Monday, September 24, 2007

The Streimel: A Reflection on Teshuvah

The Streimel: A Reflection on Teshuvah-Repentance
Rabbi Dov Gartenberg
Yizkor, Temple Beth Shalom, Long Beach 5758

Twenty one years ago, at my former congregation in Venice, California, I delivered a Kol Nidre sermon about my brother, Philip. I had just visited him and his family in Jerusalem that summer to reestablish a strained connection. Over a number of years, my brother had become strongly attracted to the ultra-Orthodox community of Bratzlaver Hasidim. In the sermon I described an encounter with my brother which had deeply troubled me. At the time I was struggling to understand my brother’s emerging ultra-Orthodox practice and beliefs. But I did not ever have the opportunity to reflect on it further, because my zayde, Max Grouf, died of a heart attack on that Motzei Yom Kippur. A year later my brother died from complications due to a serious illness.

In September I observed the twentieth Yarhzeit of my brother, Philip. I thought about my two decade-old encounter with him. He was a passionately idealistic person who gave his all in everything he did. He was extremely bright, successful in his field of mathematics and computer science. He married an Israeli woman who came to the US to be with him as he finished his doctorate. My sister-in-law, like my brother, discovered traditional Judaism in adulthood and with him gradually embraced the ultra-Orthodox way of life. In the mid-80s my brother and his young family moved to Israel where he took a position as a professor of computer science at Tel Aviv University. The family chose to live in Jerusalem, however, because they wished to be close to the strong Orthodox communities that thrive in the Holy City.

When I saw my brother during the summer of 1986 it was so apparent that he had changed. I came to his house on a Friday afternoon to spend the Shabbat with his family. As I walked into their Jerusalem apartment I was greeted by the poster "Mitzvah Gedolah Lihiyot Sameach Tamid" - IT IS A GREAT PRECEPT TO BE JOYOUS ALWAYS. The house was a-bustle with Shabbat preparations. My sister-in-law was busily preparing the Sabbath meals and my brother involved himself with the household tasks, singing niggunim as he worked feverishly. As the time came to leave for Kabbalat Shabbat I saw my brother emerge from his room robed in a long brown Bratzlaver capote, his head covered by an impressive wide brown fur streimel.

I knew from letters that my brother had changed, but I was not prepared emotionally to see him in the clothing of his transformation. As I took in his altered appearance, we gathered up the children and began our walk to the Bratzlaver synagogue in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Old Katamon. I could not stop looking at my brother, a tall strapping man, as he walked joyfully in his capote and his streimel. He towered over the other Shabbat strollers making their way to the synagogues.

At the Bratzlaver Shtebel, there were about 100 people, mostly modern orthodox young men with twelve or so Bratzlavers in their capotes scattered throughout the room. My brother stood up front while I retreated to the rear. We began the Kabbalat Shabbat with blissful singing and swaying. By the time we reached Lcha Dodi, the whole room had become one body. The intensity of the prayer was astonishing; each stanza had a different melody, which was chanted with the utmost fervor. My brother was swaying wildly from end to end; his hands lifted upward, singing at the top of his lungs. He continued like this for almost the entire service, his eyes closed, his head bobbing and turning.
The service ended, and everyone streamed out wishing good Shabbas to one another. My brother’s wife and the children, who had been in the Ezrat Nashim, the women’s section, joined us for the walk back to the flat for Shabbat dinner. My brother, euphoric from his davening, took off his streimel with the intent of hoisting his five year old son up onto his shoulders. As he did so, he gently waved his streimel toward me and asked, "Dooby, can you put this on your head while I carry my son?"

I remember the moment vividly as he held out his streimel, and awaited my response. The years of our struggle to differentiate ourselves from each other passed before me while I figured what to do. The streimel was like a white hot object which I dared not touch without getting burned. After a long moment’s hesitation I told my brother, "No, Philip, I can't wear your streimel."

A year later my brother was gone. My sister-in-law has devotedly raised their four children. Although she moved away from the Bratzlaver community, she has brought up the children in the Jerusalem Lithuanian Haredi community. My nephews now married and with growing families, live in their own apartments and study in Yeshivot. Our relations with my brother’s family are loving, but greatly strained. As Haredi Jews they keep our way of life at arm’s length. Our contacts with each other can only be on their terms. As the children get older and start their families within the 4 cubits of the Haredi community there is less and less that we have in common except that we are family. While our children can enter their world, we know that they will never enter ours. My nephews and niece have grown up to view our world as foreign and forbidden. The abyss between the Ultra-Orthodox and the non-Orthodox in Israel is something that is very personal to me. Although I know my nephews would not throw rocks or hurl insults, they have been raised in a world that cannot fathom other ways to live religious Jewish lives.

I remember the offer and my refusal clearly that night. Twenty one years later I think of that moment and remember my brother. I was overcome then with anger over how much my brother had changed, how much he had grown distant from our family. But now with the benefit of time I realize that he was reaching out. For as I see it now, my brother, carried away by the joy of his prayer, simply wanted me to share that joy with him. He was no longer thinking about the difficulties in our relationship, and he was not trying to influence me. He was totally focused on the transporting joy of Shabbat prayer , and the sense of God’s presence. He was completely un-self-conscious in that moment. I imagine that the moment I refused him he did become self-conscious, aware of my discomfort and judgment. I really don’t know, because we never talked about this moment over the Shabbat we spent together or during that last year of his life.

As I reflect on that moment so many years later I find myself focusing on my brother’s passionate spirituality. Although he chose a very uncompromising spiritual path for himself, I realize that we both shared strong spiritual yearnings. Over the years, so many people have shared with me their spiritual yearnings and struggles. I see so many more people today that are spiritually hungry, seeking a path of meaning for their lives. I have seen people shocked by life’s sudden events and tragedies into an awareness of the spiritual void in their lives. I have seen people change directions as a result, moving through profound spiritual discoveries before my eyes. I have also seen people suffer great spiritual disappointments.

What is spirituality? Arthur Green writes that, “Spirituality is a view of religion that sees its primary task as cultivating and nourishing the human soul or spirit. Each person, according to this view, has an inner life that he or she may choose to develop; this ‘inwardness’ goes deeper than the usual object of psychological investigation and cannot fairly be explained in Freudian or other psychological terms. Ultimately, spirituality is ‘transpersonal,’ reaching deeply into the self but then extending through an inward reach beyond the individual and linking him to all other selves and to the single Spirit of the universe we call God.”

Like my brother I see the challenge of religious life as the cultivation and nourishing of our souls. I am not prepared to reduce his strivings to pure psychological need as I have been more willing to do in years past. I am no longer prepared to dismiss his experience as being too radical or extreme for me to respect. I am much more convinced now that his extending of his streimel was his sincere way of connecting to me in the moment of the uplift of his soul.

Green writes further that, “God is experientially accessible through the cultivation of this inner life, and awareness (da’at) of that access is a primary value of religion. External forms, important as they are, serve as instruments for development, disciplining, and fine tuning the awareness. Hasidic spirituality may present them as divinely ordained forms, but they are still recognized as a means (indeed, a gift of God to help us in our struggle), not as an end in themselves.”

My brother, who would not compromise his spiritual life and therefore chose the intense path of Bratzlav, had that evening sensed the presence of God. On that same evening I had experienced the burdensome presence of what Greene calls ‘the external forms.’ I was hung up on the streimel and could not see through it to the joy welling up within my brother.

I consider myself, like my brother, a spiritual seeker. In my youth I was not satisfied with the sterile, vapid presentation of Judaism I absorbed in my liberal synagogue. I seriously explored Buddhism during my college years. While in Israel in the mid 70s, I essentially lived in Orthodox environments and considered moving into that spiritual orbit. To this day I remain fascinated by different spiritual disciplines and approaches both within and outside Judaism. Like my brother I was not interested in the fashionable spiritualities that promised easy highs with little effort, or the solipsism that marks so much of what is call spirituality in American culture. We both recognized that real spirituality required discipline and regularity of practice, of training the mind to be aware and responsive to God.

We both found in Hasidism an authentic Jewish spirituality, but we parted ways on the degree to which we embraced that spiritual path. My brother became convinced that he needed to situate himself in the totality of a living Hasidic community. In this community he could live a life devoted to what Green beautifully summarizes as the essence of Hasidic spirituality: Avoides Hashem, the service of God, marked by an inward intensity (kavane) leading to attachment to God (devekus) and ultimately to the negation (bitel) of all else. The life of Torah and mitzvot, along with a zealous commitment to strict Orthodox interpretations of Halachah, constituted the Avoidas Hashem.

I knew and loved very deeply the world he chose to live in. By the time I was in my twenties the language of that world was no longer foreign to me. But the entry visa into that community includes embracing the belief that there is an exclusive relationship between God and the Jewish people. For as spiritually committed as I was to Torah and to its way of life I could not cross that threshold. I could not bring myself to deny the legitimacy of other faiths and paths in order to justify my own. I was not absolutely sure if my brother had begun to close off the rest of the world, but there were signs. I certainly was fearful that his journey was leading him in that direction. The truth is that I will never know because of his untimely death. However, my sister-in-law ultimately embraced the belief system of her Haredi community and my nephews and niece are safely ensconced within the high and well defended ramparts of its spiritual fortress.

As I reflect back to that moment in the summer of 1986 I regret that I didn’t take hold of his streimel and walked awkwardly a few hundred feet with it atop my head. I am sure I would have looked somewhat funny with my white shirt, beige slacks and sandals crowned by a black furry hat that was designed to compliment darker garb. No one in Jerusalem would have mistaken me for a real Bratzlaver, probably they would have thought me to be one of those crass tourists angling for a picture among the natives to take home to the Mishpache in America. But there really was a compelling reason to have received the streimel from his hand -- it would have been good to celebrate what we shared rather than to dwell on what separated us.

There are so many different paths in this world. We live at a time when we have so many choices about which paths we can take. Even in our own families, siblings and children and even parents take divergent paths and grow apart. But sometimes we are hasty to judge how far we have gone from each other and we enlarge the distance between us by our rejections. Sometimes Teshuvah involves a turning away. Sometimes Teshuvah involves a turning toward. Teshuvah is never formulaic, predictable, or automatic. Sometimes Teshuvah has to take place when the person you want to turn toward is no longer before you. Then you must direct your Teshuvah to those who remain before you and before God who stands before all of us.

Jpod Judaism

Jpod Judaism
Yom Kippur 5758
Rabbi Dov Gartenberg

Isn’t strange how Yom Kippur is a magnet? Jews everywhere converge on the synagogues. We converge on the synagogues during the High Holidays like sparrows returning to San Juan Capistrano. The Jewish crowds that come back to the synagogue for these holidays are not unlike the Jewish pilgrims of antiquity who ascended to Jerusalem three times a year to celebrate the pilgrimage festivals.

The pilgrimage is the religious experience of convergence. The religious experience of convergence draws its power from the center, a magnetic, holy place that attracts people to it. Convergence is the act of moving toward union. Convergence is the power of people coming from different directions toward one place.

Convergence is a very old and traditional dimension of religious experience, expressed in Judaism in the concentric circles of holiness.

The pilgrim was converging on the centers of holiness, getting closer to God as it were. Judaism differed from the pagan religions and their local shrines. Judaism of antiquity had a national center, a holy city, a holy temple, a holy priesthood, and a destination for pilgrimage. The Temple in Jerusalem was considered one of the wonders of the ancient world. The entire people would converge at special times of the year to share a common experience of Jewish people hood and the common worship of the God of Israel. On Pesah, Shavuot, and Sukkot, as well as the Yamim Noraim, Jerusalem was filled with pilgrims, hundreds of thousands of people.

Passover was the most popular of all these pilgrimages. Imagine you are living 1,942 years ago. It is the year 65CE and you are a young person making your way to Jerusalem with your family for the festival of Pesah. You are going up to the city with hundreds of thousands of pilgrims-Olim- to offer the Paschal sacrifice on the Temple Mount. Each family clan brings its lamb to be slaughtered, roasted, and eaten. The Temple mount is filled with the chorus of Levites chanting the psalms of the Hallel, patriarchs are retelling the story of the Exodus, repeating the Biblical verses. The smoke, the cacophony of sounds, the mass of humanity is stupendous and unforgettable. The joy and power of this moment is engraved in your memory and you will never forget it.

Little do you know that this is one of the last times that you or any of your family and friends will converge on Jerusalem to celebrate with the throngs. In five years, the Temple will be in ruins, your people will be defeated, and the future of your religion and nation will be in doubt.
The crushing of Jerusalem by the Roman armies destroyed not only the Temple but the powerful religious experience of convergence. This was a critical moment in Jewish history. This is when Judaism should have stopped breathing. It seemed that God had punished us by destroying the point of convergence where God and Israel came together.

How did we survive this historically crushing catastrophe? What transformation took place within the Jewish people that enabled us to overcome the loss of something so critical to our national identity?

Let’s jump ahead a few years to 75CE and imagine you are this young person who has now become an adult. Pesah is coming. In your mind you see the ruins of Jerusalem. The massive celebrations are becoming a distant memory. And the ritual of Pesah has become a void.

This year you have received an invitation from a Rabbi in Yavneh, the small town where the rabbis fled just before the destruction of Jerusalem. They established an academy there to keep the Torah alive. This hospitable rabbi has invited you to a special meal in his home in honor of Pesah.

You go full of trepidation and with a heavy heart, but you are surprised that this intimate gathering brings joy to you. The telling of the story of the Exodus is done like in the olden days, but the telling has some new elements you had never heard up on the Temple mount. There were lots of questions and surprises which kept the children’s attention. You eat Matzah and Maror like the old days. The Pesah-Paschal Lamb- is now only represented by a symbol. Along with your host and the other guests, you sing, you study, and you acknowledge the destruction of Jerusalem. With the others you express hope of returning to a Jerusalem and the Temple rebuilt. During the last five years there has been nothing but darkness. This celebration, while it was nothing compared to the pilgrimage, was every bit as powerful and memorable. You asked your host if you could bring it to your family the coming year.

We recognize the meal as a Seder. This simplified story highlights a theory advanced by scholars of Jewish antiquity. The Passover Seder as we know it emerged after the destruction of the Temple. It is a rite that replaced the Temple celebration. It takes elements from the original pilgrimage festival, but scales down the celebration to the setting of a home. The emerging Seder was ritually crafted by the rabbis to restore the joy of the celebration of the Passover. But the rabbis made the celebration more intimate, more accessible, more participatory, and ultimately portable for Jews wherever they wandered.

The home Seder replaced the lost practice of convergence. We could not be pilgrims, so instead there is a new emphasis on hospitality and a new religious experience centered on the table gathering. Instead of converging on Jerusalem, each household was to reach out and bring in. Each household became a source of Jewish storytelling. Each table became a source of Jewish energy. Instead of all the people gathered in one place, the people scattered into smaller groups, becoming Jewish storytelling pods where the great drama of God and the Jewish people was reenacted in living rooms wherever Jews lived. A pod is a small vessel. It is also a seed like, peapod. The Jews reacted to the destruction of their central gathering place by making every home a pod, a small vessel and seed of Jewish life. This was the Jpod generation. Except it was a 1900 year ago.

This is what the Jpod generation accomplished. In place of a single central dramatic reenactment in Jerusalem, the Jews discovered the power of the micro feast-a religious experience of unique power which could be transmitted family by family, from host to guest, from generation to generation.

Jews by necessity abandoned the Judaism of convergence for the Judaism of intimacy. We gave up the religion of mass gatherings to become a religion of dining rooms. We had to leave the central altar in favor of the family table, give up our identity as pilgrims going to high places to become sanctifiers of domestic spaces. Jews learned to cultivate religious experience around a group meal; we transferred the songs from the altar and brought them to the home table. We learned to tell our story through ritual playfulness. We realized that we could foster profound spirituality through homemade gastronomy.

The transition from Temple based Judaism to home centered Judaism forever altered the spiritual identity of the Jewish people. It is one of the greatest adaptations in the history of religion and culture.

Judaism actually never lost the spirituality of convergence. The synagogue served that purpose and we feel its power at this very moment as we converge to mark the great fast day. Yet the true uniqueness of Judaism that emerged after we lost our Temple was our capacity to locate the most powerful and memorable religious experiences in our homes and around our tables. We transmitted our religion by opening our homes and sharing these powerful experiences with extended family, friends, guests, and strangers.

Post Temple Judaism created a culture of the table: The rituals of the home Sabbath table emerged after the destruction. Festivals, once centered in Jerusalem, morphed into synagogue and home celebrations. Hospitality traditions developed around the Seders of Rosh Hashannah, the feast prior to Yom Kippur, the meals in the Sukkah and the parody feast of Purim, and the mother of all Seders, Pesah.

The Jewish culture of the table emerged as a response to crisis. Jews had to change or become extinct. We also live at a time of crisis. Sixty years ago we saw the mass destruction of ½ of our people. Over the last 100 years and especially after the Holocaust, millions of our people converged on the ancient land of the Jews to restore a Jewish commonwealth. This convergence was not a religious pilgrimage, but a powerful secular and national movement to bring power and security to the Jewish people.

We are living in the age of the third Jewish commonwealth. We live during the reemergence of Jewish convergence. But during this time of ingathering, we are also witnessing in the Diaspora an unraveling of our people . Nationally only 40% of Jews affiliate with synagogues or Jewish organizations. Of that 40%, 80% are minimally engaged by the synagogues and organizations they affiliate with or with other forms of Jewish life. Only a small number of Jews are engaged in Jewish life.

Where this is most evident is the decline of the Judaism of the table. There are many reasons for this. The loss of Jewish home practice is part of the broad decline of communal Jewish identity among millions of Diaspora Jews. Part of the reason Jewish home practice has declined is that Jewish institutions, synagogues and jccs since the 40s have emphasized building Temples and centers at the expense of Judaism of the home.
In a change with major demographic implications, Jews in America became widely dispersed. Most of us no longer live near our synagogue or in a Jewish neighborhood. American culture with its stress on individualism and the sovereign self has weakened the traditions of hospitality and the sharing of our Sabbath and festival table.

So many of don’t know or feel comfortable singing around the table. We have lost the art of Jewish table conversation. We don’t know how to share Torah with our friends and our guests. We would feel awkward having a stranger at our table for Shabbat. We are embarrassed at being too Jewish with our non Jewish friends. We are becoming strangers to the Jewish spirituality of home and hospitality.

Three years ago I left the pulpit to conduct an experiment. I wanted to see what would happen if I took a break from being a teacher from the Bimah and began to be a teacher at the table. The idea was simple. I would work with people to make their Shabbat and festival tables come alive with Jewish food, song, conversation, and fellowship. I would infuse new energy into homes which already marked Shabbat and work with less experienced households to ease them into home Shabbat meals and hospitality. I wanted to help Jews recover the capacity to make our homes a Jpod and to learn anew the mitzvah of hospitality.

For three years I convened over one hundred Shabbat feasts in homes. I worked with hosts and asked them to invite their circles of friends and guests who they thought would be moved by an authentic Jewish home experience. Many of those hosts continue to offer powerful experiences in their homes, and many of the guests who attended started to bring Shabbat and festival celebrations into their homes. I wanted to revive the Judaism of the Jpod.

I learned something very important in my initiative during the last three years. There was something special about a rabbi being a guest at a home Shabbat gathering. It subtly communicated that every Jew can bring holiness to his or her home. The host feels that the Rabbi honors our way of doing Shabbat and shares together with us the holiness of this table gathering. I knew that the admiration and support of Chabad in every community arose from the willingness of the Chabad rabbis to open up their homes and share their Shabbat tables. I wanted to take it further. I wanted to show that every Jew can do Shabbat in her home, that every Jew can make their home into a Jpod. I wanted to support my congregants committed to doing this by being there and accepting an invitation to attend and teach.

To me empowering a Jewish family to recover these Shabbat and festival table traditions and to share them with others is a far more powerful rabbinic tool than a 100 sermons. It meant compromising my long held practice of not driving on Shabbat. But if there is any chance of reviving the home as the center of Jewish life, I needed to get into homes to model what that looked like.

Every authentic and vital Jewish community I have ever seen has a strong Shabbat table culture. Dozens and dozens of households, Jpods, create beautiful Shabbat happenings and share their Shabbat with family, friends, and new faces. I would like to foster and expand our Shabbat table culture and restore the centrality of the holiness of the Jewish home in our congregation.

Our theme for the year is Jewish hospitality-Hachnasat Orchim. The core of this effort is to encourage people to celebrate Shabbat and festival meals at homes and to share these experiences with others in our congregational family and with new faces.

The Talmud speaks of the importance of reaching out to new faces. The word in Hebrew is Panim Hadashot meaning either new face or the plural, new faces. The Talmud’s teaching about Panim Hadashot reveals a core spiritual attribute of Judaism.

In Jewish tradition, a newly married couple celebrates seven days of feasts and parties after the Huppah ceremony. The name of the party is Seven Blessings-Sheva Berachot. These parties are seen as a great mitzvah and friends and the community rallied to hold them in different homes for the newlyweds. The Talmud sets two conditions for people to host a Sheva Berachot in their home. First you need a minyan, 10 Jews, to be able to chant in public the seven blessings.

Second you need to invite Panim Hadashot-a new face- to join you at the table, someone who was not at the Huppah. The requirement of a new face gets at the heart of the Judaism of Jpod. A Jewish home should ideally be a place of rich and joyful Judaism. Hospitality, the sharing of joy, follows from cultivating a warm Jewish home and table. Sometimes it works in reverse. The act of hospitality, sharing with others, brings out our best. Our Jewish celebrations become vital in the presence of guests and in sharing a mitzvah.
Judaism teaches that the best joy is the one that issues from our homes and tables, in the relationships we forge in this intimate setting and the hospitality we extend to guests and strangers.

After we lost our Temple we could not share with our fellow Jews the pageantry of pilgrimage. We only had our homes, our tables, our simchas, and our friendliness. Jews discovered that sharing joy with others during our most happy and holy times would sustain us. Sharing our joy would sustain our families, our communities and ultimately our people. Jewish hospitality centered on the Sabbath and festival table-JPod Judaism-is the time tested way Jews spread the joyful character of our unique religious tradition. It is our ethical foundation as well, for we are commanded in the Torah to treat the stranger with compassion, for we were strangers in Egypt.

As we gather together at this most solemn time, let us also not forget in this moment of convergence, in this moment of awe and self reflection, that we cannot sustain Judaism without a shared joyfulness, without opening our homes and our family table. Let us restore the joy of the Jewish home and share it with both those we love and with Panim Hadashot-new faces. Make your home a Jpod.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Making Teshuvah with Our Fellow Congregants

Making Teshuvah with Our Fellow Congregants
Shabbat Shuvah 5768, September 15, 2007
Rabbi Dov Gartenberg of Temple Beth Shalom, Long Beach 562 426-6413

In rabbinical school I had the opportunity to study with an aged rabbi, David Aronson, a leading figure of the Conservative movement from Minneapolis who had retired in Los Angeles and taught at the University of Judaism. He was a fount of wisdom and experience. One of the stories I remember from him was a visit he made to a congregant during this season. The congregant was a wealthy member of the synagogue, but during a recent financial crisis the member had done nothing to help even though it was well within his means to do so. Rabbi Aronson had appealed to the members of the congregation for aid and support, but his words had not broken through to this member.

When Rabbi Aronson visited the man, he explained that he was coming to make Teshuvah since it was during the 10 days of repentance. The rabbi began by saying, “I have failed you, Mendel. I feel that as a rabbi my role is to inspire people to give tzedaka, and to give it generously especially in time of need. But I failed you as your rabbi, and I did not move you to fulfill the mitzvah of tzedaka. The man was quite disarmed with the words of Rabbi Aronson. Right there and then he gave a substantial gift to help the synagogue.

I mention this story because it demonstrates not only the rabbi’s effort to make Teshuvah, but the thoughtful way he did it in a difficult case. The other reason I mention this story is that it reminds us that one of the more important arenas of repairing relationships and making Teshuvah is within our congregation, with the people whom we share common community.

This Shabbat is Shabbat Shuvah-the Sabbath of Repentance, taking place in the middle of the Asseret Ymei Teshuvah-the 10 days of Repentance that begin with Rosh Hashannah and end with Yom Kippur. This is a particularly auspicious time to repair our most important relationships, with our family members, our work associates, our friends, and eventually our relationship with God.

But I want to focus on an obvious area where Teshuvah is very important and can have long and lasting impacts. How does one make Teshuvah with fellow congregants? How does one repair a relationship with a rabbi or a cantor?

One of the central metaphors of Judaism is the story of a leader guiding a troubled and anxious congregation through the wilderness. All congregations are imitations of the original story of Moses leading Bnai Yisrael through the Midbar (wilderness). So it is inevitable that conflict and ethical lapses will take place in a congregation. The challenge of this season is to face our relationships with people in our community and to seek healing, reconciliation, or an end to conflict.

One of the key aspects of the Mitzvah of Teshuvah is that each of us has to take responsibility for our role in a conflict or a troubled relationship. We often fail to do this because of what John Gottman, a world famous expert on marriage and relationships, teaches about human nature. We are guilty of ‘human attribution error,’ blaming the other for the problem. I’m Ok, you are defective.

The critical act of Teshuvah, as we see in the case of Rabbi Aronson, is identifying our part of the problem, taking responsibility for it, approaching the aggrieved party, renouncing one’s acts, and asking for forgiveness.

The key then is to overcome our tendency to only hold the other party accountable in a conflict or dispute. To help us identify what we may contribute toward a conflict in a community, I have assembled seven ‘averot’- sins we do that hurt others in our community. By identifying them we may be able to find the locus of our role in a conflict, own them, and be able to articulate to another we have done as the first step of repairing a relationship.

1. Blame: We find it easy to blame others in the congregation by projecting all the problems onto their behavior. In blaming others in a congregational dispute, we often misconstrue the motivations or intentions of the other. But in blaming others we fail to look seriously about how we contribute to the conflict.

2. Attack: Character assassination is the usual mode in synagogue disputes. In order to justify our position we may attack a person’s personality instead of the principle which a person holds to in expressing a different view.

3. Lashon Hara-Gossip: Attacking a person is usually done indirectly and amongst one’s friends. This is the transgression of Lashon Hara which receives a lot of attention from the sages as one of the most invidious problems of communal life. If we don’t like someone we may go to a friend or even the rabbi and rant about this person’s traits or behaviors. Such behavior is clearly unethical in Jewish law, because it spreads an impression of another that is usually distorted and hardens attitudes of both the listener and the speaker toward the person who is gossiped about.

4. Generalizing: This is when we transform a minor slight into a broader conviction of about the flaw of another. The classic case is when a congregant sees the rabbi in the store and the rabbi does not say hello. The congregant then assumes the rabbi does not like her. It might have been the case that the rabbi was preoccupied or did not recognize her, but we often we judge more harshly than necessary.

5. Keeping it Secret: “Nothing so paralyzes a social organism as secrets - especially those that are widely known yet never spoken.” (Kushner) A congregant does something hurtful to me. But I hold it within myself for months, even years. The resentment builds and becomes poisonous to the relationship and the wider community. Secret and not so secret grudges corrode communities and turn them into cauldrons of ill feeling. The Torah considers bearing a grudge to be a negative mitzvah. The prohibition on bearing a grudge comes just before “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Leviticus 19)

6. Anonymous Complaints: This often is directed at volunteers who take leadership roles or toward clergy. We get frustrated with the style or decisions of a person in authority. Instead of speaking directly to the person we may deliver criticism anonymously through a third party. The person in authority then never gets a clear idea of who is aggrieved or frustrated and does not have recourse to working out the issue directly with the complaining party.

7. Dropping Out: When people get frustrated they may choose to drop out. While in certain cases people realize that the congregation is not a good match for their needs, premature dropping out short circuits the process of repair that is possible in many circumstances.

Reflect on these common communal sins. This is the stuff of Teshuvah. If we have hurt or worsened a relationship with a fellow congregant by doing one of these behaviors, then we have an opportunity to do the mitzvah of Teshuvah. Even though the other congregant may have hurt us, we still have the obligation to do Teshuvah, to attempt to repair the relationship.

The aim here is not to become best friends with someone who was our adversary. Rather Teshuvah in a congregation is an effort to restore civility and decency to our relationship with a fellow congregant. We do this for the sake of community, for the sake of a higher purpose, and in reflection of God’s will.

The relationship between a rabbi and a congregant or between a cantor and a congregant also has all the features of congregant to congregant relationships, but has other issues too. People are very hesitant to speak openly to clergy. It is often the case that clergy are hesitant to speak with a member. But the true test of a healthy relationship in a congregation is the ability of congregants to speak privately with a rabbi or cantor about a complaint or a hurt. If I have one message to leave you today, it is that whether you are hurt by something I have done or whether you take responsibility for an act toward me as your rabbi, I hope that you will come speak to me in private. It does not have to only be during this season; you may approach me any time of year.

The spiritual quality and moral excellence of a community is based on the capacity for its members to make Teshuvah with each other. The congregation is more than a business; it is an assembly of people gathered for a common purpose, a holy enterprise. Teshuvah is the glue that holds a community together, and allows a community to heal from fractures or disputes. I certainly hope that by addressing the issue of Teshuvah in the synagogue early in my rabbinate with you, that all of you will take this to heart and know that Teshuvah is possible and a necessary part of the unfolding story of a community as we make our way through the wilderness.

Many of the things I have spoken of today are very hard to do. They also may fail because of hardened hearts and stubbornness or our own denial and evasions. Yet this is the most important Mitzvah of the season. I am also well aware that situations are complex and that more questions may be raised by my teaching when thinking of concrete situations. Please feel free to write to or approach me to discuss a specific situation. I hope you will share this also with your friends in the congregation to encourage the fulfillment of the mitzvah of Teshuvah among all our members.

Rabbi Larry Kushner writes in a short and brilliant essay about the nature of life in a congregation:
“The members of the congregation must nurture one another because they need one another. They simply cannot do it alone. Hermits and monasteries are noticeably absent from Jewish history; we are a hopelessly communal people. When the wilderness tabernacle is completed, near the end of the Book of Exodus, we are told, "And it came to pass that the tabernacle was 'one'" (Exodus 36:13).

Commenting on this curious expression, Rabbi Mordecai Yosef of Izbica (d. 1854) observes: In the building of the tabernacle, all Israel were joined in their hearts; no one felt superior to his fellow. At first, each skilled individual did his own part of the construction, and it seemed to each one that his work was extraordinary. Afterwards, once they saw how their several contributions to the "service" of the tabernacle were integrated - all the boards, the sockets, the curtains and the loops fit together as if one person had done it all, then they realized how each one of them had depended on the other. Then they understood how what all they had accomplished was not by virtue of their own skill alone but that the Holy One had guided the hands of everyone who had worked on the tabernacle. They had only later merely joined in completing its master building plan - so that "it came to pass that the tabernacle was one". (Exodus 36.13). Moreover, the one who made the Holy Ark itself was unable to feel superior to the one who had only made the courtyard tent pegs.

May we be worthy of this vision of community. Shabbat Shalom and Shannah Tovah.

A Person, A Poem, An Idea: Israel at 60

A Person, A Poem, An Idea: Israel at 60
2nd Day Rosh Hashannah, 5768, September 14, 2007
Rabbi Dov Gartenberg Temple Beth Shalom
I thank my friend, Rabbi Ed Feinstein, for inspiring this sermon.

This appeared in the LA Times on Monday. “With eight young immigrants from the former Soviet Union under arrest, Israeli authorities said Sunday that they had broken up a violent neo-Nazi gang that desecrated synagogues and staged at least fifteen attacks on religious Jews, Asian workers, drug addicts, and homosexuals. Video said to have been taken by the skinhead gang to document its beatings was shown at Sunday’s Israel Cabinet meeting, triggering urgent debate over what to do about immigrants who came as Jewish offspring, but grew up to commit hate crimes and shout, ‘Heil Hitler!’. “

This was a big story in Israel with one paper printing on the front page headline just one word in large caps: “UNBELIEVABLE!”

This year we will celebrate the 60th birthday of the State of Israel. 60 years into its existence Israel has discovered it has a Neo-Nazi problem. How do we make sense of this great irony? Is the younger generation forgetting the story of creation of Israel? Have young people not been given the history of Israel’s emergence as a nation in the wake of the Holocaust?

But despite the neo-Nazis, most of the rest of the Jewish people have a very strong attachment to the Jewish people and to the land of Israel. My friend, Rabbi Ed Feinstein, shared with me this interesting observation. Let’s say that someone got up at services and proclaimed. “I am an atheist. I don’t believe in God. I don’t accept that God gave the Torah to Moses. I don’t believe that the Mitzvot are divine laws.” How would we react to such a public confession? Oh, we would say, “Goldberg, sit down already.” We might actually admire this person’s Hutzpah. Some of us would even agree with him.

But what about this alternative case? Let’s say the same person got up and proclaimed. “I am an anti-Zionist. I don’t believe in the State of Israel. I think the state of Israel is a cruel, monstrous state that oppresses the Palestinians. It has no right to exist. The Jews should return to Europe and let the Palestinians have their state.”

No one would yawn at that. The congregation would be outraged. And calls would be made to throw that person out the door. We would have to call a police escort.

The point I want to make is that 150 years ago the first public heretic, the God denier, the Kofer Ba’ikar, would outrage the congregation. But in our own times a Jew who does not believe in Israel, certainly a Jewish neo-Nazi, woe until him. While not all of us believe in God, the Jews overwhelmingly believe in Israel, in its right to exist, and its legitimacy as a Jewish state. We may be critical of Israel’s government or its policies, but the belief in the right for Israel to exist is as close a thing that Jews have to a dogma in our time.

Recent studies show that while there are few Jews who deny Israel, many younger American Jews are disconnected or indifferent to it. They may not get up and publicly deny Israel’s importance. They are certainly unlikely to become neo-Nazis. But the main concern is that many 20-30-somethings have little interest in Israel. Only 25% of American Jews have visited Israel. This alarming fact was so disturbing to leading Jewish philanthropists that they put their millions into a program called Birthright Israel which offers college age students free trips to Israel.
Many in this room were alive when Israel was founded. I know that moment changed your lives forever. But do your grandchildren feel the same way you do? How connected are they to Israel?

The creation of Israel is truly one of the great stories, not only of the Jews but of world history. But like any great story, it must be told over and over again and in new ways. Like Passover we have an obligation to pass it on to the next generation. Without knowing this story, those who follow us will not appreciate the remarkable courage and determination of the Jewish people to respond to catastrophe and to create a Jewish state.

In retelling this story I ask you, How has the existence of Israel changed you? What does Israel mean to you? How do we forge a stronger relationship with Israel as it enters one of the most critical periods of its existence?

Why is it that for 2000 years the Jewish people, scattered among the nations, never decided to return in Israel? Maimonides visited there and decided to live in Egypt. The expelled Jews of England in 1290 or the Jews of France in 1306 or the Jews in Spain in 1492 chose not to go settle there in mass. The Jews living amongst the Muslims chose the fleshpots of Baghdad or Fez or Cairo or Istanbul over the Holy land. But something changed in the late 19th and early 20th century. Jews moved from dreams to action and began to return in large numbers to the Promised Land.

The story of the creation Israel has infinite dimensions, but I want to look closely at only three. A person, a poem, and an idea. In telling the story of a person, a poem, and an idea we can understand the passion that led to the birth of Israel.

The story begins with a person. Why did an illiterate, assimilated Jew at the end of the 19th century begin a mass movement for Jews to return and create a Jewish state in the land of our ancestors? Theodore Herzl, despite being culturally assimilated and a leading public figure in Vienna in the latter half of the 19th century, experienced the indignities of being a Jew. Vienna like any major European had a long history of Jew hatred.

But the Jews of this era had hope and optimism. That hope lied in the West and that was France. Like many assimilated Jewish Europeans, Herzl admired France for its tolerance and legal acceptance of the Jews as full citizens. France was the paradigm of the future that he hoped would be imitated throughout Europe. The Jews of France had reached the highest levels of French society in literature, government, the military, the theatre, the arts, and in sport. Herzl believed that France pointed the way to the future of all of European Jewry. But he was in for a shock.

France got into an ill advised war with the emerging German nation state. France lost badly to Bismarck in the Franco-Prussian war. The mood in defeated France was ugly. People were looking for a scapegoat. No one thought that the identity of an officer accused of traitorous activity would matter, but when the officer, Albert Dreyfus, was accused of spying, the large mobs at the rallies calling for his punishment did not shout, “Down with the Traitor.” Rather, in rally after rally hundreds of thousands of Frenchmen shouted, “Death to the Jews”.

Herzl, covering the Dreyfus story for a Vienna newspaper, heard the cries of the mobs and never was the same man. In one shocking moment Herzl saw that the dream of emancipation for Europe’s Jews was a lie. The most progressive country in Europe seethed in the hatred of Jews. Herzl saw what no one else saw. He recognized that the Jew hatred stirred up by the Dreyfus case was not the old variety of the European-Christian kind. The Christians of Europe had for nearly 1500 years followed the teaching of the Christian sage, Augustine of Hippo (d430CE). He came up with the doctrine: Persecute the Jews, but do not destroy them. The Jews in their sorry state would be an enduring symbol to Christendom and to non-believers for their rejection of Christ.

But Herzl saw that the new Jew hatred was something different. It had been coined by others as anti-Semitism, a hatred of Jews based on economic, cultural and most of all popular racial theories of his time. The new anti-Semites in Europe saw no reason to preserve the existence of the Jews. Herzl realized that the new anti-Semites would ultimately insist on the annihilation of the Jewish people. Herzl anticipated Hitler’s final solution. He saw it as clear as day. Like one who was struck by lightning and survives to tell the tale, he became meshugeneh about getting the Jews out of Europe. There was no future there. He became an advocate for the Jews reestablishing a state of their own in a place of their own.

His initial ideas were quite astonishing. He was in such a hurry to find a place for the Jews that he developed a short list. Palestine, Azerbaijan, Uganda, Argentina, and Arizona. Any one would do. Herzl, already feeling that time was running out in 1898 went around Europe talking to any rich or influential man who would let him in the door.

The people around him thought he was crazy. Rothschild threw him out. Rulers sat amused as he laid out his dream. His friends sent him to a shrink in the capital of shrinkdom, Vienna. His shrink, Max Nordau, the most prominent psychologist besides another young man by the name of Freud, listened to the fervent idealist for three sessions and became a disciple, one of the early leaders of the Zionist movement.

Here is a passage from one of Herzl’s writings that summarizes his elevator pitch-what he tried to say to the influential people he met. They laughed. We cry.

“We are a people -- one people. We have sincerely tried everywhere to merge with the national communities in which we live, seeking only to preserve the faith of our fathers. It is not permitted us. In vain are we loyal patriots, sometimes super-loyal; in vain do we make the same sacrifices of life and property as our fellow citizens; in vain do we strive to enhance the fame of our native lands in the arts and sciences, or her wealth by trade and commerce. In our native lands, where we have lived for centuries, we are still decried as aliens....The majority decide who the "alien" is; this and all else in the relations between peoples is a matter of power...In the world as it is now and will probably remain for an indefinite period, might takes precedence over right.

The whole plan is essentially quite simple...Let sovereignty be granted us over a portion of the globe adequate to meet our rightful national requirements; we will attend to the rest The governments of all countries scourged by anti-Semitism will be keenly interested in obtaining sovereignty for us.”

The Jewish people got a state by the skin of their teeth, and held onto it tenaciously. We have attended to the rest as Herzl said.

The second part of our story is about a poem. As Herzl push started the new Zionist movement, other forces were at work that would transform the passive, long suffering Jews. In 1903 a particularly horrible pogrom took place in the city of Kishniev. There was a Jewish poet, beloved by Eastern European Jews, who witnessed the pogrom. Hayim Nahman Bialik wrote a Hebrew poem, “The City of Slaughter”. Never has a poem left such a mark on a generation.

Hayim Nahman Bialik (1873-1934) "The City of Slaughter" (1903)

“Arise and go now to the city of slaughter; into its courtyard wind your way;
There with your own hand touch, and with the eyes of your head,
Behold on tree, on stone, on fence, on mural clay, the spattered blood and dried brains of the dead... Descend then, to the cellars of the town, there where the virginal daughters of your folk were fouled, Where seven heathens flung a woman down,
The daughter in the presence of her mother, the mother in the presence of her daughter, With bloody axes in their paws compelled thy daughters yield.
Note also do not fail to note, in that dark corner, and behind that cask
Crouched husbands, bridegrooms, brothers, peering from the cracks,
Watching the sacred bodies struggling underneath the bestial breath,
Stifled in filth, and swallowing their blood! Watching from the darkness and its mesh. The lecherous rabble portioning for booty their kindred and their flesh!
Crushed in their shame, they saw it all; they did not stir nor move; they did not pluck their eyes out; They beat not their brains against the wall!
Perhaps, perhaps, each watcher had it in his heart to pray: A miracle, 0 Lord,—and spare my skin this day! Those who survived this foulness, who from their blood awoke, beheld their life polluted, the light of their world gone out— How did their menfolk bear it, how did they bear this yoke?
They crawled forth from their holes, they fled to the house of the Lord, they offered thanks to Him, the sweet benedictory word. The Cohanim sallied forth, to the Rabbi's house they flitted:
"Tell me, 0 Rabbi, tell, is my own wife permitted?"
The matter ends; and nothing more. And all is as it was before.
Come, now, and I will bring thee to their lairs the privies, outhouses and pigpens where the heirs of Hasmoneans lay, with trembling knees, Concealed and cowering,—the sons of the Maccabees!
The seed of saints, the scions of the lions! Who, crammed by scores in all the sanctuaries of their shame, So sanctified My name! It was the flight of mice they fled, the scurrying of roaches was their flight... They died like dogs, and they were dead!”

This is a poem about cowardly Jews, powerless Jews. The poet is disgusted with their cowardice, and shakes all his readers. This cannot go on.

What was Bialik saying to his generation? If we cannot defend our children, we are nothing. Powerlessness brings no dignity. Anyone who read and was struck by this poem came to one conclusion. Jews, need power to survive. Jews would have no dignity until they had power.

I read Bialik’s poem for the first time in 1975 during my junior year abroad in Israel for my advanced Hebrew class. This poem made me understand Israel’s special character which I could not fully appreciate growing up in America. The following year an Air France plane was high jacked. The terrorists landed the plane at the Entebbe airport in Uganda and immediately released the non-Jews and kept all the Jews as hostage. We know what happened next. Israel in a surprise raid freed the hostages, killed the terrorists, while losing one man, their commander, Yonatan Netanyahu. What was Israel saying to the world at Entebbe. Don’t mess with the Jews. We are no longer cowards. Bialik’s poem was answered.

The third part of our story is about an idea. There was this fellow name Asher Ginzberg. He was a dreamy fellow, not particularly social. But he had an idea and it possessed him. He was so inspired by the idea that he created a pen name which described his audience of readers: Achad Haam-literally ‘One of the People.’

Achad Haam was a very learned Jew. He was also a modern man. Achad Haam was troubled by the Jews in the Western Countries and by the Jews in the Eastern countries. The Jews of England, France, and Germany were assimilating, leaving traditional Judaism, abandoning its practice, its language, its culture. The Jews of the East, the Jews of Poland, Lithuania, Hungary, the Ukraine, and Russia were deeply steeped in Jewish learning but because of circumstance and choice, were completely cut off from modern Western culture. This combination, radically assimilated Jews in the West and narrowly parochial, isolated Jews in the East prevented the Jews from healthfully entering the modern world.

Ahad Haam believed fervently that Judaism had to change in order to reclaim its Jews. He believed that the central problem of Judaism in modernity was that it could not create a compelling modern culture which would hold the allegiance of Jews but would open up new ways. He wrote in one of his most famous essays,

"Law of the Heart" (1894) “A people of the book, is a slave to the book. It has surrendered its whole soul to the written word. The book ceases to be what it should be, a source of ever-new inspiration and moral strength; on the contrary, its function in life is to weaken and finally to crush all spontaneity of action and emotion, till men become incapable of responding to life without its permission and approval. The people stagnate...the book stagnates.
It is not only Jews who have to come out of the ghetto, Judaism has to come out, too. ... [Judaism] can no longer tolerate the Galut-Exilic form which it had to take on, in obedience to its will-to-live, when it was exiled from its own country; but, without that form, its life is in danger. So it seeks to return to its historic center, where it will be able to live a life developing in a natural way, to bring its powers to play in every department of human culture.
We must keep alive the idea of the national renaissance. Only then can the Jewish soul be freed from its shackles and regain contact with the broad stream of human life without having to pay for its freedom by the sacrifice of its individuality.”

For Achad Haam, the Jews were the people of the dead book. It wasn’t just that the Jews had to strive to be modern people, but Judaism had to be made modern as well. This could happen if the Jews gathered anew in their land. There, they could become a modern nation required to deal with all the issues of being a modern state and culture. Could Judaism take its place among the great cultures and engage people in all areas of human endeavor. Achad Haam believed that any re-gathering of the Jewish people required a makeover of Judaism. The new homeland cannot be just another ghetto. It had to be the starting place of a new renaissance.

Israel is the product of a Meshuggeneh person, an angry poem of protest, and a dreamy idea of a Jewish renaissance. The efforts of a Meshuggeneh person lit a fire in the Jewish people, created a movement, and helped to eventually fulfill Herzl’s dream. Bialik’s poem became a prism through which many Jews saw the Holocaust. The Holocaust could happen because the Jews had no power. Ahad Haam’s idea of a modern Jewish renaissance inspired many Jews in Israel and outside to experiment with modernizing Judaism. The efforts to find a secure modern Judaism remains the most elusive dream of Jewry. We are in the midst of many modern experiments to both modernize Judaism and to redefine the Jews. In fact, as a Conservative synagogue we are only one example of that ongoing experiment. Jews remain locked in a great cultural and religious turmoil about how to apply Judaism in the modern world.

In Israel the question of cultural renaissance was deferred in favor or a practical approach. Do what has to be done to create and run a Jewish state. So there are Jewish policeman, there are Jewish telephone repairman, there are Jewish cable installers, there are Jewish traffic controllers, there are Jewish economists, Jewish government officials, Jewish tax collectors, Jewish customs officers and Jewish generals. Jews embraced the challenge of building a workable state, a functioning democracy, a modern economic society. They have done this and they have spent huge amounts of their resources fighting and giving up their lives to preserve their accomplishment.

We who live in America have our own story as Jews who have succeeded in the most hospitable country to Jews in history. The story of Israel and America are intertwined and the lessons of one are important for the other. We enter an uncertain period in Israel’s history. The future of Israel is now inextricably linked to the United States. Israel is on the front lines of the war against a virulent Islamic ideology that seeks its destruction and the end of the Western world as we know it. The war in Iraq and the instability in the Middle East will test the resourcefulness and patience of our Jewish brothers and sisters like never before. And the emergence of a fascist Islamic state in Iraq, racing to get nuclear weapons is the greatest threat of our times, not just for Israel, but the entire world.

The discovery of Jewish neo-Nazis must be understood in context. The neo-Nazi Jews are another pathetic type of Jew, an angry alienated counterpart to the timid Jewish men of Kishniev. These disturbed youth, none of whom served in the Israeli army, sadly represent an ugly side of the reality of statehood. One of the prices of having a state is that some young people become alienated from it and drop off its edges. Israel is also old enough to reveal its shortcomings which as a state. It suffers from an ineffective education system and a poor safety net.

In my visits to Israel, my friends there always complain to me about people’s perception of it as a country under siege, bristling with guns, on edge for the next terror attack. This is simply an untrue characterization of Israeli life. One of our tasks as fellow Jews in America is to maintain a close relationship with our Israeli brothers and sisters. This means frequent trips, cultural and religious exchanges, opportunities for study and fun. Israel is family and the most important act we can do is stay in contact and interact with family.

We can also connect more deeply by rededicating ourselves to learning the Hebrew language. This is one of the great miracles of modern Israel. To participate in it means to return to the Hebrew language which is the most authentic expression of Jewish culture throughout the ages. I would love if everyone committed themselves to learning Hebrew well enough to enjoy the Joseph story in Genesis or to read a modern Israeli novelist.

One thing my friends in Israel yearn for more than anything is that they be treated like normal people trying to live good and productive lives. I end this story with another poem, that captures the the yearnings of many Israelis. This is the side of Israel we don’t see in the newspapers and on TV. It is the side of Israel we should strive to appreciate, just like spending a sustained time with a beloved family member.

Yehuda Amichai "Tourists"
Visits of condolence are all we get from them.
They squat at the Holocaust Memorial,
They put on grave faces at the Wailing Wall
And they laugh behind heavy curtains
In their hotels.
They have their pictures taken Together with our famous dead
At Rachel's Tomb and Herzl's Tomb and on the top of Ammunition Hill. They weep over our sweet boys
And lust over our tough girls
And hang up their underwear
To dry quickly
In cool, blue bathrooms.
Once I sat on the steps by a gate at David's Tower, I placed my two heavy baskets
at my side. A group of tourists was standing around their guide and I became their
target marker.
"You see that man with the baskets? Just right of his head there's an arch from the Roman period. Just right of his head."
"But he's moving, he's moving!"
I said to myself. redemption will come only if their guide tells them,
"You see that arch from the Roman period? It's not important: but next to it, left and down a bit, there sits a man who's bought fruit and vegetables for his family."

Matanah Tovah: The Role of the Gift in Sustaining Community

Matanah Tovah: The Role of the Gift in Sustaining Community
Rosh Hashannah 5768/2007
Rabbi Dov Gartenberg, Temple Beth Shalom

Hayim, the beloved patriarch of the family, slipped into a coma. Everyone feared the worst. The family was called. The son flew in from New York. The daughter arrived from Boston. The aunts, the uncles, all sat despairing, waiting for the end.
Suddenly, a miracle occurred! Hayim opened his eyes. Weakly, he motioned for his son to approach so he could talk to him. Hayim was weak from the illness, so his voice was very faint as he asked,
"I've been ill?"
"Yes, Abba," replied the son with tears choking his voice, "Very ill."
Haim nodded and spoke again. "I had a dream. I was nearing death when I suddenly I smelled the aroma of your Imma’s potato kugel. I LOVE that kugel. As wonderful a cook as my Sarah is, that kugel is her masterpiece." He lied back against the pillows, weakened from the exertion of speaking.

"What a wonderful dream, Abba. But the smell is real. Mama just took the kugel out of the oven to cool."
"A miracle!" cried Hayim as he tried to rise, but weakly fell against the pillow. He turned to his son and said, "I'm still too weak to get up. Go to the kitchen and get for me a piece of your Imma's kugel."

The son obediently rose and left the room to fulfill his father's request. Those gathered around Hayim’s bed heard muffled words in the kitchen, but after a few minutes the son returned to his father’s bedside empty- handed.
Hayim looked at him and said, "Nu? Where is the kugel?"
The son replied, "I'm sorry, Abba. Imma says it’s for the Shivah.

Great joke, but it for the sake of a great line it ignores a really important part of the tradition of the Shivah-those seven days of mourning following the burial of a loved one. Friends and the community sustain the mourners with gifts of food during the Shivah, so that they need not be distracted or burdened during their mourning. Imma does not need to make the kugel. Her friends will make comfort food for her when the time comes. In Jewish tradition, gifts of food are intended to lift the yoke of despair off my shoulders when I am mired in grief.

The important point is that the friends and people in the community must bring the kugel, and the challah, the eggs, the bagels, the traditional foods of the shivah week. These are the gifts, according to Jewish tradition, that open the path of healing for one who is grief-stricken.

There are times in our lives when the presence of community can mean so much to us, when people’s presence saves us from despair and loneliness. We experience the holiness of community at these moments. That explains why the term for community in Hebrew is Kehilah Kedoshah-a holy community. A community becomes holy when it is engaged in the mitzvah of supporting each individual who is part of it during times of need and times of joy. This insight into community is one of the remarkable attributes of Judaism; it is one of the reasons, according to Gidi Grinstein, an Israeli scholar, for the mysterious survival and persistence of the Jewish people. Jews have a talent for creating, sustaining, and transplanting community wherever we find ourselves across this earth. There is a Jewish genius for creating community.

However, in America with all our affluence and comforts, our ability to create holy communities is greatly compromised. We live in a culture in which individualism, freedom, self fulfillment, and personal meaning trumps community. In the age of celebrity, our culture celebrates individual success and fame over communal effort and sacrifice.
The force of the market has taught us to look at things from the perspective of how we benefit. So people join churches and synagogues like they join an athletic club. I was reading the advertisements for the synagogues in the Orange County Jewish Magazine. I could not distinguish their ads from the pr for 24 hour fitness or Gold’s Gym. In fact most people relate to the synagogue as a commodity, the rabbi and cantor, service providers, the school, a way station for the kids. Ultimately such a utilitarian approach to communities vastly cheapens them. The members disappear when the benefits are no longer needed.
We live in the age of the Sovereign Self. The popular culture of America is about feeding, gorging, and stuffing the the individual in the hope that this will make him happy. Yet many of these very same people complain over and over about the lack of community, their loneliness, their deeply felt sense of isolation.
What is the alternative to our culture of self absorption? What makes for real a community? What is the ingredient of holiness in a holy community? What creates an authentically Jewish sense of community? What makes a community spiritually and morally excellent and transforming?

The answer to these questions begins with the simple act of a congregant bringing a kugel to the Shivah house. The preparing of food and bringing it to the shivah house is a gift. Gift giving is so common place that we never think about it. But gift giving is at the heart of what makes a community, indeed at the heart of all loving relationships. The gift is key to understanding Kehilah Kedosha-a holy community. What is the role of a gift in a community?
There are seven attributes to the gift within an authentic community.
Let me tell a story about the power of the gift to build community. A few years ago a congregant at my former congregation, named Mark, was in the middle of his struggle with cancer which ultimately would claim his life. At the time of this story he was shaky, but still strong enough to get about. He called me one day to ask me to visit with him to discuss arrangements for his final days. I mentioned to Mark that I would come over to his house that evening after going to a shivah minyan for another congregant who was mourning his father. Mark did not know the person well, but immediately asked for the address and told me he would be there to help make the minyan. I told him that he need not worry for the congregation’s Hesed Society had recruited enough people to make a minyan. But he said, ”See you there.” And a few minutes later Mark was there to my utter amazement and admiration. His presence was a gift.

Mark did not have an obligation to come to the minyan, but he knew that going to the minyan was a way of being generous, of giving of himself. It didn’t matter that he did not know the mourner that well. It did not matter if there was already a minyan. It did not matter that he was weak and uncomfortable because of his cancer. The situation presented itself and he saw this as the right thing to do.

Mark’s gift teaches us the first thing we should know about gift giving in a community: THERE IS A TIME AND CONTEXT TO GIVE A GIFT. Attending a Shivah is understood as a proper context in which to give a gift of food or of physical presence. Gift giving is made possible by certain situations that occur at intervals in our lives. Although the time of the gift may be unpredictable, once the circumstance arises we know the gift that is called for. Thus living consciously in a community is to know that you are on call to give gifts. So I know where to find my kugel recipe, when I hear news of a new mourner.

A second dimension about gifts is that WE KNOW WHAT IS CALLED FOR IN THE GIFT. Gifting in Judaism is quite straightforward. The gift may be my presence at a minyan, or a simple dish of food for a person in distress, or an invitation to my Shabbas table. The more you are at home in the culture, the clearer the idea of what gift is needed. (This is the challenge of teaching converts-how to know when to gift) Each community has a code, a language of what constitutes the gift. Those codes of giving once learned and understood, whether from childhood or as an adult allow us to fully enter the life of community.

There is third thing we should know about gift as illustrated in this story by Lewis Hyde.

“Imagine a scene. An Englishman in the colony of Massachusetts in the 17th century comes into an Indian lodge, and his hosts, wishing to make their guest feel welcome, ask him to share a pipe of tobacco. Carved from a soft red stone, the pipe itself is a peace offering that has traditionally circulated amongst the local tribes, staying in each lodge for a time but always given away again sooner or later. And so the Indians, as is only polite among their people, give the pipe to their guest when he leaves. The Englishman is tickled pink. What a nice thing to send back to the British Museum! He takes it home and sets it on the mantelpiece.

A time passes and the leaders of a neighboring tribe come to visit the colonist’s home. To his surprise he finds his guests have some expectation in regard to his pipe and his translator finally explains to him that if he wishes to show his goodwill he should offer them a smoke and give them the pipe. In consternation the Englishman invents a phrase to describe these people with such a limited sense of private property: The Indian-giver.

But our Indian giver understood a cardinal property of the gift: WHATEVER WE HAVE GIVEN IS SUPPOSED TO BE GIVEN AWAY AGAIN, NOT KEPT. Or, if it is kept, something of similar value should move on in its stead, the way a billiard ball may stop when it sends another scurrying across the felt, its momentum transferred. There are other forms of property that stand still, that mark a boundary or resist momentum, but the gift keeps going. THE GIFT MUST ALWAYS MOVE.

The kugel I bring to the shivah house is part of the movement of the gift. Although it is consumed, it continues to move when a few weeks later the mourner brings a challah to someone else who is sitting shivah. The spirit of the gift regenerates when we pass on another gift to the next person. This does not have to happen immediately. But the gift must not stay still with us. The movement must not be permanently interrupted. The gift or the value of the gift must always move.

But in order to keep the gift moving, doesn’t it make sense to reciprocate in response to the person who gave me the kugel? Shouldn’t it be both necessary and sufficient to send a thank you note, or maybe even to send a dish in return? But in communities the key is not the response to the donor; it is the direction you pass it on. GIFT GIVING IN AUTHENTIC COMMUNITIES IS CIRCULAR. This is the fourth attribute of the gift in a community.

When a gift moves in a circle in a community I do not give the gift to the person who gave it originally to me. I give a gift to the next person in need. The gift may very well return to me over time, but it will circulate through many people on its way around the circle. “It is as if the gift goes around a corner before it comes back. I have to give blindly and I will feel a sort of blind gratitude myself. When the gift moves in a circle its motion is beyond the control of the person, and so each bearer must be a part of the group and each donation is an act of social faith.” (Hyde) So after my mourning is over I get a call from the Sisterhood asking me to deliver a meal to a young couple with a new baby. A few months later that couple brings a Shabbat candles to someone who is sick in the hospital.

Gifts in communities move in a circular motion. This is hard to grasp because we think of gift giving as acts of reciprocity between two people. Two people in love give gifts back and forth in a way that sustains and regenerates love. But over time if they limit their gift giving to each other, their generosity will decline or they may start keeping score. A Kashmiri folk tale tells of two Brahmin women who tried to dispense with their charitable obligations by simply giving alms back and forth to each other. When they died, they returned to earth as two wells so poisoned that no one could take water from them.

This sad tale illustrates the spiritual bottleneck of clique within a community. A clique within a community extends gifts to their circle of family and friends. A clique in a community is like a partially blocked artery, it reduces the circular flow of gift giving in the wider community To sustain a community we must give gifts not only to our family and friends, but also to those outside our own circles.

Gift giving is a relay, extending the hand to the next one whose hand is open. The secret of community is that we must know to move the gift to the next worthy person. We are ready to give, but we also must be ready to receive. A gift circle will not work if a potential recipient refuses to accept the gifts of others.

Often a Jews tells me,. “I don’t want to trouble people with my loss.” But the community exists to be troubled and bothered. That is part of the unwritten contract of being in a community. You join a shul to be bothered, to be nudged, and to be pushed beyond yourself. You also join a shul to let people show their care for you. Lots of Jews nowadays don’t join shuls because they don’t have time or don’t want to be bothered. Or they don’t have time to receive the care and concern of strangers outside my immediate circle. Those of us who have chosen to join a synagogue have to demonstrate to our non-connected friends the value of being bothered, of being needed and of receptivity to the compassion of others.

The recipient of a gift is also doing a mitzvah. She is causing another person to become worthy of doing a mitzvah. She is unblocking the artery, the lifeblood of a community to flow freely and generously. That explains the custom of not knocking when coming to a Shivah house. You just enter. The mourner makes it easy to receive the gift of your presence.

The fifth attribute of the gift is that EVERY ONE CAN GIVE regardless of whether you are rich or poor. One mark of the genius of the Halachah-Jewish law is its moral concern for preventing the community from fragmenting along economic lines. The rich cannot separate from the poor. We are bound to a greater destiny than class or life circumstances. The giving of the gift must be available to all. The gift of the kugel is the same whether I am rich or poor. My presence at the minyan is not a function of my economic standing.

Our tradition makes a sharp distinction between two types of gifts, gifts of money-tzedaka and gifts of lovingkindness-gemilut hasadim. It says in Talmud Sukkot 49b: “Acts of gemilut hasadim are superior to tzedaka (gifts of money) in three respects. Tzedaka can be accomplished only with money; gemilut hasadim can be accomplished through personal involvement as well as with money. Tzedaka can be given only to the poor; gemilut hasadim can be exchanged between rich and poor. Tzedaka applies only to the living; gemilut hasadim applies to both the living and the dead.

The last line of this teaching reveals the sixth dimension we should know about gifts and community. The circle of giving goes beyond the living to include the dead. GIVING UNITES THE LIVING AND THE DEAD. When we extend gifts to others in our community we carry on the gifts of those who have gone before us. We remember our loved ones by the way they gave. In fact they taught us how to give. The other day Rabbi David and Yetta Kane invited me to their home for Shabbat dinner. The food was delicious and I asked Yetta where she learned to cook. She told the story of how her mother taught her to cook in the displacement camps after the war. She told me how her mother bartered for a goat in exchange for candy and chocolate so they could have milk. The delicious kugel I ate at her house on Shabbat made me think of that goat providing milk in the displacement camp, of Yetta’s courageous and nurturing mother and her gift of the art of cooking to her daughter. We are Jews because of the gifts of our ancestors, both immediate and distant. Avraham and Sarah’s hospitality for the wayfarer; Joseph’s loving burial of his father, Jacob; Moshe’s act of kindness of taking Joseph’s bones out of Egypt; Rabbi Hillel’s gentleness before the man who wanted to learn about Judaism while standing on one foot. Rabbi Meir’s compassion for his wayward colleague, Elisha ben Abuye.

The seventh and last attribute of a gift in a community is that GOD MUST BE BROUGHT INTO THE GIFT CIRCLE.

The gift circle must include God for it to become holy. All giving in a community must flow from a faith in the giving nature of God. God starts the circle and our gifts circle back to God and they keep on moving, flowing, and breathing.

The gifts we give are no other than imitations of God’s gifts to us.

“‘Follow the Lord your God (Deut. 13:5).’ What does this mean? Is it possible for a mortal to follow God’s Presence? The verse means to teach us that we should follow the attributes of the Holy One, praised by He. As He clothes the naked, you should clothe the naked. The Torah teaches that the Holy One visits the sick, you should visit the sick. The Holy One comforts those who mourn; you should comfort those who Mourn. The Holy One buries the dead; you should bury the dead.” Babylonian Talmud Sotah 14a

Let us remember these principles of the Matanah-The Gift. The secret of achieving holy community is:

The ultimate gift that God gave the Jewish people is described in this famous passage from the Talmud. .

“That you may know that I the Lord sanctify you: The Holy One, blessed be He, said to Moses, I have a precious gift-Matanah Tovah- in My treasure house, called the Sabbath, and desire to give it to Israel; go and inform them. (Talmud Bavli Berachot 10b)

The Torah claims that the eternal cycle of gift giving began with the Sabbath-the Matanah Tovah-the precious gift of God. How does a Jew testify to the giving God in the world? He does not set up missions to the gentiles, he does not preach to millions over the airwaves. He does not blow himself up inside a bus. He has you sit down with him at his Shabbas table. For when we bring guests to our Shabbat table we accept the precious gift God has given us and lovingly share it with those present at our table. And they, our kind guests also, God willing, will share their table with others. In this way God’s precious gift, the Sabbath, is passed on in a circle around the community, moving across the generations, and uniting us with past and future generations of Jews who guard it and give it in love.
It was tradition to for a sage to have his coffin made of his Sabbath table. I once shared this with my wife’s family who are in the furniture business and suggested they ought to sell tables by suggesting to people that it could also serve as a coffin. But kidding aside, this tradition is a recognition that the table which served as a welcoming place for probably thousands of people over a life time is deeply associated with us even after we die. The instrument of our gift giving is buried with us.
This year at Beth Shalom we hope to strengthen the culture of the gift in our congregation with a special emphasis on our theme for the year. Jewish hospitality. Please join us for the various efforts we will make to build a more caring and welcoming community. Attend a Shivah minyan, prepare some food for family with a new arrival, welcome a new member, have people to your table for a Shabbat meal.

Ponder this. The ability to build a community around gift giving is the secret to the longevity of the Jews. We move our gifts from generation by generation. May this new year renew your capacity to give, to receive the gifts of others, and to help fashion within all of us a Holy Community-a Kehilah Kedoshah that is worthy of the holy congregations of the Jewish people that have preceded us.

Five Phases of the Shofar

The Five Phases of the Shofar
Erev Rosh Hashannah 5768 Sept. 12, 2007
Rabbi Dov Gartenberg, Temple Beth Shalom

Do you remember the first time you heard the Shofar? How old were you? Where were you? Who were you with? How was it explained to you? How did you feel when you heard the blast? Were you scared? Were you exhilarated?

The Blowing of the Shofar is one of the most dramatic rituals in Judaism. The Mitzvah, however, is not the blowing of the Shofar; rather the Mitzvah is to listen to its sound. “Lishmoa Kol Shofar- to listen to the Shofar sound.” Many Mitzvot involve the intentional use of a physical and sensory capacity. In the case of the Shofar we are commanded to listen with our ears.

In the age of the Ipod, this is especially hard to do. Never have human beings lived in a time when they can fill their ears with every pleasurable sound and shut out the rest of the world. It used to be we had a few stations we could hear, but now you can personalize what you want to hear, mix your own music, listen to your designer station, fill your time with the airwaves at every moment. I heard a story of a driver who drove off a cliff. At first, the authorities thought it was a suicide, but later they concluded that he was in a daze, listening to his Ipod and simply did not notice the turn and went flying to his death.

This is a new high in blissful unawareness.

But the mitzvah of listening to the Shofar is something entirely different. There is something mysterious about listening to this sound. What are we listening for?

Rebbe Nachman of Bratzlav said that when the Shofar blows one hundred times on Rosh Hashannah, a bridge is formed between heaven and earth. According to another sage, the Tiferet Uziel the sounds of the Shofar are a secret language that is only understood in Heaven. We might then imagine from these comments, that when we hear the sound of the Shofar, we are hearing the echoes of Heaven. We are, as it were, overhearing supernal worlds, capturing through a hint of God’s message, apprehending just barely the conversation of angels.

The heavenly voice of the Shofar is much more subtle than listening to the blasts on Rosh Hashannah. The blowing of the Shofar during this season does not all take place on Rosh Hashannah. In fact there are five phases to the Shofar season, some which feature the blast, some of which feature silence. All are part of the symphony of the Shofar, the movements of the Ram’s Horn that make it possible to hear Heaven a bit more clearly. What are these phases?

The first time we have the opportunity to listen to the Shofar is the period of thirty days prior to Rosh Hashannah. The first blast of the Shofar begins on the first day of the preceding month of Ellul. We blow the Shofar on each weekday morning after the daily minyan. We hear the notes, Tekiah-Shevarim-Teruah-Tekiah, but unlike Rosh Hashannah we do not hear the notes announced. Nor do we pronounce a blessing in advance of hearing the Shofar as on Rosh Hashannah.

Ellul in Jewish tradition is understood as an acronym for a verse in the Song of Songs, “I am my beloveds and my beloved is mine-Ani (alef) Ldodi (lamed) vdodi (vav) li (lamed)”, spelling Elul in Hebrew. This hints that Elul is a time of love and connection. The rabbis understood this time as an opportunity for renewed relationship with God. Any attempt to take God seriously in our lives involves self reflection. The Shofar blast is meant to trigger self reflection in us. There was a medieval tradition of taking an hour to meditate each day of Ellul after the blowing of the Shofar. Thus the Shofar during the month of Ellul serves as the equivalent of a mediation gong.

Phase two happens on Erev Rosh Hashannah, the day before the festival. Tradition has us refrain from blowing the Shofar. This abstinence parallels the practice of not eating Matza on Erev Pesah and not sitting in the Sukkah on Erev Sukkot. Listen to two explanations for this intentional omission.

“The ram's-horn is not blown after the prayer (on Erev Rosh Hashannah) as it is on the other days of Elul, in order to mark a halt between the optional blasts of Ellul and obligatory blasts of the New Year, that is to say, between the blasts during Elul which are but a custom, and the blasts on Rosh Hashannah, which the Torah commanded.” [Levush]

Another Explanation: “(The silence of the Shofar on Erev Rosh Hashannah) is done in order to confuse Satan, to keep him ignorant of the coming of Rosh Hashannah when he brings charges against men, and to deceive him to think that the Day of Judgment has already passed. “ [Mateh Moshe]

These sources claim that transitions matter. How we handle transitions is critical. Spiritual traditions value and give meaning to transitions. These passages cause in us an escalation of concern, a marked increase in anxiety, but also a window of opportunity. To help us do the mitzvah of Shofar listening, we must have a silence to get ready. . If Heaven is to become audible, we must have the quiet to listen. The absence of something helps us to feel it more strongly when it reappears. We should not become habituated to the Shofar, to become complacent to its shrill blast.

The tradition of confusing Satan feels more primitive and grates at our modern view of Judaism. But our ancestors felt very vulnerable, that their lives hung in the balance during this time. Rosh Hashannah is Yom Hadin-the Day of Judgment. Satan in Jewish tradition is not a devil, but serves as God’s DA, the prosecutor who presents the faults of each of us before God as Satan does to Job in the Bible. By not blowing the Shofar we ask the court to take a recess, to allow ourselves to prepare our case which we will present in full over the next 10 days.

Phase 3: On Rosh Hashannah the Shofar is blown 100 times. Because the blasts are critical to enabling people to fulfill the Mitzvah of listening, the laws concerning their placement, clarity, and accuracy are quite intricate. The main concern of the Halachah is that the Shofar be blown in a way that is distinct and clear. The law, as it were, wants us to invest in good speakers, to get a good surround sound system so we can hear well.

What is the purpose of the Mitzvah of listening to the Shofar on Rosh Hashannah? According to Maimonides the purpose of the 100 blasts serves to wake us up. He wrote,

“Despite the fact that the blowing of the ram's-horn on Rosh Hashanah is an explicit decree in the Scripture, it is also a crying out, as if to say: ‘Awake, O you sleepers, awake from your sleep! O you slumberers, awake from your slumber! Search your deeds and turn in Teshuvah. Remember your Creator, O you who forget the truth in the vanities of time and go astray all the year after vanity and folly that neither profit nor save. Look to your souls, and better your ways and actions. Let every one of you abandon his evil way and his wicked thought….’” [Maimonides, Hilkhot Teshuvah III.]

Phase 4: The critical period of the Days of Awe is neither Rosh Hashannah nor Yom Kippur. It is the days in between when we are commanded to seek Teshuvah- repentance. The tradition assumes that we have listened during the New Year and that we have moved it up a notch, gone into action mode. Thus the Shofar falls silent during the –‘Aseret Yemai Teshuvah-the 10 days of repentance.‘

This silence is as equally striking as the silence on Erev Rosh Hashannah. The blasts of Elul and Rosh Hashannah function as goads-like the irritating alarm tone in my bedroom alarm clock that grows louder and louder until my discomfort forces me to get out of bed and turn it off. The moment after I turn the darn thing off, I realize that I am standing there; I am out of bed; I am awake although very, very grouchy. This is the role of the Shofar and its immediate aftermath of sustained silence. I realize that I am standing there awake. I am grouchy, but I have work to do!

What are we waking to? I believe the voice of Heaven, the voice of the Shofar is God’s way of forcing us to see our reality without illusion. We can only change when we see the truth. Hearing the truth about ourselves can be very unpleasant.

Rabbi Alan Lew tells a story of a Rabbi who was invited to a congregant’s home to view the first showing of the videotape of the wedding he had recently performed for this man’s daughter. As the tape begins, the rabbi and the cantor are seen standing alone under the wedding canopy, blissfully unaware that the videotape is running. They can be heard making fun of both families and how poorly the parents are adapting to their new status as in-laws. Then the cantor makes a disparaging remark about the bride’s mother’s dress. He calls it a ‘shmatte’. Then the rabbi himself can be heard uttering a profane assessment of the groom’s uncle.

Now imagine if God was playing back an embarrassing tape of yourself and you are looking at it for the first time. We are looking at ourselves unmasked before the Holy of Holies. On the 10 days of Teshuvah, God invites us home to see the real tape, the tape we fool ourselves into thinking does not exist. But if we are awake then the tape is not so surprising. In fact we have taken action to repair the errors and mistakes and wrongs that are so blatantly revealed on the tape of life.

While the mitzvah to listen to the shofar blasts ideally awakens a new awareness within ourselves, the action plan of the 10 days is outwardly directed and focused on our relationships. Jewish tradition requires us to repair the broken human relationships in our lives during this period. We are commanded to face directly those we have wronged, renounce our sin, and ask for forgiveness.

On Yom Kippur we then return to our interior lives and face our relationship with God. On this long day of fasting, it is as if, God is playing back the tape of our behavior in which we assumed that God was not watching. Or better, God plays the tape of our actions in which we assumed we were God, that there was no one or no thing that could question what we were doing or cast doubt on the wisdom or righteousness of our actions. The tape that God plays back to us on the long hours of Yom Kippur is a record of our vanities, our arrogance, our self satisfaction, our obliviousness, our pig headedness, or insensitivity, our inhumanity, our stubbornness, our self-satisfaction. It is only after we have seen this tape that we can hear the Shofar again.

Phase 5 At Neilah, the concluding service of Yom Kippur, we listen to a singular blast of the Shofar, one long, prolonged note. The blast is preceded by the recitation of three short verses: the Shema Yisrael, the Baruch Shem, and finally a verse from 1st Kings, Chapter 18 from the narratives about Elijah the Prophet. In the story, the verse “Adonai Hu Haelohim-Adonai He is the God” are the words spoken by the people when they acknowledge the public miracle of God’s presence on Mt. Carmel. In that story 400 prophets of Baal receive silence to their offering, while Elijah the prophet’s sacrifice is accepted by God. Clearly the blowing of the Shofar at the end of Yom Kippur is meant to remind us of the greatest public vindication of God in the Jewish Bible. We are acknowledging at the end of the Yom Kippur that there is a recorder who makes and safeguards our tape. We are accountable for this tape; we are required to review the tape, make changes, and reconcile with people and God. And our tradition adds that God desires our reconciliation. Only we have to want it also.

The end of Yom Kippur is the purest monotheistic moment of all of Jewish ritual. It is the acknowledgment that there is a moral force in the universe greater than us to whom we are held accountable. The whole process I have described hangs on that very moment at the end of Yom Kippur and that final Tekiah Gedolah that concludes the cycle of the Shofar.

The Shofar cycle is a carefully layered ritual that both builds in intensity and sustains drama by an alternation between a blast of the sounds and silence. The teaching of the Shofar is that awareness must be nursed along. It does not come and go, but must be drawn out, teased out of us. It must be sustained and it must be let go. The ritual leads us to self-awareness and a reconnection with other human beings and ultimately with God.

This is captured by the blessing, a powerful catalyst for the harnessing of our awareness. At the very center of this process we hear the blessing of the Baal Tokea-the Shofar blower, “Baruch Ata Adoshem Eloheinu Melech Haolam Asher Kidshanu Bmitzvotav V’tzivanu Lishmoa Kol Shofar –Blessed are You Hashem, our God, King of the Universe, who has sanctified us with His commandments and has commanded us to listen to the sound of the Shofar.”

We must listen, during the short blasts, the long blasts, the single blasts and the multiple blasts, the silent blasts and the loud blasts. The blessing is the expression of hope for that we can really hear these blasts and these silences above the noise of our daily lived, the background music, the talk radio that mires us in mindlessness. To achieve this depends on our openness, our will, and our discipline to tune out the static, perform the mitzvah that enables us to hear the sounds of heaven.