Brit Olam: A Covenant With Our World

October 31, 2019

Rabbi Eli Freedman delivered this sermon during the Yom Kippur morning services.

According to the Torah, who were the first Jews? I heard some Adam and Eves, I heard some Abraham and Sarahs, I think I heard someone say “my grandmother!” The correct answer is Abraham and Sarah, but it is a common misnomer to think that Adam and Eve were actually the first Jews. They are the first people, but it is not until twelve chapters into Genesis that we are introduced to Abraham and Sarah, the patriarch and matriarch of Judaism. If the Torah is the story of the Jewish people, why not start with Abraham and Sarah?

The authors and editors of the Torah were making an important point by telling a series of pre-stories before our progenitors arrive on the scene. The first four stories in the Torah all end poorly. Adam and Eve get expelled from the Garden, Cain kills his brother Abel, God destroys the entire world with a flood, and, in the Tower of Babel, God confounds our languages and scatters us across the world.

So why begin the Torah with so many negative stories of failure? In his book, A Lifetime of Genesis: An Exploration of and Personal Journey Through the Covenant of Abraham in Genesis, my teacher and Rodeph Shalom confirmand, Rabbi Henry Zoob, argues that the unifying theme of Genesis (and much of the Torah) is the Covenant of Abraham and Sarah. And for that precise reason, the editors of the Torah made a point to include stories of the pre-Covenant world.

According to Rabbi Zoob, these first four stories of Genesis teach us that the pre-Abraham and Sarah world could not function properly because it was missing the covenantal relationship between God and people. Although God spoke to Adam and Eve, and even walked with Noah, the world was not complete because it lacked brit – covenant.

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Letting Go

October 11, 2019

Delivered by Rabbi Jill Maderer, Kol Nidre 5780

Simon Wiesenthal, the Holocaust survivor and Nazi hunter, would tell this story. Shortly after Wiesenthal is liberated, a man asks if he can borrow $10.  Week after week, the man comes to say he cannot pay it back. Excuse after excuse. Weeks turn into months, and finally the man comes to Wiesenthal to say “Here’s the $10, my visa came through, I am going to Canada.”  Wiesenthal looks at the man and says “Nevermind.  Keep the money.  For $10, it’s not worth changing my opinion of you.”

A grudge can feel so good.  One commentator jokes “revenge is sweeter than honey” (Rabbi Moshe Cham Luzzato).  The entitlement, the righteous indignation– that power can serve, as a source of confidence.

And yet, according to the prophet Jeremiah, God proclaims “I will not look upon you in anger, for I am compassionate; I do not bear a grudge for all time.”  Striving to emulate God, tomorrow afternoon we will read from the Torah in the Holiness Code: Do not bear a grudge.

This Yom Kippur, what would it mean to heed the message of Leviticus– to release a grudge? Would you even want to relinquish that power?

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Tikkun Middot: AKA, What I Learned at Camp

October 2, 2019

Erev Rosh Hashanah sermon delivered by Rabbi Eli Freedman

In his new Netflix movie, Between Two Ferns, Zach Galifianakis asks Paul Rudd if he is a ‘practicing Jew.’ Without missing a beat, Rudd responds, “I’m not a practicing Jew… I perfected it!”

Funny, but not true. None of us have perfected it. This is the central message of the High Holy Days – none of us are perfect and we all have the opportunity to discover our best selves.

I got an early start to this soul searching while working at our Union for Reform Judaism’s Camp Harlam. There, they use unique mindfulness tools rooted in the teachings of mussar to help each camper and staff find the path to their best selves. 

Mussar is a concrete practice that gives instructions on how to live a meaningful and ethical life that arose under the leadership of Rabbi Israel Salanter in 19th-century Lithuania. Salanter believed that through prayer and meditation, study, journaling, and group conversations, we all hold the power to better ourselves. Using these traditional teachings and updated practices, Rabbi Maderer will be leading a mussar cohort this year. 

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The Cave Is Not an Option: Community as a Response to the World

October 1, 2019

Delivered by Rabbi Jill Maderer, Rosh Hashanah morning. 

Why are we here?  Why are we here as individuals and as a community?  Generations ago, one of our prophets, Elijah, is called to answer that question.

Immersed in a spiritual quest, and frightened by a broken world, Elijah crawls into a cave where he spends the night.  That’s when the word of God comes to him:  God asks: “Why are you here, Elijah?”  Trembling with fear, Elijah replies:

“I despair that we have forsaken Your covenant, And torn down Your altars. I am alone.”

Rings true today. This Rosh Hashanah, we too, stand at the mouth of the cave, saying in our own words:
“I despair that we have forgotten to listen, to live, to love.
That we have torn down human dignity.
I yearn to commit to something greater than myself, something sacred.”

We too tremble in fear.  Frightened by the many things that make ourselves, and our world, broken.

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