Conversion Class Outlines and Materials

Rabbi Zimmerman conducts classes on Jewish culture, history, life-cycle, and literature for conversion candidates. Listed below are the RRA’s recommendations for conversion requirements, the training outline Rabbi Zimmerman uses based on these recommendations, and a list of recommended reading materials for candidates.

RRA Conversion Guidelines

Conversion Training Outline

Conversion Reading List

D’var Torah: Vayeshev

Our parashah this week begins the story of Joseph, a man destined for greatness by virtue of his extraordinary gifts and good luck. It certainly was not his political acumen that got him into power. Quite to the contrary, he repeatedly proved to be his own worst enemy, getting ahead in the world in spite of himself.

The story opens with Joseph bringing bad reports about his brother to their father Jacob. Jacob for his part, with a long track record of a disastrous insensitivity to family dynamics, rewarded the snitch with lavish gifts. Needless to say, his brothers weren’t crazy about him.

When I first visited KI as a student rabbi for Rosh Hashanah, knowing nobody in Lansing or at this shul, a man came up to me after the services and let me know how much he appreciated my d’var Torah. After that he kept smiling at me, to the point that I was almost getting embarrassed. In any case, he could have taught Joseph a lesson that it’s a lot easier to get ahead in the world if you show your appreciation and friendliness.

Joseph next bungled whatever good will he had left by telling not only his brothers, but his father as well, of a dream in which all of them would be bowing down to him. It’s one thing to brag about one’s power, and quite another to quietly demonstrate it. On my next visit to KI after Yom Kippur, a late afternoon Shabbat walk had been planned through Scott Woods, to be followed by havdalah and cider back in the social hall. The plan was to end up at Hawk Island, where cars were parked to shuttle us back to KI. Unfortunately, since we didn’t make it to Hawk Island until after sundown, the gate leading to the county park had been locked for the night. Don’t worry, said a man in our group – you’ll never guess who. He got on his cellphone and ten minutes later a patrol car came around and an officer opened the gate. “Good evening, Mr. Wiener,” the officer said. David greeted him by name, asked about his family, and we were on our way.

Through Joseph’s naïve boasting and bungling, he nearly got himself killed. While it was only good luck that saved his hide, his extraordinary managerial powers got him a position as caretaker for a prominent Egyptian official. And even though house-slave is usually considered a dead-end job, Joseph managed to rise to a position of increasing responsibility, prestige, and benefits. At this point, our two stories converge for a while. On my next monthly visit to Lansing, I picked up a copy of City Pulse, intrigued by the cover story, “Is this the most powerful man in Lansing?” The article suggested that the quiet man with inside connections had more going for him than I realized. It also depicted man behind the mayor in words reminiscent of the retired volunteer who has given so much to this congregation:

The mild-mannered David Wiener has become a familiar face in Lansing over the last ten years.

Former Mayor David Hollister said. “It was really important for me to leave someone behind who could keep the continuity that we had built in the city, and David was that person. He understands the big picture when it comes to politics and this city.”

He has emerged as more of a public figure. During the Capitol Loop controversy, for example, Wiener was clearly running the show for the city. Such activities smack of political ambition. “The idea of running for office has been brought up from time to time,” Wiener said, “but in order to run for office, I would have to give up what I’m doing, and that’s just not what I’m looking for right now.”

His announcement comes as welcome news to his supporters, especially the leadership of neighborhood groups who say that Wiener has become an integral part of their relationship with the city.

“We know that we can go to Mr. Wiener, and that he’ll make every effort to get things done,” said Anita Beavers, president of the Colonial Village Neighborhood Association.

“He’s always got a handle on everything,” Benavides said. “He knows this city inside and out and he’s incredibly committed.”

Incredibly committed might be putting it mildly. Wiener says that he spends an average of 12 hours per day doing his job.

“It’s not all at the office. I do a lot of reading and writing at home and I also spend a lot of time out with the neighborhood groups and other city organizations,” Wiener said.

In the public arena, any kind of corruption or scandal can ultimately be disastrous to one’s career. Joseph understood this, so he wisely kept his distance from his boss’s gorgeous wife. Unfortunately the usually clever and calculating Joseph did not cover his bases and let Mrs. Potiphar hold on to circumstantial evidence that landed him in prison. Many commentators have pointed out that the florid Torah trope sign on the word meaning “but he refused” her seductions suggests that Joseph hesitated. Also, the side commentary in the Torah text “Now Joseph was well built and handsome” suggests that he may have in some way provoked the woman’s advances.

What a different story when we talk about a man with 150% integrity, as this excerpt from the City Pulse article makes clear:

In the little spare time he has, Wiener says that he and his wife enjoy ballroom dancing and traveling, especially to Lansing’s sister cities.

“And by the way, we all pay our own way when we visit sister cities, unlike a certain other publication reported,” joked Wiener.

Note here that unlike Joseph, when a ludicrous accusation was thrown at David, he could easily make light of it because he was so obviously beyond reproach.

Like our former KI president, Joseph remained as active off the job as he was on the job. Instead of just festering in prison, he made himself available as counselor and dream interpreter. David still shows up at KI nearly every day, whether it’s to replace light fixtures, tutor our b’nai mitzvah candidates, lead great books discussions, roll the Torah scroll, or spread de-icing salt in the parking area. Unlike David, however, Joseph boasted to the point of playing God. As he told the cupbearer before interpreting his dream, “Surely God can interpret! Tell me your dreams.” David’s bearing is more like Gideon in our haftarah. He showed up incognito at the enemy camp, let the others play the role of the brilliant interpreters, and left them to draw their own conclusions when his dream prophesized their defeat. This kind of low key approach, empowering others to excel and giving them room to find their way to a solution, was typical of David’s leadership style as board president.

Finally, our parashah suggests that Joseph was a political opportunist. When he recognized that the cup bearer would soon be returned to power, Joseph used the man’s influence to secure his own release from prison. That much is understandable; we would all do the same thing if we were in his predicament. But what I find striking in contrast is that after he gave the chief baker a terrifying prediction of his future, he broke off contrast with the poor guy. Just imagine what a state the baker must have been in after hearing he would be impaled in three days. After the workshop I just took at the rabbinical convention on dealing with trauma, it’s clear that one can never just walk away from someone who has received such shocking news. Here I picture David taking the time to sit with him, listening patiently and with equilibrium as the baker unleashed waves of distress, rage, and powerlessness, and letting him know that he cares about him and, if there were anything he could do, he at least would try.

So in next week’s episode, Joseph will rise to become the number two man in Egypt, accountable to no one except pharaoh himself, kind of like being executive assistant to the mayor. As we’ll read in two weeks, the way Joseph used his power wasn’t always pretty. In contrast, our congregation, like our city, can be grateful to have been guided by the most humane, compassionate, gentle, and life-affirming of leaders. David is reminiscent of the sun in the Aesop fable about the sun and the wind trying to get a man to remove his cloak. Soft power is a very Jewish thing. It empowers others to be the change they want to see, and creates no collateral damage.

— Rabbi Michael Zimmerman
December 2018

D’var Torah: Tzav

Inspired by Seven Ascents for Flute and Orchestra by Marjan Helms*

Ascent # 1:
There are glimpses of a lost spiritual heritage in Jewish practice. We find it in the psalmist’s glorious depictions of nature and the cosmos, and in the mysteries of the sacrifice. Our practice was established to enable us to remain in constant intimacy with Divinity. We have lost that divine intimacy nowadays; many of us don’t even believe that a Divinity exists with which we could be in intimacy. And still, we struggle to keep the ancient practices alive, not always certain if they are accomplishing what they are supposed to, or for that matter, what it is that they are supposed to accomplish. Yet we do understand that our lives are fraught with tensions and uncertainties, that life in modern society is grossly out of balance, and that these imbalances may drive the world to economic collapse and environmental disaster. And so, we seek solace, we seek wisdom, we seek to reconnect with the part of us that has not forgotten what we were seeking for in the first place. Chadesh yamenu kekedem.

Ascent #2:
Seeking requires sacrifice, and sacrifice is scary. When we offer up our first fruits, there’s no guarantee that these won’t be our last fruits of the season. To offer the Shlemah, the sacrifice of well-being, we place on the altar, with our own hands, the breast that had cradled the living, beating heart of a creature that we had fed and cared for. When crisis in our lives causes us to bottom-out, to seek help and change our ways, we may need to abandon our friends, our sources of pleasure, and all that’s familiar. Our Torah reading repeatedly threatens us with being cut off from our kin, and indeed, anyone who goes forth on a journey of purpose and discovery, who, like Bilbo Baggins in The Hobbit leaves his pipe and easy chair to go on an adventure, may encounter a deep sense of loneliness and isolation. Min hametzar karati yah.

Ascent #3:
The world can be a scary place. There have always been enemies, highway robbers, and malicious beasts. Today we live in gated communities with encrypted unrememberable passwords on our software. The nightly news keeps us apprised of spectacular meteorological threats, serial killers, and suicidal terrorists. Yet statistically we face far greater danger every time we get behind the wheel of a car…and for the most part we do this without fear and in the vast majority of situations we reach our destination unscathed. In a scientific age, it may seem preposterous to speak about guardian spirits, and yet we experience making perilous car trips without fear when fear is not called for, even though we immediately snap into defensive mode to deal with genuine threats in the road. Somehow we know how to find repose despite potential dangers. We are nourished when we find this repose in wild places, rather than on I-96. There’s a special tranquility in nature at night, fearing nothing, yet poised to react at the first stirrings of a potential cougar or copperhead. Esa einai el heharim me’ayin yavo ezri.

Ascent #4:
After describing the proper preparation of the well-being sacrifice, our Torah reading tells us that a pure person may partake in the sacrificial offering. However, “the person who, in a state of impurity, eats flesh from the Lord’s sacrifices of well-being, that person shall be cut off from his or her kin.” In other words, it’s not enough to do the right thing in the wrong state of mind. We may recite our prayers in perfect Hebrew, unaware what the words mean, and say them so fast that no one else can understand them. And we’re likely to be rewarded with as much blessing as we put into the prayer. To quote Marjan’s commentary on Ascent IV: “Deep sadness and fear mingle with irrational anxiety but are met by two opposing energies: first, a formulaic and borrowed determination that is too shallow for the task, and second, a more authentic courage that is willing, finally, to accept pain.” Vetaher libeinu l’ovdecha be’emet.

Ascent #5:
The courage borne of authenticity is extremely energizing. In our Haftarah, the formulaic form of action is described as “defrauding God,” going through the motions without doing the hard work. In contrast, we do authentic work, such as providing food to those in need, the floodgates of the sky open up and blessings pour down. Hafachta mispadi lemachol li pitachta saki ve’te’azreni simchah.

Ascent #6:
It has become something of a cliché to speak of atonement as “at-one-ment,” yet the language is compelling. Feeling in harmony with one’s self and one’s world is a joyful state in which self-care and ethical action become inseparable, in that the same impulse of maintaining and deepening homeostasis expresses itself in relaxing tight shoulders, taking seconds on salad and avoiding the dessert table, picking candy wrappers off the floor, and serving meals to the homeless. Ashirah l’adonai be’chaiyai.

Ascent #7:
Many believe that claims that introspection and contemplation have no place in Jewish observance. The examples of Jacob, Elijah, Daniel, Shimon bar Yochai, and the Baal Shem Tov suggest otherwise. It is only by going deeply into our souls that we find the insight to repair the world and the courage to act upon that insight. Re-entry is difficult; when we come down from the mountain and see how others are living, our first impulse may be to smash the tablets. After twelve years in a cave, Rabbi Shimon was so disgusted by the unexamined lives of his fellow Israelites that he fixed his gaze on everyone he saw and knocked them dead. He therefore needed to spend another year in the cave to develop compassion. It is this compassion that enables us both to shed a tear and to burst out in laughter when we encounter human foibles, to dedicate our new strength and insight to the benefit of others, and to reconcile our differences. In the closing words of our haftarah: “Lo, I will send the prophet Elijah to you before the coming of the awesome, fearful day of the Lord. He shall reconcile parents with children and children with their parents, so that, when I come, I do not strike the whole land with utter destruction.”

Rabbi Michael Zimmerman, March 28, 2015

* Commentary on Seven Ascents for Flute and Orchestra by Marjan Helms

Seven Ascents for Flute and Orchestra

Ascent I speaks of disquiet and leave-taking—of choosing a path seemingly at odds with what is familiar and comfortable. Drawn from unease by the mysterious Other of the insistent birdcall, the music establishes a determined pace of escape and ascent, marking the beginning of exploration and discovery.

Ascent II presents a pause in the climb. Here, a first backward glance suggests tender regard for the simplicity and goodness left behind. Opposing this sweetness, however, fear, insecurity, and doubt come to dominate a surreal soundscape where turning back is no longer possible. The flute struggles in this eerie atmosphere, ultimately overcoming fear by boldly singing its own echo of the birdcall. Terror passes, and the movement ends quietly, although unsettled and cautious.

Ascent III unfolds while the protagonist’s energy is at rest. The music hints at a realm of guardian spirits where love never slumbers and where the wakeful Spirit watches over all wandering.

Ascent IV reiterates with a vengeance the terrors of the second movement. Deep sadness and fear mingle with irrational anxiety but are met by two opposing energies: first, a formulaic and borrowed determination that is too shallow for the task, and second, a more authentic courage that is willing, finally, to accept pain.

Ascent V begins by startling the almost broken character of the flute back into intense wakefulness. The entire brass section resounds in a tumultuous but ambiguous fanfare, to which the flute responds by almost jokingly transforming march into dance. Redemption is close at hand.

Ascent VI crosses a threshold into a world unforeseen. An encircling Presence arises from the fundamental chant of the earth and all souls resident and nearby. Here, music leads to the edge of Silence.

Ascent VII pours irresistibly out of the sixth movement. The flute hurls itself headlong into a joyful re-imagination of everything previously encountered. This music speaks of hope and laughter and joy, of return and renewal. The mountaintop, after all, is only a resting place. Life does not end. The music goes before us to say that all is well. That all shall be well.

©2014 Marjan Helms

D’var Torah: Rosh Hashanah 1

To celebrate Kehillat Israel’s “Year of the Jewish Story,” I decided, rather than deliver a d’var Torah this morning, to read a story I wrote for the occasion. It is inspired in part by a recent poem by Rabbi Leila Gal Berner (find a copy here). The story is a midrash; in other words, it elaborates inventively on the biblical narrative.

Just to quickly summarize the context: Sarah, who could not bear a child, gave her maidservant Hagar to Abraham to conceive a child in her name. When Hagar’s son Ishmael was born, Hagar became scornful of Sarah, so Sarah treated her harshly. After Sarah’s son Isaac was born, Sarah had Hagar and Ishmael banished to the wilderness, where Hagar had a divine revelation. In today’s haftarah, Peninah and Hannah were both married to Elkanah. Peninah had two sons and she taunted Hannah for not being able to conceive. Hannah prayed at the shrine of Shiloh for a son, making the pledge to offer this son for divine service at Shiloh. This led to the birth of the prophet Samuel, and later to three additional sons.


Once upon a time, Hagar, Hannah, Peninah, and Sarah rented a cottage along the lakeshore for a girlfriends’ getaway. Peninah, who makes a mean cosmopolitan, drove up with two gallon jugs full of the mix. Hagar, who knew a pizza and Middle Eastern place in the nearby town run by a couple from Egypt, ordered three veggie pies topped with zucchini and eggplant, and because she charmed them with stories of the old country, the owners threw in a couple of tubs of baba ghanoush and ful medames on the house. By the time the old girls devoured two-and-a-half pizzas and consumed who-knows-how-many rounds of cosmo mix, the party was in full swing: kvelling competitively over their kids, ripping through suitcases to try on each other’s beachwear, the co-wives giggling wickedly together over intimate secrets. It was then that Sarah popped open a dresser drawer and triumphantly pulled out a Gideon Bible.

“Here it is,” she proclaimed. “The whole story of those awful years; complete with fabrications to make each of us come off as revolting as possible.”

“Not exactly each of us,” said Peninah. “Little goody-goody over there just keeps weeping and praying while big-bad-wife-number-one was lording it over her.”

“Give me a break, Peninah,” said Hannah. “Do you think I want to be remembered as a whiny wimp? You know what a knockout I was in my younger days. I drove old Elkanah wild, and we loved each other. Let’s face it; he married you for family connections and for no other reason.”

“So you want to get nasty, Hans?” retorted Peninah. “You were always the pretty little flower. You never did a stitch of work around the house and no matter what role I gave you, you were useless in the family business.”

“Some business,” said Hannah. “A sleepy souvenir shop catering to nonexistent tourists while your sons played poker in the corner. If we had used my connections in Shiloh instead, I could have gotten us contracts for temple ornaments and sacrificial paraphernalia. Those priests paid good money. I’m just glad I got Samuel out of our house and hooked up with the House of Eli.”

“Disgusting!” said Peninah. “Drinking and carousing with those lazy priests, making a fool of yourself until you got so drunk that you pledged your son to slave labor at the shrine.”

“Three thousand years and you two still can’t settle your differences,” said Sarah. “Why, Hagar and I, after all we’ve been through, are still Facebook friends and get together regularly for mah jongg. Whatever happened in the old days, we’re the only ones still around, and life’s too short to hold grudges.”

“But Sarah, dear,” said Hagar, “let’s be honest. It’s taken us a couple of thousand years to get where we are now, and mostly it’s because it was all so long ago, we can’t really remember what all happened. In fact, just for the fun of it, could you remind me what it says in that book of yours about me?”

Sarah read from the Gideon Bible, “‘And when Hagar saw that she had conceived, her mistress was despised in her eyes.’ Come to think of it, you were pretty snotty in those days.”

“Give me a break, Sarah,” said Hagar. “You have no idea what it’s like to be born a slave, to have nothing, and then to suddenly have your mistress throw you into her husband’s bed in some bird-brained scheme to work out their marital problems. That’s the stupidest thing I ever heard of. How could you expect me to respect you after you forced me into harlotry and somehow thinking that this would be in your own best interest!”

“Soooo,” said Peninah. “Now this is getting juicy. And you girls got after Hannah and me for not settling our differences. Go ahead; show us how it’s done. But first have another cosmo.”

“Don’t mind if I do,” said Sarah. “But if your plan was to get us rip-roaring drunk so two jealous women could entertain you with a bit of reality TV, I’m not playing along.”

“Really, dear,” said Peninah. You don’t mind going down in history as the mean old hag who tormented the innocent young thing?”

“Well, now that you mention it,” said Sarah. “The text really did give me a pretty bad rap: dealing harshly, casting her out twice, and all.” “But isn’t that exactly what happened?” asked Hagar.

“I’ll admit I wasn’t as patient as I might have been,” said Sarah. “But the text doesn’t mention how you were going around saying you wanted to get out of there, that you were hearing divine voices sending you to the wilderness, that you and your son had some grand destiny. I was all too glad to give you what you wanted.” “You sure were,” said Hagar. I told you in confidence about one dream I had and that gave you all the excuse you needed to shove me out of the way.”

Hannah then jumped in. “Hey, this is kind of interesting. It’s just like what they talked about in that postmodern religious criticism class I took at the Lifelong Learning Center last year. See, a text creates its own reality. And so do personal narratives. You each have your own story, and there’s no objective truth outside of that.”

Then Peninah said, “Oh, now the sweet little mother of the prophet has become a literary critic. If you’re so smart, Hans, why don’t you give us an analysis of the varying narratives from Jewish and Islamic sources?” “Yes, that’s a fascinating question,” said Hannah. “Muslim scholars understood Hagar to be the courageous and heroic matriarch of the Arab peoples, the mother of God’s chosen one, and Abraham’s beloved. The rabbis in Midrash Rabbah made her an Egyptian princess. They also claimed that after Sarah died and Abraham married Keturah, it was actually Hagar in disguise.”

“Yes, everybody wants to put in their two cents about me,” said Hagar. “They create texts, and try to tell me that’s who I am, and that I’m wrong if I don’t follow the script. All I know is that Sarah treated me like dirt and almost got me killed in the wilderness.” “And all I know is that this impudent hussy kept trying to humiliate me and put her child higher up the totem pole than mine,” said Sarah.

“Enough of this war of words,” said Hannah. “Let’s do something completely wild, like jump in the lake with all our clothes on.”

They dashed out of the house, sprinted down the beach, and plunged into the refreshing water, laughing and splashing one another. In their excitement and their drunken stupor, they didn’t notice the little boy playing in the sand. While the girls were frolicking in the water, he lay down in the sand and started to make snow angels with his arms and legs. Then he floated up into the sky, flapping his arms like wings. He hovered over the four women and cleared his throat.

Everyone turned silent.

Finally, Hagar said, “I remember you. You came to me when my son was about to die from thirst in the wilderness.”

Sarah said, “I remember you. You and a couple of friends came to our tent. You predicted I would have son.”

Hannah said, “I remember you. I got a glimpse of you the night that Elkanah and I conceived a son.”

Peninah said, “I remember you. You were hovering around our house almost constantly since that time that Hannah prayed at Shiloh for her first son. And what brings you tonight to visit four drunken, squabbling, water-fighting women?”

The angel replied, “I’m hungry. What have you got to eat?”

Hagar said, “I think there’s half a pizza left on the table. And a bit of baba ghanoush.” The angel said, “The pizza would be just perfect. I’ll wait up here and you can bring it out.”

Hagar ran into the house. Two pizza boxes were lying on the floor near the trash can; the other one rested slightly ajar on the table, with cheese and tomato stains on the side. Hagar grabbed the box, closed it shut with her fingers, and brought it out. The other three were waiting for her on the shore, wet and shivering. Peninah opened the box in Hagar’s hands and gasped. The pizza was cold, hard, and broken into at least forty crouton-sized pieces. The four women gazed for a few moments. Then they understood.

Sarah, being the eldest, took the first piece. “I cast off the misdeed of forcing Hagar to have sexual relations with my husband.” She hurled the pizza crumb into the waves.

Hagar took the second piece. “I cast off the misdeed of acting with contempt and haughtiness toward Sarah.”

Now it was Peninah’s turn. “I cast off the misdeed of mocking and humiliating Hannah.” And when Hannah took her first crumb, she said, “I cast off the misdeed of poisoning my relationship with Peninah through jealousy and resentment.”

Over the next several minutes, they took turns recalling ways they had hurt one another and casting them off, until the pizza box was completely empty. The angel was no more to be seen; neither was the imprint in the sand from where he was making snow angels. Sarah and Hagar looked one another deeply in the eyes, hugged each other tightly, and became consumed with tears; Peninah and Hannah did the same. They returned to the house, cleaned up the mess they had made, returned the Gideon Bible to the dresser drawer, and poured the remaining cosmopolitan mix down the sink. Then they all fell into a deep sleep.

When they awoke the next morning, the sun shone brightly. Peninah and Sarah challenged Hannah and Hagar to a game of water polo before breakfast. Then the four women took a slow walk along the lakeshore. No words were necessary. At the opposite end of the globe, a group of men were sitting around the table signing a peace treaty. And the earth heaved a great sigh of relief.

—Rabbi Michael Zimmerman
Rosh Hashanah 5774
September 2013

Message for Interfaith Thanksgiving Service, 2012

Once, on the eve of the Day of Atonement, Rabbi Zusya heard a cantor in the House of Prayer, chanting the words: “And it is forgiven,” in strange and beautiful tones. Then he called to God, “Lord of the world! Had Israel not sinned, how would such a song have been intoned before you?” (paraphrased from Martin Buber, Tales of the Hasidim)

While we might marvel at Rabbi Zusya’s chutzpah, his audacity, his remark touches an interesting issue. Imagine God looking down at humanity and seeing all the warfare, all the environmental damage, all the cruelty, all the people struggling in desperate poverty while a handful of others are hoarding extraordinary wealth, all the hatred fueled by the very religious doctrines that God gave us in love, all the failure to learn from the mistakes of the past, all the ways people shield themselves from the suffering of others. And still, God continues to bathe humanity with blessings: the sun rising every day, the cycles of living things providing abundant nourishment and indescribable beauty, sufficient material resources to meet the needs of every being on the planet, the intellect to solve insurmountable problems, the presence of family and community, the emotional capacities to love them and care for them, the power to express our love in the creation of new life. Why doesn’t God burn out? What sustains God to keep giving so much to a species that has so misused God’s gifts and is likely to continue to do so?

Zusya’s answer is truly ingenious. The more broken people have made God’s world, the more beautiful and passionate will be our song of repentance. Our tender music sings out in stark contrast to the shrill screeches of human misery and neglect; the sinewy lament flowing arrhythmically from our hearts offers a welcome interlude from the lockstep heavy metallic thud, thud, thud beating of what we call progress. The music of our prayers is beautiful in and of itself. But beyond that, our prayers proclaim that kindness, reflection, and hope cannot be muffled by the noise of human folly. For this, God can be deeply grateful.

OK, I know that this is not what we like to hear about at Thanksgiving, broken world and all that. Shouldn’t we instead focus on how incredibly blessed most of us are in this society? Most of us enjoy adequate food, clothing, and shelter, a decent standard of living, personal freedom, and access to resources and access to resources and opportunities. We can, and we should, acknowledge how fortunate we are and give thanks for all the wonderful things in our lives. In Jewish tradition we don’t limit this kind of thanksgiving to a single Thursday in November; rather we are told to include the following blessing in our prayers at least three times a day:

We thank you for our lives entrusted to your hand, our souls placed in your care, for your miracles that greet us every day, and for your wonders and the good things that are with us every hour, morning, noon, and night.

If we truly lived with these words implanted in our consciousness, we would live enchanted lives. No matter what happens, we would never forget that the glass is not half empty; it is, in fact, at least 90 percent full.

The trouble is, we don’t seem to be wired to experience this level of fulfillment. We ignore at least 40 percent of the nectar in our glass, and then bemoan that it is still half empty. In the eleventh century, a rabbi named Bachya ibn Pakuda taught that there are three causes for our lack of gratitude. First of all, once we get attached to material possessions; we keep wanting more. If we enjoy our Ipad 2, we now want an Ipad 4, and no matter how happy we’ve been with our Ipad 4, we just can’t live without a Mini. The second problem is that we take all the good stuff we’ve got for granted. Even our new Mini soon becomes just another tool, while our old Ipad 4 sits idle on a shelf alongside the laptop, smartphone, and CD player that we’ve owned since the Pleistocene era. The third problem, according to Bachya, is the one that concerns me the most tonight. This is that we tend to focus on our disappointments, failures, and hurts, and then lose sight of our blessings altogether. Who cares about a little Mini when the rich kid down the street got a sports car for her seventeenth birthday? And what’s the use of having a new car if you knock your back out working out at the club so you are immobilized for the next two weeks?

To be sure, physical pain is something we all would rather be free from. Getting turned down for a job opening or a date does nothing to lift one’s spirits. And even though we may read the newspaper as a leisure activity, the headlines usually don’t do much to brighten our day. But, as the sages of all religious traditions teach us, we have a choice how to react to these events. So let’s say, for example, my insurance premium has doubled, a lab test came out positive, or that stench comes from a raccoon’s nest in the basement. Our rabbis taught that we react positively or negatively to events like these because we assume that they will lead to either good or bad outcomes. But none of us are clairvoyant. We actually have no idea how things will turn out.

Alan Morinis, in his book Everyday Holiness: The Jewish Spiritual Path of Mussar, tells the true story of a man condemned to a concentration camp during the Holocaust. Unlike countless others, he survived this ordeal and fled to Uruguay. Decades later, he escaped from the political instability and guerilla warfare in Uruguay and emigrated to the United States with a comfortable fortune. It turned out that in the concentration camp he was forced to make soap; eventually this experience enabled him to become the largest soap manufacturer in Uruguay. These twists of fate demonstrate how the consequences of the events in our lives cannot be predicted. Therefore the Talmud tells us to say a blessing if something good happens, and to say a blessing if something bad happens, because we don’t really know which is which.

To be sure, life sometimes throws situations our way that are truly catastrophic and lead to extreme suffering. Yesterday I met a woman who has survived multiple illnesses deemed to be imminently terminal, and in addition she lost her husband to suicide a year and a half ago. She told me how important it would be for me to mention extreme situations such as hers in this talk, to let people know how her difficulties have compelled her to live every day as if it were her last, to speak authentically and passionately, even if it defied social mores and expectations, to dance, to sing, to laugh, to cry, even if this made people uncomfortable. From tragedy and painful confrontation with death emerged a passion for life, a sense of gratitude for each day, and at the same time a sensitivity that her words and deeds, no matter how freely expressed, must never cross the line of causing physical or emotional hurt to others.

But beyond our personal tragedies is the realization that we live in a broken world crying out for repair. The kabbalistic master Yitzchak Luria taught that God initially created a world so perfect that everything was enveloped in radiant divine light. But this light got so bright and intense that the earthly vessels created to hold the light could no longer contain it. All the vessels got shattered. Like Humpty Dumpty, all the elements of a whole and perfect world lie in shambles. It is up to us to put Humpty Dumpty back together again. Our human task is to assist God in the work of creation by reassembling all the broken pieces. How do we do this? By feeding the hungry; by struggling for justice; by restoring the damage we’ve wrought on the environment; by ending war and violent hatred once and for all. This is the work of repairing the world, of tikkun olam. As we gather here tonight to pray together, we are repairing the world. When Muslims, Jews, and Christians come together in friendship and mutual respect, we are repairing the world. When we do not allow the bitter struggles that divide our peoples to stand between us, we are repairing the world. And when, ultimately, we sit down together at the conference table to resolve our differences, sensitive to each other’s point of view and compassionate to each other’s suffering, our world will be about as close to being fully repaired as it has ever been.

Tonight, more than anything else, I am filled with gratitude for the opportunity to engage with all of you in this work of repair. I thank God for bringing me to a community where I can interact with, learn from, and befriend my Muslim, Christian, Hindu, Buddhist, and Bahai counterparts. Through the efforts of good people in this community and in countless other communities around the world, may warfare and genocide vanish from our midst and may the seeds of compassion and forgiveness germinate in fields long infested with the bramble of fear, prejudice, and hatred.

Before I spoke this evening, Father Mark recited one of my favorite Psalms. It is the lament of a man engulfed in brokenness, a man who has fallen into a pit of despair. In Psalm 30 this man recognizes that it is easy to be grateful when one is on a roll:

Va’ani amarti v’shalvi kol-emot l’olam.
And as for me, in the ease of my prosperity I said that I would never be shaken.

But to sustain as a healthy attitude in tough times requires a broader perspective:

Ba’erev yalin bechi v’laboker rinah.
In the evening weeping may set in and abide for the night, yet in the morning there are shouts of joy!

What’s the secret of going from weeping to joy? It’s in the verse

Hafachta mispadi l’machol li pitachta saki va’t’azreni simchah.

The King James Version translates this as:

Thou hast turned for me my mourning into dancing:
thou hast put off my sackcloth, and girded me with gladness…

If we look carefully at the original Hebrew, we find that the secret of turning mourning into dancing is likened to the miracle of giving birth:

You transmuted my wailing into its opposite, into the exquisitely writhing ecstatic pain of the pangs of birth;
You opened my sack and filled my girth with joy.

Our work together of repairing the world is like giving birth to new life. The process may be difficult and sometimes painful. We may not bear the child we had hoped for; sometimes the baby may not survive to breathe its first breath. And still, whatever the outcome, our efforts to create a better world bring purpose to our lives. We know why we were created, and how we are connected to humanity as a whole. For all this, we cannot help but be filled with gratitude. This is why our Psalm concludes:

L’ma’an y’zamercha chavod v’lo yidom adonai elohai l’olam odecha.
You blessed me with the joy of new life so that glory might sing out to You and never be silent.
Adonai, my God, I shall give thanks to you forever.

East Lansing, Michigan
November 19, 2012

Invocation: State of Michigan Holocaust Commemoration

God of justice, God of mercy. We seek Your wisdom and Your strength.

How can we assure our children and all the children of the world that never again shall they face the sword because they are part of a people that is different from the people in power, or because their faith is opposed by those who have lost faith in human decency?

Throughout history, powerful rulers drunk with greed and blind with fanatic cruelty have deployed fighting men with deadly weapons to increase their power and oppress the innocent.

When Cain slew his brother and set the whole cycle in motion, You left his question unanswered—Am I my brother’s keeper?

God of justice, God of mercy, the time has come to answer Cain’s question. Enough is enough. We are our brother’s keeper and our sister’s protector. We stand here before You today to remember six million of our kin and to honor their memory with the commitment to end the atrocity once and for all. We seek Your wisdom to help us find the answers. We seek Your strength to give us courage to keep asking the question.

You said to Cain, “Your brother’s blood cries out to Me from the ground!” Can You not hear the cries of the blood of millions of our brothers and sisters from Hitler’s death camps, and from the Congo, Sudan, Rwanda, Burundi, Cambodia, Chechnyia, Bosnia, and Armenia? Is the collective wail too much even for You to bear? Like us, when You’ve had enough, can You flip the remote to another channel?

Today we flip to the channel of hope. With Your help we will stop the savagery and bring the perpetrators to justice. Extending hands across continents, we will build a global society dedicated to peace and human dignity, protected by the rule of law and the willingness to carry it out, inspired by the prayers of hundreds of religious orientations, rising together in a glorious chorus of diversity:

Oseh shalom bimromav hu ya’aseh shalom aleinu v’al kol yoshvei tevel v’imru amen.

May the one who creates peace in the heavens grant peace upon us and upon all who dwell on earth. And let us say, Amen.

Invocation for World Aids Day Program

If the Bible were written in our time, the Book of Job would read something like this:

Once there was a man named Job, who loved God and who was free from guilt or shame. One day the Devil spoke to God and said, “Does Job not have good reason to love God? For he enjoys great riches and excellent health. Do you think he will continue to love you and carry good thoughts in his heart if he has to suffer?” And God said to the Devil, “Very well. We shall put Job to the test.”

The next day Job woke up in intense pain and began to suffer all manner of illness. Shortly thereafter the man whom Job loved also began to suffer intense pain and all manner of illness. And the man whom Job loved soon died. And Job was overcome with grief.

The friends of Job provided him with rare and precious medicines, and even though Job continued to suffer pain and sickness, he did not die. But the medicines were costly, and Job’s wealth steadily diminished.

And the friends of Job said to him, “It is because you have sinned before God that God has punished you so severely. For you have lain with man and incurred God’s wrath.”

So Job found comfort with a woman. She was dark and comely. She lacked access to wealth or knowledge, but her heart was filled with love. And this woman too began to suffer intense pain and all manner of illness. And the woman whom Job loved soon died. And once again Job was overcome with grief.

So the friends of Job said to him. “It is because you have sinned before God that God has punished you so severely. For you have lain with woman and incurred God’s wrath.” And Job was very confused.

And Job sought further companionship, and his lovers lay with men and they lay with women. And those who had wealth and knowledge were able to control the disease in themselves and to prevent it in others. But those who lacked wealth and knowledge spread the disease to those they loved and died themselves shortly thereafter.

And the friends of Job said that those who suffered were sinners who incurred God’s wrath for their evil ways. So people were beset with guilt and shame and did not seek for diagnosis or treatment. And the disease spread around the world, fueled by stigma against those who were different or powerless. So God wept bitter tears of grief and remorse for the folly of his creatures.

And children were born with the disease and the friends of Job said that the children were sinners being punished for their evil ways. So once again God wept.

And Job strove to educate people about the disease. But the friends of Job said that he was a sinner and those who suffered deserved to suffer. And again, God wept.

Finally Job called out to God, “How can you allow your creatures to suffer so? Why have you allowed this pandemic to spread?”

And God called out to Job from the whirlwind: “Who are you to question my ways? Where were you when your friends and other false prophets preached their poisonous message of hatred? Why have you allowed them to stigmatize those who most need a helping hand and a loving heart? Do you too believe that I want to punish my creatures for loving their fellow man and their fellow woman? What have you done to rescue the downtrodden from guilt and shame? Why have you not taught them how much they deserve love from their Maker, from their fellow human beings, and especially from themselves? Why have you not educated them about this disease? And what will you do in the days to come to unite all who praise my name to eradicate the plague, to heal the afflicted, to comfort the grieving, and to safeguard the vulnerable?”

And Job said unto God, “No longer do I doubt your goodness. For now I understand that those who walk your ways open their hearts to those who are afflicted, while only fools and those with hearts of stone would blame the victims for their suffering.”

And God restored Job’s wealth a hundredfold. And Job used his wealth to establish programs for education, prevention, and treatment of HIV/AIDS. And the friends of Job repented their evil ways and offered comfort and support to all who suffered.

Then peoples of all faiths joined together with you and with me and with all assembled here today in a prayer of comfort and healing for those who are afflicted:

May Divine goodness manifest in those who love you and care for you.
May Divine healing energy penetrate every pore of your body, bring you comfort, and restore your health and your spirit.
May Divine wisdom fall upon those who develop new medications, and upon the physicians and healers responsible for your care.
May Divine spirit pervade your soul, enabling you to love yourself, nourish yourself, have faith in yourself, and achieve what you were put on this earth to accomplish.
And may Divine mercy enable you to beat the odds and bless you with comfort, longevity, and peace.

And let us say Amen.

Address to the “Unity with Diversity” Program

Islamic Center, East Lansing, Michigan, September 29, 2010

Shalom Aleichem/salaam aleikum. This week we observe Sukkot. A sukkah is a fragile hut providing minimal shelter. In our evening prayers, we say ufros aleinu sukkat shlomecha, “spread over us the sukkah of Your peace.” To quote Rabbi Arthur Waskow: “Why not a fortress of peace, or a castle, or a temple, or a tower? Why not something sturdier, hard-shelled, invulnerable—won’t that get us more peace, more security, as we sleep? The wisdom of the prayer is that in fact all human beings do live in a vulnerable ‘sukkah,’ and we can achieve true peace and security if we all recognize that and share our vulnerability with each other—neither in fear and hiding, nor by threat and attack.”

Rabbi Waskow touched upon three key points for us. First, we are vulnerable. Just one troubled soul, one book, and one match can remind us how vulnerable we are. Second, we are not alone. We are all together in the same vulnerable sukkah, and together we can achieve true peace and security. And third, we can learn from the Islamic Center how to respond to attack—not fighting fear and hiding with fear and hiding; not responding to threat and attack with threat and attack; but with restraint, tolerance, and forgiveness, sending the message: Learn, don’t burn.

Yet the desecration of the Quran poses a dilemma. We recognize the wisdom of playing down isolated incidents of harassment, not to fuel the flames of attention seekers. Still, bookburning has horrific resonances for us. As Heinrich Heine said, “Those who begin by burning books will end by burning people.” To burn the Quran, the Bible, the Torah, the Bhagavad Gita, or the Diamond Sutra is to pollute the earth with smoke that smothers all that is good and sacred.

Unity with diversity does not mean that we all are one. We are divided on fundamental issues: abortion, same-sex marriage, and most tragically, the struggle between Israel and the Palestinians. On the one hand, we need to be on guard so that shrill voices among politicians and the media, fanning the flames of divisiveness, do not distract us from our work together for peace, justice, and tolerance. On the other hand, our community can be a beacon of light for the rest of the country, recognized not for Quran burning, but for constructive engagement, mutual respect, and shared learning among those with the courage to disagree and dialogue together.

After the 9/11 attacks, this community came together to speak out against Islamophobia and mourn the tragic loss of life. When the Nazis rallied at the capitol, Mayor Bernero organized a “Celebration of Diversity” at Eastern High School, leaving the Nazis alone downtown to hurl their venom at each other. And two years ago, Palestinian filmmaker Yaser Aladam, impressed by the spirit of religious co-existence in Greater Lansing, produced a documentary featuring the Islamic Center, University Lutheran Church, and Congregation Kehillat Israel, screened in Israel and the Palestinian Territories as an inspiration to end the cycle of hatred and violence.

We will continue together to feed the hungry and build houses for the homeless. Let us also take up the call of “Learn, not burn.” We may burn in our souls from past hurts. Let us instead learn about our respective traditions. Let’s build trusting friendships firm enough to withstand the difficult questions. Let’s learn to say “I feel this” rather than “You are that.” And let the sukkah of God’s peace spread out over all of us, our mosques, synagogues, churches, and temples. Aleikum salaam/Aleichem shalom.

D’var Torah: Rosh Hashanah 1

This past summer, on our first two nights at a daddy-daughter cabin in Vermont, Lili and I watched two DVDs. The first was a beloved old classic, the quintessential Jewish musical if I don’t count the KI Purimspiel: Fiddler on the Roof. As you most likely know, this is a story of a stable indigenous society trying to hold on to its traditions as it encounters modern civilization and a conquering people bent on destroying it. We then jumped ahead forty years or so to the recent blockbuster Avatar. As you most likely know, this is a story of a stable indigenous society trying to hold on to its traditions as it encounters modern civilization and a conquering people bent on destroying it.

Like our Torah reading today, these two films feature stories of tragedy and hope: the tragedy of displacement and the hope of building anew.

In each of the three narratives, the tragedy of displacement occurs because of an inability to coexist. In the Torah, Sarah was so desperate to provide a child for Abraham that she arranged for him to impregnate her maidservant Hagar. Sarah’s plan succeeded beyond her wildest dreams, but then it became clear that after a lifetime of barrenness, she herself would bear the promised child. She felt that Hagar and her son Ishmael would pose a threat to her status and that of her own son Isaac. Rather than seek compromise with Hagar, Sarah wielded her power and influence to banish Hagar and Ishmael into the wilderness.

Similar tragedies occurred in the two film stories. Despite cordial relations between Tevye and the local Russian constable, it was impossible to resist the harsh edicts from St. Petersburg that led to the expulsion of the entire Jewish population of Anatevka. And on Pandora, the remote moon where Avatar takes place, Dr. Grace Augustine’s scientific team did all they could to protect the territory of the local population, the Na’vi. Team member Jake Sully even embraced the Na’vi way of life. Nonetheless human greed, bolstered by paramilitary power and faith in the superiority of our species, led to the aggressive seizure and destruction of the Na’vi homeland.

In all three stories hope emerged like a phoenix in the face of destruction. Rather than perish in the wilderness, Hagar and Ishmael encountered God and God’s angel, providing water for the emaciated infant and the promise that God shall make of him a great nation. At the close of Fiddler on the Roof, Tevye invites the eponymous violinist to join his family on their long journey to the Goldene Medina, the golden land of America, while other Anatevkans end their wanderings in the promised land of Eretz Yisrael. And in the wake of massive death and destruction, the Na’vi drive hostile earthlings off Pandora and rebuild their devastated homeland under Jake’s leadership. In each case, the underdogs fully mobilize their own resources; but they also draw upon the power, support, and beneficence of those around them: Jake Sully, the American people across the sea, and, of course, God.

God’s role in Hagar’s story is complicated. On the one hand, God tells Abraham to obey his wife’s order to banish Hagar; on the other hand, this same God bestows great blessings on her and on her child. I find God’s blessing of Hagar and Ishmael to be one of the most remarkable and transforming moments in the Torah. It is clear from the outset that Isaac’s descendants and Ishmael’s were destined to endure a long and bitter struggle, one that tragically is far from resolved even in the present day. And still, our Torah acknowledges the blessing of Ishmael.

For me there is a crucial lesson here. In our daily lives, and certainly our Jewish community, there is often conflict and struggle. In these situations it is tempting to see oneself as benevolent and well-intentioned, and anyone who opposes us as the bad guy. Yet in most situations in daily life, and in virtually every situation within a congregation, we’re all good guys; we’re all trying our best to do what we believe, to stand behind our own values, to take care of our needs and those of others. The challenge, then, is to remember that the other person, too, is blessed by God. In that frame of mind, we can resolve our differences in a less painful and more respectful way.

To illustrate the point, let’s imagine that the wanderings of Tevye and family have led them to Pandora, or that a band of Na’vi, fleeing in desperation and confusion from the destruction of their sacred tree, somehow find their way to Anatevka. What is sure to result is a culture clash of the first order, a challenge no less formidable than the one Tevye faced repeatedly as each of his daughters pushed the boundaries of tradition through her courtship patterns and choice of husband. This is the sort of culture clash that has provoked a cycle of resistance, reconciliation, compromise, creative adaptation, and renewal throughout Jewish history. It is a struggle we face in our time. Those who have devoted their lives to traditional practice, as this was understood in the Conservative and Modern Orthodox movements in America for most of the twentieth century, have encountered within their communities a new generation that is less tied to traditional beliefs and practices, more strongly influenced by the spiritual observances of indigenous peoples and other traditions, and likely to focus more on global concerns than on specifically Jewish agenda. As I see it, these two groups of Jews can be likened to the Anatevkans and the Na’vi.

The Anatevkans are the bearers of the tradition that Tevye eloquently extolled in song, a tradition ground in abiding faith in a God who receives our prayers, hears our cries, lets us kvetch and kibbitz all we want, and asks only that we adhere to an all-encompassing code of behavior, study conscientiously, and accept that we have to suffer in a hostile world. Tevye represents vital concerns long held by the Jewish people: faith, adherence to prescribed practice and customs, maintaining identity and autonomy in an alien world, coping with anti-Semitism, Jewish survival and continuity. Without vigilant attention to these concerns, it is unlikely that Judaism as we know it could survive more than a few generations.

Like the Anatevkans, the Na’vi on Pandora are vitally concerned about continuity and survival. However they see this survival as tied to the well-being of the planet, the balance of nature in the environment, the network that unifies all life. Their traditions are built around a spiritual path of respect for the natural world and cultivation of one’s full potential to flourish within it. They find God in the forest rather than in the sanctuary, and they may challenge established practices and beliefs when the cosmos sends a more pressing truth into their hearts. They demand a Judaism that is authentic, passionate, ecstatic, and able to provide genuinely effective resources for dealing with the overwhelming challenges facing the world today and in the years to come.

Only time will tell whether it is the Anatevkans or the Pandorans who hold the key to the Jewish future. When navigating conflicts between the two groups, we can look back to Abraham as he struggled to choose one son over the other. He loved Ishmael, his first-born, with all his heart, and felt no less love for Isaac. He made the painful choice to banish Ishmael and his mother at the behest of God, the same God who would subsequently order him to sacrifice Isaac. But maybe neither choice was really a choice at all. Maybe they were tests, ruses, misdirections masking the hidden plan before it is finally revealed. Isaac was never intended to be slaughtered, and Ishmael was never intended to be cursed. Both sons were the blessed one.

In Israel they have a wonderful expression for this: Gam v’gam—“This one; and this other one” as well.

From one perspective, it should be obvious that the choice between the Anatevkans and the Na’vi is also “gam v’gam.” Bringing the two groups together could give rise to a generation of pious Jews who were also spiritual adepts and ardent environmentalists. But from where we stand, identifying with one group or the other, the gap may seem insurmountable. Imagine how Tevye would react if his fourth daughter married a ten-foot-tall blue-skinned naked savage with webbed feet and a tail! Or if, instead of a tough-as-nails ex-Marine, the avatar confronting Neytiri defenseless in the Pandoran night, turned out to be Motl the tailor!

When conflicts arise in daily life, we may be tempted to see our adversaries as aliens from another planet, bent on our destruction. Chances are whatever hurtful words or deeds you are reflecting on in this season of teshuvah and atonement harken back to moments when you saw another person in this way. Jewish texts provide a variety of techniques for dealing with this dangerous mental state, but at the core of all of them is the recognition that the other person, no less than ourselves, is blessed by God.

We all sometimes stumble and fall, and end up doing or saying things we later regret, as the rabbis in the Talmud sometimes lapsed into cruel and painful rejection of their adversaries. Still, I believe that a Jewish community that fosters diversity and shows generosity in listening and speaking is most effective at creating trust and cultivating appreciation in its members.

Kehillat Israel has long exemplified this spirit of “gam v’gam.” The congregation has always embraced passionately religious and no-less passionately secular members. Interfaith couples have always been just as welcome as all-Jewish couples; and the children of interfaith parents typically had a positive enough experience in our religious school to eventually become passionate Jews and champions of Jewish continuity. And KI was well ahead of the curve in assuring women an equal role in the ritual and organizational life of the congregation. Thus the famous story of a KI member at a Jewish movement convention in the early ‘70s, attending a workshop in which it was revealed that in the near future a congregation might even have a woman president. The KI-er told the presenter, “That’s great news. I’m sure when I tell our president she’ll be very excited to hear it.”

Today we face other challenges as we strive to meet the ideal of “gam v’gam.” When this congregation was younger and tinier, everyone knew each other; everyone attended the same potlucks and study groups. Now we are larger and multi-generational, and we run the risk of limiting our contact to a small cohort of friends and like-minded souls. This may be inevitable, but it can have the unintended effect of diminishing us. The more we can stretch ourselves to include the other, the richer our experience of community will be.

I’d like to conclude with insights from one of my favorite teachers, the Hebrew dictionary. From that source I have discovered new layers of meaning for the words in our sacred texts, and what has been especially revealing has been the literal meanings of the names of places and people. When I looked at the names of Sarah and Hagar, I found that each could have two very different meanings. On the one hand, Sarah can mean “princess” while Hagar can mean “to limp” or “be lame.” This suggests a clear difference in power and status between the two women. The lady of the house has no place in her palace for a limping beggar and her offspring. I can’t imagine a less Jewish understanding of how we deal with the vulnerable members of our community. So I opt instead for the second pair of definitions, in which Sarah means “persist” or “persevere” and Hagar means “gird oneself.” In the Hebrew Bible one is typically told to gird one’s loins in order to stand tall and fearless in an encounter with God. Now we have leveled the playing field between two powerful adversaries: Sarah, who never gave up in her determination to carry on the family line of Abraham, and Hagar, who stood before God, spoke directly to God, and even affixed a name to God. In the Torah story it wasn’t possible to keep these two powerhouses under the same roof. Hagar broke off to form her own shul, her own people, her own religion. In today’s dwindling Jewish community, however, I would hope that we could harness the talents and energy of both Sarah and Hagar as part of the same diverse and vital congregation.

Let’s jump ahead now in our dictionary research from Abraham’s tent to a more recent past, and to a possible future. The name “Tevye” comes from the Hebrew “tov” meaning “good.” Anatevkans are good people; they volunteer for every committee and donate generously. They are the backbone of a strong community, a blessed generation whose many contributions deserve to be celebrated. As for the Na’vi, their name is the Hebrew word for “prophet.” These strange newcomers on the local scene are looking ahead without preconception, prophesying a different Jewish community, with different values and priorities: spirituality, physicality, harmony with nature, raw courage. These Navi’im, like their biblical counterparts such as Amos and Isaiah, confront us with the uncomfortable message that we have to change our ways.

I hope that in the sequel the Anatevkans and the Navi’im do forge an alliance. Their synagogue would have roots into the tradition as deep as the roots of the home tree. Their ritual would have extraordinary transforming power. Jewish learning would flourish, with innovative programming that draws the kids to the edge of their seats. The whole community would continue to be there for one another in times of joy and of tragedy, combining traditional forms of observances with effective processes for healing inner wounds and moving fully from strength to strength. I am inspired by this vision of gam v’gam and urge that it guide our direction in the year to come.

According to the commentary in our Machzor, the story of the birth of Isaac is appropriate for Rosh Hashanah because on the birthday of the world it is fitting to celebrate the wonder of a long-barren woman giving birth to a child. As I look out on this sanctuary filled to near capacity with members and friends, I hope that together we give birth to a year in which we strengthen the bonds of community and mutual support. I pray that together we enjoy a year of health and happiness, and that we are all here to reconvene in this place one year from now, in a world blessed with peace.

L’shanah tovah.

September 2010

D’var Torah: Rosh Hashanah 1

The old joke goes that Jewish history and holidays can be summed up like this: “They tried to kill us. We beat them. Let’s eat.” Based upon years of rabbinical study and training, I believe I can simplify that analysis even further, by describing the essence of the Jewish experience in a single word: “Exile.” The Torah begins with a tale of exile, when Adam and Eve are forced out of the Garden of Eden. Our core narrative describes an extended exile in Egypt, first out of necessity to escape the famine in the land of Canaan, then under duress as slaves, and finally for forty years in the wilderness. The Torah itself was compiled by a committee of scribes working in exile in Babylon. Time after time the exiles returned to their homeland, only to be forced into exile, time and again, as a consequence of their inability to maintain holiness.

Why have we made exile such a central part of our identity? We could just say, “OK, here we are in Babylonia, or New York, or even Michigan. This is our home. We’re happy here and our lives are good.” But the Torah keeps reminding us of our brokenness, our separateness. As long as an angel with a flaming sword guards the entrance to the Garden of Eden, we are never fully home.

Let me be clear that the Torah is using geographical exile as a metaphor for spiritual exile. When we are unable to relate to our children, or get along with our employer, or pursue our life’s purpose, then we find ourselves in exile.

It is this sober message that brings us back, year after year, to fill this sanctuary, to acknowledge how we each missed the mark in the past year, and to wipe the slate clean and lessen the likelihood of repeating our errors in the year to come.

When the rabbis designed the High Holiday observance, they selected a Torah reading about exile, but it is not an exile of the Jewish people, but rather an exile inflicted by the Jewish people. It is Sarah, the matriarch of the Jewish tribe, who banishes Hagar, her Egyptian handmaid and rival, along with Hagar’s son Ishmael, the progenitor of the Arab people. The motives for this exile appear to be political rather than punitive. Sarah and God, each for their own reasons, wanted to make sure that Sarah’s son Isaac, rather than his older half-brother Ishmael, would carry on the line of Abraham. Abraham himself opposed the banishment, but was outvoted two to one. So Hagar and Ishmael found themselves stranded in the wilderness. In its typically abbreviated style, the Torah narrative eloquently conveys their agony:

Hagar wandered about in the wilderness of Beersheba. When the water was gone from the skin, she left the child under one of the bushes and went and sat down at a distance, for she thought, “Let me not look on as the child dies.” And sitting thus afar, she burst into tears. God heard the cry of the boy.

The story continues: “And God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water. She went and filled the skin with water, and let the boy drink.” The Midrash on Genesis claims that the reason Hagar filled the skin was because she didn’t have faith in God and therefore was afraid that the well would run dry, just as Abraham’s devotion to her had run dry. This loss of faith tells us something important about the nature of exile: hardship breeds lack of trust, and with lack of trust we cannot appreciate the gifts that are right in front of our eyes.

The sequence of this story is perfect for Rosh Hashanah. No sooner does the narrative describe the anguish of exile than it shifts into the blessings that the exiles are about to enjoy: Divine protection and an auspicious destiny as the father of a great nation. We are assured that there is light at the end of the tunnel for us as well. Like adolescence, graduate school, or even the long years of elementary Jewish education, the seemingly endless period of aimless wandering is there for a good purpose; it is preparing us to meet our ultimate goals; it’s a necessary phase before attaining a desired outcome. Amidst all the tzorus, there is also hope.

Our ancestors, when wandering to strange new places, responded by forming kehillot, communities in exile. Even before the last Temple was destroyed, Jews scattered in the far corners of the known world built synagogues, set up administrative and judicial systems, and established facilities providing the full range of social and religious services. In the Diaspora, we continued to build kehillot. This synagogue model of the kehillah persisted in the shtetls of Eastern Europe until their destruction in the Shoah. We may have been in exile, and life was hard in so many ways, but the kehillah did much to raise the quality of life, to enable a Jewish civilization to flourish in exile, and to keep our hopes high for a new era of justice and peace.

Hagar’s story dramatizes the need for creating a kehillah. Adrift in strange lands, struggling to survive, we cannot help but embrace the benefits of banding together as a community and helping one another to meet the full range of needs. In Diaspora, we build kehillah.

Which is what happened here in 1970. I don’t know how the name “Kehillat Israel” was selected, but I do know that the founders were committed to quality Jewish education for their children, to full participation and responsibility for women, to empowering members to develop ritual skills and take on Jewish leadership, and to make the community’s resources available regardless of anyone’s ability to pay. These goals clearly suggest a commitment to meeting religious, cultural, and educational needs by creating a community of the Jewish people, a “Kehillat Israel.”

So what is this kehillah we’ve built? It’s different things for different people. It’s a place to meet old friends and make new ones, to network for a job, to seek support in tough times. It’s people who are there for you at a time of loss, sickness, or celebration. It’s where we eat royally at every imaginable occasion. It’s a long hallway that has been the favorite running track of generations of kids. And speaking of running tracks…

Rabbis and synagogue presidents sometimes point to expensive gym memberships as a way of reminding people that they really do have the disposable income to support their shuls with increased dues. But I prefer to compare us to those health clubs in a different way. Just as we may pay a healthy club fee and then not use all the great facilities for keeping fit and strong—on those occasions when we show up there at all—we may also treat synagogue or kehillah as an underutilized resource.

I’m sure you won’t be surprised to hear that this sanctuary is not quite as full on a typical Shabbat as it is this morning. But I suspect many are not even aware of other aspects of life in kehillah they could be taking advantage of, like our amazing Judaica library, our great website, our clubs, classes, and special interest groups. Then there’s pastoral support. I’m available to meet with any of our members to deal with the full range of life issues, and can usually set up a meeting within a couple of days after you call; or on the spot in case of emergency. KI members will spring into action in times of need as well, in many ways both practical and otherwise. Because in Diaspora, we build kehillah.

Of course, a kehillah is a place for giving as well as receiving, and both can happen at the same time. Those who give their time and skills as volunteers typically receive the gifts of satisfaction for a job well done, an enriched social network, a chance to refine old skills and acquire new knowledge, and the recognition that your efforts, large or small, contribute to the overall well-being of the kehillah and its members. In contrast with the biblical power struggles of Sarah and Hagar, of Jacob and Esau, you are likely to find our kehillah open to embrace your sincere offer to take leadership, whether in hosting a kiddush, organizing a one-time initiative, or serving on our executive board. The primary theme of the book of Genesis is the passing down of the mantle of leadership from generation to generation. With our 40th anniversary coming up in just one year, this is a critical time for our younger members to step forward, to learn from our senior members and sustain what they have worked so hard to build up. And also to lead us in the changes that will assure that KI remains relevant and vital for the next generation. Because the kehillah we build in Diaspora must grow and adapt to meet new challenges.

The midrash praises Abraham for his kindness in providing generous provisions for Hagar and Ishmael on their journey. It’s an especially relevant lesson in these tough economic times. We are called to assure that basic human needs are met. Thus we bring our offerings to synagogue for the Food Bank, much as our ancestors brought offerings to the Temple. We post notices of members seeking employment. Through your contributions the Rabbi’s Discretionary Fund is able to offer a little bit of assistance to those in economic distress. And together, we provide support and comfort for those who are struggling, that they find the faith to persevere in hard times and never lose hope that a better day will come.

Beyond our synagogue community and the Lansing area, of course, there is the state, the nation, and the world. And here we may respectfully disagree about the best way to exercise our responsibility to provide for others. Rabbi Elliot Dorff, the foremost ethicist and halakhist in the Conservative movement, wrote in his 2002 essay, “Substantive Justice: A Jewish Approach to Poverty,” “Because the best type of aid by far is prevention of poverty in the first place, the clear mandate of the Jewish tradition is to support governmental and private programs of education in general and job training in particular.” While personally I believe that our Jewish responsibility includes supporting a government that uses our tax dollars to help those in need, I respect that others that believe societal needs are better handled through private donations alone. But either way, as Jews we cannot ignore our collective responsibility to address the survival needs of the most vulnerable members of society. This includes the moral imperative that people in our society have access to adequate, affordable health care, for, again quoting Elliot Dorff, the priorities set by Jewish law begin with seeking “first to save life and health.”

I won’t delve further into the political ramifications of this imperative. I know many believe that discussions of political issues do not belong in the synagogue, and especially not in the sanctuary, regardless of what our texts have to teach us on these issues. Let me only say that as a rabbi, a Jew, and a twenty-first-century human being I pray for an end to poverty, homelessness, and starvation, that war and bloodshed cease, that no government or quasi-governmental power or terrorist group inflict mass cruelty on its citizens or its neighbors, that our brothers and sisters in Eretz Yisrael can finally enjoy security and peace, and that the scourge of anti-semitism, along with all forms of prejudice and blind hatred, no longer pollute our planet.

I do want to mention some small ways in which KI members are working towards these goals. In addition to our contributions to the food bank, in the past year members have continued to volunteer regularly to serve meals to the hungry at Advent House. We have also participated in an interfaith initiative through Habitat for Humanity. And our religious school children have engaged in a number of activities to serve those in need as part of their “Heart Art” program. I’m pleased to say that this year the benefits of these activities are resonating beyond the local community, and perhaps may even make an indirect contribution to security in Israel. That may sound like wishful thinking, but it was this kind of wishful thinking that inspired the making of an unusual documentary film, aimed primarily at Arab communities in the West Bank, showing Jews, Christians, and Muslims living and working harmoniously together in the Greater Lansing area. The goal is to demonstrate that there are ways other than violence and terrorism to settle disputes, and to counter the propaganda of religious fanatics by showing the decency and intrinsic humanity of people of all faiths. KI’s volunteer initiatives at Advent House and with Habitat for Humanity are featured prominently in the documentary. I would like to imagine that your image or that of your child on screen, smiling, helping, and interacting respectfully with Muslims and Christians just might be the catalyst that alters the perception of Jews for a single Palestinian youth; that this youth would otherwise have joined forces with Hamas; and that his refraining from participating in a terrorist attack just might save the life of at least one Jewish child in Israel. I would like to believe that our simple example of menschlichkeit can contribute to Israel’s survival and bring her one step closer to living in peace with her neighbors. Abraham provided a loaf of bread and a sack of water for Hagar and Ishmael. When Abraham died, Ishmael returned to join his brother Isaac to bury their father. It may have been Abraham’s small gesture of kindness that enabled the rival brothers to find peace together.

This brings us to the deeper, spiritual meaning of exile. Susan King, the founder of the genealogical network, describes “exile” as living in bondage to habitual patterns of selfishness, hatred, and delusion, patterns that have been passed on for generations and are tough to break. But in that spiritual exile too we build kehillah—a haven in a harsh world, where we can reflect on those patterns and loosen their grip. As the kehillah comes together every year at this time, we examine the consequences of the old ways of thinking and acting, we seek forgiveness from one another, we practice teshuvah to reverse these behaviors in the year to come, and we pray for atonement to lift the weight of patterned responses from our souls.

In ten days, when we close our observance of Yom Kippur with l’shanah ha’ba’ah birushalayim, “next year in Jerusalem,” we are actually praying for an end to our spiritual exile, for the hope that we, as individuals and as a community, can live together in peace and harmony, in mutual trust and cooperation. If you take a moment and look around this room, you can acknowledge with deep gratitude everyone who has come together in this place, at this season, to make this dream into a reality.

L’shanah tovah.

September 2009