The Five Stages of Death, Mandell explores the seven Cs of resilience: chaos, community, choice, creativity, commemoration, consecration, and celebration.  Mandell, while holding her precious Koby in her heart and mind has learned to live Elie Wiesel’s teaching to reject despair.  

Walking that oft-times treacherous path is not easy.  There are individuals who rise to the spiritual challenge and others, no matter their intentions, like our matriarch Sarah, find the path too deep and daunting to climb.  

 1986, thirty years ago, was a most interesting year for Major League Baseball—particularly for the Boston Red Sox, California Angels and New York Mets.  I am certain many Mets fans here remember the roller coaster ride that eventually led to the Mets, game 7, World Series victory. I want to highlight a few sports moments that took place in that post-season year—mere moments that were literally life altering.  The first memory is that of the 5th Game of the pennant race between the California Angels and the Boston Red Sox.  With only one out needed in the top of the 9th to win the series, Angels’  ‘closer’ pitcher, Donnie Moore threw a home run pitch to Boston Red Sox center fielder, Dave Henderson.  Although the Angels tied the game in the bottom of the 9th, in the top of the 11 Henderson hit a sacrifice fly off of Moore—a double whammy—to win the game.  The teams returned to Fenway and the rest is history…The Red Sox faced the New York Mets in the 1986 World Series.  In game 6 of that World Series, in the 10th inning, Red Sox first baseman Bill Buckner allowed a ground ball tapped by Mookie Wilson to roll between his legs allowing the winning run to score.  The rest is history—the Mets took game 7 for the World Series championship.  

Both Buckner and Moore became the butt of much criticism and unkindly jokes in the days and months following the World Series.  Each one wore the scar of scorn—though they didn’t wear it equally well.  Both Moore and Buckner, played through serious injuries the entire ’86 season.  Buckner at age 40 hung up his ball player uniform, and with the support of family and friends, became both a successful businessman and well-respected major league coach—only retiring from the sport he loved two years ago. Donnie Moore, who suffered from rib cage nerve damage wasn’t as resilient.  Moore went into a tailspin of despair and pain causing him to leave baseball in August of ’89.  Less than one year later, after taking his wife’s life, Donnie Moore committed suicide.   

Too many people today, alone, can’t make the cataclysmic climb out of moments of disconnect or despair. Resilience is dependent upon both inner strength and communal support.  Sherri Mandell could not have emerged from her tragic loss without the constant nurturing and love of friends and strangers who helped nourish her soul back to life.  Mandell and to a different extent, Buckner, found a place of belonging after defeat—they realized that their lives mattered even though their lives would never be the same.  

Sebastian Junger-in his recent book Tribe—On Homecoming and Belonging, examines Native American society and the profound sense of loyalty demonstrated by those born into that culture, as well as for those white men and women who in the 19th century, by choice or by force, became part of that Native American world.  Junger posits, that when people have a sense of belonging—when they find meaning in community—there is a tremendous sense of loyalty even when confronted with trauma or risk.  

  “Junger wrote, “We can learn from tribal societies about loyalty and belonging and the eternal human quest for meaning.  It’s about why—for many people—war feels better than peace and hardship can turn out to be a great blessing and disasters are sometimes remembered more fondly than weddings or tropical vacations. Humans don’t mind hardship, in fact they thrive on it, what they mind is not feeling necessary.”  

Junger sites a 2012 study in the Journal for Affective Disorders, which reported, “ The economic and marketing forces of modern society have engineered an environment…that maximizes consumption at the long-term cost of well-being.”  It’s fascinating that during times of war suicide rates drop—when people feel they have a contribution to make to the war effort—their lives gain new meaning.  In contrast, white-males in the U.S., 

experience the highest rate of suicide.  As September 11th  will forever cast its shadow on High Holy Day observances—if we think back to that fateful day and the weeks that followed—people uniquely connected to one another—whether in looking at the make-shift billboards of missing persons, men and women spending 230 days on The Pile at Ground Zero, first to rescue victims and then to recover precious remains, children and adults alike joining together to make meals and cards for police and fire departments decimated by the loss of colleagues who ran into the fated twin towers to save lives.  We saw parents hug children a little tighter.  The best of New York emerged out of the ashes in the weeks following September 11th. 

This past year, when meeting with bnai mitzvah students who turned 13 in 2015-2016, I often asked parents the following question—‘Given the fact that you lived through one of the darkest days in American history, a time when New York City was licking its emotional wounds, what gave you the strength, desire to conceive and bring new life into a shattered world?’

And just 3 weeks ago, when Chelsea, was rocked by a terrorizing explosion resulting in 29 injuries, people rallied to help. In a year where racial tensions are boiling over—where police and black communities are consumed with anger and suspicion, it was heartening to see the young black Starbucks worker, Germaine, reach over the police barrier on 23 St and hand police officers donuts and coffee. Catastrophic moments can help dissolve racial tension and unite Americans across color lines.  

And when we speak about community—when we speak of where that sense of balance can be found—the go-to place for solace and hope—no JCC, or gym or artistic setting provides that emotional security more than houses of worship.  When 9/11 pummeled our city and assaulted our sensibilities—synagogues, churches and mosques literally became sanctuaries for the shell-shocked.  Our own congregation was overflowing at services on September 14, with those who needed the comfort of community—who sought a spiritual equilibrium in the pitch-black shadow of chaos.  Synagogues in New York galvanized corps of volunteers to call every temple member—just to check in.  For some congregations, this custom still persists.  More than any Jewish institution, the synagogue is the place Jews, and those who have created Jewish homes, turn to for solace, strength and community—let me repeat, no organization or institution can provide parallel meaning or comfort.  

It is because of that profound sense of connection and community that temples provide, that resilience becomes a steep upward climb, when fracture happens within that very sacred place of trust and nurturing.  

We join together tonight, some of you new to our congregation—while others have been part of this kehilah kedoshah—this sacred community for decades. Tonight has many firsts that can be perceived either as movement forward or as a departure from the past.  Before leadership engaged me as your interim rabbi, they made the wise decision to ensure that there the music on these High Holy Days would echo with familiarity.    I met with Gerard Edery, last spring to prepare for the High Holy Days. But as the Jewish saying goes: “Mann traoch, Gott Lauch—people plan and God laughs.”  As you know, Gerard underwent emergency back surgery in Poland at the end of August…I know his heart is with us tonight as our prayers for a speedy recovery are with him.  Yet, we did not despair—a resilience gene kicked into high gear—we tapped all resources and were so fortunate to engage two wonderful spiritual leaders and two superb accompanists, for these High Holy Days—Cantor Ginsberg will be our vocal conduit to God on this Rosh HaShanah with Paul Olson as her accompanist, and Ellen Allard will inspire and lead us on Yom Kippur with Carole Rivel at the piano.  

For some, the complete change in clergy leadership on this bimah would have been Dayeinu—would have been sufficient for some in our congregation to dive-deep into their resilience bank.  Some of the melodies have changed while the clergy team and accompanists have sought to preserve musical elements of the service held precious by many.  The spiritual elephant in the room, though, is not the changes to these High Holy Day services, rather, it is the pain, anger, and sadness and guilt felt by so many—it is the culmination of the hurt and anger expressed during the many months leading up to and following the congregational vote last February. There is a popular story told On Yom Kippur that has meaning for us tonight.  The story of the man who went through town week after week saying hurtful, and at times, untrue things about his neighbors.  As he approached the Noraim—the High Holy Days—he went to his rabbi and asked how he could make amends.  The rabbi told him to take a pillowcase and stuff it full of feathers.  The man thought the request odd, but nevertheless, complied with the rabbi’s instruction.  When he returned, proud that he stuffed hundreds of little feathers into the pillowcase, the rabbi told him to go out on the windiest of days and empty the pillow.  The next day a strong west wind blew—and the man went out—cut open the sides of the pillow—and flung it into the air—the feathers swirled and were blown by the wind to points not visible to the eye.  The man returned to the rabbi—who then instructed the man to go out and collect the feathers—an impossible task.  

This ancient story underscores the fact that words, and in the 21st century—emails, cannot easily be deleted.  More importantly, the feelings evoked by those words cannot easily be assuaged.  There is no spiritual or emotional Clorox to sanitize the past—There is no Obliviate Charm—used in Harry Potter—to erase the memories of those who were pained.  Jewish tradition provides us with a once-in-a-year opportunity to do Teshuvah—to turn—not obliterating the past—but turning to make the future a better one.  On Yom Kippur we will often pray the word Chatanu-usually translated as, we have sinned.  But the word Chet literally is not a sin; rather, it is the ‘mark’ found in archery.  When we commit a chet—we have missed the mark—we have fallen short of our highest-selves.  Indeed, there are many in this sacred space that can turn and point the finger—remembering words spoken, spirits fractured, and hurt and anger remaining. The goal of these next days ahead is to find the sliver-crack for a new beginning.

For me, that fragile sliver has already been formed in this congregation.  Each one here tonight made a choice to be here.  For non-members, you chose to be part of our worship experience and we welcome you into our chevre—into our temple family.  For temple members—you chose—you made a conscious decision to remain a part of this congregation.  You could have ignored your membership renewal letter.  I know some of you, are still poised on the fence—still somewhat uncertain as to the meaning of Village Temple in your lives.  Many entered this historic hall with memories of the past—memories that bring smiles and tears of joy and sadness.  And yet, on the holiest of days—on this eve of the New Year—as we await tomorrow’s shofar’s blast that will stir our hearts--You sit beside one another and pray in sacred community.  The key word for us is community—as community we are greater than any One—we are a combination of legacy and promise.  Memories of weddings, births, funerals, illness, bnai mitzvah fill this sacred space…life moments that you felt the support and encouragement of your temple family.  As you know, the name of our congregation is The Village Temple—Congregation B’nai Israel of New York.  B’nai Israel—the children of Israel—our patriarch Jacob, whose name was changed to Israel after struggling for his life with an angel—he prevailed.  So, too for us, we too must struggle with the past—not forgetting the pain, but allowing the memories of community and warmth to prevail.  

In Spencer Johnson’s bestseller, Who Moved My Cheese, Hem declared, “If you do not change, you can become extinct.”  Similarly if we do not seek, and if we do not dispense forgiveness, there is a great possibility for us becoming emotionally stuck. Indeed, as Junger reminds us, ‘it is in community that we find purpose and meaning’.  It is in community where we can be bolstered when adversity strikes us down.  It is in community that we are nourished and renewed.  Those athletes who missed their Olympic mark—found comfort and strength in the hugs and supportive glances of teammates and coaches.  I have no doubt, those family members who have joined now at the 9/11 memorial on that tragic anniversary for the past fifteen years, find a communal resilience—are infused with the emotional formula to pursue the future and not the past.   On 9/11 our congregant Fred Eichler, helped save the life of Jonathan Judd from the 83rd floor of the North Tower.  Each year the two families get together—they don’t forget the past but they celebrate the present and gaze toward each other’s future.   

I want to close this evening the words that I read earlier in this sermon—the heartening words of Sherri Mandel—for they apply not just to our individual selves—but to our communal congregational soul as well.  

“Resilience is not overcoming, it’s becoming. Becoming more, becoming our fullest, deepest selves as a result of adversity. We don’t escape, but contemplate and reshape. We don’t leap over troubles as if they don’t exist. We allow them to be our teachers. We experience resilience when we are enlarged rather than diminished by our challenges, when facing adversity causes us to change, grow, and become greater.”

I say to you now and may we say to one another: Chazak Chazak V’nitchazek.   Be strong—May we be strong—and may we in this New Year of 5777, strengthen one another.  Keyn Yehi Raztzon.  

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Elul Thoughts

In any good marathon run, there are points along the way where we receive nourishment, catch our breath and sharpen our focus on the ultimate goal.  The last leg of the marathon, is often the most trying and most urgent.  The month of Elul has embedded within it both a ‘rest stop’ and that sense of urgency as we race towards Rosh HaShanah.  Selichot—prayers for forgiveness get added prior to the traditional early morning liturgy, beginning the Sunday preceding Rosh HaShanah until Yom Kippur.  Jewish law requires that there be three days of Selichot recited before Rosh HaShanah; therefore, If Rosh HaShanah falls on a Monday or Tuesday the recitation of Selichot begin the prior Sunday. 

As the High Holy Days leading up to the Noraim (awe-filled days) are a time of uncertainty—we have neither been written nor sealed in the Book of Life—we approach the days of Selichot with trepidation as we are vulnerable—at risk in the days that follow.    We acknowledge this vulnerability through various customs associated with the first day of Selichot. 

·         The first service of Selichot is traditionally held at midnight—the witching hour—a time when we feel unsafe, vulnerable

·         The liturgy contains High Holy Day melodies to heighten our awareness of the approaching Noraim

·         The theme of the service is one of turning and forgiveness

·         The dominant color is one of white—purity—as clergy will dress in white robes and the covers of the Sifrei Torah are changed to special white ones

Selichot sets the tone for the High Holy Days. 

Our congregation will observe Selichot this Saturday beginning at 8 pm.  The evening will include light refreshments, Havdalah, a 45-minute study session, “Kol  Nidre in Tradition and Modernity,” and the Selichot service which will conclude with congregants changing the Torah covers. 


May we all approach the New Year with hearts filled of repentance, forgiveness and hope.  

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Elul Thoughts

The Jewish calendar is determined by the cycle of the moon. The moon during the month of Elul is particularly meaningful.  It starts barely visible to the eye—reaches it’s brightest illumination mid-cycle and then slowly diminishes back to its original form. So, too, is the cycle of our lives. The challenge for us during this month is to feel time more intensely—to do time with greater intention. The moon is in its first quarter stage—not yet quite able to brighten the world. So too, is there still darkness within each of us. This is the time for soul-searching, determining whom we’ve hurt—whose forgiveness we implore.   When next we see the New Moon—we will be gathered in prayer, and like the moon itself, we shall start anew in the New Year.   

Below are a few of the verses to Debbie Friedman’s (z’l), Seasons of the Moon. Debbie, whose life ended too soon and who was a beacon of light and hope for so many—reminds us in the song that there is a Divine presence in each of us and that Divine presence links us one to the other. 

A sliver, a quarter, a half and full light

Revealing yourself in the darkness of night

And we go round and round and round

And we go round and round

This is the cycle the rhythm of time

Days in to weeks into months into years

And we go round and round and round

And we go round and round.

A sliver, a quarter, a half and full heart 

Revealing the mysteries that set us apart

And we go round and round and round

And we go round and round.

A sliver a quarter, a half and then whole

Renewed by Your presence, touching the soul,

And we go round and round and round

And we go round and round.  

May our cycle this month lead us to a better place within—enabling us to create greater wholeness in our world.


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Elul Thoughts

This past Sunday ushered in the month of Elul, the last Hebrew month before Rosh HaShanah.  We find ourselves at the starting line, crouched to spring forward, our eyes on the finish line of 5776.  Just beyond, not yet visible to the human eye, is the empty starting bloc--waiting patiently to thrust us into the New Year of 5777.  We must cross the finish line before we can begin anew.  As we continue on our month-long journey to a new beginning, we will pass, like spectators on the sideline, our actions, deeds and misdeeds of this past year.  We shall see our aspirations never realized, our moments of joy, and our sad defeats.  We will hear the words of comfort and encouragement we gave to those in need of our support.  We will hear the deafening silence of the words never spoken—words seeking forgiveness---words of love—words of reconciliation.  Divine forgiveness is only realized when we, first, make amends with those whom we have offended.  The month of Elul provides the framework to begin the process of reconciliation…a journey that culminates on Yom Kippur when we seek forgiveness from God.  Tradition teaches that the Hebrew letters of Elul—aleph, lamed, vav, lamed—are an acronym for a verse from Shir HaShirim (Song of Songs):  Ani L’dodi, V’dodi Li-I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine.  In this verse the relationship described is one between God and Israel.  During Elul this serves as a metaphor for the closeness we strive to achieve in all our sacred human relationships as well: spouse, parent, sibling, partner, friend, neighbor.  Elul is about seeking and granting forgiveness in order to strengthen the treasured bonds in our lives.  It is about speaking the words, “I’m sorry” and “I forgive you.”  Like a runner who is cheered on by the crowd or running partners, we too, are energized and strengthened by those loved ones whom we encounter each day.  Elul helps remember who and what are most precious in our lives; it gives us the opportunity to mend moments of fracture.  It provides the lens for us to see who will be standing next to us in the starting block of the New Year.  Let each of us pace ourselves during the month ahead.  May we have a strong heart to finish the Elul marathon –a heart filled with regret, forgiveness and love. 

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