Donkey “im derech eretz,” A story for First Friday Shabbat, January 2020

They say possession is 9 tenths of the law. That’s a pretty high number. I remember when 90% used to get you an A in school. How things have changed. Now, 90% is barely a B+. So, what I am saying is, if possession is 9 tenths of the law, it’s a good percentage, but not good enough for my parents. Here’s my childhood trauma unfolding for you. I guess what I am really saying is, as impressive as 9 tenths of the law may sound, it’s really not enough. In fact, at times, Jewish tradition teaches us that even 100% of the law is only 50% of the story. And that may be true, 80% of the time. Confused yet? Good.

What I am trying to talk about is a concept called, “Torah im derech eretz.” It means Torah with the world around us. That means the law on its own is not enough. Law can be cold and heartless, and human beings at times must rise above law to do what is actually right. I am not suggesting that you have to break the law, not at all. However, evil is often permissible, and doing good demands sacrifice. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, the former Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom, says that this is a critical dialogue that must be ongoing at the interface of Judaism and the surrounding culture.

Torah im derech eretz, the application of law must take into account the surroundings.

And I will give you some examples, in just a moment….. For now, we respond to our surroundings, this place at this moment as we rise for the call to worship on page 146.


A story is told of a man, let’s call him Shimon. Shimon tried to be good, and righteous, a family man who was kind to kin and community. But despite his piety, Shimon was very poor. He always prayed that one day he would be blessed with better fortune. But the fortune did not come.

One day Shimon, down to his last ruble, borrowed money from the wealthiest man in town. He was given fourteen days to repay the loan, but at the end of those two weeks, Shimon’s fortunes had not changed. He could not afford to pay the man back. Another two weeks passed, then another two weeks, and two weeks more. It really was not much money. To the wealthy man it was a drop in the bucket, but to Shimon it was like an ocean.

Finally, the wealthy man found Shimon in the marketplace and told him, “If you don’t pay me back, I will take you to court. The judge will take care of this.” The man dragged Shimon by the collar and brought him before the judge. The townspeople had seen what was happening, and, being nosy, decided to follow along to witness the unfolding drama.

At the court, the wealthy man called to the judge, “Come and judge a case of law.” The judge dutifully donned his black judge’s robe and a black hat. He took his place behind the bench.

The townspeople listened as the wealthy man described the loan. And they heard Shimon talk about his bad luck that kept him from paying it back.

Murmurs filled the court gallery. “The merchant has enough. He doesn’t need this money. He could just forget about it and move on. Think about Shimon’s family. Think about the kids.” The murmurs grew into loud complaints which turned into angry shouts all in support of Shimon and his plight.

“Silence!” the judge shouted. When the room fell quiet, the judge announced, “Now I shall read the verdict.”

And I will tell you what that was in a bit….. For now, we consider the great gift of justice as we turn to page 159 and join together in this prayer of freedom.


Amid all the hullabaloo concerning Shimon, and the wealthy man surrounded by the townspeople who were all very agitated, the judge read his decision.

“Shimon must repay what he owes immediately. That is the law, and that is what justice requires.”

The people’s hearts sank, and Shimon’s face turned white. Then before anyone could say a word, the judge stood up, took off his hat, turned it over and started to pass it around the room.

“Now I will collect tzedakah from all of you. Reach into your pockets to help Shimon pay back his neighbor. The law is one thing. But this is what mercy requires.”

For the judge, the law was 9 tenths of his consideration. And tzedakah, though it was the last tenth, was the most important. It is like a race. Think about the tortoise and the hare. The hare led 9 tenths of the race and slowed down, while the tortoise finished strong. Without the final tenth, all things are incomplete.

So now that Shimon has learned this lesson, he can put it into action for himself, and I will tell you about that in just a bit…At this time in our service, we reflect on how to turn our values into meaningful actions and we rise for Tefillah on page 164.


Over the years, our friend Shimon’s position had greatly improved. He worked hard and saved up enough money to buy a small farm. To do the work on this farm, he needed of a donkey. So, he went to the marketplace and saw one he liked. He asked the price and paid for it. He led the donkey home where his children excitedly welcomed their new friend. The youngest, Hannah, found something hanging around the donkey’s neck. It was a small bag hanging from a string. Inside the bag was a large diamond. Hannah and the rest of the children ran to Shimon, calling, “Papa, Papa, guess what. You thought you just bought a donkey, but you actually bought a diamond worth ten times what you paid for the donkey. After all this time, God has surely blessed us. We’re rich!”

Shimon picked up Hannah with a big hug, and with a big smile, he said to her, “We are blessed indeed…, but not for the reasons you might think.”

And I will tell you what Shimon meant in a bit…First we think about the importance of sincerity as we pray for our prayers to be true and worthy of consideration. Retzei is on page 174.


Shimon, holding the diamond, set Hannah down and said, “We are blessed because we get to perform a great Mitzvah.”

Hannah said, “Yes. We will sell the diamond, and we will give some of the money to tzedakah.”

Shimon shook his head and said, “No. We will return the diamond to its owner.”

But, said Hannah, “The Torah teaches if you buy a field and discover treasure in the field, then it belongs to you. You taught me that. You bought the donkey. The donkey had a diamond. And now you have the diamond. It’s yours. That is the law!”

Shimon agreed, but explained, “That is the law, but when it comes to helping others, the law is the least we can do. We have to think beyond the law in order to make peace in the world.”

So, Shimon returned the diamond to the man in the marketplace, and Shimon was always known as a man of integrity. For Shimon knew, possession was not only 9 tenths of the law. Even if it was ten tenths of the law, it was still not good enough. He believed in Torah im derech eretz. That is to say, true peace among neighbors occurs only when the law in combined with compassion, when justice is determined by a charitable heart. Because of his wisdom and his act of kindness, everyone in town, especially the merchants, said, “May God always bless Shimon for the example he gave.” And indeed, he and his family were always blessed for the rest of their days.

Let us now consider, all of us, how we can take the best of the law and the most good with it, not just for our benefit and the benefit of our families, but for the benefit of our community and all the Earth. We continue with the prayers that are written in our hearts.

To Love Another Person Is To See the Face of God – A sermon for Parshat Vayishlach (and Les Miserables), December 13, 2019

The Torah portion this week talks about the vulnerability of love. And no, it is not just about romantic love. It is about love in general. It is a great feeling, but to love is to be vulnerable. If you ever want to do a small and harmless experiment with this idea, adopt a cat. They can be very cute, loveable even, and then you start petting them. They might even let you. They might even start purring. But then without warning, they bite your hand and walk away. Then they just stare at you from atop their cat tree and make you feel bad. Of course, when they get hungry, it’s all lovey-dovey again, but we get over our hurt feelings, we feed them, and start the whole cycle over again. It’s a low stakes way to understand the vulnerability, even the elastic nature of love.

Of course, in all other relationships, there is much more on the line. Cats have nine lives, none of them very long. We, and the other people in our lives, have much more time to live with the consequences and the rewards of seeking love. Our need for love from people is much greater, and it is commanded in the Torah to love, to love our neighbors, to love our spouses, to love our siblings, and to love God. There is a beautiful line from a song that tells us just how similar, even interconnected all of these loves can be. It comes at the very end of the musical version of Les Misérables.

Last month I saw it for the 4th time. I cannot even count how many times I have listened to the recording. One of the reasons I love it so much is because of its ending which no other show or movie can top. It builds to an emotional crescendo that could bring a tear from even those with the most hardened of hearts. Jean Valjean, near death, is reflecting on his life which he devoted to raising the orphaned Cosette. He has risked his life to protect her and even to save the man she loves. He later goes into hiding for fear that his criminal past will bring her shame. It is a story of selflessness and giving, of heroism and sacrifice. As death approaches, Valjean is visited by the ghost of Cosette’s mother Fantine who reminds us of Valjean’s journey from criminal, to self-centered businessman, to his present where he would lay down his life for another human being. If this does not give you the feels, you are made of stone. Valjean and Fantine sing together these powerful words:

“Remember, the truth that once was spoken: To love another person is to see the face of God.”

Oh man. I am a mess. Just thinking about it…

It is powerful because it is so true. To love a person is to see the face of God. It is an idea that finds its origin in this week’s parashah, Vayishlach. We see the reuniting of brothers Jacob and Esau. Estranged since the moment Jacob tricked their father into blessing him, Jacob years later has no choice but to pass through Esau’s land. The last time the two were together, Esau swore he would kill his brother. Now that Esau is a successful landowner and Jacob is traversing his property, Jacob knows he is vulnerable. Furthermore, he knows Esau has a legitimate complaint. He rightly fears for his life. So nervous is he, that he sleeps a restless night before traveling through the land and has a dream about wrestling with God. The next day, Jacob approaches Esau, bowing low in subservience.  Esau runs toward him, and in a moment of rising tension, we wonder what is about to happen. Instead of violence, Esau greets his brother with a warm embrace. They kiss. They cry. They offer each other gifts. And Jacob finally says the famous words, “To see your face is like seeing the face of God.” There is more to that verse, but I will talk about that in a bit.

We can ask why Jacob does not just say, “It was great to see you, brother?” He takes it to the next level… actually to the next, next level, and to the level after that. The love he feels for his brother is like seeing the face of God. In most of the Torah, the face of God is something people must not see, for no one can see God’s face and live. Yet, when someone, namely Moses, later has the opportunity to do so, it leaves him radiant, in a state of holiness. That balance of two feelings is a great descriptor of love, whether it is parental love, sibling love, romantic love, friendly love, or whatever. To love another person is to make oneself vulnerable. No one can hurt you so badly as a person your love, either by saying something unkind or by not returning that love. That feeling, is not death, but it cuts very deep, and so to love another person is to see the face of God, to risk being “out there” and vulnerable. Then of course, with the greater the risk, the greater is the potential reward. There is exuberance in the return of that love. There is a sense of safety, sanctity, holiness. It is the ultimate goal of completeness, feeling Shalom wrap around us, embracing us with serenity. That too is the face of God, making us, like Moses, radiate joy.

And this brings us to the second part of what Jacob says to his brother. “To you your face is like seeing the face of God, and you have received me favorably.” In other words, “I knew there was great risk in our meeting, but it has been ever so worth it. This has made our family whole. From now on, we can know that our brotherly bond has been healed. The hole that has been in my heart all of these years has been filled.

To love another person is to see the face of God. To love another person is a fearful thing. But to be loved is glorious. That means the whole endeavor is absolutely worth it. To risk seeing God’s face, as Jacob did, more often than not, will bring reward. This is an important topic at all times, and especially this time of year.

There is a proliferation of articles about dealing with difficult family dynamics. There are even a lot of jokes about it. Laughter is a way of releasing the tension we might feel, but really, it is no laughing matter.

A study estimates that 1 in 10 parents in America feels estranged from at least one of their children. And 40% of college students report that they have experienced some form of family estrangement. Those are disturbing numbers, we might guess that we would find similar if not worse statistics between spouses, cousins, parents, or friends.  Therefore, these semi-forced holiday gatherings can be seen as awkward moments that force people to gather, or act as repellants for some to stay away, or they can be opportunities to repair the divides that may have been created.

Now, what I am saying does not necessarily apply if there is true toxicity in the relationship, or abuse, or a rejection of lifestyle, or a rejection of gender identity. Those situations should be evaluated long and hard to see if there is a real opening for reunification. However, in the main, what we have when we encounter someone from whom we have been estranged is a chance to see the face of God. We can feel that fear of rejection as we open the door to reconciliation and through that same door, we might enter into rediscovery of the love we all so desperately need.

Robert Taibbi, a Licensed Social Worker who writes for Psychology Today encourages us to take the first step, to be the one to reach out. “Reaching out,” he writes, “doesn’t have to be about swallowing your pride. It doesn’t mean the other guy “wins,” that you’re a doormat, that you are groveling. It’s about putting the past to rest so it can’t contaminate your present.”

He suggests that you might have to apologize, even if you don’t think you were wrong, but at least to begin the conversation, to acknowledge that your actions did hurt the other person. This would be like Jacob bowing low in contrition to Esau. Taibbi furthermore advises to keep our purpose at the forefront of the conversation, that it is to try to heal that which has been lost and not resort to insults or relitigating old conflicts. This is like Jacob saying to Esau that he brings presents in hopes of gaining his favor. Lastly, Taibbi cautions us that it is a process. Reaching out is about ending the stalemate and beginning the reconciliation which will take time. Sadly, in the Torah, Jacob and Esau never get that chance.

We, on the other hand have that chance, to grow and improve our relationships over time. First, we have to start like Jacob and Esau, looking to see the face of God, to risk everything in order to gain the greatest gifts of all—Love and peace.

May we all find the courage and strength to do so in the coming days, so that we may see the face of God and live with true Shalom in our communities, with our friends, and especially in our families.

Shabbat Shalom.

“American Jews and Israel, Relationship Status – It’s Complicated (because it’s supposed to be),” A sermon for Yom Kippur Morning 5780

This past Summer, I went on The Jewish Federation’s mission trip to Israel. Few things are more exciting than going to the Jewish Homeland. At the same time, few things in life are more aggravating. We had a layover in Munich, Germany, and our trip hit a snag. Nothing can prepare you for El Al security. I came face to face with Doron. And Doron basically strip-searched my soul.

“Are you Jewish?”

“How long will you be in Israel?”

“Who do you know in Israel?”

“What hotel are you staying at?”

“If a train left Haifa, traveling southbound at 65 kilometers per hour, how long would it take to get to Eilat?” Trick question, there is not train to Eilat. And, no, they did not really ask that. But they did ask,

“Do you go to a synagogue?”

“You are a rabbi? Where’s your kippah?”

“How do you spell Chattanooga?”

For most English speakers, Chattanooga is hard to spell. Poor Doron gave up before we got to N. So, I offered to spell it in Hebrew. But Hebrew has no CH sound. Doron made a phone call. I am pretty sure they pulled my suitcase for additional screening.

I had it relatively easy. They asked Joel Susman if he goes to synagogue. H said, “Actually, I am a gabbai.” The gabbai is a person who oversees the Torah reading during a service. His security agent asked him what the Torah portion was. Luckily, he got it right, or else he might still be sitting in the Munich airport.

After Doron gave me the OK, I told another security agent that Doron was too serious and should smile more. He told me, Doron had just become a vegan, and that’s why he was so grumpy. It was grueling experience, but at least it ended with a laugh. I am afraid, however, Doron the vegan got the last laugh. When our group arrived at Ben Gurion Airport, none of our bags were there to greet us.

Oh Israel. You will never cease to amaze and confuse me. My experience with Doron is symbolic of the difficult relationship we have with Israel as American Jews. It is simultaneously our homeland, and a it is a place where we are just visitors. It is a place we love, but barely understand. It is a place that invites us, but it also pushes us away.  Our relationship status with Israel is described in two words, “It’s complicated.” And that’s what makes it great. So, now let us turn to page 194 as we give thanks for the Freedom that allows us to engage in complicated matters.


Our relationship status with Israel is complicated. It is supposed to be.

When I work with conversion students, one of the hardest things to learn is having a relationship with Israel. Like absorbing the culture of Judaism, it can only happen with time and experience. Growing up Jewish, Israel is constant topic of conversation. Going to visit is a priority. Making aliyah, a possibility. We are instilled with a love for the land and her people. Being connected to Israel is part of being Jewish, and whether you have been Jewish for 1 year or 100 years, whether you were born Jewish or a Jew by choice, we are all equally invited to this special relationship. That said, to be in relationship with Israel leaves open the possibility of critique. So long as it is done intelligently, from a place of love, and with a commitment to her continued existence, being critical of Israel, to use the language of this day, is no sin. The sin would be to not to be in relationship at all.

The very name was born of struggle. On the eve of Israel’s independence, there were discussions about what to call the Jewish State. In fact, one of the proposed names was simply, “The Jewish State.” They considered the name Judah, for the biblical kingdom. They also considered the name Tzabar, which is the Sabra cactus used to describe native born Israelis. But David Ben Gurion settled on the name Israel, going with the name Jacob was given when he wrestled with a divine being. The Jewish people are the people who wrestle with God, and our Homeland is a state defined by struggle. Like Jacob in the Torah, the state has always prevailed, but has been forever affected by its struggles. And so, all Jews wrestle with God, and we wrestle with what it means to be in relationship with Israel. It is complicated, but to be the People of Israel means that we actively engage. That means we can arrive at different opinions.

This brings us to a difficult conversation that we will talk about soon.

For now, we acknowledge that on this day, there is a sacred power that invites intense discussion as we wrestle with ourselves over truly important things. We turn to page 209 as we sing U-netaneh tokef.


Sadly, in American Judaism, disagreements about Israel are becoming increasingly divisive. There is a growing trend to label as anti-Zionist anyone who questions the policies of Israel’s government. It has even been said that some American Jews are traitors for voicing opposition. We cannot allow such a wedge to be driven between us. We are all Israel, meant to struggle with the issue. There will be disagreements. You know, “Two Jews, three opinions.” And that’s a good thing. The forces of disagreement can forge something stronger than anything created without conflict. Think for a moment how water, wind, and earth work together to create mountains and canyons. Each one on their own is magnificent, but when Earth diverts the path of a river, and the river erodes its banks, and when the earth buffers the wind, and the wind pounds away at the edges of a mountain, over time you get mountain ranges, and canyons. When opposing forces clash, beautiful things can emerge. Jewish tradition calls a healthy disagreement, “machloket lashem shamayim,” arguments for the sake of heaven.

Zionism and of the State of Israel have always been this way. There is no single way to love Israel. Even before 1948, there have been multiple types of Zionism, each one contributing to the success of the Jewish state. And we will hear about some of those conflicts, in a bit.

For now, we offer this prayer of holiness. There is a custom to rise on our toes when we sing Kadosh, Kadosh, Kadosh, Holy, Holy, Holy. It reminds us that when we wrestle with difficult conversations, it is important to point our thoughts and words upward, lashem shamayim. For the sake of heaven. Please rise as we turn to page 218.



As we discuss the history Zionism, let us take a trip to the Twilight Zone.

Imagine if you will, a modern State of Israel where Hebrew is not spoken. In the schools, markets, and bus station of the Jewish State, the dominant language is German. Hebrew, the holy tongue, is relegated to the synagogues and Yeshivas. Throughout the religious neighborhoods, Yiddish is maintained as a nod to the old country, a holdover from shtetl life.

This, of course, is not the Twilight Zone. This was how Theodore Herzl envisioned the modern state of Israel in his novel Altneuland, written in 1902. We take for granted that modern Hebrew is Israel’s official language, but it was not the original plan for the founder of modern Zionism. Herzl was a secular Jew who believed in Political Zionism. For him, simply having a Jewish land, somewhere on the map, was the most important thing. He even considered land in Argentina and later Uganda. He was not a romantic. For Herzl, the need for a Jewish state was pressing, and his solutions pragmatic. At the time you could not even buy a train ticket with Hebrew. It was useless. He envisioned a land with multiple languages, like Switzerland. It would be sign of the diversity of the Jewish people who have returned.

Herzl found opposition in the writer Ahad Ha’am. A proponent of cultural Zionism, he believed it impractical to assume Israel could absorb all the world’s Jews. Ahad Ha’am wanted Israel to be a Jewish cultural center, giving inspiration to the Diaspora. Arts, music, literature, farming, business, and religious studies would all be nurtured in a Jewish land. A true Jewish cultural center would need its foundational language. Hebrew, said Ahad Ha’am, was a “physiological need of the Jewish people.” Language, with all of its adaptations over time, was a repository of a people’s “national spirit.” To lose Hebrew, he believed, would be tantamount to national amnesia.

In the end, both men, and both types of Zionism were right. And both were wrong. Herzl underestimated the Jewish people’s connection to the historical land, and he underestimated the role of Hebrew as part of their national identity. On the other hand, Ahad Ha’am underestimated the immediacy of the need for a Jewish state. History would demonstrate just how urgent the matter was.

Herzl’s and Ahad Ha’am’s approaches to Zionism each left their imprint on Jewish identity and the State of Israel as we know it today. They were two men with at least three opinions. They were both Jews and Zionists. Both were essential in Israel’s creation.

There is much more to say about the struggles of Zionism, and we will get to that in a bit.

For now, we take a break from talking, and let our prayers be silent. We can imagine how great a silence there will be when disagreement ends and compromise is reached. Let it be soon. Perhaps it begins now during this time of silent prayer.


Consistent with its history, in today’s Israel, many different voices are involved in the Zionist dream. Israel’s Right, with Likud, is focused on security by force. Even the non-religious, among them, align with the Ultra-Orthodox because their end goals align. Israel’s left, with Kachol-Lavan, is pursuing security through diplomacy. They work with the Arab parties to maintain a pluralistic society. All sides share in the security and prosperity of their country.  Like their predecessors, they disagree strongly. American Jews who engage with Israel may support different approaches. All are legitimate. Security does demand a strong show of force. But enduring security with lasting peace demands mutual respect and negotiation. The best answer will be reached through compromise that comes from the clash of ideas. So, no one should be labeled a traitor for their opinion.

The word traitor has been thrown around lately. It is dangerous, and it is slanderous. It has no place in discussions about American Jews and our support of Israel. To disagree with a policy of the State of Israel, does not make you disloyal to your people. It puts you in line with roughly half of Israel’s citizens. The recent election there shows a strong divide about the current and future course of the country. The ugly accusation comes from a growing epidemic of jingoism being confused with patriotism. Patriotism is having pride in a nation’s history and values. A patriot joins in the advancement of the nation’s goals. A patriot defends the nation’s ideals, and not always on a battlefield. A patriot works in partnership with their fellow citizens to shape their nation.  Jingoism, on the other hand, is superficial. It places love of flags and symbols over ideas and values. It demands single-minded acquiescence and accuses those who don’t just follow of being disloyal. It dismisses the multiplicity of opinion and assumes an inherent national superiority that may not be earned. The increasing spread of reflexive, superficial nationalism in our own country has opened the door for binary judgments that you are with us or against us. Likewise, you are either with Israel or against Israel. And if you are Jewish, and they judge unfairly judge you to be against Israel, they label you as disloyal. We must not accept this.

Israel and America are both free speech democracies. A patriot defends the right of speech they do not agree with. A person can espouse any idea, free from repercussion by the government. A strong nation, holding true to its virtues can withstand even misguided beliefs. Inhibiting the market of free ideas leads to a slippery slope that can ultimately weaken us. Suffice it to say, that I do not agree with the things some members in our Congress have said about Israel. And Israel, a sovereign nation is free to bar entry to anyone. However, as happened this past year, when one free speech democracy intercedes to tell another free speech democracy to prohibit its citizens’ travel because they exercised their free speech, then we have lost our way as free nation. That is not patriotism. On the other hand, it is patriotic to call it out, to demand better. It is patriotic as Jews to support Israel and to be Israel, to struggle with big issues for the sake of Heaven. For the sake of Heaven means we work for the betterment of everyone underneath the Heaven.

May we, on this Yom Kippur, reflect on the ways we can be true patriots, with depth of understanding, with care for the other, returning us all toward a path of true peace.\

Ken Yehi Ratzon.

And now we begin our study on this Yom Kippur morning, turning to the words of Netzavim in the Torah, a reminder that all the people of Israel are united, and we share a common goal, to work together to choose life.

Please rise as we turn to page 252.






“There’s an App For That”- A sermon for Kol Nidre 5780


I have an idea for a new smartphone app. You know those quizzes where you answer a bunch of questions, and then it tells you which character from Friends you are most likely to be friends with, or which Avenger are you? By the way, I always get Ross and, for some reason the Hulk. My idea is this: Let’s turn all the sins listed in our Machzor into a checklist. Then, when people check off the ones they have done, they get some sort of analysis. The question is, what is the apt comparison? After re-reading the confession in the Machzor, I think it would have to match you to a Game of Thrones Character.  I actually don’t know much about the show, but I do know they did some bad things. And our confession includes some pretty grim stuff. This points to a problem in our liturgy. There is a disconnect between the writing on the page and what brings us to the Temple tonight.

Over the years, I have heard a common refrain: “I didn’t do those things.” They read a page that says, “We have trespassed, betrayed, stolen, slandered, caused wickedness, spread lies, and generally been morally corrupt.” It sounds like Game of Thrones because it is exaggerated to the extreme. It is the worst of the worst. As a result, for the reader of this prayer, the Day of Atonement can lose meaning. It can even be harmful.

An old friend wrote a Facebook post recently that made me think about the holidays in a way I never had before. They wrote, for people who already have anxiety and depression, they do not need another day where they have to tell themselves they are broken and flawed. And worse, since these conditions are often connected to eating disorders, a day of fasting tops off a very difficult day. These are not the words of a person who is distanced from the meaning of Judaism. To the contrary, they understand it completely, and the exaggerations in our confessions fill them with dread. I would bet that this person is not the only one who feels this way. Their concern must be taken seriously and responded to with compassion. We have to establish trust that Yom Kippur is founded on the principle, “Do No Harm.” For this reason, the tradition makes adjustments if an observance will cause damage. Fasting, for example, is forbidden for those whose health would be threatened by it. Even if you do not fast, there are other meaningful ways to observe the day. And if the words spoken in the sanctuary are threatening, we can understand them differently. I believe we generally misinterpret what is in our prayer books. If we change our perspective on the prayers, we can gain a healthier outlook, bringing us closer to their true intent.

And I will tell you about that in a bit….

First, let us change our perspective on this room as we rise from our seats. Please turn to page 22 for the call to worship.


I have another idea for an app. You click “Start” and then four words appear on a grid. Sin, transgression, wrongdoing, fault. You rank them from 1-4. Then 4 more words appear. Slander, gossip, cheat, lie. You rank them, and so on, and so on. Eventually, an algorithm produces your own personalized confession, a perfect expression of your true contrition.

Never mind. It would never work. It is actually better to understand the words we have before us. They may not be personal or perfect, but they work if we allow ourselves to understand them.

Yom Kippur prayers are written in grand language. They are not a litany of facts. The words are intended to inspire, to make us think and feel. We would do well not to take everything so literally. Our prayer books are poetry. The words can move us to deeper understanding that transcends the words. If we were to make the mistake of reading the Machzor as a technical manual, we might believe that it does not speak to us. We would conclude that we are perfect, but that’s not likely.

During my first round of graduate school in France, I had the surreal experience of being tested for English as a second language. I was in the same program as the French students, and I had to take the same final exams, including English. I was told, going in, that the test was conversational. The grading scale was out of 20. Since the criteria were subjective, I should expect no more than a 19. They held a philosophical belief, there was no such thing as a perfect conversation. While I accept the reasoning, and while it is possible that I made a few mistakes, it has always bothered me that I could not get a perfect score on something I am so good at…. Or at which I am so good. Maybe that is why I got a 19.

Despite what some people claim, there is no such thing as perfection. There are no perfect conversations. There are no perfect people, and no algorithm can generate a perfect confession. Praying the words in our Machzor does not mean we are terrible people. It does however remind us, “No one is righteous enough to say, I have not sinned.”

Our tradition tells us that the mistakes make us better people. I will tell you how in a bit.

At this time our focus turns to the heart of our service and prepare ourselves to come a little bit closer to perfection through the lessons we learn in our worship. The chatzi Kaddish calls us to attention on page 45.


I have another app idea. It is based on the old saying, “to err is human. To forgive is—- divine.” My app actually focuses on the step before forgiveness. We have to repent before we can receive forgiveness. On Yom Kippur, it is repentance that is divine. So, here is my idea for a game. An avatar is tied to strings that reach heaven. Those strings start to break. By tapping the broken strings, we put them back together. The catch is, we have to power up in order to fix the strings. We do that by texting apologies.

Never mind. We do not need the app. We already have this Hasidic teaching. It is said that when each person is born, a rope ties us directly to God in the heavens. Each time we sin, we cause that that rope to be cut. We become distanced from God. Then when we make atonement, the broken ends of the rope are rejoined by a knot. We are then reconnected to the Heavens. The remarkable thing is, when you tie a knot in string, it becomes shorter. Therefore, each sin and the ensuing knot brings us closer to God bit by bit. This is the essence of Teshuvah, to return. To live with that string is to know that we will make mistakes, but with each one comes the opportunity to learn and to mend and brings us closer to being the best versions of ourselves.

The list of sins we read during Yom Kippur provide us with a starting point. It opens the door for us to consider all those times when we have cut the strings between us and God, and also between us and the world around us. The cuts we make may not actually be on the list, but each one represents a category, and causes us to reflect. Through our reflection we envision the ropes we need to mend. The tying of those knots brings will bring us closer to each other and ultimately to God. In this way repentance is not about shame, but rather a means for improving our lives.

But of course, repentance does not end there. And I will tell you why in a moment.

At this time, we pray that the knots we tie will be strong enough to last as pray for our prayers to be accepted. Please turn to page 72 as we sing Retzei.


If I were to create an atonement app, it would have to include an option like “atonement with friends.” It would be a game that could be played with and against acquaintances and strangers around the world. It though of this because of a text we read just this past Shabbat in Torah study. It was a commentary on Netzavim, the same portion we read this morning. In two statements about repentance, the first says we turn toward God, and the second says we turn to God. The different prepositions are stages of atonement. It begins with the personal turning. That turning joins us in a global turning. That global turning leads to justice.

In her book, Recharging Judaism, Rabbi Judith Schindler explains justice is the ultimate manifestation of God. She questions, “How do we [collectively] have faith… when words express our mood of desolation.” She quotes Isaiah, “Zion shall be redeemed by justice and those who repent by righteousness.” Repentance leads to justice which leads to redemption for all. With true atonement, greater things are possible than we ever imagined. It starts with individuals, and the effects spread far and wide.

While mending our ties is important, it is only a beginning. There is more than must be done, and I will tell you about that in a moment.

Right now, we turn our thoughts inwards as consider the confessions of our hearts.


Here is my last app suggestion for the evening. Our atonement merges with our calendar, and every day it generates reminders of all those things we do not want to do again. It will help us follow the teaching of Maimonides that true atonement is when we have the opportunity to make the same mistake but don’t.

There is a corollary to the story about the broken string and the knots. It says when it comes to atonement, one knot is good but no strong enough to last. The better fixes happen when we tie a second knot. That second knot is our future promise not to make the same mistake again. To this end, we have Kol Nidre, the prayer which has been the focus of our worship this evening.

Kol Nidre stands apart because it points to the future. It speaks to things we will do between this Yom Kippur and the next.

Thinking about the future has helped Yael Shahar to cope with her PTSD. Shahar is a security officer in the Israeli army. She has written about a breakthrough she had during her treatment. Her discovery was connected to the forward-thinking nature of repentance. Some experiences were too painful to speak of. She could not go near certain people and places. However, she knew it was not realistic to avoid those things forever. One day before a treatment session, she was riding a horse who was still young and inexperienced. While in a dead run, she had fallen, spraining her knee rather severely. She explained to her counselor why she got back on the horse.

“Such an incident can be frightening for a young horse. You have to get back on and re-create the situation, but this time in a more controlled fashion, so that she’ll learn that it doesn’t have to end badly. You redo it in a safer way, in order to learn not to be afraid.”

This was her “aha!” moment. She needed to believe about herself what she believed about her horse. The best way to learn that things do not have to end badly is to be in a similar experience, but in a safe and controlled way.

PTSD is a very serious condition, and in no way am I implying there is a simple cure. Still, what helped Yael Shahar, her realization about her horse, can be instructive in how we understand and approach repentance. We do not have to repeat mistakes. Our prayers during Kol Nidre provide us a safe time and space to think forward to the times when we could fall into old patterns. They force us to consider a better way to act in the moment, to have a plan. We plan how to get back on the proverbial horse and how to ride it from this Yom Kippur to the next, this year, we hope, without falling off.

This night, Kol Nidre, we feel the urgency to act now. We think about how not to repeat our mistakes in the coming days, and with each act of repentance, we repair ourselves, the people we love, our communities. And our hope is that our repentance will serve as a model for bringing peace to the world.

And everything we have said and done up to now has been a warmup, for the act of confession truly begins now. We pray that we can be in the moment, so we may reflect on the past, and pave the way for the best possible future.

Please turn to page 82 for Viduy.






Nimrod and the Lion- Hunters and Hurters, a story for Shabbat Shuvah, Oct 4, 2019

My son rightly called me out the other day. At the Tashlich service, on Rosh Hashanah, as we were standing over the Tennessee River, throwing breadcrumbs into the water, he asked what one of my breadcrumbs was for. I usually don’t say them out loud. I am usually thinking about things like having more patience, to no procrastinate, to make sure I tell people how much I appreciate them. For some reason, his question made me think of our pets. It was probably because our dog Rocket was still at the emergency vet. I said, “This crumb is for calling our dogs a couple of dumdums.” I have fallen into the habit of calling them dumdums several times a day. In some ways, it is a term of endearment. In some ways, it is true. I mean only a dumdum would eat two loaves of unbaked challah with yeast that is toxic to his system causing him to go to the Emergency vet on the Jewish New Year. Yes, this was happening in my home. But, during Tashlich, it occurred to me, I love my dogs, and dumdum, is not a nice word. They are man’s best friend. And, as I cast my bread into the water, I decided my best friends deserved better….. But habits are hard to break. Eden caught me calling Rocket a dumdum, and told me I needed to repent. And that is how the student became the rabbi. Over the weekend, I will give him a rawhide and ask for forgiveness. And then I will ask the dogs for forgiveness too.

Anyhow, along these very lines, I want to hare with you a story, not about rabbis or dogs, but about a hunter and a lion. This was in the days when lions did not sing Hakuna Matata, for they had lots of worries. It was in the days before lions roared at the start of a motion picture. It was a day before Wizards gave lions medals of courage. It was even before they became symbols of royalty. It was a simpler time, in a far away place.

One day, a man named Nimrod Samson decided to do something he had never done before, and I will tell you more about that in a moment.

For now, as we enter into the heart of our service on this Shabbat Shuvah, we rise in preparation for the rest of our journey through this night and through Yom Kippur.

We rise together for the call to worship on page 146.

So, Nimrod Samson, or Nimmie as he liked to be called, set out on an adventure. He had conquered every beast large and small… except for one. He had caught rabbits and mice, elk and bears, sparrows and eagles, minnows and marlins. There was one member of the animal kingdom he dared not challenge until now. It was the lion. Nimrod was afraid of lions. They were too powerful, and too fast, but now, he decided, it was time to overcome his fear. He had trained, and trained, learning how to walk without rustling the leaves. He ran and ran, making himself faster. He struck a punching bag day in, day out, making his hands move with blurring speed. He sharpened all of his knives and swords. And so he was ready.

He went out into the wilderness, and before long he spotted a lion in the distance.

What happened next is truly amazing, and I will tell you about that, in a bit….

For now, we turn to page 159, as we think about the ways we can protect ourselves from the things we fear. We know it takes courage and planning to tackle new tasks. And in this prayer, we also seek help from God to give us protection and strength. We pray together on page 160.

The lion saw Nimrod approaching. It seems that camouflage wasn’t quite developed yet. The lion was actually afraid. Word had spread through the animal community, Nimrod the Hunter is clever and skilled. His arrows were like flying teeth. His daggers were like metal claws, longer, sharper, and more lethal than anything the lion had at his disposal. Before Nimrod could get too close, the lion called to him… yes this is one of those talking animal stories.

The lion called out to the hunter, “Hey. Why do you want to kill me?”

Nimrod called back, “I don’t want to hurt you. I just want to eat you.”

The lion was relieved, “You realize I’m not kosher, right?”

Nimrod the Hunter laughed. “You got me. You’re right. I don’t really want to eat you. But I must kill you because you are a dangerous beast.”

Well the lion did not take this ly… er sitting down. “But to me, you are dangerous. We fear each other, and that’s what makes us hate each other, and want to kill each other. Let’s you and me become friends. We can make peace, and that way, no body has to fear, hate, or hurt.”

Nimrod took the lion up on his offer. He was glad to become friends with the lion. In fact they became inseparable. They met every day, and hunted together. They shared stories, and told jokes. They weren’t always good jokes. Most lion jokes were a play on the word mane. Like on what street do lions live… Mane street. When two lions fight, it’s always the mane event. What do you get when you cross a lion with a giant ox? A Maney yak (Maniac).

They really are primitive animals with primitive senses of humor. Nimrod wasn’t much better. He only knew knock knock jokes.

Knock Knock.

[Who’s there?]

With Nimorod.

[With Nimrod Who?]

With Nimrod and nim-reel, we can ketch ourselves a fish.”

Nimrod’s humor was a bit primitive too. They did not much care. They were having a great time, until…

I will tell you about that “until” in a moment…

Before we do that, we enter into a series of blessings that remind us of our our duty to be proactive in making the world a more friendly place.

We rise together on page 164 for Tefillah.

So one day, after the Nimrod and the lion were done hunting and telling jokes, Nimrod told the lion, “I am so glad we made peace. It’s like so much better than having to hurt you.”

“Yes,” said the lion. “It would have been terrible if we fought. I would have killed you and eaten you. You would have been my mane course. Get it? Well, anyway, you have much better taste than that… get it? Taste? Never mind. I like you much better as a friend.”

Nimrod was a little offended. “There’s no way you would have killed me. I would have won.”

“Well hold on now,” the lion said. “I, the king of the animals can roar like thunder. It shakes the earth and scares every living thing. My paws can smash small trees. No creature can survive my attack.”

Nimrod felt it his duty to inform the lion, “Indeed, you were created to rule the animals, but humans were created to rule the world. Therefore, I am more powerful than you.”

They both fell silent, and then Nimrod had an idea, which I will tell you about, right now.

“Look, my friend,” he said. “I need to show you something.”

He took the lion to an ancient palace. There was carved statue of a king sitting on a throne with a lion pinned under his feet.

“Do you see?” Nimrod said. “I am more powerful than you.”

“See nothing!” Shouted the lion. “If these paws could carve, I’d put a lion in the throne, and a man under my feet.

“Oh yeah.” Nimrod said.

“Yeah.” The lion shouted back,

This is when Nimrod lost it. He shout, “What do you know? You’re just a stupid animal. You don’t even deserve to be my friend.” And he stormed off.

The next day, well, I will tell you about the next day in a bit.

For now we think about our own failings and the things we need to do to spread peace as we pray for Shalom Rav a great peace to spread throughout the world.

Shalom Rav is on page 178.

Nimrod came back to see the lion. At first they acted like nothing and happened as they walked in silence. After a while, the lion stopped and pointed to a large stick.

“My friend, I want you to take that stick and strike me over the head with it as hard as you can.”

Nimrod protested. “But we promised to keep peace between us. I could never hurt you.”

The lion roared angrily. “If you are truly my friend, do what I say, and now hit me with the stick!”

Nimrod could no longer say no, so he picked up the stick and swung it as hard as he could. The lion fell to the ground, with blood coming out of his head. Nimrod dropped the stick and ran away, horrified by what he had done.

Weeks passed before he could bring himself to visit the lion again. When he saw him, he was ashamed. He asked, “Are you still in pain?”

The lion looked back and said, “I am in pain, but not from the stick. The other wound hurts me.” He could see that Nimrod was confused. “The other wound was the one you gave me with your cruel and angry words. You called me stupid. You said I could not be your friend.”

And then Nimrod understood, even the most powerful of beasts or the mightiest of hunters could be physically injured and recover. Over time the pain might disappear. But the pain of the heart can be worse and last longer than the pain inflicted by a stick. He suddenly felt a pain unlike anything he had felt before. Shame. There was only one way to heal his own pain along with the pain felt by the lion.

Nimrod apologized to the lion. He promised never to use such words again. They say that the lion and the man each grew much wiser from that moment on. They became better friends than they had been before.

As they walked together that day, the lion said to the Nimrod, “What do put on a lion sandwich? Mane-aise.”

Sadly to say, the jokes did not get better. But through their deeds, they made the world more peaceful.

On this Shabbat shuvah, as we head toward Yom Kippur, may all find the strength to mend the wounds we have caused, and may we never have reason for shame.

Shabbat shalom. Shana tovah.

Let us now think about those in need of healing as we pray Mi shebeirach on p. 371

“Being Proud of Reform Judaism– The Highest Religious Standard,” Sermon for Rosh Hashanah Morning, 5780

I have had some interesting conversations in the past year. That’s kind of my job. Seriously, some of these conversations have stood out. I have been asked why I am committed to calling myself a Reform Jew. “Why do we have to be anything?” They ask. “Why can’t we just be Jewish?” I agree with this sentiment, to a point. Generally, the difference in observance means very little… unless you eat. That’s no small thing because we are always eating. Then again, it’s not hard to figure out, unless you need kosher marshmallows. They are really hard to find.  Anyhow, being just Jewish is a wonderful notion. The Talmud teaches, All of Israel is responsible for one another. We share one Torah, and one destiny. When anti-Semitism arises, they do not differentiate between Reform, Conservative, or Orthodox. We are just Jews. And because we are not defined by those who hate us, we consider the words of Rabbi Solomon Goldman, a Conservative Rabbi. In 1934, he said this to his congregation:

“Judaism [is] characterized by its democratic spirit and its appreciation of the common man. Every member of the community [is]… an essential factor in the preservation of the nation.“

He echoes the call of the prophets, reminding us that, across our divides, we are kl’al Yisrael— one community, one family.

And now I channel my inner Tevye. On the other hand… Being a Reform Jew holds special meaning. And I will tell you about that in a bit. For now, just know that Reform is something to be proud of. It stands for something, just as we stand for the call to worship now on page 142.


If there was a quote, unquote, “official beginning” of Reform Judaism, we might say it was the dedication of the Temple in Seessen, Germany on July 17, 1810. The sermon was given by Israel Jacobson, a businessman and philanthropist, He challenged the congregation:

“On all sides enlightenment opens up new areas for religious development. Why should we Jews be left behind?”

Emancipation in Germany gave our ancestors an opportunity to participate in a free and open society. They took this chance to merge their religion with Enlightenment sensibilities. To this day, this is what makes Reform Judaism special, the way we integrate knowledge of the world with religious beliefs and practice. We do not have to be left behind. This is something to be proud of.

Too often, Reform Jews are apologetic or deferential to other streams of Judaism. We use terms like “they have a higher standard,” or “they are more religious.” When we say these things, we cede the mantle of authenticity, and negate our own practice. But no one can strip us of our authenticity, unless we willingly give it away. We must embrace: To be a Reform Jew is to have, arguably the highest, religious standards. We place progress and ethics above all. While others resist change, we celebrate it as modern expressions of Judaism flow naturally from their source. Thus, we heed Israel Jacobson’s call not to be left behind. We will hear some of the ways we have not been left behind, in a bit. For now, let us remember, to be Reform is something to be proud of. There is sacred power in it, and therefore let us turn to page 174 as we hear the words Unetaneh Tokef, let us proclaim the sacred power of this day.



To call yourself a Reform Jew is a values statement. It is a declaration of independence. I could read to you Reform Platforms and position statements, but it is better to describe in real terms what sets Reform apart.

Tina Sobo grew up in Connecticut. Her family was barred from a local congregation because they were intermarried. They had not considered Reform, until the rabbi from the Reform Temple met Tina not long before her thirteenth birthday. The rabbi offered a special invitation, to celebrate a Bat-Mitzvah on what she says was a “fast-track” of study. The openness and flexibility of one rabbi, empowered by the ideals of a movement, opened a new door. Sobo says, during her teen years, she was bullied by classmates and even her brother, but the Temple was her safe space. The thought of what her life would be without the Temple terrifies her. It just so happens, that she is now a rabbi in Dayton, Ohio. But you do not have to become a rabbi to appreciate the values of Reform.

In Reform congregations, it occurs frequently that a bar or a bat mitzvah has only one Jewish parent. Whether the father or mother is Jewish makes no difference. We call young adults to the Torah without questioning their status.

I was deeply moved during the two years I interned at the Valley Temple in Cincinnati. Standing with the child before the ark, Rabbi Kopnick would describe the child’s parents like this, “Your dad gave you the gift of Judaism, and your mom gave Judaism the gift of you.” Rightly, acknowledged publicly the specialness of a non-Jewish parent who raises a Jewish child. They are to be celebrated, and most importantly thanked for choice they make to build the future of the Jewish people.

At Mizpah, we are guided by the same sentiment. Such joyous celebrations would not be possible in any other congregation in Chattanooga.

While we are talking about interfaith families, there is only one congregation in town whose rabbi is permitted to perform interfaith marriages, and by the way does so with great pride. It means we, as a congregation, open our doors to all Jewish families. In this way, we do not get left behind.

There is much more to say about this, and I will tell you, in bit.

For now, we turn to page 202. When we stand for the Grand Aleinu, we prepare to hear the call of the shofar. In hearing these sounds we link ourselves to the past and listen for guidance that will lead us into the future. Please rise.



You know how I said only one congregation in Chattanooga with a rabbi who will perform interfaith marriages? Likewise, only one congregation has a rabbi has performed a same-sex marriage, and is available to do more. Along these lines, I keep a sign on my door that says, transgender Jews belong here, and we display a Jewish pride flag in the entry way of our office wing. None of this is about me, but rather how our movement has paved the way for our openness. Reform Judaism allows me and other rabbis to be consistent with our true beliefs. It allows us to do this as representatives of our congregations. If you doubt the significance of such a bold statement, just look to the Methodist Church. Progressive in many areas, as an organization, their pastors are still prohibited from performing same sex unions at risk of being de-frocked. Reform rabbis are granted freedom of conscience, and it is something we should all be very grateful for and proud of.

One night, in a previous congregation, I was being rather vocal about our local Barnes and Noble hosting a book signing for a children’s book that condemned families with two dads or two moms. The store manager made no apology, nor did they see any issue with a picture book teaching senseless hate. As I spoke, I noticed some visitors, young women, in our congregation. I had met them before. They were visiting their dad who was in a long-term relationship with the Jewish man whom he would eventually marry. Before building up the courage to come out, he had been living in a very Conservative Christian community. That night, I believed in what I said but recognized it may have been uncomfortable for the girls. After the service, I approached the father and apologized. I hoped it was not too awkward. He actually thanked me, saying “I’m glad they were here to hear that, especially in a religious setting. They get enough of the other message at home.”

It was yet another example of Israel Jacobson’s call not to get left behind. Organized religion, Judaism included, has done huge amounts of damage by closing people out. Being Reform opens the door for everyone to express their true selves, and for us to be accepting, as we serve God in a manner truly authentic to who we are. That is something to be incredibly proud of.

Let us take a few moments of silent reflection as we consider the many ways we can open the doors of Jewish community to all who wish to enter.





Another time when Reform keeps us from being left behind is in a time of grief.

I was standing with Rose Leviticus in a hospital room as her husband Lou was succumbing to a massive stroke. A Holocaust survivor, an engineer who helped develop the moon rover, and a speaker who taught Holocaust history to thousands of young people, Lou was kind of a hero. He was, however, unimpressed with Jewish law and classical theology.

Rose told me, “He doesn’t like rabbis, but he made an exception for you.” I have always been proud of that. She was afraid to tell me her husband requested to be cremated after his death. Traditional Judaism prohibits full burial rites and mourning rituals for someone who makes this choice, but Reform teaches informed choice. That begins at birth and extends through death. We keep our focus on human dignity. Thanks to the teachings of Reform, I was able to tell Rose not to worry, that we would hold a beautiful and meaningful funeral and would appropriately eulogize a man of true distinction. At this low point in her life, Rose gained some comfort knowing that her Jewish community was with her 100%.

It might sound like a little thing, but Jewish law can be a tangled web that is hard to overcome and can be hurtful when people are most vulnerable. Reform gives us freedom to put people first. Relatives do not have to second guess decisions their loved ones made. Reform Judaism ensures there will be integrity between a person’s belief and practice even beyond their last breath. And that is something to be very, very proud of.

There is a statement that I believe sums up the mission of Reform Judaism, and I will tell you what it is…. Right now.

In 1895, the playwright Israel Zangwill, wrote, “[Judaism’s] only hope for influencing the future, hinges on [our] power to absorb the culture of the day so as to bring [our] own peculiar contribution to [solving] the problems of our time, [our] own moral vision of the world.” He was not writing specifically about Reform, but his words resonate in all we do as help to shape the moral vision of the world.

And so, when someone questions why be so adamant about Reform? I ask, “Which of our core values are we willing to lose?” Is it equality of men and women? Is it patrilineal descent? Is it our embrace of love in its many forms? Is it our fuller understanding of gender and psychology? Is it our affirmation of a person’s autonomy? Is it our audacious hospitality? Is it our commitment to social justice? Is it our outreach to other faith communities? Personally, I do not think we should let go of or even diminish a single one. Therefore, when we call ourselves a Reform congregation, it truly means something. We are a community ofReform Jewish families, practicing Judaism in concert with our values. Let us be proud of being Reform Jews, and let us be proud of everything that stands for.

And so, in the year 5780 let us renew our covenant as we imbue our modern lives with meaning based on time-tested teachings. And so, we turn now to the Torah service. May it challenge us as we challenge it right back. May our learning inspire us to be proud of all we have become and how we have refused to be left behind.































Recipe For Happiness in the New Year – Erev Rosh Hashanah, 5780

In my preparations for Rosh Hashanah, I came across this very unusual recipe for an apple honey cake.

For a delicious New Year’s cake, don’t preheat the oven to 400 degrees. And don’t go too low to 300. Then don’t use too small a bowl. In your large mixing bowl, don’t drop the eggs in whole. The shells will ruin everything. Now, don’t let the yolks sit there. You’ll want them blended. Don’t add vinegar. Try something sweeter. It is honey cake after all. Need we say more? Now, don’t forget the brown sugar in addition to the white sugar. Don’t leave out the oil the vanilla. Everyone will enjoy this New Year’s cake, if you don’t mess it up! Capiche.

I added the capiche.

Actually, I added a lot more. I took some liberties here. I took the instructions and made them negative. That’s no way to make a cake. It is a joyous food for a joyous occasion. It should be a joyful process. I offered this recipe to make a point. When it comes to being happy, so much of the advice we hear is negative. Don’t do this. Don’t do that.

The Book of Psalms, right in the very first line, gives us this cheery advice: “Happy is the Man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked.

This is not exactly a positive message that turns people out for the New Year. No one gets excited to say, “Let’s go to Temple and hear about what not to do.” People are seeking happiness, a positive feeling. The path toward happiness should be taken in positive steps, just like a cake is made of what you put into it. Of course in ten days, we won’t bake a cake at all, but… Until then we can gather the ingredients for a sweet new year.

We begin with a positive action as we turn to page 20 and rise for the call to worship.

Our cake recipe calls for two different types of sugar. And Judaism gives us two particular ways we can sweeten our lives. If used together properly, they actually give us the best blend for our new year’s cake.

A midrash in the Talmud takes two types of happiness and personifies them. They are Sasson and Simcha. At first, they are rivals and enter into a battle of wits. First, we have Sasson. This word is generally translated as joy. And there is Simcha, this is usually happiness.

Sasson says to Simcha, “I am clearly better than you. You see the Prophet Isaiah says in the time of the Messiah, the people shall have Sasson and Simcha. I am mentioned first.”

Well then Simcha says, “Au contraire. In the Book of Esther, it says, after Haman was destroyed, there was Simcha and then Sasson. So clearly, I am more important.”

Now it gets juicy. Sasson says to Simcha. “The Book of Isaiah says, “The people will leave with simcha.”

Well Simcha is none to pleased. Isaiah also says “they are going to draw water with sasson.” That means they are going to use your skin for a water bottle.

Personally I think Simcha stepped over the line, and I promise you, this is all in the Talmud Tractate Sukkah 48b.

On its surface, the story is ridiculous. It’s a chicken or egg queston? Who cares which came first? They are two sides of the same coin, and whichever side comes up, you win.

Simcha describes specific moments of celebration. Bar-Mitzvahs and weddings birth of a child, are are examples of simcha. Sasson, is the overall happiness one feels from the accumulated simchas. Neither is more important. They just go together.

Like Chevy Chase said in the movie Caddyshack: “A flute with no holes is not a flute. A donut with no hole is a Danish.”

Simcha without sasson is not really simcha. And Sasson without simcha is nothing.

And now we think of our ancestors who had the simcha of departing Egypt and crossing the sea, and then they could truly sing with Sasson, the joy of liberation. Please turn to page 33 for this prayer of freedom.

We have already added sweetener. Now In order to bake the cake of happiness, we have to break a few eggs. Judaism makes no claim that finding happiness is easy. Happiness is elusive. Some philosophers say, happiness is only an illusion. But in Judaism, happiness is a very real, but we work hard to attain it. We have to crack the shells of negativity.

Some Jewish teachings tell us the beginning of happiness is actually negative. Rabbi HIrsch Goitein in Copenhagen, was one of the great Jewish thinkers of the 19th century. He said Judaism was at its heart pessimistic, but Goitein did not say this out of disdain for Judaism, but actually out of love. Jewish pessimism was the key to happiness. Normally we would think happiness comes from optimism, but in Judaism, pessimism is fertile soil for our tree of life, the Torah. Creation begins, in chaos and disorder, and creation is never finished. God makes us partners in completing the work. The work is long and hard, so we take a break every seventh day. A gift comes from toil. As the Torah continues, our ancestors trip on the proverbial banana peels of impatience, temptation, and greed. They eat an apple. They try to sacrifice a child. They turn into a pillar of salt. They build a golden calf. Out of this chaos, we make order. Light is separated from darkness. A covenant is made. A system of commandments is put in place.

Rabbi Goitein said, “action is the one necessity for a truly pessimistic religion.” If everything were perfect, we would never need to lift a finger. Therefore we have mitzvot, sacred obligations. According to Rabbi Goitein’s, “Jews demand action as a corollary to the pessimistic…universe.” It may never be perfect, but the effort brings us joy. Every action, can lead to improvement, and every improvement can be a simcha that builds to our overall happiness.

So, we can’t bake a cake without breaking the eggs. And we can’t say our next prayer without breaking the shell that seals our lips. When we do, we make something wonderful through our words.

Please turn to page 42 as we rise for Tefillah.

Having broken a few eggs, we need something to make our happiness cake rise.

The Dubner Maggid, a storyteller from the 18th century spoke of two salesmen who arrive at a hotel. The first has diamonds and gems. His suitcase is small and light. The second man sells hardware. His has a trunk with with hammers, saws, and thick workman’s clothes. Each man sets his bag by the staircase as he goes to check in. The jewelry salesman asks the bellhop to take his bag. The bellhop grabs a bag and takes it upstairs. When he returns, the merchant gives him one kopek. The bellhop glares at the salesman. He says, “I lugged a huge, heavy trunk all the way up the stairs, sweating, straining, nearly getting a hernia, and all I get is a lousy kopek?”

“Dear sir,” said the jewel seller, “You must have taken the wrong bag. Mine is light and easy to handle. With all the beauty it holds, it is practically a joy to carry.”

The point of the story is when one carries jewels like the traditions of Judaism, the journey will be joyful, our burdens light. However, if we pick up the wrong bag, it is a terrible strain.

We are all prone to the bellhop’s mistake. We carry a bag of jewels, but it feels like hardware. Things that ought to bring us joy become burdens.

A recent book on Essentialism tells a true story about Sam. He was an executive in Silicon Valley when his company was acquired by a larger firm. Sam felt pressured to take on new tasks and joined new project teams. He spent most of his days rushing from meeting to meeting. He was more tired, more stressed, and less productive than he had ever been. He was also the least happy he had ever been. He had become deadweight, and the company offered an early retirement. Barely in his 50’s, Sam was not ready to retire. A career coach advised him, “don’t retire. Stay, but only do what you would if you were a consultant.” Sam started saying “No,” only taking on tasks that he could fit into his schedule and to which he could contribute productively. He became more effective, and rediscovered joy in his work. What had been a heavy burden felt like a bag of jewels.

In his book on Jewish Spiritual Parenting, Rabbi Paul Kipnes writes:

“If we find our involvement with Judaism… to be burdensome and heavy, we have made a mistake… Jewish life is meant to be an expression of joyous living.” He believes this is why Hebrew has fourteen words for happiness. They are simcha, chedva, ditza, gila, hana’a, nachas, osher, ora, pitzcha, ranan, rina, sasson, tzahalah, and t’rua. This last one is especially important tonight. Each of these words describes a path for various times in our lives. If we take those words to heart, absorbing the happiness that surrounds us, they can give us strength. They can even power us through difficult times.

The fourteen Hebrew words of happiness can be considered our enriched flour for making our cake. No single word or source of happiness will work for all people. In baking our Jewish cake, we are encouraged to find the blend that works for us, and help it to rise in a way that is also pleasing to others.

We want happiness to spread, just like in this next prayer, we want peace to spread throughout the world until it is Shalom Rav, a great and abundant peace.

We continue on page 66.

Once our cake is baked, we have to consider how we will serve it. One thing is for sure, we cannot just wait for happiness, we have to work for it. My colleague, Rabbi Evan Moffic wrote a book called the Happiness Prayer. In it he describes a psychological experiment where subjects were given a chocolate bar. One group was given a specific ritual for eating it, a particular way to break it in half, then unwrap each half carefully before eating it. The second group was given no ritual. The participants who had a ritual reported much higher levels of enjoyment. It was the exact same chocolate bar. This means we gain enjoyment and happiness by doing things with intention.

The happiness prayer, Rabbi Moffic says, is Eilu Devarim, which is in our morning service. It prescribes 10 Jewish actions that allow us to enjoy the fruits of the world. They include study and prayer, honoring our parents, and acts of loving kindness. They also include challenging things like comforting the bereaved and making peace between enemies.

In one chapter, Rabbi Moffic focuses on the mitzvah of rejoicing with bride and groom. A couple was celebrating their 70th anniversary. He asked them to give a sermon about their life together. Even the single, divorced, and widowed members of his congregation were equally moved by their story, for in it they discovered how a ritual gave them hope in a terrible situation. They had lost an adult child to cancer. The couple said, in the depths of their struggle, they thought about the vows and the meaning of their marriage, and it helped them to survive the pain with their marriage and love intact. There was no way they could have known that the words they said in their ritual standing under the chuppah would be the things that saved them and their marriage 79 years later. It was much more than a story about a wedding anniversary. It was a story about building happiness, on a foundation of ritual that provides strength.

The state of the world is hectic. The more rituals and moments of joy we gather, the more likely we will be to enjoy a true sense of happiness despite the things that trouble us.

We all have the capacity to find happiness. It is not easy. Nothing worth doing ever is. Life is not easy. Judaism is not easy, but it does provide us with mitzvot, many rituals and teachings that give us enriched flour, eggs to break, many types of sweetener, and ways make our hearts rise. We can celebrate Shabbat, teach our children, give to the Food Bank or do other acts of tzedakah, rejoice with bride and groom, visit the sick, support friends who are grieving, just check in on someone you haven’t seen in a long time, look after our parents, or any of the many possibilities. They are all ingredients that can lead us to a sweet and happy new year. So in the year 5780, let us all get into the kitchen and start baking.