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I am grateful to the Central Conference of American Rabbis to have posted my message about a day to acknowledge Survivors of Suicide — those among us who have lost loved ones to suicide.
As many of you know, my wife’s father took his own life seven months ago today. Tomorrow, our Congress has identified November 21 as a day to support Survivors of Suicide.
Here are my reflections.
My wife, Deborah, wrote her own Kavanah to mark this day as she seeks out way to find comfort in God’s Presence.
It has been a wonderful two months at Congregation Har HaShem. It has been a long time since I have written or shared in this space, but I look forward to returning and sharing more with our Jewish community in Boulder!
Here is my message for our community.
May your New Year be sweet, filled with good health and great joy.
My Rosh Hashanah Sermon from Wednesday eve, September 24, 2015 at Temple Beth Tikvah of Roswell.
One of America’s greatest Jewish thinkers was Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan. He taught at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York and is the founder of Reconstructionist Judaism. His practice as a professor was to explain the Torah portion of the week on Monday in a sermonic manner. On Wednesday, a senior student would present his version of the same biblical text. Dr Kaplan was very demanding and critical instructor, and the students were often inhibited about speaking up and were, frankly afraid of him. Once in a class, a student took down verbatim what Dr Kaplan said on Monday. When it came to be the student’s time to explain the Torah portion, he repeated Dr Kaplan’s words from the previous Monday. Dr Kaplan said, “That is a terrible exposition.”
The student countered, “But Prof, Kaplan, that’s exactly what you said on Monday.” Kaplan replied, “young man, I have grown since then.”
We all have a need to grow if we are to make the most of our lives. Just as our bodies are constantly undergoing changes, so are our minds. We meet new situations and we are challenged by new ideas. We learn more about the past and we develop new thoughts about the present. We learn new ways to deal with people and to cope with problems. All of this is a part of growth, and to grow is to live.
This is a day of journeys. We venture out on our own so that we can have new encounters, new experiences, gain new wisdom. But Sometimes, we can’t have those experiences until we are willing to leave our familiar places and journey forward into the unknown.
I love looking to Avraham Avinu, our forefather Abraham. He was told by God to “Go from your land and from your birthplace and from your father’s house to the land that I’ll show you.”
We often focus on the term lech l’cha, which we typically translate as “go forth.” But what it really means is to “go to yourself.” In other words, look inside, and find your potential. An additional interpretation from Rabbi Lawrence Kushner says: “Go back to your essence in order to find out what you are really made of. Before we go on our journeys, we need to look into our souls so that we know where we are heading.”
But journeys can be scary. Moving, leaving… can be stressful. Let’s reflect once again on the text and read the phrase: “From your land, and from your birthplace, and from your father’s house.”
Dr. Richard Elliot Friedman, one of the world’s greatest Bible scholars, wrote: “The point of this order is not geographical. It is emotional. The three steps are arranged in ascending order of difficulty for Abraham. It is hard to leave one’s land, harder if it is where one was born, and harder still to leave one’s family. And where is he to go? To ‘the land that I’ll show you.’ That is, he must leave his homeland without knowing for what he is giving it up…”
Let’s add one additional layer. Abraham is introduced to us as an Ivri – a Hebrew. The word Ivri is rooted in the term “to cross over,” with the Hebrew root letters of ayin – bet – resh. Abraham left everything he knew to cross over many rivers in order to arrive go to the Promised Land to fulfill his destiny, his purpose.
We are his spiritual descendants. We are the Ivrim; we are the ones who have to cross over rivers. And it is not only that we have to, we ought to. We ought to go beyond our comfort zones so we can strive and grow the way Abraham models for us.
Each of us needs to grow. We all have rivers to cross. We are designed to have experiences not simply to enjoy them, but to learn from them, and to gain wisdom through these encounters. We venture out from our parents homes… at some point. Some of us have moved to different cities. Others have changed careers. Some went back to school. Others went to a campus for the very first time.
Change is a part of life and quite frankly, it is a scary part of life. Maybe that is why Abraham is among our spiritual heroes and greatest of role models. He is far from perfect, but his faith in the One God gives him the strength to journey – to be a seeker. We don’t have to change addresses in order to be that kind of seeker. We simply need to be open to new opportunities.
A new year is an opportunity for change. With a Jewish New Year is the focus on one of our most central tenets in Judaism — teshuvah, generally translated as “atonement.” I prefer to read it as “turning.” If that is the case, then this Rosh Hashanah and every New Year is an opportunity for change, for growth, for renewal, and for us to strive to reach our potential.
Have you ever wondered why God didn’t bring our Israelite ancestors directly to the Promised Land? Isn’t it strange that after everything they had endured in Egyptian servitude, that they didn’t just get the… Get Out of Jail Free card and Go Straight to Israel?
It couldn’t be that way. They needed to make the journey themselves. They needed to experience the angst and the doubt, alongside the potential for strength and hope.
…They needed to go through the desert, the midbar.
The fourth book of the Torah is called Bamidbar, in English, it is the Book of Numbers. We see an interesting teaching right at the beginning:
On the first day of the second month, in the second year following the exodus from the land of Egypt, the Eternal spoke to Moses in the wilderness, in the Tent of Meeting, saying: Take a census of the whole Israelite people community by the clans of its ancestral houses listing the names, every male, head by head. (1:1)
Our sages ask: why does the Torah say that God spoke to Moses in the wilderness AND in the Tent of Meeting? One well known teaching is that we would all benefit if we would be as open and accepting as the wilderness – to new opportunities, to new ideas, and to God. After all, Torah is given in the Sinai – not in the Land of Israel.
And yet, when we think of a wilderness or a desert – both are translations for midbar – we think of a place that is empty, desolate, even barren. But it is in the desert, the wilderness, where we find God. Just like Jacob who encountered God when he was all alone on his own journey where he dreamed of a ladder bridging the Earth to the Heavens with angels going up and down on it. That was where Jacob had his first incredible, intimate encounter with God and said,
אָכֵן֙ יֵ֣שׁ ה’ בַּמָּק֖וֹם הַזֶּ֑ה וְאָֽנֹכִ֖י לֹ֥א יָדָֽעְתִּי
“God was in this place and I did not know it.”
The wilderness is filled with opportunity, but it isn’t always easy to traverse. Our bias about the wilderness leads us to panic. But we aren’t wandering aimlessly. The first lines of Bamidbar show that God wants us to get organized, take a census, move into camps, and be prepared for what is in store. In the very place where they had angst, they were able to tap into strength that they never even knew they had to make the journey meaningful.
This is the sermon I needed to give tonight. This is the truth that I needed to share. As I leave a place of comfort and kindness, I am following in our ancient ancestors footsteps to enter into the midbar, an unfamiliar place. I also know that my decision to journey forward puts you, my congregants, in a midbar, too. My decision to cultivate my rabbinate and nurture my soul is a frightening prospect on the practical level… leaving a wonderful community, saying good bye to friends. And yet, on a spiritual level, we are all on our own journeys and I am a human being who seeks challenges and meaning like you.
While we resist the idea of being in the wilderness, I believe that is where most of live every single day. Listen to this poem by Rabbi Zoe Klein – I think it illustrates the point well:
There are three regions in each of our souls,
There is Egypt, there is the Desert, and there is
the Promised Land.
Many of us have glimpsed our Egypt,
Or perhaps some are still there,
Wearing the chains,
Bearing the burdens of fear, insecurity,
Doubt, and weakness
Mustering the strength to clamber up.
Still fewer of us have glimpsed our
Fulfillment of dreams,
Our fruitfulness, our blossoming,
We talk of Egypt often.
Every holiday, every prayer service,
Mentions we once were slaves,
Recalls our hardships under Pharaoh.
We talk of the Promised Land often,
Every holiday, every prayer service,
Longs for Israel,
For the Voice to come forth from Zion,
We turn to the east,
But rarely do we talk of, or pray about, the Desert.
Yet that is the region in which most of us are,
Pushing forward in the wilderness,
Dragging our footsteps across that forty year stretch
Of pristine, barren, moonscape.
It is there we encounter truth,
It is there we encounter miracle,
We are nomads still,
At the shore of some sparkling oasis,
And we sing our nomad song.
So maybe, we have been in the wilderness all along, together. Carrying each other from stage to stage.
My time with you, moving into my ninth year at Beth Tikvah, has had many meaningful encounters. I have cried with you and held you; I have celebrated with you and rejoiced with you. I have seen children grow into amazing young adults and I have helped to bury those you loved most. For some I brought you to places of safety; for others, I tried to. I sought to sit with you in in hospital rooms and bedsides in your homes. I have tried to be present when you felt trapped and when you were ready to take a leap of faith and renew your own commitments to journey forward.
I have striven to share my Torah with you. I have challenged you, sometimes out of your comfort zones to new ways of thinking…
And I have loved you… I have loved this community.
When Deborah and I needed a community of our own, you accompanied our family, too. From the beginning of our journey, bringing three little girls to a new city far, far, far from home and what was familiar to us. You befriended us. Coming to Atlanta where there was no family, many became our adopted families. You supported us through heartache, diagnoses, even through a surgery… for a different kind of heart…break. And you have celebrated our simchas and made them sweeter through your presence. I have grown as a rabbi here. I have learned how to be a better teacher here. I hope that my gifts have been welcomed and more so, that they made a difference. We have people we care about here; that will never change.
But alas, there comes a time when we need to grow… When we need to find a new challenge… When we need to nurture ourselves and live our lives out to the fullest.
If we are to be as open as the wilderness to new experiences, as difficult as they may be, then I hope we will see the possibilities in front of us too. I know that there are concerns, but there can be blessings in going as there are blessings in arriving. If my presence has been positive, then I hope this community will continue supports its leaders, and welcomes its next rabbi, embrace their family, and take care of her or him as you have done for me.
I know as I take my next step in my journey, I will take much from this community. I hope that what I leave will be celebrated and carried with you, too, as this great synagogue continues on its journey.
This is a year of transition, not just for the synagogue. It is a year of transition for our Selves. If we seek to be spiritual beings, if we seek encounters that are meaningful and awesome, then we can embrace the changes that are ahead of us. That is the ultimate lesson for us in this new year.
But change needs a foundation of faith. Let’s look at a parable that I believe provides us a lens through which to seek and understand that foundation:
Sometimes I fear my life is a series of trapeze swings. I’m either hanging on to a trapeze bar swinging along or, for a few moments in my life, I’m hurtling across space in between trapeze bars.
Most of the time, I spend my life hanging on for dear life to my trapeze-bar-of-the-moment. It carries me along a certain steady rate of swing and I have the feeling that I am in control of my life. I know most of the right questions and even some of the right answers. But once in awhile, as I’m merrily (or not so merrily) swinging along, I look ahead of me into the distance, and what do I see? I see another trapeze bar has my name on it. It is my next step, my growth, my aliveness. In my heart-of-hearts I know that for me to grow, I must release my grip on the present, well known bar to move to the new one.
Each time it happens to me, I hope (no, I pray) that I won’t have to grab the new one. But in my knowing place I know that I must totally release my grasp on my old bar, and for some moment in time I must hurtle across space before I can grab onto the new bar. Each time I am filled with terror. It doesn’t matter that in all my previous hurtles across that void of unknowing, I have always made it. Each time I am afraid I will miss, that I will be crushed on unseen rocks in the bottomless chasm between the bars. But I do it anyway. Perhaps this is the essence of what the mystics call the faith experience. No guarantees, no net, no insurance policy, but you do it anyway because somehow, to keep hanging onto that old bar is no longer on the list of alternatives. And so for an eternity that can last a microsecond or a thousand lifetimes, I soar across the dark void of “the past is gone, the future is not yet here.” It’s called transition. I have come to believe that it is the only place that real change occurs. I mean real change, not the pseudo-change that only lasts until the next time my old buttons get pushed.
I have noticed that, in our culture, this transition zone is looked upon as “no-thing,” a no-place between places. Sure the old trapeze bar was real, and that the new one coming towards me, I hope that’s real too.
But the void in between? That’s just a scary, confusing, disorienting “nowhere” that must be gotten through as fast as possible. What a waste! I have a sneaking suspicion that the transition zone is the only real thing and the bars are illusions we dream up to avoid the void, where the real change, the real growth occurs for us.
Whether or not my hunch is true, it remains that the transition zones in our lives are incredibly rich places. They should be honored, even savored. Yes, with all the pain and fear and feelings of being out of control that can (but not necessarily) accompany transitions, they are still the most alive, most growth filled, passionate, expansive moments in our lives.
And so, transformation of fear may have nothing to do with making fear go away, but rather with giving ourselves permission to “hang-out” in the transition between trapeze bars. Transforming our need to grab that new bar, any bar, is allowing ourselves to dwell in the place where change really happens. It can be terrifying. It can also be enlightening, in the true sense of the word. Hurtling through the void, we may just learn how to fly.
Letting go is our work of teshuvah, atonement, turning, striving, transforming…
Letting go requires that we know that there is a net. We call that net emunah – faith.
I need faith to feel secure enough to let go, to make the necessary changes, to be willing to journey into the midbar. And so do you.
So let’s be grateful for our journeys, for our opportunities, for the ability to ever increase our wisdom so that we can not only find meaning in our lives, but so we can bring meaning and purpose to our community and to our world.
I thank God for the possibilities that are before all of us. For our ability to dream, to hope and be courageous as we enter into the midbar together. We might be moving on different paths from one another, but we are all striving to reach the Promised Land.
May your journeys be sweet this year.
May our time together be filled with more joy then sorrow.
May this year be a year of strength and courage for all of us.
May the New Year be a good year, a sweet year and a healthy year for you and yours.
 Adapted from Rabbi Dov Peretz Elkins, Moments of Transcendence, p. 101. Message by Rabbi Bernard Raskas in Heart of Wisdom II.
 Genesis 12:1.
 Ed. by Aharon Yaakov Greenberg, Itturei Torah. Tel Aviv, Yavneh Publ: 1996, 83.
 Lawrence S. Kushner and Kerry M. Olitzky. Sparks Beneath The Surface: A Spiritual Commentary on the Torah, 1993.
 Richard Elliott Friedman, Commentary on the Torah, 2001.
 Genesis 28:16.
 Reprinted in Richard Address’ To Honor and Respect: A Program and Resource Guide for Congregations on Sacred Aging. New York: URJ Press, 2005: 42-43.
 Danaan Parry, “The Parable of the Trapeze: Turning the Fear of Transformation into the Transformation of Fear,” Warriors of the Heart: A Handbook for Conflict Resolution. Charleston, SC: BookSurge Publishing, 2009. Thank you, Rabbi David Wolfman, for introducing this powerful teaching to me.
I had a wonderful meeting with a man named Mark Crenshaw last month. Mark is the former director of the Interfaith Disability Network. Mark told me a story of how he was leaving a church that he was visiting with his wife and how impressed he was that the pastor was at the door wishing everybody a good day. To each and every person, the pastor asked, “What is your name and what do you do?” Mark saw this interaction as touching and thoughtful. When the pastor got to his wife, he asked her, “What is your name and what you do?” His wife of course answered. When Mark approached for his turn to greet the pastor, Mark, a man who lives with disability, who has led a nonprofit organization, who has a Masters of Divinity degree from Emory’s Candler School of Theology, and who is the Director of Interdisciplinary Training at the Center for Leadership in Disability at Georgia State University… To Mark, the pastor commented, “it’s a nice day out, isn’t it?”
Mark told me the story because he was trying to illustrate how inclusion is not just about offering a special program for people who feel excluded, such as those who live with disabilities. Inclusion is about providing a safe and welcoming space for all – for people with all kinds of abilities.
Sometimes we need to provide opportunities for people with disabilities to connect without worry or concern for being looked at funny or being shushed. For the very first time, Temple Beth Tikvah is going to offer a sensory friendly Shabbat service on Friday night, February 21 at 6:30 PM. I am thrilled to be presenting this in collaboration with the Disability Committee of the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta. This is going to be a great learning experience for our congregation. I hope our friends will come, not because “they need it,” but because we will all be able to learn a little bit more about the spiritual and communal needs of people with disabilities and those who love them. If we really mean that we are “a warm and welcoming congregation,” then we have to learn how to open our tents wide enough so that all who choose to can enter and feel at home. Being an accessible congregation means that we have to move “beyond the ramp” and encourage people with disabilities that they are welcome. We can tell our friends, family and neighbors that this service will be open to all and I hope all who are committed to inclusion will come and pray and share together.
I am just as excited for us to host a short film and discussion. This 30 minute film is called, “The Collector of Bedford Street.” It is about a developmentally disabled man who is, frankly, just extraordinary. We witness the goodness he brings out in others as he helps raise money for different causes – despite the fact that he is poor and vulnerable himself. Our discussion will address themes like the gifts we can share with one another, how a community takes care of its neighbors, how one person can make a difference, and how every single person has a gift to offer another. Please look at the information in this newsletter about this program on Thursday, February 13 at 7:30 PM; please RSVP at email@example.com.
These two endeavors are part of the efforts of a new working group at Temple Beth Tikvah. This Inclusion Task Force is assessing the needs of our community to be more inclusive of people with disabilities and different abilities. We look forward to put together our thoughts and plans to present to our Board of Trustees in the near future. If you have an interest in getting involved in such a group, please write directly to me.
I do believe, without exception, that every single human being is created in God’s image. If that is truly the case, then we need to open our hearts and our eyes to the needs of so many who feel like they are on the periphery or just left out of the Jewish community. I think that if we open our tents wide, not only will we provide spiritual nourishment to people who are often forgotten, but we will be enriched by doing so.
Regarding our Sensory Friendly Shabbat Service: there will be a social story to prepare a child for entering into the sanctuary; there will be a safe room for anyone who needs to walk around and stretch or draw in our Oneg Room; there will be a section of the sanctuary where the lights will be lowered; there will be no “shushing”; there will be a sign language interpreter. To see a social story to prepare your child, click here. To RSVP for this Shabbat experience, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
For more information about what is going on in Atlanta for Jewish Disability Awareness Month, click here.
Something that I hope to help nurture is people’s spiritual journeys. But being a spiritual seeker isn’t always easy. I believe that there are many different paths within Judaism to nurture our souls. That is why I was so pleased that TBT’s own Gail Tate was able to lead a Meditation experience for some friends last month. Below are a few reflections about the experience, including words from Gail. We hope that others will consider trying opening up to this new, different, yet Jewish experience.
Shalom Meditation Reflections on 12-14-13 by Gail Tate
Our first Shalom Meditation on December 14th was an exciting event. We enjoyed adventurous congregants who were open to a unique type of Shabbat. Our Shalom Meditation experience was hosted in TBT’s library. Our group was seated in a circle with the center table adorned with candle and the Star of David.
What is the best way to begin a meditation? At TBT we began by letting go of the tensions of our week through traditional meditation techniques, breath work, and the power of the Elohim Eshala, a Yemenite Jewish piyyut that means “I will ask of the Lord”. We included a variety of modalities to clear our mental chatter including sounds of the drum, bells and chanting the mantras which spoke to the Jewish soul.
Our meditation encompassed a discussion on the torah portion of the day Parashat Vayechi and its wisdom, “we all struggle with the quest for the bigger, better deal in our materialistic culture. We forget to be thankful for all that we have and to rejoice in our own portion”.
During our meditation adventure we opened up communication with our Elohim. Our session closed with a Kabbalah Healing Meditation. I look forward to our next Shalom Meditation!
Until our Shalom Meditation event in The Library,
Saturday, January 18th, 2014 from 10:00 AM – 11:30 AM
“I was moved and inspired by the meditation with Gail today and believe it would offer an alternative spiritual experience to the congregation. Gail taught a variety of modalities to clear our mental chatter, including focus on the breath, candle, sounds of the drum, bells and chanting the mantras which spoke to the Jewish soul. I have listened to many guided meditation over years, but I can honestly say that this is my first “Jewish meditation ” and it felt like I was finally able to merge the spiritual paths I have studied and practiced with my strong Jewish identity. It was a beautiful and powerful experience and I left feeling both peaceful and energized. I am grateful to Gail as well as to the Rabbi for being open and willing to embrace meditation as a path to Jewish spirituality.”
— Yael Layish
Gail with great sensitivity took us thru the process step by step. I have never really connected meditation with Judaism as part of my Jewish heritage . And now this is giving me a new aspect of spiritually that fits so well in my life. I am looking forward to our next meeting and hope others will have a chance to explore this for themselves.
— Myra Idol
In recognition of October being National Substance Abuse Prevention Month:
I am joining many other rabbis in our Greater Atlanta area to raise awareness and break taboos of talking about substance abuse in our Jewish community. We feel it is such an important issue that the Atlanta Rabbinical Association is partnering with Jewish Family & Career Services’ new initiative, HAMSA – Helping Atlantans Manage Substance Abuse to make this a community-wide effort.
Last year at Yom Kippur, I spoke at great length about the need for our Jewish community to be more responsive to our congregants facing addictions. Since that time, I have been overwhelmed by the number of people who have been dealing with addictions in their own families – children, parents, spouses and partners. Far more families have been touched than I ever could have imagined. So one hand, I am gratified that we are having this discussion out loud. On the other hand, it shows that there is a lot of pain out there, even in our own Beth Tikvah community.
We have chosen to use this Shabbat because of an episode in the Torah portion, Noach, where Noah survives The Flood and gets drunk. Why is this the image that is given to us? Wouldn’t one expect that Noah would be just grateful to be alive?
There are many things that can bring a person to such self-destructive behaviors. We often say that addictions are a disease, but what they really show is dis-ease. So we are going to talk about faith, hope and God as ways we can find strength, along with issues we need to confront in our community. For additional information about the work of HAMSA, please contact 770.677.9318 or HAMSA@jfcs-atlanta.org / https://yourtoolsforliving.org/hamsa.
Last year at this time, I wrote to you about the power of Neilah – the final service on Yom Kippur. I explained that these are the final moments before the Gates of Repentance close (which leads us to the term Neilah, meaning “locking”).
It is such an intense moment… the congregation stands, the ark remains open for the last several prayers. We begin with the Amidah, we move towards Avinu Malkeinu, we remain standing for yet another confession (Vidui), recite prayers reflecting the fragility of life and how God is a God of forgiveness and mercy, yearning for us to return to The Holy One/HaKadosh Baruch Hu.
There are some of us who feel like we need to stretch to make it through those gates.
This year at this service, I am going to invite – for those who choose – anyone to ascend the bimah while the ark is open to stand before the open ark and offer their own personal, silent prayer. As the gates begin to close, some of us might need to express something that can’t be spoken at other times. Others might want the opportunity to come as close as one physically can to God’s Presence hovering over us on such a day. Whatever one might need, this is our chance to express our deepest prayers and feelings before our most sacred space at our most sacred time.
I know some of us might be concerned about walking about or sitting while the ark is opened. Yet, the Shulcahn Aruch, the most widely accepted Code of Jewish Law, gives us the halachah (classic Jewish law) on the issue. It says that one is to stand when a Torah scroll is in motion (Yoreh Deah 282.2), not just when the ark is open. To give an illustration, we stand for Kol Nidre not because the ark is opened, but because the Sifrei Torah are being held before us and those people are standing. When the Torah is amongst us and it is resting or someone who is holding it is sitting, then we sit, too.
As we continue with our service, while sitting or standing, the ark will remain open and you can respectfully come to share your private prayer before God. You can come yourself. You can come with a loved one or your family. Each of us can take some time to pray.
May the Holy One of Blessing continue to hear our prayers, and may we be willing to share the prayers of our hearts.
From my family to yours, from our synagogue leadership to all of you, may the New Year be a sweet, happy, and healthy one for you and yours.