Sunday, December 2, 2012

Reconcilation is Rarely Magical, Shabbat Vayishlach, 12/1/2012

My girls, my mother, and I spent Thanksgiving w/ Mickey, Minnie, Prince Charming and princesses galore.  It was lovely, and I am incredibly grateful for the opportunity to be away for the holiday and for the time we had to spend together.  Indeed, Disneyworld is the home of everything magical.  It is, I believe, the only place where the greeting: “have a magical day” doesn’t come across overly saccharine or insincere.  My daughters’ orthodontist office tries to pull off the same cheeriness, “It’s a great day at …” greets every single caller, every single day, every single hour.  It’s a lovely attempt at spreading cheer and optimism, but really – is every day so great?  We forget that Disney’s great success grows out of being expert at fostering the imagination and bringing the make-believe to life.  There is always a challenge in all things Disney, but there is also always a happy ending, a happy ending that contains a useful life lesson tidily wrapped up within a beautifully presented package. 

Outside of the Magic Kingdom, however, reality more often looks like the mess of our biblical narrative: life is filled with wrestlings, misunderstandings, difficult journeys, and, of course, family conflict.  Sometimes these challenges resolve into a magical Kodak moment.  More often than not, they are resolved in less than fully satisfactory ways, but in ways – if we are lucky - through which can move forward in our lives with more compassion and wisdom than perhaps was had before the conflict.

Jacob and Esau’s reconciliation in Parashat Vayishlach, from which Harry will read and about which he will share some thoughts in a moment, reflects an honest portrayal of conflict resolution that can serve us well.  Jacob approaches this meeting with his brother with fear and anxiety, and with good reason.  We don’t have to reach too far back into our memory in order to recall the earlier story of Jacob agreeing to a plan of trickery and the ultimate stealing of Esau’s birthright.  The first impulse, thus, might be to imagine Jacob as simply fearful for his own survival.  He expects his brother to be ready to exact revenge.  Who wouldn’t? Vengeance is a common if not base human desire.  Our imaginative rabbinic tradition reminds us, however, of the complexity of human emotion.   Our fears aren’t always so easy to parse out.   The medieval compilation Midrash Rabbah reads, “He was afraid lest he be killed, he was distressed lest he should kill.”   Jacob’s great trepidation is not solely about his own physical survival; rather, it is a muddled mix of fear about what may happen to him and anxiety over what he may do to his brother in the midst of conflict.  Conflict is distasteful and challenging even to those who hold the most power.  Conflict should cause distress; it should force us to consider what we are capable of doing to the other.

Creating peace out of conflict is no easy task, and the Rabbis of the Rabbinic and early medieval periods aren’t so eager to portray Jacob and Esau’s resolution as entirely peaceful.  They imagine judgment and conflict still seething just below the surface of the brothers’ exchange. They seem to understand that a “happily ever after” Disney-esque reunion is too unrealistic for this encounter.  And, as we will read/see in a moment, the dots above each letter of the Hebrew word  וישקהו,  found in the biblical text itself, in the ancient Hebrew, may indicate that although he ends the scene with a weepy embrace, the biblical writer too hesitated in ending the story so sweetly.  It is as if he was punching out each syllable with those dots to remind us that it isn’t so easy to overcome long-standing rivalry.

There is one clue, however, that offers evidence of the potential for true reconciliation between these estranged brothers.    Soon after their emotional embrace, Jacob remarks to Esau,  
 אלהים פני כראת ראיתי פניךseeing your face is like seeing the face of God.”  Despite the rivalry that went down between them, Jacob is able to see the divine in his brother.  Having just experienced an epiphany of God in last week’s Torah portion, we expect that Jacob knows what he is talking about.  His experience of his brother is as valuable as was his experience of God. 
We are never told if Esau returns the sentiment, for the biblical narrative is focused on Jacob.  But, it seems to me, that one lesson that can be drawn from this remarkable verse, and its placement, is that true reconciliation can only transpire between those who are willing to see the potential for godliness in each other.  Perhaps if we can do that, we may also find the best of our humanity within ourselves and others.
Ken y'hi ratzon!

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Toldot Amidst Conflict & War in Israel, delivered 11/17/2012

            I love the word:   ויתרצצו  
 ויתרצצו (va’yit-ro-tz’tzu) – it rolls off the tongue in a manner which offers a poetic word painting of the scene unfolding at first within Rebecca and ultimately throughout the Jacob and Esau narrative.

  ויתרצצו   We can hear the struggle, we can feel it as the word crosses past our teeth.       
Early in our Torah portion, we read:

בקרבה הבנים ויתרצצו  The boys struggled against each other within her – within Rebecca.  Poor Rebecca, forced to endure these two forces rumbling and fighting within her womb.  It certainly wasn’t the pregnancy she was expecting.  It’s unclear if she was even interested in baring children; recall, it was Isaac’s prayer that was answered, not Rebecca’s.  And now, this small space, b’kirbah, within her, has been turned into a miniature war zone.

  ויתרצצו – It is also a fascinating word grammatically. Based on the root, רצצ , to oppress or crush, it is quite possibly related to the verb רוץ, meaning to run.  A historical circumstance that leads to the Rabbinic midrash imagining Jacob “running back and forth” within the womb whenever Rebecca passes by a place of Torah and Esau “running back and forth” whenever she passes a pagan Temple.

  ויתרצצו – The verb form of this word, a formulation that appears with this verbal root only this one time in the bible, is reflexive.  In Hebrew, the form is known as hitpalel.  Inherent in this verb form is a sense of turning inwards, back towards oneself.  For example, the Hebrew verb to walk, ho-lech, becomes pacing back and forth when it appears in the hitpalel as התהלך (hit-ha-lech).  Hence why, the struggling -  the ויתרצצו -  that is occurring within Rebecca is a struggling  between Jacob and Esau that ultimately presses back and causes them to suppress  or oppress each other.

 Likewise, the most frustrating aspect of watching and listening as the current  (and continuing) matzav, situation, unfolds in Israel is that it seems that the two sides are:  ויתרצצו בקרבה: they are struggling against each other, oppressing each other, within this small, tiny, geographic region and ultimately making little progress towards lasting peace.  All the energy is turned back towards each other.

 There is no question in my mind that Israel has every right to defend itself.  As Rabbi Eric Yoffe, former head of the Union of Reform Judaism, reminds us “no other civilized country in the world would tolerate for a week what Israel has tolerated for a decade.”  Locally, The Baltimore Jewish Council, the trans-denominational public policy arm of our Federation, better known here as The Associated, calls us to be mindful of reality, that Israel has endured thirteen thousand rockets fired by Hamas on Israeli citizens over the past 11 years.  One thousand in the last 10 months. Four and half million Israelis – half its population - are within range of rockets controlled by Hamas.   No other nation would allow so many of its citizens to live in such a terrifying situation without responding.  No other nation would be condemned for defending itself in the manner that Israel is.    

   Clearly, Israel is no other nation.  It is held to a far different standard by the International community and even by our own America.  Every mainstream American news outlet that I have reviewed is painting Israel’s attack as a “ferocious” (to quote the New York Times) offensive strike.  Moreover, American journalists have argued that the IDF’s name of the operation, “Pillar of Defense,” is a calculated instance of social and media propaganda.   While there are exceptions, the majority of citizens who have been living with random yet constant rocket strikes from Gaza view Israel’s actions very much as a defensive strike.

  At the same time as Israel can and should be supported in its decisions to defend itself, there is room for criticism.  As an op-ed writer for Haaretz wrote on Thursday, “past experience teaches that pinpoint assassinations of the heads of political movements and military organizations [such as was Ahmed al-Jabari] are not necessarily effective.”  They not only fail at reducing conflict, they often give rise to more extremism.  George Baskin, the Israeli peace activist who mediated between Hamas and Israel in the deal that brought Gilad Shalit home, says that despite his opinion that, “Al-Jabari was in line to die, not an angel and not a righteous man of peace,” this assassination may have also killed the possibility of a truce between Israel and Hamas.

 ויתרצצו – when we keep running back and forth, we often fail to move forward.  In Israel’s case, who like Rebecca has two nations struggling for control of such a small and confined space, the pressure and the struggle becomes oppressive; and, as we have seen too often, easily erupts into violence that fails to serve the broader goal of ensuring peace and safety.

  As wonderful and poetic a word as ויתרצצו is, let’s hope the situation in Israel can move from this inward pointed and non-productive struggle to an active state of progression towards reconciliation.  To borrow another biblical phrase,  רץ לקראת רץ (ratz likrat ratz) that draws on the same alliteration,  רץ לקראת רץ paints a picture of one runner  or pursuer meeting another.  Let’s pray that soon – in our day – the Palestinians and the Israelis can run out to greet each other in an effort to work cooperatively and productively towards peace.


Sunday, October 28, 2012

Justice, Captalism, and The American Dream, Delivered on Shabbat Lech L'cha 5773

Avram and his nephew, Lot, find success during their journey out from Haran, so much so that apparently “the land could not support them staying together; for their possessions were so great that they could not remain together. “
          So many questions are raised by this single verse within the narrative of Lech L’cha.  Is there a point at which our possessions and wealth intrude on our social and familial relationships?  Can we be so saturated by our material wealth that we burden the very environment in which we live?  Can our possessions grow so great that they interfere with our ability to sustain ourselves within a cohesive community?
These are the questions we struggle with as moderns.  Apparently, these were among the questions our ancestors dwelling in and around the Ancient Near East struggled with as well. 
On Rosh Hashanah, I spoke about the potential of our American focus on the individual to interfere with the strength, cohesion, and vitality of the Jewish community.  Just last week, I participated in the first session of what will be an extended interfaith discussion at the Institute for Christian and Jewish Studies on the subject of the impact of “The American Dream” on religion.  Interestingly enough, while my focus at the start of the New Year was on the impact of citizenship rights on religious affiliation and involvement, our conversation last week at this clergy scripture forum kept coming back to the individual right and capacity to earn lots of money.   For better or worse, the American Dream, we concluded, seems to have gotten inextricably tied to the capitalist dream of material success.
          Capitalism is an economic system, but it is tied into the political system of democracy because at its core capitalism values the success of the individual.  The challenge of capitalistic theory, however, arises when we consider what happens to the individual who simply can’t succeed – when no amount of determination or effort works to get that individual on the path towards economic success.  It is easy for us who are generally successful at achieving (even maximizing) that cause and effect relationship to forget that there are those in our society for whom hard work and effort simply do not equal or correlate with material gain.
       Ayn Rand, the 20th century novelist and playwright, who has gained renewed attention due to Vice Presidential candidate Paul Ryan’s allusions to her work, reminds us that capitalism has the potenial of being an appropriate economic system for a society that values the integrity of individual liberty.  She writes,
“The moral justification of capitalism does not lie in the altruist claim that it represents the best way to achieve ‘the common good.’ … this is merely a secondary consequence. The moral justification of capitalism lies in the fact that it is the only system consonant with man’s rational nature, that it protects man’s survival qua man, and that its ruling principle is: justice.”
Justice.  Justice is understood by Rand to be the underlying principle of our American economic system, a system that is grounded in rationalism and has become the apparent foundation to our American dream.  Whether we agree with her or not regarding whether Capitalism achieves the moral ideal she holds it to, we can demand that the pursuit of justice be a non-negotiable part of this American dream.
Let me repeat:  we can demand that justice be a non-negotiable part of our American dream!
Though written and accepted as sacred canon long before the development of formal economic theory, our Torah portion appears to offer us a warning against the possible dangers of excessive material gain, specifically the human tendency towards putting our possessions before our relationships with others.
Twentieth century Israeli commentator, Nahama Leibowitz draws attention to the distinction between Avram and Lot’s journeys presented in this week’s Torah portion.  When Avram first leaves Haran, the text states that Avram takes his wife, Sarai, and his nephew, Lot, with him.  Then it mentions, רכושם כל ואת, and all of their possessions.  People first, stuff last.  A chapter later, when Avram leaves Egypt, the text differs significantly. Lot appears to have become an after thought mentioned only after the material possessions Avram and Sarai have acquired and taken with them on their journey.
Was material gain the source of the estrangement between Avram and Lot?  The answer can only be left to commentary and conjecture, but the narrative makes it clear that the land can no longer hold them up together for their possessions were too great.  Their material wealth became too burdensome and prevented them from יחדו לשבת, dwelling together.
Economic success is a valued element of the American dream.  The possibility of the individual to achieve is at the heart of what it means to be an American: “to pursue the blessings of liberty for ourselves and our posterity." At the same time, too much emphasis on economic and material achievement  - on financial freedom -- may be leading us to forget about the pursuit of liberty and justice for all citizens.  The establishment of justice precedes the pursuit of liberty in our Constitution.  When the pursuit of possessions interferes with our ability to dwell in harmony together then, in essence, we’ve risk shattering the American dream.


Monday, October 22, 2012

An Understanding of Parashat Noah in Memory of Marty Coffman, delivered 10/20/2012

I’ve shared this opinion before: I find the story of Noah one of the most challenging narratives in our Torah. We may try to whitewash the story with images of an obedient, righteous Noah ushering pairs of animals into, as the children’s song paints, his “ark-y, ark-y” so that they are protected from God’s “flood-y, flood-y,” but at its core, it is a story of violence and destruction. And, even the rainbow at the end serves as a less than satisfying symbol of promise when we consider the extent of God’s Divinely mandated destructive forces. That’s it? We get a rainbow after the destruction of so much potential life?

The traditional understanding of God’s role in the story is one of patience and compassion. Despite the חמס (chamas), the utter corruption, with which the earth was filled, we are taught that God still saw fit to establish a covenant with the post-deluvian, surviving remnant of humanity, namely Noah and his family. Humankind was mercifully granted another chance. Accordingly, we should be so grateful that God saw fit to save any part of this wicked generation. We should be grateful for the compassion God offers through this new covenant, inclusive of what scholars refer to as The Noachide Laws, to the survivors of the flood.

I am not so easily swayed by our Rabbinic sages. I understand the Rabbinic need to let God off the hook. The story of Noah is part of our larger sacred canon whose agenda is to trace the development of the Israelite community and its relationship with the one, supremely powerful God known as יהוה, whom we call, Adonai. The story thus must contribute to this sacred, narrative ark that forwards God as a patient, albeit awesomely powerful, parent coaching the development of humanity and ultimately the selected community to be known as Israel. But, just because I understand the Rabbinic need to paint God as this patient, loving parental figure working to guide humanity in the face of corruption and violence, I don’t have to refrain from offering another more progressive opinion.

The Rabbis focus on humanity’s behavior. Every year when we come to this story, I am incredibly troubled by God’s behavior. Is mass destruction the only option? Noah’s God has modeled awful and disturbing behavior for us in the choice to destroy life. There must’ve been other choices. Apparently, God couldn’t see them. God was blinded by disappointment, perhaps fury at humanity’s corrupt and vile behavior.

How appropriate that we read Parashat Noah on the Shabbat where we mark the close of sheloshim (the first thirty days of mourning) for our beloved accompanist, Marty Coffman. Like God, Marty had choices. But his depression, pain - both physical and emotional – and perhaps rage blinded him from seeing all but one. I cannot view God’s behavior in Parashat Noah as compassionate any more than I can forgive Marty’s last act, an act that destroyed his own potential and that of any of his future generations and which left us and all who knew him with immense sorrow and confusion.

The Noah narrative can give us permission to be frustrated and angry with the choice to destroy life even as we remember a gentle soul who lifted our hearts and prayers with his music and passion for liturgy. Jewish tradition teaches that we have no right to destroy life but rather must do everything in our power to preserve it. Pikuach nefesh – even the sabbath gets sacrificed to save life.

Noah’s God must have known that. Perhaps the essence of the covenant made by God with humanity after the flood, and presumably God’s anger, subsides is pointed as much towards God as it is to us. The text reads, “My bow I have set in the cloud, and it will be a sign of a covenant between me and the earth. When I bring clouds over the earth, and the bow is seen וזכרתי, "then I will remember My covenant which is between God and every living creature of all flesh; and the waters shall no more become a flood to destroy …”  I will remember, God says!  The pshat, the literal reading, of the verse leaves it unclear as to who needs this tangible reminder of the value of life. One possibility is that God needed it -- as a reminder to never again let the flood of disappointment and anger lead to the destruction of life.

Rainbows are certainly hard to see when in the grasp of anger, pain, and depression. A lesson of Noah is that we, like God, must do everything we can to set those symbols, the reminders of the responsibility we have to others and to ourselves, firmly and visibly in place out in front of us so that they can serve to give us hope and compassion in our darkest moments. That is the mandate of this covenant between God and humanity.  It may not always work, but it is our responsibility to make the effort.

Zecher livracha, may Marty’s memory be a blessing, and may the complicated legacy he has left us inspire us to keep choosing life -- to keep reaching out even in the face of utter hardship and pain.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Kedoshim Tehiyu: The Pursuit of Holiness

קדושים תהיו כי קדוש אני יי אלהיכם: איש...Holy you will be, because Holy am I, Adonai your God!  This introduction to The Levitical Holiness Code, that we will read during our Afternoon Service tomorrow, invites, compels the question: what does it mean to be or to create holiness?  As I reflected this past spring when we read Parashat Kedoshim as part of our Shabbat Torah cycle, though the writer of this well known verse of Torah did not employ the grammatical imperative tense, it reads like an imperative.   It isn’t a choice; it is a demand: “You will be holy!”  Moreover, suspending the masoretic pointing, those marks that entered the text as late as the 10th century that serve to punctuate the ancient Hebrew, we can read it clearly as a demand upon not just a chosen few but everyone in the community: Holy you shall be,איש , each person!
         According to Baruch Levine, a prominent scholar in the fields of the Ancient Near East and Semitic languages, the exact etymology of the Hebrew root ק-ד-ש  that form the words kadosh and kedoshim, the biblical and modern terms for holy and holiness, is not entirely certain.  It is clear that one of the earliest uses of this Semitic root in the ancient period was as an honorific or professional title of various types of priests and priestesses.  Usage later expanded to describe divine beings, holy persons, sacred place and the cultic objects and rites surrounding worship.  As scholars understand it, in primitive Semitic religions, holiness was not something that could be affected; rather, it was an intrinsic and impersonal quality that was inherent in certain objects.  And, holiness was, more often than not, something to be feared and avoided.
The bible, inclusive of the Holiness Code that we read each year on Yom Kippur afternoon greatly impacted the understanding of holiness.  It is no exaggeration to say that biblical religion revolutionized the concept of kadosh by defining it as an expression of Godliness whose source comes from God, but which can certainly be affected by humanity.  Holiness no longer need be impersonal. To quote Levine who explains the process clearly and succinctly, “Objects, persons, sites and activities that are employed in the service of God derive their sacred character from that relationship.”  Holiness thus becomes as much a human endeavor as a Divine one.  It isn't holy until we are involved.
As the Holiness Code makes clear, holiness is attainable through action.  God is holy, thus we are holy and we further holiness by mimicking godly behavior in the world.  Biblical examples of such behavior include respecting those elders who nurture, protect, and guide us, leaving the corners of our fields for those who are hungry to come and glean, caring for the stranger in our midst, and striving to be fair in all of our dealings.
         By the Rabbinic period, the idea of holiness, of kedoshim, took on an additional nuance: one of separateness or otherness.  The Sifra, a 3rd, most likely edited into the 4th century, commentary on the book of Leviticus equates kedoshim with the Hebrew concept of parash, a word that is often defined simply as to be set apart but which has a more forceful connotation than simply something that is separate.  Something that is perush is consciously set apart or purposely made distinct.  Indeed, this Hebrew root can also be used to imply a bursting apart or a piercing, in other words, a quite dramatic separation. 
         Rudolph Otto, the early 20th century German Lutheran theologian who wrote an enduring work on the concept of holiness entitled Das Heilige, literally The Holy but most often translated in print as, The Idea of the Holy, added the concept of “numinous” to holiness.  The numinous is the non-rational experience of holiness.  The sub-title of his book, Das Heilige, is useful in understanding his approach (this I won’t try in the original German), “On the non-Rational in the Idea of the Divine and its Relation to the Rational.”  The “non-rational” is what is holy for Otto.  Otto defines holiness as that non-rational and mysterious experience that evokes a compelling mix of both great fear/awe and fascination.   Nowhere does he mention action.  No where does he mention discipline.  It is all about faith and specifically for Otto, Christian faith.  He was, recall, a Christian theologian.  His concept of the numinous manifests itself most fully in the acceptance of Christ. 
         The dilemma in defining holiness today, I believe, stems from our blending (and perhaps getting pre-occupied with) both the rabbinic idea of separateness AND Otto’s goal of achieving that mysterious and non-rational religious experience.   At the same time, we seem to have lost complete sight of the tangible and rational biblical approach to creating a sense of holiness in our world.
         We have become over-achievers with regard to the goal of setting apart.  This Rabbinic idea of holiness as something distinct has remained so compelling to us that we have become experts in compartmentalizing that which we deem sacred. We’ve so well segregated Jewish life from everything else in our lives that it becomes an extraordinary juggling act to bring that sense of the sacred, the holy, into our lives.   Synagogues have become drop off places for activity for our children first and true centers of study and worship at best second.  We grow frustrated with worship and adult study because it doesn’t provide us with enough of that immediate sense of the numinous that Otto demands.   Thus, we place it further and further beyond our reach making Jewish life – our religious life - so separate from ourselves that it becomes unfamiliar, even uncomfortable, and sadly on the bottom of our prioritized to do list.
         The solution might just well be found in the ancient words of The Levitical Holiness Code.  The priestly hand doesn’t call for any sense of separateness or loftiness, or even awe for that matter.  The biblical authors call for a standard of practice, for action, for behavior.  Certainly, there are mystical streams in Judaism that place the endeavor of seeking holiness more in line with the rabbinic vision of separateness and even Otto’s vision of awe-filled fascination, but even in those streams, reaching such a heightened mystical level is often an ideal plane not one that is actually achievable or desirable to reach for any length of time.  It is not a realistic (or even safe) destination for humanity, our sages teach us.
         So with Torah as a guide, how do we achieve holiness?  Unlike Dan Cathy and his fellow religious conservatives, I bristle at using the biblical text as a source for almost any modern definition.  The bible is a reflection of an ancient period in our history.  We elevate it to sacred standing because of its import to humanity (reflected by its continued attribution to God by so many) and its historical endurance, but it must be read within the context of historical criticism.   It is a text that has been frozen in time.  Many of its themes, lessons, and ideals can be viewed as timeless, but much of the detail is not. Rather, the details reflect a time that is entirely different from today – and certainly not necessarily better than today. 
That being said, the Torah’s idea that holiness is a God mandated but human endeavor by which we bring godliness and goodness into the world by acting in a manner that elevates society is nothing short of brilliant.  We no longer need to wait for, and then berate ourselves, or our institutions, for not achieving or providing moments of utter and fascinating awe.  To quote Bernard Bamberger, the 20th century Baltimore born Rabbi who during his career headed both the Central Conference of American Rabbis and the World Union for Progressive Judaism,  “The idea of holiness implies that what we do and what we make of our lives matters not only to us as individuals, not only to society, but to the entire cosmos.” 
It’s the thinking, feeling, and doing that matters. 
Holiness requires action on the part of the individual acting within the context of community.  To paraphrase the first chief Rabbi of the land of Israel, Rav Abraham Kook, the activation of the intellect, both heart and mind, is a pre-requisite for the attainment of holiness.  I disagree with Rudolph Otto that numinous equals holiness.  Numinous puts holiness too far out of reach from most of us and directly contradicts the Jewish idea presented in Leviticus’ Holiness Code.  Holiness is easily attainable. The potential is there for each and every one of us, but it requires conscientious thought and action in order to make this world a better and more civil society for everyone.  It is fully and solely our responsibility:  קדושים תהיו – God commands it!

Finding Ourselves in the Sea of Me, Rosh Hashanah AM 5773

[This sermon was introduced by Patty Larkin's ballad "Me."  Perhaps someday I will learn how to upload a sound file to this blog, if indeed possible.  In the meantime, feel free to seek the song out on iTunes.  It is readily available]
It sometimes feels as though we are swimming in a sea of  “me”s and “I”s.  In a large sense, it’s a mess of our own glorious creation.  Of our own remarkable achievements: the rise and success of  “me” -- the individual. 
Since the dawn of modernity and the revolutionary French vision of the rights of the individual and citizen, a vision that finds parallel expression in our own country’s Declaration of Independence and Bill of Rights, the individual has reigned supreme.   We know the inherent truth to this reality; it’s what makes folk singer and master guitarist Patty Larkin’s presentation  “me, me, me,…I,I,I” so darn entertaining.  We recognize the sentiment – in others and in ourselves.
In the late 18th century, when the concept of the natural and inalienable rights of the individual --  of course, in the context of the 18th century, these were the rights of white men, but allow me to anachronistically project the success of the suffragist and civil rights movements back into history for a moment so that we can extend the intended “rights of men” to all individuals – - when these rights of the individual were first discussed, it was done so as a broad vision presented by legal theorists and philosophers of the time not entirely as a practical reality.  
It is perhaps difficult for those of us raised on the tenants of these modern concepts to comprehend a world where the notion of a human being having natural rights to property, liberty, and life (let alone health insurance) was far from an assumption but rather a theoretical and ideal vision, one that we learned had to be legislated repeatedly throughout history in order to truly extend these rights of humankind to all individuals.  We’ve learned the vision wasn’t so easy to implement.  Indeed, we are still working on that.  Please vote in November!
         The Reform movement is grounded in the natural rights of the individual.  No longer are the decisions of a central governing body of Rabbis, the ancient and revered Talmudic sages, or even a local chief rabbi, legally binding.  An individual was, according to even the first generation of German reformers, first and foremost, a citizen of the state; and, individual autonomy slowly began to trump communal concerns particularly in matters of religion. 
By philosopher Eugene Borowitz’ mid-twentieth century Centenary Perspective on Reform Judaism, individual autonomy had become, as it remains today, firmly the last say in all religious decisions among Reform (and arguably, as I discussed a few years ago, all American) Jews.  Religious affiliation and observance is no longer mandated from outside sources.  It is a choice of the individual. 
Individual autonomy, this right to choose for oneself, however, requires individual responsibility – and not just to the individual.  It is not an every man or woman for his/her self centered ideology.  It requires individual responsibility towards the community and world as well.   I believe that we’ve mastered responsibility to ourselves as individuals.  We can all sing along with Patty Larkin.  We’ve lost sight of our responsibility as Jews.
         The last measures of Patty Larkin’s satirical song “me” cleverly and playfully highlight the distortion that occurs in the world when the focus is solely and too heavily on the individual.  “I’m not talking about him or her or them, no way,” she rants; but, the “me” in the center ultimately gets lost.   The intense focus on the “me” becomes a rhythmic scat, compelling on the surface, but all that’s left is a distorted syllable.  Is it English, is it French, or is it simply nonsense?
         Too much focus on the “me” can lead to incomprehensible behavior, incomprehensible behavior that ultimately has the power of destroying the fabric of our community.   An example by way of an incident that occurred this past July, in South Florida.  A 21-yr old life guard was fired from his job.  Be clear, he didn’t fail at guarding human life.  He was actually fired for doing just that, for rescuing, for saving the life of a drowning man.  Problem was, the man he saved was drowning beyond his “designated guard zone.”  His employer, The Life Guard Service, explained to reporters that the guard was fired because of the risk of “liability issues” – in other words, the fear of legal exposure caused this "life guard" service company to limit its life saving services.  They put their “me,” their concerns for self preservation – in this case financial -- before a human life that needed saving.  
Now, I admit that my understanding of the nuances of litigation risk and insurance boundaries is probably naïve, but it seems to me that the behavior of this Life Guard Service is doing far more to harm human life than guard it in their desire to protect themselves from litigation.  And the human being who acted responsibly to save a life, who acted out of a sense of individual and moral autonomy to go beyond his official zone, no longer gets to guard life.  
Far less dramatic but as compelling and certainly closer to home is the state of our congregations.  Prior to the modern period and the rise of the “rights of the individual” Jewish identity, Jewish affiliation was imposed on the Jewish community.  Jews were forced to pay for the right to live as chartered – often heavily taxed - communities within the broader societies in which they lived.   There was no choice, no individual autonomy.  They were not citizens with natural rights to land ownership and liberty.  Again, such concepts were still yet to enter serious ideological and political dialogue let alone practice. 
In America, synagogue membership has never been mandated.   Members may feel that the cost of synagogue membership is a burdensome tax – a heavy cost for various services, some tangible and some less so; yet, unlike the pre-modern period, it is entirely voluntary.  Like the support for any charitable non-profit organization in this country, the activation of individual autonomy is required.  It’s your choice. 
The flip side to this burden is that 1) there is no government interference, but 2) there is also no government support of the practice of Judaism.  This isn’t Israel where synagogues and their rabbis receive financial subsidies by the government.  This is America where autonomy brings with it religious freedom and burden of responsibility.  There was a time in our not so distant American Jewish history when joining a synagogue and supporting the Jewish community was considered a privilege towards which many aspired.   Jews joined and supported congregations simply because it was a self-imposed choice.  They expected it of themsleves as Jews, and this expectation, this responsibility was valued as a freedom of being an American Jew.   Prioritizing the expression of Jewish life, by choice, took precedence over many other needs of the self, of the “me.”  
Perhaps the understanding was clearer in the past then today, even if unstated, that if we didn’t join and make the synagogue a priority in our lives, it would cease to be there. Or maybe, Jews were simply riding the increased wave of religious institutional affiliation that swept through America in the WWII and post war era.  Whatever the explanation for the success of the synagogue in the mid- and late twentieth century, our grandparents and parents understood that the individual often had to take a back seat to the needs of the community in order to sustain that very community.  The founders of this congregation, in particular, who were generally far from being among the wealthiest strata of Baltimore society, understood the need they were filling and the seeds that they were planting. We might label their efforts a sacrifice, but in their minds, they were fulfilling their responsibility as American Jews in creating a place for the pursuit of Torah, worship, and acts of social justice.   The expense of the synagogue was a choice.  At the same time, it wasn’t viewed as optional.  It was a top priority.   
There are no federal or state subsidies for religious houses of worship in America (thank goodness for that hallmark of religious freedom in this country), but that means if we don’t care about the community enough to support it, it will, simply put, cease to exist.  My fear, based on various demographic studies both locally and nationally, and based on worship trends within our own congregation and beyond our walls in our sister congregations, is that here in 21st century America, the synagogue has become a responsibility that too few of us care to shoulder.  As Jews in America today, we have few, if any, boundaries or limitations.  We can join and participate in all of the clubs and organizations to which our neighbors belong.  Our individual interest in and our eagerness to participate so fully in American society, and our being welcome to do so, is something to be celebrated.  It is a mark of success, but this success may just be trumping our desire to maintain this communal institution, the synagogue.   
This Rosh Hashanah, I challenge you to convince me otherwise.   
In partnership with the lay leadership, I am asking you to tell me why you are here: why you belong to Temple Emanuel, and what you expect from us.  This is your opportunity to take the time to consider what the synagogue and affiliation means to you.   
By week’s end, you will be emailed a link to a survey that I’d ask every adult member of your household to take.  Hard copies are available if you’d prefer to respond in that manner, and/or access to it online here at Temple Emanuel will be provided if you if you don’t have online capabilities at your home.  No matter how or where you choose to participate, please know that it is entirely anonymous. The only way anyone will know how you answer is if you choose to tell me. It will take only 10 minutes of your time, but the information you provide will be invaluable in helping the leadership of this congregation plan for the future.  It will also, I hope, give you the opportunity to consider your role: involvement or non-involvement - in the future of Jewish life in America and more specifically here in Baltimore and at Temple Emanuel.
         As we enter the New Year  of 5773 together, please help me to understand where the place of Torah, worship, and of Jewish community fits in among all of the demands made upon your “me.”
Shana tovah