Yom Kippur Morning 2017: Finding Faith at the Mall

korotkin_headshotSince Yom Kippur is about taking stock of important things, I’d like to take a moment for a brief survey. How many of you – say, in the last two weeks – have spent a considerable amount of time buying stuff at the shopping mall. Clothes, housewares, appliances. Things like that. How many of you have hung out there recently?

Okay now, how many of you have spent a considerable amount of time doing the same thing on your computer. Amazon, other on-line purchasing options?

Yep, that’s what I thought.

We are, as you might have noticed, in the middle of what some have called a retail meltdown. On-line shopping has taken the place of a lot of the time we used to spend at the mall. It’s easier. It’s quicker. And Amazon Prime – now a fixture in half of all American households — gives us two-day free shipping. What’s not to love?

As a result, of course, a lot of malls are half-empty these days. Major retailers are going bankrupt, or selling off stores, or not paying enough attention to stocking the shelves and having enough salespeople. The Macy’s where I’ve been shopping for several years down in Columbia, South Carolina, is in a dead mall, but it was a great store until this year, when it got dingy and the ladies who always helped me pick out my outfits were gone. In fact, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the retail sector in this country lost about 30-thousand jobs in March alone.

So: Bricks and mortar are out. And not just when it comes to retail. The same is happening in the world of religion.

Not a few congregants comment to me about people missing from the pews on Shabbat and even on these days of awe. And it’s true. But it’s not just us. All over the country, large urban and suburban synagogues built in the heady days after World War Two are struggling to stay open and have folded or merged their religious schools in response to the aging of their populations. Even in places with large concentrations of Jews like Philadelphia, offering daycare or early-childhood centers isn’t translating into membership. Younger people these days are less likely to join up anywhere, which implies a long-term commitment. And others have married outside the faith and are not raising children as Jews – or as anything else, religiously.

Every summer, we find out in our interfaith clergy groups who has chosen to move or has been reassigned, whose congregation is closing its doors, and who will be serving two or even three congregations that are merging or sharing a minister. So it’s not just us. But it’s disturbing and discouraging nonetheless, for those of you who love this congregation and honor its history.

As you know, we are on “hiatus” for a plan to bring our community’s two congregations closer together. For many people, the plan was moving way too fast for comfort, and they didn’t see the value in the direction the project was going. But change is inevitable and necessary. So while we re-think what it means to assure a future for the Altoona Jewish community, we can take a look at some suggestions being made to re-think retail and re-use those half-empty shopping malls. These three points come from The Atlantic magazine’s City Lab – a free email newsletter, of course — in a Nolan Gray essay from this past spring called “How to Survive a Retail Meltdown.”

Let’s start with an understanding that dead and dying malls are more than just blights on the landscape. These so-called “greyfields” are a financial drain on cities that used to rely on retailers for a lot of revenue. Cities don’t benefit from Amazon Prime purchases like they did from having a Macy’s or a Sears in town. Not only that, they take up a lot of real estate that potentially could be used for other things, but the infrastructure and the legal requirements – the roads, the parking, the set-backs – make it hard to do so.

In Jewish terms, it’s a way to think of teshuvah, the process of return and renewal in which we engage during these Days of Awe. It’s about getting rid of what doesn’t work in our lives and embracing a different model of living. It requires us to be strong and brave about leaving behind what is comfortable and familiar, for the sake of a life that is more fruitful and fulfilling.

So the first suggestion that Nolan Gray makes is to ease land-use restrictions.

“If you are a local policymaker concerned about greyfields,” writes Gray, “ask yourself: Can an enterprising developer turn that empty big box into a co-working space? Can food trucks turn that parking lot into a lunchtime market? If you answered ‘no’ to either question, it’s time for regulatory reform.”

So what does regulatory reform mean for this congregation? Turn away from what worked in the past but doesn’t anymore. Turn toward other models for using the space we have for other purposes, or re-imagine the concept of sacred space completely.

Release ourselves from preconceived notions about how life should be in our Jewish community – such as the idea that one or the other of our large buildings is essential to our Jewish survival. Because, the fact is, neither may be viable in fewer years than we’d care to think.

A congregation is people, not buildings. Our ancestors who left Egypt survived decades in the wilderness without a permanent address. What they had was each other, faith in God, and faith in their community. They followed God’s instructions to build a portable tabernacle that was beautiful and luxurious – but which could be taken apart and packed up and carried anywhere they went. The Mishkan assured them of something that was inconceivable in ancient times – that a God could be omnipresent and go with the people wherever they traveled.

God is always reminding the Israelites: Do what I say because I’m the one who saved you from bondage. But in today’s Torah reading, God through Moses – in his farewell sermon – challenges the people to think of the future, rather than fixating on the past:

יג וְלֹא אִתְּכֶם לְבַדְּכֶם אָנֹכִי כֹּרֵת אֶת־הַבְּרִית הַזֹּאת וְאֶת־הָאָלָה הַזֹּאת: יד כִּי אֶת־אֲשֶׁר יֶשְׁנוֹ פֹּה עִמָּנוּ עֹמֵד הַיּוֹם לִפְנֵי יְהוָֹה אֱלֹהֵינוּ וְאֵת אֲשֶׁר אֵינֶנּוּ פֹּה עִמָּנוּ הַיּוֹם:

“Not with you alone do I seal this covenant, this pledge. Rather, this covenant is with those who are among you today, standing before Adonai our God, and also with those who are not with us today.”[1]

Community endures. God’s promise endures. Edifices do not. If we are truly a kehilat kedoshah, a holy congregation, we must engage in teshuvah today not merely to make ourselves right with God but to make ourselves right with those who will come after us, who will sustain this Jewish community despite demographic and financial challenges.

Maybe it will mean keeping some of our current buildings and maybe it will not. Maybe it will mean sharing our space with other congregations, renting it out for other purposes, investing in enough infrastructure to draw community groups in as renters, who will appreciate and enjoy this beautiful space as much as we do.

Or maybe it will mean moving into a smaller, sustainable space. Maybe it will mean moving around like our ancestors did, from space to space or home to home – a model that other congregations in other cities are now embracing, in which they put their money into people and programing, inspiring younger Jews – those non-joiners – to take ownership of a concept and a faith rather than a building.

And this brings us to Nolan Gray’s second suggestion: Re-think economic incentives.

In the past, shiny new shopping malls were not just a point of pride but also a great way to generate attention and jobs. But that meant cities and towns giving away millions in tax breaks and free land, and building out roads and infrastructure on the edges of town, not in the core. And that cost a lot of money that now is gone for good. For Gray, the lesson of the retail meltdown is, as he puts it,

“not that we should switch from subsidizing brick and mortar retail to subsidizing e-commerce with the same old mixture of property tax abatement and free infrastructure. Rather, the lesson is that cities should be very cautious about plowing public resources into attracting specific firms. Today’s Amazon distribution center could easily be tomorrow’s dead mall.”

Similarly this congregation often finds its resources strained, stretched way too thin. Are we subsidizing what no longer works for us? Are we thinking both short-term and long-term about not only the members we have but potential new members as well, and where they want their investment to go? New speakers? Or guest speakers? A community focused primarily on Shabbat in the sanctuary, or one that thinks, physically and philosophically, outside the walls? This is not an either-or concept, and meeting the needs of the people in the pews is of paramount concern – because you have put your blood, sweat and tears into this building and this congregation. But our future depends less on short-term patches and more on a future created out of well-spun cloth.

But there’s good news in the third of Nolan Gray’s three steps: Think corner stores, not big boxes. “In dynamic urban economies,” he writes, “smallness, accessibility, and a high-quality experience are more important” than large-scale retail development. And if there’s anyone who has done small well, it’s us.

Let’s face it: Like the retail landscape, religious observance in America is changing rapidly, and that’s true in Altoona and Tyrone and Hollidaysburg as much as anywhere else. Pop-up churches are filling up empty retail space on downtown street corners and in suburban strip malls.

It’s a far cry from the “if you build it, they will come” church-building philosophy of the early 20th century downtown and of the 1950s and 60s in the suburbs. Like the half-empty mall on the edge of town, the heyday of institutional Judaism as we have known it is long gone. But we should not be looking back, bemoaning the loss, still trying to duplicate the past. Like retail, making use of the space that already exists, and being prepared to move, shift and adapt more quickly, is now the model.

We have gotten really good at maximizing the resources we do have. And our greatest resource – our greatest strength – is our people. And if religion, like retail, now thrives on smallness, accessibility, and a high-quality experience, then we are in a position to shine.

When we hear of an illness or loss, we come together to share the burdens. When we have a simcha, it’s a celebration for us all. Sisterhood can pull together a joyous reception or a shiva meal like nobody’s business, even on short notice. When Don and I were on Sabbatical last winter, everybody pitched in to help with services and check on congregants who needed to hear a cheerful voice or see a friendly face. While some bigger, wealthier congregations see so many students disappear after Bar or Bat Mitzvah, our students stay through Confirmation, and many teach our younger students Hebrew.

That’s what it means to be in a small congregation in a small community. We’re all in this together, in a sacred cause that does not go unnoticed during these Days of Awe:

ב רַבָּן גַּמְלִיאֵל בְּנוֹ שֶׁל רַבִּי יְהוּדָה הַנָּשִׂיא אוֹמֵר. . ..[ וְ]כָל הָעֲמֵלִים עִם הַצִּבּוּר, יִהְיוּ עֲמֵלִים עִמָּהֶם לְשֵׁם שָׁמַיִם, שֶׁזְּכוּת אֲבוֹתָם מְסַיְּעָתַן וְצִדְקָתָם עוֹמֶדֶת לָעַד. וְאַתֶּם, מַעֲלֶה אֲנִי עֲלֵיכֶם שָׂכָר הַרְבֵּה כְּאִלּוּ עֲשִׂיתֶם:

Rabban Gamaliel son of Rabbi Judah the Patriarch said: “All who labor for the community, let them labor with them for Heaven’s sake, for then the merit of the community’s forebears will sustain them, and their beneficence will endure forever. And as for you [who labor thus], I regard you as deserving great reward, as though you had accomplished it all [on your own].” [2]

One generation sustains the next, a gift that is particularly true here at Temple Beth Israel, where the photos in our center hallway depict the grandparents, parents, siblings, children, grandchildren, aunts and uncles, and cousins of those who gather here today. You are their gift to us.

But even if you don’t carry a familiar last name, it is absolutely impossible to be anonymous in this congregation. Don and I found that out the first time we walked in the door. But it’s also absolutely impossible to be inactive. Or at least it should be. And if you are now, you won’t be for long. Those yellow interest cards we handed out at Rosh Hashanah will be out for break-the-fast too.

We need you. Every one of you. Not just today, but throughout the year. We need your talents, your ideas, your time and attention. Small can be successful, if we, together, our whole congregation, pitches in.

People want attention. They want a place where they feel welcome, where they feel at home, where they feel that they matter, where they have a sense that they are a part of something much bigger than themselves. All of us feel that way – and so do all the people who have not yet discovered us. So let’s share the best of what we are, and together plan for what we can become.

“Smallness, accessible, and a high-quality experience.” We make Judaism come alive in a way that is both highly personal and communally fulfilling – just like the prayers we recite throughout these days of awe. Each of us is responsible for our own teshuvah. But each of us here today gives strength to everybody else making teshuvah for themselves.

Let this not be just for today. We control our own destiny. We are in a position to move this congregation into a future that meets both the expectations and the needs of Jews and their families – both those who are with us today, and those who are not yet with us.

יד כִּי־קָרוֹב אֵלֶיךָ הַדָּבָר מְאֹד בְּפִיךָ וּבִלְבָבְךָ לַעֲשׂתוֹ

“For this thing is very near to you, on your lips and in your heart, and you can do it.”[3]

Ken yehi ratson. Let this be God’s will and our own. As we say together: Amen.

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©2017 Audrey R. Korotkin

[1] Deut. 29:13-14

[2] Mishnah Avot 2:2

[3] Deut. 30:14

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Erev Yom Kippur 2017: When There Is No Other Hand

It is the iconic shtick of Tevye the dairyman in “Fiddler On the Roof.” Faced with difficult choices, the mild-mannered shtetl-dweller ponders his choices carefully. On the one hand…..on the other hand….on the other hand….until he comes to a decision he can live with, one that balances life in the real world with the need to sustain his small, poor, and often-threatened Jewish community.

Until he reaches his limit. And then Tevye, suddenly and movingly, cries out: “No! There is no other hand!”

Tevye reaches his limit when he is asked to bless the marriage of his third daughter to a non-Jew – something he firmly believes is not only wrong but dangerous. We might not feel that way about interfaith marriages these days. But each of us confronts situations in our lives when we simply reach our limit, when we are asked to betray our basic moral principles. We still have times when we too must cry out: “NO! There is no other hand!”

We reached our limit this summer.

All of us watched with horror the images on television as hate groups of all kinds gathered in a park in Charlottesville, Virginia, for a rally under the banner “Unite the Right.”

“Unite the Right” did not represent the traditional right wing of American politics.

Instead, it was a reflection of  the fascist right of Europe, the so-called “alt-right” as it is called in America – a rancid mixture of neo-Nazis, white nationalists, racists, anti-semites, anti-Muslims, and misogynists, all committed to opposing multi-culturalism and preserving what they see as an embattled white race.

They marched carrying lit torches. They marched without masking their identities, as the Klan once did. They marched on a city that had been thoughtfully and carefully examining its racist past, and had decided to remove a statue of Confederate leader Robert E. Lee from a public area, which was now to be known as Emancipation Park. They contended they chose the setting to preserve and protect the Lee statue and “southern culture.” But the statue was an excuse. What they were really doing was asserting their inherent right, as white people, to both control and to denigrate anyone who is not.

The sheer ferocity of their expressions of hatred made us all shudder.  The ugliness was shocking. But just as disturbing was the response we heard from the highest level of our national government:  “I think there is blame on both sides.”

Let’s be clear. Among the peaceful protesters who opposed the white supremacist march was a small group that pitched a violent battle with the Nazis in the park before the rally was even was supposed to start. That’s why the city decided to cancel the rally. And that’s when the Nazis and bigots attacked those who were marching peacefully, one of them ramming his car deliberately into a crowd and killing a young woman, Heather Heyer.

But the white supremacists all came spoiling for a fight. Many of them were clad in camo and helmets, wielding bats, and more than a few brandished handguns and even semi-automatic weapons. They were out to hurt people.

The phrase “I think there is blame on both sides” – which was perpetrated on us again, just within the last couple of weeks – this phrase presents a moral equivalency between Nazis and racists, and the people who oppose them. The excuse that, oh not everyone at that rally was a neo-Nazi, not everybody who marched was a white supremacist, presents a moral equivalency between the people who stand side by side with bigots, and those who stand up against them.

So let’s be very, very clear about this. There is NEVER a moral equivalency here. Ever. Nazis and skinheads and white supremacists do not get a pass. Ever.

On the one hand, you have people who spew hatred. And on the other hand: There IS NO OTHER HAND.

And let’s be very, very clear about this: Standing up to Nazis has nothing to do with party politics. If you want to read a classic denunciation of moral equivalency in the cold-war context, read the 1986 essay by Jeane Kirkpatrick, who served as Ronald Reagan’s ambassador to the United Nations.

Or listen to the words of William F. Buckley, the founding editor of the National Review, who once explained moral equivalency using this cold-war analogy:

“To say that the CIA and the KGB engage in similar practices is the equivalent of saying that the man who pushes an old lady into the path of a hurtling bus is not to be distinguished from the man who pushes an old lady out of the path of a hurtling bus: on the grounds that, after all, in both cases someone is pushing old ladies around.”

Yet that seems to be the argument here.

And it cannot be dismissed as mere rhetoric. “Mere rhetoric” (air quotes) is what got us from Nazi rallies in the 1930s to Nazi genocide in the 1940s. Avowed racists – including rally speakers David Duke of the KKK and white supremacist Richard Spencer — were overjoyed by that “mere rhetoric.” David Duke and Richard Spencer? Is that who you want in your corner? Is that whose message you are equating with people who are demanding justice and dignity?

It shouldn’t be so hard. Nazis = BAD. That’s it. This is the moral standard that we must demand of ALL of our national leaders. And as American Jews, we have two fundamental reasons why it’s so important. First, because our tradition tells us so. Second, because our history tells us what happens when the world fails to do so.

Let’s get to the crux of this so-called “Unite the Right” rally. What is it that unites the alt-right? The Anti-Defamation League narrows it down to two things: Hate and violence. That is what unites all those identified by the ADL as having been present in Charlottesville:

The Ku Klux Klan, the National Socialist Movement, Identity Evropa, League of the South, Vanguard America, the Confederate White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, Hammerskin Nation, Blood & Honour Social Club, Daily Stormer, and The Right Wing Death Squad. All of them, reports the ADL, are founded on various strains of white supremacist ideology, and all of them seem to be attracting the same demographic: young, white men.

This variety of white supremacist ideology encompasses anti-black racism, hatred of Jews, hatred of Muslims, homophobia, and misogyny. In other words, one type of hate is easily meshed with another. One target of their hate is interchangeable with another. The symbols they wear, and the chants they repeat, cover the gamut of this anti-white conspiracy they see usurping their rightful place atop the food chain. And there’s clearly a thread linking African Americans and Jews.

That’s not new, of course. If you remember back when Rahm Emanuel was chosen as Barack Obama’s chief of staff, the alt-right howled that the Jews were controlling the blacks, who were going to oppress the whites, who rightly should be running the country.

As for the purported purpose of the rally, to defend “southern tradition” and protect the Robert E. Lee statue from removal, Jonathan Greenblatt of the ADL summed it up this way:

“This is an agenda about celebrating the enslavement of Africans and their descendants, and celebrating those that then fought to preserve that terrible machine of white supremacy and human enslavement. And yet, somehow, they’re all wearing shirts that talk about Adolph Hitler.”

And so you had young white men carrying tiki torches, in a re-enactment of the Hitler Youth marches of the 1930s. Chants that segued from “You will not replace us!” to “Jews will not replace us!” On-line threats on Nazi chat rooms to bomb Congregation Beth Israel, where the Temple president described men in fatigues carrying semi-automatic weapons across the street during Shabbat morning worship. Klan leader David Duke telling the crowd: “The extreme right considers many people their threat. But it always, always, always comes back to the Jews.”

And quotes like this one, recorded for posterity by Vice News’s documentary: “This city is run by Jewish communists and criminal niggers.” Said Vice producer Elle Reeve, “Once they started marching, they didn’t talk about Robert E. Lee being a brilliant military tactician. They chanted about Jews. Like, they wanted to be menacing.”

And that makes sense – because the forces of hatred are a menace, to our society and to our nation. As much as we would like to believe that our nation’s institutions of democracy and liberty are too powerful to be subverted, our experience as Jews tells us otherwise. Demagogues powerful enough to bring the hate mongers together the way they did in Charlottesville are a threat. This is what Jeane Kirkpatrick warned in that essay from the mid 80s:

“To destroy a society it is first necessary to delegitimize its basic institutions so as to detach the identifications and affections of its citizens from the institutions and authorities of the society marked for destruction. This delegitimization may be achieved by attacking a society’s practices in terms of its own deeply held values, or it may be achieved by attacking the values themselves.

“The latter course was undertaken by the fascists and Nazi movements which rejected outright the basic values of Western liberal democratic civilization. They rejected democracy, liberty, equality, and forthrightly, frankly, embraced principles of leadership, obedience and hierarchy as alternatives to the basic values of democracy.”

Today we see the beginnings of this: The delegitimization of a free and fair press, by those who do not like to be questioned or unmasked. The demonizing of political opponents as the devil incarnate. Calls to violence against blacks. Denigration of women. Charges of rigged elections. Silencing of valid options and opinions. All of this plays directly into the hands of those who would seek to undermine our democracy.

Their cause is un-American and needs to be denounced, not abetted, at the highest levels. It is also anti-Jewish.

Tomorrow morning, we will read from the Book of Deuteronomy, as Moses delivers this charge, and this warning, to the people:

הַעִדֹתִי בָכֶם הַיּוֹם אֶת־הַשָּׁמַיִם וְאֶת־הָאָרֶץ הַחַיִּים וְהַמָּוֶת נָתַתִּי לְפָנֶיךָ הַבְּרָכָה וְהַקְּלָלָה וּבָחַרְתָּ בַּחַיִּים לְמַעַן תִּחְיֶה אַתָּה וְזַרְעֶךָ:

I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day that I have set before you life or death, blessing or curse; choose life, therefore, that you and your descendants may live.

We have a choice in how we behave in this world. Life or death, blessing or curse. We protect our land or we lose it. And we protect it by choosing life. Life and blessing, Moses tells us, requires that we follow God’s laws and commandments. And what do those laws and commandments teach us? The haftarah of the prophet Isaiah reminds us:

ו הֲלוֹא זֶה צוֹם אֶבְחָרֵהוּ פַּתֵּחַ חַרְצֻבּוֹת רֶשַׁע הַתֵּר אֲגֻדּוֹת מוֹטָה וְשַׁלַּח רְצוּצִים חָפְשִׁים וְכָל־מוֹטָה תְּנַתֵּקוּ: ז הֲלוֹא פָרֹס לָרָעֵב לַחְמֶךָ וַעֲנִיִּים מְרוּדִים תָּבִיא בָיִת כִּי־תִרְאֶה עָרֹם וְכִסִּיתוֹ וּמִבְּשָׂרְךָ לֹא תִתְעַלָּם:

“Is this not the fast that I look for? To unlock the shackles of injustice, to undo the fetters of bondage, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every cruel chain?  Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and to bring the homeless poor into your house? When you see the naked, to clothe them, and never to hide yourself from your own kin?”

On this Yom Kippur, we are reminded that our fasting and atonement count for nothing if we leave this sanctuary tomorrow night with hands unopened and hearts still chained. We will not be cleansed in God’s eyes if we still hold fast to sinat chinam, senseless hatred, or tolerate it in others. We know what bigotry can do, to a people and to a country. We have witnessed, first hand, what happens when ordinary people fail to stand up and say, clearly and powerfully: No! There is no other hand!

God has placed this responsibility within each of our grasp. Torah teaches us that this task is not impossible. But it is achievable only if we choose to do it. As Rabbi Bradley Artson has written:

“”Freedom and dignity are indivisible. Either they include all of us, or we are all in danger. Those who would judge or are judged by the color of their skin, by their gender, by their faith or their lack of faith, by their looks, by their orientation, by their abilities or by some people’s perception of disability, need to remember that we are already the way God would have us be, with one exception: God cannot force us to love ourselves or each other. We have to do that ourselves.”

Let us choose goodness, life, and blessing, as God calls on us to do – that we, and others – those of every race, religion, gender, and nation of origin – may live long in this magnificent country that has been granted to us as our possession, and our responsibility. There is no other way. There is no other hand.

Ken yehi ratson. Be this God’s will and our own. And let us say together: Amen.

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©2017 Audrey R. Korotkin

 

Rosh Hashanah Morning 2017: “Our Nation’s Attic”

My mother’s email was short and to the point. “I’ve sold the house and will be moving into an apartment,” she wrote to all her kids. “If there’s anything you want, you’d better come this week and get it.”

The email sent me into a bit of a panic. How in the world was I supposed to drop everything and sort through decades worth of possessions? My late father had been the pack rat in the family, and although mom had culled a lot of his belongings over the years and given us things she knew would be meaningful – there were an awful lot of drawers, closets, and storage areas to be investigated in the big townhouse with three full stories and an oversized garage.

In the end, we all ended up with a few things that we wanted before mom made herself comfortable in a nice apartment building with good neighbors and lots of amenities. And, truth be told, she made it easier for us than for others our age – because she didn’t insist on foisting things on us that we really didn’t want or need, but might end up taking out of a sense of family obligation.

It’s a near-epidemic these days. When we’ve talked before about dealing with a family’s ‘stuff,’ we usually talk about the psychological baggage in a person’s life that often traces back to childhood. But lately, as the eldest of the baby boomers age and downsize, family ‘stuff’ has taken on a physical manifestation that pits one generation’s trash against another one’s treasure.

A recent New York Times story carried the headline “Aging Parents with Lots of Stuff, and Children Who Don’t Want It.” The author, Tom Verde, reminds us that our parents and grandparents were being good Americans, not just good providers. They were encouraged to accumulate lots of material goods in the economic boom after World War Two. No new home was complete without wedding china and sterling-silver flatware and cut crystal glassware. When the children came, so did big dining room sets and cushy den furniture and ritual objects and reels and reels of eight-millimeter home movies that never made it onto video tape, much less DVD.

But there’s more – much more – in the attics and basements and guest-room closets of many American homes, where parents have accumulated stacks and bags and boxes of stuffed animals, baby shoes, and seemingly every English essay, every report card, and every art project that every child ever made or received. The objects hold precious memories that many parents just can’t let go of – and they think those objects – as well as the memories they hold – should be as meaningful to their children and grandchildren as they are to them.

The trouble is, they’re not.

As Tom Verde writes “For a variety of social, cultural, and economic reasons, this is no longer the case. Today’s young adults tend to acquire household goods that they consider temporary or disposable, from online retailers or stores like Ikea and Target, instead of inheriting them from parents or grandparents.”

The Times then ran a follow up story of reader responses to the value – or the cost – of keepsakes, and the difficult conversations they’re having within the family about just what is valuable and what is not.

A lot of readers were downright disappointed that their kids and grandkids didn’t want their precious things, for which they often saved and sacrificed for years. One older person wrote: “My generation used to scrimp and resourcefully use everything. My 20-something children prefer to have kits from Ikea rather than castoffs I put aside.”

A younger person – part of a generation that lives smaller for longer than their parents did – summarized the quandary in this question: “Now we’re supposed to buy houses we can’t afford just to store your stuff?”

I happen to know of at least one congregational family here today that is downsizing right now and struggling with a huge houseful of stuff accumulated over 40 years, that the kids see mostly as a burden they don’t want. And another selling her house that the kids grew up in, who fears losing the memories, and the people, that those possessions represent. And yet another asking themselves: Do we stay in grandma’s house because it was grandma’s house, or do we find something new that suits the way we want to live?

There are no simple answers to these issues. Every family has to make its own choices, trying to respect both parental wishes and limits to what the children can take. It’s a mighty generational struggle – one that is reflected in the Torah portion we read this morning.

Just as our family’s attics are full to bursting with stuff and memories, so is the Jewish nation’s virtual attic.

The story of the binding of Isaac, the Akedah, is one of those possessions that makes us conflicted and uncomfortable about our heritage. Is it a story of child sacrifice that presumes our Israelite God would ask such a thing of a most faithful servant? Is it a story about a child’s self-sacrifice, an Isaac willing to accept and bear his father’s burden? Is it about a dysfunctional family where the mother is the last to know the fate of her beloved son? And why, if it’s so important, is the Akedah not mentioned anywhere else in the Torah?

This is not just a 21st century dilemma. The rabbis have struggled with these same questions for two thousand years. For them, it is absolutely crucial that Abraham’s reputation come out of this unscathed, and that the Torah, as the word of God, retain its literary perfection. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t brave enough to ask a lot of important – and sometimes impertinent – questions.

They have come up with a lot of possible answers – some more fanciful, and some more incredulous than others, many of which we studied in our adult-learning sessions this past year.

Maybe, they write in the Midrash, Abraham simply misunderstood God’s intention. After all, the angel stays his hand just as he raises up the slaughtering knife. In this scenario, God says to him – I just told you to bring him as if you were to offer him. Now that you brought him up, you can take him home.

Or maybe this test of Abraham was instigated by Ha-Satan, Satan, the trouble-making angel they would later see in the Book of Job. Maybe Satan taunted God into trying Abraham’s honor and faithfulness, and then proceeded to put every obstacle in his way, including turning himself into a raging river that stood between Abraham and Isaac, and Mount Moriah.

Or maybe this story is meant to distinguish between Jews and non-Jews. Abraham and Isaac must have walked through the Valley of Gehinom, where pagan peoples around them sacrificed their own children, on the way to Mount Moriah. Abraham – and all of us – would understand the difference between our God and all of theirs, when God would not let Abraham go through with the offering.

For we 21st century Reform Jews, it’s not as important to us to see Abraham as a wholly righteous character, or that every bit of Torah is consistent with every other bit. Many of us see the Torah as divinely inspired but not the literal word of God. And yet, in some ways, our task is more challenging. Because, unlike the material possessions of our parents and grandparents, the literary inheritance of our people is not something we can give away, or discard completely, or just say “thank you, but no.” It is, quite literally, a keepsake.

This is the burden of what’s lurking in our people’s attic: child sacrifice, blind faith, capricious gods. The redactors of the Torah may have smoothed over a lot of its inconsistencies, but they retained the vestiges of an old religion that had all of this and more. And I think they did it on purpose, so that we would be forced to confront and understand our history in each and every generation.

And then the sages connected it to Rosh Hashanah so that we would be forced to confront and understand it at the beginning of each and every year.

In fact, I think that struggling with the story of Isaac’s near sacrifice is an essential rite of passage to the New Year, to the feeling of renewal we all seek. Because, like the entirety of our Torah-reading cycle, it not only forces us to confront what’s in the attic, but it also allows us to see our nation’s possessions in a new light. When Rabbi Ben Bag Bag taught us about the Torah “turn it over and over again, for everything is in it,” he meant that year by year, as we get older, as we experience more of life, we gain new perspectives about our spiritual inheritance. Rather than rushing to “preach against the text,” so to speak, we begin to see the value that it has, even in its difficulties.

Not every big, hulking dining room set can be made useful again with new seat covers and a coat of paint. But the Akedah, like so many old things we have re-discovered in our peoples’ attic – mikvah, Hebrew, ritual objects like tallit and kippot – can be made into something new, fresh, and meaningful. Women are going to the mikvah to mark important events in their lives, from marriage to menopause. Hebrew is a living language that identifies us around the world. Wearing a tallit can feel like a big hug from God. But it’s up to each of us to find meaning for ourselves, this year, at our age, at this stage of our lives.

I can’t tell you what the Akedah could or should mean to you. I can only tell you what I see in it today, this year, at this stage in my life.

For me, right now, what draws me to this story is a huge question at the very end (Gen. 22:19):

יט וַיָּשָׁב אַבְרָהָם אֶל־נְעָרָיו וַיָּקֻמוּ וַיֵּלְכוּ יַחְדָּו אֶל־בְּאֵר שָׁבַע וַיֵּשֶׁב אַבְרָהָם בִּבְאֵר שָׁבַע:

“Abraham then returned to his servant lads; they got up and traveled together to Beersheba, and Abraham settled in Beersheba.”

Abraham returned. But where was Isaac? What exactly happened between father and son that separated them, maybe forever? Because, as far as the Torah tells us, the two of them never saw each other again.

We could look at this as a terrible tragedy, a family torn apart by anger, guilt, and fear. But this time around, this year, this Rosh Hashanah, I prefer to see it as something quite different. Not as a trauma, but as a triumph. One small note in the Reform movement’s Plaut Torah commentary suggests:

“Is it possible . . . that Isaac now became a man who for the first time could let his father go and who would return later, at his own choosing and time? Isaac’s nature is not radically changed in the Akedah, nor can his early childhood be denied its formative influence, but in the binding Isaac becomes an individual in his own right. If Abraham was tested and purified in agony, Isaac was liberated by it.”

In this perspective, Isaac chooses what to accept and what to refuse of his father’s possessions. He will literally follow in his father’s footsteps, retracing Abraham’s steps and digging wells and settling down where Abraham lived.

But his concept of God, of the human-divine relationship, is different. He seems more sure of both sides of the covenant, and more comfortable in it. And because he – unlike his father – does not feel he has to choose between his faith and his family, he seems to enjoy a more peaceful life, freed from the angst and battles that he saw his father endure, culminating in that fateful trip to Mount Moriah where he found himself bound on the altar, his father knife above his throat.

After Abraham sacrifices the ram in place of his son, the text tells us:

יד וַיִּקְרָא אַבְרָהָם שֵׁם־הַמָּקוֹם הַהוּא יְהוָֹה ׀ יִרְאֶה

“Abraham named that place Adonai yireh, God sees, or God will see.”

But the Torah doesn’t tell us just what God sees. Here’s my suggestion for this year: Adonai sees that Isaac is now a man, and will see him thrive and perpetuate the covenant of his father, but on his own terms.

Isaac was able to climb up into his family’s attic and sort carefully and thoughtfully through the inheritance that Abraham had prepared for him. What would he take on? What could he re-use? What needed to be recycled? He understood that one generation’s treasures can turn into the next generation’s burden – and if you feel it as a burden, you will never cherish it the way you might if you were able to choose it freely.

Each of us is here today, welcoming the New Year together, because we have chosen freely to be here. We are not here out of obligation, to carry a burden that has been foisted upon his against our will.

That is what it means to be a Reform Jew in 21st century America. Not to reject what’s in our peoples’ attic, and not to stuff it into our own homes beyond what we can bear. But to sort carefully, study thoughtfully, and create a Judaism for ourselves that we can live with dignity, share with joy, and save for future generations, who will make their own choices.

Ken yehi ratson. Be this God’s will and our own. As we say together: Amen.

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©2017 Audrey R. Korotkin

 

 

 

Erev Rosh Hashanah 2017: The Power of Purpose

Throughout these days of awe, our liturgy reflects a sense of life and death hanging in the balance, of God weighing the value of each person’s days. So here’s a little tidbit I bet you didn’t know: Do you know why women live an average of six years longer than men? It’s not genetics or exercise or diet. Or, sad to say, even religion. No, what we have, ladies, is the power of the girlfriend.

That’s right. Psychologist Susan Pinker has been studying longevity for, well, a long time. And her conclusion is that our social interactions have a huge impact on our well-being – both physical and emotional.

I can’t speak for the guys, but I know what women are like when we get together. We laugh with each other, at each other, and at ourselves. We dish on the people who aren’t in the room and promise we’re not. Most of all, we share. We share a lot. We unload about the annoying co-worker who’s been singing in her cubicle all week, who has the voice of a screechy cat. (Oh my Gawd!) We kvetch about an upcoming social event we really want to avoid. (Ugghhh!) We kvell about our spouse’s latest achievement, or our grandchild’s latest brilliant invention. We take pride in ourselves because we know we’re good.

We give each other a good hug, sometimes with some tears thrown in. We hold hands, we whisper in each other’s ear. I know guys get together too, and enjoy each other’s company. But apparently the intensity of the sharing, the face to face contact, that we as women have with each other makes a difference not only in how we feel about our lives, but how long we actually live.

Kolby Itkowitz wrote recently in the Washington Post about Susan Pinker’s studies. She said: “Pinker showed two images of the brain, one of someone conversing in person and another of someone watching a video of a person discussing the same subject. In the brain of the person interacting, regions associated with social intelligence and emotional reward lit up.”

And  Pinker herself says: “This face-to-face contact provides stunning benefits . . .  It’s a biological imperative to know we belong.”

Think about that statement for a minute: “It’s a biological imperative to know we belong.” We are here, all of us, tonight, on the cusp of a New Year, because we believe it is a religious and spiritual imperative to know we belong – to this community and to God. But it turns out that this need is inherent in the way we are created.

We need to be together. We need other people to be physically present in our lives. And when they are not, we are worse off for it. Because Susan Pinsker has also found that, sadly, one-quarter of the population says they have no one to talk to. “We can do something about this,” she says. And it’s not just a can – it’s a must. Because, in this room tonight, we must surely have people who are in that one quarter of the population who feel they have no one to talk to. Who feel isolated even when they are in physical proximity to family or friends or co-workers – or fellow congregants. Who have not yet found a safe way to express their emotions, their needs, their fears. Look around you. Look inside you. Many of us have found ways to hide that terrible sadness. But here, tonight, on the cusp of the New Year, it’s time to acknowledge it, to let it show, to change how we relate to the world – it’s time – to open up the path that might potentially lead us to a longer and fuller life.

Author Emily Esfahani Smith interviewed hundreds of people for her new book, The Power of Meaning. She studied psychology, sociology, philosophy, and even neuro-science – how our brains actually work and respond to stimulation. Her conclusion: that meaning in life can come in four forms: Belonging, purpose, transcendence, and story-telling. I know, they seem like generic terms, but hang in here with me. Because I think they also are the steppingstones on that path that Rosh Hashanah opens for each of us. So let’s map out that path tonight.

The first step on our journey is BELONGING. In Smith’s understanding, that means prioritizing the people in our lives who love and care about us. In our Jewish context, I would call it Teshuvah, turning. At the High Holy Days we think of teshuvah purely in the context of turning, or returning, to God through what we think and how we behave, and being embraced by Divine mercy and forgiveness. But teshuvah can also mean turning, or returning, to one another – restoring connections that may have become frayed over time or distance or distractions, but also by anger, or disrespect, or simple misunderstanding.

The rabbis teach us that repentance itself is something that can easily be misunderstood. Repentance, they wrote, may appear to be near to you when it’s really quite far. It also can appear far from you but is very near[1]. I think what the rabbis might be saying is that teshuvah – real transformation – may seem easy, but it’s really hard and it can really be a painful process. On the other hand, if you think it’s far from you, maybe that means you don’t think it’s so important to change, or that it doesn’t seem relevant to getting by every day, or maybe you think it’s simply unachievable. Whatever is keeping teshuvah far from you is also blinding you from seeing how to bring it closer: through turning, through returning, to those people in your life who love and care about you.

Susan Pinker teaches: “Face-to-face contact releases a whole cascade of neurotransmitters and, like a vaccine, they protect you now in the present, and well into the future.”

Think about what it’s like when you see somebody you used to be close with but haven’t seen in a very long time. Maybe it’s somebody in the pews tonight, someone you ran into before services started. Your immediate response was to reach out – physically. A handshake or a hug. Eye contact. Looking each other over. What’s the same? What’s changed. When was the last time we were together? Has it really been that long?

Judaism values these personal connections so much, that when you see someone for the first time in a long time, you recite this blessing: Baruch ata Adonai, Eloheinu melech Ha-olam, me-cha-yei ha-meitim.” Blessed are you, Adonai our God, Sovereign of the Universe, who revives the dead.

And there go your neuro-transmitters pinging like crazy. As you’re overcome by this sense of real joy at sharing each other’s space, and hugging, and holding hands, you are sustaining life itself.

So, Dayeinu, that would be enough. But teshuvah, making connection, is just the first leg of the journey. Now you move to the second part: PURPOSE. Purpose means intent. It means taking these relationships you’re establishing, or re-establishing, and making them meaningful. In Jewish terms, let’s call it Tefillah.

Tefillah is, yes, the words we recite together from the pages of our prayer books. But it cannot be just that. The rabbis call it avodah shebalev, service of the heart – or, better, service from the heart. And this stage, too, requires traveling together.

About five years ago, we on the Reform Responsa Committee got this question from a colleague in Atlanta: We had a vicious storm that kept a lot of people from coming to Temple, but we live-streamed the service and we know about 70 people logged on to take part from a distance. Given the plugged in world that we now live in, wondered this colleague, would these people technically count as part of a minyan, the group of ten or more Jews required community worship?

In our response, we acknowledged that, over the years, the Reform movement has given a lot of leeway: “Most of these have tended toward a lenient position, largely out of sympathy for those who attend worship services: why should they be denied the opportunity to hear the Torah read and to say Kaddish simply because others were unable (or did not feel motivated) to come to the synagogue?” And that’s what we do here at Temple.

On the other hand…. On the other hand, we see that the major Jewish law codes all say that “all of (the members of the minyan) must be assembled in one place – b’makom echad . . . One contiguous, undivided physical space.” And in the end, we decided that there is still a distinction between reality and virtual reality, between virtual presence and actually being here. Our conclusion read:

“Whether through dial-in, live-streaming, or video connection,” we concluded, “it is a good thing to encourage those who cannot attend the synagogue to be ‘technologically present.’ Such persons, however, are not part of the minyan, because the minyan is the community of those are truly present with us, that is, in the real (as opposed to virtual) sense of that term.”

What’s important here is not the words recited from the book, it’s the life that is created, or extended, by being together. Sure, you could have stayed home tonight and watched a service live-streaming from somewhere. But you had to be here, sitting together, feeling the energy that is created by everyone’s focused presence.

But if we now understand tefillah not as words but as intent, tefillah now takes us far beyond the walls of this sanctuary. Being present, bringing value, ought to infuse every part of our lives. It’s something that’s become harder and harder the more technology has taken over our lives. Just a decade ago, technology – computers, emails, cell phones, texting – made up a small sliver of our personal time. Today, it takes up almost all of it.

We tend to see it more when other people do it. We make fun of people texting while walking and stumbling off a curb or walking right into somebody else. We throw up our hands in frustration when somebody’s talking loudly on the phone in the middle of a restaurant.

But I’m as guilty as anyone of checking Facebook and g-mail when I’m riding in the car with Don and could be carrying on an actual conversation with him. I’m as overwhelmed as anyone else with the massive amounts of data I have to sift through every day in my daily in-boxes and news feeds.

Our test — our task – is to engage in the power of tefillah, to focus on live people, prioritizing real relationships over virtual ones. We read in the Torah about God knowing Moses panim el panim, face to face – and consider that the highest level of connection that a human being can reach with the divine. But panim el panim is no less holy when it’s one person in relationship with another.

So far, our New Year’s journey has taken us from teshuvah, from turning toward each other, to tefillah, creating an environment that allows those relationships to grow and flourish. But what’s the end game? What’s the point of getting personal? That takes us to the third part of the journey –recognizing that each of us has a greater role to play than we realize; that we are all part of something much, much bigger than ourselves. Emily Esfahani Smith calls it transcendence. We call it tzedakah.

Not the tzedakah we collect at Sunday School every week. But tzedakah as righteousness itself. The medieval mystics believed that a tzadik was more than just a righteous person, the tzadik was someone who was elevated above humanity, someone who even had superhuman gifts. I would suggest tonight that we come down to earth and realize the gifts each of us could bring to the world through our own tzedakah.

And friends, that is going to take something more than I have asked you so far tonight. It may take stepping out of your comfort zone, or stepping up to address conditions in this community, and in this nation, and in this world that seem too overwhelming for one person to change. Tzedek tzedek tirdof – seek righteousness and pursue it, the Torah teaches us – with Hebrew in the second-person singular, addressed equally and specifically to you, and to you, and to you.

It is no secret that, since mid-summer, our nation has been wracked by the pain of ugly racial and ethnic and religious hatred paraded through our streets by people who feel they no longer have to conceal their identities. People who are too quick and willing to blame blacks, or Jews, or Muslims, or women – for perceived slights and threats to their position. All of these hatreds have been poured together into a big cauldron that stinks of rot. Any one of us could be a target, simply because of the way we look, or the way we pray, or the fact that we support the most vulnerable in our community, as our Torah says we must.

. לֹא־תֵלֵךְ רָכִיל בְּעַמֶּיךָ לֹא תַעֲמֹד עַל־דַּם רֵעֶךָ . . . וְאָהַבְתָּ לְרֵעֲךָ כָּמוֹךָ אֲנִי יְהוָֹה:

“You shall not go about slandering others; you shall not stand idly by while your neighbor bleeds. You shall love your neighbor as yourself, for I am Adonai.”[2]

Just a couple of weeks ago, many of us clergy from across the spectrum and across the area walked together in a call for unity, peace, and respect. We marched under the banner ‘Hate Has No Home Here,’ a grass-roots campaign that started in Chicago and has spread all over the country. We are attempting to be proactive – not only to tell those who hate that they are not welcome, but to challenge the tzadikim and the potential tzadikim in our midst to stand up to hate.

Each of us is part of something bigger than ourselves; each of us is called to something greater. We are part of humanity, and we are called on to respect and protect the dignity of every human being. We can do it in everyday life. In the spirit of atonement, we must recognize when we have been silent in the face of bullying or bigotry.

And then we must speak up. Shutting down conversation that is disrespectful of others. Calling out the haters. Going out of our way to welcome neighbors, and make new friends, and get acquainted with new communities outside of what is familiar to us. How can we grant ourselves a sense of belonging when we do not provide it for someone else?

As the Talmud teaches; “If you see wrongdoing by a member of your household and you do not protest – you are held accountable. And so it is in relation to the members of your city. And so it is in relation to the world.”[3]

Tzedakah in our daily lives takes us back to the beginning of what we talked about tonight: Teshuvah, making personal connections, and tefillah, making them meaningful. It’s what makes our lives fuller, gives them purpose, and even might add a few years onto the time that God has granted us on earth.

The Babylonian Talmud preserves for us the words that Rabbi Eleazer would recite every day when he concluded his daily recitation of the Tefillah, to give meaning and purpose to his prayers:

“May it be Your will, O Lord our God, that in our lot there dwell love and brotherhood, peace and friendship. May You make our territories abundant in disciples. To the very end of our lives, may You endow us with hope and expectation. May You set our portion in Paradise. May You sustain us in Your world with a good friend and a good impulse. When we rise in the morning, may we find our hearts yearning to fear Your Name, and may You be pleased to regard our contentment with favor.”

Let Rabbi Eleazer’s words be the rallying call to a New Year of teshuvah, tefillah, and tzedakah – of renewed relationships, meaningful labor, and greater purpose. God calls each one of us with the sound of the shofar – and each of us, in our own way, are compelled to answer.

Ken yehi ratson. Be this God’s will and our own. As we say together.

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©2017 Audrey R. Korotkin

[1] Eccl Rabbah 8:16#1

[2] Lev. 19:16, 18.

[3] Bavli Shabbat 54b: Whoever can forbid his household [to commit a sin] but does not, is seized28 for [the sins of] his household; [if he can forbid] his fellow citizens, he is seized for [the sins of] his fellow citizens; if the whole world, he is seized for [the sins of] the whole world.