Sign In Forgot Password or Set Up New Password

Congregation Brothers of Israel

L'dor Vador - From Generation to Generation since 1883 לדור ודור

Rosh Hashanah, September 10, 2018

The Interconnectedness of Everything

Twelve seconds is all it took before the video went viral.  As Scott Simon on NPR said, we live in times of instant mass outrage.  In just moments, someone is demonized, and it is impossible to walk it back.  People are divided, disconnected from the situation and immediately think the worst of everything.  At a July 22 Chicago Cubs game, a 12 second video was captured of a young boy bobbling a foul ball and a man behind him catching it and then giving it to the woman sitting next to him.  The video went viral and the comments came fast and furious.  For example, “some people have no class, give the ball to the kid.  It was intended for him and ends with a disparaging comment about the man and being a Cubs fan.  Many of the comments I can’t repeat because they ended with people calling him names.  While I am not originally from Philadelphia, I know how people speak about Philly fans at times.  The Cubs management, wanting to avoid an issue, leapt into action and immediately sent a signed baseball down to the young man.  The boy under the brim of his too big - for him - hat was all smiles as he held up two balls.

Unbeknownst to the Cubs, the video person, and the twitter world, the man who seemingly stole the ball from the kid and gave it to the woman next to him, had already caught and given 3 balls away, including to the little boy before he gave one to his wife in honor of their anniversary.

In this time of Facebook, social media, instantaneous news and 24-hour news cycle, that man who gave away 3 balls to children is being lambasted and skewered by people who know only what they saw in 12 seconds and not the rest of the game.  And even in the aftermath, when the fans sitting next to him tweeted his generosity, people thought poorly of the man anyway.  Some went so far as to even bring politics into this 12 second video.

We seemed to have entered the age of instant reaction with instant rage.  Lacking all the information we assume the worse.  Our negativity amplified by our social media echo chambers. We seem to only listen to those who agree with us.  In this age of “over” connectedness between social media, smart phones and the like, we are, in reality, even more disconnected.

To me this is like the plague of darkness against the Egyptians as described in Exodus:  There was a thick darkness throughout all the land of Egypt for three days.  No one could see their fellows, nor did anyone get up from their place for three days.  (Exodus 10:22-23)

Yitzhak of Vorki, a disciple of the Kotzker Rebbe in the 18th Century explained this verse, “There is no darkness or gloom greater in the world than this:  that people do not see, and do not want to see, their fellows, but each one worries only about themselves.  When no one sees their fellow, and worries only about themselves, then ‘no one gets up from their place,’ for there is no hope for revival or progress.”

We have entered a time of darkness. There is a widening chasm of viewpoints that exist.  But this is not just about a 24-hour news cycle.  Studies have shown that we on average text and message each other more often than we call each other.  It is easier in some ways, but it is pushing us further apart.  When once in person communication was the best, we now settle for electronic communication.  So many of us are frustrated with our world and society that we have retreated to places of “safety” in both political points of view and discussion groups.  We have just about eliminated passionate civil debate instead we attack those with whom we disagree and when we are not offering ad hominem attacks, we dwell in echo chambers.  The elimination of those interactions has changed our system and we are only beginning to see the consequences of those actions which are reshaping our future.

In SY Agnon’s classic book, Days of Awe, he tells the story by Rabbi Hayyim of Zans:  A man had been wandering about in a forest for several days, not knowing which was the right way out.  Suddenly he saw a man approaching him.  His heart was filled with joy.  “Now I shall certainly find out which is the right way,” he thought to himself.  When they near one another, he asked the man, “Brother, tell me which is the right way.  I have been wandering about in this forest for several days.”

Said the other to him, “brother I do not know the way out either.  For I too have been wandering about here for many days.  But this I can tell you:  do not take the way I have been taking, for that will lead you astray.  And now let us look for a new way out together.”
Our master added: “So it is with us. One thing I can tell you:  the way we have been following this far we ought to follow no further, for that way leads one astray.  But now let us look for a new way [together]”
(Days of Awe, page 22)

As a USYer, I remember standing with a group of friends and being told to put our right hands in the circle and grab another person’s hand.  Then we did the same with the left hand.  This is the human knot.   The object was to untangle ourselves until we form, more often than not a circle where we find we are all connected.  How do you untangle the knot?  Communication.  Direct Communication and cooperation.  Understanding that not everyone in the group will agree with everyone else but to resolve the knot, you must work together even if you disagree with one another.  You cooperate and compromise until you untangle the knot.  In the human knot, everyone is interdependent upon everyone else. Your decision of where to move influences another’s decision.

We are living in a human knot today and we are trying to untangle it through social media.  I am not sure that will ever work because are only seeing 12 seconds of the whole.  We are stuck in a dense and overwhelming forest of electronic media that ensures we remain lost, disconnected and separate just like the plague of darkness.  And many of us think that the next tweet, post or message of Breaking News will be the magic bullet to make it all better.  To begin to improve we have to recognize that very little in this world is black or white, most of it is gray and there are choices to make.


It’s as if Rabbi Hayim of Zans anticipated tweets or Facebook or text messages, he would have never believed that the next one will make it all better either.  He tells a story: Once upon a time, there was a poor country woman who had many children.  They were always begging for food, but she had none to give them.  One day she found an egg.

She called her children and said, “Children, children, we’ve nothing to worry about any more; I’ve found an egg.  And, being a provident woman, I’ll not eat the egg, but shall ask my neighbor for permission to set it under her setting hen, until a chick is hatched.  For I am a provident woman!  And we’ll not eat the chick, but will set her on eggs, and the eggs will hatch into chickens.  And the chickens in their turn will hatch many eggs, and we’ll have many chickens and many eggs.  But I’m a provident woman, I am!  I’ll not eat the chickens and not eat the eggs but shall sell them and buy me a heifer.  And I’ll not eat the heifer, but shall raise it to a cow, and not eat the cow until it calves.  For I’m a provident woman!  And I’ll sell the cows and the calves and buy a field, and we’ll have fields and cows and calves, and we won’t need anything anymore!”

The country woman was speaking in this fashion and playing with the egg, when it fell out of her hands and broke.

Said our master; “that is how we are.  When the Holy Days arrive, every person resolves to do Teshuva, thinking in his heart, “I’ll do this, and I’ll do that.” But the days slip by in mere deliberation, and thought doesn’t lead to action, and what is worse, the person who made the resolution may fall even lower.  Therefore, every person ought to exercise great caution so as not to fall even lower, God forbid.”
Days of Awe page 22 -23

The only way to see the end to the plague of darkness that seems to surround us is to untangle the human knot and that is done by listening to one another, finding common goals and ultimately by working together even if we can’t stand each other.  Here is what we can do today.  We don’t have to ban particular subjects at our family holiday tables instead when we disagree, disagree about the issues. Don’t make them personal.  Don’t leave our sense of interconnectedness to the whims of social media because we will only find ourselves more agitated, disconnected and disconsolate.

Martin Luther King Jr wrote in his letter from the Birmingham Jail in 1963, “In a real sense all life is inter-related. All men are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be, and you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be...

This is the inter-related structure of reality.”  The hard work of teshuva is not about forgetting what happened but learning from the mistakes, so we can grow as an individual.  No matter how big or how small, how rich or how poor, how beautiful or ugly, we are all interconnected.  As our Torah teachers and Dr. King helped us to see.  Love each other the same, respect each other the same and know the only way to resolve the knot is by working together on the same goal, disagreeing about the issues but not about the worth of each other.

Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur reminds us how to do so through Tzedaka, teshuvah and Tefilah which will change the harsh degree but notice those three actions cannot really be done alone only in a community.  We need to be interconnected with others, by helping others in need, bringing ourselves back to a path of righteousness and through strengthening our relationship with our selves, those around us and with our faith do we begin to strengthen a system.  Giving Tzedakah to others helps us reach beyond our own issues and problems.  Teshuvah helps us to recognize that our way is not the only way in fact, it reminds us that others are affected by our actions.  They have their own method or way to righteousness, but both can work if there is a common goal.  Tefillah, prayer can certainly be done alone and sometimes is better alone but the fullest experience of tefillah is only accomplished when 10 or more people come together as a community to help each other experience the revelatory moments of God’s presence in our lives and strengthen our faith that whether it be in the best of times or the worst of times, we make it with a little help from our friends by bringing us back into a delicate balance of living and dying, prospering and suffering, remaining stagnant or growing and do that which helps each others.

Earlier this morning when I heard the words at the beginning of the Shofar Service:
 מִן הַמֵּצַר קָרָֽאתִי יָּהּ,– Out of the straits, I’ve call out to God. 
 עָנָֽנִי בַמֶּרְחָב יָהּ. – God answered me with abundance.  קוֹלִ֖י שָׁמָ֑עְתָּ – Hear my voice!  אַל־תַּעְלֵ֧ם אָזְנְךָ֛ לְרַוְחָתִ֖י לְשַׁוְעָתִֽי  Hear my voice!  Do not close your ear to my cry, my plea.
We are asking God to hear US and for us to hear ourselves.  It is not simply the sound of a ram’s horn, it is a plea to us and to God to hear what is in our hearts and in our souls.  The bracha for sounding the Shofar recited is not Thank you God for giving me the opportunity to sound the Shofar but rather it is Lishmoa kol shofar, to hear the sound or the voice of the Shofar.

The Shofar represents a path toward transformative potential change.  Reminding us that Tzedakah, Teshuvah and Tefila will change the harsh degree.  And although there are so many forces at work on us to maintain the status quo, the hearing of the Shofar helps us confront those forces and to shatter our own complacency reminding us of what can happen when we walk the path of Tzadikut, that God has laid out for us.  In fact, the hearing of the Shofar is to remind us that we can’t stay in our current action without acknowledging the consequences of our actions both in the present and what they may lead to in the future.  Most of all, it is a call to action to stand up from our place in the darkness and shine a light on all that is good and just in the world.  We stand at the beginning of a New Year with new possibilities to do that which brings us together in wholeness and God will grant us abundance.

Rosh Hashanah September 11, 2018

The Heshbon Hanefesh

Rava teaches in Shabbat 31a: After departing from this world, when a person is brought to judgment for the life he lived in this world, they say to him in the order of that verse: Did you conduct business faithfully? Did you designate times for Torah study? Did you engage in procreation? Did you await salvation? Did you engage in the dialectics of wisdom or understand one matter from another? And, nevertheless, beyond all these, if the fear of the Lord is his treasure, yes, he is worthy, and if not, none of these accomplishments have any value. 

There is a parable that illustrates this. A person said to his emissary: Bring a measure of wheat up to the attic for storage. The emissary did as he was asked.  The person said to the emissary: Did you mix the wheat with the preservatives to keep the worms away?  The emissary responded to him: No. 

He said to the emissary: Then why did you bring it up?  Worm infested wheat is of no use to me.

Likewise, Torah and mitzvot without the fear of God are of no value.

Frameworks, ethics, values and actions are great watch words but without a sense of being part of something bigger than ourselves, they mean very little.  Rava teaches that we will be asked a series of questions when we are brought for judgement at the end of our lives.  This should not come to us as a surprise.  Just as the emissary should have been taught or should have learned that preparing the wheat for long term storage to keep the worms away will preserve the value of the wheat, Rava wants us to know that we will be asked questions when we arrive in heaven, we should prepare ourselves. 

Rava and the others Talmudic rabbis signaled to their audience to review their lives in the framework of these questions with the expectation that people will observe Torah and mitzvot with the acknowledgement of Yirat haShamayim, the fear (or better) the awesomeness of God.  A later Hassidic story about Rabbi Zusya teaches that when he died, he went to stand before the judgement seat of God.  As he waited for God to appear, he grew nervous thinking about his life and how little he had done. He began to imagine that God was going to ask him, "Why weren't you Moses or why weren't you Solomon or why weren't you David?" But when God appeared, the rabbi was surprised. God simply asked, "Why weren't you Zusya?"  Why did we not take the time to explore who we really are and what that means to us in our time and in our context?

I struggle with this idea all of the time.  Why am I not more like that Rabbi or this Rabbi.  I would guess many of us here today have wondered why we weren’t more like someone else in our field of expertise. But haven’t you wondered why one person makes a list and you don’t?  When the list of 50 most influential Rabbis is published, I wonder how someone got on that list and I did not.  I know friends who have made the list.  They are certainly worthy of the list and belong on it but then again, I wonder why them and not me.  

Last week, my favorite non-shoot em up, non-Star Trek/Star Wars movie was on television: Legally Blond.  I can’t tell you why I love this movie so much except that the message in the movie resonates with me.  One of the messages is that people have preconceived notions of who they think we are.  We often embrace those preconceived notions of who they think we are and we have doubts.  We may even be ready to quit it all together. But when Elle Woods, in the movie, realizes she can combine her areas of expertise, fashion and knowledge of hair care products with her new found knowledge of the law, she wins the murder trial.  To everyone’s surprise, including her own.  

Self-doubt is natural, it can paralyze us or it may spur us on to improve ourselves.    I remind myself that to some people I am the best Rabbi they have ever had.  By the way, I know there are also those out there who think I am the worst.  The story of Rabbi Zusya teaches me that I must return to the most elemental question, why am I not more like Gaber or the best version of Aaron Gaber there is?

In a few days, I am going to do something that I have never done before.  I will be running a half-marathon or 13.1 miles through Philadelphia.  I know there are many here who have run half marathons and full marathons, I also know people who have completed Ironman triathlons.  This is not something I got up yesterday and decided to run Sunday, I have prepared for this Sunday over the last three years.  But I didn’t realize until June that I could possibly tackle something so daunting.  At least since thinking about it in high school when I ran Cross Country.  Honestly, I am a bit nervous, I have completed all my long runs.  Last Sunday was approximately 10 miles.  On Sunday my first goal is to finish.  I have set a goal of running each mile in approximately 10 minutes, 30 second or a total of approximately 2.5 hours.  I have even mapped out my water and nutrition intake during the run.  But I am still nervous.  I have never done it before.  It is a physical challenge, but I have trained for it and I should be able to physically run (perhaps walk here and there) for the entire race.  It is also a mental challenge.  As I have shared, the psychological wall is there.  Can I really run that far?  Can I achieve my goals?  Most importantly, when I am completely tired and just a few miles from the end and I don’t want to run any more, will I still run to the finish line?  Or will I give up? 

At the mention of running the marathon, I have received many, “Good for you” but then there a few who have looked at me as if I am a bit crazy especially when they realize that it is happening on the Sunday between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.  I understand.  (by the way, my bib number is 6707 and you can follow me on the Philly Rock and Roll half marathon.  It starts at 7:30)  I wanted a half-marathon that was not over the winter, so I wouldn’t be forced to train in the cold weather.  Even after the long runs, I still don’t like running much.  I also didn’t want to obsess about it for too long, if I had chosen one next spring.  It is bad enough that I have been obsessing about it since June. This half-marathon is a great metaphor for the holidays.  The various training regimens lay out a schedule, very few of us can wake up and run 13 miles just like that.  Like training for a half marathon, we do the hard work of Heshbon Hanefesh leading up to the holidays.  For many of us it started from the sounding of the Shofar during Elul and became more of a reality at Selichot last Saturday night and of course yesterday and today, we completing the work and being inscribed in the Sefer Hahayim for the new year.

This is the same prepartion I asked you to join with me via email this year.  Thank you to all of you who participated in our Hesbon Hanefesh Project.  If you remember, I sent questions via email which helped us reflect on the past year.   What brought us the most joy?  What caused the most pain?  What was the Jewish high point and Jewish low point? What do I love most about being Jewish and what do I struggle with the most?  What goals did I set for myself?  How did I achieve them?  What were the obstacles to accomplishing those goals?  What do I most regret over the past year?  Who did I hurt and how can I make up for what I have done?  If I could one thing about myself, what would it be?  How might I go about doing this?

I received so many wonderful responses to our own 9 days of questions.  So many of you wrote beautifully and from the heart.  Some wrote just a few words and others whole paragraphs, I was really touched.  I know some here who answered the questions for themselves but kept their answers to themselves.  Thank you for doing this difficult preparation.  The questions helped us to reflect on our past year, to react to the answers by possibly setting goals and renewing ourselves in a way that not only influences us today, but it will also help shape our future as well.

Here is a compilation of the various responses I had to the questions:  

Many of us are grateful for our family, especially watching as our children graduating, getting jobs, moving on to new adventures, finding spouses and going out into the world.  They are not perfect, but they are good and we are proud of what they are doing with themselves and who they are becoming.

Health scares and physical ailments of ourselves, illness of beloved family members and the death of someone we are close to in life brought the most pain.  Pain brings on hurt and disappointment.  We acutely feel the loss of those around us not only in the moment, but we grieve for what they or we might miss because of our pain.  It causes us to examine what we could do differently or to think about how we cope with the difficult situations and how can we go on.  This pain keeps us going, reminding us that our lives are not finished.  We can’t do what we used to do but we can adapt and for those of us who have lost someone close to us, we keep them close to us in our hearts.

Spending less time working, more time with family, losing some weight to be healthier, or to gain some weight to be more healthy.  What happens when we are curt with our spouse?  Or act out of anger?  What happens when we lack patience for someone? Regrets can eat us up.  We feel guilty.  We may think it is hopeless or we can never change ourselves in this area or that area, but I think guilt can also become a motivator.  How do we change our schedules?  How do we find the discipline to reduce the sugar snacks?  How do we eat right to help us be healthy as healthy as we can be?  How do diminish the procrastination in our lives from the things we know we should do but don’t?  And once we do it, how do we not feel guilty over it?  Good questions.  More so what do we do to eliminate the regrets and the guilt?  We set very small, very achievable goals which we handle one small step at a time.  We don’t have to have the patience of a saint, just have enough patience to explain to our aged parent for the 31st time that the remote control is not broken, it works this way.  Most of all, be gentle with yourself when you do have regret.  We won’t change overnight, it will take time and discipline and more time.

By far, question 8 had the most answers.  What do I love most about being Jewish? What do I struggle with the most?  Those who answered the first question, loved that Judaism is for them an all-encompassing way of life.  It is enriched with arts and sciences, it is filled with justice and ethics and morality.  It shaped us and guided us through the most difficult moments of life, whether through war or life cycle moments or something else.  People highlighted the amazing feeling they have when they walk into any synagogue in the world and feel at home.  And while people struggle with the concept of God and whether there is a God or an active God, people take for granted the enriching characteristics of being Jewish.  But people really struggled with the direction of Judaism and synagogues in our time.  What is Judaism’s purpose and the merits of organized synagogues.  I understand, it is a question I struggle with almost daily.  Anyone interested in exploring the future of our community, please let me know.  We, meaning organized religion, is changing and it is not clear what the future will be like.  Let’s talk.

People also struggled to understand how they could reconcile their beliefs in justice and righteousness when Israel and the Palestinians remain locked in conflict and both sides play a part in the current status quo and any potential resolution.  People expressed concern over the rise of Anti-Semitism. And without getting into politics, People are concerned for the future of our country.

And lastly, when asked about changing one thing and how to accomplish that goal, some wrote about their need to resolve physical issues, like losing a few pounds.  They want to become more tolerant and less judgmental.  They desire to be less anxious and to reduce stress.  To listen more and be more patient.  To take a few more risks, to be more authentic to their own beliefs without the fear of what others will think.  To be more compassionate to oneself when one makes a mistake or says something unpopular.

Thank you for the courage that those of you who chose to share their answers with me.  Thank you to those of you who spent time thinking, perhaps writing, or maybe even discussing answers to these questions with your partner, your family, your friends or even your therapist.  Thank you for taking the time to prepare for today and this period of the Yamim Noraim.  I hope this will help you examine your own souls more closely and deepen your thinking about your life and the choices you make when life happens. 

As I stand here today, in just 5 days, I will run a half marathon.  3 months ago, I was nervous to enter the race.  2 months ago, I was nervous to share my entrance with the world because then I really had to do it.  And even today, I am bit nervous about it but over the last two Sundays when I have completed my long runs and my need to carb load over the next few days, I believe I will finish it and I don’t have to worry that I will still be running the 13 miles and miss the beginning of Kol Nidrei next Tuesday evening.  I am also probably in the best shape of my life physically and even psychologically but still, there is a fine balance that must be struck because in fact I didn’t put anything off to run in this half marathon, I rearranged my time and my thinking.  I incorporated it into my life.  It meant getting up earlier a few days, it meant not putting something off but becoming more efficient.   It helped me to understand what Australian writer and philosopher, Alfred D’Souza, wrote, "For a long time it had seemed to me that life was about to begin - real life. But there was always some obstacle in the way, something to be gotten through first, some unfinished business, time still to be served, a debt to be paid. Then life would begin. At last it dawned on me that these obstacles were my life."

On Sunday, God willing, I will cross something off my bucket list of life goals but more importantly, I will have reflected on my past, where I never thought I could run more than a mile or two, I will have run 13 miles.  I will have done so, in a way that Rava taught, I will have answered my own questions of strength, of mental ability with a healthy dose of gratitude to God for giving me the ability to test myself and to come through unscathed and stronger than I was when I started.  The holidays are all about preparing ourselves, testing ourselves, adjusting our course, and pushing through on the journey where we will be inscribed in the book of Life for a year of blessing, wealth, and health.

Thu, September 20 2018 11 Tishrei 5779