Friday, September 25, 2015

Kol Nidre Sermon: Israel Mensch To the Rescue


Right now, we are living in a new golden age of comic books. True the popularity and sales of comic books has never recovered from the bust in the late 80s, but with new movies and television shows seemingly coming out almost every week, it is a great time for us comic book nerds to be alive. As a matter of fact, I will be teaching once again at the Adult Institute beginning on October 13th at the Park Heights JCC on the very topic of Jews and the Comic Book. It is a continuation of my previous course where we delve into the medium that so many young Jewish men and even some women helped to invent.
So many of their early creations like Superman, Batman, and Captain America fought for truth, justice and the American way. Many of their creations were the embodiment of what these young men aspired to be. The most well known of these creations is of course Superman which was created by two Cleveland boys, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster in 1933. As one blogger goes on to explain, “Originally Superman was a villain based on Nietzsche’s idea – or rather, more accurately based on the Nazi interpretation of Nietzsche’s idea. The Nazis viewed the Ubermensch as a kind of superior physical entity, rather than a morally transcendent entity, that by right of its mechanical superiority should rule over lesser men. Anyway, Joe Shuster redesigns him, he becomes a hero, and eventually a paragon of morality. A super-moral character,”[1] the Superman we know today.
As an aside, “Nietzsche’s view of the ubermensch or overman is one who is willing to risk all for the sake of enhancement of humanity … an overman is someone who can establish his own values as the world in which others live their lives, often unaware that they are not pregiven. This means an overman can affect and influence the lives of others …. An overman is then someone who has a life … with the purpose for humanity.”[2] In this sense, Nietzsche’s vision of the ubermensch is more in line with Siegel and Shuster’s creation.
This ubermensch is in stark contradiction to another genre emerging in British culture at the same time, which has had as equal a profound impact on our culture as well, the dystopian novel. Brave New World, written by Aldous Huxley was first published in England in 1932. Huxley, who may or may not have borrowed heavily from the novel We by Russian author Yevgeny Zamyatin, envisioned a world where a benevolent dictatorship used conditioning to force its citizens to accept their station in life.[3] In his novel, Huxley anticipated such developments as reproductive technology, sleep-learning, psychological manipulation, and classical conditioning.[4]
It is a fascinating juxtaposition to see the interplay between these visions of the present and the future. In one you have superheroes conquering evil and injustice. In the other there is the expression of the fear of the loss of individualism and humanity to the growing forces of an overwhelming world of the future. The narratives of the strong, dynamic, powerful individual versus the nameless, faceless, all-powerful bureaucracy have continued to capture the imaginations of writers and filmmakers alike to this very day. However one of the greatest of this genre has to be Kurt Vonnegut.
In his collection of short stories, Welcome to the Monkey House, Vonnegut tells us of a dystopian vision of the future in his story Harrison Bergeron. It begins, “The year was 2081, and everybody was finally equal. They weren’t only equal before God and the law. They were equal every which way. Nobody was smarter than anybody else. Nobody was better looking than anybody else.”[5]
It goes on to tell the sad story of how for one brief moment Harrison, the son of George and Hazel Bergeron broke out of the societal imposed handicaps on television by proclaiming himself emperor and dancing with a ballerina. The story ends very suddenly, very disturbingly, and very profoundly.
A similar lesson is recounted in one of my favorite Pixar Movies, the Incredibles where the evil character Syndrome speaks to Mr. Incredible, “I'll give them the most spectacular heroics anyone's ever seen. And when I'm old and I've had my fun, I'll sell my inventions so that everyone can be superheroes. Everyone can be super. And when everyone's super, no one will be.”
One of the great fears expressed in both Harrison Bergeron and The Incredibles is the idea that society is becoming so focused on the idea that each of us is unique and special, but we are all equal to the point that none of us will end up being unique and special. This concern is part of a larger debate which is where are the boundaries between the individual and the communal? Or to put it another way, where are the boundaries between the particular and the universal?
In order to flesh out this debate we should first define our terms: Universalism searches for what is systematic and tries to impose the rules, laws, and norms on all of its members so that things can run more efficiently. Particularism searches for what is different, unique, or exceptional in order to create something that is incomparable or of special quality.
But what does Judaism have to say about universalism versus particularism we wonder? We come from a particular people, a particular tribe, a particular religious tradition. However we often ask ourselves: are we Jewish-Americans or are we American Jews? And is there a way to reconcile these two competing notions?
As Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove wrote about one of his favorite rabbis, “Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch, who in 1836 at the age of 28 years old, wrote a slim volume entitled The Nineteen Letters. Hirsch was a dynamic and charismatic speaker, teacher, and leader, who eventually went on to become the founder of Modern Orthodoxy. The letters document a fictional correspondence between Naftali, a young rabbi, and Benjamin, a youthful intellectual. Naftali seeks to explain to Benjamin how a modern Jew may remain steadfast in his or her commitments to both Judaism and modern society, in other words, to explain how one can embrace a very particularistic notion of Jewish identity and also embrace all the universalism of Enlightenment Europe.
Hirsch’s answer, still powerful today, is that it is not an either/or proposition. One does not have to choose between a particular and universal conception of Jewish identity. Hirsch coined the phrase “Israel-Mensch” as the ideal expression of a Jew. The Israel-Mensch is a Jew who serves humankind best by living as a Jew. To be an Israel-Mensch does not mean, as others argued, to be a Jew in the home and a secular citizen in the street. To be an Israel-Mensch means that you know how to apply the principles of your Jewish identity to the concerns of all of humanity. Neither Judaism nor humanity, Hirsch reasoned, is served by a Jew shedding his or her particular identity. Rather, humanity and Judaism are both enriched by the Jew who leverages his or her Jewishness towards the universal concerns of all of humankind.
The tragedy of the Jewish community today is that we have not internalized this notion of the Israel-Mensch. We find ourselves either entirely consumed with our own concerns or believing that we must shed our Jewishness, lest it interfere with the secular commitments we hold sacred. The philosopher Renan didn’t realize the truth he had hit upon when he wrote “He who is 100% British or 100% American or 100% Russian is only half a man – the universal part of his personality, equally essential to becoming human, is still unborn.” As Jews we walk a tightrope between our two identities, or more precisely, we believe that universalism and particularism are two sides of the same coin. This balancing act is perhaps best expressed at the intersection of Hillel’s two classic questions: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And if I am only for myself, then what am I?” The point is not one question or the other, but in their juxtaposition, in the breath that we take between the two.
To be part of the chosen people means that we are chosen to serve the world by means of expressing our Jewish faith. We are a chosen people, not because we are better than others, nor because we must stand on the sidelines. We are a chosen people because within us lies a unique and particular message and mission that cries out to all people. As Zwi Werblowsky, Professor Emeritus of Religion at the Hebrew University, advised, to be Jewish is to adopt a stance exhibiting a “commitment to humanity… an openness to the world and all men.” There is no greater credit to a particular religion, Judaism or other, than to place the needs of humanity at the forefront of its communal agenda. Over 100 years after Hirsch, Abraham Joshua Heschel reminded us that “no religion is an island,” we are all involved with one another. “A religious man,” Heschel wrote, “is a person who holds God and man in thought at one time, at all times, who suffers in himself harm done to others, whose greatest passion is compassion, whose greatest strength is love and defiance of despair.” (Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity, p. 289) Like the Sukkah itself, our Jewish communal institutions must be built in a way that provides shelter to the Jewish community, but always leaves open the ability to appreciate and express concern for the outside world.
My favorite story about Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch took place towards the end of his life. He was a deeply religious man, severe in his beliefs and punctilious in his observance, the father of German Orthodoxy if not Orthodoxy as a whole. The story is that at the end of his life, when already in frail health, Hirsch went to visit the Swiss Alps. Many people found this a strange and impulsive thing for such a learned rabbi to do. Wouldn’t it be more fitting for him in his the final days to turn his attention to the people and the Torah that had sustained him throughout? So his disciples asked why he was making such a trip. He responded, “I have a feeling that after I die, and I am called in before God, one of the questions that the Almighty will ask me is: So Shimshon, you lived so close to my Alps, did you ever get a chance to see them?”
As Jews, we are a community with concerns and needs unique to us that ultimately only we will protect. But there is also a bigger world in which we exist; and as Jews, we are obligated to appreciate its beauty, to serve its needs, and not be afraid of its occupying our agenda. This is what it means to be an Israel-Mensch, to serve humanity by serving Judaism, to serve Judaism by serving humanity. This is the key to our Jewish identity, the essence of who we are, and it is towards this bar that we strive, here today and every day of the Jewish year.[6]
This is further emphasized by Rabbi Elliot Niles Goldstein who takes a more particular approach as he goes on to explain in his book Gonzo Judaism: A Bold Path for Renewing an Ancient Faith. “Modernity gives tribalism a very bad rap. Part of why most of us look down on tribal religions or religiously motivated groups is the result of what we see around us, events that we associate with more primitive mind-sets and cultures: the violence in the Balkans; the bloodshed in Chechnya and Sudan; the terrorism of the radical Islamists. To most of us tribalism means feuding and fighting, ethnocentricity and triumphalism, ‘insiders’ and ‘outsiders,’ closed-mindedness.
But it doesn’t have to. It is usually only when political or personal agendas (or vendettas) get mixed up with social or spiritual ones that such horrific problems occur. If we look deeper – and see tribalism at its best and most authentic rather than at its worst and most distorted – it has much to teach us.”[7]
As Rabbi Goldstein goes on to explain, “When it works, tribalism breaks down barriers that separate people from one another. In this technological age, when so many of us feel estranged, detached, and guarded, it has never been more necessary. Reconnecting with our most basic selves will allow us to reconnect with other human beings. But in genuine tribalism, the external rituals must serve internal core values – values such as interdependence, compassion, commitment, generosity, and spiritual largesse.”[8]
Now before you think this is too academic a topic, keep in mind one of the great debates raging today: the #blacklivesmatter movement versus the #alllivesmatter. This debate at its core is about particularism versus universalism.
Those who support #blacklivesmatter would argue they are working to “broaden the conversation” around race with an emphasis on the disparity the justice system metes out when it comes to issues of color.
This disagreement over their perceptions along with a response to the violence in places like Ferguson and Baltimore City and the violence against law enforcement has led to the rise of a counter movement called the #alllivesmatter movement.
Right now there are two battle lines being drawn, each not truly understanding the other.
We Jews have an important role that we can play in this ongoing debate. As a people we can help to translate the thoughts and expressions of the particular to the universal and visa versa.
For example, as professor Judith Butler wrote in an op-ed, “we cannot have a race-blind approach to the questions: which lives matter? Or which lives are worth valuing? If we jump too quickly to the universal formulation, ‘all lives matter,’ then we miss the fact that black people have not yet been included in the idea of ‘all lives.’ That said, it is true that all lives matter …  but to make that universal formulation concrete, to make that into a living formulation, one that truly extends to all people, we have to foreground those lives that are not mattering now, to mark that exclusion, and militate against it.”[9]
Or another way to look at it, if there was social media in the 1930s and 40s would we have not also stormed this country proclaiming #Jewishlivesmatter?! The ultimate goal is to bring about one day when #alllivesmatter because all lives are viewed and treated as equal.
There is value to the individual. There is value to the community. These are not contradictory terms in opposition to one another. As Jews we have and we continue to straddle these two worlds. We should be engaged in these conversations. We can help to heal the wounds.
This summer the NAACP, fifty years after the march in Selma, coordinated a 860 mile ‘Journey for Justice’ March from Selma to Washington DC. During every step of the journey, there were rabbis. Over 200 rabbis ultimately participated in this march while carrying a Torah, the symbol of our tradition. It reminded us of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel marching beside Martin Luther King, Jr. Yes it was symbolic, but symbols as we know can be powerful.
We started by talking about the symbol and symbolism of Superheroes. In the initial vision of their young Jewish creators, these heroes stood up when no one else could or would to fight injustice. Both Batman and Superman used their particular skill set not fighting grand supervillians, but instead they took on petty thugs, abusers, and low-lifes.
Our Jewish heritage gives us tremendous insight as both insiders and outsiders to continue to fight for what is good, just and honorable. Helping to combat racism is just one of many examples .As a nomadic people, we have a lot to say about immigration and the immigration experience. As a people who have been refuges more times than we care to think about, we have a lot to offer in the debate about the current Syrian refugee crises. And the list goes on and o
This is the particular skill set of our tradition. We have the power of our words and our deeds to be more Israel-mensch. We can change the universal for the better by helping to lift others up by listening to the very particular teachings of our tradition. This is our superpower. So lets use it for good.
L’shana Tova




[1] http://threatquality.com/2009/06/15/superman-and-the-ubermensch/
[2] https://ccrma.stanford.edu/~pj97/Nietzsche.htm
[3] Wikipedia
[4] Ibid.
[5] Vonnegut, Kurt, Welcome to the Monkey House, New York, Bantam DoubleDay, 1988, pg. 7
[6] Rabbi Elliott Cosgrove http://pasyn.org/resources/sermons/%5bfield_dateline-date%5d-6
[7] Goldstein, Rabbi Niles Elliot, Gonzo Judaism: A Bold Path for Renewing an Ancient Faith, Boston, Trumpeter, 2010, pg. 91.
[8] Ibid. pg. 108
[9] http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2015/01/12/whats-wrong-with-all-lives-matter/?_r=0

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Rosh Hashanah Morning Sermon: The Art of Battling Giants


I know some of you are expecting a sermon on Iran. I do have many thoughts on this matter, some of which I have shared in multiple blogs. However, I will not be speaking on this matter today, rather, it will be part of my conversation with you about Israel on Yom Kippur morning. But I assure you, we will be talking about it.
Instead, I wanted to focus more on us today. I’ll start by stating that the 20th Century may have seen more technological advances than all of the other previous centuries combined. The first airplane was flown by the Wright Brothers on December 17, 1903 and a mere sixty-six years later, we put a man on the moon. The triode tube, transistor, and integrated circuit were invented and revolutionized computers. Stainless steel, plastics (as famously discussed in the movie The Graduate), polyethylene, Velcro and Teflon all found their way into common usage. And of course we would be remiss if we did not mention the slinky.
There are so many more inventions as well that have changed the way we live, the way we eat, the way we interact, and even the way we think.
But there is one invention that has profoundly changed the course of humanity, so much so, that it is still being debated to this very day. It was a simple concept envisioned by a woman by the name of Margaret Sanger. Sanger was one of the founders of Planned Parenthood, which recently fell back into the political discourse. However, that is a topic for another day. What Sanger and her partner in science Dr. Gregory Pincus created was something simple that effectively revolutionized the whole process of procreation. Today we know it by two words, “the pill.”
In his book, the Birth of the Pill, Jonathan Eig writes a fascinating and amazing tale of how Sanger and Pincus along with Katherine McCormick, a wealthy benefactor, and John Rock, a Catholic doctor who ruthlessly advocated for the drug that would be marketed by Searle as Enovid.
This invention has probably had as much if not greater impact on many of our lives as all of the aforementioned inventions. And it all came about because Sanger had the simple belief that women should have the right and the ability to control their own reproductive cycles.
Sanger is also credited with coining the term birth control. As Jonathan Eig writes the use of the term, “‘birth control instead of contraception, (was) a brilliant piece of marketing strategy. Sanger wanted to separate sex from reproduction, but there was more to her movement than that. At first, she considered referring to her cause as ‘voluntary parenthood’ ‘then we got a little nearer,’ she said, ‘when ‘family control’ and ‘race control’ and birth control’ were suggested. Finally it came to (her) out of the blue – ‘Birth Control!’
There was no sexual connotation involved, no declaration of independence, no threat. These were not fighting words. These were words, like her Quaker collar, designed to make people more comfortable. No one could object to ‘birth,’ of course. Without birth there could be no life. But for Sanger, the key word was ‘control.’ If women truly got to control when and how often they gave birth, if they got to control their own bodies, they would hold a kind of power never before imagined. Without control, women were destined to be wives and mothers and nothing more.”[1] Sadly, Sanger for a time, did ally herself with the eugenics movement. And even though by the 1950s, “Sanger seemed to recognize the problem of being so closely linked with the eugenicists, but it was too late. If she wasn’t quite married to them, she’d been in bed with them so long that there was no way to call it off.”[2]
That being said, Sanger’s quest, along with her collaborators, took an idea, and from it simply changed the world in ways that some are still arguing over and fighting over to this very day.
The idea that we have the power to change the world is actually an ancient one. In his book David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants, author Malcolm Gladwell, reexamines a story we think we know well: the story of David and Goliath.
            In the story “the Philistines set up camp along the southern ridge of the Elah. The Israelites pitched their tents on the other side, along the northern ridge, which left the two armies looking across the ravine at each other. Neither dared to move. To attack meant descending down the hill and then making a suicidal climb up the enemy’s ridge on the other side. Finally, the Philistines had enough. They sent their greatest warrior down into the valley to resolve the deadlock one on one.
He was a giant, six foot nine at least, wearing a bronze helmet and full body armor. He carried a javelin, a spear, and a sword. The giant faced the Israelites and shouted out ‘Choose you a man and let him come down to me! If he shall prevail in battle against me and strike me down, we shall be slaves to you. But if I prevail and strike him down, you will be slaves to us and serve us.’
In the Israelite camp, no one moved. Who could win against such a terrifying opponent? Then a shepherd boy who had come down from Bethlehem to bring food to his brothers stepped forward and volunteered. Saul objected: ‘You cannot go against this Philistine to do battle with him, for you are a lad and he is a man of war from his youth.’ But the shepherd was adamant …”[3]
The rest of the story we know well. “David puts one of his stones into the leather pouch of a sling, and he fires at Goliath’s exposed forehead. Goliath falls, stunned. David runs towards him, seizes the giant’s sword, and cuts off his head. ‘The Philistines saw that their mighty warrior was dead … and they fled.
The battle is won miraculously by an underdog who, by all expectations, should not have won at all. This is the way we have told one another the story over the many centuries since. It is how the phrase ‘David and Goliath’ has come to be embedded in our language – as a metaphor for improbable victory. And the problem with that version of the events is that almost everything about it is wrong.”[4]
For example, the sling “took an extraordinary amount of skill and practice. But in experienced hands, the sling was a devastating weapon.”[5] Also, “Goliath is heavy infantry. He thinks that he is going to be engaged in a duel with another heavy-infantryman, in the same manner … David, however, has no intention of honoring the rituals of single combat … he has speed and maneuverability … What could Goliath do? He was carrying over a hundred pounds of armor… (or as) the historian Robert Dohrenwend writes, ‘Goliath has a much chance against David as any Bronze age warrior with a sword would have against an [opponent] armed with a .45 automatic pistol.”[6]
To add further insult to injury, some experts even speculate that Goliath had a tumor on his pituitary gland causing his gigantic size. One of the side effects of this is vision problems. Goliath could not even see David until he was close up. Or as Gladwell argues, “What the Israelites saw, from high on the ridge, was an intimidating giant. In reality, the very thing that gave the giant his size was also the source of his greatest weakness. There is an important lesson in that for battles with all kinds of giants. The powerful and the strong are not always what they seem. David came running toward Goliath, powered by courage and faith.”[7] And by taking advantage of his skill set while acknowledging his enemy’s weaknesses, David conquered a giant.
How many perceived giants do we have in our lives? How many times have we told ourselves that we cannot win that the odds are too great or that we are too weak?
But if we are listening closely to the lessons of others and to our tradition as well, we are neither too weak nor are the odds to great. With single-minded determination, and with the power of community, each of us has the capacity to change the world for the better. This is our sacred duty, our sacred obligation as Jews.
One of the great Rabbinic minds of the twentieth century Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel teaches in his compendium Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity, “The ultimate standards of living, according to Jewish teaching, are Kiddush HaShem and Hillul HaShem. The one means that everything within one’s power should be done to glorify the name of God before the world (Kiddush HaShem), the other (Hillul HaShem) that everything should be avoided to reflect dishonor upon the religion and thereby desecrate the name of God.”[8]
As Heschel goes on to explain, “Many of our people still think in terms of an age in which Judaism wrapped itself in spiritual isolation. In our days, however, for the majority of our people involvement has replaced isolation.
The emancipation has brought us to the very heart of the total society. It has not only given us rights, it has imposed obligations. It has expanded the scope of our responsibility and concern. Whether we like it or not, the words we utter and the actions in which we are engaged affect the life of the total community.”[9] Nowadays we are obligated to engage in Kiddush HaShem, the sanctification of God’s name, not just for ourselves, not just for our Jewish community, but for the whole world
So today, on this day of the sounding of the Shofar, we are hearing the call to once again re-engage with the world entire for the better. Thankfully our holy congregation has a myriad of in which we can work as individuals and as a community to overcome giants. In our case, these giants are social and societal ills like poverty and impoverishment. They are ever present realities like illness and death and loneliness and solitude just to name a few.
Rabbi Tarfon teaches us in the Mishnah, the first compendium of Jewish legal principles that, “It is not your part to finish the task, yet you are not free to desist from it.”[10] This means it is incumbent upon all of us to act, not just because we feel it in our consciences, but because it is demanded of us by our tradition.
Lest you feel overwhelmed by the giants, there are many ways we can act. For example, we can help to conquer giants through social action. Many of you are familiar with our fantastic Holy Casseroly event which is entering its third year and is chaired by the Shepherd Family. It is where we get together after religious school to bake casseroles to serve the less fortunate in Baltimore. It is a great one-time event where you can donate food as well as come and help make and bake the casseroles. It is also a lot of fun where a great time is had by all.
This year under the guidance of Debbie and Walter Jacobs we are planning to reinstitute our congregational Blood Drive. We are working closely with the American Red Cross to make this a cross-congregational event. If you’ve given in the past and are able and so inclined, please plan to give again. And if you haven’t given yet, plan on giving. For this is one of the greatest gifts of all anyone can give, the gift of life. I myself am planning on giving, and I hope to see you there.
Right now we are in the midst of our annual High Holy Day food drive which is coordinated in part by one of our bat mitzvah students, Linnie Ulick, for her mitzvah project. So much of what you give helps those in need. Speaking of which, rather than collecting tzedakah this year, our Poser Judaic Education Magnet will be collecting canned goods for a program called FANN or Feed a Needy Neighbor.  As always we have our quarterly Adopt a Highway program on Brooks Robinson Drive. Since the law was passed preventing large semis from parking there, the cleanup has gotten a whole lot easier. But it still helps to keep Baltimore County beautiful. We will be repeating our very successful Paint and Nosh program with proceeds helping our social action projects as it is being chaired by Suzette Kossof and Lisa Caplan. As always you can volunteer at the Ronald McDonald House, a project near and dear to my heart. Last year it was coordinated by the Kasof family, who has done a phenomenal job, and it will soon be taken over by the Dickler family. This fall, we as a congregation will also be participating in once again in Purple Stride, a non-strenuous walk to support research to combat Pancreatic Cancer. This effort is being coordinated by Cheryl Cannon, herself a survivor. There is our ongoing school supply drive, and we are planning a big social action event for the spring, stay tuned.
We can also battle giants through social activism. I am involved as your rabbi and as the president of the Baltimore Board of Rabbis in working with fellow clergy from all religions and denominations along with their congregations and partners to help work to solve some of the more pernicious problems in both Downtown Baltimore and Baltimore County. One problem in particular we will be looking at is the lack of affordable housing. I will be letting you know what you can do to help as we continue to develop further plans and ideas for congregational partnerships.
There are also movements afoot here in Baltimore concerning Jewish activism. For example, we are partnering with the The Baltimore Shabbat Project whose goal is to get Jews across the global community to celebrate Shabbat together. It will include events at the JCC, a challah bake at the Maryland State Fairgrounds, and a concert and celebration. There is also the First Shabbat initiative to encourage congregations and families to celebrate Shabbat on the first Friday of the month. More information will be forthcoming, but you can find some of it on your seats.
These are both local and global initiatives. There is one more way we can serve, and that is through our newly formed Caring Hands Committee. This committee was born out of tragic need when a young father died in our congregation, and we felt we did not serve the family as well as we could have. The idea was to collaborate between Brotherhood, Sisterhood, the Caring Committee, the Board, and the clergy and staff to find ways not only to reach out to families in their time of immediate need, but also to continue to follow up with them to make sure they know they are part of a community that cares.
The Caring Hands committee supports those who are ill and ailing. It reaches out to those celebrating a simcha. And perhaps most importantly it is a source of support to our families who are in mourning.
For example, you can speak to new members of the community like Lisa Devnue and Beth Bauer, who were in need of congregational services when they lost loved ones in their lives. Though they had just joined, our community embraced them and provided them with meaningful support during those difficult days in their lives. This is further exemplified by the way we rallied together than when our beloved Harry Zbar died. We were there for each other and for Harry’s family. So whether someone is new to our community or they have called this community home for years, by being a part of our Caring Hands Committee, you can help show everyone how much Har Sinai Congregation cares.
I know this list is a lot to process. Rather than try to do it all, just remember what Rabbi Tarfon said, “It is not your part to finish the task, yet you are not free to desist from it.”[11] When you see a flyer or hear an announcement about an upcoming program, just remind yourself, that you do have the ability to make a meaningful difference in this world.
Now lest you think, “who am I?” How can I as one person battle giants and prevail? I want to tell you one more story about battling giants. As many of you know, our Baltimore County Schools have a problem in that many of them lack air-conditioning. Throughout most of the year, this is not such a big deal. But towards to the end of May and into the beginning of September, temperatures on a hot summer day can reach over 100 degrees in the un-air-conditioned buildings thereby creating an unhealthy and dangerous environment for our students, teachers, and faculty.
One of our own members, and co-chairs of our Executive Professional Networking Group (or EPNG for short), Sherri Sibel Thomas took on this cause herself. Through her efforts, she helped to encourage Baltimore County Schools to close early last week on days where the temperatures exceeded tolerant levels. Sherri worked with Dallas Dance and educators and school and county officials, some of whom are in our very congregation, to work to solve this ongoing problem. Sherri battled a giant in the Baltimore County School District and won.
We started off our talk today with the story of Margaret Sanger, who, along with her partners, took a simple concept and radically changed the world. Just imagine what we could do, if we put our minds, our energy, and our talents to work to take on giants as well. It all begins with a single commitment. Every step towards the positive is a step closer towards the Holy.
In this time of Teshuvah this time of repentance, we also are reminded of what teshuvah really means. It means to “turn.” To turn back to ways of holiness. Holiness is not brought about by thought alone, nor is it brought about by prayer alone. Instead the best way to bring it about is through action.
So on this Rosh Hashanah, hear the call of the shofar, and turn your hearts towards battling giants with us. All we need to remember is the simple phrase from Rabbi Tarfon, “It is not your part to finish the task, yet you are not free to desist from it.”[12] If we all work together, who knows what giants we can overcome. We just need for each of you to do your part. For we can have an impact greater than ourselves, and through our deeds, the world will be a little better for it. What better way to start off the New Year than by battling these giants together. L’shana Tova!



[1] Eig, Jonathan, The Birth of the Pill: How Four Crusaders Reinvented Sex and Launched a Revolution, W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 2014, pg. 46.
[2] Ibid. pg. 150
[3] Gladwell, Malcolm, David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants, New York, Little, Brown and Company, 2013, pgs. 4-5
[4] Ibid. pgs. 8-9
[5] Ibid. pg. 9
[6] Ibid. pgs. 10-12
[7] Ibid. pgs. 14-15
[8] Heschel, Susannah, ed., Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity: Essays Abraham Joshua Heschel, New York, Noonday Press, 1996, pg. 292.
[9] Ibid. pg. 298
[10] Pirkei Avot 2:16
[11] Pirkei Avot 2:16
[12] Pirkei Avot 2:16

Erev Rosh Hashanah Sermon: The Myth of the Power of One

Recently Joy and I took the kids out to J&P Illiano for dinner. Ever since David Carp introduced me to J&Ps it has quickly become a family favorite. One of the reasons why we like it, aside from the tasty food, is that we can all eat there. Emily, our oldest, as some of you might know, has a myriad of food allergies ranging from the concerning to the scary. Therefore we are always careful especially about where we eat; sticking with the places we know to be Emily-safe.
We enjoyed our family dinner. But as we have little people with little stomachs, there are always a fair amount of leftovers. This is good for us as with our busy schedules, it is always nice to have another meal or two set and ready to go.
After dinner we all hopped back in the car and headed home, tired and full from a long day and an enjoyable meal. We got home, cleaned ourselves up, and eventually got everyone into bed.
Flash forward to the next morning, I got the kids up as I usually do. They had their breakfast. They got their shoes on and we piled back into the car to head off to school. As we got into the car, there was the aroma of last night’s dinner still lingering, when it quickly dawned on me, that we got everyone in the house the night before, but the leftovers spent the night quite comfortably in the back of my car. Oh well, best laid plans…
I walked back into the house and called out Joy’s name saying, “Guess what we forgot.” Seeing me with the packages of food she looked at me and said in a bemused voice, “I thought you were so kind to put them away last night, that I didn’t even think about it.” And I looked at her and said, “Nope, I completely forgot about them.”
I proceeded to take the kids to school and Joy ground up the leftovers. Now I mention this story not to give you a slice of life in the Rabbi’s house, but merely to mention, that these things happen. Through nobody’s fault, such a simple thing was easily overlooked. And I am sure many of you who are in similar relationships can attest to things like this happening. But more on this in a moment.
One of the great stories we love to tell in this country is the narrative of the self-made man or woman. That singular rugged or determined individual, working alone, unaided who has an idea or creates an invention that changes the world. It is part of the American dream that any person so driven can do it all on their own.
And yet, if you read and study history and our tradition, it is filled with stories to the contrary.
Our Tanaach, our Hebrew Bible, begins with the very notion of partnership. The very first partnership was between God and human beings. God created Adam. As it tells in the first story of creation, “And God saw that this was good. And God said, ‘Let us make adam in our image (betzelem Elohim), after our likeness. They shall rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, the cattle, the whole earth, and all the creeping things that creep on earth. And God created adam in His image, in the image of God, God created them; male and female.”[1]
And if God needs partnerships, al achat kama v’kama, how much the more so we need them as well. This is further illustrated when in the second creation story, God created Eve as a helpmate, though I prefer the term partner to Adam. For as the Torah teaches us, it was not good for man to be alone.
We read a lot about these companions, these allies in our tradition. Abraham had Sarah. Isaac had Rebecca. Moses had Aaron. David had Jonathan. Akiva had bar Kochba, and the list goes on and on.
Even in Jewish study we talk often about chevruta, or a study partner. One is not supposed to study Torah alone, but rather in chevruta, with a partner or in a study group if you will.
And yet, the narrative of the self-made person lives on. Perhaps nowhere has this notion been more pernicious than in the world of technology. We all know names like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, of which there is both a documentary and a feature film of him coming out this fall. For they are viewed by some as the gods of the tech world.
And yet, the computer itself would not exist if it was not for the constant efforts of individuals working in collaboration with one another. In his book Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution, Walter Isaacson argues that “the computer and the Internet are among the most important inventions of our era, but few people know who created them. They were not conjured up in a garret or garage by solo inventors suitable to be singled out on magazine covers or put into a pantheon with Edison, Bell, and Morse. Instead, most of the innovations of the digital age were done collaboratively. There were a lot of fascinating people involved, some ingenious and a few even geniuses.”[2]
For example there was John Vincent Atanasoff. He was “another inventor … experimenting with digital circuits in 1937. Toiling in a basement in Iowa, he would make the next historic innovation: building a calculating device that, at least in part, used vacuum tubes. In some ways his machine was less advanced than others. It wasn’t programmable and multipurpose; instead of being totally electronic, he included some slow mechanical moving elements; and even though he built a model that was able to work in theory, he couldn’t actually get the thing reliably operational. Nevertheless, John Vincent Atanasoff, known to his wife and friends as Vincent, deserves the distinction of being the pioneer who conceived the first partly electronic digital computer …”[3] But Vincent has fallen in to the annals of history, in part because rather than work with others, he ultimately “produced a machine that didn’t quite work and was abandoned in his basement,”[4] and instead the credit went to John Mauchly, who “he and his team would go down in history as the inventors of the first electronic general-purpose computer.”[5]
And yet the myth persists. We have heard terms like to pull oneself up by one’s bootstraps, meaning to succeed only on one’s efforts and abilities. As an aside, the term pulling oneself up by ones’ bootstraps was, “often used to refer to pulling oneself over a fence, and implying that someone is attempting or has claimed some ludicrously far-fetched or impossible task. Presumably a variant on a traditional tall tale....
The term is widely attributed to The Surprising Adventures of Baron Munchausen, (1781) by Rudolf Erich Raspe, where the eponymous Baron pulls himself out of a swamp by his hair (specifically, his pigtail), though not by his bootstraps; using bootstraps presumably arose as a variant on the same tall tale.”[6]
So even in its origins, being a self-made person, who pulls themselves up by their bootstraps is more of a myth, a fable, than a reality.
This is because we all need others in our lives in order to succeed. None of us live in isolation. None of us has succeeded without at least the guidance, inspiration, education, elucidation, and the like from others. Or to put it another way, we are all in this journey together.
I started off this sermon with Joy and my recent adventure to J&P Illianos. Yes we did forget the leftovers, but at the same time, we worked together to get all three kids into the restaurant, seated, fed and placated. No easy task, especially when you are dealing with a tired six-year-old and a two-and-a-half year old with delusions of self-determination. We succeeded because of our partnership.
And if this is true of marriage, it can be true of business as well. In an article written by Michael Eisner the former CEO of Walt Disney Company he wrote, “On the whole, though, the institution of marriage -- life collaboration -- gets a lot more attention than the institution of business collaboration. But the benefits of working together -- of finding a partner -- are extraordinary. Partnerships promote common sense, a common purpose, and strong ethics. Think about how many of the world's most successful people have partners. Warren Buffett has been investing alongside his friend Charlie Munger for more than fifty years. The most successful person to come out of the computer revolution, Bill Gates, famously worked with partners at Microsoft, and now, in his new job, saving the world (quite literally) with his foundation, he has perhaps his best partner yet: his wife, Melinda. In Hollywood, you'd be hard-pressed to find a more successful or well-liked movie and television company than Imagine Entertainment -- run by partners Brian Grazer and Ron Howard. One of the biggest retail chains in the United States, Home Depot, was started by a pair of visionaries, Bernie Marcus and Arthur Blank….
A successful partnership allows you to recognize your own weaknesses, and draw on a partner's strengths, without being uncomfortable about that vulnerability. That comfort, as Warren Buffett says, comes from a complete lack of envy in a partnership. Partners must value trust, they must discover how to keep their ego in check, and they must put a premium on not just brains, but human decency. If we are in an age where loss of integrity is an ever-growing concern, then partnerships counter that. Partners also have to be comfortable with the way that someone else views the world.”[7]
If this is true of the business world, it can also certainly be true of our congregational community as well. In an ideal congregation, the clergy and staff work as partners, not just with each other, but also with the lay leadership and general membership. That should be a given, but more than that, you as members also have the unique opportunity to work as partners with each other. This is such an exceptional environment in a world where we are becoming more and more self-selecting. Here people come from all walks of life, rich and poor and everywhere in between, Democrat and Republican, Independent and moderate, life-journeyed and young, lawyers and doctors, and so much more all come together. Through this we can learn how to overcome obstacles and succeed not just in our businesses, not just in our marriages, not just in our families, but in our lives.
Here we sit in this beautiful facility. It was designed with the precise purpose of creating a comfortable and intimate space enabling us to have an imminent experience of the Divine. There are many types of Holy worship spaces. Some are like Temple Emanuel in New York City, which emanates God’s transcendence. You are amazed by the space, but also it is hard not to feel small and overwhelmed. Har Sinai Congregation, on the other hand, is the exact opposite. Here it is warm and inviting.
But we could not have this space without the collaboration of many people. It started with the vision of our Rabbi Emeritus Floyd Herman and the strategic planning committee. There were lay leaders like Harold Burgin and Lori Balter. There were the Real Estate experts like the late John Colvin and lawyers like Morty Fisher and Rob Hoffman, who all worked collaboratively throughout the whole process to raise the money, work with our neighbors, and design and build this gorgeous facility. And of course we could not have the space without wonderful donors like Bruz Frenkil. Now I know I have left many off this list. My apologies. It is not intentional, but just to give a flavor, a sample of some of our amazing members who worked in collaboration to bring this dream to fruition. If you want to see just some of the many who made this space possible, you can find their names just outside of the sanctuary on a wall dedicated to their generosity and guidance.
These were a group of single-minded individuals, from all walks of life, who shared in their expertise and experiences to create the sacred space we still enjoy to this very day. None could have done it alone. Without each and every one of them, we would not be where we are today. And this is just one of the myriad of stories I hear about all the time of the collaborations and partnerships that come from being part of a synagogue family.
And that is just one example. Recently a beloved member of our congregational community, Lil Strauss, fell and broke her hip. Lil and her husband Nates have been the unofficial quintessential ambassadors of Har Sinai Congregation for years. They are beloved because they are such loving, kind and warm people. Lil had surgery this past week and is recovering, though Nates is having some medical issues as well. It is a difficult time for them, and they need all the help and support they can get. Thankfully their Har Sinai community is there for them.
I mention this because every time I have called or visited Lil, someone from our congregation was there with her. Whether it was Jay and Arlene Burman, CeCe Rund, Sherri Bell, Debbie and Walter Jacobs, or Michael Shulkin, someone was always there. And those are just the ones who were there when I called or visited. It does not include all the others who have visited and expressed concern as well.
This is what a congregational community does. We build together. We learn from one another. We engage in holy dialogues and partnerships, and we support each other.
So in this coming year, I would encourage you to reach out to a member of our congregational family, someone who you have not yet met, and share your story with them. Yes a congregation is a place where we can all come together to reengage with our sacred tradition and heritage, but it is so much more than that. It is a place where we can better ourselves through sacred partnerships with God, with our ancestors, and with our fellow congregants and community members. If we are willing to check our own egos at the door, and start Holy conversations founded in sacred trust, who knows what can happen. Maybe we can even invent a device to remind us to take our leftovers out of the car.
As we start these Yamim Noraiim, these High Holy Days, may we be blessed in strengthening our sacred partnerships, the ones that elevate us to be the best individuals, families, and community that we can be.



[1] Genesis 1:26-27
[2] Isaacson, Walter, The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution, Simon & Schuster, New York, 2014, pg. 1
[3] Ibid. pgs 54-55
[4] Ibid. pg. 68
[5] Ibid.
[6] https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/pull_oneself_up_by_one%27s_bootstraps
[7] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/michael-d-eisner/business-partnerships-marriage_b_715237.html