Sam Ball’s Dvar Torah: Lech Lecha

Hello everybody! Thank you for coming to my bar mitzvah! The name of my parshah or my torah portion is Lech Lecha, which is in the book of Genesis. Lech Lecha means “Go forth,” which is what God said to Abram: “Go forth from where you call home and go to the place where I tell you.” And Abram and Sarai did. By the way, Abram and Sarai are called Abram and Sarai because they hadn’t yet gotten their second names of Abraham and Sarah from God.

First Abram and his wife Sarai went to Canaan. They then went to Egypt. When they got to Egypt, Pharaoh saw how pretty Sarai was. Sarai was taken into Pharaoh’s palace and she received lots of gifts, like cattle and camels and slaves. After some time in Egypt, Abram and Sarai left to go back to Canaan.

Ten years passed in Canaan and Sarai, who wanted to get pregnant, still couldn’t. After ten years of not being able to get pregnant, Sarai gave up in frustration. So she gave her slave named Hagar to Abram and Hagar got pregnant very quickly. Once she became pregnant, Hagar began to act like she wasn’t a slave. Hagar mocked Sarai and refused to do what she was told. As it says in my parshah, “. . . her mistress was lowered in her esteem. . . .” 

Sarai was angry after being mocked by Hagar, so Sarai treated Hagar very disrespectfully. So Hagar ran away. An angel found Hagar and told her to go back to Sarai and Abram’s house because God promised to grant her a great multitude of descendants. Hagar went back and later gave birth to Ishmael.

Why did Sarai act the way she did? I think that at first, Sarai wanted someone to blame for her not being able to get pregnant, so she experimented by giving Hagar to Abram. Maybe she thought that if Hagar wasn’t able to pregnant, then the problem would be with Abram. But since Hagar did get pregnant, maybe Sarai knew that the problem was with her. And instead of accepting this fact, she denied it and treated Hagar poorly by oppressing Hagar and returning her to her former slave status.

I also think that maybe Sarai gave Hagar to Abram because Sarai wanted to be faithful to the role God had promised her, that she would be the mother of a great nation. But when Hagar started acting less like a slave and more like Abram’s wife, Sarai became angry that her role as Abram’s partner was taken. I believe that for these reasons, it was a contest of priorities for Sarai.

So far I’ve only talked about Sarai’s feelings. But what about Abram’s?

Before Sarai returned Hagar to her slave status, she counseled with Abram, complaining about Hagar. Abram said “. . . your maid is in your hands, deal with her as you think is right.” Essentially Abram said, she is your slave; do what you will to her. I think that Abram was either feeling that the situation wasn’t his problem and he shouldn’t be the one to deal with it. Or he felt that if he interfered that he would make the situation worse.

How did Hagar feel about all of this? 

I believe that Hagar was feeling that she was being cheated. The reason for this is first Hagar was a slave and she then was raised from her status of slave to wife. Then she was put back down to slavery even while she was pregnant with Ishmael. I would feel cheated if I was raised in status and then put back down again because someone was feeling jealous. I believe that Hagar thought that she was being cheated of what she rightly deserved as the person who was pregnant with Abram’s son.

I think the reason that we have all of these stories in the Torah is so that we can learn from them the easy way and not have to learn them the hard way. The easy way is getting the lesson early and not having to experience the challenging situations for ourselves. And the reason we go deeper into the Torah’s characters in the stories is because we need to understand their opinions and motivations if we are going to understand the story itself. 

Why do we have stories in general? I have learned about the collective unconscious, which is a part of our minds that connects us to everyone else, even though we don’t know it, and causes people everywhere to invent the same stories. Humans of all history and cultures have the same basic storyline for all our myths and legends – a storyline of people seeking something they need, like Jason and the Argonauts or King Arthur and his quest to find the Holy Grail, or the Buddha searching for Enlightenment or Moses and the Exodus. We all tell similar stories because there is a link between humans. Stories teach us about being human by giving us meaning.

When I read a story, I get sucked into the world of it, and the real world around me goes away. I don’t become the characters, but I observe the characters, and I can see from their point of view, like looking through their eyes. Stories show us that we are always connected with everyone else, even when believing that we are alone. 

The Torah is full of both stories and laws. Laws give us practical guidance of what not to do, like don’t murder or steal. While those are actions that we shouldn’t do, stories help us understand how to navigate emotions and thoughts ethically.

The stories in the Torah help us learn and grow and discover how to be good people. God uses stories to teach us because if we only had strict laws, we wouldn’t be able to think for ourselves and there would be no freedom. We have a considerate and forgiving God who wants us to interpret and understand. God lets us make mistakes so we can learn from them.

This takes me back to Sarai. God didn’t interfere in her life except minimally, and allowed Sarai to make her own mistakes. Sarai wasn’t perfect, and Abram wasn’t perfect. They made mistakes and improved from them. And the stories about them impact us even today because Sarai and Abram were so human. We can relate to them because we deal with the same issues and temptations, jealousy, guilt, hatred and joy.

Stories connect us all. Maybe the collective unconscious is there because we all have a little bit of God in all of us, and the little bit of God is the connection.

In our congregation, we have a custom of asking the community a question to generate discussion towards the end of a dvar Torah. I have a couple of questions for you at this point: “Why do you think stories are important and what stories have helped you find meaning in your lives?”

I want to thank all of you for coming to my bar mitzvah. I appreciate it. Thank you especially to those who are coming out of town. I want to thank Deb for tutoring me and giving me lots of support to help make this happen. I want to thank Rabbi Ora for helping me make this speech. And most of all, I want to thank my loving, supportive parents for making this happen!

Shabbat shalom!

Meet the Mitzvah Committee

Connection: an essential ingredient of a caring community

Written by: Anita Rubin-Meiller

“Mitzvah comes from the root word tzavta, which means connection. There are 613 mitzvot, and therefore, 613 ways to connect to G-d.”

Rabbi Zushe Greenberg

I appreciate this definition of mitzvah, which goes beyond doing a good deed or following a commandment, and adds connection as an essential ingredient. Certainly, in this past year of chairing the committee, the experience of connection is what stands out. Whatever we engage in involves connection: arranging for help to set up for the joyful celebration of a B’nai Mitzvah; accompanying someone in their grief and assisting with shiva; doing our best to find someone a ride to services and events; or gathering together for our quarterly “coffee and catch up.” Connection is not only the heart and soul of our mission, it is what makes the efforts worthwhile.

As we approach the annual congregational meeting, I want to pique your curiosity about this important committee and ask that you consider joining in our efforts. At the moment six of us pair up to take care of requests as they arise. While we have done well pitching in this year, it is apparent to us that we could use additional members, as we are not always able to be available when needed. 

The mitzvah committee is designed to assist in meeting commonly arising needs of our congregation’s members. This past year we helped with the Bar Mitzvah celebrations of Jacob Resnick, Eli Revzen, Otto Nelson, and Sam Ball. We assisted with the shiva observances in the homes of Amy Rosenberg, Deborah Fisch, and Carol Lessure. We helped organize a meal train for Alice and Ryan as they welcomed their little one. And we did our best to try to secure rides for members when there was a need. 

The committee currently consists of Rena Basch, Mike Ehmann, Idelle Hammond-Sass, Amie Ritchie, Stephanie Rowden, and me. We have enjoyed deepening the connection among us in meetings over coffee at York, with conversations about how we have felt supported or challenged in the past few months. We would love to welcome you to our next meeting on February 9th.

If you are not able to join the committee, please consider completing our survey so that we may call on you for specific tasks when the need arises. The survey can be found at https://docs.google.com/forms/d/1HNkIfCEHWaN1T-EevfbrPx8E8n7UVm9icNtVhVIoEqc/edit

Please come to our “roundtable” at the December 8th congregational meeting to learn more!

Lots of Chanukah Fun in Store!

A 2018 home-hosted Chanukah celebration.

Believe it or not, the winter holiday season is upon us! The Festival Committee has been hard at work planning loads of Chanukah fun for us.

Our celebration begins with home-hosted Chanukah gatherings from December 22nd to December 29th. Each day, members can gather at a different family home. Hosts might choose to offer dinner, deserts, lunch, tea, or a special activity. In previous years, hosts have shared cookie-making parties, latke dinners, cocktails, and so much more! Members can sign up to host guests on a day that works for them. Once we have a list of hosted events, we will send out a sign-up link. Home-hosted Chanukah celebrations are a fun way to get to know AARC families in an intimate, haimish setting.

In addition to our home-hosted Chanukah celebrations, AARC will hold a Chanukah party on December 27th at the JCC. The evening’s events begin with candle lighting at 6 pm. Everyone is encouraged to bring a menorah/hanukiah. A regular Kabbalat Shabbat service follows, but in addition to the usual potluck, you can expect a latke contest, music, and dreidel games. If you would like to participate in the latke contest, please sign up here!

Many thanks to our hard-working Festival Committee for planning these Chanukah events! We hope to see you at one of them. Happy holidays!

A Lovely Sunday Morning Hagbah Training for AARC Members

All photos by Ella August

Keith Kurz teaches Gillian Jackson, Etta Heisler, Dave Nelson, and Eric Bramson how minimize wear on the parchment while rolling the Torah.

It was a lovely Sunday morning, crisp and sunny, when a handful of tall and strong AARC members gathered to learn Hagbah, the raising up of the Torah after a Torah reading on Shabbat or other occasion. Although the practice may sound straightforward, it requires knack and nuance. For example, when lifting the open Torah off the table, one must push down on the lower handles while pivoting the Torah upwards, rather than lifting it directly up. This and many other handy tidbits were passed down by our teacher, Keith Kurz.

Members took turns picking up, raising, and holding the Torah under the careful support of Hagbah spotters. Participants also learned the proper way to perform Gelilah, the dressing of the Torah.

As a result of this training, AARC now has many able and willing members available for Hagbah and Gelilah. Thank you to Keith Kurz and all the participants who volunteered to learn this important skill for our congregation!

To learn more about the history of our Torah, please check out these blogs by Clare Kinberg and Dave Nelson.

Etta Heisler and Eric Bramson practicing Gelilah.
Etta Heisler sporting a winning smile after mastering Hagbah.
Eric Bramson was strong and confident while lifting the Torah. Well done, Eric!
Brenna Reichman was an excellent Hagbah spotter – calm and supportive as always!
This was Gillian’s first time holding the Torah!

Erring on the Side of Love

Kol Nidrei 5780 Sermon

By Rabbi Ora Nitkin-Kaner

Ann Arbor Reconstructionist Congregation rabbi Ora Nitkin-Kaner
Rabbi Ora Nitkin-Kaner

Toronto, 1990. I’m seven, in grade 2 at Bialik Hebrew Day School. My favourite class at school is art. Outside of school, I do gymnastics, which I mostly don’t like because I’m not good at it, and pottery, which I do like, because I am.

I’m not very outdoorsy but I like playing in our neighbourhood park. At the park I make a new friend, a Jewish girl my age, and we play together every few days.

One day I get to the park expecting to play and my new friend says to me: ‘Tatte says I can’t play with you anymore.’ Tatte is Yiddish for father – my friend is Orthodox and speaks Yiddish at home. She says: ‘I can’t play with you anymore because Tatte says you’re not Jewish.’

Not Jewish. My seven-year-old self found this so confusing. Didn’t my family go to shul every Shabbes? Didn’t we keep kosher? Didn’t we put our menorah in the front window on Chanukah, just like every other Jewish family on our street? 

I felt Jewish. And yet according to my friend’s father, I was not. 

That was the first time in my life I was told I wasn’t Jewish. But it wasn’t the last. Over the years other people said similar things to me — neighbors in Toronto, shopkeepers in New York, rabbis in Jerusalem. 

Thus far, in my life it’s been mostly Orthodox Jews who have questioned my Jewishness. But the Orthodox are certainly not the only Jews who invest energy in deciding who does and does not belong in Jewish community. 

Over the years I’ve heard many stories from friends, colleagues, congregants who have been told in ways subtle and unsubtle that they are not Jewish, or not Jewish enough, or are Jewishly suspect. My Reconstructionist colleague Rabbi Emily Cohen, who was raised in a committed Jewish household by a Jewish father and a non-Jewish mother, was told by more traditional rabbinical schools that she’d have to convert before applying. My colleague Rabbi Shais Rishon, a black Orthodox Jew in New York, has been asked in Jewish spaces ‘how are you Jewish?’ so many times that he’s developed the response, “I’m fine, thank you, how are you, Jewish?” I’ve talked to converts whose decision to convert was met by suspicion and a profound lack of welcome. I’ve talked to off-the-derech Jews whose community cut them off after they stopped living an Orthodox lifestyle. I’ve talked to engaged couples – straight interfaith couples and queer Jewish couples – who had other rabbis tell them they were making a mistake in their choice of partner, and refused to marry them. 

If you’ve ever experienced this kind of scrutiny or rejection, you know how deeply wounding it is. 

Even if it’s not done out of malice, it hurts. It hurts to have someone deny that you belong. It hurts to be told you’re not welcome in a place that should feel like home. It can make it so that afterwards, even when you walk into a welcoming space, part of you is always expecting to be told: ‘You shouldn’t really be here.’ And maybe most damaging of all, this kind of scrutiny and rejection can plant seeds of doubt. It can make a person say to themselves: ‘Maybe I’m not really who I think I am. Maybe my home isn’t here.’

Unfortunately, this kind of boundary-policing has been going on in Jewish communities for millennia.

In part, it’s because Judaism began as a religion of otherness. Abraham, the first Jew, had a radical idea – that God was one, not many. It took Abraham smashing his father’s idols to get the point across: I’m different. I believe in a different God than you do.

Mitzvot – commandedness – helped ensure a connection to this different God. Mitzvot also ensured that Jews would behave like one another and unlike their non-Jewish neighbors. And to further assist in this project of radical religious otherness, Judaism’s religious leaders did their best to ensure that Jews would have limited contact with the non-Jewish world. 

The Torah largely forbade intermarriage with non-Israelite nations. Kashrut limited our dining options, and certain Talmudic rabbis forbade Jews from eating and drinking with non-Jews entirely. Medieval rabbis prohibited their community members from even entering non-Jewish houses of worship. And even into the 20th century, speaking primarily in Yiddish, Ladino, or Hebrew prevented Jews from developing close personal or business ties with their non-Jewish neighbors. 

As Jews, we have a long tradition of being different and keeping ourselves separate. This has required a strict policing of boundaries, done in the name of God and community. For those in the in-group who’ve refused to toe the party line – for those who have acted not-properly-Jewish – there’s a long tradition of excommunication, known as ‘karet’ – exiling transgressive Jews from their communities.

We can’t deny that one of the reasons Judaism has lasted so long is because historically, it has strongly policed the in-group’s borders. 

But this policing is always in service to the collective. In focusing on the whole, rather than its parts, Judaism hasn’t always taken as seriously the individual’s need for exploration, self-expression, or curiosity within a given religious community. 

Prioritizing the needs of the individual can mean making existing members temporarily uncomfortable, or even eventually shifting the group’s core identity. This can be expansive – it can have the effect of bringing in fresh, enlivening perspectives and shifting stagnant values or beliefs. But it’s also challenging to do and do well. 

So how does any Jewish community make these key decisions around belonging? In the tension between maintaining strict borders and being radically expansive; in the tension between keeping our identity intact and minimizing the individual wounds of scrutiny and rejection, what values might serve as our guide?  

In considering this question, I thought about various theories of group dynamics and social identity. But ultimately, I found inspiration in the centuries-old mystical tradition known as Kabbalah. 

Kabalah promotes the idea of ten sefirot, ten divine traits that manifest in different ways in God and our world.

Gevurah, one of these ten sefirot, is the emanation associated with judgment and limitation, law and strict justice. Gevurah in divine form appears many times in the bible – a God filled with anger, a God quick to punish. In individuals, gevurah is associated with the power to restrain one’s innate urge to bestow goodness on others when the recipient is judged to be unworthy of it. Naturally, communities that strongly self-police rely heavily on gevurah. And you may be unsurprised to hear that the emotional state that corresponds with gevurah is yirah, or fear.

The sefira of gevurah exists opposite the sefira of chesed. In people, chesed is associated with unconditional love and a willingness to stretch to accommodate the needs of the other. Chesed is what undergirded Abraham’s practice of welcoming strangers into his tent. Like Abraham reaching out, chesed is thought to be proactive – an expansive force that impels the soul to connect with what it outside itself. In cosmological terms, chesed is associated with the very first day of creation – with God’s need to create a world, filled with light.

The emotional state that corresponds with chesed is ahavah, love.

In classical Kabbalah, gevurah and chesed are meant to balance each other out in equal measure. And that makes sense to me. Our world needs love to temper justice, and boundaries to offer a container for love. 

But later Kabbalists came to believe that too much gevurah was actually the source of the world’s evil. They taught that the Sitra Achra, the evil inclination, is actually based in gevurah. That too much judgment is the cause of man’s inhumanity to man. 

So they proposed that we always aim for more chesed than gevurah. That we should err on the side of abundant love, rather than on the side of limits.

As modern-day professionals, parents, colleagues, friends, we know the value of setting limits. But I want you to consider with me, this evening, the value of community erring on the side of love. 

But why this evening? Why am I choosing Kol Nidrei to talk about this? 

Because at no other time is the Jewish belief in the value of love more obvious than during these High Holy Days.

Nine days ago we celebrated Rosh HaShanah. Anticipating Yom Kippur, also known as Yom HaDin, the Day of Judgement, we called out ‘Adonai Adonai el rachum vechanun erech apayim verav chesed ve’emet’ – we called out to a God of compassion, a God slow to anger, a God full of abundant love. We asked the most loving version of God we know to welcome us back and to remember us for good. We sang ‘aseh imanu tzedakah vachesed vehoshiaynu’ — treat us with generosity and love, and save us.

And then we blew the shofar. Why? According to one midrash, on Rosh Hashanah, God sits upon kisei hadin, a throne of strict judgment. But when we blow the shofar, God gets up from this throne of judgment and moves to the kisei rachamim, the seat of compassion. And that is the place from which God welcomes us on Yom Kippur – from a place of love.  (Lev Rabbah 29:3)

During these High Holy Days, we call on God to move towards love because we are absolutely clear that love is what will save us. 

We are clear on that. So why not model our community on that same call? Why not make love the grounding principle of our tradition, opening our metaphorical tents on all sides? And not just during the Yamim Noraim, but throughout the year. Because let’s be real. We’re not only being saved or saving one another on Yom Kippur. It happens in ways large and small in how we reach out to one another or turn away from one another throughout the year.

Many of you have heard by now that this year, our congregation has undertaken to remodel itself in accordance with the values of radical welcoming. This community’s leadership has asked itself, what would it take to ensure that every person feels welcome in this community? Because we’re a community made of human beings, we’ve already missed the mark a couple times. But we’re going to keep at it. We’re going to keep learning and trying. 

And we need your help. If we’re going to create a community based on chesed, we need to hear from you: What would it take to make you feel welcomed? What would it take to help you feel like you fully belonged?

If there are ways that this particular community can grow to serve you better – please let us know. Or if there are ways I can help you strategize about how to make your other Jewish communities more welcoming – come talk to me. And if there are parts of you that are unsure whether you belong here – please let us know how we can build trust with you. So that you feel that you belong, and you know that you are beloved.

I began this sermon talking about my experience of being told as a young person: You’re not Jewish. You don’t belong. 

And now – I’m a rabbi. And rabbis have a long tradition of serving as gatekeepers of Jewish communities.  

And so I want to take the opportunity, this evening, with so many of you gathered here, to make myself clear: As a rabbi and as a human being I place more value on chesed than gevurah. It is more important to me to open the gates wide, to be asked to stretch, to be invited to do better, and to commit to figuring it out, than to tell someone they don’t belong. 

Why? 

Because I want every person here to feel beloved by their community. 

I want you to see yourself as not at the margins, but at the center. 

And I want you to know that this messy enterprise of life is made richer and more complex and more beautiful because of how you choose to engage with your Jewish community.

If you come here this evening bearing an old wound of being told that you didn’t belong in one Jewish community or another: because one or both of your parents weren’t Jewish; because of who you loved or married; because of your family; because you are single; because of your body’s abilities; because of the colour of your skin; because of your gender, because of your age; because of your finances, because of where you were born; because of your politics; because of your views on Israel and Palestine; because of your level of observance or knowledge of Hebrew or Jewish prayer; because of whether or how you believe in God; because of any variety of your uniqueness:

To each of you here ever turned away from Jewish community – that community sinned against you. You deserved better. You deserved a Judaism that centered you and a Jewish community where you felt like you belonged. A community that knew intuitively and immediately how much a part of it you were. And I’m sorry if you were ever made to believe otherwise.

Even on these Yamim Noraim, these Days of Awe, we know implicitly that more love, more acceptance, more gentleness is what will get us closer to God and to one another. So my blessing for us this Yom Kippur and the year to come: may we be an inspiration to one another and even to the Holy One above by erring on the side of loving and being loved. Ken yehi ratzon.

Remembering For Life, Being Remembered for Life

Erev Rosh Hashanah Sermon 5780

By Rabbi Ora Nitkin-Kaner

Rabbi Ora Nitkin-Kaner

Why are we here?

I don’t mean that in the sense of why do we exist – although, of all the times to ask that question, Rosh HaShanah would be a reasonable one. But you can relax. I’m not thinking quite that meta. 

I mean, why are we here, in this building, this evening? Where does Rosh HaShanah come from?

In Chapter 23 of Leviticus, we find God saying to Moses: “Speak to the Israelite people and say to them: ‘These are My fixed times, the fixed times of the Lord, which you shall proclaim as sacred occasions.’” Essentially, God is saying: “Here’s the Jewish calendar.” The first holiday listed is Passover, then Shavuot, then Rosh HaShanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot. And each of these sacred occasions is accompanied by a verse or two on how to observe it. 

For Rosh HaShanah, it is written: “On the first day of the month, you shall observe a day of rest, a memorial proclaimed with the blowing of the shofar, a holy convocation” (Leviticus 23:24).

So we know when Rosh HaShanah is supposed to take place – the first of the month of Tishrei. And we know it’s meant to be a holy day, which means, no work. And we know it’s meant to be a day of remembering – a “zichron” – announced by a shofar.  

What are we supposed to remember?

The simplest answer, of course, is that we’re supposed to remember the past year. Rosh HaShanah opens up the ten Days of Awe, during which we recall, reflect, and repent, so that we don’t repeat our missed marks from the past year.

But we’re not the only ones remembering on this holiday. God is also remembering.

During services tomorrow, we’ll sing: “Zokhrenu l’hayyim” – God, remember us for life and inscribe us in the Book of Life. And we’ll add, “Zocher yetsurav…” – God of Mercy, remember all your creations with compassion. 

Based on how many times in the Rosh HaShanah liturgy we ask God to remember our deeds and judge us for good, it seems like we’re not convinced it’s a sure thing. So as an added strategy, we also ask God to remember that we have a relationship that goes way back. 

We begin the Rosh HaShanah Amidah with, “Baruch Atah Adonai Eloheinu ve’Elohai avoteinu ve’imoteinu…” – “Blessed are You, Holy One, God of our ancestors, God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, Leah.” And then throughout the Amidah we repeatedly refer to God as “Elohainu v’Elohai avoteinu v’imoteinu” – Our God and God of our ancestors – and ask God to go easy on us based on the merit of their good deeds. 

On the surface, this strategy seems not unreasonable. To be a little glib, you could call it cosmic nepotism. We’re saying to God, “Hey, you knew my great great great etc. grandfather… he was a good guy. So I’m probably a good guy, too, no?”

But thinking about it more deeply, this a strategy based on a flawed premise. Because if you’ve ever read more than one or two chapters of Genesis alone, you’ve realized that our biblical ancestors had profoundly messy and morally complicated lives. 

On Rosh HaShanah alone, we read plenty of examples of our ancestors’ misdeeds. 

The Torah reading for the first day of Rosh HaShanah is the story of how Sarah orders Abraham to cast out Hagar and her son Ishmael. Abraham is troubled, but he listens to Sarah. So Hagar and Ishmael are sent out into the desert with just a little bread and water. They survive only because God intervenes to save them. 

And the Torah reading on the second day of Rosh HaShanah? That’s the story of Akedat Yitzchak, of the near-murder of Isaac. Abraham listens to what he believes is the voice of God, telling him to sacrifice his and Sarah’s child. Abraham and Isaac journey to Mount Moriah, and Abraham binds Isaac and places him on an altar and is about to cut Isaac’s throat, and then an angel intervenes to save them. 

In both of these stories as they appear in our Torah, there’s no acknowledgement of misdeed. There’s no apology. And there’s no recompense.

And Abraham and Sarah were just the first of our complicated ancestors. Their children, and their children’s children, and on and on through the generations, morally missed the mark again and again. Our biblical ancestor fought amongst themselves. They stole land and birthrights. They lied, and cheated, and sold siblings into slavery.

So why do we remind God of our connection to these ancestors when we pray on Rosh HaShanah? Couldn’t this actually backfire? 

Here’s the thing: We don’t know the impact of reminding God of our ancestors, because we don’t know God – God is inherently unknowable. We have no idea what it means for God to remember us, or our ancestors. 

What we do know, though, is our own experience of remembering. 

We know how it feels to remember our flawed ancestors. And it can be hard to be reminded of this complicated legacy and the fact that it’s a part of our cannon.

So what we do with this flawed family tree? How do we sit with these difficult ancestors?

Well, Jews throughout history have been trying to figure this out. I would say these efforts typically fall into one of the 3 categories.

The first category is a kind of apologetics, reframing our ancestor’s actions as unequivocally positive. This is something the rabbis of the Talmud did often. To them, Abraham wasn’t a man who almost murdered his son; Abraham was a God-fearing person who somehow knew all along that he’d never actually be allowed to go through with it. And Sarah, abusive towards Hagar? According to the rabbis, Sarah was morally unblemished (Bereshit Rabbah 58:1). She only wanted what was best for her son.

This drive to reframe, to say that what seems bad is actually morally unobjectionable, is older than the Torah itself. It goes back to earliest human history, and is rooted in the youngest, most tender places of our collective and individual psyches. In psychological terms, we could say that this drive comes from the child self, who needs the parent, on whom they’re reliant, to be completely good and blameless. Rather than finding our ancestors at fault, we twist the stories and ourselves into knots in order to see them as only good.

The second tendency is to look at the stories of our ancestors and focus only on their sins. Many Jews throughout history have done just that – have said “look at these flawed characters” or “look at this abusive God.” And based on the painful moral ambiguity of our inherited stories, some have said: “I want none of this.” And have walked away from God, or from Jewish practice, or from Jewish community.

You could say that this second tendency is rooted in the collective teenage psyche. It’s the need to push away from home. It’s the need to individuate, find independence, and critique the status quo so that we can emerge into a fuller perspective on the world and our place within it.

So. The first option aligns with the needs of the child-self: My people are actually good. The second option aligns with the teenage self: My people are actually bad.

And the third option? The third comes from the integrated or adult psyche. From that vantage point, we look back at our ancestors and their misdeeds. At the teshuvah they did manage. And at what they left undone. We notice how flawed they were. And also, how hard they were trying. And finally, we notice that there is much for us learn: from their values, from their mistakes, from their stories.

You may have gathered, by now, that this doesn’t only apply to Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, Leah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob. This isn’t just about our distant ancestors. It also applies to our own more recent ancestors. Even the ones still with us – the family we called earlier today to wish a Shanah Tova to, or the ones we visited this past summer, or last year.

For me, this time of year – this time of remembering ancestors – brings back memories of my own grandfather, the way he shuffled down the synagogue aisle on Rosh HaShanah, the way his hand, shaking with Parkinsons, felt in mine as I helped him to his seat. I remember his sweet smile, his playful personality. 

I remember my grandmother making kugel for us for the holiday meal, a sweet noodle kugel with raisins, and my grandfather sprinkling extra sugar on top, the shaking of his hands helping to spread the sugar evenly. 

I remember standing next to my father in shul on Yom Kippur, and how he draped his tallit over my sister and I during the priestly blessing, and how protected and safe I felt. 

And, in my remembering, I also remember how my father, who didn’t like his rabbi, would sit in the front row during Rosh HaShanah services and blatantly read a book during the rabbi’s sermon. And I remember how my grandmother would greet us with suffocating hugs when we came over for dinner, her anxious love permeating everything.

On Rosh HaShanah, we remember. Our distant ancestors, and the ones closer.

And as we remember, we also choose. Do we recall only the good, and cover over the bad? Do we remember only the bad, and forget the good? Or can we remember with compassion and moral clarity, with a gentle eye on the course of history and how it shaped our ancestors and us? 

In our liturgy, we sing again and again, “Zochreinu lechayyim” – remember us for life. How can we remember in a way that enlivens us? How can we remember the ways our ancestors missed the mark, but still know that we have arrows to string and release in the direction of love? How can we remember so that the memories are more lesson than burden? How can we remember, for life?

This whole sermon, I’ve been talking about remembering the past. But the reality is that one day, we, too, will become ancestors. At some point, we will no longer be doing the remembering. We will be the ones remembered, by our children, grandchildren, nieces, nephews, friends, colleagues, students, all whose lives we’ve touched. 

What might we do with the knowledge that we will one day be remembered?

I want to close by sharing with you the inspiration for this evening’s sermon. A few weeks ago, I was sitting in my office with Sam Ball, a young congregant whose bar mitzvah is coming up in November. We were reading Sam’s Torah portion, Lech Lecha. Lech Lecha recounts how a pregnant Hagar ran away from home because of how badly Sarah treated her.

As we read through the story of Sarah and Abraham and their mistreatment of Hagar, Sam said to me: “Abraham and Sarah really should’ve thought about what their descendants would think of them.”

On Rosh HaShanah, we remember. To reshape and reframe the old stories so that they enliven us. And, Sam reminded me and us that we are at our best when we also remember that we are accountable to the future, when we live holding the question, “Who do my descendants need me to become?” 

We too will become ancestors one day. And the way we live our lives will be a lesson for generations to come.

My simple blessing for us, as we enter this holiday of remembering: May we remember, for life. May we act this coming year in such a way as to inscribe ourselves in the Book of Life. And when the time comes, may we be remembered, for life. And let us say, Amen.

Exciting Opportunities for Learning Abound!

Global Day of Jewish Learning and Other Opportunities for Independent Study

Reconstructing Judaism will participate in the Global Day of Jewish Learning, presented by the Aleph Society on November 17th. The Reconstructionist community is invited to join via live-stream at 1pm Eastern Time to experience Rabbi David Teutsch’s presentation on “Feedback that Works: The Art of Tochecha (the rebuke).”

For a long term project, check out Project Zug, operated by the Hadar Institute. which offers courses in Jewish learning on subjects ranging from “Death Penalty in the Talmud” to “Bob Dylan: A Jewish Journey Between Home And Exile.” By signing up on the website, you can follow a facilitated course led by a rabbi or scholar.

Reconstructing Judaism’s own online initiative, Ritualwell, offers interactive online classes through its Immersions program. Featuring in depth study with rabbis and teachers, the site’s topics include “Ethical Eating,” “Poetry as Sanctuary,” and “Jewish Mysticism.”

Last but not least, our own Rabbi Ora will kick off a new Ta’Shma: Come and Learn series on January 11, 2020; the series continues on subsequent Second Saturdays. I hope you are inspired to take advantage of one of these wonderful opportunities for learning!

Happy 5th Birthday to AARC Book Group

Happy 5th birthday to the AARC book group! Launched in 2014 by Jon Sweeny and Judith Jacobs, the group offers a welcoming and cozy environment in which AARC members and friends gather for intellectually stimulating discussion, friendship, networking, and nourishment. Over the years, the reading selections have ranged from a book about Tiananmen Square (our very first meeting) to books about Israel/Palestine, Jewish history and culture, politics, spirituality, death and dying, anthropology, and more.

Carol Levin comments, “My favorite things about the book group have been getting to know everyone (as a newcomer to AARC, it’s a great gateway to the community), stimulating discussion among a variety of backgrounds and experiences, and Greg and Audrey’s fabulous hospitality.”

Speaking of hospitality, appreciation is owed to everyone who has hosted the AARC book group over the years, including a huge thank you to Greg Saltzman and Audrey Newell for being our regular book group hosts, and to Greg for serving as a terrific coordinator. We have recently switched from a Sunday morning spot to a Sunday noon start time, allowing us to welcome Beit Sefer (religious school) staff to our meetings.

Thanks to Audrey for the outstanding lunch on Sept 15, 2019, over which we discussed Michael Sfard’s The Wall and the Gate: Israel, Palestine, and the Legal Battle for Human Rights.

Favorites

Several group participants identified their favorite books from among the many we’ve read and discussed.

  • Carol Levin selected Guide For the Perplexed, by Dara Horn. “I love how Horn draws connections between the historical figures Moses Maimonides and Solomon Schechter and relates their lives, and personalities, and ethical questions to today’s world of espionage and intelligence.”
  • Greg Salztman picked as his favorite The Golem and the Jinni, by Helene Wecker. “I liked the mix of historical fiction and fantasy. The golem was a fundamentally good being, and I could enthusiastically root for her triumph as she faced various perils.”
  • Martha Kransdorf chose Setting Fires, by Kate Wenner, as her favorite book group pick. “I know the shul and the rabbi who were the inspirations for those portrayed in the book, and I certainly know the NYC neighborhood where some of the story occurred. I was also moved by the mystery behind the father of the protagonist and of the arsonist.”
  • Avi Eisbruch’s favorite book group pick is To The End of the Land, by David Grossman. Avi says “I liked the way the rich inner life and maternal struggle of the main character Ora were portrayed as well as how the intersection of private and public/national events were entwined in the story.”

February with Rabbi Ora

The book group was especially well attended the past two Februaries, when Rabbi Ora chose the readings and led the discussion.

We are delighted to announce that Rabbi Ora will again lead the book group on Sunday, February 9, 2020, book selection to be announced.

AARC Book Group discussing Radical Judaism: Rethinking God & Tradition with Rabbi Ora, February 2019.

Join us

Interested in joining the AARC book group? We’d love to have you! Simply reach out to Greg at gsaltzman@albion.edu. You are welcome to come every month or as often as you like. Our selection for Sunday, December 8, 2019 is Like Dreamers: The Story of the Israeli Paratroopers Who Reunited Jerusalem and Divided a Nation, by Yossi Klein Halevi. The book for Sunday, January 12, 2019 is The Girl from Foreign: A Memoir, by Sadia Shepard.

Happy reading!

Busy Weekend at AARC: Simchat Torah and a Robust Welcoming Event for New and Prospective Members

It was a busy weekend at AARC! We celebrated the Torah with Beit Sefer and held an informational event for new and prospective members.

The room was filled with excitement as the Torah was unrolled. The children were tasked with finding key words in the text. For some, this was the first time they had been up close to the Torah. After rolling up the Torah, families were led in a traditional Simchat Torah dance by Rabbi Ora and Marcy Epstein.

Beit Sefer students and families explored the Torah during Simchat Torah
Beit Sefer students created their own Torahs to celebrate Simchat Torah. Photo credit: Marcy Epstein

Later in the day, Rabbi Ora and Beit Sefer director Clare Kinberg welcomed new and prospective members at our “Meet Us” event, held to showcase Reconstructionism and our congregation. We are thrilled to welcome so many wonderful new families to our congregation!

Rabbi Ora leading our “Meet Us” event. Photo credit: Deborah Fisch
Clare Kinberg, Beit Sefer Director, teaching families about AARC’s Religious School

Another Renewing Sukkot Campout for AARC Families

Rabbi Ora shaking the Lulav with Beit Sefer Students on Sukkot

AARC families gathered this year on Carole’s farm to celebrate Sukkot. The campout began with a group effort to build the Sukkah. The children diligently created paper chains and tissue paper flowers while the parents and some older teens worked with hammers and nails.

AARC parents enjoying the fire after working hard to construct the Sukkah!

Once the Sukkah was complete, families enjoyed a cookout and a night under the stars!

On Sunday morning, Rabbi Ora joined in to bless the Sukkah, sing songs, and shake the lulav with the children and their families.

Beti Sefer students shaking the lulav and the etrog

The whole campout was a beautiful way to welcome in the New Year: with community, love, and the great outdoors!