Mortality is Good (Yom Kippur Yizkor, 5775/2014)

God saw all that God had made, and look! It was very good.” We’ve now explored that verse, from the first chapter of Genesis, twice during these holidays. On Rosh Hashanah, we saw how Rabbis Chaninah and Pinchas made an anagram of the word m’od, “very,” and heard in the words an optimistic, positive assessment of adam, humanity. Last night, the sixteenth-century biblical commentator Ovadiah Seforno showed us to another understanding, in which the word “very” indicates that the whole of Creation is so much greater than the sum of its parts.

And now it is Yizkor time, and our thoughts turn to family and friends who have died. Can we say, even now, that God sees the fullness of Creation as very good? What of the heaviness in our hearts as we remember a beloved, a parent, or God forbid, a child. Is this, too, “very good?” Continue reading

Reveling in our Multi-vocality (Kol Nidrei 5775/2014)

On Rosh Hashanah morning, I brought a text from the very first chapter of the Bible: “God saw all that God had made, and look! It was very good.” I told you then that we’d see the verse three different ways before the holidays were through.

We’ve already looked at it through the eyes of Rabbis Chaninah and Pinchas, Talmudic Sages who saw in the word “very,” m’od in Hebrew, an anagram for the Hebrew word adam, “human being.” For Chaninah and Pinchas, God’s assessment of Creation is positive, and we human beings are the reason why. In last week’s sermon on optimism, I suggested that we could read the verse as a reminder that the essential goodness of humanity — hineh tov “adam” — shines.

Tomorrow afternoon, we will see how Rabbi Meir, a contemporary of Chanina and Pinchas, plays with the sound of the word m’od, offering us a lesson fit for our Yizkor Service: that the “urgency of time” (to borrow a phrase from the prayer book) is a gift, and that immortality, if it existed, wouldn’t be much of a blessing.

Tonight, our lesson comes to us by way of sixteenth-century Italy, home to the brilliant biblical scholar Ovadiah ben Ya’akov Seforno. Continue reading

Opening Day (Rosh Hashanah Morning 5775/2014)

Picture God. Bearded, longish hair, white robe, standing on a cloud. In other words, picture God exactly as I’ve always taught that we shouldn’t. In this picture, He (yes, for these purposes He’s a “He”) is looking off at earth in the distance. There is a thought bubble over His head: “What…was I thinking?” Below, in large capital letters, these words: “CREATOR’S REMORSE.”

Creator's RemorseYou’ll find that very image on page seventy-five of this week’s New Yorker magazine. It is a pretty perfect cartoon to usher in the New Year, and I would like to think that the timing is no accident. After all, the cartoon editor is a guy named Bob Mankoff who might well be in synagogue himself today. Here on this yom harat olam, this birthday of the world, a cleverly-drawn cartoon depicts God regretting Creation. It’s good to laugh. Because looking back on the year that was….if you can’t laugh, you’re gonna cry. Continue reading

Are We Trees? Yes, We’re Trees (Shofetim, 5774/2014)

 Delivered at Temple Mount Sinai, August 29, 2014

Preparing my thoughts for tonight I was reminded, again and again, of the deep connection between mind-states and physical sensations. You see, typing away on my laptop (or trying to), my phone wouldn’t stop buzzing at me. It wasn’t emails or texts. It was the “Red Alert” app announcing rocket fire from Gaza toward Israel. One after another, the warnings reached my phone, each one representing a neighborhood seeking shelter. And with each alert, I experienced a wave of sadness felt in my heart, and a corresponding kick to my kishkes. Continue reading

Eulogy for Rabbi Ken Weiss

I had the privilege of working alongside Rabbi Weiss for four years. That they were the first four years of my congregational rabbinate, and the last four of his, has something to do with the outsized influence they’ve had on me, and will continue to have on me going forward. My rabbinate was very much shaped by those years. There are so many lessons I could point to, but I’m going to limit myself to the one which, I think, mattered most to him, and which he therefore communicated with particular passion.

A story: I remember a time early in my tenure when Ken and I were working on something together and a member of the congregation stuck his head in the door to Ken’s study. Ken jumped to greet him, invited him in, and suddenly we weren’t having a meeting anymore. We were visiting with a member of Temple. After a while, the congregant left. At which point, Ken turned to me and said, “Larry, never forget: the interruptions are the job.” Continue reading

It’s All One: Installation of Officers and Trustees

Love your neighbor as yourself, You said.
And light-blinded we saw
that inner and outer worlds are one
as You are One.

-Judi Neri-

I began my annual report a couple of weeks ago, at which our new trustees and officers were elected, by quoting those lines. I joked then that my annual report was sounding like a sermon. Tonight, I get to give that sermon, by way of welcoming our leaders, both new and returning, to service. For this week’s portion, called Kedoshim, is a virtual manual of service for trustees and officers of a synagogue. Continue reading

From Death, to Power and Love

How we live in light of suffering and pain matters. Given the inevitability of suffering, which eventually touches us all, how we live in its light may be all that matters.

Last week I had the privilege to witness a tremendous outpouring of love and power occasioned by deep suffering. I was part of an event called “Shave for The Brave,” in which people have their heads shaved to raise money and awareness for pediatric cancer. This particular Shave for the Brave involved Reform Rabbis who were moved by the story of “Superman Sam” Sommer, his siblings, and his parents, Rabbis Michael and Phyllis. Continue reading

Why I’m Passionate about Interfaith Dialogue

Interfaith study and prayer are a tricky business. We seek to foster tolerance at a minimum, but really, we want to create more than that. None of wants to be “tolerated” so much as “respected” and “accepted.” There’s an impulse, then, amongst interfaith dialogue participants, to smoothe over the differences, to make it seem as if our religions are all teaching the same thing, all in the service of making sure that we all feel good.

To a certain degree, we are teaching the same thing. I know of no religion that doesn’t have texts which preach peace, and every religion, somewhere in its canon of sacred text, has a version of the Golden Rule. But the particulars — how do we make peace, how do we demonstrate love of our neighbor? — that’s where the distinctions come in, and that’s where the fun begins, in terms of dialogue. It’s also where the tension can happen. Because all of us who embrace a particular path to the exclusion of some other path or paths, do so because we find something about it compelling. We find it to be, if not objectively better, at least better for us. Continue reading

No Fear (Lech Lecha 5774/2013)

The recent release of a new survey of American Jews by the Pew Research Center has the Jewish world abuzz. The data seem to confirm and further quantify that to which most observers of American Jewish life can easily attest: American Jews are less observant and less connected than at any time in living memory. Despite efforts by the organized Jewish world to spin the data this way or that way, there is little good news in the survey results. Trends in place now could well lead to a vastly smaller Jewish community in the near future.

Among many of us who care passionately about the future of the American Jewish community (and who earn a living by serving it), the survey gives rise to a certain set of responses. Our heart rates might rise a bit, just thinking about it. We might speak a little bit faster when conversing about it. We might find ourselves even dreaming about it! If we were to sit with those responses, notice them, and name them, we might name that emotion “fear.” Continue reading

Exceptional (Kol Nidrei 5774/2013)

For the last few weeks, I’d been watching the national rabbinical conversation with a certain smugness. As my colleagues agonized over what to do with sermons they’d written weeks earlier given the seeming likelihood that we’d be at war with Syria over this holiday season, I took comfort in my own style, which is to write much close to the deadline. In my confidence, I thought: “Oh, you’re going to be writing your Kol Nidrei sermon on Thursday and Friday? Welcome to my world.” I was doubly smug because this year, I was actually quite a bit ahead of my usual schedule. My sermon about the abundance of God’s love in the world — the everpresent flow of divine energy, always accessible, always free, a gift, a grace — that sermon took shape over the summer through sabbatical reading and writing, and was concretized in my mind quite early. I even wrote a song to go with it. And, unlike so many of my colleagues, I didn’t feel the need to chuck it in favor of a sermon about Syria.

That I spent some time this afternoon reshaping my words is entirely predictable. Rabbi Gets smug, Universe gets the last laugh. But I’m not going to blame God or the Universe for my need to make last-minute additions and subtractions to tonight’s message. No, I’m going to be a grown-up and assign the blame where it really belongs: it’s all Vladimir Putin’s fault. Continue reading