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Rabbi Philip Sherman

Rosh Hashanah 5781
September 2020

“There’s always more to learn. We are all works in progress. But deep inside our souls, we know, and we have always known, what is just and right.”

Rabbi Philip Sherman

Erev Rosh Hashanah 5780
October 2019

“‘The whole world is a very narrow bridge; the essence is that we need not be afraid.’ These words adapted from Rabbi Nachman’s teaching are puzzling. If the whole world is a very narrow bridge, might that feel limiting?”

Rabbi Philip Sherman

Yizkor, Minchah & N’ilah 5779
October 2018

“Carrying our loved ones who have died is deeply embedded in our tradition…The ones who came before us should be brought with us, as they are intrinsically connected to the ways in which we live each and every day: the choices we make, the values we espouse, and the sacred and holy nature of memory itself.”

Rabbi Philip Sherman

Erev Rosh Hashanah 5779
October 2018

“There are infinite reasons why each of us is here and arrived tonight, and every one of them is important and valid. So, no matter what brought us here, I’d like us to take an opportunity to reflect on why we entered this sanctuary.”

Rabbi Philip Sherman

Erev Rosh Hashanah 5779
September 20, 2017

We all have rituals that we perform, religious or otherwise- many as part of our daily lives. Enjoying coffee every morning at the same time. Ritual. A blessing or deep breath before each meal. Ritual. Mowing the lawn every Sunday afternoon. Ritual. Taking a picture before the first day of school or a new job. Ritual. Our lives are full of rituals whether we are consciously aware of them or not. But we do not often stop to think about the impact and purpose they have on us or the fact that we couldn’t live our lives the same way without them. Rituals ground us in space and time, allowing us to experience life’s moments with greater meaning. Jewish tradition knows the value of rituals.”

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I was 20 years old when I had arguably my most embarrassing moment.

Imagine the scene with me.

Eighteen thousand of my closest friends all gathered together at Assembly Hall at Indiana
University. I am standing at the top of the three point line just across from the Hoosiers bench
when I am handed the basketball.

You see, when I had entered the arena for the game I placed my name in a raffle to win the latest Nokia flip phone. The person whose name was chosen simply had to make a 3-point shot.

I’m so excited when my name is drawn and I am walked onto the court. In a daze I take the ball and look up at the basket. The noise and chatter suddenly turns to silence as I hold the ball in my hands and I feel the eyes of the sold out crowd. Feeling totally anxious, I glance quickly at the rim and take my best shot. Up it goes, and it drifts, drifts, and drifts, further and further from the basket, falling to the ground without even coming close to hitting the rim or the backboard. Immediately a soft and slow chant begins “air ball” “air ball.” My face turns as red as the Hoosier shirt I’m wearing; I leave the court, return to my seat and brace myself as my friends have a
grand ole’ time at my expense.

This was an embarrassing albeit laughable experience for sure, but what could I have done differently…what was I missing?

Skill, of course.

But, also, ritual. I didn’t do what I had always done before shooting a basketball – what I learned to do as a kid and what I practiced over and over again. First- find the spot on the court that feels right (slightly off-center was my sweet spot), bounce it three times, spin the ball backwards, pause and shoot. In that high-stakes moment, I rushed, forgot my ritual, and completely embarrassed myself.

We all have rituals that we perform, religious or otherwise- many as part of our daily lives. Enjoying coffee every morning at the same time. Ritual. A blessing or deep breath before each meal. Ritual. Mowing the lawn every Sunday afternoon. Ritual. Taking a picture before the first day of school or a new job. Ritual. Our lives are full of rituals whether we are consciously aware of them or not. But we do not often stop to think about the impact and purpose they have on us or the fact that we couldn’t live our lives the same way without them. Rituals ground us in space and time, allowing us to experience life’s moments with greater meaning.

Jewish tradition knows the value of rituals. In fact, we have hundreds of them. Ours is a religion that thrives on individual and communal relationship to ritual practice. As the great Zionist thinker, Ahad Ha’am, famously said, more than the Jewish people have kept Shabbat, Shabbat has kept the Jews.

As our world has changed, ritual has also evolved. We have rituals prescribed in the Torah, from God: keeping kosher, eating matzah, building a sukkah, hearing the shofar, fasting on Yom Kippur. We also have rituals created by human beings out of desire to elevate certain moments in our lives: immersing in the mikvah (the ritual bath), dressing in costumes for Purim, observing the days of shiva, reciting blessings over sacred moments.

An NPR story on ritual states that people participate in rituals for healing and religious connection even if they are sure that their acts will have no impact on the outcome. We actually abandon logical and practical ideas of what we know might work because rituals are so important.(1)

Why is this? Because human beings need ritual. “In a chaotic world, [ritual] repetition seems to offer us the illusion of control over what we want to happen.” (2) Rituals provide a way to engage with our world, the good and the bad, they offer us a language to respond when we don’t have words. We live in a world where hate and bigotry are at the forefront of leadership and communal conversation, where religion continues to separate people, and we see disaster in many forms all around us.

In times of chaos and unknown, Jewish ritual binds us together, gives us meaning and gives us a response to existential fear. A particularly powerful example are stories of Jews in concentration camps during the Holocaust saying shema or reciting words from memory form a megillah on Purim, or haggadah at Passover time. Ritual is what we come back to in moments of unknown, providing a source of security. It can be a source of comfort for children; helping us know what to expect and creating our own sense of identity when everything else is spinning around us. Jewish ritual is always available, but, like anything, it needs to be nurtured and practiced.

Jewish ritual has been foundational to my experience of Judaism since a very young age. I practice kashrut, attend Shabbat services, recite the Shema before bed. These rituals help ground me in moments each and every day— guiding me as I navigate life as a husband, dad, and rabbi— and they connect me to my Jewish ancestors and other Jews around the world. I love seeing the Shabbat candlesticks that my great-grandmother, Elsie, brought with her from Germany to Holland, then on a boat to Ellis Island, and at the same time knowing that as
I join in lighting them, at the same moment so too are many others around the world.

But maintaining a ritual life is not always easy. Not all of us connect with Jewish ritual, nor do rituals necessarily serve the same purpose for each of us. And yet, from the very start of our rabbinic Judaism, the tradition from where we draw the majority of our sacred rituals, our sages understood practicing Jewish rituals to be difficult and different for everyone.

We see this in the very first section of the Talmud, in tractate berachot. In a conversation about prayer and how to know in what direction one should direct prayers, it teaches, “While the rabbis instruct us to face towards the land of Israel and the Holy of Holies, they make special allowance for the sumah (the blind person), and more broadly, for “one who is unable to determine the directions of the compass.” “The Talmud’s idiom for that second category is mi sh’eino yachol l’chaven et ha’ruchot—one who is not able to discern the winds, we might say someone who may not know where to start, perhaps someone who has difficulty connecting with God. The Talmud teaches us to pray towards the Holy, or the wind, or spirit, and for many of us, that might be turning inward and praying or engaging in rituals that illuminate our inner core, our spiritual selves, our sacred homes within.” (3) Prayer is a deeply sacred ritual. The talmud teaches that this ritual of prayer is so important that it’s not about perfection or even what may be right, it’s about experiencing it as best we can, and that’s all God wants from us.

We all have moments when feel we cannot see. Moments when we are the sumah, not sure exactly where to turn, not sure how to set an intention. Whether we are Jewish or not, rituals, especially sacred ones, can help all of us to see the world with a new sense of clarity and perhaps focus.

A researcher at the Harvard Business School led a study on the impact of ritual on anxiety and performance, and the findings were quite remarkable. Study participants were asked to complete an anxiety provoking activity- a math test. Test performance was significantly improved when given a ritual to complete beforehand. Interestingly, when this same ritual was called a “task,” there was no significant difference. But most notably, adding a “sacred” element to the ritual, sprinkling salt on one’s paper, improved performance even more. (4)

“Wade Boggs, Hall of Fame third baseman for the Boston Red Sox, was famous for his pregame rituals. Before each outing, he ate chicken, took batting practice at 5:17 p.m., did wind sprints at 7:17 p.m., and fielded 150 ground balls. He also wrote “chai”, the Hebrew word for life, in the dirt before going up to bat.” (5) Boggs elevated his ritual to the sacred by adding chai, and he was a pretty good baseball player.

We don’t have to be sports players or even fans to connect to this.

If the evidence suggests that rituals make us focus more, do a little bit better at the thing we are doing, can we extrapolate to our sacred Jewish rituals? By doing them, can we experience life a little better? Can they lift us up, help us to eliminate extraneous noise in our lives, be more present, and live more deeply?

Tefillat haderech, the traveler’s prayer, has been one of my greatest ritual tools when I feel anxious or a lack of control. In this prayer we ask God to protect us on our journey as we leave home and for a safe return. I learned this prayer when I first traveled to Israel in high school and since then I have carried it with me, in my wallet and on my phone; to this day I recite it when I board a plane or go on any trip. When I lived in Israel during rabbinical school this ritual made it possible for me to travel on buses in Jerusalem, calming my anxiety about the possibility of harm along my way. This ritual continues to bring me comfort and peace, allowing me to more
fully be in the moment. Sacred Jewish ritual can transform our lives, in my case shifting anxiety and fear of the unknown into trust in God, others, and myself.

Over the last few years my life has gotten more and more busy with my children, shifting time away from that daily prayer practice that I used to maintain. This year, I want to build on the feeling this practice had brought me by finding a way to maintain a daily prayer ritual.

I know that it will keep me calm, offer me a sense of connection to a greater purpose in life, and remind me my role in the world.

So let us support one another in this new year as we each find one practice, one sacred Jewish ritual to give new or expanded meaning to our lives.

This is how I am going to find my place in the chaos. What will it be for you?

Perhaps it is as simple as lighting Shabbat candles each week, or cultivating another Shabbat practice.

Maybe you are hoping to be a more mindful eater and want to try saying a blessing before breakfast.

What about creating a Jewish bedtime ritual for your child?

Or maybe it’s not a new ritual, but a practice you once enjoyed that you wish to return to.

Once a month, on Monday nights, join me as we create a ritual practice group, where we will look at possible rituals to explore and support one another in this journey. I hope that you will join in. If not, why not find one ritual to practice, and see what it does for you, your family and your life.

There is a famous story about the 20th century German-Jewish philosopher and theologian, Franz Rosenzweig.Towards the end of his life, after years of teaching, studying, and practicing Judaism, his students approached him and asked, “teacher, do you put on tefillin each day?” “Not yet,” he responded. “Not yet.” Franz Rosenzweig, one of the great Jewish teachers and thinkers of his time recognized that Jewish ritual and one’s connection to it is an ongoing process. There is always time to jump in, always time to see the ways sacred rituals can impact
our lives. He reminds us no matter the age or stage in our lives it’s never too late to build or deepen a connection to Jewish ritual.

And so I think back to that moment at Assembly Hall, when that flip phone felt like a prize truly worth winning, so much so that I missed an opportunity to let my ritual guide me. But now I know that the most rewarding benefit of ritual practice is the spiritual and emotional meaning it brings. In this new year, may each of us be blessed to experience the joy and meaning of Jewish ritual, and may the rituals of our tradition transform our lives.

Shanna Tovah, u’metukah.

Rabbi Philip Sherman

2 ibid
3 Rabbi David Stern, CCAR Journal Summer 2017, pg 56 – Bavli Berachot 30a
5 Ibid

Rabbi Philip Sherman

Rosh Hashanah 5778 Yizkor Sermon
September 2017

“I’ve always been mesmerized by the night sky, especially the one I got to experience at camp in the Northwoods of Wisconsin and also in the Negev Desert in Israel, where the expanse and beauty of the night sky is astounding. There’s a wonder about those bright lights in the dark. And while the stars bring different meaning to each of us, their mystery connects us all to something greater than ourselves. For me, stars are deeply connected to Judaism. Like the sun and moon they are nature’s given tools to mark time, helping us to know when a holiday begins or Shabbat ends. And stars are also deeply embedded in the narrative of our people.”

Rabbi Philip Sherman

“History Has Its Eyes On Us”

Erev Rosh Hashanah 5777
October 2, 2016

“We stand here ready to enter into a new year, one filled with hope, dreams, love, and aspirations for a better year to come. But while much of our High Holy Day mindset is about looking to the future, our liturgy reminds us to do something else: Stop, and look at the past.”

Rabbi Philip Sherman (accompanied by Noah Aronson) shared a meaningful sermon, including an excerpt from a Broadway musical.

Rabbi Philip Sherman

“The Mystery of Stillness”

Rosh Hashanah 5777
October 4, 2016

“Stillness breads wonder. Being in the absence of one thing allows for the presence of another.”