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Rabbi Dov Gartenberg's Sermons

Shabbat HayyeiSarah 5780

“’Avraham was now old, advanced in years and the Lord had blessed Abraham in all things.” Gen 24:1.

A midrash comments that Abraham began to feel old only when Sarah died.” (Tanhuma). I address this question to those who admit they are seniors, or those who take advantage of senior discounts. When did you first begin to feel that you were old? Was it an illness? turning a certain age? Enrolling in Medicare or applying to receive social security?

I began to identify as old when I reached 65. Although, I don’t always feel old, the self-perception of being elderly comes to me more often. In today’s sermon, I ponder about how our tradition understands old age. What does it mean to be called old in Jewish tradition?

AJ Heschel wrote in his essay, The Growth of Wisdom, “A test of a people is how it behaves toward the old. It is easy to love children. Even tyrants and dictators make a point of being fond of children. But the affection and care for the old, the incurable, the helpless are the true gold mines of a culture.”

Heschel reflects the Torah’s view of the preciousness of old age and the inherent tendency in human nature to neglect the old. A wild Midrash that ignores biology, offers a myth on how old age came into the world through Abraham.

“And Abraham became old” Genesis 24:1. Until Abraham, there was no old age, so that one who wished to speak with Abraham might mistakenly find himself speaking to Isaac, or one who wished to speak with Isaac might mistakenly find himself speaking to Abraham. But when Abraham came, he pleaded for old age, saying Master of the Universe, “You must make a visible distinction between father and son, between a youth and an old man, so that the old man may be honored by the youth. God replied, “As you live, I shall begin with you.”

So, Abraham went off, passed the night, and arose in the morning. When he arose, he saw that the hair of his head and of his beard had turned white. He said, “Master of the universe, if You have given me white hair as a mark of old age, (I do not find it attractive).” On the contrary, God replied, “Gray hair is a crown of glory; it is attained by the way of righteousness.” Prov 16:31 Ateret Tiferet Sevah, bderech tzedaka timtza. BM 87a Gen R. 65:9

Old Age is Associated with Wisdom

In this Midrash God teaches Avraham that old age is a “crown of glory”, that becoming elderly is an achievement. Our Humash goes beyond the Midrash to suggest that the unique designation of old in the Torah is associated with something else.

“’Avraham was now old, advanced in years and the Lord had blessed Abraham in all things.” Gen 24:1.
“Before Abraham, although people lived for many years, none was described as old with its connotations of wisdom and maturity, not just chronologic length of days.”

For example, note the description of Abraham’s father, Terah. “The days of Terah came to 205 years and Terah died in Haran.” Gen 11:12. There is no description that Terah lived to a ripe old age.

The commentary continues, “In Jewish tradition the Hebrew word for “old” (zaken) is associated with wisdom. Because it forms an acronym meaning “this one has acquired wisdom” (zeh kanah hochmah). Abraham was the first person in Torah history to grow wiser as he grew older (59:6).

AJ Heschel, our great teacher understood the wisdom of old age as the capacity to experience wonder.
Rabbi Samuel Dressner writes,

“Several years before Abraham Heschel’s death in 1972, he suffered a near fatal heart attack from which he never fully recovered. I traveled to his apartment in New York to see him. He had gotten out of bed for the first time to greet me and was sitting in the living room when I arrived, looking weak and pale. He spoke slowly and with some effort, almost in a whisper. I strained to hear his words.

“Sam,” he said, “when I regained consciousness, my first feelings were not of despair or anger. I felt only gratitude to God for my life, for every moment I had lived. I was ready to depart. ‘Take me, O Lord,’ I thought, ‘I have seen so many miracles in my lifetime.’

Exhausted by the effort, he paused for a moment, then added: “That is what I meant when I wrote…’I did not ask for success; I asked for wonder. And You gave it to me.””

Rabbi Shai Held writes that according to Heschel “there are two possible orientations to living, ‘the way of wonder’ and the ‘way of expediency’. In the latter approach, ‘we accumulate information in order to dominate’; in the former, ‘we deepen our appreciation in order to respond. The way of expediency closes us off to what is outside us; the way of wonder, in contrast, awakens us to the reality of our ‘living in the great fellowship of all beings.”
Old age is a time when we can move beyond the way of expediency to the way of wonder. Heschel wrote, “Old age is not a defeat but a victory, not a punishment but a privilege. One ought to enter old age as one enters the senior year at a university, in exciting anticipation of consummation.” This is the way we understand the Torah’s teaching of old age in our time.

Old Age, Tzedaka, and Teaching the Young to Care for the Vulnerable

“Abraham was old, well advanced in years (Gen 24:1) R. Meir happened to go to Mamla, where he saw that all the townspeople had black hair (none was old enough to have it turn gray. So he asked. ‘Are you perhaps of the family of Eli, who were told, “All the increase of your house shall die young men”; (1 Sam 2:33)

They replied, ‘Master, pray for us.’ He said, ‘Go and busy yourselves with tzedaka and you will attain old age.’ What is the proof? ‘“Gray hair is a crown of glory; it is attained by the way of righteousness.”. (Prov. 16:31) Where is gray head found? It is found in the way of tzedaka. From who may one learn that this is so? From Abraham, of whom Scripture asserts (that he instructed his children “to keep the way of the Lord, by doing what is just and right: tzedaka and mishpat (mishpat) (Gen 18:19 And therefore he attained old age. Gen R 59:1

What the midrash is doing here is more subtle. The verse from Genesis verse 18, is one of the most important in the Torah because it reveals why God chose Abraham to partner in the covenant. Because Abraham instructed his children to do tzedaka, which is to support the vulnerable. In other words, Abraham not only practiced tzedaka and mishpat, he taught his children these principles and practices of life. He taught that it is the responsibility of the young to care for the old.

This principle is also reflected in the mitzvah of kibbud av v’em, honoring our father and a mother. The application of the mitzvah in rabbinic literature is supporting and caring for our parents when they grow old and vulnerable. The Torah is one of the great texts of human civilization because it did two things. It decried the sacrifice of children by parents and the abandonment of parents by children.

Deference for the Old

Another important source for understanding Judaism’s view of old age is an important verse in Leviticus 19.
“You shall rise before the aged and show deference to the old; you shall fear your God. I am the Lord” Lev. 19:32
Note the commentary from Etz Hayim “Show deference to the old. ‘What we owe the old is reverence, but all they ask for is consideration, attention, not to be discarded and forgotten. What they deserve is preference, yet we do not even grant them equality’ (Heschel). Act in such a manner that you do not embarrass the old person you will one day become by your behavior today. The Midrash tells of a king who would rise to honor an elderly commoner, saying, God has chosen to reward him (with long life), how can I not do the same?’” (Lev Rabbi 25:5)

Why do we show deference to the old?

Because to be old person is to more aware of her mortality. This awareness can overwhelm us.
“Al Tashlicheinu l’et ziknah,Kichlot kocheinu al taazveinu” Do not cast us away when we are old, as our strength diminishes, do not forsake us. This sentence is repeated in the Shema Koleinu prayer of Yom Kippur) ‘Do not cast us away when we are old. The power of Shma Koleinu deepens for us as we age. Those aware of their aging often question the value and significance of their lives, seeking spiritual connection in questions such as, ‘Did my life mean anything? “What use am I now that I am old?” In Shema Koleinu we hear a voice-perhaps our own-calling out from the winter of the heart, an inner landscape of loss and uncertainty about the future. We learn from this prayer that a person who feels this way needs, above all, to be heard and seen. (seen is my word)”P. 99 Mishkan Hanefesh Mahzor.

When I was a younger rabbi, performing funerals was challenging, but did not cause me emotional havoc. Now that I am older, I have to work harder at controlling my emotions. For as I help lay a person to rest, I feel my own mortality keenly. This sense of mortality is what the Shema Koleinu addresses on Yom Kippur.

Judaism then understands and commands deference for the elderly so that those of us who have entered this stage in life can feel seen and heard. We fear being cast off, made irrelevant, bereft of attention, concern, and spiritual support. We fear our demise, because we know that it is closer than we felt when we were young.
Teaching a young person to have deference for the old is one of the most central and enduring tasks of teaching the next generation. May our congregation succeed with the next generation in teaching them how to treat the old how to become old.

For those of us who have reached or have passed the threshold of old age, we should learn from Abraham about becoming old. Our tradition has great wisdom on this stage of life. May we be worthy of achieving the great aspiration in Psalm 90: Psalm 90:12 “Teach us to count our days rightly, that we may obtain a wise heart.” Limnot yameinu ken hoda, vnavo levav hachmah.


Yom Kippur 5780

The Dilemma: Mitzvah of Hospitality vs. Preventing Anti-Semitic Violence

Let all who are hungry come and eat. Let all who are in need
come and share the Pesach meal. (Haggadah)

I know these words are hard to mention during the fast day, but as you may recall, these words come near the beginning of the Passover Seder. Why do I mention them?

Many centuries ago, it was when they arrived at this early passage, Ha Lachma Anya, that families opened the doors as an invitation for others to join the Seder. As you can see by the text itself, it is an invitation for the hungry and the needy to join the hosts at the Passover Seder.

However, at some point the tradition of opening the door at the beginning of the Seder was pushed back toward the end. To this day when we open the door and invite Eliyahu in for Elijah’s cup, we also add these words, “Pour out your fury on the nations that do not know you, upon the kingdoms that do not invoke your name for they have devoured Jacob and desolated his home.” (Psalms 79:6-7)

Noam Zion, a scholar of the Haggadah, suggests that it was not until the bloody Crusades that Biblical verses of Divine anger were added to the Haggadah, for pogroms typically occurred on Easter/Passover.

What does this change in practice suggest? The older tradition of opening the door at the beginning reflects a Jewish commitment to the practice of hospitality, what we call Hachnasat Orchim — the welcoming of guests. I call thisJewish Hospitality. I am going to argue that Jewish Hospitality is a central practice in Judaism. One of the historic casualties of our experience of anti-Semitic violence has been our retreat from the practice of the mitzvah of Hachnasat Orchim.

How is Jewish hospitality such an important Mitzvah?

We learn of the importance of Hospitality from the beginning of Chapter 18 in Genesis.

In Genesis 18, we read,

“God appeared to him [Avraham] in the plains of Mamre while he was sitting at the entrance to the tent in the heat of the day. He lifted his eyes and there were three men standing before him. He saw them and ran to greet them from the entrance to the tent and bowed toward the ground. He said: “My Lord, if I have found favor in Your eyes, please do not leave your servant.”

“Take some water and wash your feet, and rest under the tree. I will fetch some bread and you will satiate yourselves, then go on – in as much as you have passed your servant’s way.” They said, “Do so, just as you have said.”

The rabbinic tradition expanded these verses:

“How treasured by God is the mitzvah of hospitality! Rav Yehudah said in the name of Rav, “Welcoming guests is greater than greeting the Divine Presence.” [Avraham was standing before God and he noticed some guests approaching.] He said to God, “If I have found favor in Your eyes, please do not leave me” [i.e. “Please wait while I go and greet the guests” (Bereishit 18:3).]

A later commentator in the Middle Ages explains Rav Yehudah’s astonishing observation that welcoming human guests is even greater than receiving the Divine Presence.

Why do human beings take precedence to greeting God?, the Maharil writes, “Although it is possible, to a certain extent, to connect with the Divine Presence, this relationship is somewhat limited, for there is, after all, an unbridgeable distance between man and God. As God Himself tells us: “No human can see My face and live” (Shemot/ Exodus 33:20).

The teaching that welcoming guests is greater than greeting the Divine Presence is the basis of many hospitality traditions in Judaism. Hospitality is most frequently practiced in the home. It is fulfilled through inviting guests to a Shabbat or festival meal at home, giving a place to sleep for people coming to the synagogue from out of town.

One lesser known, but very important aspect of Jewish hospitality practice is the sharing of Judaism with non-Jews who have expressed an interest in learning about our tradition. This hospitality is expressed in helping a conversion candidate by sitting next to him or her at services or mentoring a candidate over the year of conversion studies.

Another less known ancient Jewish hospitality practice centers on welcoming new faces to parties celebrating the wedding of a couple. Jewish law in fact requires inviting at least one new face who did not attend the wedding to these parties to share in feting the bride and groom during the week following their wedding.

At the synagogue the mitzvah of hospitality is fulfilled in greeting people as they come to services. A greeter welcomes a worshipper with a kind face and offers a prayer book and a Humash. A greeter and worshippers pay special attention to new faces and welcome them to the community.

It is also a common practice (although not common enough) for congregations to invite newcomers at worship to Shabbat meals with congregants for dinner or lunch. The welcoming of new faces and strangers is integral to the life of a congregation and has been for centuries. Throughout the year new faces show up at services, classes, communal events.

Sometimes the success or failure of a synagogue rests in the way it welcomes new faces and newcomers.

However, we also know there are risks in being hospitable.

On Wednesday, June 17, 2015 a young white man joined 12 people at the Emanuel AME church in Charleston for Bible study. The man was welcomed, and listened to the discussion. Soon he started to disagree with others as they began reading Scripture. At the end of the study, the group started praying. The man stood up and pulled a gun from a fanny pack. 26-year-old Tywanza Sanders, tried to talk him down and asked him why he was attacking churchgoers. The shooter responded, “I have to do it. You rape our women and you’re taking over our country. And you have to go.”

When he expressed his intention to shoot everyone, Sanders dove in front of Jackson and was shot first. The shooter then fired at the other victims, all the while shouting racial epithets. He also reportedly said, “Y’all want something to pray about? I’ll give you something to pray about.”[38] He reloaded his gun five times.

Last year on October 27th, a mass shooting occurred at the Tree of Life – Or L’Simcha Congregation[a] in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, during Shabbat morning services. At 9:50 a.m. EDT (13:50 UTC), a gunman described as a “bearded heavy-set white male” entered the synagogue, opened fire and was “shooting for about 20 minutes”.[38] He shouted as he spread his bullets, “All Jews must die.”

Eleven people were killed and seven (including the perpetrator) were injured. It was the deadliest attack on a Jewish community in the history of the United States.

Among the 11 people killed were the Rosenthal brothers, David and Cecil. Both were almost always in the synagogue, greeting everyone who came with a “Good Shabbos” and a ready prayer book. David and Cecil lived with intellectual disabilities. They were beloved by the members of the synagogue for their friendliness and kindness. During his time leading Tree of Life, Rabbi Chuck Diamond said, the two were always there — one out front, greeting everyone who came to worship. “There’s no question in my mind he was sitting in the back of the sanctuary, greeting people at the time the gunman came in,” Diamond said.

What ties these two terrible acts of violence together is that the shooters took advantage of these communities’ authentic practice of hospitality. The members of the black church of Emanuel AME Church welcomed a stranger to their Bible Study and Prayer. In the second case the greeters of Tree of Life, the Rosenthal brothers, as was their wont, extended a hospitable greeting of Good Shabbos to the shooter (not realizing his violent intent) in the moments before they were brutally murdered.

Everyone here should already know that our country is experiencing a rise in hate crimes and anti-Semitic acts. Every synagogue and Jewish institution as well as minority communities’ houses of worship are reviewing their security practices, and greeters have been augmented by security personnel. Many Jewish communities are receiving live shooter training and, like CBI, have instituted stricter entry requirements.

This is a frightening time. I acknowledge the fear in our hearts.

Yet very few are asking about the impact of all this on our practice of the mitzvah of hospitality. What happens when the legitimate security concerns overwhelm our mitzvah to welcome people into our synagogues with warmth and kindness?

We are presented with a cruel dilemma. At the heart of our tradition is a love of hospitality, but we are again experiencing insecurity even in the most tolerant of countries in our historical experience.

We face this cruel dilemma at CBI.

Here is an excerpt from an email I received from a member a few weeks ago. He had come to Shabbat morning services late and did not have his security FOB. He spent several minutes knocking on the locked door. We had no greeter at the door and the custodian was busy with other tasks. This was what he wrote,

“On Shabbat the building should be a place where we welcome new people and appreciate anyone who is looking to see what amazing stuff we offer.

I strongly object to the building being on lockdown during Shabbat services. We have community members who come at all times of the morning from the start of services to people who show up just for lunch. The fact that there is not even a sign saying how to get in, and I had knock loudly to get someone to open up the door does not make this a warm and welcoming place.

I am not saying we shouldn’t care about the safety of our members, but this is not a way to attract would be members nor make people feel that our community is open to everyone.”

I bring this email to share with you the dilemma we face. Does the need for security so supersede the mitzvah of hospitality that we are excused from fulfilling it? How can we practice the mitzvah of hospitality while we attempt to take security precautions against the possibility of a hateful and violent intruder?

The purpose of my remarks today is to frame a conversation within our community. Often Rabbis and others talk about anti-Semitism without considering the collateral cost to our practicing the Jewish way of life. I am not denying the importance of security, but we also must consider how we fulfill the mitzvah of hospitality, of being a welcoming place, while we make our synagogue more secure.

Let me give you an example of how we might navigate this dilemma. If the best security practice is to keep the outer door locked on Shabbat morning, let’s make sure that we don’t simply rely on the custodians to open the doors. Rather, can we recruit a robust group of rotating congregational greeter volunteers at Shabbat services to warmly welcome people in. All these volunteers would receive active shooter training, but they would also have the capacity to truly greet and welcome everyone who comes through our doors.

There are other ways we can fulfill the Mitzvah of hospitality without letting security concerns overwhelm us. We could make our congregation more welcoming by having a welcome table at kiddush or recruiting a rotating group of members who will host meals at their homes to which we can invite newcomers for Shabbat meals.

Facing the dilemma of upholding the Torah and Mitzvot and facing the realities of hateful violence is not new to us. We also know that our ancestors lived in far more dangerous situations. It was not long ago that the hatred of Jews led to an attempt to annihilate us. We do not live in those terrible times, but we are concerned and watchful.

Gun violence is a reality in American society. I am a strong proponent for gun control, which I believe would reduce the danger that we face, but that is another topic for another time. But I will suggest that those who are gunned down in the act of practicing hospitality are in some sense religious martyrs. I think this needs to be acknowledged. The Rosenthal brothers and the those who died at the Emmanuel AME Church gave up their lives in the act of welcoming the stranger to their houses of worship.

Yes, I believe in security and yes, I think it is highly unlikely I will face a violent intruder, But I am prepared to die practicing the noble mitzvah of hospitality, because I believe that it is central to what we stand for a Jews.

Let us return to the Passover Seder. In some sense moving the opening of the door to the end of the Seder was a practical precaution.But our sages from previous generations never expunged the Ha Lachma Anya passage. They kept it in the beginning of the Seder.

In fact, what our ancestors learned is that we should not wait to invite guests to the Seder by opening the door, rather we should intentionally invite guests to this most joyful meal during the days and weeks prior to the Seder. In that way we could not forgo the Mitzvah of hospitality and were able to share our going out of Egypt with others.

Let this be a lesson to us on the hard compromises between Security and Hospitality. Let us not forget the teaching of our sages:

Welcoming human guests is even greater than receiving the Divine Presence.


Kol Nidre 5780

Matanah Tova: The Gift of Kehilah Kedosha-Holy Community

When 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 said,

“I had a dream. I was nearing death when I suddenly smelled the aroma of your Ima’s potato kugel. I LOVE that kugel. As wonderful a cook my Sarah is, that kugel is her masterpiece.” He lay back against the pillows, weak from the exertion of speaking.

“What a wonderful dream, Abba,” replied the son, “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, weakly falling against the pillows. He turned to his son, saying, “I’m still too weak to get up. Go to the kitchen and get for me a piece of your Ima’s kugel.”

The son rose obediently 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. Ima says it’s for the Shivah.”

As funny as this old Jewish joke is, it ignores an important part of the tradition of the Shivah — the seven days of mourning following the burial of a loved one. The community sustains the mourners with gifts of food during the Shivah to free them from the daily task of preparing food.

The important point is that the friends and people in the community must bring the kugel, the challah, the eggs, the lentils, and the other food to sustain the mourners. These are the gifts that open the path of healing to 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 power of community at these moments.

How do we do this? What creates an authentically Jewish sense of community? What makes a community spiritually and morally excellent?

The answer begins with the simple act of a congregant bringing a kugel to the shivah house. Preparing food and bringing it to the shivah house is a gift. Gift-giving is so commonplace that we never think about it. But gift giving is at the heart of a Jewish community, indeed at the heart of all loving relationships. The gift is the key to understanding what we call in Judaism a Kehilah Kedosha — a holy community.

Let me illustrate an example of Jewish gift giving. A few years ago at my former congregation a congregant named Mark Dykan, z”l, was at the beginning of his struggle with the cancer that ultimately would claim his life. 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 for shivah services. I told him that he need not worry for we were assured of a minyan. But he said,” See you there.” That evening Mark came to the Shivah minyan. His presence was a gift.

Mark did not have a specific obligation to come to the minyan, but he knew that going to the minyan was a way of being generous and giving. It didn’t matter that he did not know the mourner that well. It did not matter if there was already a minyan. 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 one’s 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.

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 your Shabbat table. The more you are at home in the culture, the clearer the idea of what gift is needed. A community has a code, a language of what constitutes the gift. Those gifts, once learned and understood, help facilitate the ease and the giving of a gift.

There is third thing we should know about gifts, illustrated by this story by Lewis Hyde.

“Imagine a scene. An Englishman in the colony of Massachusetts in the 17th century comes into a Native American 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 Native Americans, 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 regarding 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 Shiva. 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 to the person who gave me the kugel? Shouldn’t it be both necessary and enough 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 COMMUNITIES IS CIRCULAR. This is the fourth dimension of the gift.

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. According to Lewis Hyde, “It is as if the gift goes around a corner before it comes back…. 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 may get a call from the the synagogue asking me to deliver a meal to a young couple with a new baby. A few months later, that couple may bring a challah 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 an act 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 the giving clique. This is the consequence of narrow reciprocal giving within a community, when people feel that they only need extend themselves to their circle of family and friends within a larger community. 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.

The fifth dimension of the gift is that EVERYONE CAN GIVE regardless of whether one is 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. “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.” (Talmud Sukkot 49b)

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.

Several years ago, an older couple who were holocaust survivors invited me to their home for Shabbat dinner. The food was delicious, and I asked the wife where she learned to cook. She told the story of how her mother taught her to cook in the displacement camps after the war. 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 to the convert standing on one foot, Rabbi Meir’s compassion for his wayward colleague, Elisha ben Abuye.

The seventh and last dimension about gifts is that GOD MUST BE BROUGHT INTO THE GIFT CIRCLE.

The gift circle must include God for it to become holy. Ultimately, God, the source of all giving, is our inspiration. 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 nothing 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

It is my hope as your new rabbi to inspire you, to revitalize our congregation as a centered around the traditions of Jewish gift giving, what is called Gemilut Chasadim. Several members met with me before the High Holidays to form a “Chevrat Chesed Member-to-Member Support Society”. We all agreed to start with two concrete steps of help our members in need.

  1. The Chevrat Chesed will invite B’nai Israel congregants to attend  Shivah services for members who are in mourning to assure they will have a have a minyan in order to say kaddish and conduct the service.  Included in this initiative will be requests for members to bring food when the minyan service is in a  home.  
  2. Our Chevrat Chesed will recruit members to make holiday visits to our members who are immobile or confined to their homes due to illness or injury.  

As rabbi, I will take the lead in supporting mourners, visiting the sick, and supporting members during life milestones. The Chevrat Chesed-Member to Member Support and I will work together orchestrate supporting members and giving the opportunity for all our members to be engaged in Gemilut Chasadim, acts of loving kindness.

I sincerely hope that the Chevrat Chesed will build connections within the congregation. I sincerely hope that this initiative will ensure that all members regardless of their level of involvement will receive support during difficult times. 

I hope that each of you will participate in our unique Jewish way of gift giving. You can get involved by letting Melissa and Terry Lee, our volunteer coordinators, know that you want to be contacted to help with a Shivah minyan or with a visit to a shut in.    

Let me speak to all our congregants.  It is ok to ask for help from your community. When you suffer a loss or become ill, we are here to help you. Do not say, I don’t want to trouble the community. 

In conclusion let us remember these principles of the Matanah — The Gift.  The secret of achieving holy community is: 

  1. THERE IS A TIME TO GIVE A GIFT.
  2. WE KNOW WHAT IS CALLED FOR IN THE GIFT.
  3. THE GIFT MUST ALWAYS MOVE.
  4. THE GIFT MUST MOVE IN A CIRCLE.
  5. EVERYONE CAN GIVE.
  6. GIVING UNITES THE LIVING AND THE DEAD.
  7. GOD MUST BE IN THE GIFT CIRCLE.

Rosh Hashanah 5780 – Day 1

The Streimel: A Reflection on Teshuvah-Repentance

I would like to share with you a reflection about Teshuvah, repentance. It is about my relationship with my brother.

I lost my brother, Philip, thirty two years ago. The year before he died, during the summer of 1986 I visited him in Jerusalem to repair our strained relationship.

My brother had become an ultra-Orthodox Hasidic Jew. We had grown up together in a Reform household in Southern California. Philip was a very focused person who excelled at what he did. Before he transformed into a very frum Jew, he loved to sail his catamaran in Santa Monica Bay. He secured a doctorate in computer science from UCLA during his mid-twenties. He married an Israeli woman while in graduate school.

She had grown up as a secular anti-religious Israeli, but during her army service she met a charismatic settler rabbi who drew her toward observance. After Phillip and Asnat married, they both moved toward a strictly observant life and gradually abandoned their former secular and liberal views. In 1984, my brother was offered a professorship in computer science at Tel Aviv University. The family made Aliyah to Israel, but chose to live in Jerusalem where they could be close to the burgeoning Orthodox communities of the Holy City.

My brother and I had a difficult relationship which became more troubled over our Jewish differences. That was the state of things when I came to visit my brother and his family in the summer of 1986. I was astounded by how much he had changed.

I came to his house on a Friday afternoon to spend Shabbat with his family. As I walked into their Jerusalem apartment I was greeted by a poster in bold, bright letters from the Hassidic master, Nahman of Bratzlav, “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 Bratzlaver wide brown fur Streimel. The Hasidim wear these fur hats made from sable or fox as special adornment in honor of the Sabbath and festivals.

My brother had become involved with the large Bratzlaver community in Jerusalem, where he studied Kabbalah and the teachings of the Bratzlaver Rebbe. The Bratzlavers were well known for their fervent and mystical piety. The Bratzlav community had become a magnet for disaffected and spiritual seeking American Jews.

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 Shteibel 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 Sabbath clothing that pronounced his affiliation in the pious minions of Jerusalem. Philip at 6 feet, four inches towered over the other Shabbat strollers crisscrossing their way to Kabbalat Shabbat.

At the Bratzlaver Shteibel, one hundred people packed into a very small space, mostly modern orthodox young men in shirts and slacks with a dozen Bratzlavers scattered throughout the room in brown capotes including my brother. My brother moved forward, while I retreated to the rear.

We began Kabbalat Shabbat with blissful singing and swaying. By the time we reached Lcha Dodi, the whole room became one body. The assembly prayed with joyful ecstasy, each stanza of the Lecha Dodi sung with intense fervor and to a different melody. The Shaliah Tzibbur, the prayer leader, famous across Jerusalem for his davening, bobbed back and forth in full voice.

In this room aflame in fervor, I saw my brother swaying wildly from end to end; his hands lifted upward, singing at the top of his lungs. He continued like this for the entire service, his eyes closed, his head and his Streimel bobbing and turning.

The service ended. 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 sibling struggle passed before me while I anguished about 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 devotedly raised their four children. Although she left the Bratzlaver community, she 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 and teach full time in their Yeshivot. Like Ultra-Orthodox men, they did not serve in the army. They will spend the rest of their lives tied to their Yeshivot with their large families, living modestly, tightly ensconced in their fenced-off world.

Our relations with my brother’s family are loving, but circumscribed. My parents used to bring this growing brood of great grandchildren and their parents to West Los Angeles when possible. They would change over their non-kosher kitchen into glatt kosher food preparation room. My father, alav hashalom, ferried his grandsons to Haredi minyans in the Pico-Robertson neighborhood for Shahrit in the morning and Minchah-Maariv in the evening. For Shabbat they find hospitable Haredi homes in the Fairfax area of Los Angeles.

The cultural gap between the next generation is yawning. It is hard to foresee the next generation maintaining the contact that my parents have worked so hard to sustain.

Thirty two years later I remember clearly the offer of the Streimel and my refusal that warm night in Jerusalem. Thirty two 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. I was resentful of his newfound fervor, dismissive of his intense piety, and disturbed by the new life he had chosen.

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 me. I believe that he was not in that moment consumed by our differences and our history of sibling conflict. I believe that he was totally focused on the transporting joy of Shabbat prayer, and the sense of God’s presence.

I think my refusal surprised him. I imagine when I refused him, the joy of that moment dissolved; he became self-conscious of our distance. He became aware of my discomfort and judgment. We did not talk about this moment over Shabbat or at any other time after that. He was gone fourteen months later.

As I reflect on that moment so many years later, I recall my brother’s intense spirituality. Although he chose a very uncompromising spiritual path for himself, we 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, coming across life changing spiritual discoveries. I have also seen people wander from one spiritual path to another in perpetual disappointment. I now realize that he had found something deeply meaningful for his life. Who was I to judge?

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 open sandals crowned by a black furry hat that was designed to complement darker garb.

No one in Jerusalem would have mistaken me for a real Bratzlaver. If anyone cared to look, they would have thought me to be one of those American Jewish tourists who had borrowed a Streimel to get a picture to send back to family in America. Or maybe with the Streimel on my head I could have felt at that moment some connection to my brother and his search for happiness, for God, and for meaning.

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.


Rosh Hashanah 5780 – Erev 1

Rabbi Alan Lew, z”l, brings a story in his book about a rabbi who was invited to a congregant’s home to view the first show 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 they are adapting to their new status as in-laws. 

Can you imagine that room and the reaction of everyone? The inconvenient truth was revealed.

Rabbi Lew connects our videotape culture with the traditional understanding of the liturgy of the days of awe. Consider the one of the themes of Rosh Hashanah: Zichronot-Remembrances.

I quote selected passages from this prayer that occurs in the additional service of Rosh Hashanah.

You remember the deeds of the world…
Before You stands revealed all that is hidden and every mystery
You remember every deed and nothing in creation can be hidden from you.
Everything is revealed and known to you
Everyone’s record is set before you.

God plays the tape of our lives. But God not only plays our tapes and remembers our deeds. We have our own spiritual and moral task on these Days of Awe. Our task is to replay the tapes of our lives to jog our memories about the truth of our lives. God already knows the tapes. God reviews the tapes of our lives and sees our truth. But do we have the courage on this Rosh Hashanah to try to play back our tape and take responsibilities for our missteps, our sins, our hurtful words?

Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are our opportunity to let God know that we have reviewed the tape of our lives. That is the beginning of Teshuvah-or repentance.

I am grateful to be with you, the community and congregation of Bnai Yisrael, during these awesome days. I have been brought to your community to help in a healing process. As part of your Heshbon Hanefesh, your personal spiritual accounting, I ask you to add another tape for your review. I would like you to play the tape of your life in the congregation over the past few years.

I know for many of you this is a painful tape to replay. As you play back the tape, reflect on your life in the community. Play back the tape to review if you might have hurt someone or said something that caused another pain. As you play back the tape, think of times you were judgmental toward others at shul. As you play back the tape, think about how you were hurt and gave up hope of making things better. As you play back the tape, reflect on how you might bring someone closer who you might have pushed away. As you replay the tape of CBI, reflect on things you can do to help our congregation heal and become more whole.

For those of you who are visiting or are new to the shul, it is not my intent to alarm you, but rather to reassure you. We are Jewish human beings who like Bnai Israel in the Sinai wilderness, trying to make our way into the promised land. And like them we have experienced setbacks, delays, losses, and contention. But I also know that congregations also can heal and renew.

At this early stage of my interim rabbinate with you, I want to focus on helping everyone be honest with themselves and with each other. I want to let people grieve for what has happened or for what has not happened. I seek to facilitate Teshuvah between members. I hope to unite, not divide, I hope to heal wounds and help people move beyond grudges.

In my short time here, I have had a chance to meet wonderful people. I look forward to meeting many more of you. I look forward to listening to your frustrations and grievances, but more importantly to your hopes and aspirations. For me to help the congregation, I will need your goodwill, patience, and willingness to forgive others in the synagogue.

I hope we can make Teshuvah with our fellow congregants.
That is what we need to turn a new leaf, to make a step forward.

In this spirit I also ask every member to contribute to making our community stronger in the coming year. Help us with our new Chevrat Chesed to our shut ins and support our mourners. If you have skills such as Torah reading, join our Torah reading rotation. If you want to grow Jewishly, come and participate in our congregational offerings and classes. Volunteer to serve on a synagogue committee. Participate in the celebration of the 100th anniversary.

Rabbi Larry Kushner observes that “The members of a congregation must nurture one another because they need one another. They simply cannot do it alone. 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.

In that spirit, let us make teshuvah with each other and express gratitude of everyone’s contribution to our shared Jewish communal.