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Rabbi Rachel Saphire

Kol Nidre 5780
October 2019

“Jewish tradition requires all of us to perform the mitzvah of living. To be exact, it is a requirement of Torah to give one tenth of one’s livelihood to those in need. The intention of the gift is also important.”

Rabbi Rachel Saphire

Kol Nidre 5779
September 2018

“Often considered a burden, guilt can be one of the most important tools we carry with us during this season, when we practice cheshbon hanefesh, an accounting of the soul.”

Rabbi Rachel Saphire

“Returning Home”

Shabbat Shuvah 5779
September 14, 2018

I just love preaching on this Shabbat in between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, this Shabbat called Shabbat Shuvah. No, it’s definitely not because rabbis are supposed to give the longest sermon of the year (according to the tradition of our sages). I.just.love preaching on this Shabbat. You may think that sounds absurd or you may think rabbis grumble about writing a sermon on the Shabbat between the holidays when we already have high holy day sermons to write. Not the case either. I love preaching on Shabbat Shuva every year because I’ve created a tradition around it that I find meaningful…and I hope you do, too. I like to search all year for a story that is perfect for this precious time between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Usually the story speaks for itself. And usually I come across this story, that I know is going to be just perfect for the next Shabbat Shuva, very early in the previous year. But this year it didn’t come to me. Last week, I happened to be talking to Rabbi Sherman and mentioned that the story wasn’t coming so easily this year, that I wasn’t happy with the story I had, and that I could be convinced of another one…

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When of course, Rabbi Sherman said, “I’ve got it! I have just the one… it’s perfect…you just have to figure out what to do with it.”

So this is to say, thank you Rabbi Sherman. And I hope you will also appreciate what we will draw from it tonight.

It’s from the New York Times, a few weeks ago. (1) Martin Schmidt knew from a young age that he was adopted. But he did not seek out his birth parents. His adoptive parents gave him the paperwork needed for meeting his biological parents when he turned 18, but Martin just held on to the papers saying, “The parents I have, absolutely love me like I was [born to them].” But when Martin, 36, found out that his wife was pregnant with their first child in 2014, it made him want to meet the rest of the family he didn’t know.

He initiated contact through a state agency which reached his biological mother, Michele Newman. At the time, she was living in Hawaii. When Michele received the call from the state she burst into tears and within a few days, she directly called her son Martin on the phone. She was overwhelmed with joy to hear his voice. “Essentially, we were two strangers meeting for the first time, but we already had an emotional bond,” she said. Michele told Martin about the circumstances surrounding his birth. At the time, she was 17 years old and a junior in high school. Martin’s biological father, Dave Lindgren, grew up in the same small farming community in Wisconsin and their families were close. But, Dave, was a few years older and in addition to going to high school was also working a job. The two had dated for several months and broke up before Michele realized she was pregnant.

After giving birth and immediately giving up Martin for adoption, Michele graduated high school and left town. She married twice but had no other children. Martin, this child she never knew but always wondered about, was her only one.

A couple of weeks after speaking to Martin, Michele was still turning everything over in her head when she thought about Dave. It had been 35 years since she had spoken to him and told him she was pregnant. Michele knew he had consented to opening the adoption file and that he could have already spoken to Martin, so she decided to reach out and send him a text message.

Dave received the message back at his home in Wisconsin. It was later at night, and an odd area code coming through, so at first he ignored it. But then, once he realized who it was, he texted back… Michele and Dave exchanged so many messages that night that he finally just asked, “Do you mind if I give a call?” Since the last time they spoke, Dave had married three times, was again divorced, and had become a father to many – four biological children (including Martin) and four step- children. Dave was eager to hear more about his son but did not expect to be on the phone with Michele for four more hours until 2:00am! They both got off the phone and realized there was still so much more to say. For days, they couldn’t stop talking.

Several months later, Dave offered that he’d always wanted to go to Hawaii. So sure, enough, Michelle welcomed him and they reunited. It was just like they were 17 years old again. Even some 4,000 miles and five hours apart, the two continued to talk every day. Separately, they were also talking to their son, Martin, more and more.

Within a few months of the Hawaii trip, Michele decided it was time to move back to Wisconsin for good. She was also very eager to meet Martin. So, on her way back to Wisconsin, she made a stop in Colorado to reunite with her son. Martin said it was one of the most powerful moments of his life to give and receive a hug from the woman who had carried him into this world. It was during this visit that Martin learned of the romance unfolding between his biological parents. The couple moved in together and exactly one year after that fateful first text message, Dave proposed. Michele protested at first for they had both been married and divorced multiple
times and she felt it was unnecessary when they knew how they felt about each other. But he insisted saying, “I want to marry my real sweetheart.”

And so he did. Michele started the ceremony by saying, “I’ve experienced blessing and sadness but I wouldn’t change any of it. The day that I got the call that Martin wanted to reach out to us was the best day of my life. And it’s just gotten better every day after that.” Dave said, “I never thought in a million years this would happen. It’s just awesome.” And naturally, their son Martin, the soul who was created with a piece of theirs, the one who reunited their hearts, officiated the ceremony.

Why did I think this story was so perfect for this night of Shabbat Shuva? Teshuvah, that we generally translate as “repentance,” literally means “return.” This is a story about complete and transformational return. Martin, embracing the emotions and responsibility of becoming a new
father sought to return to and to know those who gave him life. As exciting as it may sound to anticipate such a foundational return, I also can imagine that it was a little scary, too. Who knows what Martin could have discovered while seeking his teshuvah. Then there was Michele who had the instinct to return to Dave and he welcomed this teshuvah, as well. As unconventional as it may have felt, Martin, Michele, and David each seized the opportunity to return to their identity, their roots, and the love in their hearts.

We may not have a new relative to discover, a hidden past to uncover or a long lost relationship to reconcile… but maybe we do… in a different way. Perhaps we can ask ourselves…What truth am I missing in my life? To what cherished relationship am I drawn to return? To what do I need to return that is deeply rooted in who I am? Because maybe last year or in the previous years of my life, I didn’t quite do what was most important. Maybe I haven’t quite returned to who I am supposed to be or to the people with whom I’m supposed to spend my life. And maybe I haven’t yet found what is most important, either.

The title of the news article as written in the NY Times is “Son, Placed for Adoption, Leads Birth Parents to Altar 36 Years Later” Although, it’s not an Altar where they are married, it is underneath a chuppah as the bride, Michele, is Jewish…

I find this quite meaningful, not just because this was a Jewish wedding or that there was Jewish ritual in the wedding, but because the chuppah is the symbol of a new home. T’shuvah, may our turning, our turning to what is most important to us, lead us home in the new year.

1- https://www.nytimes.com/2018/08/31/fashion/weddings/son-given-up-for-adoption-leads-birth-parents-to-altar-36-years-later.html

Rabbi Rachel Saphire

“Emma Lazarus on Liberty”

Shabbat Pinchas
July 6, 2018

The year was 1883 when Emma Lazarus, the fourth child of seven in a family that descended from America’s first Jewish settlers (1), a young, high society New York poet, was asked for a favor. Fundraising efforts were underway for a pedestal to hold the Statue of Liberty, an expensive gift from France that many Americans found especially uninspiring. The French had paid for the construction of the monument, but its recipients had to be responsible for constructing its base. This made many scoff.

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But a group of elite writers and authors in New York went to work, soliciting help from people like 34 year old Lazarus. They asked her to compose a sonnet to be sold at auction, alongside the writings of Mark Twain and Walt Whitman. This, they thought, would raise the funds needed to build the base of the monument.

 

Mark Twain resisted, sending a check and an alternative proposal (to build a statue of the biblical Adam, perhaps representing the strength of mankind). Twain wrote, “What do we care for a statue of liberty when we’ve got the thing itself in its wildest sublimity? What you want of a monument is to keep you in mind of something you haven’t got—something you’ve lost. Very well; we haven’t lost liberty; we’ve lost Adam. Another thing: What has liberty done for us? Nothing in particular that I know of. What have we done for her? Everything.” (2)

 

I think Twain missed the Mark as he often did. His statue of Adam was never built.

 

Meanwhile, writer Constance Cary Harrison set to persuade Emma Lazarus to contribute something for auction. Emma didn’t appreciate writing to order. Harrison had read Lazarus’s articles about the plight of Russian Jews abroad and knew of her volunteer work. Emma often took the streetcar from her lavish home on 57th Street to work at the Hebrew Emigrant Aid Society at 105 East Broadway where she helped to teach English and train refugees. She visited their squalid quarters on Ward’s Island and wrote to expose their living conditions – dirty water, overflowing garbage, unemployment, and lack of training for adults and education for children.(4) Harrison wrote to Lazarus, “Think of that Goddess standing on her pedestal down yonder in the bay, holding her torch out to those Russian refugees of yours who you are so fond of visiting at Ward’s Island.” As its recorded, Lazarus sped home, her dark eyes deepened, her cheeks flushed, the time for merriment passed. She said not a word more, then sat down to

write “The New Colossus.” It was the only poem read at the exhibition.(5)

 

The New Colossus

BY EMMA LAZARUS

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,

With conquering limbs astride from land to land;

Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand

A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame

Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name

Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand

Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command

The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.

“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she

With silent lips. “Give ME your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,

I lift my lamp beside the golden door!” (6)

 

Another contributor, James Russell Lowell, wrote to Lazarus in December 1883, “I must write to say how much I like your sonnet about the statue – much better than I like the Statue itself. Your sonnet gives its subject a raison d’etre which it wanted much more than a pedestal. You have set it on a noble one, saying admirably just the right words to be said, an an achievement more arduous than that of the sculptor.”

 

Lowell understood Lazarus’s great achievement. “The New Colossus” reinvented the statue’s purpose, turning Liberty into a welcoming mother, a symbol of hope to the outcast and downtrodden. “Mother of Exiles” replaced “Liberty Enlightening the World.”

 

But the poem faded from memory even before the statue was erected. At the dedication in October 1886, “The New Colossus” was not read. Lazarus died a year later, at the age of 38 from Hodgkin’s Disease. In 1903 Lazarus’s friend Georgina Schuyler raised enough money to engrave the poem on a bronze tablet and place it on the second floor of the Statue of Liberty. There it sat with little attention until the 50th anniversary of the Statue spurred a Slovenian-American journalist to begin a campaign to popularize Lazarus’s words. They caught on. Immigrant screenwriter Billy Wilder had the poem recited at a 4th of July celebration in the 1941 film Hold Back the Dawn. In 1942 it was used in an Alfred Hitchcock film as Priscilla Lane delivered its four most-famous lines to an enemy agent atop the Statue. In 1945, the bronze tablet was moved from the second floor to the main entrance.(7)

 

A young Jewish woman, the daughter of immigrants, would never know that her words would, decades later, come to define the American vision of liberty.

 

So what does Emma Lazarus teach us about liberty? First, she reminds us that liberty is a Jewish value. Emma understood that to live as a Jew is to welcome the stranger, to free them from the burdens that inflict them. According to our tradition, liberty is a right due to each human being. Emma recognized the promise of America to provide that sacred God-given right of liberty for all peoples. In fact, to proclaim liberty throughout the land is a mitzvah, a commandment that comes from Torah, the Book of Leviticus (25:10) to be exact. The Hebrew word for liberty is “d’ror,” “release,” coming from the root “to dwell.” In fact, some commentators understand liberty to signify the freedom that comes from dwelling where one chooses. (8) You may even recognize this commandment, “to proclaim liberty throughout the land for all its inhabitants” as the inscription on the Liberty Bell.

 

I would go as far as to say that a land that has lost its sense of liberty is a land completely at a loss for its morals and values. Paul Simon, the son of Jewish immigrants from Hungary wrote “An American Tune” in 1973. It tells the story of a man struggling to recognize the America he knows as he dreams that the Statue of Liberty has sailed off to sea.

 

I dreamed I was dying

And I dreamed that my soul rose unexpectedly

And looking back down at me

Smiled reassuringly

And I dreamed I was flying

And high up above my eyes could clearly see

The Statue of Liberty

Sailing away to sea

And I dreamed I was flying

We come on the ship they call the Mayflower

We come on the ship that sailed the moon

We come in the age’s most uncertain hour

And sing an American tune

(9)

 

In this day and age of America, we could not be in more need of a Colossus standing above our shore to remind us of the founding ideals of our country. Perhaps what we REALLY need is to return to the days of building its base so that the Mother of Exiles, the Statue of Liberty may stand for us and our most sacred values for years to come.

 

During this week that we celebrated the 4th of July, the founding of our country and its ideals, and on this Shabbat that we return to synagogue to remember our purpose as a Jewish people, I pray that we continue to work for the day when we may truly be able to proclaim liberty throughout the land for all its inhabitants.

 

Ken y’hi ratzon. May this be God’s will.

 

  1. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/morning-mix/wp/2017/02/01/give-us-your-tired-your-poor-the-story
  2. Reader’s Almanac. The Official Blog of the Library of America http://blog.loa.org/2010/10/mark-twain-and-emma-lazarus-two-visions.html
  3. Ibid
  4. Emma Lazarus. By Esther Schor
  5. http://blog.loa.org/2010/10/mark-twain-and-emma-lazarus-two-visions.html
  6. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/46550/the-new-colossus
  7. http://blog.loa.org/2010/10/mark-twain-and-emma-lazarus-two-visions.html
  8. 8 Eitz Chayim Commentary. P.740
  9. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/American_Tune

Rabbi Rachel Saphire

“Feeling Lost in the Wilderness of Mental Illness”
Kol Nidre 5776

A rabbinic colleague of mine shared the following story:

He was leading a text study on the Book of Jonah with a group of pre-teens.

They were somewhere at the start of chapter 2 where Jonah was running away from

God. He found refuge and went to sleep in the bowels of a ship amidst a raging storm.

The rabbi asked the kids what he thought was an innocent question: “So, how would

you characterize Jonah? What’s his problem?”

One girl began: “Well, he’s trying to run away from life, I mean, from taking responsibility.”

Then another: “It’s like he can’t see beyond himself.”

The boy sitting next to her said: “It seems like he’s lost touch; like he can’t feel what’s happening.”

The rabbi sat perplexed as they took his seemingly “simple” question more than seriously…

And then another girl interrupted his thoughts, “I mean this seriously, I’d say he’s suffering from Depression.”

One by one, the 7th graders diagnosed Jonah, relating his behavioral patterns to their own life experiences, to people they know and live with and love….(1)

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They had no problem honestly responding to what they saw to be matter-of-fact. The amazing thing is that they spoke without judgment. It was just reality, life as they knew it to be. As tragic as their words were, ironically, they spoke a beautiful truth.

With an understanding far beyond their 12 ½ or 13 years, these students give us insight, to see it like it is. From this prophetic work of Jonah, that we read every year on Yom Kippur afternoon, from a story that is 1000’s of years old, we have a window into the human condition that is just as old as we are…

This human condition is what we now call mental illness.

A mental illness is a condition that impacts a person’s thinking, feeling or mood and

may affect his or her ability to relate to others and function on a daily basis. Each person

experiences mental illness differently, even those with the same diagnosis.(2)

Researchers suggest that a mental health condition isn’t the result of one event, but

rather multiple, interlinking causes. Genetics, environment and lifestyle, together, can

play a role in the development of a mental health condition. Stress at home or at work makes some people more susceptible, as do traumatic life events. Biochemical processes, chemical imbalances, and brain structure may also play a role.(3)

According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), one in five adults – approximately 43.7 million Americans – experience mental illness in a given year. Approximately 20% of our youth, now ages 13 to 18, will experience a severe mental disorder in their lives. Depression afflicts some 16 million American adults. (4) And those are just the diagnosed cases. Furthermore, the rash of teen suicides in Newton, Needham and our surrounding towns tragically illustrate the hidden issues afflicting so many young people.

This past spring, two brave individuals spoke to our community about their experiences with mental illness. One was a young man. He tried to describe his emotional pain so that we might understand…

“Deep down, I was scared. I was really, really scared, and I didn’t like who I was. I didn’t like being 13. I didn’t like how I looked. I didn’t like the people I hung out with. I didn’t like my clothes, or my town, or my school, or my family. I hated myself. And that’s really what depression was to me. All I ever wanted was to feel loved. I needed love from my friends and peers. I knew my parents loved me, but I wanted someone my age to say “I appreciate you for who you are. You’re beautiful. You are loved.” But I didn’t get that. [I was] trying [my] absolute best to stay above water but [I] just couldn’t. And then [I] wondered if it would just be easier to stop trying so hard. To just let go, let the water surround [me] and then be done with it. Then, at least, [I] wouldn’t be so tired, and [I] wouldn’t have to fight so hard. This is all [I] felt. All day, all night, over and over again…Depression set in, crippling, debilitating, erosive depression. Every step was a struggle. Every breath hurt. I [even] cut myself over and over and over again just to feel something that didn’t hurt as much as the emotional pain]. I was drowning and I just wanted it to be over.” (5)

This young man felt like he could not escape these constant and pervasive feelings. Navigating a mental health issue is like feeling lost in a vast wilderness. We, as a Jewish community know a lot about what it feels like to wander in the desert. It is in the wilderness, a place empty of civilization, that the Israelites are exposed. And they, too, are stripped down. They become hungry, thirsty, tired, angry, fearful, and even paranoid. The Book of Numbers in the Torah, Sefer Bamidbar, which translates to “The Book of the Wilderness” documents the Israelite struggles in the desert. At this point, Moses, who is in his eighties, encounters an unbearable situation. The people are complaining, as their lives are not turning out as they expected. Their desert wandering (even after their release from Egypt) feels worse than slavery. They even accuse God and Moses of leading them to their deaths. Moses is stuck and responsible for a problem that seems too big to handle.

Moses directly and intimately turns, as he always does, to God. He challenges God for giving him this grave task and expresses that he can no longer cope with the people’s insatiable needs. He is physically and emotionally over-spent and he begs for death.

“Why have you done me this wrong?” he asks God. “Did I conceive this people? I cannot carry all these people by myself, for it is too much for me. If this is how You treat me, kill me, I beg You, and let me see no more of my wretchedness.” (6)

I have encountered this Moses many times, even within our community. She is taking care of her elderly parent while trying to manage her personal and professional life. He is getting up each morning to endure severe chronic pain. She inherited a condition of anxiety and has been suffering with depression from a young age. He is recovering from a medical emergency while trying to be a positive, loving husband and father. One Moses is caring for a spouse whose mental illness has lingered for years, another Moses tries to support a teenage child, yet another Moses struggles alone.

I know each of these Moses. You know them too.

Though, we may not know the real burdens they carry, the exact wilderness they traverse. Each of them is unique, but all of them are the same. They face a long-term challenge that depletes their resources and tests them to the core. They are often unable to treasure what they hold dear. (7) They can be in a room flooded with light and they can’t see it because their soul is darkened with pain.

They suffer from illness. Their illness is real (an illness of the mind or psyche). But, unfortunately, it is not the type of illness where they can rely on the skill of a surgeon, the precision of a laser, the support of a cast, or the protection of a band-aid.

And if being afflicted with illness is not bad enough, those with mental illness have another challenge. It is often easier to accept and understand when a physician offers a diagnosis such as diabetes, heart disease, or leukemia. But somehow the diagnosis of mental illness that comes from a psychiatrist, a medical doctor, this diagnosis can be ignored, purposefully minimized, challenged, or denied. I wonder: Does anyone ever blame us for our diabetes? Does anyone ever tell us that cancer is frivolous, that Crohn’s Disease is something that we bring upon ourselves? That leukemia is caused by a weakness of character or a figment of our imagination? (8)

Mental illness is no different than a physical illness. Except, it is. Because we make it out to be. Our young teen who spoke to our congregation about his depression challenged us this spring, “You wouldn’t tell someone with cancer to ‘get over it,’ so why would you tell someone with depression?”

There’s another problem with the misunderstanding of mental illness. This, we call stigma. I can reasonably gather, from figures that I just shared, that nearly 300 families in our Temple community are currently dealing with mental health issues. But this suffering is not always openly discussed. We do not naturally offer the same kind of support that we offer one with a physical illness.

How many of us send food to a friend when they return home from the hospital? Unfortunately, I’ve heard someone in our congregation ask the question, “Why doesn’t anyone bring a brisket when you are discharged from McLean [mental health] Hospital?”

The stigma or “otherness” reduces one to loneliness, to the wilderness, and it even reduces one’s humanity. Those with emotional pain risk being judged and misunderstood. We see the illness and not the person.

We cannot be the ones to judge another. During these Holy Days, we envision God as our Ultimate Judge. But it is not even that we are to see God as a judgmental being, but that God’s care and concern for us should inspire us to be the compassionate judge of our OWN actions. We must measure our own deeds and our own intentions. While we have worked very hard to sustain a nurturing, caring, and warm community, we still have work to do.

Our faith and connection to God remind us to have empathy for those who suffer. We are not to be so removed from understanding and sensing another’s pain. Even though one may feel victim to a condition that seems out of control, our tradition teaches us that we are neither powerless nor alone. Maybe one cannot rely on a surgeon, a laser, a cast or a band-aid, but God-willing we have a community ready to support us.

That is why a few of you have stepped forward to create a new Mental Health Initiative at TBE. I must commend and sincerely thank Alan Posner who came to Neil Silverston, our VP of Tikkun Olam, last year to ask the question, “What more can we do?” With the help of our extraordinary Tikkun Olam Fellow, Sandy Aronson, and Andrew Compaine, who rose to the occasion as our co-chair, we have organized a strong, passionate, and capable leadership team. Together, with visionary leadership from Vicki Rakov, we planned a successful Shabbat Reflection this spring. Many of you were in attendance as we shared stories, were inspired by our tradition, and mobilized to act. I thank all of you who have given of your professional talents and your personal time to move us forward. I believe that we are moving in the right direction!

When Moses pleads to God in anguish, God responds in the most practical and compassionate way. He asks Moses to gather 70 of Israel’s elders – wise, experienced people – and God promises to draw on Moses’ spirit and put some of it into these elders. God says, “They shall share the burden of the people with you. You shall not bear it alone.” (9) God calls us to action: Do not let others bear this burden of emotional suffering alone! Take part in another person’s healing! If you are in pain, do not suffer by yourself!

Our TBE teen experienced this firsthand… “… [I just wanted my pain to end,] So I swallowed a handful of pills that landed me in the Child Development Unit at Leonard Morse Hospital. I want you to think about what that means to you: psychiatric hospital…Maybe the word ‘crazy’ pops into your mind. But it doesn’t for me. I think of hope. Those ten days really put me on the road to recovery. I learned how to ask for help and that there are actually a lot of people around me who are ready to listen. I developed strategies to help combat those terribly corrosive thoughts. I opened myself up to other people. When you hate yourself, all you want is to be loved. And it’s not easy to feel that, but the louder the love, the harder it is to hear the hate. And slowly you believe your friends and family, that you’re worth something and that you’re a good person. And you are loved. And you begin to love yourself.” (10)

Moses also asks for help. He overcomes pride, shame, embarrassment, whatever it is that holds us back from admitting we are not entirely self-sufficient, and he says that he can’t go on alone anymore. He acknowledges his human frailty. He is ready to let the world love him as he is. When help is offered, he takes it.

Each one of us has the responsibility to ask for help and also to reach out, to support one another

So, here’s what we can do.

In late October, we will begin a series of healing services to engage prayer, music and reflections to address not only physical healing, but emotional and spiritual healing and comfort, as well. Our Mental Health Initiative leaders are working with our Caring Community Team to better reach and care for our community members struggling with mental illness. We are beginning a deep partnership with NAMI (the National Alliance on Mental Illness) to bring several educational programs and a support group to TBE.

The “In Our Own Voice” program will share the powerful personal stories of those with mental health conditions in the effort to change attitudes, assumptions, and stereotypes. And the “Family to Family” educational and support group will be offered to family members, significant others and friends of those living with mental illness.

Our Youth Educators (who often find themselves on the front lines, deep in relationship with our kids) will also begin working with a mental health consultant to support them.

We hope these opportunities will lead to even more ideas, programs, and support. Our goal is not to provide treatment. We do not seek to duplicate mental health services that are available in the community. But rather, we hope to utilize our Jewish values and resources, rely more on the relationships in our community, and provide what we uniquely can. As always, please know that if you are ever in need, or would find comfort in sharing your story, our clergy are available.

We must act together – I invite you to let me know if you are interested in joining our effort.

The stories of our prophets, Jonah and Moses, return every year to remind us that (whether it is the bottom of a boat in a raging sea, the barren terrain of the desert, or the suburbs of Boston, MA in the year 5776), the wilderness is a part of the human condition. But, so too, is the capacity to love, understand, and support one another. The lens of “illness” is only one way to understand emotional pain. Our tradition gives us a lens of hope, strength, and empowerment. We are only whole when we take part in each other’s healing of body, soul, and MIND.

God created human beings in two ways: (Genesis 2:7) from the dust of the earth and also by breathing a divine soul within us. Human beings are not only made of physical matter. I believe this is the sentiment of our traditional mishebeirach prayer that literally reads in Hebrew, “bimheirah refuah sheleimah – refuat hanefesh, urfuat haguf.” “God, grant us a complete healing of spirit (mind) and body.” When we recite the mishebeirach, it is our custom at TBE to ask you to mention those who are in need of healing. From this point forward in our community, I’d like for us to think of this prayer in its most holistic sense. God invites us to pray for those who are in need of physical healing, as well as those who are in need of emotional healing, or spiritual healing. It is our responsibility to acknowledge and embrace those who are in need of ALL kinds of healing. Most importantly, may we not only pray. May we act, as well, that our community may be a place of acceptance, welcome, support, learning, and healing.

  1. Rabbi Jeff Sirkman, Larchmont Temple, Larchmont, New York, YK, Kol Nidrei—5767…. Choosing LIFE—“Against Depression”
  2. https://www.nami.org/Learn-More/Mental-Health-Conditions#sthash.PeeukhtM.dpuf
  3. https://www.nami.org/Learn-More/Mental-Health-Conditions#sthash.PeeukhtM.dpuf
  4. http://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/statistics/prevalence/any-mental-illness-ami-among-adults.shtml#sthash.oltgK7RP.dpuf
  5. Anonymous. Mental Health Initiative Shabbat Reflection Spring 2015
  6. Numbers 11:12
  7. Inspired by the teaching of Rabbi Janet Marder, Congregation Beth Am, Los Altos Hills, CA – on Numbers 11
  8. Erev Yom Kippur/Erev Shabbat September 13, 2013 /5774 Rabbi James L Simon Temple Har Shalom
  9. Numbers 11:17
  10. Anonymous. Mental Health Initiative Shabbat Reflection Spring 2015

Rabbi Rachel Saphire

“This Too Shall Pass”
Kol Nidre Sermon 5775
October 3, 2014

My perspective changed this summer.

I was driving in the car, having just left a pastoral visit at the home of a congregant who
is braving a fight with cancer.

We spent the afternoon discussing the challenge of accepting illness, feeling powerless,
sharing bad news with our family, and forever being affected by the toll cancer takes on
our bodies and our lives. It was a challenging, but poignant conversation.

At the same time we were speaking, CNN was on in the background. Two breaking news
stories were vying for attention, both at the same time: the suspected missile attack on
Malaysian Airline Flight 17 which crashed over Eastern Ukraine killing all 239 aboard
and the incessant rocket fire from Hamas forcing the Israel Defense Forces to enter
Gaza. Both events during the same hours.

Read more

But, with the significance of our topic at hand, we mostly ignored the headlines…
Afterwards, when I was driving in the car, head spinning, heart heavy, my phone rang.
It was Rabbi Sherman. I, too, in that moment needed a rabbi. So, I answered.

“Hello?”

“Hi Rachel, How was your day?”

[I stumbled over words as my mind tried to comprehend and answer this typical

question that I would normally pass over. It meant something different today.]

“How was my day? Well, I just finished a difficult pastoral visit at which I found out about the Malaysian Airline flight and Israel’s entry into Gaza… And I’m on my way to pick up my 6 month old daughter, Ella. And I’m just trying to process. What is there to make of all of this?”

Then something else occurred to me, “What in the world would I tell Ella one day when she asks me the same question, ‘How was your day, Mommy?’”

“What am I supposed to say? ‘Well, as human beings we could live one day feeling healthy and the next be diagnosed with a life-threatening illness.’ What am I supposed to say? ‘It’s possible, my child, that we could be travelling on an airplane that militants could bomb out of the sky.’ What am I supposed to say? ‘Your family and your friends who live in Israel fear that a rocket will land on their home. They only have seconds to make it to safety. And the people who fire those rockets, they don’t love Israel. In fact, they don’t want Israel to exist. So, Israel must enter into a war.’”

And Rabbi Sherman, in that moment when I needed a rabbi, said, “I know. It’s awful. That’s why I called. I just wanted to check in.”

And that was only the beginning of the summer. It was all new terrain for me as a new mother, dealing with a difficult world, now with a completely different perspective.

What are we supposed to say? What are we supposed to think?

No, I wouldn’t say to my child exactly what I considered earlier. Maybe, ‘We live in a world with many challenges that we cannot control. People we love get sick and have to endure a painful process on the way to healing or God forbid, death. And there are people in our world who make bad decisions, evil decisions. They don’t act with the same values that we have. We condemn their actions and do everything we can to seek justice. Sometimes horrible things can even happen to us and people we know. Of course, when it affects us personally, it is much more difficult. But many times, horrible things happen to people we do not know. In the same way that we wouldn’t ignore the pain of our loved ones, we can’t turn our back simply because this evil or pain is experienced across the ocean or in a place we’ve never been. We do as much as we can to help and respond. We know that we, alone, cannot solve all problems. Our tradition teaches us that we don’t have to be fully responsible, but we must take part. (1) We can’t simply become overwhelmed by something that is out of our control, because something IS always within our control.’

Let me tell you a story…

One day King Solomon decided to challenge his advisor, Benaya ben Yehoyda. He said to him, “Benaya, I want you to find me a very specific ring.” “If it exists anywhere on earth, your majesty,” replied Benaya, “I will find it and bring it to you, but what makes the ring so special?” “It has magic powers,” answered the king. “If a happy person looks at it, he becomes sad, and if a sad person looks at it, she becomes happy.” Spring passed and then summer and still Benaya had no idea where he could find the ring. One night, he decided to take a walk through the neighborhoods of Jerusalem. He passed by a merchant who had begun to put away the day’s wares on a shabby carpet. “Have you by any chance heard of a magic ring that makes a happy person sad and a sad person happy?” asked Benaya. He watched the merchant take a plain gold ring from his cart and engrave something on it. When Benaya read the words on the ring, he knew he had found what the king wanted. That night, the king called for Benaya. “Well, my friend,” said King Solomon, “have you found what I sent you looking for?” To his surprise, Benaya held up a small gold ring and declared, “Here it is, your majesty!” King Solomon read the inscription and he couldn’t believe it!

The ring contained three Hebrew words, “Gam zeh ya’avor,” “This too shall pass.” At that moment the king realized that all his fortunes would one day disappear. But, on the other hand, it meant that the hardships he experienced would pass too. (2)

Gam zeh ya’avor. This, too, shall pass. This is the ultimate lesson in humility, a true insight into the ways of the universe. To answer many questions about the challenge or joys of life we can simply remember, gam zeh ya’avor, this too shall pass.

So, too, with the question, ‘What has this world come to?’ We should be able to answer, ‘This too shall pass.’

But it’s not that easy.

For, I don’t believe that this wisdom suggests that something so horrible will pass and we will just move on and forget about it. So, how does something pass?

Our struggle with the challenging events of this summer reminds me of the Unetaneh Tokef prayer that we recite during the Holy Days. To many of us, this is the most challenging prayer in our High Holy Day prayer book, as it addresses God as the Judge of the Universe, who will seal our fate based on our actions. According to the prayer, some of us will die by fire, some by water, some by sword, some by illness. This prayer is based on two sources, two different versions of the Talmud (from the 3rd-6th centuries). BUT, our current prayer does not read exactly how the Talmud does.

Why not? Because someone changed it!

This is what I imagine: The medieval poet who wrote the Unetaneh Tokef (who most likely lived in the 13th century) inherited the Talmudic texts. The Talmudic rabbis said that one’s actions either cancel or tear up a harsh decree.3 The medieval poet sat with this theological concept and could not take it literally. How can someone who is struck with the plague pray, and pray, and pray, and still die? How can one who lives a life of righteous giving still fall by the violence of the sword? It simply cannot be that performing acts of t’filah, teshuvah, and tzedakah will literally change God’s judgment upon us and that our actions will cause God to rescind an evil decree against us. Because; the world is already in motion and maybe God can’t intervene to change the evil actions people choose to make. Or maybe God does not have the power to reverse a disease or natural disaster that has begun to take its natural course. So, the medieval poet reacted and like many of us looked for a more realistic explanation. He proactively took the license to edit.

Where the Talmudic text says three things, mevatlin et hagezeirah – three things CANCEL the decree, the poet writes that three things ma’avirin et ro’a hag’zeirah – three things MAKE THE TERRIBLE DECREE PASS. (4) This is what appears in our modern day Unetaneh Tokef! Three things: t’filah (prayer), teshuvah (repentance or return), and tzedakah (charity or righteous acts) can make a terrible decree PASS.

In response to the brave editorial actions of the Unetaneh Tokef poet, Rabbi Marc Saperstein teaches, “If prayer, repentance, and tzedakah cannot change the external reality, if they cannot cure the malignant cancer [or change the course of a hurricane], they can indeed ensure that the evil potential in that reality will not become actual and enduring, but will pass.” (5) In other words, these actions enable us to transcend the difficulty of a decree or overcome something terrible that has been handed to us. T’filah: By finding strength and comfort in a Higher Purpose; Teshuvah: By searching through our souls to return to the values that are most important; Tzedakah: By helping and giving to others, we are better able to cope with any given situation so that the negative potential or the evil decree may pass.

So what are we to do, how are we to deal with the news that is delivered to us day by day? What are we to say?

I think the first step is that we have to be moved. In some situations, this comes easily. I know that I felt angry and on edge many times this summer as terrible news poured in. While I would have wanted to just say, ‘Oh, this too shall pass.’ It wasn’t that easy. Evil and hardship do not just pass right through us without leaving a feeling of pain or an emotional scar or an inkling of fear…

We are like sieves. You know the sand tools that we used to play with as a child? You pour the sand through it, and you shake it so the dirt will fall through, but things get stuck. There are certain things, that no matter how hard we try to shake, they just won’t pass through.

And if we acknowledge that something is sticking with us, that it’s bothering us, then God willing, we’ll have the strength to do something about it. That’s where t’filah, teshuvah, and tzedakah come in. These are God’s mitzvot, commandments, that give us greater purpose, strength and maybe even determination to handle and rise above what comes our way. Then it becomes about not just passing through or getting through a given situation, but making a difference for ourselves and others along the way.

I’ve seen this happen, especially with tzedakah. When I’m at a loss, I specifically feel the need to DO something concrete. Prayer and repentance are also powerful mitzvot, but I often find myself doing an act of tzedakah to transcend a given hardship.

In December of 2012, our Tikkun Olam (social justice) Team was hard at work planning a Shabbat Reflection, a program to reflect upon the spiritual nature of making our world a better place. I remember one particular planning meeting. It was painful…because we sat around the table exactly one week after the tragic shooting in Newtown. We had an agenda before us that did not address the pain and anger that we were feeling inside. We decided that we could not let this opportunity pass without acknowledging and responding to our new reality. Two weeks away from our big event, we changed the entire plan. We did teshuvah. We returned to that which was most important and planned an event that would bring our community together to share our emotions and begin to imagine how we could act for good as a community. TBE Congregants to Prevent Gun Violence was born that Shabbat. For nearly two years, dozens of our congregants have persisted in this work. We’ve organized educational sessions with state leaders, politicians, and researchers, we’ve lobbied our representatives at the State House, and we’ve mobilized hundreds of people. In fact, TBECPGV was instrumental in forming a state-wide coalition of over 30 organizations working towards the same cause. The result was the signing of a new Massachusetts bill this summer that contains several provisions to prevent gun violence. This December TBECPGV led an action at our Reform Movement Biennial in San Diego that gathered over 100 people from congregations across North America. A national campaign, ‘Do Not Stand Idly By’ was launched. And finally, TBECPGV has made it possible for Roxbury Presbyterian Church to create CommonUnity: Nights for Youth Peace, a program for youth coping with the burden of violence. Over 25 youth and young adults, have led and attended evening cafes and workshops that have made a real difference in their lives.We received an update from the director this summer with the news that a grieving teenager affected by gun violence is turning the corner and just began work at a daycare center. Another is heading back to finish college after a decade break. They know a temple in Wellesley has made CommonUnity possible and they are grateful. T’filah, teshuvah, tzedakah – Time doesn’t just pass by if we take the opportunity to transform it for the better.

And I know that we have the power to do more… even before the end of Yom Kippur. Five years after being the first congregation to host a Bone Marrow Registry Drive on Yom Kippur, we are hosting again, along with 75 other congregations across the US. Because we know that many more congregants between the ages of 18-60 are yet to be entered into a registry with the opportunity to save the life of a person suffering from leukemia, lymphoma, and other blood cancers and genetic disorders. Cutting edge technology enables us to join the registry with a simple cheek swab. Any one of us could be a match. One match: anytime, anywhere, for anyone. Let’s take part in this global movement to save lives. Pick up a form in the Atrium and return with it anytime tomorrow between 9:00 and 5:30 to swab your cheek. T’filah, teshuvah, tzedakah – Time doesn’t just pass by if we take the opportunity to transform it for the better.

So, I would tell my child, ‘It is certainly unfortunate that we live in a world with questions we cannot answer, with difficulty and evil we may not be able to reverse. But neither are we helpless. We have strength, we have purpose, we have resources and we have each other.’

May our prayers this Yom Kippur not be in vain. May we not pray for that we cannot change. May we not promise to do that which is humanly impossible. Instead, on Yom Kippur, when we evaluate our actions and remember our purpose before God, may we commit to the sacred deeds of t’filah, teshuvah, and tzedakah.

I do not believe our prayers address a God who determines our fate for the year. God may have the metaphoric pen in hand, but we are the writers, we are the authors, we are the ones able to tell our story. Even though there is evil and hardship in the world, may God guide us as we make them good. T’filah, teshuvah, tzedakah – And may we take the opportunity to transform time for the better, filling our days with meaning, purpose, and LIFE.

  1. Pirkei Avot 2:21. Lo alecha hamlacha ligmor, v’lo atah ben chorin l’hibateil mimena.
  2. Solomon, Avi (2011). This Too Shall Pass: Tracing an Ancient Jewish Folktale
  3. Jerusalem Talmud, Ta’anit 2:1, 65b: “Cancel (מבטלין (the harsh decree”” Babylonian Talmud, Rosh Hashanah 16b: “Tear up (מקרעין (one’s decree”)
  4. Unetaneh Tokef liturgy
  5. Rabbi Marc Saperstein, “Inscribed for Life or Death?”, Journal of Reform Judaism 28/3 (Summer 1981), pp. 18-26.

Rabbi Rachel Saphire

“The Choosing People”
Yom Kippur Morning Sermon
September 14, 2013

I realize that you’ve made a choice to be here today. Wait, you may be thinking, “I don’t have a choice whether or not to observe Yom Kippur. It’s just what I do. It’s what I’ve always done.” OR, you may observe in order to support your loved one or your family. Maybe you’re a teenager or child and your parents have simply told you, “You’re coming.” Either way: you’re here and that’s a big deal. And even if you may not realize you have, you’ve made that choice and THAT is a big deal, too.

Our Torah portion for Yom Kippur comes from Parashat Nitzavim from the Book of Deuteronomy. In just a few verses, God puts a big choice before us.

Read more

You stand this day, all of you, before God —[leaders], elders, all the men, women and children of Israel, and even the non-Israelite living among you[i]… to enter into the covenant of the Lord your God…

Surely, this Instruction that I command you this day is not too baffling for you, nor is it beyond reach.  [This Instruction] is not … beyond the sea – that you should say, ‘Who among us can cross to the other side of the sea and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?’ No, the Intruction is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to observe it.

See, I set before you this day life and prosperity, death and

adversity… Choose life — that you and your offspring will live” [ii]

I find this text to be symbolic.  It is not only about choosing life in the physical sense (preserving our health), but I actually think it’s about choosing TO LIVE JEWISHLY in a meaningful way.  For, the commandment to choose life is given as an instruction to connect to that which is sacred.   Perhaps what’s most important is the fact that this strong charge does not explicitly say HOW we should choose to live Jewishly in a meaningful way.  The text only states that this choice is not far out of reach “it is very close to you – in your mouth and in your heart.” What I think this really means is that the choice is within each and every one of us.  It is upon us to choose for ourselves, from within our own being, how it is that we want to express our Jewish identity or connect to the Jewish community.  And if that is the case, the pathway to choosing Jewish life may be different for each one of us!  The point is that we each actively have to make the choice.  Making this choice is a big deal.

The Torah portion also mentions that all of us stand before God on this day – every single one of us, no matter who we are – men, women, and children.  The text also mentions that even the ger, the one who is not from the Israelite community and is not Jewish stands among us.[iii]  Today, a ger tzedek, also refers to one who makes the choice to convert or join the Jewish community.[iv]  We affirmatively call him/her a “Jew by Choice.”  I think the Torah is teaching us that WE SHOULD ALL BE JEWS BY CHOICE!  What would it look like if each and every one of us consciously took hold of our choice to be Jewish?

I’ve thought about this question from a very young age.  I grew up in an interfaith family. My mom is Jewish and my dad was raised as a Christian.  My parents made the decision to raise my twin brother and me as Jews. My mother also wanted my father to feel comfortable observing his own customs.  What did that mean? Culturally, we celebrated Christmas at home. I have fond memories of decorating the tree, hanging holiday lights, putting up a stocking, listening to and singing carols, laying out cookies for Santa Claus, sitting down for a Christmas Eve dinner, and waking up to open presents.

I also remember my mother sharing her strong Jewish identity with us and teaching us to take pride in being Jewish.  We celebrated Passover and Chanukah at home with active rituals. A few times a year, we lit the Shabbat candles. In my hometown, being Jewish was also ‘something different.’  My brother and I were the only Jewish kids in our grade and my mom was our school’s “Jewish mom.” She would go from room to room to teach about Chanukah and sometimes she even invited the class to our house.

All of these practices brought me joy.  I knew that I was Jewish, but I also knew my father and his family members were not.  I also liked to fit in among my classmates. And so, I matter-of-factly and quite simply called myself and considered myself to be “half-Jewish.”

Then, something began to change my perspective midway through elementary school.  A new kid came to town. He was in the same grade as me, his grandparents lived up the street, and HE was JEWISH!  Besides my brother, I had made my first Jewish friend. I began to learn about his family and their deeply-rooted Jewish practices.  With joy and excitement, their extended family gathered for holidays, including festivals I had never experienced. Their traditions and rituals spanned generations.  They went to temple together. Being Jewish even informed the way they ate and the things they talked about. I was fascinated by this new-found meaning and beauty that I experienced by having a Jewish friend.

I began to explore my own identity.

“Who am I really and what is important to me?”

And then the deep Jewish questions came up, too.

“If my friend is Jewish and he goes to temple, then why don’t I?”

“Can I celebrate the ‘new’ Jewish holidays that his family celebrates?”

And then a bit later as I began to visit religious school and temple functions with my friend…

“Mom, can I attend religious school, too?”

“Can you help me learn Hebrew?”

“Can we go to services?”

“How about a field trip to the Jewish gift shop?”

And then things like…

“Mom, why do we have a Christmas tree if we’re Jewish?”

“Can we have a youth group just like the Christian kids do?”

“Can I skip my soccer game on Yom Kippur?”

“Can I become Bat Mitzvah even if I’m now 17?”

“Can I study with the rabbi more?”

And so I did – all of these things.  My brother and I formed a youth group at our temple.  And there we built our own sense of Jewish community. And I became Bat Mitzvah on my 17th birthday – With a new year of life came a new understanding of the depth and richness of Torah.  And I decided that I would find my own sense of peace by attending Shabbat services every week if I could – that even meant skipping THE high school football game on Friday night.

These choices were my own, ones that I was proud to make and explore.  Some choices were different than the ones my brother made and many were different than the ones my school friends made.  But, they were mine -my own conscious and meaningful choices – ones that allowed me to explore my passions and the things that were important to ME.  These choices brought me joy, connection, a sense of purpose and even the feeling of being known and loved. Even though I was born a Jew, it is for these reasons that I am a Jew by Choice.  And it is because of my Jewish journey that I want each of you to have the same opportunity to make your own conscious Jewish choices today, every day, in the year ahead.

Instead of thinking of ourselves as the CHOSEN people (people for whom our destiny is chosen and dictated), we could become the CHOOSING people.  We could choose to create a new Shabbat ritual for ourselves every week.  We could choose to read more Jewish texts or books or explore the world of Jewish music.  We could act in more concrete ways that heal our world. Or we could visit those who are lonely and in need.  We could commit to teaching our children something of our own Jewish interest. We could share our own family’s history.  We could question and explore our faith. If we could choose to do any of these types of things (the choices are endless)…Then, we would not be passive inheritors of a tradition, but rather active participants, consciously acting upon our choice to live Jewishly.

Our Torah portion for Yom Kippur reminds us that simply ‘existing’ is easy, but ‘living’ requires active participation and choice.  The same is true for meaningful Jewish connection and positive Jewish identity. We can go through a whole year just existing as a Jew, but LIVING Judaism requires 365 days of choosing – whatever that looks like. The Torah tells us that this decision is one or the other – life or death.  Mere ‘existence’ equals death. If we’re not actively growing, exploring or choosing, then we’re decaying.

In reflection on his Jewish life and Jewish identity, Albert Einstein stated that his only regret would have been if he were not able to choose Judaism for himself.[v]

I think Einstein, the child of two Jews, meant for this statement to catch our attention.  How did one of the world’s most famous Jews come to view his connection to Judaism in such a way?  Well, Einstein was born in 1879, into an assimilated family in southern Germany.  Albert’s father, Hermann, was proud of the fact that Jewish rites were not practiced in his home.  He and his wife, Pauline even sent their son to the neighborhood Catholic school.

Under a Bavarian law calling for every child to be schooled in his family’s religious tradition, Pauline and Hermann hired a distant cousin to tutor 10-year-old Albert in Hebrew, Torah and the teachings of the prophets. To their chagrin, the boy fell in love with God.  Delighted by the idea that human action could please God, Einstein offered up devotionals which he sang on the way to school. He also gave up eating pork. His parents must have been relieved when geometry began to absorb Albert’s attention at age 12.

If not by upbringing, Einstein was becoming a Jew by Choice.

At a much later age in 1947, having made his way to the States, Einstein gave a short talk on the importance of identifying as a Jew to the Princeton University’s Student Hebrew Association.  Einstein spoke of a Jewish affinity that did not arise from tribal or ethnic connection.  He abhorred allegiances based simply on blood ties or nationhood. (He believed that being Jewish is not about inheriting Jewishness.)  He perceived, rather, independence of thought and an ethical imperative as the distinct blessings of Jewish heritage.

Because of this viewpoint, Einstein was not quick to support the development of a Jewish state based on nationality alone.   He found his own way to support Israel and the Jewish people. Whether it was situated in a state, homeland or Mandate, Einstein felt the need for a higher Jewish center of learning. “I know of no public event,” he told The New York Times, “that has given me such pleasure as the proposal to establish a Hebrew University in Jerusalem.  

Einstein also gave permission to the organizers of what would become Brandeis University to name their start-up foundation the “Albert Einstein Foundation for Higher Learning.” In 1948, New York’s Yeshiva University asked for his name on the Albert Einstein School of Medicine.  And for Hebrew University, which had named its school of mathematics after him, Einstein ceaselessly sought funds and favors.

One of the world’s most famous Jews chose, with very strong conviction, to pave his own unique path of Jewish connection.  He is well known for saying, “For me the unaltered Jewish religion is a [manifestation] of the most childish superstitions.[vi]  I believe Einstein was advocating for a Judaism made relevant and meaningful by each one of us in our own way.

At TBE, we are proud that our community is a beautiful blend of people choosing to live Jewishly in our own ways – whether we were born Jewish, are part of a Jewish family, or take part in Jewish life because it is important to our partner or family member.  We support you and your journey to connect Jewishly. We support your choices and we encourage you to make active ones! Please let us know how we can journey with you.

Einstein made choices based on his Jewish identity until the day that he died in 1955.  He left wishes for his body to be cremated and in keeping with the way he had lived since his teenage years, Einstein’s funeral was absent of ritual.  Nor did Einstein wish to leave behind a memorial or gravesite. His ashes were strewn over the Delaware River.

Though Einstein left the world without a physical monument to his existence, through his choices, he literally gave his all to the Jewish people.  He left orders in his will for a trust to be formed from all of his manuscripts, copyrights, and publication rights. The trust’s income was designated first for his children – as long as they lived.  After that [in 1973], its contents and income were gifted to Hebrew University.

To a degree that Einstein may never have imagined, that gift has kept on giving. Those who use Einstein’s name and image for commercial ends must pay for the privilege. Every Einstein T-shirt or poster, each Baby Einstein toy, the Apple “Think Different” ads, all earn money for Einstein’s beloved institute of Jewish learning.  With relativity, Einstein paved new roads for scientists. With the choices of his own life, he pioneered new ways to live as a Jew.[vii]

So, it’s up to you.  And yes, it’s a big deal.  How will you choose to connect Jewishly today and in this new year?  Will you let your identity be chosen for you? Or will you be a Jew by choice?  It is during these Days of Awe and reflection that we see these choices that God has put before us – life and prosperity or simply existence and decay.  I, too, hope that you choose life and that your choices will be meaningful for you and your family. May this journey of choice and opportunity lead us to be inscribed for a rich, fulfilling and blessed Jewish life.

 

[i] Deuteronomy 29:10 וְגֵרְךָ אֲשֶׁר בְּקֶרֶב מַֽחֲנֶיךָ  ger’cha b’kerev machanecha “The stranger within your camp.” Most likely the ger toshav, the resident “alien” or non-Israelite living within the Israelite encampment.  The ger toshav accepted the Noahide laws, refrained from Idolatry, and in return lived among and was protected by the Israelite community.

[ii] Interpretation of Deuteronomy 29:9 – 30:15

[iii] Most likely it’s the ger toshav that is mentioned in Deuteronomy 29:10.

[iv] The ger tzedek is defined in the Talmud as a righteous convert who converts for the sake of religious truth and not for any other motive.

[v] Source unknown.

[vi] Letter to Eric B. Gutkind, on January 3, 1954, sent as response to Gutkind’s book “Choose Life: The Biblical Call to Revolt”.

[vii] Was Einstein a Jewish Saint?  BY MANDY KATZ · MARCH 13, 2013 Moment Magazine – http://www.momentmag.com/was-einstein-a-jewish-saint/