Rabbi Michael Gold

Jewish Family & Sexuality Issues-Rabbi Michael Gold

2014 High Holiday Sermons

There was a rabbi who always delivered the same sermon on Rosh Hashana. Year after year, word by word, the sermon was precisely the same. The Executive Board met and decided something must be done. A group of officers was chosen to meet with the rabbi. Rather nervously, they came into his office and said, “Rabbi, I do not know if you realize it, but every year you deliver the exact same sermon on Rosh Hashana.” The rabbi looked a bit puzzled, “Do I? I did not realize it. But tell me, what is the sermon about?” The officers sat puzzled for several moments. None of them could remember what the sermon was about. Finally the rabbi said, “If not one of you remembers it, I guess I better deliver it again.”
I want to reassure the congregation that this is my twenty-fifth set of High Holidays here. For twenty-five years I have written original sermons every year. (No, I do not get my sermons from a sermon service – “Sermons R Us”. I write new ones.) This year I thought I might make an exception. After 25 years I thought I would re-deliver my first Rosh Hashana sermon. Don’t worry, I am not. That sermon 25 years ago was called “Judaism: A Religion of Action.” I spoke about the late Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s words, how Judaism demands a leap of action. Judaism is not about what you believe but what you do.
Why not simply repeat that sermon? Twenty-five years have gone by, the world has changed, our synagogue has changed, and I have changed. More and more I have explored Judaism at a deeper level. I have explored Jewish philosophy, Jewish theology, and Jewish mysticism. I have become more obsessed, not with the question how to act Jewish, but rather the question why act Jewish. What difference does it make to the universe if my wife or my daughter light Shabbat candles? What difference does it make to the universe if I put on tefillin every morning? Does the universe care that I have given up eating cheeseburgers for my entire adult life? And does the universe care that you are not at work today, but here, listening to my words, saying these prayers, and hearing the shofar blown? In 1990 I was interested in how to be Jewish. In 2014 I am interested in why be Jewish.
I want to share an answer over the next two days. The answer goes back to the very structure of the universe we live in. What kind of universe do we live in? Do we live in a one story universe? Or do we live in a two story universe? One story or two stories? Let me explain what those phrases mean. They are a metaphor, that I heard used by a Professor of Religion Charles B. Jones. Professor Jones teaches about religion at the Catholic University of America. I was asked to teach next year a course at Broward College called Introduction to Religion. Now I can teach a great deal about Judaism; I can teach a little about Christianity. But to teach about Religion as a generic topic. I better do some learning. I ordered Professor Jones’ course from The Teaching Company – 24 lectures on religion. And I loved it. I even emailed him, thanking him for the course.
The first question in any religion course is – how do you define religion? It is very difficult, try it. Professor Jones used a metaphor to help. He said that non-religious people, atheists and secularists, materialists and humanists, live in a one story universe. Religious people live in a two story universe. Let me explain. What is a one story universe? All that exists is matter and energy in space and time. All of reality is bits of material moving in space. There is nothing more. One of history’s great scientists, Simon-Pierre Laplace, once commented that if you knew the location and exact movement of every particle in the universe, you can predict the entire future. All that exists is particles in motion. Laplace wrote a book about the universe and gave a copy to Napoleon. Napoleon told Laplace, “I do not see God written anywhere in your book.” Laplace replied to Napoleon, “I have no need for such a hypothesis.” Laplace lived in a one-story universe. There is matter in motion and nothing more.
Many scientists and philosophers today live in a one-story universe. Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and the late Christopher Hitchens made fortunes defending atheism. All that exists is matter in motion. Or as I heard one rabbi describe these militant atheists, “There is no God and I am his prophet.” Karl Marx lived in a one-dimensional universe, as did Sigmund Freud. Friedrich Nietzsche, who declared God is Dead, lived in a one-story universe. And that other great philosopher, John Lennon, may his memory be for a blessing, taught us, “Imagine there’s no heaven, it’s easy if you try. No hell below us, above us only sky. … Nothing to kill or die for. And no religion too.” Did John Lennon live in a one-story universe? I do not know; he certainly searched for the second story with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. He seems to be one of those people who rejected religion and replaced it with spirituality.
So, continuing with Professor Jones’ metaphor, what is a two-story universe? We can see a one story-universe. But those who believe in a two-story universe say that there is something more. There is another dimension to reality beyond matter in motion. There is a spiritual reality, something that goes beyond the material. That spiritual reality has as many names as there are religions. To Jews it is God or Yud-Hay-Vav-Hay. To Jewish mystics it is Ein Sof and the sefirot. To Christians it is the logos. To Mormons it is Our Heavenly Father. To Moslems it is Allah. To Hindus it is Brahman. To Buddhists it is the Eightfold Way. To Taoists it is the Tao, simply the way. To Native Americans and other early religions it is animism. To many people, Jews and non-Jews, it is angels and demons, spirits and a plethora of divine beings. To Jews, the second story is also the neshama or soul, and the olam haba or world to come.
What about the John Lennons, the spiritual seekers of the world? What about all the people who tell me, and I hear this probably once a week, “Rabbi, I am not religious; I am spiritual.” I know someone who recently signed up with Match.Com. He said that he was looking for a Jewish woman. Every Jewish woman who responded to him said that she was “Jewish, not religious but spiritual.” What is that spirituality that they are seeking? What are the mantras and the chakras and the crystals and the tarot cards and the harmony of the spheres? They all are part of the second-story, the dimension of reality that goes beyond the material, the description of a spiritual dimension to existence.
So we have two views of the universe. There are those who live in a one-story universe. There is matter in motion, atoms in space, and nothing else. What does it mean to be a human being in such a one-story universe? What does it mean to be a Jew in such a one-story universe? And then there are those who live in a two-story universe. There is more to reality than matter in motion. There is a spiritual dimension to existence. What does it mean to be a human being in such a two-story universe? What does it mean to be a Jew in such a two-story universe? By the way, if it is not obvious, I chose to become a rabbi and a religious Jew because I believe with all my heart that we live in a two-story universe. But I wish to be fair to those who disagree with me.
Let me begin with the question, what does it mean to be a human being in a one-story universe? There is matter in motion, and absolutely nothing else. We are made of matter, atoms and molecules, cells and tissues. We have a brain but no soul; our mind is simply brainwaves. We are here as a result of random forces – evolution, mutations, a long history of randomness. When I am teaching this to children, I sometimes use the example of a tornado sweeping through a junk yard, throwing tons of junk into the air, and it coming down to form a perfect Boeing 747. If everything is matter, then we are here by random chance. And when we die, the atoms and molecules that make us up scatter to the wind. We absolutely cease to exist, while our atoms randomly become part of other beings.
If we live in such a random universe, what is our purpose, why are we here? If we live in a one-story universe, we have no purpose. We live in an absurd universe. When I was in college everybody was studying existentialism. We fell in love with Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus. They taught that we exist in an absurd universe. We were thrust here by blind forces beyond are will. Camus compared humanity to the ancient Greek character Sisyphus who pushed a rock up a hill only to have it roll down so he could push it up again – forever. Life is absurd. And we have the freedom to do with our lives whatever we want. There are no right or wrong answers. There is no God and there is no purpose to life. What should you do? Whatever you want. You are free. Or as Sartre put it, “Man is condemned to be free.”
And why be good in such a one-story universe? The Talmud tells the story of one of the great rabbis Elisha ben Abulya, who gave up his Jewish faith. One day Rabbi Meir was speaking with him while he was riding on a horse on Shabbat, absolutely forbidden by Jewish law. They reached the Shabbat boundary and Elisha ben Abulya said to Rabbi Meir, “You have to stop here.” Rabbi Meir stopped and Elisha ben Abulya kept riding. Rabbi Meir’s students challenged him for talking to a heretic, and he answered, “Talking to him is like eating a pomegranate. I swallow the seeds and throw out the rind.”
Why did Elisha ben Abulya reject his faith? Tradition said that he watched a little boy climb up on a tree to get a bird’s egg. His father said, “Chase the mother bird away.” By the way, for two commandments in the Torah are we promised a long life – honoring father and mother, and sending the mother bird away. The little boy obeyed his father, chasing away the mother bird. He grabbed the egg but then lost his footing, falling out of the tree and dying. When Elisha ben Abulya saw this, he cried out, Leit Din v’Leit Dyan. “There is no judgment and there is no judge.” Elisha ben Abulya rejected his faith because he decided we live in a universe without laws or a lawgiver, without right and wrong. In Jewish tradition he became known as Acher – simply “other one.”
So what does it mean to live in a one-story universe? It means living in a universe where we are here by random chance. We have no goal and no purpose except whatever we create ourselves. We have no laws, no right and wrong. And when we die, the matter that makes us up is scattered back out into the universe. That is why I do not believe that we live in a one-story universe. That is why I believe that there must be a spiritual dimension to reality.
What does it mean to be a human being in a two-story universe? It means that we are not here as the result of blind, random forces. We are here because something meant for us to be here. There is a will behind our existence. Call that will God, or call it something else, perhaps the spiritual reality. But somewhere there is a mind, and that mind was behind our creation. Certainly one can believe in science, one can accept the big bang and evolution. But these are tools of God or whatever you call that spiritual being. Think about it; matter left to its own accord will randomly fall apart. A new Boeing 747, after one hundred years, will become a pile of junk in a junk yard. But piles of junk do not become Boeing 747s unless some force, some will, was behind them. And we humans are here by divine will.
What is our purpose? Members of my congregation have heard me talk for almost twenty-five years about a purpose, that we were sent into this world with a mission to perform. When the great Hasidic Rebbe Zusya was dying, he started to cry. His students asked why he was crying, when he had lived such a wonderful life. He responded, “When I die, they are not going to ask me why I was not Moses. I was not sent here to be Moses. They are not going to ask me why I was not Rabbi Akiba. I was not sent here to be Rabbi Akiba. I am crying because they are going to ask me why I was not Zusya. I was sent here to be Zusya.”
I believe the existentialists are wrong. We were not thrown into this life with no purpose. Our lives are not merely rolling a stone up a hill and having it roll down, over and over. We have a purpose. What about the law? The great novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky famously said in his novel The Brothers Karamazov, “If there is no God, then everything is permissible.” Those who live in a two-story universe believe that there is a God, and therefore not everything is permissible. There is right and wrong, good and bad. And as we will say in the beautiful prayer, “We will pass before him like sheep, and we will be judged.”
Finally, if you believe in a two-story universe, that there is a spiritual dimension to being, then what happens when we die? Yes we have a body, and our body will break apart and scatter to the wind. Our body is mere dust. But there is more to us than a body. We have a soul or spirit. I recent spoke with a person in this congregation who had a tragic loss. They asked me why. And I responded, I do not know why. I only know that your loved one was put on this earth for a purpose. And I believe that now that your loved one’s soul is back with the one who placed it here. I hope my words gave comfort.
But I have still not answered the question I started with. What does it mean to be Jewish in a one-story universe, and what does it mean to be Jewish in a two-story universe. I have an answer but I am out of time. I invite you to come back tomorrow to talk about Judaism in a two-storied universe. May God help us see and appreciate the spiritual level of existence
And let us say, Amen.

A priest, a minister, and a rabbi were playing golf. The foursome ahead of them was extremely slow, so growing tired of waiting, they spoke to the superintendent. He answered, “I apologize, but the four ahead of you are all blind. The clergy were taken aback. The priest crossed himself and said, “Blind. May they have our Lord’s blessing.” The minister quoted the book of Psalms “Blind. May God open the eyes of the blind”. The rabbi responded, “Blind. So why can’t they play at night?”
I debated whether to share that story. Is it insulting to the blind? I think it is more insulting to rabbis. But somehow I can really see a rabbi saying that. We Jews tend to see the world a little bit differently than our Christian friends. If the entire world sees a problem from a particular angle, we Jews tend to see the problem from a different angle. We are called Hebrews – Ivrim. Our father Abraham was called Avraham HaIvri – Abraham the Hebrew. The word Ivri – Hebrew means across, on the other side, from a different direction. The Midrash teaches that if the whole world was on one side, our father Abraham was on the other. Abraham saw the world from a different direction. To be a Jew is to give a different perspective to the world. That was true if your name was Isaiah and you lived in Biblical times, that was true if your name was Maimonides and you lived in the Middle Ages, and that was true if your name was Einstein and you lived in modern times. In fact, let me turn to Einstein for a moment.
I just finished reading a fascinating book by a philosophy professor named Steven Gimbel. The book is called Einstein’s Jewish Science. The book asks the question – did Einstein discover the laws of relativity because he was a Jew? Did his Jewishness gave him certain insights into the universe? The Nazis utterly rejected Einstein’s theories. They called relativity Jewish science. Only Aryan science was legitimate. That was pure anti-Semitism, evil to its core. That is not what Gimbel’s book is about. His concern is whether Einstein’s way of seeing the universe, based on his upbringing, caused Einstein to have the insights that led to relativity? Gimbel claims that his Jewishness absolutely influenced Einstein. He compared Einstein to other scientists from the past. Rene Descartes was a Catholic and his discoveries reflect his Catholic upbringing. Isaac Newton was a Protestant and his discoveries reflect his Protestant upbringing. Einstein was a Jew, and it took a Jew to come up with relativity.
How so? Let me summarize in a nutshell. How do Jews see the world? We often speak about “two Jews, three opinions.” We have been telling the same joke about the rabbi who tells two arguing congregants, “you are right and you are right.” Someone else asks, “How can they both be right?” The rabbi answers, “You are right too.” For Jews, more than one person can be right. Look at how Christians, particularly Protestants, read the Bible. There is one correct interpretation. Look at how Jews read the Bible. There are multiple interpretations. The Talmud teaches that there are seventy ways to understand every verse. Jews see the world from multiple perspectives. We Jews love to argue. Look at any page of Talmud. It is filled with arguments. Who wins the arguments? Usually the Talmud does not say. Both opinions are set down. There is no one right way, no one truth. There are multiple interpretations and multiple perspectives. And the Talmud describes the arguments with, elu v’elu divrei Eloheim Hayim – “These and these are the words of the living God.”
Apply this idea to the universe. Einstein discovered relativity with a claim that there is not one perspective to viewing the universe. The universe does not sit in something called ether, with everything moving relative to that ether. Einstein says there is no ether. There is no one perspective. Rather there are multiple perspectives, or as Einstein would say, multiple frames of reference. Many others came close to discovering relativity. But it took a Jew to come up with the idea. A Jew would be able to envision a world with multiple perspectives. Jews, whether Spinoza or Einstein, Freud or Derrida, can see the world from totally different perspectives. Perhaps that is why the world needs the Jews. The world needs someone to be the Ivri, to be on the other side, to challenge common wisdom, to see the world through a totally new perspective.
That brings me to our main topic. What does it mean to be a Jew in a one-story universe? And what does it mean to be a Jew in a two-story universe? Remember how I defined a one-story universe yesterday. All that exists is matter in motion through space. There is no God, no soul, no heaven and no hell, no angels and no spiritual forces. All that exists is this material world. What is a two-story universe? It is a world with a dimension that goes beyond the physical. Call it God or Yud-Hey-Vav-Hey or Ein Sof or Shechina. There is a spiritual dimension to life.
What does it mean to be a Jew in a one-story universe? What does it mean to be a Jew if you are an atheist, a materialist, a secularist, or a humanist? Let us compare this with other religions. I do not believe you can be a Christian in a one-story universe. To be a Christian is to believe in Christ, the Messiah, the son of God. I do not believe you can be a Moslem in a one-story universe. The very word Moslem means “to submit”, to submit to the will of Allah. I do not believe you can be a Buddhist in a one-story universe. To be a Buddhist is to accept the eightfold way as a fundamental law of the universe. But I do believe you can be a Jew in a one-story universe. You can be an atheist-materialist-secularist-humanist Jew, identifying with the Jewish people while rejecting any spiritual dimension to life. In fact the Jews I mentioned – Spinoza and Einstein, Freud and Derrida, were all Jews who lived in a one-story universe. David Ben-Gurion, first Prime Minister of Israel, believed in the Jewish people and the Jewish state, but rejected the idea of the Jewish God. He lived in a one-story universe and changed the history of Judaism.
Did you know that there are synagogues made up of totally secular Jews. There is a whole movement called humanistic Judaism, founded by the late Rabbi Sherwin Wine of Detroit. I believe this type of synagogue can be found in Boca. You can go there on Yom Kippur, and you will find readings and poems celebrating the contributions of the Jews to humanity. But you will not find prayers, at least prayers to God. There will be no blessings, no kaddish, no untaneh tokef. Anything resembling a prayer will be addressed “To Whom It May Concern.” These humanistic synagogues tried to become part of the Reform Movement. The Reform Movement rejected them. The Reform Movement may be liberal about Jewish practice, but to be a Reform synagogue, you must profess some kind of belief in God.
Yet there are Jews living in a one-story universe. What do they give the world? As I mentioned above, such Jews see the world from a different perspective. They are the consummate outsiders. It took such a Jew to come up with relativity. I often wonder why so many Jews, a disproportionate number, have won Nobel Prizes. Many if not most of these Nobel Laureates were not religious in any traditional sense. Yet, to win a Nobel Prize, you must develop a unique perspective; you must see the world in a different way. These secular Jews do not simply accept the common wisdom. If everybody sees the world from one side, these people, like Abraham our father see the world from another.
We need every Jew, not just believing Jews but secular Jews. So often they see the world from a unique perspective. Yesterday I spoke of Elisha ben Abulia, the Jewish heretic who said leit din v’leit dayan – “There is no judgment and no judge.” The Talmud speaks about him over and over. A modern rabbi, Milton Steinberg z”l wrote a novel about him called As a Driven Leaf. From this rabbi who rejected his Judaism, the Talmud learns insights. Or as Rabbi Meir put it, “It is like a pomegranate; I throw out the rind and eat the seeds.” We have learned that a secular Jew like Einstein can give us unique insights about the universe. So if you are here today but you want to call yourself a non-believing Jew, a cultural Jew, if you live in a one-story universe, you are welcome. Please join us in our synagogue.
Having said that, I consider myself a Jew who lives in a two-story universe. I believe that there is more out there than mere matter in space, more than materialism. I believe there are things in the universe that cannot be measured in a laboratory. I believe that there are questions that science cannot answer. How did the world get here? Why am I conscious? What makes an act good or evil? What happens when I die? Economist and religious mystic Kenneth Boulding famously said, “Science is the art of substituting unimportant questions which can be answered for important ones that cannot.” There are important questions that cannot be answered if I believe in a one-story universe. That is why I believe in a two-story universe.
What does it mean to be a Jew in a two-story universe? Yesterday I spoke about what is means to be a human being in such a universe. It means that humans are not here by random chance; they have a purpose. Let me say the same thing about the Jews. I believe that the Jewish people exist in the world not by random chance; I believe we have a purpose. I believe Jews have a role to play in the world. I take seriously the words of the ancient prophet Isaiah, that we Jews are to be an or l’goyim – “a light unto the nations.” I believe there is a reason that the Jewish people have survived, even as enemies arose to destroy us in every generation. It did not happen by random chance.
What is this role that the Jewish people have in the world? The Jewish people, through their behavior and way of life, must set an example of how to live in a world where every human being is created in the image of God. Every human being has a God-given dignity. We are to be the carriers of a message to humanity. It is a message that humanity often does not want to hear. That is why it is so easy for so many to hate the Jews; it is the Jewish message to the world that they hate. And so anti-Semitism is growing all over the world. When I visited Paris a few years ago, I was told by the local rabbi, do not walk in public with a yarmulke. But Jews have persisted in spite of the Jew haters in saying to the world: every human being is created in the image of God and must be treated with dignity.
Let me share a simple example. The state of Israel has a policy called tahor haneshek – literally “the purity of arms.” It is official Israeli policy to do everything humanly possible to use weapons in as ethical a way as possible. Every effort must be made to avoid civilian casualties, or at least to keep them to a minimum. Often the IDF, the Israel Defense Force, puts their own soldiers on the line to try to avoid casualties. For example, if Israel feels that it must bomb a particular site, like a place launching missiles at Israeli civilians, it will do what it needs to do. But first it will warn civilians to flee. That is what it did this past summer in Gaza. But Hamas would not allow civilians to flee. And sadly, many civilians were killed.
Hamas was very clever. As Hamas launched missiles at Israel and dug tunnels, preparing for a terrorist attack this very Rosh Hashana, it knew that Israel has this policy of tahor hanshek – purity of arms. Hamas launched the attacks from the midst of schools, hospitals, mosques, apartment buildings, places filled with civilians. It knew that Israel had no choice but to fight back, and that countless Palestinians civilians would die. The world would judge Israel by a higher standard. Even the president of the United States remarked that “Israel must do more to meet its own standards and avoid civilian casualties.” The world sees Israel as upholding certain standards. Nobody used that language when Iraq or Syria attack and kill far more civilians. Nobody used it when Britain firebombed Dresden in World War II or when the United States dropped two atom bombs on Japan. But Israel must meet a higher standard. Israel is a country of Jews.
Israel has always held itself to a higher standard. Even in an ugly war started by others, Israel has tried to practice tahor haneshek. Israel and the Jewish people have always seen themselves as upholding a high standard of ethics in how people are treated. And by doing so, they must see themselves as a light unto the nations. The Talmud teaches that we are forbidden to hate our enemies. Rather than pray that we kill our enemies, we should pray that our enemies change their ways. Avot de Rabbi Natan teaches, “Who is strong? Someone who turns an enemy into a friend.” Such teachings are the purpose of Judaism.
Yesterday I asked the question – why be Jewish? Why hear the shofar blown? Why light Shabbat candles? Why come to synagogue? I asked, why should I give up eating cheeseburgers for my entire adult life? Perhaps now we have the answer. By giving up cheeseburgers, I am disciplining the act of eating. If I eat the meat, the flesh of an animal, I do not eat the milk, the life-giving force of the animal. I separate life and death. And in doing so, I learn to control my appetite. I control my appetite in a way that separates life from death. I choose life. And hopefully, in practicing that discipline, I choose to respect the lives of other people. It becomes a discipline that helps me live as a Jew, aware of the role I am playing in God’s plan for humanity.
We Jews live in a two-story universe. We are a people, the Jewish people, a people who often sees the world through a different perspective. We are the people who are called Ivri – across, across on the other side, giving different insights to the world. But we are also a people who have taught the world that there is a God. The world did not happen by random chance and we are not in this world by random change. We are here, we have survived all these centuries, because we Jews have a purpose. We have a message to give to the world. We need to tell the world that every human being is created in the image of that God. Every human being has an inherent worth and dignity. No human being can ever enslave another human being. No human being can ever bully another human being. No human being can ever threaten another human being, or steal from another human being, or injure another human being. No human being should ever embarrass another human being. That is the Jewish message to the world. It is a message that the world needs to hear, more than ever. And God has chosen us Jews to deliver that message.
Let me end with a story, apocryphal but hopefully true. It is the story of Frederick the Great, the leader of one of the states that eventually joined to become Germany. Frederick used to dabble in philosophy. So one day he asked his advisors, “Give me a proof for the existence of God. But I am a busy man. Give it to me in two words.” The advisor responded, “Sir, the Jews.”
The survival of the Jews is proof of the existence of God. We Jews live in a two-story universe. We Jews have a God-given purpose. May God help us to fulfill that purpose. And let us say

KOL NIDRE 2014 – 5775
There was a huge Christian revival meeting. A very conservative evangelical preacher was addressing the crowd. “We are Christians and we believe in a strong home. We believe that the man needs to be head of the household, as Christ is head of the church. Gentlemen, I want all of you men who are truly the head of the household to line up on my left side. All you other men line up on my right.” Almost all the men meekly walked over to his right side. Only one man came to the left. The preacher turned to the one man. “Tell me, what do you do to show that you are truly the head of the household?” The man answered, “I don’t know. My wife told me to stand on this side.”
Tonight I want to talk about your home. I want to talk about your personal home, the place where you live. I want to talk about your spiritual home, our synagogue. And I want to talk about your national home, the Holy Land, Israel. But first I want to talk about the News. I am not usually a rabbi who bases his sermons on the New York Times. I know rabbis who, if the Times went on strike, they would have nothing to say. I have heard complaints – “Rabbi, why do you not talk more about the news?” To those who complain, tonight I am talking about the news.
What was the biggest news story in south Florida this past year? Certainly the war between Israel and Hamas received plenty of coverage. I spoke about it on the 2nd Day of Rosh Hashana. Another big news story was the destruction of two Malaysian airliners, one lost in the Indian Ocean, one shot down over Ukraine. There was the horrible murder of two American reporters and a British aid worker by ISIS, one of them a local journalist whose mother is active in her Miami synagogue. Then there was the ongoing rioting in Ferguson MO over the police shooting of an unarmed black man. See, I do read the news.
But what was the most talked about news story in south Florida this past year? I believe it was the decision of LeBron James to leave the Miami Heat and return to his home town of Cleveland. Day after day that story made headlines. Many Floridians were extremely angry. Some were simply resolved. But I loved the editorial in the Sun-Sentinel. Basically it thanked LeBron James for coming to Florida and giving us four years of excitement, four NFL finals and two championships. The editorial went on to say, now LeBron wants to go home. Everybody deserves the right to go home.
Everybody deserves the right to go home. We all can embrace the importance of going home. Dorothy said it as she clicked her heels together in Oz, “There is no place like home.” Robert Frost said it in his poem Death of a Hired Man, “Home is the place where when you go there, they have to take you in.” John Denver sang it with his lyrics, “Country Road take me home, to the place where I belong.” I remember driving through West Virginia singing that song. As the saying goes, “Home is where the heart is.” And we Jews say it whenever we walk into a synagogue, ma tovu ohelecha Yaakov miskanotecha Yisrael. “How Goodly are your tents O Jacob, your dwelling places O Israel.”
Everybody deserves to go home, even LeBron James. On the most basic level, home is our dwelling place, where we live. How did the Rabbis interpret the verse I just quoted, “how Goodly are your tents O Jacob.” They said that when the Israelites set up their tents in the desert, they did it in such a way that no one’s door faced anyone else’s door. No one, when they step outside, can see the inside of where their neighbor lives. The home was a realm of absolute privacy. That is what a home should be – a place you can go where you can get away from the cares of the world. We all need that private place where we can go.
Unfortunately, in this electronic day and age we lost much of that privacy. Whether instagrams or Facebook or twitter or Youtube, everything is on line. I was listening to a report on NPR after private pictures of celebrities were stolen off the cloud. The reporter said, “In this day of the internet, our definition of privacy has to change.” Our homes, and our personal life, are exposed to world. How often have I told young people, take that video off Facebook. What would happen when you are looking for a job and a potential employer sees it? We each need a realm of privacy, in our homes and in our lives.
People understand this. Do you ever watch vampire movies, or tv shows like True Blood? Did you know that a vampire may not enter a home unless the home owner invites him or her in? Of course, Judaism has a mitzvah called hachnasat orchim, welcoming guests – opening our homes to others, even vampires It is wonderful to have people in our homes, whether guests for dinner or visitors from out of town. But let me share an insight. Most positive mitzvot are without measure. Keep the mitzvah as much as you can. But not the mitzvah of hospitality. There is a limit. One is permitted to say to one’s guests, it is time to leave. My family and I need our privacy. We need our homes.
Let me turn to our spiritual home – Temple Beth Torah Sha’aray Tzedek. Several times a year I speak to our early childhood parents. I tell them my dream – I want their children to see this synagogue as their second home. I want them to grow up here. I want them to go to religious school, have a bar or bat mitzvah, go to Judaica High, go to kadimah and USY, celebrate their High School graduations, and then come back when it is their turn to get married. I want the synagogue to be their spiritual home.
Last Yom Kippur I spoke about my daughter Aliza getting married. I am proud to say that last October 13 she and Darren were married in our sanctuary. But I have to confess a truth. Originally she did not want to be married here. She kept talking about the old building on 57th Street, the building where she had her bat mitzvah. That building was her home. I said that building was razed to the ground. But this building was not home. It was not until she attended someone else’s wedding in this building that she became convinced to come here. She had a beautiful wedding here and she was very happy.
I know how difficult it was for Temple Beth Torah members to leave that old building, permanently damaged by Hurricane Wilma, and come over here. This building was new, beautiful, but it did not feel like home. That is why we have a tapestry of the sanctuary from the old building hanging in our lobby. It takes a long time make this new building feel like home.
If this is true for Temple Beth Torah members, how much more so for former Sunrise Jewish Center members. They had been in their building on Pine Island for years. To merge synagogues, sell their building, and come here was very difficult. They also hung a picture of their sanctuary from their old building in the lobby.
I must say that something miraculous happened this past year. Two proud synagogues, each with its own history and traditions, each with its sense of home, merged. And they merged with little controversy over a period of some six months. The issues were many – the name of the new synagogue, dues and finances, board seats and officer positions, yahrzeit plaques, an Orthodox minyan, staff, ritual and traditions, Sisterhood and Men’s Club, religious school and USY. We pulled it off. Perhaps this is the time to thank a group of amazing lay people from both synagogues who put in countless hours to make this happen. This shows what people of good will can accomplish by working hard.
And so two synagogues have become one in this beautiful new building. For former Temple Beth Torah members, this is their fifth Yom Kippur in this building. For former Sha’aray Tzedek members, this is their first Yom Kippur in this building. But we are one – Temple Beth Torah Sha’aray Tzedek. And now this building is our home. Every Jew needs a spiritual home. Friends, let this be your spiritual home.
We have our personal home. And we have our spiritual home. But every Jew in the world has another home, a national home, a place where every Jew can go and live, or go and learn, or just visit and feel at home. The land of Israel has been out home for over three thousands years. It became our home when our father Abraham was told by God, lech lecha – go forth to a land where I will show you. It became out home when the exiles in Babylonia wrote the Psalm, “If I forget you O Jerusalem, may my right hand lose its cunning. May my tongue stick to the roof of my mouth if I not put Jerusalem above my biggest joy.” It became our home when the medieval poet Judah Halevy wrote, libi bemizrach v’anee b’sof hamarav. “My heart is in the east while I am in the end of the west.”
It became our home when a group of early Zionist pioneers called themselves Bilu from the verse in Isaiah,, Beit Yaakov Lekhu Venelkha (Is. 2:5) “House of Jacob let us walk and go up.” The last name Bilu is popular in Israel today. It became our home in 1976 when Israeli commandos flew to Entebbe, Uganda to rescue Jews hijacked on an airplane by terrorists. Bibi Natanyahu’s brother Yoni led that commando raid and was killed in Uganda. It became our home when a group of philanthropists decided to fund a free 12 day trip to Israel for every young Jew. Two of my children have gone on birthright. If there are college age to mid-twenties people here, please take advantage of this wonderful program.
Today there are calls in much of the world including American college campuses saying that Israel is not our home. Young people carry signs saying “End the Occupation.” What occupation are they referring to? If they mean end the occupation of Palestinian lands captured in the 1967 Six Day work, Israel has been willing to do that. Israel totally ended the occupation of the Gaza, removing settlements and every Jew within its boundaries. So what happened? This summer Israel fought a third was against Hamas, the rulers of Gaza. When young people hold up signs saying end the occupation, they are really saying, Jews go home. Go back to Russia. Go back to Poland. Go back to Morocco and Iraq and Yemen. Go back to France and Argentina and the United States. Jews, this land is not your home. Jews, it is time to leave.
No matter how many synagogues in Miami are defaced or rabbis in Hollywood are murdered, no matter how many French citizens riot against Jews, or United Nations Resolutions condemn Israel, Israel is not going anywhere. It is our home. That is why Israeli’s are willing to fight so hard for their homeland. The experience of Israel reminds me of a story I heard. A Russian commandant is speaking to his class of cadets. “Cadets, what do you think is the biggest threat to our motherland, to Russia?” One of the cadets responded, “China is the biggest threat.” The commandant looked worried, “How can we ever win against China. They have over a billion people; we have a few hundred million.” The cadet, “Sir, you should not worry about numbers. In Israel, a hundred million Arabs were defeated by a few million Jews.” The commandant still looked worried, “We do not have that many Jews here.” Jews will do whatever is necessary to protect their homeland.
This brings me to an important point. Whatever our feelings about Islam, there is something profound that we can learn from this faith. Islam means “submits to God.” Every Moslem must submit to God and follow five fundamental laws, the five pillars of the Islamic faith. One of those pillars is known as the Hajj. It teaches that every Moslem who is physically able must, sometime in their life, make a pilgrimage to Mecca. I remember in college reading The Autobiography of Malcolm X and being deeply moved. Remember, he was a black activist during the early civil rights movement murdered in Mississippi. He was also a convert to Islam. He describes in the book his participation in the Hajj, what it was like for an American black man to make a pilgrimage to Mecca. He started feeling out of place, and ended with a deep sense of being part of a community.
So why am I talking about Moslems and Mecca? I have shared a personal story before but let me say it again. I was on a Swissair flight to Geneva to give a lecture, and as the sun was rising, I put on my tallit and tefillin and started to say my morning prayers. A Swiss flight attendant looked at me, and came over to talk. I thought she would stop me. But no, she kindly said, “Shouldn’t you be facing Mecca?” “No,” I answered, “In my faith we face Jerusalem.” We need to have a Jewish Hajj, a commitment to bring every Jew, not just college students, on a pilgrimage to Israel. Every Jew should pray at the Western Wall. Every Jew should walk the streets of Jerusalem, climb Massada, swim in the Dead Sea, and experience the vibrant night life of Tel Aviv.
In my 24 years as the rabbi of this synagogue, I have only once led a congregational tour to Israel. That was in 2005. I am ready to go again. But I need fifteen to twenty Jews willing to go with me. On the last tour we were twenty-three. Please let me know if you are ready for such a trip, a spiritual pilgrimage.
And so, inspired by the news storied of LeBron James, it is time to go home. It is time to go to our physical home, and truly create a place of privacy and respite. It is time to go to our spiritual home, come to this newly merged synagogue and let it become a second home for our families. It is time to go to our national home, to the land of Israel, and to reflect the words of the early Zionist pioneers, libnot v’libanot “to build and to be built.” In all three ways, may God help each of us come home this coming year of 5775
And let us say Amen.

YIZKOR 5775 – 2014
We are about to begin Yizkor prayers. The word yizkor means “to remember.” So I .suppose this is a good time to share an old memory. It is a memory that goes back years before I was married. It goes back years before I was a rabbi. It even goes back to before I was in college. It is a memory of my senior year in high school and the summer months following.
Way back then I had a girlfriend. We met at a party, began dating, and I took her to my senior prom and to my grad night at Disneyland. Her name was Susan but for reasons that I will share shortly, she liked to call herself Suzanne. Then that summer, as happens with so many young people, I broke up with her. I broke up in a way that was immature and not real nice. A year later she came to my college, and we had a long talk. She told me, “Last summer you really hurt me.” I felt bad, I am not the kind of person that wants to hurt anybody. I suppose at that moment I became a little bit broken. It was not the first time that I would do something that made me feel a bit broken, unworthy. Can we be broken and stand before God on Yom Kippur? That is the question I want to deal with to today.
So why am I telling you this story so many years later? Life went on. We both grew up. I married and had a family. She married and had a family. I am telling you this because of the name she called herself – Suzanne. She played the guitar and she sang. Her favorite song, which is still one of my favorite songs goes like this. It ought to be familiar to some of you. Don’t worry, I am not going to sing, I will leave that to the cantor – I will just recite some of the lyrics.
“Suzanne takes you down to her place near the river, you can hear the boats go by you can spend the night beside her. And you know that she’s half crazy but that’s why you want to be there. And she feeds you tea and oranges that come all the way from China. And just when you mean to tell her that you have no love to give her, Then she gets you on her wavelength and she lets the river answer that you’ve always been her lover.”
My high school girlfriend saw herself as Suzanne, a bit of a hippy who wanted to feed me tea and oranges that came all the way from China. And I was a bit too conservative for her. So I broke up with her, in a way that hurt her – but in the end I was the one who felt broken.
That song was written by Leonard Cohen, a Canadian poet, song writer, novelist, and performer, member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Leonard Cohen is also a Jew with a strong Jewish background. This summer he released his newest album in honor of his 80th birthday. He is still performing. He has been composing songs for more than fifty years. Today I want to dedicate these thoughts to the songs of Leonard Cohen, and the insights they give me that are so important on Yom Kippur. Many of his songs deal with Jewish themes. Let me share two examples.
Leonard Cohen wrote a haunting song called “Dance with me to the End of Love.” Listen to one verse:
“Dance me to your beauty with a burning violin, Dance me through the panic ‘til I’m safely gathered in. Lift me like an olive branch and be my homeward dove, Dance me to the end of love.”
Dancing to a burning violin; dancing until we are safely gathered in. In an interview Cohen spoke about what the song means. He explained that it was inspired by the Holocaust. At five Nazi extermination camps, prisoners were forced to form string quartets to play music while their fellow prisoners went to their deaths. In Terezin prisoners performed an entire opera, and when the opera was over, the cast and musicians were all taken to the gas chamber. Is there anyone more broken than a musician forced to play music before going to the gas chamber? But these musicians played with passion. Perhaps there is a powerful message in this song. Cohen spoke how even as life ends, among the Jews there is a love for life. Those who faced death had a last moment to create beautiful music. And so they played, as with a burning violen. The Nazis may have chosen death, but the Jews have always chosen life.
Let me share another Leonard Cohen song directly related to Yom Kippur. I enjoy the radio show on National Public Radio called “On Being.” Krista Tippett interviews various religious leaders, scientists, and public figures on the fundamental questions of life – God, ethics, meaning, relationships, and so on. It was the week before the Jewish High Holidays, so Tippett was interviewing Sharon Brous, a young Conservative rabbi living in Los Angeles, who is the spiritual leader of a very creative Conservative synagogue. Rabbi Brous has helped create a spiritual renewal for many young Jews. Suddenly there was a short interlude in the radio interview as a song was played; the lyrics began“Who by Fire, Who by Water.” I had no idea at the time where the song came from, but it certainly caught my attention.
It would take a year before I was able to find out who wrote and recorded that song. It was Leonard Cohen’s take on the un’taneh tokef prayer from the High Holidays. Again, let me quote a piece of the song.
“And who by fire, who by water, who in the sunshine, who in the night time. Who by high ordeal, who by common trial, who in your merry merry month of May, who by very slow decay. And who shall I say is calling.”
The un’taneh tokef prayer is difficult for modern Jews. When it appears in our mahzor, it sees God as the ultimate judge. We pass before God like sheep. On Rosh Hashana it is written, on the fast of Yom Kippur it is sealed, who shall live and who shall die, who by fire and who by water. We are judged. Many of you have shared with me how you are troubled by that prayer. Some rabbis have tried to remove it. But they bring it back the next year. It is an integral part of the High Holiday liturgy. But this prayer as interpreted by Leonard Cohen gives a very different meaning to the holidays.
Each verse ends with the refrain “who shall I say is calling.” No matter how broken we are, God calls out to us. Whether by fire or by water, whether by high ordeal or common trial, God is calling us. The question is, will we answer God’s call? It reminds me of the story of a man who falls over a cliff, and is able to grab a branch. He is holding on for dear life, shouting “Hello, anybody there? Help me!” Suddenly a voice calls out, “Let go of the branch. I will catch you.” The man shouts back, “Who is this?” The voice calls out again, “It is God. I am here to protect you. Let go of the branch. I will catch you.” The man thinks about it for a moment. Again he hears God’s voice, “Let go of the branch. I will catch you.” Finally, the man shouts, “Anybody else up there?”
Leonard Cohen seems to interpret the prayer not of a judgmental God but of a calling God. Who by fire and who by water, God is calling us. God wants us, needs us for something. I love the image that on these holidays we pass before God, and God calls us like God called to Abraham. We need to answer as Abraham answered hineni “here I am.” Imagine a universe that instead of judging us, calls to us, challenges us, makes demands of us. Not only the holy but even the broken can answer God’s call. The holy or the broken must answer God’s call. “The holy or the broken.” This lyric brings us to Leonard Cohen’s most famous song.
Cohen had one song that has become a standard. You all have heard it. When Canada hosted the Winter Olympic Games in 2010, at the opening ceremony, K.D. Lang sang this song. Or perhaps I should say that the entire stadium sang with her. The song became part of the movie Shreck. It has been sung at funerals and at weddings. It is a standard of American Idol, the Voice, and X-Factor and all the other singing reality shows. A young talented woman named Alexandra Burke sang a riveting version in the finals of Great Britain’s X-Factor. She won, and her recording went on to be the top selling vocal recording in England that year. It is fascinating because the song was originally rejected by Leonard Cohen’s producer.
I am sure most of you know the song. There are many verses. Let us look at the Jewish meaning of just a few.
“I’ve heard there was a secret chord that David played to please the Lord, but you don’t really care for music, do you? It goes like this: the fourth, the fifth, the minor fall, the major lift; the baffled king composing Hallelujah! Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah.”
The word Hallelujah is a Hebrew word. It means “Praise the Lord.” We begin with a Biblical allusion. David used to play the harp and sing songs; he used his musical talent to calm down King Saul. David was baffled as he composed.
There is an old Midrash, a Rabbinic tale about King David, that I shared in my book Does God Belong in the Bedroom? Leonard Cohen must have learned it in yeshiva when he was a young man growing up in Montreal. According to this Midrash, King David challenged God. “God, why don’t you test me? Put me to the test so I can prove myself to you.” God answered, “David, I will test you. I will even tell you how I will test you. I will test your self-control when it comes to your sexual lust.” The next day David saw Batsheva bathing on the roof. She was a married lady, but to David it did not matter. He was overcome with lust. He took her into his room, had her husband killed, and eventually married her. Cohen sings about David putting himself to the test.
“Your faith was strong but you needed proof, you saw her bathing on the roof; her beauty and the moonlight overthrew you. She tied you to a kitchen chair, she broke your throne, she cut your hair, and from your lips she drew the Hallelujah!”
Of course, there is a little bit of Samson with the cutting of hair in this poem about David. It is poetic license. One of the ways we become broken is when we lose control of that which ought to be kept under control. We all do it. But when a king loses control, or a president, or a rabbi, or any other leader, the consequences are severe. One of the great questions philosophers ask is, if we know the right thing, will we do the right thing. Socrates said yes. “Knowledge leads to virtue.” I believe Socrates was dead wrong. People filled with knowledge do the wrong thing all the time. David is an example. Habits, practice, trying to do the right thing over and over lead to virture.
We all do the wrong thing in life. We do it even if our head tells us the right thing. But our head cannot overrule our lust, our appetites, our passions. Goodness comes only with practice, practice letting our head overrule our appetites. As Ben Zoma said in Pirkei Avot, Aizaihu Gibor? HaKovesh et Yitzro. “Who is strong? Whoever conquers their appetite.” When we know the right thing but do the wrong thing, that is part of what makes us broken.
Let me share one more verse of Cohen’s hallelujah:
“You say I took the name in vain, I don’t even know the name. But if I did well really, what’s it to you? There’s a blaze of light in every word, it doesn’t matter which I heard, the holy or the broken hallelujah. Hallelujah, hallelujah, hallelujah, hallelujah.”
I love that lyric. “A blaze of light in every word.” It makes me wonder if Cohen studied kabbalah. Kabbalah teaches that when we study the Torah, there is a blaze of light in every word. But there is also a blaze of light in every one of us. It is not just the holy, the pious, the ones who found the light, the Orthodox, who can stand before God and sing Hallelujah. Every one, including the most broken of us, can stand before God and say Hallelujah.
I once met a young man who refused to go to synagogue. He told me how he used to go, but he looked out into the congregation. So many hypocrites! So many slumlords! So many adulterers and thieves and angry people? All of these people come to synagogue and think that God forgives them. I responded, who should be in synagogue? Only saints. That is like a hospital that welcomes only healthy people At the beginning of kol nidre there is a wonderful prayer that we say. It gives us permission to pray with arbiyonim – sinners. One interpretation I heard is that you are not even allowed to begin Yom Kippur prayers until some sinners are present in the congregation. That has never been a problem in our congregation.
“The holy or the broken” I named this sermon “The Holy or the Broken” after that Leonard Cohen lyric. In truth, I thought about changing it a bit, calling it “The Holy and the Broken.” For I believe that each of us is holy, precious in the eyes of God. And each of us is broken, filled with places where we have gone wrong in our lives. Yet we stand before God on this Yom Kippur and say Hallelujah. Because God knows that each of us is broken.
God sees us in our brokenness. God is HaRofeh Leshvorei Lev “the healer of broken hearts.” God hears us in our brokenness. Allow me to share one more Leonard Cohen song, not a major hit like Hallelujah but a song with a powerful lyric. The song is called Anthem. It speaks of not dwelling in the past, of what has already happened. Rather we need to:
“Ring the bells that still can ring, forget your perfect offering.
There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.”
What a perfect thought for this Yom Kippur day. There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in. There is a crack in each of us. Each of us in some way is broken. But it is through our brokenness that God’s light gets in. It is through our brokenness that the healing power of God gets in. It is through the brokenness that we can begin life anew, doing teshuvah, and finding renewal in the eyes of God.
May this Yom Kippur be the beginning of a time of healing for each of us. May we overcome our brokenness to once again stand whole before God, and let us say