Friday, September 21, 2018

Yom Kippur Morning - When the Laughter Dies


Before we begin the sermon, I would like to preface it by stating that it will be dealing with issues relating to mental health and suicide and Jewish responses to these critical issues. I know for some, this is a very sensitive issue, and if you choose that this sermon hits a too little close to home, I completely understand. 
It is undeniable that Jews have had an incredible impact on American culture beginning in the early days of the 20thcentury. One could argue that our fellow landsmen were instrumental in the invention of Hollywood and the comic book superhero. We were also heavily involved in the development of Jazz, the musical comedy on Broadway, the arts, poetry, and cuisine, just to name a few. But for our purposes today, it was also Jews also helped bring to maturity the art of the stand-up comic.
The antecedents to stand-up comedy in our country date back to the wandering minstrel shows whose origins date back to before the Civil War. That being said, the stand-up comedian as we know it, really traces its lineage back to the days of Vaudeville. As author Kliph Nesteroff notes in his book The Comedians, “at the start of the twentieth century, the United States had close to five thousand vaudeville theaters. There were small houses with less than five hundred seats, medium theaters seating a thousand and large palaces that accommodated anywhere from fifteen hundred to five thousand people. The result was an immense working-class circuit, an underbelly where future stars learned their craft.”[1]
The number of famous names who honed their craft working in conditions that were dreadful at best and horrific at worst, are almost too many to recite. They include Abbott and Costello, Fatty Arbuckle, Jack Benny, the Marx Brothers, Bob Hope, the Three Stooges, W.C. Fields, and the list goes on and on. Some of them went on to fame and fortune by appearing in radio and later in the movies. 
Others worked the comedy circuit which moved on from Vaudeville first to night clubs, then to Vegas, then to the Borscht Belt, followed by the boom with the rise of the comedy clubs in the 60s and 70s.
Most of the early stand-up performers were not much more than joke tellers. In Nesteroff’s words, “prior to the 1950s the vocation of stand-up comic was not far removed from being a door-to-door salesman. One learned the basics, memorized some routines, found an agent at 1650 Broadway and called himself a comic … A 1946 book called From Gages to Richespraised comedians who used lines like “I know there’s an audience out there, I can hear you breathing” and “Is this an audience or a jury?” It’s amazing anyone earnestly used lines now associated with Fozzie Bear, but the Willy Loman approach worked for decades.”[2]
It was not really until the 1950s when comedians “like Lenny Bruce, Mort Sahl, and Jonathan Winters came along … (who) led a revolution by developing their own material, derived from their actual personalities,”[3]that modern stand-up comedy, as we know it today, came into existence.”
With the rise of the modern comedian also came the stereotype of the sad-clown. As was noted in a recent CNN article, “Legendary psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud theorized that comedians often tell jokes as a kind of relief system from some kind of anxiety.”[4]
Not all comedians buy into this theory. As Nesteroff notes, “The ‘tears of a clown’ idea has dominated comedy discourse even as giants like Johnny Carson and Jerry Seinfeld rejected this idea. ‘There are a lot of unhappy people driving bread trucks, but when it’s a comedian people find it very poignant,’ said Seinfeld. ‘Some of them are in pain but I don’t see that as a thread.’ Carson said, ‘There have been volumes written about why comedians are lonely, depressed, rejected, hostile, within themselves. They say you must be suffering. I don’t adhere to that philosophy.’”[5]Carson went on to explain further. 
All that being said, many Jewish comics embody the themes of the neurotic and troubled individual. And we, as an audience, eat it up. There is something about witnessing a person open themselves up completely and fully in such a raw and powerful way that makes us laugh and helps us to navigate our own worlds. As Richard Lewis, whom Mel Brooks once described as the “Franz Kafka of modern-day comedy” said, “I read somewhere that when I go on stage, people realize that they’re not me and they feel better.” But at the same time, these comedians are also making a huge sacrifice for our benefit, that sometimes ends in tragedy.
Perhaps the most well-known example of this comedian filled with inner turmoil was the late-great, Robin Williams. Though not Jewish, Robin incorporated many Jewish imitations and Yiddishisms in his routines. At a dinner for the Shoah Foundation, Robin started his routine by stating, “Ladies and gentlemen … welcome to Temple Beth Prada. This evening’s meal will be milchidik, fleishadik, and sushidik.”[6]
Robin was also close friends with Steven Spielberg and Billy Crystal. And Robin and others even referred to him as an “honorary Jew.” Following his death, Steve Martin referred to Williams as a ‘mensch.’ 
Recently author Dave Itzkoff wrote a fascinating and in-depth biography on him simply entitled, “Robin.” Itzkoff tells the story of Robin’s childhood as the only child of divorcees. How he grew up, upper-middle class, and developed his imagination playing with, among other things, toy soldiers. How he really did not come to improv or comedy until college, and how he was inspired by Jonathan Winters, whose improvisational stand-up would become the basis for Robin’s own manic energy that awed so many of his fellow comedians during the 70s and 80s. And how his tragic death by suicide left the world bewildered, a little more sad, and a little less funny. 
Robin was a constant in my childhood. From his days on Mork and Mindy, to Popeye, which the critics hated, but I enjoyed, to his standup specials and Comic Relief, and later to his movies like Good Morning Vietnam, which was his first major critical success, and later to one of my favorites growing up, Dead Poets Society and later Good Will Hunting, Aladdin, Mrs. Doubtfire and so many more, and his late night show appearances, I knew I could count on him for a laugh, a respite from my own feelings. 
So of course, his sudden death came as a shock. Why would someone so beloved, so famous, so funny, want to take their own life? It was later revealed that, Robin suffered from Lewy Body Disease. In the words of Izkoff, “Lewy Body Disease, a dementia believed to affect more than 1.3 million people in America – and far more men than women – results from a buildup of protein deposits in the brain.”[7]As Izkoff goes on to explain, “It is also a disease with an associated risk of suicide, particularly when patients are younger and before its most severe effects have set in. ‘If you’re young, if you have insight into what’s happening, and you have some of the associated symptoms – like depression and the hallucinations … that’s when we think the risk of suicide is highest…” Or as his friend and fellow comedian Billy Crystal stated, “My heart breaks that he suffered and only saw one way out.”[8]For some, the diagnosis of Lewy Body Disease is comforting because it provides, and explanation, a reason for why Robin did what he did. But in reading the narrative of his life, this rational explanation is far too simple for such an irrational act. 
Robin battled with demons throughout much of his adult life. When not on stage, he was described often as being quiet, lonely, and reclusive. It was the audience and the laughter and applause that he lived for. More often than not, Robin would rather portray a character rather than be his genuine self. The question being, what happens when the applause and the laughter stops?
Suicide is often described as a permanent solution to a temporary problem. But this description is problematic because it puts the blame solely on the shoulders of the person who commits the act. 
Judaism has had a complex relationship with mental health. As an article in My Jewish Learning explains, “There is little direct discussion of mental illness in the Bible, though some have suggested that various biblical figures, most notably King David, may have suffered from depression. In the Bible, “madness” is described in several places as a form of divine punishment. In Deuteronomy, shigaon — an antecedent term for the common Yiddish expression meshuggeneh, or crazy — is one of the forms of divine retribution for those who don’t heed the word of God. Later in that section, God says that the Jewish people will become “m’shuga” after a foreign people steals their crops and abuses them.”[9]
The rabbis of the Talmud deal with mental illness mostly in terms of competency and ability to fulfill religious obligations. As is stated in tractate the Babylonian Talmud tractate Chagigah 3b Our Rabbis have taught: What is a "shoteh" [translated until now as a mentally ill person]? He who goes out alone at night, and he who sleeps in a cemetery, and he who tears his clothes. It is stated: R. Hunna said, so long as they all take place at one time.”[10]Basically what the rabbis are doing here is giving examples of behaviors they feel a person of sound mind would not perform.
Or as My Jewish Learning goes on to explain, “According to traditional Jewish law, someone who is mentally incompetent — a category known as a shoteh, derived from the Hebrew word for wanderer or vagrant — is exempt from most religious obligations and cannot get married or bear witness. The Talmud describes such a person as someone who goes out alone at night (despite the dangers) or sleeps in a cemetery — signs of his or her detachment from reality. Maimonides said the shoteh is someone who runs around naked or throws rocks.”[11]
Nowadays, we know mental health to be a much more complicated issue and rather than stigmatize it, we should strive to better understand it. 
Recently Johann Hari, an insightful, but problematic writer composed the book – Lost Connections. Now before we dive into some of his insights, a note on Hari. He has been exposed to plagiarism, and his arguments against the use of anti-depressants are very much up for debate. Also, his examination of the bio-psychosocial model are not his own creation. The reason why I am referencing him is because he does provide a good and accessible summation relating to the issues we are discussing this evening. Or to put it another way, the causes of mental health issues are not exclusively in our heads.
Hari goes on to explain that there are nine causes of depression and anxiety: disconnection from meaningful work, disconnection from other people, disconnection from meaningful values, disconnection from childhood trauma, disconnection from status and respect, disconnection from the natural world, disconnection from a hopeful or secure future, and from issues relating to genes and brain changes.[12]
Rather than dive into each one of his causes, we can simply note that there is a central theme running through his book. As Hari goes on to explain, “You are an animal whose needs are not being met. You need to have a community. You need to have meaningful values, not the junk values you’ve been pumped full of all your life, telling you happiness comes through money and buying objects. You need to have meaningful work. You need the natural world. You need to feel you are respected. You need a secure future. You need connections to all these things. You need to release any shame you might feel for having been mistreated. 
Every human being has these needs, and in our culture, we’re relatively good at meeting physical needs … but we’ve become quite bad at meeting these psychological needs.”[13]
Now this is not to dismiss chemical issues in the brain. But to recognize that our brains and the way they function are also directly impacted by our environment, the world we live in and the worlds we build around us. 
Our sages knew intrinsically that community was essential to the health and well-being of the individual, just as the individual is essential to the vitality and progress of the community. This is in part why we pray together in minyan, in a group. This is why we mourn in minyan, so no one ever mourns alone. This is why we celebrate life cycle events in community, and this is also why no one should suffer alone.
So how can we, as a Jewish community, help to take on the issue of mental health? First off, we need to be more open. We need to stop stigmatizing people who suffer from depression and anxiety. We need to stop whispering in hushed tones as if depression and anxiety are a communicable disease. 
We need to be more open about our own experiences. I myself have struggled with issues of depression and loneliness. A big part of it has to do with the nature of the modern rabbinate. It can be a very demanding and isolating profession at times. It often takes me away from my family and being an exemplar for a community can be spiritually and physically exhausting. Mind you, thankfully my thoughts have never gone done that dark road, and I have not been tempted to turn to the paths of drugs or alcohol as a means of coping. But, like many I do turn to ineffective remedies like food and buying things like guitars to try to fill that empty feeling. 
However, this sermon is not about me nor is it about the rabbinate. Instead I am giving you a glimpse into my world because I know many of you are also struggling with similar feelings and emotions. I know this because we have had conversations about it. Not just about professions but also related to family disappointments and physical and emotional challenges of ageing. 
We also need to trust our friends, our family, our community, our support networks enough to be more honest with them. Unlike most illnesses, mental health is mostly internal, though there can be physical manifestations. That is why we are so shocked when an Anthony Bourdain or Kate Spade take their lives. They seemingly had it all, but clearly were fighting their own inner demons. 
And perhaps, most importantly, we need to be ready, able and willing to listen and not judge. Our society is very much built on the superficial relationship. “I’m fine, you’re fine.” If you’re not fine, take a pill and feel better. Or the competitive, you think you’ve got problems, wait until you hear mine. Or the you think you’ve got it bad, so many others have it so much worse than you. In reality we know this is not helpful or constructive. 
Instead we can be inspired by our tradition and by the High Holy Days. In its purist form, the haunting melody and words of Kol Nidre, and really the entirety of the liturgy of the Yamim Noraiim, these High Holy Days, invite us to stand before God; raw and exposed. Our liturgy is set up to create a model of support. We confess, we open up not just with God, but also with each other. It is hard work. It is awkward. It is discomforting. But it is also honest, and it is necessary. We may not be able to solve of the societal ills that leave so many anxious and depressed. But within the framework of our tradition and our heritage we do have a roadmap to be able to help ourselves and those who are suffering both silently and openly in our orbits. 
In an interview with MTV in 1988 concerning his movie ‘What Dreams May Come,’ Robin Williams said, “My live now is extraordinary. It’s full of amazing people and such gifts, in terms of everything around me. I’m just so in awe of how I am right now … it makes me examine how precious the connections I have in this life [are]: family, friends. There are so many things that I really treasure. If anyone comes away with anything from the movie, if they look at their own life and really realize what they have or who is in their life. Then that’s interesting. Then I’ve accomplished something.”[14]
If you, or someone you love, is dealing with issues related to mental health, depression, and thoughts of suicide, please let us know. We have many wonderful mental health professionals in our congregation who can work with you directly and confidentially or can recommend someone for you. You don’t have to struggle alone. We, as a community, are here for you.
As we continue into the last day of the Yom Kippur, may we be reminded to build upon those most important connections in our lives. May we hear the voices crying out aloud or silently of those who are suffering. May we hear our own voices and be reminded to reach out to those who can help. May we remember that our lives are filled with blessings and with the potential for more blessings. May we be inspired by the legacies of those who have brought so much laughter and joy into our worlds and seek to do the same. And may we all know that we are not alone, but instead that we are part of a larger community and family that cares for us, that cares about us, and that is there for us. Amen.


[1]Nesteroff, Kliph, The Comedians: Drunks, Thieves, Scoundrels, and the History of American Comedy, New York, Grove Press, 2015, pg. 1
[2]Ibid pgs. XIV-XV
[3]Ibid pg. XV
[4]https://www.cnn.com/2017/03/01/health/sad-clown-standup-comedy-mental-health/index.html
[5]Comedians, pg. XIV
[6]https://jewishweek.timesofisrael.com/robin-williams-honorary-jew/
[7]Itzkoff, Dave, Robin, New York, Henry Holt and Company, 2018, Pg. 424
[8]Ibid pgs. 426-247
[9]https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/judaism-and-mental-illness/

[10]BT Talmud Tractate Chagigah 3b
[11]https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/judaism-and-mental-illness/
[12]Hari, Johann, Lost Connections: Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression – and the Unexpected Solutions, New York, Bloomsbury, 2018
[13]Ibid. pgs. 256-257
[14]http://www.mtv.com/news/1897008/robin-williams-afterlife-interview/

Thursday, September 13, 2018

RH Day II Sermon: Be Afraid, Be Very Afraid


I was in Middle School when I discovered the wonders and horrors of one of the United States’ most successful authors, Stephen King. As a teenager, he scarred the heck out of me, and I loved every page of it. You name it, Cujo, Carrie, the Stand, Pet Cemetery, and Christine were some of my early favorites. As an aside, I only recently learned from our own Susan Caminez that King’s books are not biographies about Maine. The one book that captured my imagination more than any other was the one simply entitled “It.” “It” is the tale of an ephemeral evil plaguing the fictional town of Derry, Maine often in the guise of a clown named Pennywise. 
There was a particular scene in the opening of the book involving a young boy, a rain storm, a paper boat, and a sewer grate that created such a sense of fear in me, that I refused to stand at my bus stop for weeks because it too was on a sewer grate. 
“It,” which was released in 1986, and it was adapted as a television miniseries in 1990 starring Tim Curry as Pennywise. “It” was then recently made into a two-part feature film, the first of which was released in September of last year, raking in over $700 million in ticket sales. 
Now truth be told, since Middle School, I have not really been into horror novels. I also haven’t seen too many horror movies since high school. However, since “It” came on cable recently, I decided to DVR it, though I am not entirely sure why. Perhaps I recorded it simply out of a desire to reconnect with my younger self. 
However, after a few minutes of watching the movie, I realized I needed to turn it off. Not because I was afraid of sewer grates any longer, but because, as a father, I couldn’t watch something bad happen to a child. The movie is a work of complete fiction, but the opening scene raised so many unsettling possibilities in my mind. It took my imagination down paths I simply did not wish to go. In my mind, I was not seeing my younger self next to that sewer grate, but instead, I was imagining one of my boys. And that made me deeply unsettled, if not afraid.
Needless to say, I’ve been thinking a lot about the very notions of fear lately. Not only do we live in a climate where we are bombarded with messages to keep us afraid, but even our old Gates of Repentance was designed, in part, with fear in mind. The theology of our old machzor was very much based on the idea that we should engage in teshuvahbecause we should be afraid of the repercussions if we do nothing.
Fear is a curious thing. According to Psychology Today, “Fear is a vital response to physical and emotional danger — if we didn't feel it, we couldn't protect ourselves from legitimate threats.”[1]According to the science of evolution, this is a fundamental human trait we inherited from our ancestors living in the savannah. Back then, we had a biological imperative to be afraid of the apex predators who were bigger, stronger, and faster than us.
However, as we, as human beings, have become the apex predator, our fears have transformed. This all began when we started to domesticate our environment. According to Yuval Noah Harari in his book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, “…the transition to agriculture brought about a plethora of ailments, such as slipped discs, arthritis and hernias. Moreover, the new agricultural tasks demanded so much time that people were forced to settle permanently next to their wheat fields. This completely changed their view of life. We did not domesticate wheat, it domesticated us.”[2]What this means, for our purposes, is that we gave up a life of specific fears, like predators, to generalized fears like crop failures, too little rain, or too much rain, and the possibility of theoretical external threats coming to steal all of our hard work. 
Our practical fears have evolved into a generalized state of anxiety. But our minds were simply not designed to deal with this new amorphous type of fear. Being in a regular state of anxiety can have detrimental effects on our thoughts, our relationships, and on our bodies. Specific fears can motivate, general fears can paralyze. 
According to the great modern Jewish theologian, Rabbi Harold S. Kushner, “in sum, a small dose of fear keeps us alert and alive, but an overdose can leave us perpetually tense, emotionally closed, and paralyzed to the point of inaction. If we could take a pill to banish fear, or if we could have a small part of our brain removed so that we would never feel afraid, it would be a serious mistake. Our goal should not be the total absence of fear but the mastery of fear, being the master of our emotions rather than their slave. Our goal should be to recognize legitimate fears, dismiss exaggerated fears, and not let fear keep us from doing the things we yearn to do.”[3]
However, in times of great uncertainly, it can be very difficult to ascertain the difference between general fears and specific fears, as it often seems like we should be afraid of just about everything, if you would believe the news. So how do we go about fulfilling the mission described above by Rabbi Kushner to recognize “legitimate fears, dismiss exaggerated fears, and not let fear keep us from doing the things we yearn to do?”
Today we read from the very beginning of Beresheet. The reason for this reading is because Rosh Hashanah is the celebration of the creation of the world. However, one could argue that Beresheetis not about the creation of the world, but instead is about the creation of Shabbat, the first Divinely ordained holiday, the day of rest.
Beresheetis also about one of the overarching themes in the Torah, which is God creating a sense of order out of chaos. As we read through the seven days of creation, there comes a rhyme and reason for everything. Day and night are separated. The moon and the sun are separated. The waters and the earth are separated. Animals are set apart, each unto their own kind. And humans are planted in the middle of all of this. Balance is achieved, at least for a while, until the second story of creation with Adam and Eve and their subsequent expulsion from the Garden of Eden. But why were they expelled? In Genesis it teaches, “So God Eternal took the man, placing him in the Garden of Eden to work it and keep it. God Eternal then commanded the man, saying, “You may eat all you like of every tree in the garden – but the Tree of the knowledge of good and evil (or as others translate – the Tree of All knowledge) you may not eat, for the moment you eat of it you shall surely die.”[4]
However, as we know, after eating the fruit, most likely a fig, Adam and Eve did not die. Instead, what the Torah is teaching is that they in the words of Kushner, “would realize, in a way no other creature does, that they were fated one day to die.”[5]Or to put another way, eating of the forbidden fruit, was not an act of evil, but instead an unintentional act that created a sense of mortality and fear of death that has imbued our humanity ever since. 
Before that point, according to the Torah, because humans had no knowledge, they had no fear. So the question simply is: how can we rebalance ourselves with the knowledge of fear? One way is simply to give into it, and the other is to recognize that fear is a result of imbalance and react in ways to try to bring about balance once again like in the Garden of Eden.
In Psalm 27:1 we read, “God is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? 
God is the strength of my life; of what shall I be afraid? …
Though a host encamp against me, my heart will have no fear”[6]
Upon initial reading of this, we might think our tradition is saying, “have faith in God, and you shall never fear.” 
However, as Kushner explains, “When the psalmist tells us three times in the first three verses of this psalm that he is not afraid, the message I hear is that he is afraid, but he is working at mastering his fears. It is like when your young child tells you, “I’m not afraid of big dogs anymore.” He is really saying that they still frighten him, but he is working on his fears rather than giving in to them or hiding from them. And where does the psalmist get the courage to stand up against enemies and other dangers? It comes from faith in God, not a God who protects him from all trouble and danger but a God who stands with him in time of trouble and danger so that he never has to feel he is facing his problems alone. To the psalmist, God is the source of light, strength, and salvation.”[7]
Here at last, we begin to find the answer to our question about our fears. Yes, we know the world is not always safe. Yes, we know the world can be capricious and bad things can and will happen. Yes, we know there are bad actors who may be seeking to do harm to us and or the ones we love. And yes, we know there are people in positions of power making decisions that we not only fundamentally disagree with, but we are fearful that they can gravely impact our lives, our communities, and the greater world as well.
But what we cannot do, is live in fear. So how do we go about doing this? Perhaps we can find key suggestions from another Rabbi in our tradition, Rabbi Milton Steinberg. Rabbi Steinberg, one of the great progressive thinkers of the early 20thcentury who is most well-known for his book As A Driven Leaf, also had a collection of writings entitled: A Believing Jew. In that collection he wrote an essay entitled, “The Fear of Life.”
As Kushner explains about Steinberg’s writings, “we are all too familiar with the fear of death. But Steinberg suggested … that there is a parallel fear of life. Only human beings are afraid of life, because only human beings can imagine the future. He wrote, ‘We fear for our children because we know what strange paths they may wander. We are timorous about our health because we can picture ourselves in the grip of malignant disease.’ And we are afraid of the future because it may lead to failure, hardship and pain. Because we yearn for so much, life can disappoint us in so many ways. Because there are people in our world whom we care about, life can hurt us. How can we get over our fear of life?
Steinberg’s first recommendation is that we face reality without illusions. Life may feel more pleasant, the future may seem more hopeful, if we deny reality, but no one can live courageously if his (or her) life is based on pretense and denial…”[8]So we have to accept life as it is and not hide in a corner, curled up in a ball muttering to ourselves that everything is fine. 
“The second ingredient in Steinberg’s prescription for curing us of the fear of life is a sense of duty. Do what you have to do even if it scares you. Eleanor Roosevelt once wrote, “You gain strength, courage, and confidence by every experience in which you stop to look fear in the face [and] you are able to say to yourself, ‘I lived through this horror. I can take the next thing that comes along…”[9]We do this every time we stand in defiance of fear. We do this every time we stand for a purpose. We do this every time we stand for a cause that is just and right. Imagine the worst possible thing that can happen when we take this course of action, and the reality is, most of the time, it doesn’t. As we find, our imagined fears are often much greater than the real outcomes. But we won’t know that unless you do what you have to do, even if it scares you.
“Steinberg’s third step in meeting fear with courage is rooted in the realization that we don’t have to do this alone. One of (Kushner’s) … favorite aphorisms comes from a nineteenth-century Hassidic rabbi who once said, ‘Human beings are God’s language.’ When we call out to God in our distress, God answers us by sending us people.”[10]Why do we gather together every year on the Yamim Noraiim, the High Holiest of Days, where our tradition compels us to be filled with awe, and with? It does this to remind us that we are, in fact, not alone. We are a part of a larger community that is there for one another to help each other to both conquer fear and overcome the sources of those fears. Together we can find support and allies to fight the source of those fears.
As Kushner goes on, “And finally, there is the resource of faith, not the belief that God is a Santa Claus figure who will give us what we want if we have been good, not the illusion that all stories have happy endings, but the stubborn conviction that we are strong enough to survive misfortune, rejection, and failure.”[11]Faith in God, in many ways, is expressed as faith in ourselves. 
Yes, we are living in scary times. That being said, giving into fear only makes the times scarier. Perhaps then we need to shut off our televisions from time to time or get off of social media and remind ourselves to reach deep and find the faith to overcome our fears so that we may become agents of change in the world. It may be part of our animal nature to be fearful, but it is our humanity that can help us to overcome it. As our prophet Micah stated in his vision of the world as it ought to be, “They shall sit every person under their vine and under their fig tree and none shall make them afraid.”[12]
Until that day comes, let us live in the way Mark Twain once famously described when it comes to fear, “Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear - not absence of fear.” With that in mind, as we set out on this New Year, may we all be inspired to live a little bit more courageously.
We pray, Ribbono Shel Olam, Master of the Universe, or master of ourselves, help us to overcome our fears in order to help bring about the world You envisioned through Your prophet Micah, where all are at peace, where there is no more suffering, and where none are afraid. And until that day comes, help give us the strength and courage to know that our fears will be not what define us, but instead they will be what drives us. 
Cayn Yehi Ratzon, may this be God’s Will. 
L’shana Tova


[1]https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/basics/fear
[2]Harari, Yuval Noah, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, New York, HarperCollins, 2015, pg. 81
[3]Kushner, Harold S., Conquering Fear: Living Boldly in an Uncertain World, New York, Anchor Books, 2009, pg. 11
[4]Genesis 2:15-17
[5]Kushner, Harold S., Conquering Fear: Living Boldly in an Uncertain World, New York, Anchor Books, 2009, pg. 143
[6]Psalm 27: 1,3
[7]Kushner, Harold S., Conquering Fear: Living Boldly in an Uncertain World, New York, Anchor Books, 2009, pg. 162
[8]Ibid., pgs. 169-170
[9]Ibid., pgs. 170-171
[10]Ibid., pg. 171
[11]Ibid., pg. 171-172
[12]Micah 4:4

RH Day I Sermon: To the Moon & Beyond!


Apollo 8 Launch - December 21, 1968
Picture this: “Three astronauts are strapped into a small spacecraft thirty-six stories in the air, awaiting the final moments of countdown. They sit atop the most powerful machine ever built. 
The Saturn V rocket is a jewel of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, a vehicle that will generate the energy of a small atomic bomb. But it has never flown with men aboard, and it has had just two tests, the most recent of which failed catastrophically just eight months earlier. The three astronauts are going not merely into Earth orbit, or even beyond the world altitude record of 853 miles. They intend to go a quarter of a million miles away, to a place no man has ever gone. They intend to go to the moon.”[1]These are the opening words of author Robert Kurson in his book Rocket Men: The Daring Odyssey of Apollo 8 and the Astronauts who made Man’s first journey to the moon.
This journey began in the summer of 1968. And as Kurson notes in his book, “Kennedy’s end-of-decade deadline was in jeopardy. Design and engineering problems with the lunar module – the spidery landing craft that would move astronauts from their orbiting ship to the lunar surface and back again – threatened to stall the Apollo program and put Kennedy’s deadline, just sixteen months away, out of reach. And that led to another problem. Every day that Apollo languished, the Soviet Union moved closer to landing its own crew on the Moon. And that mattered. The nation that landed the first men on the Moon would score the ultimate victory in the years-long Space Race between the two superpowers, one from which the second-place finisher might never recover.”[2]
It was at this point that George Low, a NASA engineer, had an idea. It was this idea that placed Frank Borman, Jim Lovell, and Bill Anders atop the Saturn V rocket in Cape Canaveral, Florida as described at the start of the sermon. 
Following the successful launch, the astronauts took 68 hours to reach the moon. After making 10 orbits over the course of 20 hours, Apollo 8 safely returned to a hero’s welcome on planet Earth. Borman, Lovell and Anders were named Time Magazines Men of the Year in 1968 and her successful mission paved the way for Apollo 11.
But it was far from a sure thing. There were incredible number of technical issues that could have gone wrong and resulted in catastrophe. Believe it or not, one fear was that if anything went wrong it could have ruined Christmas for the entire nation if not for the entire world. Another fear was that if the mission failed, the Russians would have made it to the moon first, which would have been detrimental to the psyche of the nation. And the list goes on and on.
“Often, during meetings about Apollo 8, George (Miller) Mueller [Associate Administrator for Manned Space flight] had pushed a piece of paper in front of ... other senior NASA managers and asked them to estimate the probability of success at each phase of the flight; doing that would then yield the chances of success for the total mission…” The answer was … “fifty-fifty.”[3]
In hindsight, we of course know the mission was destined to succeed. But how many would be willing to stake our lives, our futures of a fifty-fifty probability?
Thankfully nothing major went wrong during the entirety of the flight. Instead the mission galvanized the nation and reignited faith in our scientific prowess. All of this came about by our sheer audacity to dream. It was this dare to dream that made this seemingly impossible mission, possible. 
The ability, the desire to dream has been a core part of our Jewish journey since the very beginning our story as a people. Avram, later Abraham, who we read about this morning, had a dream of a covenant with God. Brit haBitarim, the covenant of the parts or the halves. It was in this dream that Avram realized the destiny of his descendants who would one day inherit the land of Canaan.  But Avram was concerned. Up to this point, he and Sarai, later Sarah, were childless. He reasonably asked God, “how can I dream of future generations when I do not have any offspring?”
It was in this dream that God revealed to Avram that he would have a son, Isaac. Avram was overjoyed by the news as Isaac would be the progenitor of our people. Isaac would be the one to continue the ethical-monotheistic tradition moving forward. Yet, as we read about this morning, God then demanded that Abraham offer Isaac up as a sacrifice. 
Every year we wonder, why would God request Abraham offer up his son, the one he loves, Isaac? Every year we are bothered even more so by the fact that Abraham not only fulfills God’s command, but also does it without questioning God. And every year, we attempt to make meaning out of such an upsetting story.
One potential midrash, reason for the challenging story of the Akeida is to reconnect us with this earlier story we find in Genesis 14 of the Brit Habitarim, the covenant between the halves. Perhaps God is foreshadowing a core lesson in our tradition that that nothing great can be accomplished without sacrifice. That to dream, it is not merely enough to have the dream, but to be willing to give up everything that matters to bring the dream to fruition.
Abraham was not our tradition’s only dreamer. Moses dreamed of a free people in their own land. It was this dream that became his life’s work. He did not live to see the dream come to fruition, but it was his vision, his drive, his determination that made it all possible. Ezekiel had a dream of a nation restored following her destruction at the hands of the Babylonians in 586 BCE. Our people, throughout our time in the Diaspora, kept dreaming of the Jewish people restored under the banner of heaven. And more recently, Theodor Herzl had a dream of a Jewish Nation. This dream was realized fifty-one years after his proclamation at the First World Zionist Congress in Basil, Switzerland in 1897. It’s not just NASA or the United States, as a Jewish people, as Joseph might have said, we too are in the business of dreaming. 
Today, on this start of this New Year, the Reform Temple of Rockland also has a dream. But before we get to that, it’s good to reflect on where we have come from in order to get a sense of where we might be going. This year marks only our third year celebrating the High Holy Days with one clergy team under one roof. And thankfully to the efforts of Jeff Grossman and the building committee, that roof is repaired, though there is still a lot of work to be done. You are witness to some of the many ongoing repairs that will be done to a building that has been a tad bit neglected for the past twenty years. And we thank you for your patience and your understanding. 
We also note that we are no longer Temple Beth El or Temple Beth Torah, but like a married couple, we are something better, something stronger. We have spent these past several years asking the question: who do we want to be? It has certainly not been a journey without some growing pains. We’ve had to wrestle with the question of our location, demographic challenges and financial considerations. All of this is being done under the watchful eye of our amazing volunteer leaders. 
Yet, we continue to wonder about our future. One group that has been pointed out again and again are the millennials. Over and over again we are told that they are not joiners. They prefer their experiences to be ala carte. However, I think we do a grave disservice to be dismissive of our country’s largest generation, yes even larger than the Baby Boomers in terms of sheer numbers. The millennials are a widely diverse group who have experienced a catastrophic financial collapse. They have had to pay far more for college than any other group in recent history, resulting in greater debt than ever. And they have had fewer economic opportunities than their parents. This is the first generation that by all accounts, will be worse off than the one preceding them. And yet, we look to them to be the standard bearers for the next generation of Jewish life. 
They are often maligned and misunderstood. Instead let us remember that they are, as a whole, are a group who also care deeply about heritage, tradition, family, and community, but in their own way. Yes, many are still residing in the city or in White Plains or in Northern Jersey, but contrary to popular belief, there are young people moving to the area. Therefore, it is one of our tasks to find new ways to engage them and encourage them to become part of our congregational journey.
To do this, a small group was tasked with the daunting task of imagining, of dreaming. We held multiple meetings, we had many conversations, and we ate our fair share of cake. We discussed many programs that have been done before, and we began to dream. This was when we happened upon an idea that to the best of our knowledge has not been tried before. And that is the dream of a free religious school for all.
Already we are offering, through the generosity of two of our funds to offer free religious school for pre-K through third grade and 10thgrade through 12thgrade. As a result, we are already seeing growth in our youngest grade levels. We are having to hire more teachers because classes that were once combined are now having to be separated out. It is a very exciting time, we are seeing growth in our religious school for the first time since I have been here.
But this vision is not sustainable without a major capital campaign. This is our Apollo 8 moment. And you are the key. We know one of the main reasons why people join congregations is for parents to be able to offer Jewish experiences to their children. Along the way, it is our hope and our intent to provide meaningful community and inspirational experiences for the parents as well. 
It is our hope, our plan, our dream to raise enough funds to sustain our school going forward so that cost will no longer be a consideration for families looking at options for Jewish living. As you undoubtedly know, living Jewishly is not cheap. There are the costs of congregational membership, religious school, b’nai mitzvah, confirmation, the JCC and Jewish summer camp, just to name a few. 
We also know that sustaining an organization has costs to it. We have to pay for the building, to light it, keep it cool in the summer and warm in the winter, and freezing during the High Holy Days. Clergy and staff all need to be paid in order to be able to offer the services you have come to expect. This is the reality of Jewish communal life. 
Hence the question: how can we make it easier, more affordable, and more enticing for those who are already being squeezed economically to want to join our journey? And the answer for us is free religious school.
Down the road you’ll be hearing more about opportunities to support this endeavor. And to be honest, it is possible that it may not work. We may find the numbers are simply not out there, or that people are really not looking to join congregations. But isn’t it worth trying? We will not know if this will be successful unless we aim for the moon. Our odds may not necessarily be better than those of Apollo 8, but look what we as a nation accomplished because people believed and people worked to overcome the impossible. 
All we ask is that when we do reach out, please be generous. And also know that this is not the only endeavor we have going forward. We have also partnered with the Rockland Foundation and Federation and a number of other organizations and congregations in our area in a new legacy giving campaign. It was just recently announced that the Rockland Community has been accepted to the Steinhardt Legacy giving program. What this means is that we will benefit financially through grants if we reach certain legacy giving goals. 
At a recent meeting we were told that Jewish non-profits need to have at least 20% of their income coming from sustainable endowments in order to endure future challenges. Needless to say, you will be hearing more about our legacy campaign as well, which is an entirely different form of giving. This type of giving can involve naming us in your will, including us as a beneficiary in life insurance policies and in 401Ks to name a few. You do not have to specify the amount of your gift, nor make a legally binding promise to give, but merely to state that you intend to give for the future generations.
Now none of this is in place of our Yom Kippur Appeal, which Sean Levin, our first Vice President will be speaking about on Yom Kippur. Many of you have hopefully already received your annual invitation to give to the appeal. Please join Joy and I in giving and also please remember we are striving for yes/and rather than either/or. As a non-profit, every gift helps us to achieve our mission, your mission. What we are really striving to do is ask you to think about the past and future of the Reform Temple of Rockland. To succeed requires offerings from the heart in what the coming days may bring. As we learned from the midrash about Avram, to achieve one’s dream can require great sacrifice, or in our case, the willing gifts that come with a little bit of hope and faith.
Now, lest you think that this is just about the future, we would also like to mention that we are doubling down on the present. One area we have been working hard on expanding is in our life-long learning programs. Our Adult Education Committee along with Brad Zicholtz, our Director of Life Long learning, have been working diligently to offer more learning opportunities than ever before. They are partnering as well with our affiliated organizations like our WRJ Sisterhood and Men’s Club to offer book clubs, lectures, film series about relevant issues, and so much more. We are also looking forward to offering more scholar-in-residence programs in the future too. But this is just a taste.
As we know, being part of a congregational community is about learning, worship, education, family, social action, social activism, friendship, God, and kinship, and so much more. Alas, there is a cost to be able to offer all of this. In my dream world, being a part of our community would be completely free. This dream of a free communal Jewish life is like our nation’s dream of getting men and women to Mars. It is a long way off, but still possible. But before we aim for Mars, let’s aim together for the moon, and be able to provide for our children and grandchildren the experience of a free Jewish education. 
Now I am sure some of you are thinking, I didn’t come here to hear about congregational finances and giving opportunities. I came to be inspired, I came to be challenged. To that I say, not to worry, there is plenty more in store for Rosh Hashanah Day II, Kol Nidre and Yom Kippur morning. In today’s challenging times, though one could argue that every day, every year is a challenging time, we will be continuing to have important conversations in the framework of our Jewish tradition. But I thought it would be inspirational to put all of that aside for one morning and instead do something that our people is great at, and that is the ability to hope and to dream no matter the circumstance. 
So to that we ask: dare we dream like Abraham, Moses, Ezekiel, Herzl? Dare we dream so many did in December of 1968? Or to borrow from the words of the songstress of the Reform Movement, Debbie Friedman as she sang so many years ago based on our prophet Joel: “That the old shall dream dreams, and the youth shall see visions, and our hopes shall rise up to the sky. We must live for today; we must build for tomorrow. Give us time, give us strength give us life.” 
In this New Year of 5779, let us dream our dreams, let us see our visions, and let us raise our hopes up to the sky. Let us live for today, but even more importantly, let us build for tomorrow. For the future is endless and opportunities abound as we join hands and journey into a brave new world. As we are all on a mission. One perhaps even greater than the moon. A mission to create a sustainable future for us and for the generations who come after. 
All we ask is: Ribbono Shel Olam, Master of the Universe, give us the ability, the courage, the strength, the determination to see our dreams come to fruition. Or to paraphrase from a favorite in our household, Buzz Lightyear: to the moon and beyond!
L’shana Tova


[1]Kurson, Robert, Rocket Men: The Daring Odyssey of Apollo 8 and the Astronauts who made man’s first Journey to the moon, New York, Random House, 2018, pg. 3.
[2]Ibid., pgs. 5-6.
[3]Ibid., pg. 130