Rabbi Michael Gold

Jewish Family & Sexuality Issues-Rabbi Michael Gold

2013 High Holiday Sermons

1ST DAY ROSH HASHANA – 2013-5774
I came across a wonderful, true story. A homeless man died in a small town in the Midwest and there was no one to come to the funeral. The funeral director, believing someone should celebrate this man’s life, invited a bagpipes player to come play. The poor bagpipe player became totally lost, driving around for forty five minutes, and finally driving up to the cemetery in time to see the hearse pulling away. What could he do? He saw a group of workers lowering a cover down, so he did the only thing he could. He walked over to the workers, took out his bagpipes, and started to play Amazing Grace. “I once was lost but now I’m found.” Soon all the workers had stopped working and were singing along with him. He finished, glad that he had done something, and one of the workers said, “That is the nicest thing I have ever heard. And all my life I have been putting in septic tanks.”
We all are lost sometimes. We can all use a good G.P.S. So many people are searching for their place. I recall one Saturday morning here, the day of a bat mitzvah, when a young girl came in before 9 am. She wondered from chair to chair looking totally lost, as if she was going to cry. It was clear that she was not Jewish; Jewish guests never come on time. I finally went up to her and asked if I could help. She said, “I don’t know where to sit. All the chairs have names on them.” I told her to sit anywhere, the names are for the High Holidays. But I think of her when I think about finding our place in this world. Where do we belong? Do we have a place in the world?
What happens when we think we have found our place, only to discover it belongs to someone else? A couple years ago I visited a city in the Midwest and decided to go to synagogue Saturday morning. I chose a Conservative synagogue with a wonderful reputation; a place I had heard of but never visited. I walked into a crowded sanctuary – two aufruffs and a baby naming. And I sat down. A man came up to me, so I waited for a greeting, a welcome. Instead I heard the words so many of us hear upon entering a new synagogue, “You are sitting in my seat.” So much for warm and welcoming. In this crowded synagogue I could not find my place.
This morning I want to talk about finding our place in the world. As most of you know, I love Broadway musicals. So I decided to give each of this years’ sermons lyrics from one of the truly great Broadway musicals, West Side Story. After all, it was a musical created by composer Leonard Bernstein, director Jerome Robbins, and the wonderful lyricist Stephen Sondheim, three nice Jewish boys. It is about two lovers Tony and Maria, who cannot find their place because of hate. This ought to ring true with us Jews, we cannot find our place because of hate. Let me share a piece of trivia; did you know that West Side Story did not win the Tony for best musical 1958. That award went to The Music Man. But don’t feel bad; the movie went on to win countless Oscars including best picture. But I still find Sondheim’s lyric “There’s a Place for Us” in the song Somewhere truly haunting.
There’s a place for us. Do you know what the very first question in the Torah is? God asks Adam after he eats the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, Ayecha? Where are you? What a strange question. Why would God ask someone where they are? Doesn’t God know? There is a story told about the Alter Rebbe, a leader of the Lubavitcher Hassidic Movement. The Czar had ordered the Rebbe to be arrested. While he was being held in jail, his jailer spoke to him. “I hear you are a great rabbi. I am a simple Christian, but I know my Bible. In Genesis, when God asks Adam “where are you?” doesn’t God know the answer?” The Rebbe ponders the question a moment, and replies to his jailer, “That is a great question. I need to think about it. But meanwhile, I have a question for you. Here you are, a forty-six year old man spending your days guarding me in a jail cell. Where are you?” The jailer was amazed but the Rebbe knew his age, but even more, he realized that it was time to ask himself the question, where was he? What was he doing with his life?
The question “where are you” is not about our physical location. I think of the man who comes home early from work to find his wife in bed and his best friend hiding in the closet. “Stan, what are you doing here?” he cries. Stan answers, “What do you mean, everybody has to be somewhere.” Everyone has a physical location. The important question is not about our physical location, it is about our spiritual location. Where are we? What are we doing with our lives? Yes, there is a place for us. But have we found the place. We use language of location when we deal with people who have not found their place. We say, “My daughter is a lost soul.” “My son has not found his place.” “I do not know where I am supposed to be.” So this Rosh Hashana I want each of us to ask the question God asked Adam, ayecha? Where are you? The underlying assumption is the lyric “there’s a place for us.” How do we find our place?
So where are we? To answer that question, we need to ask ourselves three different questions. Where did we come from? Where are we today? And where are we going? The first question is, where did we come from? How did we get here? What made us who we are? In some ways, we came here based on forces beyond our control. We did not ask where or when to be born or how to be raised. We did not choose whether we are male or female, how smart we are, what talents we have, or countless other parts of our background. We are all created by forces outside our control. I think of my own life. I grew up in Los Angeles. When I chose to study to be a rabbi, I spoke to the University of Judaism in Los Angeles, now the American Jewish University. They told me that I could begin my studies there, but after two years I would have to move to New York City. I did not know New York; I had only been there once on a brief visit. But I learned to love New York. I built a life on the east coast, met my wife there, and much to my family’s chagrin, never moved back to Los Angeles. But if I had begun my Rabbinic studies today, it would have been a different story. Now a student can do the entire rabbinic program in Los Angeles. If I had been born thirty years later, I probably would never have left the west coast. Where I am was a factor of when I was born.
Where did we come from is also dependent on choices we made. Little choices that we make in our life at one stage can affect us years later. Did we go to school or drop out of school? Did we marry that person or not marry them? Did we take this job or that job? Did we drink? Did we use drugs? Were we arrested? What we do affects our entire future? Did you ever hear of the butterfly effect? It is part of chaos theory. A butterfly flapping its wings in one part of the world can bring a hurricane in another part of the world. Little things can have big effects that we cannot even imagine. Jewish Midrash recognizes this. It speaks of Jacob going out to buy a little material to make a coat of many colors for his son Joseph, events that would lead to the Israelites being slaves in Egypt. The Midrash says that cloth worth a few selahs led to our slavery. Little decisions in our past effects our future.
Another big part of the question, where did we come from, is our roots? I know that some people here converted to Judaism as adults, and some practice other faiths. But for most of us here, our roots are in Judaism. If you are like me, you probably have very old memories of going to High Holiday services with your parents, searching for the afikomen at your grandparents’ Passover seder, waving a lulav and maybe throwing spitballs in Hebrew school, and reciting that haftarah at your bar mitzvah, or maybe even a bat mitzvah. You may practice Judaism more or less, but the Jewish community is part of what made you who you are. These are your roots. These are the roots you hopefully will give to your children. And knowing your roots is the first step in knowing where you are.
The second question is, where are we today? Rosh Hashana is the day to ask the question, where am I? Where am I in my life right now? Where am I in my physical life? Am I taking care of my body? It would seem that the physical would be unimportant in a tradition as spiritual as Judaism. The Talmud tells the story of the great sage Hillel who left his Torah study to go the bathhouse. His students challenged him, “Why?” Hillel answered, “You see those public statues, images of the Roman emperor, which the workmen keep so clean. If those statues, the image of a human being, are cared for, how much more should I, created in the image of God, care for myself. Hillel went to the bathhouse; today he would go to the gym, maybe take a spinning or a yoga class. We each need to ask, are we taking care of ourselves? If we are to do whatever we need to do in this life, we must keep our physical selves healthy.
Where are we in our family life? How is our relationship with the significant people in our lives – our parents or grandparents, our siblings, our spouse or significant other, our children or grandchildren. If it is less than it should be, the High Holidays are the time, to open a door, to send a card, to say “I am sorry”, and to begin to rebuild broken relationships. If we are to do whatever we need to do in this life, we need significant others in our lives, family and friends.
Where are we in our professional or financial life? Did you know that according to the Talmud, when we get to the next world, the first question we will be asked is, “were you honest in your business dealings?” Yes it is hard to earn a living. The Torah teaches, “by the sweat of your brow will you bring forth bread.” Are we able to earn a living? And are we proud of how we earn a living? Are we proud of our behavior in the world of business? If we are to do whatever we need to do in this life, we need basic financial resources.
Where are we in our spiritual life? Judaism is filled with opportunities to connect to the spiritual dimension of life, whether it means lighting candles on Friday night, waving a lulav and etrog on Sukkot, saying a blessing before a meal, or helping to feed the homeless. How many Jews connect spiritually only at this time of year? It is as if they leave synagogue on Yom Kippur with the words, “Bye God, see you in a year.” There is the story of the rebbe who sees one his students studying the High Holiday Mahzor, prayerbook. He asks the student, “What are you doing?” “I am preparing to chant the High Holiday services.” The rebbe replied, “The High Holiday services will be the same as they were last year. Better you should prepare yourself to be the kind of person you want to be.” If we are to do what we need to do in this world, we need spiritual resources. The second question is ,where are we now, in our physical life, in our family life, in our professional life, and in our spiritual life. Only then are we ready to ask the third question – where are we going?
Where are we going? This is the perfect time to share again one of my favorite scenes from literature, this one from Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderful. Alice is totally lost when she runs into the Cheshire Cat, the mysterious cat who disappears, leaving only its smile to be seen. Alice asks the cat, “Which way should I go?” The cat answers Alice, “Where are you trying to get to?” Alice says, “I don’t know where I am trying to get to.” So the cat replies before disappearing, “Then it does not matter which way you go.”
So we get to the third part of the question, where are we trying to get to? There are some who would answer that it does not matter which way we go. When I went to college, existentialism was very popular. Everybody was reading and talking about Jean Paul Sartre and Albert Camus. Sartre famously wrote that “Man is condemned to be free.” We live in an absurd universe, without a goal or purpose. There is no God. There is no meaning of life. We are not called for any mission. We have absolute freedom do whatever we want, to make whatever choices we choose, to live the kind of life we want. We have no place we need to be. There is nowhere we need to go. Whichever path we go on is the right path. According to this atheistic, existential, absurd vision of life, there is no place for us.
Along comes a faith like Judaism and says, Sartre and Camus, you are wrong. There is a place for us. There is a purpose for our lives. There is a reason we were placed on this earth. When we were born, we were not put here by random chance. We are here because a power greater than ourselves willed us to be here. When we die, we do not disappear into oblivion. We go back to where we came, ready to report about our job here on this earth. We have a purpose. Judaism gives us that vision, that sense of purpose. It shows us the place. Or to quote West Side Story, “There’s a place for us.”
Rosh Hashana is the festival where we really search our own souls, and ask about our place in the world. Where do we belong and what are we doing? We need to ask three fundamental questions. The first question is, where did I come from? The second question is, what am I doing now? The third question is, where am I going? What is my place in this world? And how can I get there?
In the beginning I told a story of a poor bagpipes player who did not have a GPS. So many of us are lost, wandering through life without a GPS. But I believe there is a GPS available to each of us, guides to help us find our way. I believe that Jewish tradition is our GPS, I believe Torah is our guidebook. I believe God is our North Star. And I believe that the Jewish High Holidays are the time to get our bearings, find out where we came from, where we are, and where we ought to be going.
As we go on the journey of life, let us be reassured that there is a place for us. But also, let us learn where to stop and get our bearings. Tomorrow I want to continue. But I will add something new. Did you know that thousands of years before Einstein, Jewish tradition invented relativity? I will prove it to you, but you have to come back tomorrow.
My God help us find our place in this world, and let us say

2ND DAY ROSH HASHANA – 2013-5774
For the first time, the United States sends an astronaut to Mars. And sure enough, the first astronaut is Jewish. He steps out into the Martian atmosphere, not sure whether he will be able to breathe or not. He takes out a match, prepared to strike it, to see if there is oxygen. Suddenly a green looking Martian comes running over gesticulated wildly. He seems to be saying, “Don’t strike the match.” The astronaut does not understand; will he cause an explosion in the Martian atmosphere. He tries to say, “What’s wrong.” The Martian reaches him and takes away the match. And the Martian is able to communicate. “It’s Shabbes.”
Do they keep Shabbes on Mars? It is a great question for science fiction writers. I know that rabbis have already dealt with the question of Shabbes in space. Usually they base it on the question, when is Shabbes north of the Arctic Circle, when the sun never rises in the winter and never sets in the summer. I am not going to give an answer here. But the question shows how seriously we Jews take time. Yesterday I based my talk on the haunting song Somewhere from West Side Story – “there’s a place for us.” The song continues “there’s a time for us.” Yesterday I asked the question God asks Adam, ayecha “where are you?” Today I want to ask the question the great sage Hillel asked, im lo achshav, matai. “If not now, when?” Yesterday I spoke about space; today I want to talk about time.
To talk about time, first I need to introduce one of the revolutionary scientific ideas of the modern age. I want to talk about relativity. Most of you think Einstein discovered relativity. Today I want to show you that Judaism knew about relativity long before Einstein. How can that be? Let’s begin. What did Einstein do in 1905 in that patent office in Bern, Switzerland? He had time on his hands. So Einstein tried to imagine, what would happen if he tried to catch up to a ray of light. Einstein thought, if he were chasing a train (there were no planes yet), and he went faster and faster, eventually he would ride next to the train. The train would look like it was standing still next to him.
What if he went faster and faster, trying to catch a ray of light. Einstein realized that he could never catch it. No matter how fast he went, the light would still go past him at the speed of light. By the laws of physics, the speed of light has to be constant. How could that be? There is only one answer, as you go faster, space and time changes. Space contracts and time expands. Space turns into time and time turns into space. Two events that happen at separate times in the same space, if you go fast enough, will happen at separate spaces at the same time. Einstein realized that space and time are two aspects of the same thing. There is no such thing as space and time, there is only space-time. Relativity means space and time are the same thing.
But is that idea original? Two hundred years before Einstein, the philosopher Immanuel Kant had already taught that space and time are simply categories in our minds, ways that our minds organize the world. Space and time are not out there, they are in here. In a sense, Kant led to Einstein. But where does such a wild idea – space and time are the same thing – come from. The answer is that the idea comes from Judaism. Judaism has taught from the beginning that space and time are part of the same reality. Let me prove it to you.
In Jewish tradition, how do you say all of space, the entire universe? The answer is the Hebrew word Olam; Olam means universe. In Jewish tradition, how do you say all of time, eternity? The answer is the Hebrew word Olam; Olam means all of time. We sing Adon Olam at the end of Shabbat services. But what does it mean? It could be translated Adon Olam, Master of the Universe – the One in charge of all of space. It could also be translated Adon Olam, Master of all Time, Master of Eternity. Both are correct. In Judaism there is no difference between space and time. Einstein was right. Space and time are the same. Judaism had discovered it a few thousand years ago.
There’s a place for us. There’s a time for us. In a sense, they are saying the same thing. But now we can solve one of the great problems in Judaism. In Judaism we want to build a sacred space, a place for us, a place that is set apart and holy. And yet, we Jews are always on the move. We built a sacred place in Jerusalem, a great Temple. In fact, we built it twice. And twice it was destroyed. Today only a wall is standing, a very sacred wall for sure, but it is only the retaining wall of that great Temple. Meanwhile, we Jews are always on the move, often not by our choice. We build beautiful synagogues and then we are kicked out of a country. Or here in the United States, we build beautiful synagogues and neighborhoods change. Jews move to new neighborhoods. When I arrived in south Florida 23 years ago, the most beautiful Conservative synagogue in the area was Temple Beth Israel. I performed many weddings there. It was a sacred space. But Jews move, the building sold, it became a church, today it is on the market again. How can you say “there’s a place for us” if the Jews are always moving?
That is our problem. But there is a saying, “God does not create a lock without a key, and God does not create a problem without a solution.” There is a solution. Space and time are really the same. Build a great Temple. But do not build it in space. Build it in time. Build a Temple in time. The Jewish thinker Abraham Joshua Heschel, in one of his beautiful books The Sabbath, said that Shabbat is a Temple. It is a Temple in time. The Sabbath is holy time. It is a palace, but one that can be carried with us anywhere. I recall my trip to the former Soviet Union in the dead of winter. I was in Riga, Latvia Friday afternoon, with sunset approaching early. A refusenik family invited us over for Shabbat dinner. How could we make Shabbat in this place filled with Jew hatred? Somehow we found our way to this family’s apartment as they lit candles. We prayed using prayer books smuggled in by other American Jews. We sat down to a Shabbat meal of small fish and vegetables; there was no kosher meat and this family would never serve non-kosher food. We sang. And in an ugly apartment building in Riga, we built a Temple in time.
I am convinced that the key to Jewish survival and Jewish flourishing lies in the Sabbath. Long ago the great Zionist thinker Ahad HaAm wrote, “More than Israel has kept the Sabbath, the Sabbath has kept Israel.” When I mention the Sabbath, I do not necessarily mean an Orthodox Sabbath. I am not going to describe the thirty nine categories of forbidden Shabbat activity. I am not going to argue the technical point whether it is permissible to use your iphone on the Sabbath. I do use mine. Wherever my children are in the world, I call them and bless them on Friday night. It is part of my Sabbath observance.
Let me speak about building a Temple in time. Just as a Temple in space has a boundary, sacred walls, so our Temple in time has a boundary. The boundary is made of flames, candles we light to mark off Shabbat. Friday before sunset we light two or more candles. Saturday after dark we light one twisted candle with two or more wicks. How did we get from two candles to one twisted candle? That is a mystery I want to deal with shortly. To solve that mystery, I want to look at a kabbalistic understanding of the Shabbat. This contains some of my favorite ideas, ideas I have shared before. But I think this can give insight into how to make our Sabbath a true Temple in time.
Let us begin with a little kabbalah. According to kabbalistic thinking, there are masculine and there are feminine aspects of reality. They have become separated. And our job as Jews is to reunite the masculine and the feminine. The kabbalists applied this to Shabbat in a beautiful way. For Shabbat itself, this Temple in time, has masculine and feminine qualities, and if observed correctly, a moment where the masculine and the feminine are reunited.
Friday night – Judaism sees Shabbat on Friday night in feminine terms. She is a bride; she is a queen. On Friday nights we sing Lecha Dodi, bowing to the rear of the synagogue to welcome the Shabbat bride, chanting boee kalla boee kalla “Come Sabbath bride, come Sabbath bride.” We sometimes sing the beautiful hymn Shabbat HaMalka Sabbath Queen. In the Amida we say Friday night vayanuchu va, “we will rest in her.” What makes Friday night feminine? Professor Carol Gilligan of Harvard University wrote a book called In a Different Voice, about how women see the world differently than men. Women see the world in terms of relationships and connections. Friday night is about making connections with one another. The mystics symbolized the feminine aspects of reality by circles. In a circle no one is in front; it is egalitarian. Everyone is equal, everyone is connected. In Safed, the great kabbalistic center, the mystics used to literally go out together into the woods to welcome Shabbat. They connected not only with each other but with nature.
The best synagogues in the country welcome Shabbat with singing. Often they literally sit in a circle. Some do not use musical instruments but many others do. But the key to Friday night is making connections, joining together. I think it is wonderful that we begin Friday night with light hor d’oerves, sitting at tables, and connecting with one another. Perhaps we ought to rethink our Friday night services, finding a way to sit in a circle. But it is about connections.
The Friday night dinner is also about connections. That is why, if my children are not present, I call them and bless them wherever they are. That is why the meal is more leisurely, no distractions. Yes we have traditional rituals – candles, wine, hallah – but the most important part of Friday night is connections. The Sabbath is a bride and the people Israel is a groom. We are family joined together in song. The Temple in time begins with the feminine aspects of reality, joining together to welcome Shabbat.
Shabbat morning the mood is different. You can feel it. It is masculine. Gilligan said if females see the world in terms of connections, males see the world in terms of rules. In the Amida we say vayanuchu vo, “we will rest in him.” The mood is more formal. Mystics symbolized the masculine reality by line. When standing in a line, there is a front and a back, there are hierarchies, there are teachers and students. Rather than facing each other, we face the ark where the Torah is kept. Shabbat morning is centered on one great theme – the reading of the Torah. It is a time of teaching and learning. And I am proud of our synagogue, which has multiple sources of learning Torah on Shabbat morning. You can stay in the sanctuary, study with me, and then read a third of the traditional Torah reading. Or you can go into our chapel and hear the Torah reading in its entirety. And almost every week, you can stay after services in the youth lounge and study Torah with a lay volunteer.
After studying Torah, we go home for a second Shabbat meal, also marked with Kiddush and hallah. Since one is not permitted to cook on the Sabbath, many people eat cholent. Cholent is a thick stew allowed to simmer for almost twenty-four hours. After you eat it, you cannot move. It is the perfect lead in for a Sabbath nap. Let me throw out a challenge, how about having a cholent cooking contest in our synagogue one Shabbat morning.
If Friday night is feminine and Saturday morning is masculine, what is Saturday afternoon? The mood changes once again. We have napped, perhaps gone on a walk or for a swim. The synagogue services are short with a touch of sadness; Shabbat is running down. Much of the afternoon service is spent around a table where we eat the shalasheudas, the third Shabbat meal. But the feeling is that the afternoon is a foretaste of the Messianic age. Jewish tradition teaches that the Messiah will not come on Shabbat. Why? Because on Shabbat we do not need the Messiah, on Shabbat the Messiah is already here.
On Saturday afternoon the male and the female have joined together. We pray in the Amida vayanuchu vam, “we will rest in them.” The circle and the line have joined together. We can have both rules and relationships. The male and the female, the brokenness of the universe have been reunited. And so we get to the mystery of the candles. We start Shabbat with two candles, separate and distinct, standing for the masculine and the feminine aspects of reality. We end Shabbat with a twisted havdalah candle, the masculine and the feminine have come together as one. Inspired by our temple in time, we are ready to start the week.
There’s a time for us. The time is every seven days, all year long, year after year. It is about stopping our busy 24 – 7 lives. There is a story told of the great pianist Arthur Schnabel. Someone asked him how he was able to play the piano so perfectly, how the notes sound so good. Schabel answered, “The notes. Anybody can play the notes. The pauses between the notes – ah, that’s where art lies.” What is important is the pauses between the notes.
How do we create such a Temple in time, at least in our synagogue. I want to share some answers with you. But I need you to come back on kol nidre night. Then, I can share with you another lyric from West Side Story, “something’s coming, something good.”
May we each learn about the holiness of time. And may we each learn to build a temple in time in our own lives, and let us say Amen.
KOL NIDRE 2013 -5774
A little girl is sitting with her grandfather. She touches her grandfather’s wrinkled skin and innocently asks, “Grandpa, who made you?” The grandpa answers, “God made me long ago.” Then she walks over to the mirror, looks at her smooth skin, and asks, “Grandpa, who made me?” The grandpa answers, “God made you very recently.” The little girl ponders this a moment, and then says, “God is getting better, isn’t He.”
God is getting better. This is the perfect theme for kol nidre night. As I see it, there are three ways we can envision the world. The first way is the pagan view, the view that nothing gets better and nothing gets worse. Everything stays the same. I have often quoted the philosopher Fredrich Nietzsche, who wanted Europe to return to a pre-Christian or pagan outlook. Nietzsche taught what he called “eternal return.” Everything that happens is fated to happen over and over. We may as well live lives of great passion, for whatever we do, we are going to again and again. Life is just an eternal cycle where everything stays the same.
There is a second way to view the world. I was talking with my wife one evening as we shared some take-out soup from the kosher butcher. I know I should not speak of food on Yom Kippur, but it illustrates my point. It was beef barley soup, and it used to have nice chunks of beef. But this batch had half the beef that we had gotten in the past. It reminded me of that old Wendy’s commercial, “Where’s the beef.” My wife said poignantly, “Everything goes downhill.” It is the pessimistic view of the world. As William Butler Yeats beautifully put it in his poem The Second Coming, “Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold.” Or as people are more apt to say, “The world is going to hell in a handbasket.” By the way, nobody knows where that phrase comes from.
There is a third way to view the world. This is the Jewish way. The world is getting better. That is why the Israeli national anthem is Hatikva “the hope,” – the better days are yet to come. We are a faith built on hope, even when such hope could only come through a miracle. David Ben-Gurion said, “Anyone who does not believe in miracles is not a realist.” Perhaps this idea that things are going uphill is illustrated by a song from West Side Story. Tony sings on the day that he will later meet his beloved Maria, “Something’s coming, something good, if I can wait. Around the corner, or whistling down the river, come on deliver to me.” The future is one of hope.
So there are three ways to view the world. One – the great cycle, nothing ever changes. Two – the pessimist, everything is going downhill. Three – the optimist, the hope, the Jewish way, something good is coming. But how can we Jews be hopeful. It has been over fifty years since Simon Rawidowicz wrote his essay, “Israel, the Ever Dying People.” We Jews always believe we are at the end of the line. But we have not died yet. In the sixties Look Magazine did an article about the last American Jews. It claimed that the American Jewish community is dying. Notice, Look Magazine is gone but we are still here. The Torah promises that we Jews will survive and flourish, and I believe the Torah is right. When it comes to Judaism, something’s coming, something good.
Having said that, Judaism may survive but not every Jewish institution will survive. How many Jewish institutions are dying or dead because they no longer meet the needs of Jews? The simplest example is Jewish hospitals. Jewish hospitals were important at one point in history because Jewish doctors could not get appointments in non-Jewish hospitals. That need died, and with it the need for Jewish hospitals. Jewish defense and communal organizations such as The American Jewish Committee, the American Jewish Congress, and B’nai Brith are shrinking. Perhaps they no longer meet a Jewish need. At the same time, some Jewish organizations are flourishing. Look at J-Date. Look at Birthright. Look at Jewish studies on college campuses. And as much as I hate to admit, look at Chabad. They are flourishing because they meet a need.
What about synagogues? Some synagogues will flourish and some will die. It is based on the question – how well do they meet the needs of Jews? There was a time when people joined synagogues out of a sense of obligation. Some people still do. But for many Jews, there is only one question. Does this synagogue meet my needs? At the end of July I was privileged together with several other members of our synagogue to attend the Federation of Jewish Men’s Clubs convention near Boston. It was one of the better conventions I have attended, with over 500 men, many women, six cantors singing in harmony, a workshop for us on becoming more engaging, and many other programs. But one workshop I attended on the future of synagogue life was conducted by two rabbis – Rabbi and author Kerry Olinsky and Rabbi Baruch Halevi, who has implemented some fascinating programs at his synagogue north of Boston. The program was on the future of synagogue life.
I had read some of Rabbi Olinsky’s books but we had never met. He spoke about Jewish hospitals and J-date, what makes some Jewish institutions flourish and others die. According to Olinsky, it all started with napster. It all started with napster?! Napster was a way to download songs on your computer for free. You no longer had to buy the whole c.d., in fact with napster, you no longer had to buy anything. Music artists were being severely wounded in the pocketbook. Of course, napster was illegal and eventually closed. But the idea did not die. Steve Jobs took off with it. You could now download on your ipod whatever songs you wanted. People will pay for what they want, and not pay for what they do not want. And so the world is changing. Why buy a newspaper when you can get your news on the internet? Why go to the movies when you can stream movies onto your computer? And why support synagogues when you can get whatever Judaism you need on the web?
The synagogues that flourish will do so if they meet human needs. Here Rabbi Halevi took over the workshop. He is the rabbi of a flourishing Conservative synagogue in the northern suburbs of Boston. When he took over, two dying Conservative synagogues merged to form one dying Conservative synagogue. He shared how he turned his synagogue around. I will share some of those ideas shortly. But first, the question becomes, if synagogues are going to meet human needs, what are those human needs? What needs do synagogues have to meet? The kabbalah teaches that we live life on four levels, corresponding to the four levels of the soul. Let us look at each of those four levels, and ask the question – how can the synagogue meet our needs on each of those four levels.
The first level of the soul is the nefesh – literally from the Hebrew root for “rest.” We say on Shabbat God shavat vayenafash God “finished His work and rested.” This is the part of the soul closest to the body. Can a synagogue touch our bodies? Now I am not speaking about the classical shule with the pool. You do not join a synagogue like you would join a gym. Yet, Judaism is the most physical of religions. I realized this many years ago when I was invited to give a talk in a Classical Reform Temple. Everything was very formal, the organ played and people stood us or sat down in unison. Most of the men had uncovered heads and nobody wore a tallit. Something bothered me about the service, and it was not simply that there was far more English than Hebrew. We came to the prayer alenu, the ark was open, but they substituted an English prayer “The Adoration.” “Let us adore the everliving God and render praise unto him.” Nobody bowed, in fact nobody moved. What bothered me is that everything physical had been removed from the service. There was no movement. Jews are supposed to bow and shuckle and move when they pray. They wear yarmulkes and tallises, kissing the fringes. The wave a lulav and beat willow branches. On Yom Kippur the cantor bows all the way to the ground; in many synagogue everybody does it. We Jews worship God with our bodies.
One of the highlights of the Men’s Club convention was on Friday night, in the middle of services, when everybody got up to dance. Why can’t we dance during services? How can we worship with our bodies? At Rabbi HaLevi’s synagogue when you walk in, you are greeted by the smell of a coffee house. It is as if someone moved Starbucks into the synagogue on Shabbat morning. You can sit in comfortable sofas and chairs enjoying a cup of coffee and a pastry, before going into services. Then you can go into a regular Conservative service, or into a chanting drumming service, or into a Jewish yoga class. There are many ways to serve God, as the Psalmist says, “with all our limbs.”
The second level of the soul is called ruach often translated as wind or spirit. The kabbalists identified it with our emotions. Synagogues ought to touch our emotions, both at joyous times like Simchat Torah and Purim, and sad times like Yom HaShoah and Tisha B’Av. At the Men’s Club convention there were six cantors, four men and two women, whose voices blended together in wonderful harmony. Rabbi Chuck Simon met with the cantors in advance and gave them instructions. This is not a performance. I want you to put together Shabbat services in which people participate and sing. And there are two other rules. I want you to make people laugh and I want you to make people cry.
The synagogue ought to be the place we go to laugh and to cry, to share our happiest and our saddest moments. I want to celebrate new babies and weddings and anniversaries and graduations. Let everybody who has a simcha help sponsor the Saturday Kiddush or the Friday night hors d’oeuvres. I want the synagogue to be a place to mourn the sad moments. That is why we run a daily minyan every morning and every evening of the year, so that people can come say kaddish. We continue to pray for people who are sick – if people want we can say the name in English and well as Hebrew. And I am making one little change. When people receive an aliya in commemoration of a yahrzeit, I want to announce who the yahrzeit is for. Synagogue ought to touch us emotionally, as a place to share the happy and the sad.
The third level of the soul is the neshama literally “the breath.” God made man and breathed into him a breath of life. This is the level of the soul that separates us from the animal world. Aristotle called us humans “rational animals.” The synagogue needs to appeal to our intellect, to our mind. It ought to be a center of learning. It ought to provide answers to life’s most vexing questions: “Is there a God?” “Why are we here?” “What happens when we die?” “What are our obligations to others?” “What do we owe our family?” “Why be Jewish?” “What ideas has Judaism given the world?” There should be constant opportunities to learn.
This is a major part of my job, perhaps the most important part. A rabbi is a teacher of Torah. The Shabbat morning service should be centered around teaching the Torah. In Rabbi Halevi’s synagogue they had all the alternatives, but everybody “the daveners, and drummers and yoga doers” come together at the end for a message from the rabbi. The rabbi said that his messages were not long, perhaps fifteen minutes. But his job was to teach Torah.
Synagogues need to offer opportunities to learn. Today we offer almost every Shabbat morning learning after services – a lively discussion on a topic usually led by lay volunteers. I need more such volunteers. In my vision for our synagogue, I also want us to consider holding our religious school on Shabbat instead of Sunday. On Sunday our children learn about Shabbat; on Saturday and Friday night they experience Shabbat. I dream of a synagogue filled each Saturday with adults and children, all of them learning together.
There is a fourth level of the soul in Judaism, known as chaya, literally life. This is the part of our soul furthest from the physical or material world. It is the spirit. This is the part for people who tell me, “Rabbi, I don’t care about religion, I care about spirituality.” “Rabbi, I am not religious, I am spiritual.” And so people turn to New Age religions and native American traditions, to Buddhism and Sufism, to India and the Far East, to feminism and environmentalism, in their quest for spirituality. The one place they fail to look is a place that has been a source of spirituality for over three thousand years. I want spiritual seekers to come to Judaism. I want spiritual seekers to walk into synagogue. And if they do not want to come, or cannot come in, I want to reach out to them. I have mentioned to our officers; perhaps it is time to webcast our services on the internet. Let anybody, a shut-in, someone in a hospital, someone travelling, or someone who is simply curious, tune into our synagogue. Let us be a source for spiritual seekers.
What is this spirituality everyone is speaking about? I believe it is reaching beyond ourselves, our egos, our needs, to something greater. I sometimes look at it as a wave on the ocean. We can focus on each individual wave. But at some point we must realize that a wave is part of something bigger and grander; it is part of the ocean itself. The individual wave will eventually break upon the shore, it will cease to exist as an individual. But it will always exist as part of the greater ocean. So too, we are part of something greater than ourselves.
I find attending synagogue can be a something deeply spiritual. How so? Because when I say the same Hebrew prayers that are being said all over the world, that have been said for centuries, together with hundreds of other Jews, I am transformed. When the cantor chants kol nidre, it is something far bigger than me. I move beyond my petty concerns and join something much greater. That is why I love tradition and am very reluctant to make major changes. I want to be linked to others.
So what do synagogues need to do? They need to appeal to us on the physical level? They need to appeal to us on the emotional level? They need to appeal to us on the intellectual level? And they need to appeal to us on the spiritual level? Each of us has a body, emotions, a mind, and a spirit. And I see around the country synagogues that appeal to each of those four parts of us. I would like to explore how our synagogue, here in the suburbs of Fort Lauderdale, could better appeal to people on each of these levels.
There are synagogues that are doing this and they are flourishing. Judaism is not dead, nor is it dying. There are exciting synagogues that are attracting all ages throughout this country, throughout the world. In fact, I really believe that the words from West Side Story are coming true, and can come true here. “Something’s coming, something good.” The future will be greater than the present. May God help us as we build a synagogue that will appeal to all four levels of our soul, and let us say

YIZKOR 5774 – 2013
An elderly widow and widower meet in a nursing home, fall in love, and decide to marry. Extremely happy as they plan their wedding, they make their way across the street to the local Walgreen’s Drug Store. They ask the pharmacist, do you have every kind of medication here? Yes says the pharmacist. Do you have Depends? Yes says the pharmacist. Do you have walkers and canes? Yes says the pharmacist. Do you have Viagra? Of course says the pharmacist. Wonderful says the couple. We are getting married. We want to register here.
Today I want to speak about marriage. I want to speak about marriage because in one month I will be privileged to perform a wedding ceremony here between my daughter Aliza and her beloved Darren. This is the first time I am marrying off one of my children, although I have performed many weddings of young people who have grown up in my synagogue. I know that many people are cynical about marriage. George Bernard Shaw famously said, “When two people are under the influence of the most violent, most insane, most delusive, and most transient of passions, they are required to swear that they will remain in that excited, abnormal, and exhausting condition continuously until death do them part.” I know that a lot of people do not believe in marriage. I meet people all the time in long term committed relationships, sometimes living together for years, and I say, “There is a huppah in my car; let me make it legal.” They often answer, “Rabbi, if we need you we know where to find you.”
I do believe in marriage and today I want to tell you why. Let me turn once again to the Broadway Show West Side Story. Tony meets Maria secretly in the bridal shop where she works. Using the mannequins they imagine their future wedding. They sing “Make of our hands one hand. Make of our hearts one heart. Make of our vows once last vow. Only death will part us now.” They both know that it is a wedding that probably can never take place. He is a Jet and she is the sister of a Shark. They come from different gangs, different ethnic groups, that hate each other. It is Romeo and Juliet moved to the upper West Side of New York City. But they dream about their wedding.
Today I want to talk about marriage. Why get married? I realize that it always risky to speak about marriage. There are people here who are not married, and some who will never marry. There are people here who tried marriage, maybe two or three times, and it did not work. There are people here in bad marriages, debating whether to get out. There are gays and lesbians here who long to get married. Some have married in other states, while others are waiting to see if Florida changes its laws. I understand people’s individual situations. But I still feel a need, on this Yom Kippur before my daughter’s wedding, to speak about marriage.
There are issues I am not going to speak about today. I am not going to speak about divorce, as important a topic as that is. Some marriages need to end and Judaism allows them to end with minimum of fault. According to the Talmud, a man could divorce his wife if she burns his breakfast. To equalize it, let us say that a woman can divorce her husband if he burns the steaks on the grill. But I do not want to talk about divorce; I want to talk about the marriages that work.
I am not going to speak about intermarriage, as important a topic as that is. I know that about half the marriages involving a Jew also involve a non-Jew. How we as a Jewish community include intermarried couples is a vital, important issue? But it is not the issue I want to deal with today.
I am not going to speak about gay marriage, as important a topic as that is. In state after state and country after country, gays are being permitted to marry. My kids tell me in a generation it will be a non-issue. I do not see it happening in Florida any time soon. But the issue of gay marriage leads into what I want to speak about. Almost ten years ago I was invited to give a lecture in Mexico City at a pro-family conference. It was mostly family values people of the Christian right, plus some Mormons, far more conservative than me. But I felt that I could present a Jewish perspective on love and marriage. And so my talk, in English but simultaneously translated into Spanish, was well received by many people including newspaper reporters.
As one of the few Jews at this conference, I was invited to a planning meeting for future conferences. One of the organizers began to speak passionately about gay marriage. I remember her words well, “The biggest problem facing the family today is that gays want to marry.” So I opened my mouth. I said, “The biggest problem facing the family today is not that gays want to marry, it is that nobody else does.” Sometimes I say tongue-in-cheek, it seems that only gays want to marry. So I want to speak about a man and a woman and I want to answer the question, why get married?
What can I say to young people such as my daughter and her husband-to-be as they prepare for their wedding? Does anybody remember the 1996 movie Up Close and Personal? You may know it from the beautiful Celine Dion song “Because You Loved Me,” played throughout the movie. Michelle Pfeiffer plays a young television reporter; Robert Redford plays her boss, then mentor, then lover, and eventually her husband. There is one great scene. Pfeiffer’s character asks Redford’s character, “Marry me.” He answers, “I’ve been married. Twice. Bad idea.” She says, “I want you around in the morning.” He answers, “You already have me in the morning.” Finally she says, “I want to know you’re legally required to be there.” “Legally required to be there.” I guess she convinces him because in the next scene they get married.
People can live together without getting married. People can make promises to one another. But there is something about that legal commitment that matters. It makes a difference to stand before God and the community and make a commitment. When a couple stands under a huppah before the people nearest and dearest to him and her, when the man hands a woman a ring, and says, harei at mekudeshet li betabaat zo kedat Moshe v’Yisrael, “Behold with this ring you are betrothed to me in accordance with the laws of Moses and Israel”, it matters. That public commitment is important.
Where does this idea come from? To understand I want to go all the way back to the first few chapters of the Torah. God creates a world and day after day God sees that it is good. God finishes the world and sees it is very good. God makes a garden and plants a man in it. Adam simply means “a man,” it is generic man. Then, for the first time, God sees something that is not good. “It is not good to be alone.” The man in the garden had everything he could ever want, but he had nobody. And, to quote a colleague of mind, “to have everything and nobody is to have nothing.” Being alone is not good.
So God makes all kinds of animals and brings them to the man. The man loves the animals, but none is a fitting helper for the man. Then something bizarre happens. God causes the man to fall asleep, takes his rib, and builds a woman. Woman was made from man’s rib. Actually, as we will see shortly, the woman was made from something more. We will get to that, but for now, let’s focus on the rib. Man has finally found a fitting partner. The Midrash loved taking off on this story. One Midrash – a non-Jew tells Rabban Gamliel, your God’s a thief. Why? He stole a rib from Adam when he was asleep. The rabbi’s daughter says, let me answer. She tells the non-Jew, suppose a thief stole something from you and replaced it with something even more valuable, stole silver and replaced it with gold. I would love such a thief. That is what God did; he took a rib and left something more valuable.
The man has found a proper partner. He called her Chava Eve, literally “life.” She would be the mother of all life. She is not a second class citizen but his equal. To quote the great Orthodox thinker Rabbi Joseph Soloveichik, “Because the woman is not a shadow of man but an independent person, because the woman projects a totally different existential image, her companionship helps man to liberate himself from loneliness.”
Then comes one of the most important verses in the Torah. In fact, a colleague once accused me of being a fundamentalist on this one verse. “Therefore a man shall leave his mother and father and cleave onto his wife, and they shall be one flesh.” Notice what it does not say. It does not say a man shall leave his mother and father for a series of one night stands, for a series of hook ups, to sow his wild oats, or to spread his seed around. Wild animals – lions and tigers and bears – if they are male, leave their parents and hook up with any female in heat. Animals are trying to maximize their chances for genetic survival. But humans – we are different. We are to be holy. In fact, the Hebrew word for wedding is kiddushin, literally “holiness.” Holiness is to rise above the animal within us. And one way we do that is through marriage.
But wait a second. Yes, Adam and Eve came together. But did they have a wedding? If they did, it must have had a very short guest list. They did have a wedding. In fact, the Midrash teaches that in preparation for the wedding God braided Eve’s hair. God walked Eve down the aisle. I imagine God provided the music for this first ever wedding. These ancient Rabbinic legends teach that Adam and Eve not only came together, they came together in a very public way.
But why? Why should they get married? We have already learned one reason, “it is not good for man to be alone.” People need people. The book of Ecclesiastes teaches, “Two are better than one, because they have a reward for their labor. If one falls, the other can lift them up.” I can say that after almost 34 years of marriage this is true, if one falls the other can help lift them up.
I believe there is another reason why the Torah encourages marriage. It is reflected in Michelle Pfeiffer’s words, “I want to know you’re legally required to be there.” Marriage is a way to encourage men to stick around and be present to raise children. Could women raise children alone? Of course, many do. But all things being equal, the healthiest situation is when a man has made that public commitment to be present, be around, be part of the child’s life. I see too many fathers who walk away. And when a father disappear, unless he is abusive, it is rarely good for the child. Again, marriage is about commitments.
And so I believe in marriage as an ideal. Not a perfect ideal; some marriage do not work and some should not work. But marriage as a public ceremony before God and the community is an ideal. How long should it last? In 1947 a woman named Frances Gerety worked as a copy writer for NW Ayer and Sons, the oldest advertising agency in the United States. She was asked to come up with a saying to help sell diamonds for De Beers. She invented a pithy little saying, “A diamond is forever.” The saying took off, eventually named the best advertising slogan of the twentieth century.. If a diamond is forever, and a diamond represents a commitment to marriage, then a marriage is forever. The irony is that Frances Gerety never married.
How long should marriages last? In West Side Story, the first time Tony and Maria sing “One Hand, One Heart” the lyrics are “only death will part us now.” The second time they sing it the lyrics change “Even death won’t part us now.” They envisioned a marriage that will continue not only in this world but onto the next. I recently befriended a woman who is a deeply religious Mormon. She speaks with great love about her husband; it took me a long time to realize that he has been dead for over seven years. But this woman has found great comfort. They had what the Mormons call Eternal marriage; she and her husband went into a Mormon Temple, off limits to non-Mormons like me, and performed a ceremony called Celestial marriage. They will truly be together forever. Many Jews also believe in such eternal marriage, even if we have no such ceremony. We expect to be with our beloved not just in this world but the next. (By the way, if you found love twice in this world, don’t ask me which one you will spend eternity with. Some things must remain a mystery.)
I mentioned how Mormons believe in Celestial marriages, marriages for all eternity. I asked my friend a question, what about before you were born? Were your souls connected before you were born? She never heard of such an idea in the Mormon faith. But it is a Jewish idea, particularly in kabbalah. To demonstrate, I have to return to the Biblical story of Adam being put to sleep and God fashioning Eve from a rib. The Midrash has another interpretation of this story that the kabbalah loves.
In this Midrash woman was not fashioned from a rib. She was fashioned from the side, from half of the man. According to this understanding, the original Adam was both male and female, androgynous, even having two faces. God split the man-woman in half, forming two separate people. When it talks about a man cleaving to his wife, it really means that a man finds his other half that he has lost. The mystics of the kabbalah loved this idea. Each of us has a beshert, one that we were separated from in the beginning of time. The Talmud teaches, “Rav Judah said in the name of Rav, forty days before the formation of the fetus a voice cries out from heaven, this man for this woman.” (Sotah 2b) Marriage is about finding our beshert, the one we were meant to find. Marriage is about putting back together what was separated in the Garden of Eden. How do you find your soulmate? That is the great mystery. Perhaps on J-Date. That is how my daughter met her fiancée.
So what do I tell my daughter and her husband to be? I want them to understand that marriage is not an arbitrary decision. On the contrary, I believe it is part of how God wants us to live. I believe it is something holy. And I believe that, like a diamond, if we are lucky, it is forever. It started as the Talmud says, before we were born. And it will continue after we are gone.
We are preparing to say our Yizkor services. Yizkor is based on the idea that we are connected to people we love, even after they are no longer in this world. We remember parents and siblings, sadly some of us remember children. We remember grandparents and other family members, we remember friends and the victims of the Holocaust and the martyrs of our people. But for many of us, we remember a beloved partner, someone who shared a life with us and is no longer here. We remain connected to them. Let us reemphasize the words from West Side Story, “even death won’t part us now.” May the memories of our beloved be for a blessing, and let us say Amen.