Nourishing Healthy Minds and Souls

If you want to have a fascinating conversation with a child, try discussing the nutritional value of McDonald’s Happy Meals. My kids love McDonald’s. They would eat there every single day if they could. I don’t know if they even like the food, or if it’s the toy. But they love it. Sometimes it’s not bad like when you ask, “Where should we go for your birthday dinner?” You brace yourselves for a pricey answer like Momo’s or Radizio Grill, but all they want is McDonald’s. And you save lots of money. That’s not so bad. But after a while, when they can’t even see a yellow M, at any time of day, even right after a huge meal, or at night on the way home from a movie, or even when they have fallen asleep in the car, but magically they can smell the golden arches and wake up, and they excitedly beg to go there, it is time for an intervention.

I was trying recently to explain to one of my kids the difference between junk food and healthy food. There came the protest, “But it has all four food groups.” Hard to argue with… except there is more to it than that. Somehow nutrition education is lacking in our schools. It’s kind of like teaching kids how to count in Spanish from one to nine (keeping in mind one of my favorite bits by comedian Paul F. Tompkins), which is fine until a Spanish speaker asks what time lunch is. In Spanish and in nutrition, there is certainly more to learn.

With regard to nutrition, I started talking about that documentary “Supersize Me” from several years back where Morgan Spurlock ate only McDonald’s three meals a day for 30 days and became very, very ill. It took more than a year to recover from the effects of his experiment.

In hindsight, maybe this wasn’t the best argument to use with a child. You want to talk about scared straight? She swore never to eat McDonald’s again… which wasn’t exactly my goal. We had to explain it’s ok as a once in a while treat. We were basically explaining the difference between junk food, which tastes good in the moment but in the long term, offers no real sustenance, and good food, which you digest and gives ongoing nourishment.

The Torah portion this week addresses this distinction, but instead of talking about the way we nourish our bodies. It talks about the way we nourish our souls. Parashat Ha-azinu opens with Moses calling out to the Israelites, to give ear, to pay attention to what he is about to say. He prays that his words will fall down on the people like rain, like showers pouring down on the growing grass (Deu 32:1-2). The great Torah commentator Rashi explains that just as heavy rain showers strengthen the grasses and help them to grow, so too do words of Torah strengthen those who study them. If you are watering the grass, you can’t use junk. It has to be the real thing that makes it live and thrive. So, according to Rashi, if we want to nourish our souls we don’t want the verbal equivalent of junk food. You need the good stuff.

Some words have true staying power. Just hearing them reminds us of important lessons and the history associated with them. Even out of context they continue to nourish us many years later. We even remember the person who first spoke them and their lives and achievement endure in the memory of those words.

“Let my people, Go.” That was Charlton Heston (actually Val Kilmer in the Prince of Egypt).

“Love your neighbor as yourself.”

“That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow man.”

“I have a dream.”

“In spite of everything, I still believe that people are good.”

“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”

“If you will it, it is no dream.”

These words have staying power because they truly meant something. They inspired and continue to inspire to this day. Also think of the great books, the classics of all time, not ones that just tell frivolous stories, but the ones who truly comment on the nature of humanity. Think about the music, movies, and other arts that challenge us to think and help form us into better people. I love a silly comedy as much as anyone. Dumb and Dumber is still entertaining 20 years later, but it merely passes the time rather than changes the time. Also consider true news that actually attempts to highlight important trends and confronts our ever evolving, dare i say devolving society. Put that against virtually everything we read on social media… funny that Facebook calls it a “news feed,” right?

I can’t tell you definitively what constitutes junk posting, but if there are animals playing the piano, it’s probably just entertainment. If it is gossip, it is just feeding a particular need for gratification. And if the name Kardashian appears anywhere in the posting, it is nothing that really matters.

We as human beings have a tendency to be attracted to junk words with the false belief that they truly are sustaining us. In truth, this is mostly what we find on social media. It’s a funny thing that Facebook calls what we see a “news feed.” If we were truly honest, only a small fraction of the things we read on it would actually be determined as substance. Entertainment is okay. There is a place for it. We need to take breaks from the stresses of daily life. We need these outlets. A little bit of junk food for the soul is ok. It’s like a comfort food. However, if all we did to sustain ourselves was consume junk, then we would gain very little.
We would be like grass without the rains. Judaism without the Torah. We would be living lives without depth or meaning.

When Moses tells us to Give Ear to his words, he is telling us to truly listen and discern the good from the bad. The world needs thoughtful and educated people who know fact from opinion, who know how to apply logic, who appreciate the reality of history, who are not afraid to address real issues. The world needs us to be well nourished with sustaining words and ideas. If we become too weak with the consumption of junk media, we can accidentally defer the reins of power to those who wish to take advantage of our lack of depth. Of course, we can consume the less important things, like McDonalds’ from time to time… there is a place for that, to destress, to be entertained. After all, “[We] deserve a break today!” But we must never forget to return to feeding ourselves with the kind of words that really matter.
The world needs our brains and souls as healthy as they can be.


Navigating Life’s River – Sermon For Kol Nidre 5777

There’s an old joke. I think I saw it on a Laffy Taffy, or a Happy Meal Box. Honestly I don’t remember. I only say that to keep your expectations appropriately low.

Why is the Mississippi river unusual?

It has four eyes but cannot see.

I know it’s a real groaner. But, in that pun, we can find a shred of wisdom. A river has no vision, and no consciousness. As the song goes, “The Old man river just keeps rollin along.” Waterways like the Mississippi and for the Missouri are life sources, inviting settlement and inspiring commerce. But rivers are not benevolent. They can also be harbingers of destruction as we saw recently in Louisiana. A river is full of life but has no conscience. He just keeps rolling along. But still, the song says, “The Old Man River, He must know something.” And so the river may not be able to see, but it does have something to teach.

At Yom Kippur, we can picture our lives like a river. With time, it flows in one direction toward the sea. Left to its own devices, the river rolls on. It rises and falls with the seasons. When the rains overwhelm it, It overruns its banks and creates new routes to flow in its never-ending trek to the ocean. A river, like time is indifferent to our plans. If we are not careful, it can wash away homes, destroy fields, take lives. This is why we have learned to direct the rivers’ flow. Engineers construct levees, and install structures to control erosion in an effort to control the flow. But as Mark Twain noted, we can never fully defeat it. He wrote (Life on the Mississippi, p. 85):

“One who knows the Mississippi will..aver… that ten thousand River Commissions, … cannot tame that lawless stream, cannot curb it or confine it, cannot say to it, Go here, or Go there, and make it obey;… [They] cannot bar its path with an obstruction which it will not tear down, dance over, and laugh at.”

We may not be able to subdue any river. Still, not to try would be irresponsible. We therefore need a plan and the tools to do the work. For the river of our lives, Judaism gives us those tools— Torah, mitzvoth and values.

My dear friend, Rabbi Brian Stoller in Deerfield, Illinois teaches that unlike a river, people have a conscience. As Jews, the Torah shapes our conscience. So mitzvoth provide a system of locks and dams that can slow and control the flow of the waters. As they curtail our behaviors and selfish desires, they protect us and prevent us from overwhelming our neighbors.

One of those controls is teaching, with important tasks, you simply cannot cut corners. A river flows from point to point. It may be winding. It may rush and flow in parts. Some portions may even have rapids, but it cannot jump any gaps. Jewish tradition wants us to act the same way. While the Israelites wander the desert, the Torah marks the Jordan River as the finish line. Before they get there, however, they must grow as a nation, receive the law, establish a systems of governance. They even have to develop a succession plan. Before these things are done, they may not cross that final boundary. The process is long and thorough.

An 18th century Moroccan rabbi, Chaim ibn Attar, explains, “we should sell no wine before its time.” Actually, that’s more of a paraphrase. What he says is that Moses understands the symbolism of crossing the river too soon. That’s why Moses sends spies to investigate the land instead of going himself. In fact, if he went, he would die leaving the people without their leadership. Therefore, Ibn Attar concludes going in too soon would lead to the destruction of the entire nation. They simply were not prepared. The job would only be half-done. The results would be catastrophic.

Consider the American workplace. Rushing a job is epidemic in our country. Just this past march in Alliance, Nebraska, Jimmy Spencer, a 61-year-old plummer was buried alive when an 8-foot trench collapsed on top of him. The construction company who had contracted him, being in too much of a hurry, failed to reinforce the trench walls where he was attaching sewer lines.

The National Safety Council reports 13,000 workplace injuries every day. Out of those 13,000 there are 13 of the injuries are fatal. Most of these accidents are preventable. Jewish law weighs in on this with the metaphor of an open well (BT Baba Kama, 50a). If you dig it, you must cover it to protect passersby. You are therefore responsible for any known risk on your property or which you have a hand in creating. It sounds like common sense, but according to a survey, one-third of workers say their companies favor productivity over safety. That means too many employers are trying to cut corners, and not doing enough to protect precious human assets like Jimmy Spencer. But we know, if a job is worth doing, it is worth doing to completion. It many cases, it is a matter of safety, and in all cases, it is a matter of integrity.

Another thing we learn from water in a river is that it cannot be faked. You can bottle it, flavor it, purify it, carbonate it, put fluoride in it, but you cannot fake it.The Book of Ecclesiastes says “Rivers that flow to the sea, but the sea is never full (Ecclesiastes 1:7).” No surprise from a book that opens proclaiming, “All is vanity.” The Hebrew for “vanity” is “Havel” which more literally translated is “ “a vapor”— water that disappears into the air. This tells is when we act falsely, rather than add goodness to the seas, our efforts simply evaporate into nothingness. If only it were so simple. With all due respect to Ecclesiastes, vanity is rarely a vapor. It is a highly destructive force, like a dam breaking.

Think of recent events in Flint, Michigan. One bad decision introduced lead into the city’s tapwater. Jewish law anticipated this issue as early as the 2nd century in the Tosefta (Tosefta Baba Kama, 6:15). They knew a worker who was digging caves or ditches might want to wash himself upstream from a city. He might even be in a hurry. But the digger had to be aware what was on his body, and if covered in things known to be toxic, he was forbidden to put them into the water system. This teaches, we are are obligated to exhibit duty of care, even if it means inconvenience. But in Flint, there was a complete breakdown. A few cost-cutting measures by the state and city, along with a cynical calculation that no one would notice led to a crisis. In less than two years, the number of children in Flint with lead in their bloodstreams doubled. And they believe the poisoned waters caused an outbreak of legionnaire’s disease which struck almost 90 individuals, killing 10. The worst part of it is the full extent of the harm wrought by this failure of judgment may never be known. A caseworker reaching out to Flint’s immigrant community described the tears of parents who realized they had been cooking for and bathing their children in the contaminated water. She spoke of the angst of a pregnant mother who was frantic begging to know how this will affect her baby. For any future learning disabilities or abnormal physical development in the children of Flint, the people will have to wonder if it had to happen. The city and state officials will be forced to reckon with the likelihood that they could have prevented it…. had they only exercised basic moral judgment, and had they not literally tried to fake the water. What their vanity unleashed was far worse than a vapor. It was a torrent. And though they can now work to slow its course, the damage has already been done.

A river’s power must be respected. The hope is that we do not have to learn this through hard trials like in Flint. Rather we should learn through applying our values if not common sense.

Years ago, Sholem Aleichem wrote a story about a river (“Fishel the Teacher”). As you may know, Sholem Aleichem was called the Jewish Mark Twain. And, upon learning of this, Mark Twain corrected, saying, “[Actually], I am the American Sholem Aleichem.” The two writers had more in common than their notoriety. Twain loved a river, the Mississippi, while Sholem Aleichem had long and wide Bug river in Poland. Much of the story “Home for Passover” takes place on the river. Reb Fishel, in order to be home with his family for Passover, must cross the dangerous waters. Barely Springtime, the river is filled with flowing chunks of ice which can smash a boat in pieces. The call of the holiday is strong. He faces a moment of truth, Reb Fishel can either let the river defeat him, or he can cross it while taking utmost care. One the one hand, he sees the Angel of Death, which is just one untimely tip of the boat away. On the other hand he can see the faces of his wife, and children. He can feel the hot bath awaiting him. He can taste the freshly baked Matzah. And so there is no choice. He must dare the waters, not brazenly but cautiously. He hires an expert pilot to navigate. He sits painstakingly still and obeys every instruction. He prays along the way, the same words Jonah cried out as his boat was tossed. “The waters have reached unto my soul.” Unlike Jonah, however, he didd not let the waters rush over him. They reached his soul because he respected the journey. His reward was reaching the other side safer, wiser, and fulfilled.

Like Fishel, we know, as long as we live, the river is always flowing. It dares us. It challenges us. The river can bring disaster, or it can be the channel which brings us to great happiness. Therefore, we have no choice but to face the river. To respect it. To do what all we can to slow it and when necessary, to alter its course.

So may we, on this Yom Kippur, find inspiration in this day and in our atonement to learn the best ways to navigate life’s currents. And may we guide ourselves and each other, across the river to life and only to life.


I Am My Vote – Sermon for Yom Kippur Morning 5777

I was reading an article recently about someone who was born before she had the right to vote, and I thought, “BIG DEAL!” We’re all born before we have the right to vote. Think about it….

Actually, I was reading about Geraldine Emmett, of Phoenix, who was born in 1914 before women had the right to vote. She remembered how impassioned her mother had been about politics and changing the world. She knew her mother had opinions which she could express but which were muted on election day. The absence of her vote meant an absence of her ideas. The lack of vote made her invisible. Then after the 19th amendment was ratified in August of 1920, she remembers going with her mother as she cast her first vote. She recalls, “[My brothers and sisters and I] all walked out in the middle of the street and cheered….because my mother was going to have a say. That was something!”

We can assume, Geraldine Emmett has never taken her own vote for granted. She sees the vote as the extension of the self. It represents her dreams and aspirations. It is her wish for the future. Still better than a wish, it is a way of actively shaping the future that she envisions. In a way, a vote sounds an awful lot tike a prayer. And in Judaism, we promote the idea, Ani Tefillati. I am my prayer. The prayer is an extension of our most heartfelt desires. So too should we feel about voting, I am my vote. Our votes matter. Our dreams matter. As with prayer, we must never take the opportunity for granted.

I am pretty sure most of you know my politics. The fact that I am a Reform Rabbi narrows down the choices, and if you spend ten minutes with me, my leanings and beliefs become pretty apparent. But, as a rabbi of a Temple who values our non-profit status, I recognize and honor my mandate and what I can say from the pulpit. My job is to teach and promote Judaism. Jewish values extend beyond the walls of our Temple. They guide all that we do, the way we treat our families, the way we handle business, and yes, they affect the way that we vote. A vote is an expression of values, and aspirations. The gift of voting allows us to influence the policies country will pursue. There is no such thing as a perfect candidate, a direct match for any set of beliefs, especially in our two party system, but…. but…. a genuine democracy demands that we make a choice. We must make that choice a true extension of ourselves. On November 8 and whenever we enter a polling place, we should begin with one understanding— I am my vote.

Today, I want to consider four Jewish values which can help our vote be an extension of our Jewish selves.

The first is the command not to oppress the stranger for we know what it was like to be strangers in the land of Egypt (Ex 23:9). As American Jews, the Freedom of expression has given us great comfort, and we recognize needs to extended and protected for all peoples. As and extension of this idea, we also understand the plight of the refugee and the responsibility that comes from our relative position of strength. To paraphrase Hillel’s famous dictum (BT Shabbat 31a), that which is hateful to us, we must not allow to happen to our fellow man. It seems pretty obvious, the duty to protect the stranger comes from our understanding that we are only as free as we allow others to be.

The second value is Ahavat Yisrael. Loving Israel. Ahavat Yisrael, means a special camaraderie shared by Jews all over the world as we care for and look out for one another. On another level, Ahavat Yisrael means loving the State of Israel, unconditionally, as we celebrate its role as the world’s only Jewish state. Our history has taught us that the existence of Israel is a necessity as a beacon of democracy and tolerance in a region plagued by autocracy. Israel is as a center of scientific and technological progress. It is a model for making the best of limited resources. It is a country in which every Jew can take pride, and know that, as our homeland, it is a safe haven whose doors are always open to any Jew who needs to flee from oppression. Israel is a necessity and we must support her.

That said, there is no single way to support Israel. Even in Israel, at the highest levels of leadership, there is disagreement regarding how to deal with Iran’s nuclear ambitions. There is disagreement on how to handle the occupied territories. There is division on the expansion of settlements. There is even disagreement on how and when to use military force. The one thing we all should agree upon is Israel’s absolute right to exist as a sovereign nation with a duty to defend her borders and her citizens. Our nation has been a strong ally to Israel ever since May 14, 1948 when President Truman was the first foreign leader to recognize the new nation. That support has been maintained by every President since. No matter what you hear about the current administration, the fact is during President Obama’s tenure, the United States has provided 26 BILLION dollars to Israel and has made commitments lasting through the year 2028 totaling in excess of 38 BILLION dollars. Our country’s support of Israel has been and will continue to be unwavering. That is a given. Still there are other issues to consider with relation to Israel. Once we know that her security is guaranteed we can get into the weeds on secondary matters.

While I believe unconditional love for Israel is part of voting like a Jew, it does not prevent us from being critical. Unconditional love of anyone, whether parent, child, friend, or Jewish state, demands that we are honest and vocal when we disagree with decisions they make. Loving someone means you accept them fully and completely, even with its flaws. It also means you actively participate in making them the best they can be. As Jews, we advocate for Israel, teach others about its real history and its role in the world and we can express our opinions freely as long as the goal improvement not just punishment. This is why the line gets drawn at BDS. For Ahavat Yisrael, the “Boycott, Divest, Sanction” movement is out of bounds. It is a growing movement that targets specific American companies who have contracts in Israel. Economically, in real terms, it is not a very effective protest, BUT, it stirs propaganda and lends credibility to groups who deny Israel’s right to exist and who, believe Israel and Israel alone should be held accountable for the violence inside her borders. BDS does nothing to stop bus bombings, knife attacks on civilians, or rocket launches from Gaza. All it does is attempt to defame and humiliate Israel for taking measures to protect her civilians. Israel’s record is not perfect, though they have taken unprecedented measures to limit civilian casualties when they have engaged in armed conflict. But no war is completely clean, and we cannot sanitize the brutal reality of it. But BDS spreads a false perception that Israel is solely responsible and overlooks all the positive efforts, financial aid, humanitarian services, medical care, they offer to the Palestinian authority. BDS is purely a defamatory effort, and, yes there are Jews who support it. They claim their support for BDS is done out of love. But we do not defame those we love, we help to build them up and realize the dream expressed by Shimon Peres, of blessed memory, who said these words when he was inaugurated as Israel’s President in 2007:

“Israel must, not only be an asset but a value. A moral, cultural and scientific call for the promotion of man, every man. It must be a good and warm home for Jews who are not Israelis, as well as for Israelis, who are not Jews. And it must create equal opportunities for all segments of the population without differentiating between religion, nationality community or sex.”

That is an Israel we can all love and be proud of. That is the vision of Israel we can hold as we strive to be our vote.

The third Jewish value to consider in the election is tzedakah. Tzedakah means so much more than charity. It means justice, in the truest sense of the word. It means creating fairness and balance. The Tanach calls upon us to defend the widow and the orphan (Isaiah 1:17). These are symbols of anyone who is vulnerable in our society, the hungry, the homeless, the sick. It is a mitzvah to share our joy. At Passover, it is a communal responsibility to ensure that everyone, even the poorest among us, have four cups of wine in balance with everyone else (Mishnah Pesachim 10, 1).

Still our tradition forbids keeping people in a state of perpetual need. Maimonides says that the highest level of tzedakah is helping someone to become self-sufficient (Mishnah Torah, Laws of Charity, 10:7-14). Short of that, we have an obligation to provide for them until they can sustain themselves. Saying that a people need to pull themselves up by the bootstraps may sound good, until you realize how many people don’t even have boots. A person can’t be expected to get an education or hold a job, if they are starving or homeless. Once the basic needs are met, only then can they hope to pull themselves up to greater achievements.

And so when we enter our polling places on November 8, we must consider who will do the better job of raising up those in need, providing more jobs and opportunities, equalling the playing field so that we can break cycles of poverty. So that we can fulfill the ideal of Maimonides as we do our part to provide for people until we can lift them out of need.

Lastly, on this day of days, we should consider the value which is staring us in the face. Repentance. Maimonides famously taught that true repentance is when you have a chance to make the same sin again, but you don’t (Mishnah Torah, Laws of Repentance 2:1).That means repentance is more than a mere apology. It is a sign of learning. To be our vote, we can consider who sees the collective mistakes of our nation and who can help us avoid Einstein’s definition of insanity— when you keep doing the same thing but expect different results. Repentance reflects a desire to improve things, not just for ourselves, but for everyone. The atonement of an individual can have an impact which reaches far beyond the self.

It all starts with serious reflection, then apology. In some circles, apology is a dirty word— a sign of weakness. That is the opposite of Jewish values. Apology is a path to holiness, and in our tradition, holiness leads to strength.

Some argue that leaders must assert dominance. And admissions of wrongdoing open them up to criticism even liability. Still others promote apology as a sign of confidence, and to not apologize is a symptom of insecurity. A Washington Post article from this past September 13, quotes a book titled “On Apology” written by Aaron Lazare. It says, “the reason people apologize is to relieve feelings of guilt and shame. But the reason others won’t apologize is to avoid ever feeling guilt or shame.” And as the columnist Catherine Rampell points out, “it is foolish to assume that without remorse there is no sin.”

Even King David, after the prophet Nathan confronted him for having Uriah killed so that he could marry Bathsheba, he apologized crying out, “I have sinned before the Lord (2 Samuel 12:13 and Psalm 51).” If apology is good enough for King David, it should be good enough for us and the leader of the free world.

Ronald Reagan, arguably the most popular President in American history, set an example by never being above apology. He apologized for the Iran-Contra scandal. He apologized directly to British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher for the invasion of Grenada. And he made an apology for a great national sin that occurred long before he entered politics. He apologized to Japanese-Americans for the internment camps during World War II. These things did not make Reagan or our country weak. They demonstrated that we are willing to admit and learn from our mistakes, and that is how we become a More Perfect Union.

Apology is humility. As our observance of Yom Kippur demonstrates, it is an incredibly sacred, and time-consuming act. And no, it does not happen in a single day. It began last year at the end of Yom Kippur, and it will begin again when the Gates of Repentance close tonight. Yom Kippur is but a point on the continuum of time. True apology evolves as we do more than recognize our mistakes, we prove our desire and ability to do make them right.

And so on this Yom Kippur, we consider the true meaning of Repentance, what we expect from ourselves. what we expect from each other, and in this important year, we consider what we expect from our leaders. May we truly be our votes, so that our leaders are extensions of our greatest values. May they be kind to the stranger, lovers of Israel, considerate of even the poorest among us, and may they never be afraid to learn from a mistake. And may we as a congregation, with our city state and nation, may move forward together.

Finding the “right angles,” Shabbat Shuvah 5777


One of my favorite sayings in the old machzor was in the alphabetizing of the the various sins we atone for on Yom Kippur. The acrostic in the Viduy confession not only uses “xenophobia” as the only possible sin for the letter x, (presumably the only possible word that could work after ruling out xylophones, xerox, and xantham gum), but then it says, “our sins are an alphabet of woe.” Of course they meant “woe” like sadness, but I like to think of it as “whooooooaaa!!” did I really do that? The sins jump off the page as a bombardment of terrible things.

To name a few.. arrogant, brutal, careless, destructive, egocentric, false, greedy, heartless, insolent, and it goes on through the letter z. “Zeal for bad causes.”

It’s quite a collection. And we repeat this alphabet or some version of it in Hebrew and English every year because we are different every year. Some things we might have done, others we might have improved upon, and others we are reminded to avoid when we read them. In a sense, every year we look at them like trading cards, need it, got it, need it, need it, got it, got it.

And then after honest self examination, hopefully, we change. And, as this is Shabbat Shuvah, if we have not started to change yet, the time is now.

Shababt Shuvah, the Shabbat of Return. Shuvah is the core of the Hebrew for repentance. And we rabbis, like to talk about how this word really means return. This makes repentance about so much more than simply having regrets. In order to return, it takes more than just saying, “I’m sorry.” Return involves a change of direction. It implies that you go back to the start, to some place in your life or some point in time when you were actually doing better than you are right now. It goes without saying, it is not literal teleportation or time travel. We haven’t figured those things…. yet. But Return is about a spiritual and intellectual teleportation to return to attitudes and rediscover behaviors that display the best of ourselves. It’s a great teaching as it gives our minds something visual to latch onto. Return is movement. That is easier to visualize than regret, which is a feeling. But…. But…. We have to ask… What if we have nothing to return to? When we speak of repentance as return, we make an assumption— that we used to get it right. And then all we have to do is divert ourselves back to the right path. That’s a pretty big assumption. There are things for which we atone that require change in its purest sense. Not to simply make a 180 turn to our previous ways, but to make a 90 degree turn to new behaviors. Or if you are little slower, it could be a 270. What you can’t do however is a 360 continuing the course your are on.

It’s funny, by the way, how many of us use that phrase wrong, when we change our minds about something. You know, when someone says, I did a complete 360. It can be dangerous, like People used to think smoking was good for you, but they did a total 360. It’s easy to send the wrong message. Kids, if you’re listening, they did a 180 on that. Complete reversal. Still, I would argue, it was not a 180 at all since it was not a return to a previously held idea, but an entirely new direction, not even previously considered. It was in fact a 90 degree turn. A total change of course, jumping from the horizontal x axis to the vertical y.

The 90 degree change is much more difficult than the 180, for it requires us to tread new waters, to conduct ourselves in ways for which we have no experience. We naturally change fear. We fear breaking old habits and ultimately we fear failure. Beyond these feats, according an article on the website of Harvard Medical School, the greatest roadblock to change is lack of planning. They advise change is best when viewed as a process rather than an event. As you might imagine, a lot of people enter into change as an idea rather than an action. True change is not just a proclamation. True change is a plan. Change demands we create small tangible goals. For example, saying, I am going to exercise more, that’s not a change. But, saying, I am going to walk for 20 minutes a day, and then holding yourself accountable, measuring your successes and failures, that is a change.

The article tells us that there are 5 steps to change.

The first is pre contemplation. That is living with the consequences of our behaviors but ignoring by choice or by accident the cause of the problem. In order to move on, we develop an awareness, whether from loved ones, medical professionals, or even the words of the machzor. And then we move to stage number 2.
The second stage of change is contemplation. This is when we consider the pros and cons of the change we wish to make. This is a time when we show perhaps our greatest resistance as we consider roadblocks, real or imagined, which can prevent us from making the necessary change. We might say, “If I stop yelling at my coworkers, they won’t respect me.” Or “If I exercise for 30 minutes, the laundry will never get done.” But at the very least, if we are in contemplation, the wheels of change have begun to turn. And in this stage,, we develop compromises and adjust old habits to accommodate our new selves.
The third step is Preparation. This according to some is the make or break stage. Whether in a corporate environment, a household, or in personal life, failures in change happen due to lack of preparation. When we changed the service time here, a committee met several times to make sure we had a plan in place to handle the pre-neg arrangements and that we thought through the necessary adaptations. It is not perfect, but we are still working through this change. If it fails, it will not be for lack of preparation. On a personal level, if we plan to ride our bikes more, we need to consider a backup plan for when it snows 2 and a half feet. And if we are cutting back on junk food, we can make a plan for handling a trip to the movie theater where we might need to bring our own snacks or settle for a bottle of water to protect ourselves form the onslaught of temptations.
The fourth step is taking positive actions. The hope is that success will breed more success. If our changes are behavioral, we should feel better. We should recognize our efficiency in work and the general improvements in our lives. If they are health related, and we are reaching specific goals, then we should feel the impact on our bodies. We will feel the positive nature of our changes…. But then we reach Step 5, and that is where the rubber really meets the road.
Step 5 is maintaining the change. And here, we are given permission not to be perfect. Change is made for the long haul. If we experience a setback, it’s like learning to ride a bike. If you fall, learn what made you fall, then get back in the seat and start pedaling again. The Harvard medical school assures us relapse is inevitable. But too many people become discouraged and throw away the all the positive changes they have made because they fail once or twice. They say we should see each setback as an integral part of the process, a growing experience essential as we direct ourselves toward those 90 degree turns we wish to make.

The process of change, like the process of Teshuvah does not demand that we act perfectly, but only that we act differently. As we read through the machzor each year and search ourselves for our faults and our sins, we can think of the need it, got it, got it, need it, as regards our own collections of woe, and the hope is that the ones we got, and the ones we need to change are reduced from year to year. That is the best our tradition can ask of us. That, I believe, is all that God asks of us. That is all that we can ask of ourselves. It starts with a true desire to change, making a good plan, and pushing inner drive to make those changes become reality.

May we on this Shabbat Shuvah turn a 180, returning to the best of ourselves, and when necessary, may we make 90 degree turns, creating new paths to discover the best we can be.
Shabbat Shalom,

Shana Tovah, may we all be sealed for blessing in the book of life.


Nice Choices – Rosh Hashanah Morning 5777

Picture yourself across the table from a good friend. Between you are seven marbles. Now these marbles are extremely valuable, better than diamonds. They cannot be cut into halves, each one must remain whole. For the sake of argument, you and your friend have the exact same financial status. You each stand to gain equally from these marbles. But there are seven marbles and two of you. You flip a coin. You win. And you get to pick as many marbles as you wish, any number from zero to seven. How many do you take?

We can find the seeds of an answer in an unlikely place— from Roseanne Barr, and something she said in a recent podcast interview (WTF With Marc Maron, Episode 729, August 1, 2016). Yes that Roseanne, the comedienne who became famous for saying, “I’m not a housewife. I am a “domestic goddess.” This same Roseanne Barr who was once booed by thousands of people for butchering the Star Spangled Banner before a baseball game. Yes the Roseanne Barr who starred in and produced one of the most popular and controversial television shows in history. Yes the Roseanne Barr whose volatile relationships with family and staff were tabloid fodder for many years. So if you didn’t already know it, Roseanne Barr happens to Jewish. And in a recent interview with Marc Maron, she tells a fascinating story about a visit to her rabbi.

She was thinking about repentance. And she said she wanted to give back to the community as her Teshuvah. She was detailing her plans for starting a charitable foundation, when the rabbi stopped her. Can you imagine the chutzpah? To cut off Roseanne? When she stopped talking, The Rabbi said, “That’s all well and good,” And he got very quiet. “Maybe you should learn to be nice?”

“Learn to be nice”. What a phrase! We should just put it on a bumper sticker. We should put it on the ballot. “Learn To Be Nice 2016.” The running mate could be “Co-Exist.” “Learn to be nice” should be a required class for graduating high school. It should be recited by school children every single day after the the Pledge of Allegiance. “Liberty and Justice for all, and learn to be nice!” It should be embedded into subliminal advertising, posted on every billboard, pumped through the airwaves of every radio station, written on the hills of every city in letter larger than the Hollywood sign so that no man, woman, or child can miss these important words.

“Learn to be nice!”

Learning implies change. According to Nice Guys Strategies, a consulting firm out of Boston, a common misunderstanding of “nice” is the greatest impediment to achieving it (Nice Guys Can Get the Corner Office: Eight Strategies For Winning In Business Without Being a Jerk, Russ Edelman, Thomas Hiltabiddle, and Charles Manz). They suggest being does does not mean you have to give in at all costs, or complete self-denial. When we perceive it in such a way, we actually avoid doing the nice thing for fear of being considered a pushover. So Nice Guys Strategies try to reframe the perception. They promote a model of niceness as seeking mutual interest. One does not have to neglect their own needs. Nor do they have to avoid confrontation. Being nice actually includes honest, authentic attempts to address disagreements. When we embrace the challenge, it becomes a nice opportunity to find an innovative solution for everyone.

So, now about those marbles. Between you and a friend there sit seven very valuable marbles. You get first dibs to take as many as you want. If your answer is 7. The Talmud has something to say about that (Mishnah Avot, 5:13)— “One who says what’s mine is mine and what’s yours is mine is wicked,” so heaven help you during the days of Awe. Meanwhile, if your answer is zero marbles— well, heaven help you in life. The Talmud does call that person pious. But such piety is too extreme for the common man. Interestingly enough, the Talmud is not a big fan of the even split, defining one who makes that split as having “average character.” It even compares this person to the citizens of Sodom who failed to go the extra yard in helping their visitors.

Fortunately for us, splitting the marbles evenly is not an option.

You have every right, and every opportunity to take 4, 5, or even 6 marbles here. But that is not the nice thing to do. According to Russ Edelman and Tim Hiltabiddle, the founders of Nice Guys Strategies, the best answer is three. Taking three out of the seven demonstrates what they call “effective niceness.” You are not a pushover. And by allowing the friend to have the other four, you show your willingness to build a longterm relationship which may pay later dividends in tangible or even intangible ways.

Joe O’Donnell, CEO of a large food distributor, practices the fourth marble philosophy. He talks about a particular contract with a ski resort where, one season, he ended up with a disproportionate share of the profits. He voluntarily divided his extra earnings and shared the them with the resort. He estimates that transaction to have been in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. But credits this penchant for fairness for guaranteeing their future business, and it earned him an iron clad reputation for integrity. As a result, many more clients would follow. It literally paid to be a nice guy (sections 3447-3467 in the Kindle Format e-book of Nice Guys Can Get the Corner Office).

The fourth marble philosophy is not always about money. It is about a general attitude that prevails when we place feelings of others as high, if not higher than our own. Learning to be nice is about making hard choices, often against our instincts, and sometimes granting others just a little more happiness than ourselves. The fourth marble could mean being angry, even justifiably, but stifling your instinct to spout an insult. The fourth marble could be picking up trash in a public space, even if it’s not your job. The fourth marble could be covering a holiday shift at work so that someone else might enjoy the day. The fourth marble can be any choice we make that allows us to maintain our own integrity and simultaneously raises up our fellow man.

This brings us to a remarkable woman named Dina Creiger (http://bostonspiritmagazine.com/2015/01/dina-creiger-encourages-choosing-nice-ness/).

Living in the Boston area, she followed with dismay the Marathon Bombing and the events that followed. Like people in Boston and across America, fear and anger welled up inside her. She knew those feelings lead to bullying and violence. And so Dina Creiger made a decision— she would not allow those bad feelings to rule her life. Despite her overwhelming fear and anger, she would choose to be nice.

She turned those words into a social movement. They eventually became her life’s calling. With the support of her life partner and her son, Creiger left behind a 30 year career in marketing and devoted her life to helping others “Choose to be nice.” She goes to schools, sponsors clubs, has a website, with the singular focus of spreading her simple message. As social creatures, our days are filled with chances to react to events all around us. If we choose to be nice, not only do we have positively impact our environment, but we also gain benefits for ourselves.

Studies demonstrate the overall benefits of choosing to be nice. Like when you are driving down Interstate 80, going 78 miles an hour, not so fast that you are likely to get a ticket, but just fast enough to feel like Rebel Without a Cause. Another car is trying to merge. You could speed up, or you can choose to let them in. The studies say letting them in is not only better for the overall flow of traffic, but it reduces your own stress and improves your day. A pretty good endorsement for nice. (https://www.randomactsofkindness.org/kindness-ideas/1095-let-them-merge, Eight Steps To Happiness, Dr. Anthony M. Grand and Allison Leigh, pp 76-77)

Therefore Dina Creiger developed a niceness pledge, and her goal is to have a million people sign on to it by the year 2020. It’s quite simple.

“I promise to help spread kindness wherever and whenever possible. And to the very best of my ability, I’ll be nice to those with whom I come into contact on a daily basis.”

You can find it at choosetobenice.com. It’s a perfect way to start the new year.

I have already signed it, and I encourage all of us to do the same. Of course the pledge is not worth the paper it is written on, and we will all have moments when we forget, but its value comes when we keep it to the best of our ability. We can show the best of ourselves, giving out as many fourth marbles as possible, and in turn we can inspire the best from others as well.

Like the Choose to Be Nice Club at a Boston School (http://choosetobenice.com/guest-blog-valerie/) who hand delivered plants to the 100 households in the school’s neighborhood, thanking them for their patience with the noise and traffic that surround a school. One woman in particular was deeply moved. She was a retired school librarian who was caring for her grown son. Both had felt detached and lonely, but soon developed a relationship with the school as volunteers. By choosing to be nice, the school children made new friends and brightened many lives.

We can do the same. That’s what these High Holidays are all about. It’s about seeing every encounter through the fourth lens philosophy. Sometimes we’ll be the giver, and other times the recipient. But if we look across the table and consider our choices, our challenge is to make the nice choice. Let us make this part of our atonement in the coming days. Let us remember the times when we were angry, bitter, or selfish. And then let us pledge ourselves to resist those temptations, and it will be especially important in this election year, that we choose the better way, that we choose to be nice.


The Year of the Jackpot- Rosh Hashanah 5777

This is the year we are going to change fortunes. Why do I feel this way, you might ask? Why this is the year 5777. Usually, when you see triple 7’s, that means “jackpot.” Triple 7’s are a universal symbol for winning. And on this evening, this Rosh Hashanah, we celebrate that the world keeps spinning, and this year we got triple 7’s. Unlike a slot machine, triple 7’s in the Jewish new year guarantee nothing. We can only gain as much fas the effort we put in. The payout comes only if we pay heed to the words of Unetaneh Tokef, when we focus our thoughts on changing the future through Repentance, prayer, and charity. These things can be our three lucky sevens which can bring us a jackpot.

The first lucky seven is repentance. Coincidentally, we learn about this in the Sheva berachot, the seven wedding blessings. They speak of “Rei-im ahuvim be-gan Eden kekedem”— the Torah’s first couple in the Garden of Paradise. The blessings want a new married couple to rejoice the same way Adam and Eve did when, as the story goes, love was new in the world. And marriage can be a metaphor for all relationships. Whether lover to lover, parent to child, friend to friend, vendor to client, stranger to stranger, we start out with the best of intentions. Things can even seem perfect, blissful, but there are always bumps in the road. Mistakes are made. But the idea of repentance, Teshuvah, as we say, is to return. We can always return to the beginning. It is not as simple as pressing a reset button. It takes work. And no, we should never be so naive that we believe we can take away the scars and the hurt, but if we remember the original spark as it was at first, we can turn our intentions to the path of goodness and restore a relationship once broken. We can then rejoice again the way we did when love was new.

In our prayers, we recite the words, “chadesh yameinu ke-kedem.” Renew our days as at first. May this be a guiding prayer in these coming days of Awe, and may it be the first seven on our way to the jackpot.

The second lucky seven for Rosh Hashanah comes from prayer. In the central part of our daily prayer, wha we simply call Tefillah, or the prayer, we remember the names of our seven patriarchs and matriarchs. In this season, we do more than just remember them. We are supposed to recall their merits and emulate them ourselves. We ask God to remember the stock from which we came, and to whose advancement we recommit ourselves. To point us in the right direction, I borrowed a page from the Disney Company playbook. Lee Cockerell, an executive at Walt Disney World wrote seven customer service strategies based on each of the Seven Dwarfs (Creating Magic: 10 Common Sense Leadership Strategies From A Life At Disney, p. 127 & 130). I thought it was brilliant, and so I sought to do the same with our seven central figures. My main rule was that they had to be firmly rooted in Torah and midrash. And so I propose these seven ways of hitting the jackpot in the traditions of our ancestors.


For the last, perhaps, most important of our sevens, we consider the last time the Jewish year showed triple sevens. It was one thousand years ago, during the Golden Age of Spanish Jewry. During this time, Jews enjoyed amazing tolerance under their Muslim rulers. One Jew in particular rose to be a great leader, serving as the Royal vizier. He was Shmuel Ha-Nagid or Samuel the Prince. As the king’s most trusted advisor, he amassed great wealth which he eagerly shared with Jewish communities all around the known world. He sent food and books to wherever they were needed. Some of the king’s other advisors grew jealous of Shmuel’s influence and spread accusations that he had was stealing from the Royal Treasury. The King angrily demanded that Shmuel provide a full accounting for the value of his wealth. After three days, Shmuel returned and presented the king with a scroll.

The king believed Shmuel was mocking him. “How can this be? I see none of your belongings here? No house. No jewelry. No animals. I know you are worth much more than this.”

Shmuel told him, “You asked for the value of my wealth. Worldly possessions can never really be mine. They can be taken away by war, by natural disaster, by you, your majesty with just a word. What you hold in your hand is a list of all that I have given to charity, for that is the only wealth that I can truly possess. That is the kind of wealth that stays with me forever (Rabbi Shlomo Klass, Tales From Our Gaonim, http://www.jewishpress.com/kidz/midrash-stories/an-expensive-agreement-continued-from-last-week-2/2016/07/15/ and Aryeh Mahr and Esteve Polls, Shmuel HaNagid, A Tale From the Golden Age).
Friends, that is the jackpot, when we measure our value by what we give, and not what we take.

We gain value like Abraham, who heard the call Lech Lecha, to go forth with the people he had acquired (literally “made” though translations vary). And no, this is not owning a person. The Talmud says, “acquiring” people refers to the souls we have nourished. To nourish a soul could be feeding their minds with teaching (BT Sanhedrin 99b & 19b, which state that to teaching is on par with giving life to a person). It would not be much of a stretch to say the same for feeding their bodies when they cannot do so on their own. A person’s true wealth is measured by the people they acquire.

Whom might we acquire? Through our giving, we might reach that person who is only one meal away from death. We might save the unemployed, single mother who is embarrassed to ask for food to be placed in her luxury SUV after her husband of 20 years left her with the car as her only asset (anecdote shared by Scott Young, Executive Director of Lincoln Food Bank at Mayor’s Interfaith Prayer Breakfast 2013). We might acquire the child who can focus on homework during the weekend because the food they brought home in the backpack program kept their stomach settled and their brain sharp. We might acquire the future leaders who were able to dream simply because food allowed them to live one more day and dream one more dream. A simple gift can make our wealth immeasurable.

So it is a challenge in this New Year, not only that we hit the jackpot, but that we act as though the world shares one winning Powerball ticket to be equally divided among us.

And thus, it is no accident that we hold a food drive every year at the High Holidays. It is not only because this is when we have the most people in our building, though that does not hurt. But it is because it is an active expression of our values, a chance to grow our spiritual wealth in a tangible way so that our deeds outside match the words we say inside.

What is a coincidence however its that our holidays coincide with the Food Bank of Lincoln’s Faithfull Harvest. The South Street Temple is joined with nine other faith communities in Lincoln in an effort to curb hunger in our community. It is a real problem. I don’t want to bore you with too many statistics, but the numbers make your head spin.

You know that old joke about Nebraska’s third largest city? Memorial Stadium on game day? I’ve got news for you, and the numbers are not even close. With numbers approaching a quarter of a million people, the number of Nebraskans living with food insecurity is the third largest city. That’s three Memorial Stadiums.

Right here in Lancaster County, an estimated 14,000 school children are food insecure (all statistics provided by Lincoln Food Bank). The Foodbank serves more than 5,000 families every single week in an effort to reach all 42,000 hungry individuals in our County. And those are only the ones we know about. Who knows how many more there might be? Only the truly heartless could hear these numbers and not be moved. And to feel moved is— nice, but our tradition cares less about how we feel and about what we do. Let us not just hear these numbers and only feel moved. Let us be moved to action. I don’t know about you, but when I hear the numbers, I get angry. We live in the most prosperous nation in the history of the world. Our city enjoys a low cost of living, and our unemployment rate is among the lowest in the nation. Thousands of people suffer in silence. This is inexcusable, and Judaism prohibits us from standing idly by. We cannot be still until hunger is eradicated.

Last year, the Faithful Harvest collected 7,667 pounds of food, enough to feed a family of four for one year. But the Food Bank is not satisfied, nor will they allow us to be. They have doubled the goal. They have challenged us and our nine faith community partners to donate 15,000 pounds of food, enough to create 18,000 meals. Our efforts are underway, but we have only just begun. So tonight, go home to your pantries. Take out non-perishable food items. If you have none, go to Hy-Vee or Super Saver or Russ’s or wherever, and buy some items to bring, and tomorrow morning, let’s overflow our baskets. If you’re not coming tomorrow morning, the baskets will be here until Yom Kippur. Let’s show the rest of Lincoln how seriously we take this challenge of ending hunger, and how we believe the truest value of our own wealth is measured by how much we give.

If we do, we will in this year of 5 triple 7, hit the jackpot and will help others to join us along the way.

New Year’s Wish: “May the Schwartz Be With You!”

Much to my delight, the movie Spaceballs was showing on cable again the other night. And in typical Mel Brooks fashion, it puts the Jewish spin on just about everything. He famously took the Star Wars Force, the great power that defines the universe and can be controlled by those who have the gift of harnessing it, and turned it into the Schwartz. It made me wonder what if… what if we stopped saying Shabbat Shalom, and instead, started saying: “May the Schwartz be with you!”

Then at Rosh Hashanah, we could say, “May you be written in the book of Schwartz.”

Or at Chanukah, “Nes Gadol Hayah Schwartz.”

Why, the possibilities are endless!

You know, strangely, something poignant does come out of this silly comedy, and it is spoken by the bad guy, Dark Helmet (played by Rick Moranis). He has to explain why he is afraid to confront the “everlasting know-it-all” Yogurt. Colonel Sandurz asks him, “Don’t you have the Schwartz too?” And Dark Helmet has to explain, “He got the up side. I got the down side. See, there’s two sides to every Schwartz.”

And as we learn from Spaceballs and from the Star Wars saga, the Schwartz, like the Force may have two sides, but the power is in “how you handle it.” You can use good powers for bad, or bad powers for good. The utility of any weapon, power, or tool lies in the decisions of the one who possesses it.

The commentator Ibn Ezra points us to this idea by examining the use of one particular word in this week’s Torah portion, Ki Tavo. He reads the section that talks about taking the first fruits of the land as an offering, and placing them in a basket (Deu 26:2). He laser beams in on the word basket. The Hebrew Tene, he says is an unusual choice, a rare appearance of this word. And so he points us to a later part of Deuteronomy (Deu 28:5 and 28:17) that uses the same word and wants us to take note of it. It says your basket shall be blessed and same with your kneading bowl. Ibn Ezra hates that these things are out of order. The kneading bowl should come before a bread basket. You can practically hear him saying, am I right folks? Am I right? Unless…. the basket is for holding the flour… Boom! Drop the mic.

So what we’ve got here is the same basket that could be for fruits, for bread, or for flour. It’s all about who’s using it and how.

We all have multipurpose baskets, we have our unique set of skills and the opportunities to influence others. Like the Schwartz those powers have an up side and a down side. And we have to wield them responsibly.

Patricia Buitrago (http://www.success.com/article/are-you-using-your-power-for-good-or-evil) was a 10th grader when her math teacher called her to his desk. In front of the rest of the class, he said, “Your grades are [terrible], you don’t understand math, and you shouldn’t even think about college.” She cried all the way to a lower level math classroom. From that moment on, the rest of her grades, formerly A’s began to plummet to C’s and below. This teenager who had aspiratations of becoming a teacher herself, in one brief moment, had her dreams dashed.

It is unlikely that the teacher had malicious intent, but he clearly failed to recognize the power of his position and the power of his words. There are innumerable better ways he could have handled this situation. He could have challenged himself to teach her differently. Or, even if Patrica genuinely needed to be in a different math class, he could have been more supportive and encouraging, even recognizing the rest of her skills, imbuing her with confidence to try harder and achieve.

By contrast, Jennifer Reed who left journalism to become an English teacher shares a very different story, where she exercises the upside of a teacher’s power. A student had been transferred to her class midyear and got a D on the quiz. Considering the difficulties her student experienced with changing classes, she allowed the student to re-take the quiz, and with a more time to prepare and the quieter setting, the grade went from a D to an A. Neither teacher nor student made a big fuss, yet. But then came a writing assessment. Again the student got a D. Reed took her student aside privately, and said, “You always listen in class and you try hard, you really should be an A student.”

What Reed did not know, was that this was a special needs student, and no one had ever said anything to her like, “You should be an A student.” Not even her own mother had dreamed such a thing. One little comment changed her world. It was a small exercise in wielding enormous power and influence. Two examples of the exact same power. With one swipe for the bad, it could destroy a world, as happened with Patricia Buitrago’s teacher. And with one glorious swish, it saved a world as happened for Jennifer Reed’s student.

This is not just about teachers. It is about anyone who leads or can influence another. Those who use the downsides of their powers, whether parents, team captains, managers, clergy, or just trusted friends, try to influence by force, coercion, insults, or even threats, but for the rest of us, those who commit ourselves to the upside, we influence by example, encouragement, honesty, and love.
The power is in all of our hands. Let us see how we handle it.

The High Holiday Season officially has officially begun with Selichot (service focused on penitential prayers). If we have not yet, let us use this Torah portion and the coming night to begin reflecting on how we use the tools at our disposal, for the light or the dark, the good or the bad.
In this coming new year, let us all pray, “May the Schwartz be with you. Always.”