Archive | September, 2013

#TieBlog #YomKippur #Goats

11 Sep
Goats for Yom Kippur

Goats for Yom Kippur

The goats on my tie are of course in honor of the goats of the ancient Yom Kippur ritual in the Temple. This ritual is mentioned in the Torah:

Leviticus, Chapter 16: “7 Aaron shall take the two he-goats and let them stand before the Lord at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting; 8 and he shall place lots upon the two goats, one marked for the Lord and the other marked for Azazel. 9 Aaron shall bring forward the goat designated by lot for the Lord, which he is to offer as a sin offering; 10 while the goat designated by lot for Azazel shall be left standing alive before the Lord, to make expiation with it and to send it off to the wilderness for Azazel.”

We no longer have the Temple nor this arcane ritual. We instead offer our sincere prayers, fasting and genuine teshuvah (return to the ways of God). May we be inscribed for life and good health.

Living a Life That Matters Through a Growth Mindset

7 Sep

My sermon for the second day of Rosh HaShanah, September 6, 2013, was published in the Huffington Post:

Living a Life That Matters Through Selective Memory

7 Sep

Living a Life That Matters Through Selective Memory
Rabbi Edward C. Bernstein
Rosh HaShanah, Day 1, September 5, 2013

Shanah Tovah,
In the weeks leading up to Rosh HaShanah, I’ve been driving around town with my grandfather. This might not seem out of the ordinary, except that my grandfather has been dead for 23 years. Still, he’s been with me in the car. Let me explain.

For years I’ve kept in storage dozens of cassette tapes. Does anyone remember those? My collection includes lectures of great rabbis, great cantors singing high holiday music and lectures from college and Rabbinical School. A few weeks ago, I came across several cassette tapes that are very special to me. In 1987, as part of a high school history project, I took an oral history of my grandfather, Sam Lesner, of blessed memory. He had a distinguished career as the film and entertainment critic for the former Chicago Daily News, and he personally knew many of the great actors and entertainers of the 40’s, 50’s and 60’s. To research my project, I went to his office with a tape recorder and asked him questions about his life. The result was three one-hour-long cassette tapes, with each hour devoted to a different aspect of his life. The first hour was about his early years and family roots. The second was about his Army service in World War II. The third hour is the story of his career in journalism. I’ve had these tapes with me all these years. I’ve wanted to do something with them, but never got around to it. As technology advanced, the cassette tape become obsolete. I don’t even own a tape player anymore. Due to a confluence of circumstances, I was drawn to those tapes this summer and was able to digitize them. I can now listen to my grandfather’s voice from the past as I drive around Palm Beach County. It is as if out of a heap of forgotten magnetic tape, my grandfather has come back to life. When I listen to him in the car, I picture him sitting next to me.

Around the time I rediscovered my grandfather’s tapes, I read a remarkable new novel that explores the power and limits of memory. Dara Horn, a brilliant young Jewish American novelist who writes meticulously researched historical novels has just published “A Guide for the Perplexed.” The great medieval rabbi Maimonides wrote a philosophical treatise by that name, and it plays an important role in the plot. The novel weaves together a contemporary fictional story with two historical episodes in Jewish history: the multi-faceted work of Maimonides in 12th century Egypt, and the discovery of the Cairo Geniza by Solomon Schechter in 1896 in which he found documents written by Maimonides with his own signature.

The main character, Josephine, or Josie, Ashkenazi, is a contemporary software designer and tycoon. She creates a program called Geniza that is designed to remember every detail of your life and organize it so that it can be easily retrieved when needed. Your child forgets where she put her shoes? The system of digital cameras installed in one’s house interacts with the software so that all you have to do is type in “shoes” in your tablet, and you are shown a picture of where the shoes are. Without spoiling anything, here’s the essence of the plot: Josie gets caught up in an adventure in which while visiting Egypt on business and is kidnapped amidst the post-revolutionary chaos there. In this adventure, Josie’s talent for preserving memories becomes her only means of escape. Another layer of the story is the intense sibling rivalry between Josie and her older sister Judith. The novel is a midrash on the Joseph story in the Bible with Josie and Judith filling the roles of Joseph and Judah in the Bible. In her novel Horn explores the question of whether two sibling obsessed with memory can put those memories in check in order to achieve forgiveness.

The author juxtaposes the Geniza found by Schechter and the electronic Geniza created by Josie to explore a vital question: what happens in a world where nothing is ever forgotten? How valuable would it be to have at your fingertips a detailed record of everything you ever said and anything anyone ever said to you? What would become of our personal memories? Is forgiveness possible when forgetting is impossible?

My grandfather’s tapes are part of my own personal Geniza. I’ve saved so much over the years in various outdated media formats–cassette tapes, slides, VHS video tapes. Hearing the voice of my late grandfather again has been a special blessing, and it has rekindled in me the warm, loving relationship that we had. What if, however, I came across tapes documenting every moment of my childhood? Would I want to relive every moment? I almost certainly wouldn’t waste my time recalling mundane tasks of daily life such as every time I took out the garbage or bought groceries for my mother. When we think about it, it’s clear that we have selective memory. We choose to remember some things and not others. If we were to remember everything, we would be paralyzed. Rabbi Harold Kushner wrote a book called “Living a Live That Matters.” Part of living a life that matters is learning how to sharpen use of our memory tools.

Memory is a key theme of Rosh HaShanah. The Torah refers to this day as Yom HaZikaron, the Day of Rememberance, a name that is repeated many times in our liturgy. Whose memory are we talking about? On the surface, it seems that it’s God’s. It’s as if we seek to jog God’s memory. In our appeal to God for our own benefit, our ace-in-the-hole is zechut avot, the merits of our ancestors. In our Torah and Haftarah selections on this holiday, we read of God remembering Abraham, Isaac, Sarah, Hannah and Rachel in their time of need, and we pray that our association with them will bode well for us.

The Musaf Amidah has three supplements, Malchuyot, which praises the majestic God; Zichronot, which praises God who remembers us; and Shofarot, which praises God who was revealed amid the sounds of the shofar. Each unit contains an introduction, ten Biblical verses and a concluding prayer.

The Zichronot section quotes verses that deal entirely with God remembering. The summary statement of Zichronot leading up to the closing blessing contains a phrase that is repeated in the prayer Un’tane Tokef: zokher kol hanishkahot: God remembers everything that is forgotten. In other words, God is the ultimate Geniza, the memory bank of everything in human history.

If God indeed remembers everything, we’ve got a problem. Why do we need to jog God’s memory on Rosh HaShanah? Why do we need Yom HaZikaron? Isn’t God omniscient and omnipotent—all-knowing and all-powerful?

According to some parts of the Hebrew Bible, the answer is no. God’s memory goes astray. God doesn’t always remember accurately.

Consider this verse from Jeremiah 2 (v2):
”Thus said the Lord: Zacharti lach–I remember you, the devotion of your youth, your love like a bride, when you went after me in the wilderness, in a land that was not sown.”

This is God’s memory of what happened in the wilderness when the Israelites wandered for 40 years. Interestingly, this charitable memory is missing many aspects of those years. What about the Golden Calf? What about Korah’s rebellion? What about the constant complaints? What about the sin of the spies? These were dark episodes during that time.

The narrative of the Torah itself tells a more complex story. The Book of Numbers is about God’s consistent frustration with the Israelites in the desert. It’s hardly a story of devotion on the part of the people to God. Certainly God did not forget the people’s rebelliousness. It seems, rather, that God has selective memory.

When our ancestors spoke of God’s memory, they were more in tune with their own memory, including their own selective memory. God remembers what God wants to remember and is not necessarily the big data bank in the sky that we might be led to believe that God is. Rabbi Neil Gillman, based largely on Maimonides, teaches that there is no accurate way to describe God. All we have are metaphors, which are based on our limited human experience. A classic metaphor is that God brought the Israelites out of Egypt with a strong hand and an outstretched arm. No one really believes a giant hand came out of the sky and transported over a million people. Our description of God’s memory in prayer is a metaphor, based on our own experience of memory.

Sometimes memory is a blessing, but sometimes it is not. Through our memory, we are able to tie together our life experiences into a coherent narrative. It is even necessary. Jewish tradition history calls upon us to remember the evil of Amalek and more recently, we must remember the Shoah. In the lives of our families, we recognize how terrible it is when a loved one suffers from dementia or Alzheimer’s. Their loss of memory becomes synonymous with a loss of identity.

And yet, with all the gifts of memory and the curses of losing memory, it is sometimes a blessing to be able to forget. When we want to build a relationship with someone, we manage to forget past slights. In parenting our children, how convenient it is that we can forget the trials of child rearing. Another great literary work on memory is “Funes the Memorious” by Jorge Luis Borges. The main character suffers the opposite of amnesia–he remembers every detail of his life and is completely paralyzed by his memories.

When we don’t let go of bad memories, they can be all consuming, and they are not a blessing. I’m sure many of us can think of family feuds that last so long the parties cannot even remember the original cause of the fight, only that the other side is wrong. In other cases, a fight can last for decades, with both sides remembering exactly the offense done to them, when and where it took place and their feeling of anger and hurt as a result. Think of the healing that selective memory could bring to rifts between parents and their adult children or between adult siblings or between spouses.

Rosh HaShanah is Yom HaZikaron, the Day of Remembrance. But perhaps more accurately it should be called the day of Selective Remembrance. God, like us, resorts to selective memory. God, like us, does not want to remember the bad times or the sleepless nights of parenting. Instead, God says zacharti lach–I remember the devotion of your youth in the wilderness.

When we turn our memories into Genizas that recall every single slight ever done to us, we become paralyzed by distrust, enmity, and ill will. When we are able to be like God and use selective memory, our personal Genizas are transformed into a life force that inspires us with the wisdom of our ancestors.

The blessing of Zikhronot ends by praising God as zokher habrit –who remembers the covenant. Let this be a prayer for all of us for all of our relationships, to remember the blessings of being in relationship with other human beings. Living this blessing is part of living a life that matters.

Today, we appeal to God’s parental love in order to look over our misdeeds and embrace us with the unconditional love inherent in a close relationship. As we appeal to God’s selective memory, let us also look inside ourselves and pray that God might give us the strength to develop appropriate selective memory, and may we direct it towards healing in our relationships.

Ken Yehi Ratzon

The Most Precious Thing in the World

7 Sep

“The Most Precious Thing in the World”
Rosh HaShanah, First Evening
Rabbi Edward C. Bernstein
September 4, 2013

The return of the High Holidays represents a bench mark. We have made it through the past year with all of its joys and all of its trials and tribulations. This season rekindles our hope that the worst is behind us. The themes of the season remind us simultaneously that we are fragile mortals, and at the same time, we have the ability to change ourselves and our worlds. Now we are ready to move on with the work of bringing healing to ourselves, our families, the Jewish community, our country and the world.

Part of the healing power of the High Holidays comes from our gathering in large numbers in synagogue on these days. We have an innate need to connect and to be present for one another. Teshuvah is what we call the process of healing relationships that may be broken so that we can strengthen the connections with those around us. Building and strengthening meaningful relationships are part of living a life that matters. Rabbi Harold Kushner, the distinguished rabbi and writer, wrote a book entitled Living a Life That Matters and will be at Temple Torah on January 15, 2014, to speak on that topic. As we eagerly anticipate his visit, I hope over the course of the holiday to offer my take on living a life that matters. Tonight, as we begin our ten-day journey of renewing these bonds, I’d like to share a Jewish folktale that captures the essence of teshuvah and renewing relationships.

“The Most Precious Thing in the World,” told by Joan Sutton in Chosen Tales, Penina Schramm, Ed., pp. 372-375.

Once upon a time, God spoke to an angel and said, “For this Rosh Hashana, the New Year, bring me the most precious thing in the world.” The angel bowed low to God and then winged her way to earth. Searching everywhere, she visited forests, mountaintops, and soft green meadows. But although she saw bright butterflies and flowers, nothing seemed quite right. Then, peeking through a window, she saw a mother holding her baby. As she gazed down at her child, the mother’s smile was full of love and tenderness. The angel thought, “This mother’s smile must be the most precious thing in the world. I will take it to God.” Gently, the angel took the mother’s smile, but the mother didn’t even notice; she had so many smiles left that she would never miss just one! With great excitement, the angel showed the smile to God, who answered, “This is indeed wonderful—the smile of love that a mother gives her child—but it is not the very most precious thing in the world.”

So the angel went back to earth and searched again everywhere. One starry night, in the midst of a deep, dark forest, she heard exquisite music: it was the song of a solitary nightingale singing among the trees. The song was so beautiful that the angel folded her wings and listened for many hours. Then she took the song to God. But, upon hearing the music, God answered, “This is indeed very special, but it is still not the most precious thing in the world!”

The angel was getting tired but she knew she could never give up, so again she flew back to earth. This time she arrived in the big city, where she saw crowds of people. They were all in a hurry to get somewhere. They pushed each other as they passed quickly in the streets. They waited impatiently in long lines at banks and supermarkets. They looked nervous and weary. Everywhere there were traffic jams and tired divers honking angrily.

Standing at one busy intersection was an old man. He was waiting to cross the street, but there were so many cars that he didn’t know when to try. People kept rushing past him, never pausing to notice his predicament. The old man felt dizzy and confused. Just then, a young girl came walking up to him. She had noticed him hesitating and looking ill and felt sorry for him. “Excuse me,” she said to him shyly, “but may I help you cross the street and walk you home?” Gratefully he gazed into her kind eyes and answered, “Yes, thank you, young lady, I was feeling so tired and weak!” he took her offered arm and walked with her across the street. Slowly and steadily, they made their way to his apartment building, which was nearby.
Now the angel was watching all the time, although the old man and the young girl couldn’t see her. The angel was so happy! “This really must be the most precious thing in the world—a kind deed, a mitzvah, a helping hand! It has many names, but it is the same everywhere. If we can help each other, we can have a peaceful world! So I will take the story of this kind deed to God. It must be what I have been looking for all the time!”

God heard the story of the kind deed and answered, “This is indeed important. A mitzvah is one of the most special things in the world—still, it is not quite what I have been waiting for. Go once more, dear angel. You are on the right track, and I feel sure that this time you will find what we seek. Look everywhere—in cities, forests, schools, and homes—but especially look into the hearts of people.”

Sighing with disappointment, the angel again winged her way to earth. And she looked in so many places! Still, she could not find the precious thing. “Maybe I should give up! But how could I fail my God? There must be an answer or God would not have asked me to do this.” Tired from her ceaseless searching, she sat dejected upon a rock, resting and thinking. As she sat there, she heard something—the sound of someone crying! It was not a little child crying, but a grown man! He was walking through the woods with tears rolling down his cheeks. “Soon the High Holy Days will come, and I am thinking that I was cruel and mean to my dear brother! We had a fight about something unimportant. There were harsh words and now we haven’t even spoken to each other in several weeks. Today, this very day, I will go to him and ask him to forgive me. Then I will pray to God to forgive me too, for I am truly sorry that my unthinking anger has caused so much unhappiness.” Another tear rolled down the man’s cheek.

Then angel felt that she had found the answer. Being an angel, she was invisible, so she flew up to the grieving man and gently caught one of the tears that were falling from his eyes. The man thought to himself, “What a soft and fragrant breeze is surrounding me! Suddenly I feel better. Perhaps this is a sign that all will be well!” The angel flew away; she flew away to God. In a small tiny bottle she held the one tear that she had collected. She held it up to God. And God…smiled upon the angel. The radiance of that smile filled the whole world like the sun coming out suddenly from behind dark clouds.

Then God spoke: “My faithful angel, this is indeed the most precious thing in the whole world—the tear of someone who is truly sorry. For it is a tear from the heart, and it will bring peace into the world. The two brothers will forgive each other, and they will enjoy a loving and happy New Year. My dear angel, I bless you for your good work. And may this story be told, so all who hear it can learn from it.”

L’Shanah Tovah—May we all live a life that matters and enjoy a sweet and happy New Year.

#TieBlog #Rosh HaShanah

4 Sep
The scales of justice

The scales of justice

With the approach of the Day of Judgment and a new year, I wish you Shanah Tovah.