Sunday, July 22, 2018
Yom Rishon, 10 Av 5778

From Rabbi Bigman...

From Rabbi Bigman...

Yom Kippur Morning Sermon, September 30, 2017

on Saturday, 30 September 2017.

These past few months have been a struggle:  not only because I’ve had to deal with this stress fracture in my foot and learning how to use a wheelchair and crutches, but also because I, like most rabbis and synagogue staff, begin focusing on the High Holy Days around June.  This year’s preparations were different than previous years in that we tried to make sure that everything that Cantor Schiffer took care of these past years was taken care of after her retirement in June.  We worked very hard to make sure that nothing was overlooked and I hope that we were successful.

One of the many things we rabbis especially focus on in our High Holy Days preparations, as you can imagine, is sermons.  I ask myself every year:  “What am I going to say to my congregational family?  What would be meaningful for them to hear on these holiest of days?  How can I help them to feel good about their Judaism and their synagogue?”  There are so many topics that I have thought about for this morning:  I’ve wanted to talk to you about loss, about support for Israel, about the special issues faced by Reform and Conservative Jews in Israel, about loss, about support for our congregation, about involvement in Jewish life, about Jewish education, about loss… 

I keep coming back to loss.  There are all types of loss that we experience as we go through our lives:  loss of jobs, broken relationships, death.  Our tradition helps us to deal with loss, especially with the death of loved ones.  This afternoon – as we also do on Shemini Atzeret, on the last day of Pesach, and on Shavuot – we will gather together for Yizkor, a special time of remembrance for our loved ones.

Judaism tells us that we are “official” mourners for our husband or wife, son, daughter, mother, father, sister, and brother.  By “official” this means that we are responsible for taking care of funeral arrangements for these loved ones, for saying Kaddish for each of these loved ones, for reciting Yizkor on the previously-mentioned holy days, for contributing tzedakah in their memory, and so on.

But each of us also mourns for other members of our family and for our friends as well.  This afternoon I will be remembering not only my brother, but also my grandparents, aunts, and uncles, and also four friends.  Between mid-March and the beginning of August, four of my friends died, all of whom were only in their 50s.  While I no longer saw these people on a daily basis, as life’s journeys took us to different communities and different experiences, they were friends to me at various points in my life and I mourn their loss just the same.  I also learned this summer that someone I have known since I was three years old and he was four years old was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s.  Having watched my grandmother struggle with Alzheimer’s, I mourn for what I know my old friend is experiencing and will experience in the future.

In situations like these, along with the many natural disasters that our country and our world have experienced recently, the inevitable questions are asked:  “How could this happen?  Why did this happen?  How could God let this happen?  Why did God make this happen?”

A few weeks ago my colleague, Rabbi Paul Kipnes of Congregation Or Ami in Calabasas, California, posted an article on our alumni listserv that he wrote seven years ago which he titled “Why the Good Die Young: A Conversation with God about 4 Funerals, Illness and an Earthquake in Haiti.”  As soon as I read it, I knew that I needed to share it with you this morning.  Here is just part of his “conversation” with God:

I noticed that God attended each funeral, but amidst the many tear-filled eulogies, there wasn’t time for God to speak.  So God sat quietly at the side – listening, crying.  God left quietly after each funeral ended, and almost no one realized that God had been there.  I did take notice. Wondering what God might have said had God been invited to deliver a eulogy, I dashed out after the Holy One.  Still reeling from these funerals, I wondered if God could make sense of these senseless deaths.  I asked if God had time to talk, and God was willing. We strolled through the cemetery, talking quietly.

…Man:  You mean you don’t agree with what the rabbis said [at the funerals]?

God:  Look, one said baruch dayan ha-emet, the traditional words of “Blessed be the Judge of Truth,” suggesting that what happened was all part of a plan – My plan – while another suggested I took a boy’s life because he didn’t celebrate Shabbat that week.  Some people, I suppose, find comfort in the idea that I have a master plan.  Others find direction through religious rituals, which perhaps they believe help them beat the odds of life.  If that brings them comfort, they can cherish those beliefs.  But those ideas are built upon ancient words, misinterpreted to suggest things I didn’t say and I never meant.  It’s neither who I am nor how I work.  I don’t pre-plan untimely deaths and I don’t punish those who don’t keep the rituals.  I am not responsible for those deaths.

Man:  Wait, with all due respect, You created everything – spectacular sunsets, shooting stars and beautiful California coastline – but, You also created poisonous snakes and ferocious lions, as well as earthquakes, hurricanes and deadly diseases.  And, forgive me, but You are the One who created the humans who created the automobiles that led to the deaths of three people.  Just where do you get off abdicating responsibility for any of this?

God:  There you go again!  Blaming Me for what you refuse to acknowledge, what you fail to see.  Yes, I created it all, each with its own purpose.  Some of it blessedly benevolent; some of it potentially dangerous.  So I created lions.  Leave them alone and they are just gorgeous creatures.  Bother them and look out!

…God:  Listen, each [of these awful things] pains Me. They weren’t in any plan.  When I set out to create, I began with exactness and perfection.  But when I began creating the universe, I failed to realize that I was creating something that was other-than-Me.  And because it was other-than-Me, it was imperfect. All approximations are intrinsically imperfect.  Your teacher, Rabbi Isaac Luria, articulated the story of creation well.

Man:  You mean, the mystic from Tzfat, who taught the story of repairing the world, that we call tikkun olam?

God:  Yes.  First there was only Me.  Everything was God.  Ein Sof, Me without end.  Then I contracted – tzimtzum – I pulled back to make space for Creation.  I created the universe, as vessels, which at that moment were devoid of anything, including Me.  Then I poured My light back into those vessels.  But My light was too pure and too potent for the creation-that-was-not-Me.  So it blew up – sh’virat ha-keilim – the vessel broke apart, sending shards of creation and sparks of My light all over the universe.

Broken world; bad things happen.  The earthquakes and tsunamis.  Cancer and heart attacks.  Automobile accidents and incomprehensible tragedies on the slopes.  All the result of a broken world, an imperfect world.

…[And] it pains Me to watch you abdicate your responsibility, as you fail to live up to your end of our human-Divine partnership.  I cry for each life lost.  I cry that you humans are suffering, and will suffer.  I cry for the pain that I let into your life the day I decided to pull back and give you free will.

Man:  Truthfully God, when I hurt, I don’t always feel that you are close.  Where do you go when I’m in real pain?

God:  That’s just it.  I am still here.  By your side.  I’m holding you up and making sure you get through the day. Do you ever wonder how you find the strength to get out of bed the next morning?  That’s Me.  Do you see all those people who came over to your house, to hug and hold your loved ones, to take care of the arrangements so you could fall apart. That’s Me too.  I’m making sure you keep getting phone calls and e-mails and all those beautiful memories posted to Facebook.  My friends are your Facebook friends doing My sacred work.  And when you rage at Me in anger, or withdraw from Me in pain, I’m still here, waiting patiently.  Still loving.  Still helping.  It’s the holy work I do.

…Man:  Is there anything…we can do?

God:  You can try to make quiet time to meditate and pray.  Daily.  I do.  I pray that the memory of your loved ones…bring you blessing and joy.  And that those who are ill have hope.  May you comfort each other, and feel My love, too, and may you find fortitude and courage so that you may endure the inevitable dark times. Remember, there also will be plenty of joy.  I love you.  I wish for you wholeness and shalom.

To me, the idea of God being here in the form of friends and family is a potent one.  I’ve spoken about this before; I’ve taught this before, but I believe it bears repeating.  As I noted on Rosh HaShanah morning, we are here so that God can be here on earth. The prophets remind us that, as God’s partners, we are to take care of everyone in need, to feed the hungry and to clothe the naked.  God commands us to give tzedakah (righteous giving), to pursue acts of g’milut chasadim (lovingkindness).  We are also here to welcome the stranger, visit the sick, comfort the bereaved and to take care of those who need companionship.

I offer this prayer:  Dear God, for making my life richer by allowing me the privilege of having good, caring people in my life, I thank You.  For allowing me to realize and to appreciate the gifts of these special people, I praise You.  Help me to be that person in their lives and in other people’s lives. Help me to use each day of this new year with greater wisdom and with compassion for others.  For the blessings you bestow upon me every day, may I always be grateful. 


Kol Nidre Evening Sermon, September 29, 2017

on Friday, 29 September 2017.

Charlottesville.  All I have to say is that one word, that one name and images are conjured up in our minds:  Shabbat morning, August 12, in Charlottesville, Virginia, home of the University of Virginia, a university town not unlike our own, a “Unite the Right” rally took place.  Clashes broke out between the “Unite the Right” folks and the counter-protesters.  A man drove down a street filled with counter-protesters, killing one person and injuring others.  Two Virginia State Patrol troopers also died that day when their helicopter, monitoring the events on the ground, crashed.

Most of you have read, I’m sure, the article written by Alan Zimmerman, president of Congregation Beth Israel in Charlottesville, describing the events of that Shabbat:  the armed security guards hired by the synagogue for protection, forty congregants inside at Shabbat morning worship, people marching by shouting “There’s the synagogue!” and chants of “Seig Heil,” some carrying flags with swastikas on them.  Services ended, people having to leave through the back entrance of the synagogue in groups, learning that Nazi websites had called for the burning of the synagogue, removing from the building the Sifrei Torah (Torah scrolls), just in case.

The following Friday morning, August 18, the Interfaith Clergy Association of Greater Lansing held a quickly scheduled meeting to discuss what happened in Charlottesville and what we should be doing here in the Lansing / East Lansing area.  I was heartened to see that 14 or 15 of my colleagues showed up to this last-minute meeting and many others who couldn’t attend expressed support.  To demonstrate their support for our Jewish community, some of my colleagues attended Rosh HaShanah evening worship at Congregation Kehillat Israel and some are with us tonight.  (names)  We are grateful for their support and welcome them to our home this holiest of evenings.

At that meeting in August we discussed how to respond not only to the tragedy in Charlottesville, but to other situations as well.  We talked about what we could do as clergy to respond, what we could do or say or bring to our community.  During the conversation, one of my colleagues leaned over to me and whispered, “I’m tired.”  He said – and here I’m paraphrasing – “I’m tired.  We’ve done this work before.  We’ve taught, we’ve preached, we’ve prayed together.  I’m tired.”  I looked at him, nodded, and said, “I’m tired, too.” 

As I was driving to the synagogue following the meeting, I realized that I hadn’t given a full and more appropriate response to my friend’s comment.  “Yes, I’m tired, too,” but I should have also added, “but we can’t give up for the Talmud teaches:  ‘Rabbi Tarfon omeir:  Lo alekha hamlakhah leegmor v’lo atah ben choreen l’heebatell meemenah – Rabbi Tarfon said:  You are not required to complete the work, but neither are you at liberty to abstain from it.” [Avot 2:16]

Some would say that if you cannot complete a task, you shouldn’t even bother to start it.  However, Rabbi Tarfon reminds us that something is better than nothing.  Rather than opt out because we cannot do it all, we are encouraged to do our best.  If we try, something good might happen; if we don’t even bother to try, we most certainly won’t accomplish anything.

A colleague, Rabbi Brad Levenberg, of Temple Sinai in Atlanta, wrote a blog on the “Times of Israel” website ten days after Charlottesville.  I commend it to you.  It is lengthy, so I will only share a part of it with you this evening:

[He talks about the temple’s Shabbat service the Friday evening after Charlottesville.  He contacted his non-Jewish colleagues to invite them and members of their congregations to attend what they were billing as a Unity Shabbat.  He was in for a shock.]

One friend with whom I spoke offered a stirring rebuke.  “Look, Brad, I get it.  The Jewish community is shocked and you are reaching out to people of color to be a part of this dialogue.  But where was the Jewish community when my community needed an ally?  When yet another black man was murdered by the police…where was the outrage of the Jewish community?  When we were marching in the streets I looked for allies and there was a sea of people who looked like me and I didn’t see ANYONE who looked like you.”

…Or this response: “Brad, the Jewish community was all over Facebook when the Supreme Court struck down the Defense of Marriage Act.  But when the LGBTQ community marched on the Georgia Capital during this past legislative session, there was not one non-LGBTQ rabbi standing by us.  And the Jews who WERE there? They were not with us because they are Jews.”

Throughout this week I have been on the receiving end of a good amount of criticism.  While my friends expressed personal support, the rebuke was stunning:  when we needed an ally, the Jewish community was not by our side.

I recognize that the Jewish community has done a lot of good in standing shoulder-to-shoulder with others.  After all, in many communities, my own included, there is a healthy contingent of Jews and Jewish organizations present at the PRIDE parades.  The Jewish community en masse supports the ADL [Anti-Defamation League]; the American Jewish Committee creates and supports dialogue between communities, including the Black/Jewish Coalition.  For Reform Jews, the Religious Action Center has been involved in many national actions and has recently been engaging local communities in a whole new level.

But for a good number of us, myself included, we have not been good allies.  We do well with the sponsored initiatives, we do well when our movements are recognized as partners.  But by and large we have not cancelled our plans to participate with those who feel threatened when they needed somebody from outside of their community to demonstrate an act of solidarity.  We are great about forwarding articles and clicking “like” on Facebook…

Rabbi Levenberg’s blog was a kick in the pants.  Sadly, Rabbi Levenberg is correct.  We like to think that we are doing the work that needs to be done.  But we’re not.  Admittedly, I get frustrated when interfaith programs are scheduled for Shabbat or other Jewish holidays.  But I know I can – I must – do better with those programs which do not conflict with our religious holy days.  And at the same time, I need you to join me at these programs.  Sometimes I’m the only Jew in attendance; sometimes there are a handful of us.  Our Jewish community is not large number-wise, but I know that are our hearts are huge, and I know that we can find ways to help make our community better.  We are not required to finish the task, but we are not free to abstain from it, either.

For the first time in the over ten years that I have lived here, I will miss the Interfaith Clergy Association of Greater Lansing’s annual Interfaith Thanksgiving Service.  (My family has scheduled a week-long cruise to celebrate my mom’s 75th birthday and my parents’ 55th wedding anniversary.)  So do me a favor:  Make this year’s Thanksgiving service, scheduled for Monday, November 20 at 7:00 p.m. at Peoples Church, the year that we have the largest turnout from our temple.  Show up this year.  It’s always a beautiful service and I know you will enjoy it.  But don’t make this the only interfaith program you attend.  Pay attention to what’s being offered in our community and participate.

I conclude this evening with a prayer written by Rabbi Karyn Kedar titled “These are the Days of Awe”:

These are the Days of Awe, the Days of Judgment.
O, Eternal source of Peace, hear our plea.

Judge us, inspire us, compel us
so that we will not turn away,
never to be silent, never to be numb,
never to be distracted, never to let our bewilderment
and exhaustion keep us from
doing what is right, what is good,
and what is demanded of us, O God,
to love mercy, pursue justice and to walk humbly.

These are the Days of Discernment, the days of Self-Examination.
God of compassion and love, hear our prayer.

Give meaning to our confusion, purpose to our pain
and bring healing to our fragmented hearts.
May our tears ease the suffering of another.
When we love our neighbor, we transcend;
when we love the stranger, we transcend;
when we do not stand idly by, we transcend;
when we pursue peace, we transcend;
when we hold the world as a vessel of grace, we transcend.

These are the Days of Renewal, the Days of Life.
Divine Source of good, hear our heart’s desire.

Lift us, guide us, command our eyes
to gaze into the shadows, and upon the streets,
and into every place that evil strays and preys
upon all that is good and beautiful in our world.
Send us forth, that we may be Your servant
choosing blessing over curse, bearing witness.
May we proclaim from the heights and from the depths
the power of goodness, beauty, righteousness and hope.

These are the Days of Holiness and You are the Holy One of blessing.
We will not tire, we will not despair, we will not turn away.
You Dear God, are the Source of peace in the high heavens.
We are the source of peace, here, upon the earth.

And let us say:  Amen.

Rosh Ha-Shanah Morning Sermon, September 21 & 22 2017

on Thursday, 21 September 2017.

This summer I found myself flipping through the television channels and very often ending up watching a few episodes of one of the all-time best shows, “M*A*S*H.”  (For those of you who are not familiar with “M*A*S*H,” it aired in the 1970s and early 1980s and is the story of the fictional 4077th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital during the Korean War.)  “M*A*S*H” is one of my favorite shows and I’m always happy to spend time with my friends Hawkeye, B.J., Hot Lips, Radar, Klinger, and the rest of the gang, so I decided to record the shows and made my way through the eleven seasons that this television show aired. 

One episode in particular touched me as a rabbi.  The story is called “Blood Brothers” and it originally aired in April 1981.  In the main storyline, Father Mulcahy (played by William Christopher) is anxiously awaiting the arrival of a senior officer, Cardinal Reardon, his boss.  Father Mulcahy is very anxious, wanting everything to be just perfect for the cardinal’s visit.  His preparation for that Sunday’s worship is all-consuming; Father Mulcahy spends all of his time writing what he hopes to be the best sermon of his life. (You can see, I’m sure, why I could relate to this storyline!)

The second storyline in this episode has one soldier, Private Gary Sturgis, played by a very young Patrick Swayze (in his television debut), learning that, in addition to his war wounds, he also has leukemia.  There is nothing that his doctor, Dr. Pierce, can do to help him, other than to send him to Tokyo for more tests and possible treatment.  Despite his own almost-assuredly fatal diagnosis, Sturgis wants to stay at the hospital with his best friend, who was very severely injured, in order to encourage him during his recovery.

Father Mulcahy learns of the situation and pulls himself away from his sermon-writing to counsel Sturgis about his newly-discovered illness.  Sturgis and Mulcahy spend the entire night talking.  In fact, Father Mulcahy is so absorbed with this soldier that he has to be pulled away from him the next morning, being reminded to go to the chapel, where everyone was waiting for him, to deliver his sermon. 

So there he is, in front of the entire camp, all of whom showed up to support him on his big day, wearing the same bathrobe he had been wearing the night before when he was called away to counsel the soldier, and suddenly he realizes how silly he had been to be worried about one measly little sermon, one simple little visit from a superior officer.  Instead of delivering the at-least-partially-written sermon that he had been working on, he said:

I want to tell you about two men.  Each facing his own crisis. The first man you know rather well. The second is a patient here.  Well, the first man thought he was facing a crisis.  But what he was really doing was trying to impress someone.  He was looking for recognition, encouragement, a pat on the back.  And whenever that recognition seemed threatened he reacted rather childishly.  Blamed everyone for his problems but himself because he was thinking only of himself.  But the second man was confronted with the greatest crisis mortal man can face, the loss of his life. I think you will agree that the second man had every right to be selfish.  But instead he chose to think not of himself, but of a brother.  A brother!  When the first man saw the dignity and the selflessness of the second man, he realized how petty and selfish he had... I... I... I had been.  It made me see something more clearly than I've ever seen it before.  God didn't put us here for that pat on the back. [God] created us so [God] could be here…  So [God] could exist in the lives of those [God] created, in [the divine] image.

“We are here so that God can be here [on earth].”  Those words really hit home with me. They’re not how I as a rabbi would probably communicate that sentiment, yet they are powerful and, I have found, a source of comfort and inspiration. They remind me, even though they were spoken by a television character, that we must be out there caring for others, both taking care of those who need physical and / or emotional care, and taking care of our world.  It is our duty.

One of the foundations for this obligation is found in this morning’s Torah portion, which tells of the creation of the world.  It’s a very familiar story:  God created light and darkness, heaven and earth, plants and trees, and all sorts of animals.  Throughout the first five days of creation, we read that God made many things, including many multiples of different types of living beings.  And yet on the sixth day of creation, God made only one human being, not multiple humans of different colors, shapes, or sizes:  “God said:  ‘Let us make human in our image’...thus God created human in the divine image (b’tzelem Elohim), in the image of God the Divine created him; male and female God created them.  God blessed them... And God saw all that had been made and found it very good.” [Genesis 1:26-28, 31]

The rabbis understood this passage to mean that God created one being which was later separated into two:  man and woman.  The Mishnah teaches that humanity was created as one single being so that no one might say to another:  “My parent was greater than yours.” [Sanhedrin 4:5]  We all come from the same line...we all have the same heritage...we all are brothers and sisters.  And God saw that we, God’s creation, were “very good.”  No other creation is noted as being “very” good in the creation story. Only we humans did God find to be “very” good.

The same Mishnah continues:  “…For a person strikes many coins from the same die and all the coins are alike; but when…the Holy One, Blessed be God, strikes each person from the die of the First Person, no person is quite like his friend.”  Descending from one common ancestor, God created each of us a little bit different than others, but also exactly the same:  b’tzelem Elohim -- in God’s image.  Each of us thus has the divine spark within us.

There is a word that is used in India that is said in greeting both friend and stranger alike:  “Namaste:  I see the divine spark within you.”  My colleague, Rabbi Debbie Pipe-Mazo, wrote about this phrase in our rabbinic newsletter years ago.  She suggested that we think of this statement when dealing with others, but she also challenged us to use it with ourselves.  She asked us to start by looking in the mirror each day and saying to ourselves, “I see in me evidence of the divine spark.”

I see her words on my refrigerator every morning.  That piece of paper reminds me every day that I am created b’tzelem Elohim and as such, I deserve dignity and respect. My life, my well-being, my feelings are just as important as anyone else’s.  Recognizing one’s own worth is the first step.

The next step is to apply that lesson to others, to everyone with whom we come into contact:  not just family and friends, of course, but also co-workers, our fellow congregants, the waiter at the restaurant, the clerk at the dry-cleaning store, everyone -- each of whom is also made  b’tzelem Elohim

The prophets remind us that “we are here so that God can be here on earth.”  They teach us that, as God’s partners, we are to take care of everyone in need, to feed the hungry and to clothe the naked as they, too, have the divine spark within.  God commands us to give tzedakah (righteous giving), to pursue acts of g’milut chasadim (lovingkindness).  Joseph Karo, the author of the Shulkhan Arukh, a collection of Jewish laws written in the Middle Ages, notes that “‘each person must contribute tzedakah according to his or her means.’” [Yoreh Deah 248:1]  Even those who themselves receive help from the community are to give whatever possible to others.  No one is exempt from this duty.

In an interview in February 2015 on the PBS television show “Religion and Ethics Newsweekly,” the host, Bob Abernethy, interviewed the former chief rabbi of Great Britain, Jonathan Sacks.  Rabbi Sacks is an Orthodox rabbi and the author of 30 books. In the interview, Rabbi Sacks said:

Judaism tends to be a religion of deeds and making the world better, what we call Tikkun Olam.  So we really don’t have a problem with atheists or agnostics so long as they are willing to work along with us to make the world a slightly different place.  We don’t ask that everyone who comes inside this synagogue believes in all elements of Jewish faith.  We just say come and be part of the community, because it is in community that we find meaning, that we find relationship, that we find friendship and love, and it is in community that we change the world.

My friends, let us change the world by seeing the Divine presence in each and every person.  Let us come together in community to do the sometimes difficult work of tzedakah, g’milut chasadim, and tikkun olam.  Let us be God’s presence on earth.

Kein y’hi ratzon.

May this be God’s will.

Rosh Ha-Shanah Evening Sermon, September 20, 2017

on Wednesday, 20 September 2017.

Tomorrow morning at our Tot and Children’s Services, I will be sharing with the children from these books:  Have You Filled A Bucket Today?:  A Guide To Daily Happiness For Kids, by Carol McCloud; Fill A Bucket:  A Guide to Daily Happiness for Young Children, also by Carol McCloud; and How Full is Your Bucket by Tom Rath.  These books and many others, including books for adults, are based upon the philosophy of Dr. Donald O. Clifton (1924-2003) who first created the “Dipper and Bucket” story.  For his life’s work, including the use of the “Dipper and Bucket” idea, he was presented with the American Psychological Association’s Presidential Commendation.

Tonight I’d like to share with you from the book Have You Filled A Bucket Today?:  A Guide To Daily Happiness For Kids.

All day long, everyone in the whole wide world walks around carrying an invisible bucket. (p. 4)

You can’t see it, but it’s there. (p. 5)

You have a bucket.  Your mom and dad each have a bucket.  Your sister and brother have a bucket. (p. 6)

Your grandparents, friends, and neighbors all have a bucket.  Everyone carries an invisible bucket. (p. 7)

Your bucket has one purpose only.  Its purpose is to hold your good thoughts and good feelings about yourself. (p. 8)

You feel very happy and good when your bucket is full, and you feel very sad and lonely when your bucket is empty. (p. 9)

Other people feel the same way, too.  They’re happy when their buckets are full and they’re sad when their buckets are empty. (p. 10)

It’s great to have a full bucket and this is how it works…  You need other people to fill your bucket and other people need you to fill theirs.  So, how do you fill a bucket? (p. 11)

You fill a bucket when you show love to someone, when you say or do something kind, or even when you give someone a smile.  That’s being a bucket filler. (p. 12)

A bucket filler is a loving, caring person who says or does nice things that make others feel special.  When you make someone feel special, you are filling a bucket. (p. 13)

But, you can also dip into a bucket and take out some good feelings.  You dip into a bucket when you make fun of someone, when you say or do mean things, or even when you ignore someone.  That’s being a bucket dipper. (p. 14)

A bully is a bucket dipper.  A bucket dipper says or does mean things that make others feel bad. (p. 15)

Many bucket dippers have an empty bucket.  They think they can fill their own bucket by dipping into someone else’s…  but that will never work.  You never fill your own bucket when you dip into someone else’s. (p. 16)

But guess what… when you fill someone’s bucket, you fill your own bucket too!  You feel good when you help others feel good. (p. 17)

All day long, we are either filling up or dipping into each other’s buckets by what we say and what we do.  Try to fill a bucket and see what happens. (p. 18)

You love your mom and dad.  Why not tell them you love them?  You can even tell them why.  Your caring words will fill their buckets right up. (p. 19)

Watch for smiles to light up their faces.  You will feel like smiling too.  A smile is a good clue that you have filled a bucket. (p. 20)

If you practice, you’ll become a great bucket filler.  Just remember that everyone carries an invisible bucket, and think of what you can say or do to fill it. (p. 21)

Here are some ideas for you.  You could smile and say “Hi!” to the bus driver.  He has a bucket too. (p. 22)

You could invite the new kid at school to play with you. (p. 23)

You could write a thank-you note to your teacher. (p. 24)

You could tell your grandpa that you like to spend time with him.  There are many ways to fill a bucket. (p. 25)

Bucket filling is fun and easy to do.  It doesn’t matter how young or old you are.  It doesn’t cost any money.  It doesn’t take much time.  And remember, when you fill someone else’s bucket, you fill your own bucket too. (p. 26)

When you’re a bucket filler, you make your home, your school, and your neighborhood better places to be.  Bucket filling makes everyone feel good. (p. 27)

So why not decide to be a bucket filler today and every day?  Just start each day by saying to yourself, “I’m going to do something to fill someone’s bucket today.” (p. 28)

And, at the end of each day, ask yourself, “Did I fill a bucket today?” (p. 29)

“Yes I did!”  That’s the life of a bucket filler… (p. 30)

And that’s YOU! (p.31)

You know how they say “out of the mouths of babes…”?  Well, I think that we can also say that “out of the books for babes” come great lessons for adults, too.

In this new year of 5778, in our everyday conversations and interactions, we would do well to remember what seems like a lesson for children:  to remember to be bucket-fillers.  Our fractured world needs bucket-fillers.

May this new year be a very happy, healthy, bucket-filled year for you and your loved ones.  Shanah tovah!

Yom Kippur Morning Sermon October 12 2016/5777

on Wednesday, 12 October 2016.


OCTOBER 12, 2016



On the cover of a recent edition of the “Detroit Jewish News,” there was a grid of faces – three at the top and three at the bottom -- a la “The Brady Bunch,” with the photos of six Detroit-area rabbis. In the middle row was the title “The Bracha Bunch!” with the subtitle “In a New Year windfall, six congregations welcome rabbis new to their pulpits.” The article notes that three of the rabbis are serving Conservative congregations, two are serving Reform congregations, and one is serving a Reform/Renewal congregation. In a sidebar, there is a brief article about the new rabbi serving Temple Beth Emeth in Ann Arbor.

That makes seven new rabbis in Michigan this year. But wait – there’s more! The article does not mention the new rabbi at the Conservative synagogue in Kalamazoo nor the new rabbi here in East Lansing, at M.S.U.’s Hillel. That’s nine colleagues who are new to Michigan just in the last few months. That’s a lot of change!

Of the nine rabbis, five of them are replacing rabbis who have retired. Most of these rabbis were ordained in the mid-70’s, meaning they have each served the Jewish people for approximately 40 years.

Here at Shaarey Zedek there has also been a lot of change this past year or two. We have had a number of congregants move to other communities in order to be closer to their children. Cantor Schiffer and I have officiated at funerals for far too many of our members these past two years as well. Families are grieving the deaths of their loved ones. While never forgetting their loved ones, the mourners must find ways to carry on, to continue to live their own lives to the fullest while still missing their loved ones.

Their grief is our congregational grief as well. Our congregation is changing and we, too, must find a way to carry on and adapt to our losses. A decade ago we had quite a few members who volunteered to chant Torah and Haftarah for our Shabbat morning services; today we have a handful. A decade ago we had flourishing committees: a strong, active Tzedakah Committee; parent volunteers who helped with our youth group; and an active Cultural Committee planning programs for our congregation such as our annual Scholar-in-Residence weekend, and more. Today those groups still exist, but it is getting more and more difficult to find volunteers to take the lead. (I should also note that it is also more difficult to find the financing to provide for such programs.)

Prior to the High Holy Days each year we ask for help in taking out of the pews the Shabbat prayer books and chumashim and replacing them with the High Holy Days prayer books; after the High Holy Days we need to return the chumashim and Shabbat prayer books to the pews. It’s a struggle to get volunteers to help with this important yearly task. Also, over the years I have trained approximately 20 people to serve as ushers and greeters for worship services; today only a handful serve on a regular basis. This is our reality now.

Cantor Schiffer and our administrator Patty Warshaw counted over 130 congregants to invite to the Sensational Seniors Tea that took place at the end of September. The Seniors Tea was sponsored by our Caring Community. “Seniors” were defined as people over the age of 70. Some of these seniors still volunteer here at Shaarey Zedek, for which we are most thankful, but we cannot continue to rely on the senior members of the congregation as much as we currently do.

It is time for our younger members to step up, to volunteer at synagogue and religious school events, to be active members of our various committees, Sisterhood, and youth group, to work with the staff to serve the needs of our congregation. As I noted on Rosh HaShanah evening, we are a family here at Shaarey Zedek and we need to support each other in this our congregational home. Our congregation cannot exist without volunteers. We will not be able to continue to offer the types of services, programs, and education that our members deserve.

My friend Rabbi Brigitte Rosenberg of United Hebrew Congregation in St. Louis once wrote that “volunteering…is not just about helping to get a particular job done, rather it is also about community building and creating a sense of belonging. It is about each person giving of him or herself to make our community a warm, inviting, and vibrant place.” [United Hebrew Congregation bulletin, February 2012]

Al tifrosh min ha-tzibbur -- do not separate yourself from the community.” This important teaching, attributed to the great Hillel, who lived in the first century B.C.E., reminds us of our obligations as members of a community.   The eleventh-century French commentator Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, better known as Rashi, the most famous of all commentators, commented on Hillel’s statement, explaining that one should not separate oneself from the community when it is experiencing difficulties so that one can be united with it when it experiences joy. One must not hide away during the difficult times and only share the joyous times with the community, but rather, one must be part of the community through thick and thin.

Rabbi Zev Leff wrote in his commentary on Parashat Nitzavim: “One of the benefits of being part of the community is that as part of a united entity one’s individual failings may be overlooked. ….One benefits by strengthening his connection to [the community]. But he cannot reap the benefits from the community without accepting the concomitant responsibilities.” [Parashat Nitzavim, “Do Not Separate From the Community,” aish.com]

All of these commentators – Rabbi Rosenberg, Hillel, Rashi, and Rabbi Leff -- remind us that if we fail to see ourselves as part of something bigger, if we fail to see ourselves in relation to other people, then not only will we lose something special, but so will the community. Our community – our congregation – needs you.

G’mar chatimah tovah!

May you be inscribed for a good year!

Kol Nidrei Sermon October 11, 2016/5777

on Tuesday, 11 October 2016.


OCTOBER 11, 2016



At the end of this month, it will have been two years since our congregation joined with Temple Sinai in Toronto for a trip to Israel. My classmate and friend, Rabbi Michael Dolgin, along with our tour guide-educator Zvi Levran, put together a wonderful trip. You may remember that on the first Shabbat home I noted that I was anxious already to make a return trip to Israel. Indeed, I’ve been trying to figure out a way back there ever since!

The parashah that we will read at tomorrow morning’s Reform worship service comes from Parashat Nitzavim, which was the portion we read a few weeks ago, from near the end of the Book of Deuteronomy. This Torah portion is always read in all synagogues just before the High Holy Days and for Reform Jews, as I mentioned, we read portions of it again on this holiest of days. One of the reasons it is read at this time of year is because the Hebrew root “shuv,” meaning “to turn” or “to return” is found seven times in verses 1-10 of Chapter 30 in the Book of Deuteronomy. The Hebrew root “shuv” is also the root of the word “teshuvah,” which we usually translate as “repentance,” as in “Aseret Y’mei Teshuvah,” the Ten Days of Repentance.

The first five verses of the thirtieth chapter of Deuteronomy state:

When all these things befall you – the blessing and the curse that I have set before you – and you take [v’hasheivota] them to heart amidst the various nations to which the Lord your God has banished you, and you return [v’shav’ta] to the Lord your God, and you and your children heed [God’s] command with all your heart and soul, just as I enjoin upon you this day, then the Lord your God will restore [v’shav] your fortunes and
take you back in love. [God] will bring you together again [v’shav] from all the peoples where the Lord your God has scattered you
. Even if your outcasts are at the ends of the world, from there the Lord your God will gather you, from there [God] will fetch you. And the Lord your God will bring you to the land that your fathers possessed, and you shall possess it; and [God] will make you more prosperous and more numerous than your fathers. [30:1-5]

Rabbi Audrey Korotkin, of Temple Beth Israel in Altoona, Pennsylvania, shared the teaching of Rabbi Meir Simhah ha-Kohen of Dvinsk (late 19th century Russia) in her commentary on this portion, titled “A Jew is a Jew, No Matter How Far”:

Why does [verse 3] repeat the word ‘return’ [v’shav] twice? The reason is that there are two types of exile and two types of people in exile. ‘The Lord will return your captivity’ refers to those who are in exile and who feel it constantly, and who long to return to Eretz Yisrael. Those will be the first ones who are returned to Eretz Yisrael. However, ‘[God] will have compassion upon you, and will return and gather you from among all the nations’ refers to those Jews who have made their peace with their exile, and who feel quite comfortable where they are. They, too, will be returned to our land.

…Today, too, there are Diaspora Jews who feel endangered and who long for the relative safety of Eretz Yisrael… Yet half the world’s Jewish population still resides outside of Israel -- most in North America, where we find life safe and comfortable. We take inspiration and enrichment not only from Israel, but also from two thousand years of the Diaspora’s cultural, religious, and scientific achievements.

[Rabbi Korotkin continues:] Rabbi Meir Simhah wrote that we, too, “will be returned to our land.” But must that mean only aliyah? Can we not legitimately support Israel, spend time in Israel, embrace the Zionist cause, but live elsewhere? Reform Judaism’s own statement of support for aliyah begins with the sentence: “Progressive Judaism believes that Jews can live fulfilling and meaningful lives in any part of the world.”4 Perhaps the translation of our verses found in [the Reform Movement’s chumash or Torah commentary] The Torah: A Modern Commentary is closer to the truth. After all: God will “bring us together,” imbuing us with a sense of peoplehood no matter where we are and providing a shield against those who may disparage Diaspora Jews for our choices.

4. “Aliyah—Immigration to Israel,” http://www.reformjudaism.org/aliyah-immigration-israel

This concept of returning to the Land is a difficult one for American Jews. After all, as Rabbi Korotkin notes, we Jews tend to live comfortably in this country. The United States was founded by people who came here to live life according to their own religions and to their own interpretations of those religions. Due to this religious freedom, Jews have flourished in this country.

As much as we may love Israel, I have to admit that some of the things that the Israeli government has done – or not done – in giving non-Orthodox Jews the same rights and privileges as the Orthodox have made it difficult to be fully supportive.

And yet – we must be just that: supporters of Israel. We must support its right to exist, its right to have safe borders, its right to be a haven for Jews from around the world who need or want a safe place to live as Jews. We must continue to support the Israel Religious Action Center, the World Union for Progressive Judaism, and other organizations that support and fight for the rights of non-Orthodox Jews and non-Jews in the State of Israel. [list of organizations to be found on the table in the lobby]

In August, Rabbi Josh Weinberg and Rabbi John Rosove, the President and Chair of ARZA, the Association of Reform Zionists of America, respectively, and Gideon Aronoff and Ken Bob, the CEO and National President of Ameinu (Our People)*, respectively, wrote an article titled “Why Progressive Jews Mustn’t Give Up on Zionism.” It reads, in part:

…We affirm progressive Zionist values. And those values mandate activism in order to ensure that Israel is both a democracy and the national home of the Jewish people.

…Since its establishment, Israel has meant many things to many people: a haven from persecution, a catalyst for Jewish renewal and a place where the rhythms of civic life are Jewish rhythms. We regard the State of Israel as the Jewish people’s laboratory of Jewish ethical living, one that has seen unparalleled achievements and successes, as well as considerable deficiencies and failures. We regard the founding of the state as a consummate historic opportunity, to test the efficacy of Jewish ethical values, institutions and the diversity of Jewish peoplehood all while holding onto political power as a sovereign state.

…Diaspora Jewry is a partner in assuring Israel’s viability as a democracy and a Jewish state, and its security as a sovereign nation. Our role in the Diaspora is different than that of Israeli citizens, but it is no less important. Indeed, our two centers need each other’s wisdom and support.

…We would like to suggest an unconditional relationship to Israel. That means, like family, when we see troubling trends and abhorrent behavior, rather than disavow the entire enterprise, we prefer to roll up our sleeves and get more involved.

Similarly, Israeli Jews and Diaspora Zionists must actively engage non-Jewish Israelis to address the real tensions within Israel’s identity as a Jewish and democratic state. Making Israel both more democratic and more Jewish is a serious challenge, but it is the essential struggle of Zionism…

Ultimately, our vision of progressive Zionism -- which is embodied in the Israeli Declaration of Independence and the Zionist movement’s Jerusalem Program -- is one grounded in hope and action. And we will continue to strive to fulfill this vision to ensure a just, secure and peaceful future for all Israelis, and an Israel that can be a dynamic inspiration to Jews around the world. [August 3, 2016]

As we begin our fast this evening, as we examine and make amends for our negative deeds of this past year, as we resolve to do better this new year, may we also resolve to support the State of Israel, despite what some may consider its flaws. No person and no country are perfect. That’s our struggle, especially at this time of year: figuring out how to do better. We are Yisraeil: the one who struggles with God.

Oseh shalom bimromav, Hu ya’aseh shalom aleinu v’al kol Yisraeil, v’al kol yoshvei teivel -- May this new year bring peace to us, to the State of Israel, to the People of Israel around the world, and to all peoples of the world, and let us say: Amen.

* “a national community of progressive Jews in North America which mobilizes Jews who seek opportunities to foster social and economic justice both in Israel and in North America”

Rosh Ha-Shanah Morning 2016/5777

on Monday, 03 October 2016.


OCTOBER 3 & 4, 2016


There once was a little boy who wanted to meet God, or so the story goes. He knew it was a long trip to where God lived, so he packed his suitcase with cupcakes, several cans of root beer and started on his journey.

When he had gone about three blocks, he saw an elderly woman. She was sitting on a park bench watching the pigeons. The boy sat down next to her and opened his suitcase. He was about to take a drink from his root beer when he noticed the lady looked hungry so he offered her a cupcake. She gratefully accepted and smiled at him.

Her smile was so wonderful that he wanted to see it again, so he offered a root beer as well. Once again she smiled at him. The boy was delighted!

They sat there all afternoon eating and smiling without saying a word.

As it began to grow dark, the boy realized how tired he was and wanted to go home. He got up to leave but before he had gone no more than a few steps, he turned around and ran back to the old woman, giving her a big hug. She gave him her biggest smile ever.

When the boy arrived home his mother was surprised by the look of joy on his face. She asked, “What has made you so happy today?” He replied, “I had lunch with God.” Before his mother could respond he added, “You know what? She’s got the most beautiful smile in the whole world!”

Meanwhile, the old woman, also radiant with joy, returned to her home. Her son was stunned by the look of peace on her face. He asked, “Mother, what has made you so happy today?” She replied, “I ate cupcakes in the park with God.” And before her son could reply, she added, “You know, he is much younger than I expected.”

[The American Rabbi website, “Pearlson’s Pearls 5777,” author unknown]

Can you imagine a sweeter story than this? (Pun intended!) Two people finding God in the other. Simply being present with each other, sharing some cupcakes and root beer, they found God.

Each of us is made b’tzelem Elohim (in God’s image). We learn this in the very first chapter of the Book of Genesis: “And God created the human in the image of God; in the image of God, God created the human; male and female, God created them.” [v.27] So often, in our daily interactions, I fear that we forget this simple teaching, we forget that God created each person in the divine image.

Imagine how wonderful our lives would be if each of us took a moment to see God in the other before we open our mouths to say something! Imagine how wonderful our world would be if each of us acted with derekh eretz. Derekh eretz literally translated means “the way of the land.” It is the term we use to describe good manners, common decency, civil behavior. One way I read it described is “the behavior to which all thoughtful and decent people should aspire.”

Our religious school students learn about derekh eretz from the get-go. They learn about it in kindergarten and first grade and then again in the second and third grades. I asked our youngest students during our weekly t’fillot on Sunday mornings recently what they were learning at religious school. They told me that they were learning about derekh eretz. Many of them told me that it means to share their things with others, to be nice to others, and so on.   One of the religious school materials from Torah Aura Productions teaches derekh eretz this way:

Derekh means “a road.” Eretz means “the land.” Derekh Eretz is “the right way to go.” Following the rules is part of Derekh Eretz. Being polite is part of Derekh Eretz. Acting with kindness and treating other people with respect is Derekh Eretz, too. It is Derekh Eretz to help others whenever we can. Derekh Eretz is the way a good person behaves. [Torah Aura, BJL: Mitzvot]

This sort of reminds me of the book All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten by Robert Fulghum. The problem is that while we may have learned in kindergarten to be polite, act kindly, and treat others with respect, as adults we sometimes (maybe often?) forget those lessons.

In our political discourse, especially this year’s elections, some of the candidates have just been so mean, obnoxious even. Last month we heard a lot about the governor of Maine, Paul LePage. He left a message on the voicemail of one of Maine’s legislators saying he wished he could challenge the legislator to a duel and point a gun at his forehead. If that wasn’t bad enough, the language that he used in referring to the legislator was so inappropriate that it had to be bleeped out when it was reported on television news. Governor LePage must not have learned about Derekh Eretz when he was in kindergarten.

In our professional and personal lives, unfortunately, we find this lack of Derekh Eretz as well. Whether it’s between colleagues or spouses, employer and employee, parent and child, treating each other as anything other than made in the divine image is unacceptable. Plain and simple.

I have learned that, although admittedly I didn’t count it up myself! -- there are approximately 200 teachings in the Talmud and Midrash about derekh eretz, about how to treat others. [“Torah Im Derech Eretz,” Wikipedia] Obviously, the Rabbis wanted us to know how important this teaching is! One of the most famous of those teachings comes from the Midrash: Vayikra Rabbah 9:3. It is quite a lengthy text, but I will do my best to summarize it for you:

Rabbi Yannai was taking a walk and he saw a man who was extremely well dressed. Rabbi Yannai invited the man to join him at his house, where they ate and drank together. Rabbi Yannai spoke to the man about many important Jewish texts but realized that the man had no knowledge of any of them. The man didn’t even know how to say the blessing over the wine! Rabbi Yannai chastised the man for his lack of knowledge. The man told him that while he may not know about the important Jewish texts, he was a good man: He told Rabbi Yannai that he had never heard gossip and repeated it, nor did he ever see two people quarreling without helping make peace between them. It was then that Rabbi Yannai realized what a grievous mistake he had made: “You have much derekh eretz and I treated you so improperly!”

Rabbi Bonnie Koppell, a Reconstructionist rabbi, serves the Temple Chai community in Phoenix, Arizona, and is a Chaplain (Colonel) in the United States Army Reserve. She writes and publishes extensively. In her sermon about Derekh Eretz, she asks, “What is the ultimate goal of Jewish life?” Her answer: “Judaism does not suggest that the highest goal is to withdraw from life and to live a life of contemplation and solitude. Rather, it challenges us to live with all the frustration and temptations of life in the world, and to find a way to elevate every moment, to seek the holiness in our smallest gestures and behaviors.”

Whether it is offering a stranger a cupcake and some root beer, opening the door for someone, sharing our toys, or lending a hand to another, remembering that each of us is made in God’s image and treating others as such is one of the highest commandments we can observe. Let us resolve on this New Year’s Day to see others as godly, as being made b’tzelem Elohim, and to always treat them as such in every aspect of our lives.

Shanah tovah!

Rosh Ha-Shanah Evening October 2nd

on Sunday, 02 October 2016.


OCTOBER 2, 2016


I love the Olympics! For as long as I can remember, I have always especially enjoyed watching the opening ceremonies of the Olympics. I love watching all of the countries – this year there were 207 countries – entering the Olympic Stadium. I especially love watching, and, yes, I have to admit, in the privacy of my home, cheering on the American and Israeli teams as they enter the stadium.

This year there were many highlights for the American team: 121 total medals, including 46 gold. Five of those gold medals were won by Michael Phelps and four by fellow swimmer Katie Ledecky. Our national team really ruled the pool. Sadly much of the swim team’s success was overshadowed by the inappropriate and embarrassing conduct of swimmer Ryan Lochte.

Lochte and three other swimmers were out for a night on the town after finishing their races. Lochte seemed to be the ring-leader and he reported that he and his buddies had been held at gunpoint by robbers posing as police officers. The police in Rio de Janeiro, where the Olympics took place, determined that they were not held at gunpoint, but rather that they vandalized a gas station. Subsequent reporting indicates that neither version – Lochte’s nor the police’s – seems to have been totally accurate.

Days later, Ryan Lochte “apologized” in what some have called a “fauxpology.” He said, in part:


I want to apologize for my behavior last weekend – for not being more careful and candid in how I described the events of that early morning and for my role in taking the focus away from the many athletes fulfilling their dreams of participating in the Olympics…


It’s traumatic to be out late with your friends in a foreign country – with a language barrier – and have a stranger point a gun at you and demand money to let you leave, but regardless of the behavior of anyone else that night, I should have been much more responsible in how I handled myself… I accept responsibility for my role in this happening and have learned some valuable lessons.


First: what took so long for Lochte to apologize? And second: Why didn’t he tell the true story right away? It seems that Lochte has an excuse for everything. He shouldn’t have been in the position he was in in the first place. But since he was in that position, why didn’t he just admit it from the get-go? “Look, I messed up. I shouldn’t have done the things I did. I apologize to the United States, Brazil, and the International Olympics Committee for my behavior.”

When we apologize we must be sincere. We must really mean it. Ryan Lochte never seemed to really mean it. He said some of the correct things – such as taking responsibility and learning from his mistakes – but his facial expressions and tone of voice indicated that they were simply words without much substance to them.

This past month, the month of Elul, we have been asking forgiveness from those we have hurt this past year. Beginning tonight and for the next ten days, we ask forgiveness from God. We must be sincere for true repentance requires such.

Probably the best “feel-good” story of the Olympics happened on the track with two runners that you’d probably never heard of before the Olympics: American Abbey D’Agostino and Nikki Hamblin of New Zealand. The two fell during a 5,000 meter heat. Instead of getting up and continuing her run, D’Agostino got up and then helped Hamblin up, urging her to keep running. Then Hamblin did the same for D’Agostino as she stumbled. D’Agostino ended up finishing the race on what was later diagnosed as a torn ACL.

Even though the two runners had never met, they helped each other finish the race. In interviews both women noted how helping each other was more important than winning the race. “That girl is the Olympic spirit right there,” Hamblin told the Associated Press. “I’ve never met her before… And isn’t that just so amazing?  Such an amazing woman.”

Not only were both D’Agostino and Hamblin amazing women, embodying the Olympic spirit, but our women’s gymnastics team was also amazing. The team -- consisting of Temple Beth Avodah of Newton, Massachusetts member Aly Raisman, Simone Biles, Gabby Douglas, Madison Kocian, and Laurie Hernandez -- won the women’s team gold medal, along with three individual gold medals for Simone, two silver medals Aly, one silver for Madison, one silver for Laurie, and one bronze medal for Simone.

Simone Biles was the women’s individual all-around winner. As amazing as 19-year-old Simone was in competition – and she really was amazing! --, her efforts were partially overshadowed by a slight controversy regarding her parents. Her dad, Ron, is Simone’s biological grandfather. After his daughter gave up custody of Simone and her younger sister, they went through various foster homes. Ron and his wife Nellie adopted them when Simone was six years old.

Al Trautwig, one of NBC’s gymnastics commentators, made reference to Simone’s parents and said that they were her adopted parents, “not her real parents.” This made many viewers, including me, furious. Adoptive parents are not biological parents, but they are most definitely real parents.

As many of you know, I have two younger siblings – my sister Jill and my brother Kevin. One of them is adopted. And unless I told you which one is adopted, you would never know. The three of us are siblings, plain and simple. It doesn’t matter if we were born of the same parents. As kids we did all of the same things that other siblings do: we played together, we fought, we made up – and now as adults, although we live in different states, we do our best to support each other and to see each other whenever possible. Our parents taught us to always stick together and so we siblings have seen each other through marriages and divorces, through back surgery and knee surgery, through life’s ups and downs. Why? Because we are family, plain and simple, and that’s what families do: they take care of each other.

You know, we strive to be a family here at Shaarey Zedek, too. I often refer to our congregation as a family because I hope that all of us feel at-home here. One of the dictionary definitions of the word “family” is “all the people living in the same house.” That’s us: we’re all in the same house, the Shaarey Zedek house.

It doesn’t matter whether we are Jews-by-birth or Jews-by-choice, whether we are observant Jews or non-observant Jews, or whether we are non-Jews who have found a spiritual home here. None of that matters for we are family. We are the Shaarey Zedek family. We don’t all have to like each other; we don’t all have to agree with one another; but we do have to respect each other, be nice to each other, and stay together. Especially in a Jewish community the size of ours, we must stick together and support each other. That’s what the Jewish people have done throughout our history.

As we begin this new year, I pray:

May each of us always feel welcome here. May we always feel loved and supported here. May this building be our home and these people our family.

And may this new year of 5777 be a happy, healthy, good year for each of us and for our congregation, and may it be the year that our world finds peace.

Kein y’hi ratzon.

May this be God’s will.

Shanah tovah!

Rabbi's Bigman's January 2016 Commentary Letter

on Friday, 08 January 2016.

This month, on January 25th, we will celebrate what might appear to be one of the most unusual holidays of the Jewish year: Tu Bishvat, literally “the 15th of (the month of) Shevat,” but better known as the New Year of the Trees. The Mishnah designates this date as the birthday of the trees. It was important in ancient days to know how old a tree was in order to observe certain mitzvot. In the days of the Temple, these and offerings were made based upon the new fruit of the trees; fruit gathered from the previous year’s produce could not be used for the current year’s offering.

After the destruction of the Temple, we found other ways of celebrating Tu Bishvat. For example, today we might plant trees in Israel under the auspices of the Jewish National Fund or participate in a Tu Bishvat seder.

Trees are a symbol of life and, indeed, the Torah itself is called the “Tree of Life.” By celebrating this holiday, we are connected to Israel, to nature, and to our Torah. Many today, see this holiday as sort of a Jewish Earth Day, a day which reminds us to take care of the environment.

In his commentary, “This Was Not Just a Matter of Chance,” Rabbi Irwin A. Zeplowitz teaches the following:

“...There are three key values our traditions teach us about caring for the environment.

One: The World Is Not Ours to Do with as We Wish – It Is God’s

The Psalmist sang that the ‘the earth is the Eternal’s and all that it holds’ (Psalm 24:1). As mortals we are reminded by our traditions that we take ‘possession’ of the earth not as its owners, but merely as renters. To take seriously the no on that we lease the land from God means that we are not completely free to do with it as we wish.

In Genesis 2:15 humans are commanded to ‘work’ and to ‘keep’ the earth (l’ovdah ul’shomrah). The Hebrew laavod really means ‘to serve’ and also has the implication of ‘to pray.’ Caring for the planet, therefore, is an act of worship of the Divine. And lishmor means ‘to guard.’ Here again, the choice of words is significant. A guard does not own what he or she is watching, but only is entrusted with its care. That is our task – to watch over a world that we bequeath to our children and grandchildren.

Two: We Do Not Control the World, We Are Part of It

Shabbat is the day of rest, a me set aside to avoid labor, and among the categories of work traditionally avoided on Shabbat are sowing and plowing (Mishnah Shabbat 7:2). In essence, one is not allowed to garden, not even to water plants, on Shabbat. The reason can be explained in its historical context: in the biblical world most Israelites were farmers, so caring for the land was work. But this law has a deeper ethical intent. On this day we are not allowed to alter our environment, to do anything that makes us think we control the world. Rather, on Shabbat we are to humbly appreciate the beauty and majesty of the world around us...

...What is important is the ethical value of Shabbat as a day to connect more deeply with the natural world and its own rhythm.

Judaism’s belief in one God, the Creator of the universe, demands a sense of unity to all existence...we are forced to the conclusion that we are one with the world around us.

Three: We Must Be Responsible in the Exercise of Our Power

Every living thing changes its environment. Humans alone, however, have the ability to exert such far-reaching changes on the earth as a whole. But with this power comes responsibility.

Judaism teaches that we are stewards of our planet. Stewardship implies a unique role and place that we humans occupy, but it does not mean we can act at will. In the biblical account of the Creation, after humanity is created God says, ‘Fill the earth and tame it’ (Genesis 1:28). The word v’chivshuha (translated in The Torah: A Modern Commentary as ‘tame’), generally translated as ‘master’ or ‘subdue,’ is o en misunderstood as a sanction on to do to the environment whatever we wish. The fifteenth-century commentator Rabbi Ovadiah Sforno clarifies what God implies here – that we must use our intelligence to protect the world...” [“Reform Voices of Torah,” Parashat Bo, January 26, 2009 / 1 Shevat 5769]

Wishing you and your loved ones a Happy Tu Bishvat!


on Wednesday, 23 September 2015.


SEPTEMBER 23, 2015 

In a few weeks I will turn the big “five-oh.”  Yep, that’s right – I’ll be turning 50, I’ll reach the half-century mark.  And you know what that means, right?  Time for a colonoscopy!

My colleague, Rabbi Paul Kipnes, recently wrote on the ReformJudaism.org blog an entry which he entitled “What’s Jewish about Getting a Colonoscopy?”  He noted that

Most people cringe at the mention of this invasive procedure.  Most everybody seems uncomfortable discussing something even minimally connected to our nether region orifices… 

Yet our intestinal passageways are critical to the smooth functioning of our bodies.  We can’t enjoy a delicious meal, or a tasty evening of wine and cheese, without having a way to digest and remove the processed waste.  As we age, we need to be ever more cognizant of “the pipes and the plumbing.”

…It’s a mitzvah to go get your colonoscopy.  It’s short-term discomfort for long-term gain, and the discomfort we face in preparing beats the alternative if a polyp or cancer goes undetected. [July 29, 2015, www.reformjudaism.org/print/126211]


Rabbi Elliot Dorff, a well-respected scholar of (amongst other things) medical ethics, and a theology professor at the American Jewish University, teaches that God

not only created us but literally owns our bodies throughout our lives and even in death.  It is as if we were renting an apartment:  we have fair use of the apartment during the time of its lease, but the owner can and usually does demand that we take reasonable care of the apartment and certainly that we not damage it.  So, too, God, according to the Jewish tradition, demands that we take care of ourselves.  This is not an option in the Jewish way of thinking of things; it is a duty we owe to God so that we can serve God in everything we do. [“Caring for Our Bodies in Life and in Death,” Parashat Ki Tetse 5775]


A little over a year ago, when she turned 49, Julie, with whom I have been friends since we both moved onto the same street at the beginning of seventh grade, determined to lose 50 pounds by the time she turned 50.  And she did!  She changed her eating habits and began to exercise.  She looks amazing and like a totally different person!

A little over two years ago, in May 2013 (according to my Runkeeper app!), I started walking.  Walking is supposed to be great exercise and since I’m not much of an athlete, it made sense to start here.  The idea was simply to get in shape (although I wouldn’t mind losing a few pounds while I’m at it!).  For the first few months, I walked outdoors once a week with my walking partner; since then I have tried to not only do my outdoor walks, but also to walk indoors to my Leslie Sansone “Walk at Home” DVDs.  With the exception of the six months following my broken kneecap incident in February of last year, I have been walking several times a week since then.  Pushed by my walking partner, I have completed two 5k walks – one on December 31st and one this past April -- and one 10k walk -- which was just about a month ago.  I have reached goals I never even knew I had!

In our various prayer books for the High Holy Days, Shabbat, and week days, there is a prayer which is traditionally said in private, but which has made its way to the morning liturgy.  The English translation of this prayer is “Blessed are You, Lord our God, Ruler of the universe, Who fashioned humans with wisdom and created within [them] many openings and many cavities.  It is obvious and known before Your throne of glory that if but one of them were to be ruptured or but one of them were to be blocked, it would be impossible to survive and stand before You.  Blessed are You, God, Who heals all flesh and acts wondrously.”

This prayer is known in Hebrew as “Asher Yatzar” and is first found on page 60b of the Talmudic tractate B’rakhot (Blessings).  This page of Talmud begins with the fourth-century Babylonian sage Abbaye teaching that one should say the words of this blessing after using the bathroom.

Our ancestors understood the importance of taking care of our physical bodies, even to the point of telling people to thank God after going to the bathroom!

Even before Talmudic times, our ancestors understood how important this was.  The great teacher Hillel, who lived in the first century B.C.E., one day took leave of his students.  They asked him, “Master, where are you going?”  He replied, “To do a pious deed.”  They asked, “What may that be?”  He replied, “To take a bath.”  They said, “Is that a pious deed?”  He replied, “Yes.  If, in the theaters and circuses, the images of the king must be kept clean by the person to whom they have been entrusted, how much more is it a duty of a person to care for the body, since we have been created in the divine image and likeness.” [Vayikra Rabbah, cited in “Some Jewish Quotes From Over the Centuries Related to Bodily Health,” compiled by Simkha Weintraub]

The Talmud teaches us that it is forbidden to live in a city that has no bathhouse. [Mishnah Kiddushin 4:12]  [And] In Tractate B’rakhot we learn that we are to drink plenty of water with our meals [40a].  The Alexandrian philosopher Philo, who lived between 20 B.C.E. and 40 C.E., noted that “The body is the soul’s house.  Shouldn’t we therefore take care of our house so that it doesn’t fall into ruin?” [cited in Weintraub]

In his seminal work, the Mishneh Torah, Maimonides, the twelfth-century physician and commentator, wrote in depth about how to take care of one’s body:  from how much sleep to get every night, to what positions to sleep in; from what foods to eat, to what season of the year to eat them; from when to bathe, to when to have sexual relations. [Hilkhot De’ot Chapter Three]

Sh’mirat HaGuf, literally “guarding the body,” is a value which can be traced all the way back to the Torah.  In Deuteronomy 4, as Moses is speaking to the people before they enter the Land, he tells the people to “take utmost care and watch yourselves scrupulously, so that you do not forget the things that you saw with your own eyes and so that they do not fade from your mind as long as you live.” [v. 9]   Our Etz Hayim Torah commentary notes that “This verse has been used in contemporary times to declare smoking and unhealthy eating and drinking to be practices that violate the Torah.” [p. 1008]

Rabbi Dorff, whom I quoted earlier, teaches that we “have a fiduciary responsibility to our Creator to treat [our bodies] with respect and appreciation, caring for them…through living life in a way that promotes our physical, mental, psychological, and spiritual health.” [ibid.]

This new year is a good time to resolve to be Shomrei HaGuf (guardians of our bodies), to resolve to do what we can to protect this amazing gift. 

And so I conclude this morning with part of an alternative reading paired with the “Asher Yatzar” prayer in our new Mishkan HaNefesh prayer book:

[Dear God:]

You have taught us:
Guard yourselves well; take good care of your lives.

Your word calls to us:
Do no harm to yourself!  Do not weaken or exhaust yourself!

In gratitude for the gift of our bodies,
we pray for a year of renewed health and replenished strength.

May caring for our bodies become our daily practice.
May we be attentive to our need for proper food, sleep, and exercise…

Baruch Atah, Adonai, rofei chol basar u’mafli la’asot.
We praise You, Holy One, for wondrous acts of creation and healing.

As we all say:  Amen!

Kol Nidrei Evening

on Tuesday, 22 September 2015.


SEPTEMBER 22, 2015

Take a moment to look around you…  What do you see tonight?  Or perhaps I should say “who” do you see tonight?  I see a sanctuary full of members, guests, and visitors.  I see a room full of people who have come tonight for a variety of reasons, seeking a variety of experiences.  I also see a sanctuary of “new” and “old” faces: 

  • I see people who have just joined our congregation in recent months and for whom this is their first High Holy Days with us.  We welcome them with open arms. 
  • I see people who have been members of Shaarey Zedek for 30, 40, 50 or more years.  We are honored that they have found their home here for so long. 
  • I see people who are becoming Jewish or who have recently become Jewish.  We are thrilled that they are now part of our family. 
  • I see people who have not yet formally joined our congregation.  We look forward to welcoming them as part of our Shaarey Zedek family.
  • I see family members of our congregants who are in town to observe these holy days with their loved ones.  We welcome you to East Lansing and to Shaarey Zedek.
  • I also see some of my East Lansing Area Clergy Association colleagues.  Some of my colleagues have been with us during various services throughout these High Holy Days.  I am honored that they have chosen to worship with us during these Ten Days of Repentance.

It is wonderful that all of you have chosen to be with us tonight.  We are fortunate to have you as part of our Shaarey Zedek family on this holiest of nights.

As you looked around this evening, you may have noticed something else:  We are missing many people tonight.  I’m not referring to those members who have chosen to be in other congregations in order to worship with their family members, nor am I referring to those whose health does not permit them to be with us tonight.  (We keep them in our prayers.)  Rather I am thinking about those people who have left our congregation.  This year, in particular, we have experienced great loss:  Many of our members have moved out of town this year to live closer to their children – I think there’s a mini-Shaarey Zedek in Chicago this year! –, some have retired and moved away, and others, sadly, have passed away.  We miss them all.

This year I have officiated at or attended far too many funerals.  It is always my honor and privilege to be with families when they experience a loss, but this year it seems as if there have been many more than in the past.  Long-time members, former members, and the death of my own uncle last month – too, too many.  If I have counted correctly, we have had thirteen members or former members die since the last High Holy Days, including our beloved rabbi emeritus, Rabbi Morton Hoffman.  Each one of these people  is sorely missed by their families and by our congregation.

As you can imagine, in light of all of these deaths, I have written and delivered many eulogies this year.  I have also heard several eulogies delivered by family members and colleagues.  Last month, Betty Krohngold delivered a brief but beautiful eulogy for her husband Jacob. With her permission, I want to tell you what she said.  (These are my words, not hers.)  Betty told us at Jacob’s funeral that she had no plans to ever marry again after losing her beloved Bob several years prior to meeting Jacob.  But Betty was put in touch with Jacob, a recent widower.  After meeting him, she had several of her friends in Detroit (where Jacob was living at the time), check him out.  Each of her friends reported back that Jacob was a kind man.  Kindness was all that Betty wanted and so after a period of dating, Betty and Jacob were married.  They were blessed with 27 years of married life.

When Betty told me this story privately, and again when she told the story at Jacob’s funeral, I was reminded of a book that was written this year.  I haven’t read the book, but I have heard and read a great deal about it, as you probably also have.  It is called The Road to Character by David Brooks.  In the book Brooks discusses the two sets of virtues that each of us have:  “resume virtues” and “eulogy virtues.” 

“Resume virtues” are those skills that you bring to the job market and “eulogy virtues” are those by which you want people to remember you.  You were kind, generous, had integrity; you were charitable, thoughtful, warm, loving; you made people feel good about themselves, and so on…  What Brooks calls “eulogy virtues,” I would simply call virtues or qualities.  These are traits which you hopefully develop and live by throughout your life.

Rabbi Jacob Philip Rudin z”l, a past president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, author, editor, and congregational rabbi, wrote a beautiful passage that is quoted in our prayer book, Mishkan T’filah for the House of Mourning:  “When we are dead, and people weep for us and grieve, let it be because we touched their lives with beauty and simplicity.  Let it not be said that life was good to us, but rather that we were good to life.” [p. 30b]

On this Kol Nidrei evening, as we begin our fasts, as we review our deeds from last year, let us also resolve this year to focus on those virtues by which we want to be remembered:  to be good to life, to be good to others, to be good to our world.

Another prayer, also found in Mishkan T’filah for the House of Mourning, abridged and adapted by Rabbi Chaim Stern z”l from Rabbi John Rayner z”l, says it all:

Let us treasure the time we have,

and resolve to use it well,

counting each moment precious – a chance to apprehend some truth,

to experience some beauty, to conquer some evil,

to relieve some suffering, to love and be loved,

to achieve something of lasting worth.

Help us, God, to fulfill the promise that is in each of us,

 and so to conduct ourselves that generations hence

 it will be true to say of us:

            The world is better, because for a brief space, they lived in it. [p. 23b]

Rosh Ha-Shanah Mornings

on Monday, 14 September 2015.

SEPTEMBER 14 & 15, 2015

A story is told about Yankele the water carrier who always complained about the burden not just of the water he carried but also of the hardships he endured.  When asked by his Rebbe how things were going, he complained how much his shoulders ached from so much schlepping over the years.  None of his children ever helped, he kvetched, as they were too busy studying Torah, and his wife was always after him to do so many chores when he got home.

Sometime later the Rebbe again asked Yankele how he was doing and the Rebbe got a very different response.  This time Yankele said, “You know, I really can’t complain.  My shoulders ache, but they haven’t given out.  Thank God I can still work.  My children are bright and doing well in their studies.  And as for my wife, if she didn’t ask me to help her do things around the house, I wouldn’t know how much she needed me.  So, thank God, I am blessed and doing well.”

The Rebbe’s students were amazed by the transformation and asked the rabbi what had changed in Yankele’s life to make things so much better.

The rabbi explained to his disciples that nothing had changed, but that Yankele had taken his advice and come to see his tsuris – his troubles – as a blessing.  The story of his life had changed for him because he chose to view things differently.

Rosh HaShanah is our chance to change how we do things or, at the very least, how we look at our life.

I wouldn’t be the first rabbi to acknowledge that the new year is a type of “reset” button.  It’s a “start over.”  It’s a time to clean the slate.  Rabbi Vernon Kurtz, the rabbi of the Conservative congregation North Suburban Synagogue Beth El in Highland Park, Illinois, has put it this way:

As we all know, in electronics and technology a reset button is a button that can reset a device.  On our personal computers it clears the memory and reboots the machine forcibly.  It allows us to start over.  We are given another chance.  But in order to do so, we must first recognize our mistakes and then act to clear the slate. Then, and only then, can we reboot and start over again, hopefully, this time, to do the right thing.

Many times I love the reset button for it allows me to literally start from the very beginning without my previous mistakes being present. Other times, it bothers me that when I press that reset button I lose everything and must start from the very beginning once more having lost some memory data. From a Jewish perspective, the reset button, Teshuva, the act of repentance, allows us to recognize the past without it being totally wiped out and, at that same time, to begin again with a clean slate. If we take it seriously it is the best of reset buttons. [“Teshuva,” Rosh HaShanah sermon, 5774 / September 4, 2013]


Conservative Rabbi Richard Plavin of Beth Sholom B’nai Israel in Manchester, Connecticut, pointed out to his congregants that

The prayers we read tonight and throughout this season all refer to this day as Yom HaDin, the Day of Judgment.  The [traditional] Torah readings describe this as a day on which God remembers individuals – Sarah, Abraham, Hannah, [and] Hagar.  All the readings reinforce the notion that God takes note of the individual, not just the group, and that God wants each of us to look within ourselves.  We are to examine our actions in the year past and consider what we need to improve.

We call that move toward improvement Teshuvah.  This is a uniquely Jewish concept that means so much more than its simple translation of repentance.  It implies turning, and returning.  The image is of a road, a path, a way in life from which we have strayed, and now we are asked to consider how we may return to that path, to the foundational values of our faith, to our God and to our loved ones.  The purpose of Teshuvah is to repair our relationships and to cause us to reorient our way of life such that it may become aligned with the teachings of our heritage.  There is a passage in the Midrash that says that God created Teshuvah before [God] created human beings.  God knew that we would not be perfect and wanted us to have the means to make up for our shortcomings and repair the errors we would inevitably make.

What a great gift God gave us in the concept of Teshuvah. [“Hitting the Reset Button,” Rosh Hashanah sermon, September 4, 2013, emphasis added]

The new year is our opportunity to have another chance.  We get to look back over the past year and get a chance to do better this year.  We get to hit the reset button!  We get a “do over”! 

This doesn’t mean that we can do whatever we want each year with the understanding that we can atone at the High Holy Days and start fresh.  Not at all!  Indeed, our tradition notes that we must genuinely repent.  “What is genuine repentance?  When an opportunity for transgression occurs and we resist it, not out of fear or weakness, but because we have repented.” [Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Teshuvah 2:1]  But if we do make mistakes again this year – and we probably will – we’re human after all! – we can hit the reset button again next year.

What a wonderful gift we have:  Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur.  Throughout these ten days, we look inside and ask ourselves “Am I the type of person I want to be?  Am I the type of person I should be?”

I will conclude this morning with the wise words of Rabbi Brad Hirschfield, an Orthodox rabbi, author, and president of CLAL -- The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership:

Rosh HaShanah offers an important alternative to the dominant culture’s common responses to past events we wish we could have handled differently or seen to a better conclusion.  Rather than naively wishing the past away, as many new age gurus would have us do, or holding onto stubborn self-righteousness which sees change as a sign of weakness, as so many others would have us do, Rosh HaShanah celebrates the possibility of endless second chances without pretense regarding the past.

We can all add a new page in the book of our lives — one which like the addition of a new page in any book, neither erases or undoes what came before it, but one which can transcend those earlier pages and the stories they contain.  Each of us gets a second chance — a chance to return to the person we most want to be and a chance to live the life we most deeply desire…  [“Celebrating Second Chances on Rosh HaShanah,” thejewishweek.com, September 11, 2012, emphasis added]


May the new pages we add to our books this year be ones of sweetness and goodness, filled with good actions, good health, and much happiness.

Shanah tovah u’m’tukah!
      Wishing you and your loved ones a good and sweet year!

Rosh Ha-Shanah Evening

on Sunday, 13 September 2015.


SEPTEMBER 13, 2015

“Space:  the final frontier.  These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise.  Its continuing mission:  to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no one has gone before.” 

Do you recognize these words?  This is the opening narration to the series “Star Trek: The Next Generation.”  Spoken by Captain Jean-Luc Picard (actor Patrick Stewart), these words, slightly altered from the original “Star Trek” series, set the tone for the episode which is to follow.  “The Next Generation” is set in the 24th century, approximately 100 years later than the original series.

There are often “marathons” of “Star Trek:  The Next Generation” on television and sometimes I find myself sitting through several episodes.  Recently I viewed an episode that I didn’t recall seeing before:  It is called “Time Squared” and it was the thirteenth episode of the second season of “The Next Generation.”  It originally aired on April 3, 1989.

In this episode, the crew of the Enterprise encounters a shuttlecraft drifting in space.  After receiving no response to its hails, the Enterprise uses its tractor beam to bring the shuttlecraft into the ship.  Crew members are surprised to find that the shuttlecraft has the same name and registry as one of the Enterprise’s own shuttlecrafts!   They are even more surprised when they open the shuttlecraft’s door and they find an almost-dead double of Captain Picard aboard!

After the double of Captain Picard is brought to sickbay for treatment, it is discovered that the shuttlecraft’s internal clock is about six hours ahead of the Enterprise’s own chronometer.  The crew’s officers meet with Captain Picard to determine what their course of action should be.  Captain Picard tells his officers that “[we must] prepare for our rendezvous with ourselves.” 

Captain Picard then goes to sickbay to interrogate his future self:  “What went wrong?” he asks the other Picard.  “You know, don’t you?  What did you do?  What happened?  Why did you leave the ship?  Don’t turn away.  Look at me!  Picard, look at me!”  Picard can’t answer Picard; as time goes on the future Picard becomes more aware and coherent, but he still cannot communicate with the original Picard.  Eventually Captain Picard determines that he must do the opposite of what the double did in order to save his ship since whatever the double did ended poorly, with the double Picard as the only survivor from his ship. 

The Picard from the future attempts to leave the Enterprise, but the other Picard cannot allow him to do so:  “Captain Picard!” he yells to his double.  “I cannot allow you to leave.  Before we can go forward, the cycle must end.”  Captain Picard then kills the other Captain Picard and everyone aboard the Enterprise is saved.

As I viewed this episode, I was struck by Captain Picard’s admonition to “prepare for our rendezvous with ourselves.”  To rendezvous, of course, means to meet or assemble at a certain time and place.  It seems to me that this Rosh HaShanah holy day is exactly that: our annual rendezvous.  Every year we assemble at this time:  the first day of Tishrei.  Every year we assemble at this place:  our synagogue.  We rendezvous with our congregational family as well as our individual selves at this time of year.  We begin anew.  What a wonderful opportunity we are given each year!

Captain Picard told his crew to prepare over the next several hours to rendezvous with themselves.  So, too, do we prepare for our rendezvous, only we have more than a few hours to get ourselves ready.  We have an entire month, the month of Elul, the month leading up to these holiest of days, to prepare ourselves.  And if we haven’t done the necessary work of reviewing last year during the month of Elul, we have this wonderful gift of the next ten days, these Days of Awe, in which to do so.

If we went astray in some way last year, we decide how to do better this year.  We resolve not to repeat our mistakes, or as Captain Picard noted, “before we can go forward, the cycle must end.”  We must put a stop to whatever made us do the wrong thing in the past and then move forward into the future.

I pray that as we rendezvous with ourselves at the beginning of this new year that 5776 will be a good year for each of you and for our world.  Or, as they say on “Star Trek”:  Live long and prosper!

April 2015 Commentary Message

on Thursday, 16 April 2015.

"Being Jewish is a gift, not a burden..." Leonard Nimoy

On February 27th, we learned that actor Leonard Nimoy died at the age of 83. Mr. Nimoy was most famous for playing the role of Mr. Spock in the 1960's television series "Star Trek." He reprised this role in the "Star Trek" movies and served as director of several of those films. Mr. Nimoy also directed 1987's highest grossing film "Three Men and a Baby."

As I shared with the congregation at worship services on March 6th, I attended a program in Ann Arbor in 1997 entitled "Celebration of Jewish Arts." I was privileged to hear Leonard Nimoy speak on the topic of "Spock in the Diaspora." For about an hour Mr. Nimoy regaled the audience with stories from his childhood and from his professional life. Throughout his speech, Mr. Nimoy noted how his Jewish background influenced and affected him.

Nimoy's parents came to this country from the Ukraine in the early part of the last century. His family, which included his older brother Melvin, was a very close-knit, Yiddish-speaking family. He grew up in predominantly Catholic Boston and felt the isola- tion of being part of the minority.

Mr. Nimoy spoke at great length about the half-Vulcan, half-human Mr. Spock. He noted that there are some parallels between Spock and what he called "the classic diaspora image of the Jew":

The diaspora Jew is someone outside of his own culture, always being an alien in somebody else's country, in someone else's society... The original concept of Mr. Spock was that he was a sort of chosen alien, the outsider; he was the one who was not at home, the one who was half-Vulcan. He is not totally at home on his own planet because he is half-human and he is not at home on the Star Fleet ship because he is half-Vulcan. He has to find his own identity. In that sense, he is a diaspora character. ["Spock in the Diaspora," January 29, 1997]

Because of his own personal background, Nimoy felt particularly close to Spock and even added one specifically Jewish symbol to Spock: the famous Vulcan hand sign.

When Mr. Nimoy attended synagogue as a young child, he was fascinated by the kohanim, the members of the priestly tribe, as they would drape their large tallitot (prayer shawls) over their heads and offered the threefold blessing, which comes from the Book of Numbers, as they raised their hands. Leonard Nimoy's father always told him that he was not allowed to look at the kohanim as they blessed the congregation, but of course he did. He used to go home from the synagogue and practice this symbol in his bedroom, over and over again.

Mr. Nimoy spoke that day in Ann Arbor of the many different roles which he had played during the course of his career. For instance, did you know that he was the skinniest Tevye ever in a version of "Fiddler on the Roof"? He played a variety of Jewish characters, including Golda Meir's husband in "A Woman called Golda," a Holocaust survivor in the Turner Network's "Never Forget," and the prophet Samuel in a production entitled "David" (the story of King David). Mr. Nimoy noted that at least one director did not want to work with him because the director felt that Nimoy couldn't portray a Jew! Of course, that director only knew Nimoy as Mr. Spock. The director didn't know that Nimoy considered being Jewish his "secret weapon." It gave him an understanding of these characters that other actors did not have.

One thing that particularly struck me about Leonard Nimoy's speech, and which has stayed with me throughout the years, was his comment that he looked for opportunities to portray Jewish characters. He said, "I carry my Jewishness with me." It was   part and parcel of who Leonard Nimoy was. Even those characters, like Mr. Spock, who were not Jewish characters, were imbued with Jewishness by the actor. The qualities which he learned as a young boy growing up in a Jewish home were the qualities he looked for in his roles: characters who are ethical, responsible, and hard-working. The values that his parents taught   him, while they may not be exclusively Jewish values, Nimoy noted, are values that are reflected in Judaism.

I carry my Jewishness with me...," said Leonard Nimoy. "Being Jewish is a gift, not a burden [and] I treasure that identity." Who would have thought that Mr. Spock could teach us such an important lesson?!

Zikhrono livrakhah – May Leonard Nimoy's memory be a blessing. May their memories of him be of comfort to his family and may our memories of him remind us not only of his talents, but also of the lessons he taught through word and deed.

Yom Kippur Morning – 5775

on Sunday, 05 October 2014.

OCTOBER 5, 2014

Two great men died this summer:  First, Robin Williams, comedian, actor, and philanthropist, committed suicide on August 11th at the age of 63.  Then, three days later, on August 14th, Leonard Fein died, of natural causes, at the age of 80. 

I know that everyone in this sanctuary has heard of Robin Williams:  Some of us remember him from his “Mork & Mindy” days, while others of us remember him as the English teacher in “Dead Poets’ Society,” the Genie in “Aladdin,” the title character in “Mrs. Doubtfire,” the therapist in “Good Will Hunting,” or as Theodore Roosevelt in the two “Night at the Museum” movies.  

Others of us remember Robin Williams as the co-founder, along with Whoopi Goldberg and Billy Crystal, in 1986, of the yearly Comic Relief program, benefiting the homeless.  His death was sad not only because he was so young, but also because of the circumstances that led him to take his own life. 

I’m less sure that everyone in this sanctuary has heard of Leonard Fein.  Mr. Fein was the founder of “Moment Magazine,” MAZON:  A Jewish Response to Hunger, and the National Coalition for Jewish Literacy. 

As “Moment Magazine” notes on its website, it

was founded in 1975 by Nobel Prize laureate Elie Wiesel and acclaimed writer Leonard Fein….Moment is not tied to any organization, denomination or point of view and offers a balanced accounting of the Jewish experience in America.  As Fein proudly declared in the premier issue, Moment would include diverse opinions “of no single ideological position, save of course, for a commitment to Jewish life.” 


Of course, most of you know about MAZON:  A Jewish Response to Hunger, as our congregation is a synagogue partner of MAZON, and we collect monies year-round, but especially now during these holiest of days each year.  MAZON was founded in 1985 by Leonard Fein on the heels of the Ethiopian famine.  He wanted MAZON to be a bridge between our Jewish community and, as noted on the organization’s website, “the desperate need felt by millions of hungry people around the world.


In the late 1990’s, Leonard Fein took on another issue:  illiteracy.  In response to the need in our country, Mr. Fein founded the National Jewish Coalition for Literacy.  The National Jewish Coalition for Literacy’s mission statement notes that it

is the organized Jewish community’s vehicle for mobilizing volunteer tutors and reading partners for at-risk children in kindergarten through 3rd grade.  Our mission is to bring the skills and the concerns of America’s Jews to bear on the scandal of illiteracy by effecting a dramatic increase in the organized Jewish community’s involvement in the fight against illiteracy and in the number of Jews involved in that fight


Dr. David Ellenson, the Chancellor of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, and its president from 2001-2013, wrote about his friend Leonard Fein:  

He provided a model of what it meant to be to be a mensch – a Jewish human being.  He made me want to do more, to be a better person...  In his hundreds and hundreds of columns, in his academic books and in both public and private talks, [Fein] prodded and provoked Jews to do more.  He taught that we could never be satisfied with either the state of the world or the condition of the Jewish people, and he goaded us constantly with his brilliance, his fearlessness, his directness, his ethics and his passion.  He took seriously the biblical command to offer rebuke to our people when reproof was needed – which he always felt it was. He taught that tikkun olam, the repair of the world, was always possible and demanded we strive for repair and improvement of ourselves, the Jewish people and the world.


As Rabbi Ellenson points out, Leonard Fein taught us how to be a mentsch, how to be a good person. 

In the 30th chapter of the Book of Isaiah, it says:

Truly, the Lord is waiting to show you grace,

Truly, God will arise to pardon you.

For the Lord is a God of justice;

Happy are all who wait for God. [v. 18]


The author is referring to the End of Days, when all will recognize the one God and will follow God’s teaching.  At the end of the verse, it literally says “Happy are all who wait for Him” – in Hebrew the words “for Him” are one word:  “lo.”  “Lo” is comprised of two letters:  the letter lamed and the letter vav.  As you know, each Hebrew letter has a numerical equivalent; in this case, the letter lamed is the number 30 and the letter vav is the number 6. 

In the Talmud [Sanhedrin 97b and Sukkah 45b], and later further developed in Jewish mystical teachings, the number 36 represents the number of righteous people alive in the world at any given time.  So, we learn that there are 36 people waiting for / working “for Him,” for God.  The Rabbis taught that it is due to these 36 people, known as the lamed-vavniks, that the world continues to exist.  But here’s the catch:  No one knows who the lamed-vavniks are, not even the lamed-vavniks themselves! 

Are you a lamed-vavnik?  Or you?  Or you?  Were Robin Williams or Leonard Fein lamed-vavniks?  I don’t know – and neither do you!  That, our tradition tells us, is the point.  Since none of us knows if we are one of the 36, or if the 36 even exist, we all must strive to act as if we are one of the 36.   

Psalm 118 contains the words “Pitkhu lee, sha’arei tzedek, avo vam odeh Yah – Open up for me the Gates of Righteousness (sha’arei tzedek, the name of our synagogue), that I may come to praise God.”  A midrash on this verse says: 

[At the Time of Judgment] in the Future World, everyone will be asked, “What was your occupation?”  If the person answers, “I used to feed hungry people,” they will say to that person, “This is God’s gate, you, who fed hungry people, may enter.”…“I used to give water to thirsty people,” they will say to that person, “This is God’s gate, you, who gave water to those who were thirsty may enter.”…“I used to give clothing to those who needed clothing,” they will say to that person, “This is God’s gate, you, who gave clothing to those who needed clothing, may enter.” ...and similarly, those who raised orphans, and who performed the mitzvah of tzedakah, and who performed acts of caring, loving kindness.  [Midrash on Psalms 118:19]


Yes, this theme of tikkun olam is one that you often hear from me.  Why on this, the holiest day of our year?  Because this is our charge, our challenge, as is noted in the haftarah from the Book of Isaiah which we read each year on Yom Kippur morning: 

Is such the fast I desire, a day for men to starve their bodies?

Is it bowing the head like a bulrush and lying in sackcloth and ashes?

Do you call that a fast, a day when the Lord is favorable?


No, this is the fast I desire: 

To unlock fetters of wickedness, and untie the cords of the yoke,

To let the oppressed go free; to break off every yoke.


It is to share your bread with the hungry, and to take the wretched poor into your home;

When you see the naked, to clothe him, and not to ignore your own kin. [Is. 58:5-7, translation from The Jewish Study Bible] 


This is the challenge that each of us faces.  We face it as individuals.  We face it as a community.  When asked “What was your occupation?” I pray that you and I will be able to say “I helped those in need.”  May we answer this question proudly, not just at the end of our lives, as noted in the midrash, but also each and every day.

Kein y’hi ratzon – May this be God’s will.