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

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 JewishGen.org, 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


D’var Torah: Rosh Hashanah 1

In many congregations, the rabbi gives several sermons or divrei torah at the High Holy Days, using the opportunity to address important issues around the Torah reading, pastoral needs, ethical concerns, social justice, Israel, the congregation, the Jewish world, and current political events. But at KI, the rabbi steps aside to accommodate other members who will offer their own commentaries and insights; so in this single d’var torah, I won’t be able to address all the issues on the rabbinical agenda. But I’ll take a little time at the end to relate a few elements of that agenda to themes I want to uncover in the Torah portion: themes of life and death and of hope.

I’d like to begin by reflecting on the Gevurot prayer, the second blessing of the Amidah, and its relationship to today’s Torah reading. In the traditional version of the Gevurot, which appears in the Conservative machzor and siddur, there are no less than four occurrences when we praise God mechayeh hametim, who brings life to the dead. Our Reconstructionist machzor and siddur have changed these passages, instead praising God mechayeh kol chai, who brings life to all that lives.

Personally I have no problem with mechayeh hametim. To me it is an inspiring reminder that the cycles of life continue. This time of year, as the lushness of summer bursts into a final blaze of color, and nearly every plant either dies or at least appears barren and lifeless, it helps me get through the long Michigan winter to know that sooner or later, in March, maybe April, hopefully by May, buds and blossoms will grace the barren oak and maple limbs, and most everything that popped up in my garden this year, from blackeyed Susan and Queen Anne’s lace to ragweed and Canada thistle, will be back.

I understand that the same cannot be said of my father and grandparents and great-grandparents, but I also know that I carry some part of them within me—in my genes, in my values, and even in my DNA. And from our prayer of the Thirteen Attributes, I know that the good works of our ancestors lives and is carried on through 2,000 generations.

But for now, I am ready to put these metaphysical speculations aside. Our Reconstructionist machzor praises God mechayeh kol chai, and for the High Holy Days, this is appropriate. For despite the dour reminder that the fate of those unfortunate souls who will die a gruesome death is being written and sealed, at least metaphorically, and despite the notion that Yom Kippur itself is intended to simulate a near-death experience, the High Holy Days at the core are not so much about death; they are, however, very much about life.

Our two Torah readings for Rosh Hashanah share a common motif of the continuity of life, despite the ever-present threat of death. For several chapters prior to our reading, for several decades of narrative time, God repeatedly promised Abraham that he would father a great nation. Yet by their 90th birthdays Abraham remained childless and Sarah was still barren. A desperate attempt to provide the promised line of descent through the Egyptian slave Hagar only created discord and rivalry, and Hagar was twice cast out into the wilderness. And once Abraham finally fathered a child with Sarah, God commanded him to sacrifice the boy. Nonetheless, the Abrahamic line did not die; the prophecy of descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky eventually came to pass. Isaac, for his part, witnessed the axe hovering above him as he lay bound upon the altar, and still he lived to tell the tale and ultimately to father a new generation.

Along the same lines, today’s reading follows Hagar and her son Ishmael into the wilderness. Their supplies of water had been exhausted. In the blistering heat Hagar left her son in the so-called shade of a sinewy desert shrub. Then she wept and prayed that she could not bear to face her son’s death. Needless to say her own life was in peril as well.

But then what happens? God hears the cries of Ishmael. The text doesn’t bother to mention that Ishmael was crying. Still, God hears the cries of Ishmael, who then is rescued and told that he too will father a great nation. As for the courageous and uppity Hagar, the only biblical woman to ascribe a name to God, God opens up her eyes, she sees a well of water, and she and Ishmael are saved to live out their destinies.

The High Holy Days reflect this pattern of last-minute rescue. We are instructed to meditate on what we did this past year that contributed to making us sick, vulnerable, locked in, or out of control. And as we sit in this sanctuary, hour after hour, we are carried through a process of remembering forgotten moments, massaging unhealed wounds, and tapping into a network of inner resources and spiritual companionship that might give us the strength to change if we take full advantage of the opportunity. With high drama of gates that clang shut in our faces in the final minutes, we come out of it reborn to the full potentials of life, mechayeh hametim. We are ready to embrace whatever comes next, to dive deeply and enthusiastically into life, ready to roll up our sleeves and build a makeshift shelter in the back yard, ready to dance ecstatically with the Torah. We return to our work and our volunteer activities with a smiling face and a hopeful heart, unencumbered by the mire of guilt, regret, and unexpressed hurts and apologies, and this cleansed optimistic perspective carries us through the darkest days of winter, when we kindle the life-affirming lights that glow in illuminate the blackness of the solstice.

A key component of this radical re-affirmation of life is the confrontation with death. Like Hagar, Ishmael, and Isaac, we stuck a toe into the jaws of death, and then turned around to embrace life. Walking out of the jaws of death is a sublime image. But what inspired it for me couldn’t have been more ridiculous; namely an old Tweety-and-Sylvester cartoon. Tweety Bird had to flee from an upper story of a hotel, and Sylvester the puddy tat stood in the elevator shaft, opening his jaws like the elevator door. Tweety calmly entered, pushed the down button, pushed the up button a second later, and emerged from the bowels of the predator chatting with a mouse who thought Jefferson was still president. Like Tweety, those of us who come together at this time are choosing in essence making the choice to press the Up button and return to the light of a good and joyful life.

The past year in our congregation has seen more than its share of severe illness, sometimes afflicting people dear to us in the prime years of their lives. Yet time and again I have witnessed those among us who mustered the moral courage to fight back: first by clearly acknowledging the severity of the decree from their diagnosis; then by refusing to surrender to this decree, and instead choosing life. Choosing life, stepping off the elevator, in this case means keeping a positive attitude to treasure each additional day, to pursue the best medical care and most rigorous personal health discipline, and through the sheer will to live to keep beating the odds, one day at a time. It has been my privilege to work with some of these courageous souls this year, and it has renewed my faith in the work we are doing together at this season.

Still there is no denying the grain of truth in some of the bleakest words of prayer we utter today: some will live and some will die: some by fire and some by water, some by human brutality and some by events beyond human control. Eventually every one of us will celebrate our last Rosh Hashanah; hopefully not for many, many years to come. Yet still it is essential to remember that the inevitability of death is not the same as the loss of hope. As long as there is the next morning to watch the sun rise, the next visit from our dearest loved ones, the next phase of relief in the fluctuating cycles of a debilitating illness, there is reason for hope.

There’s a story in the Japanese Zen tradition of a warrior chased by his enemies over a precipice, clutching to a bramble for dear life. If his hand slips or the bramble gets uprooted, he’ll crash down into the rocky canyon far below; if he does nothing his enemies will cut him down. Suddenly he notices a plump ripe strawberry within reach of his free hand. He grabs it, pops it into his mouth, and delights at its extraordinary sweetness. This is the secret of hope, not to pray for a miracle, but rather to embrace the miracles that, in the words of our daily prayer, greet us every day and are with us every hour, morning, noon, and night. Those who treasure these daily miracles are the most fit to push back the tide, one day at a time, one breath at a time, sometimes prolonging a life worth living for years or months, sometimes only for a few precious days or minutes. Psalm 27, the Psalm for the Days of Awe, contains the prayer that I might sit in the House of Adonai all the days of my life. For those who live in this way, this prayer comes true.

But sometimes hope wears another face. Last spring before my father died at 92, he had resolved that his work in this life was complete and he was ready to pass on. He had been unceasingly devoted to my mother’s happiness and well-being for all the years since her stroke. Now that her medical, financial, and personal well-being were in good hands, he could step back and do what he needed for himself, which was to end his pain and exhaustion. At first there was nothing in his medical chart that could fulfill his wish to die; yet within two months we buried him. While those two months were among the most emotionally wrenching of my life, accompanying him through unbearable anguish and loathing of life, once it was all over and I prayed, meditated, and mourned for him, I felt little grief and much relief. He got what he wanted, he made teshuvah, he had peace. One lesson of this bleak journey was that, whether we choose life or death, hope has extraordinary power to shape our lives. The will that brought my father to his grave is the same will that brought some of you back from affliction to be here today, with a heart full of hope.

Psalm 27 concludes: kavveh el Adonai, chazak v’ya’ametz libecha, v’kaveh el Adonai; literally: Wait patiently yet expectantly for Adonai; be strong and determined in your heart, and wait patiently yet expectantly for Adonai. This word kaveh—to wait patiently yet expectantly—conveys the essence of hope. Kaveh is the root of the word tikvah, and I find it appropriate that the State of Israel uses Hatikvah for its national anthem. Is there a more inspiring model of hope, of patient expectant waiting, than that of the pioneers of this land struggling to fulfill their dream? After sixty years they still wait for the days of perpetual crisis to pass and for full implementation of the ideals of the Declaration of Establishment of the State of Israel: complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race, or sex; freedom of religion, conscience, language, education, and culture for all. So long as a Jewish soul still lives within a heart, and so long as an eye gazes longingly to Zion, our hope is not lost, they, and we, shall continue to wait, and to struggle, to realize the dream.

My favorite hope story is about the shlemiel who prayed for a year to win the lottery, until finally a voice bellowed down from the heavens: “Moishe, you gotta meet me halfway; you gotta buy a ticket!” At this time we face some formidable challenges; we need to buy a lot of tickets.

Let me begin with the congregation. With the aging of our long-time members, the passing of a fabled era in KI’s history, and the economic challenges facing our families, our community, our state, and our nation, will we be able to sustain the treasure that is Kehillat Israel for the generation to come? Fortunately the tide is turning, and I’m pleased to announce that we have welcomed several new members in the past week. Still, the challenges may require more hours and better use of volunteer time, a willingness to dig deeper into already highly-taxed pockets to keep the roof and boiler intact and the chutzpah to knock on more doors for help, a fuller understanding that community stays together through thick and thin, even if in the short run we’re unhappy with some decision, direction, or limitation, and a commitment to keep developing and upgrading leadership skills on the part of your volunteer stewards and, yes, on the part of your rabbi. I intend to rise to the challenges and know that you will do the same. Kavveh el Adonai, chazak v’ya’ametz libecha, v’kaveh el Adonai. We have hope, strength, and courage. We choose life. We will succeed.

I’m especially concerned about maintaining the high level of youth education that has been the hallmark of the KI Religious School since its inception, in the face of the ongoing decline of our school-age population. This year I will exercise leadership on behalf of a solution in the best interest of all the Jewish children of greater Lansing. Kavveh el Adonai, chazak v’ya’ametz libecha, v’kaveh el Adonai. We have hope, strength, and courage. We choose life. We will succeed.

There are no easy answers. We cannot afford to wait until God provides us a spring of water, a ram for the sacrifice, or a miraculous birth in our old age. Rather, as we strengthen our hope through prayer, inner spiritual work, and mutual support, we can meet the source of hope halfway; not only by buying a block of lottery tickets but, if necessary, even by staging our own lottery. Kavveh el Adonai, chazak v’ya’ametz libecha, v’kaveh el Adonai. We have hope, strength, and courage. We choose life. We will succeed.

Beyond the challenges facing our community, my concerns extend to the direction of our country in this time of war, economic crisis, and elections. It has distressed me greatly, as problems have grown increasingly complex and multifaceted, that our national political discourse, view of other nations, attitudes around war and peace, and approaches to problem solving have grown increasingly simplistic, based upon slogans, sound-bites, and appeals to our basest emotions. The time has come to evoke the model of our ancient rabbis. They crafted a Judaism that survived 2,000 years of exile on a foundation of subtle talmudic dialectics and loving attention to minute detail, not on a push to win votes, increase ratings, or gain market share. Over the years, I have heard from a number of you that political affairs do not belong in the synagogue. But I firmly believe it is my responsibility as a Jewish religious leader to raise issues of concern to our community, and to make sure that the legacy of our tradition be brought to bear where it is desperately needed. It’s that sense of responsibility that prompts me to speak out at this time: when my great hope is that an America bloated by power and superficial pursuits can learn the lesson of a tiny people that has endured for over 3,000 years on the strength of its measured discourse, its commitment to justice, and its willingness to confront and learn from its own shortcomings. Kavveh el Adonai, chazak v’ya’ametz libecha, v’kaveh el Adonai. We will succeed.

We Jews have been holding on to hope ever since Abraham was promised to father a great nation. Like our half-brother Ishmael, we have opened the gates of heaven through our tears. We’ve faced many challenges, and even though God’s face seems to have been hidden from us for most of these 3,000 years, still Am Yisrael Chai—we still live, we still flourish, we have arrived at another new year, a year full of potential for personal and communal joy, health, well-being, and peace. And so I invite you to join with me in a prayer of thanksgiving that our bodies carry the gift of life, that we have been sustained and kept strong, and that we have arrived together at this wonderful place and time, so rich in possibility for transformation, so ready to fulfill our hope: Baruch atah Adonai Eloheinu melech ha’olam shehecheyanu v’kiyamanu v’higi’anu lazman hazeh.

— Rabbi Michael Zimmerman
October 2008