Category Archives: Worship

Rock Your Shabbat With the TSTI Band This Friday Night

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The TSTI Band is making its debut during services this Friday night. Join us for Shabbat Worship starting at 7:30pm as TSTI members share their musical talents with our community and 3rd Grade students in the Linda and Rudy Slucker Religious School participate in services and a very special “Awesome Oneg”.

Want a small taste of what the TSTI Band has in store? Visit our TSTI Facebook Page here.

Shabbat Services 6PM Tonight

During Shabbat Services this evening TSTI members, Judy and Larry Kantor, Ross Miller and Brett Hardwood will share some reflections on their time in Cuba two weeks ago. In addition watch this space for additional reflections from those who made the journey with me.

Shabbat Melodies: Music for Erev Shabbat November 9, 2012:

As a Cantor my goal in worship is to help create a space in which people can worship. That is accomplished, in part, by creating a musical space that both comforts and challenges. This Shabbat will include music from Cantor William Sharlin. Cantor Sharlin’s music and teaching has influenced countless Cantors on their own journeys. I am one of them. Cantor Sharlin passed away last week and while we, his students, mourn his passing we also know his legacy of music lives on. He wrote this setting of Shalom Aleichem.

It is a moving piece that we will use this coming week at services 6pm Friday night. In the aftermath of this storm I know we all are seeking a warm, welcoming place. We hope you find TSTI to be just that and is why we will be singing this Shalom Aleichem on Shabbat.  Enjoy!

Cantor Moses

If you are looking for ways to help consider the URJ Hurricane Relief Fund.

Hurricane Sandy slammed into the East Coast of the United States, doing billions of dollars in damage, causing dozens of deaths, and leaving more than 7.5 million people without power. As the storm was downgraded to a low pressure system, it continued to wreak havoc as far west as Cleveland, Ohio, and as far north as Toronto, Ontario.

Even as we work to determine the specific impact to URJ congregations and families, and to our larger communities, it is already clear – too clear – that this storm will require a long-term, coordinated recovery effort. The URJ is in the process of reaching out to all our congregations on the east coast and throughout the Midwest to determine what the most immediate needs are in impacted communities.

With your support the URJ will provide relief to congregations, families and communities, just as we have done for victims of natural disasters around the world. Together we can provide hope and help to those in need.U.S. Donations can be made online to the URJ Hurricane Relief Fund or by mail:

Hurricane Relief Fund
Union for Reform Judaism
633 Third Ave.
New York, NY 10017

After an exceptionally stressful two weeks I wish all of you a Shabbat Shalom.

Rabbi Daniel M Cohen

Kol Nidre Sermon 2012/5773, Rabbi Cohen

Screen Shot 2012 10 01 at 3 21 23 PMOne of my all-time favorite quotes is found in the High Holy Day liturgy. It states, “merely to have survived is not an index of excellence.” In just a few short words, this statement reminds us that a life that is fully realized cannot be one that is lived day to day, but instead, must be filled with meaning and purpose.

That is why, while reading Rabbi Daniel Gordis’ new book The Promise of Israel, I was struck by the title of the second to last chapter, “Survival is Not a Purpose.” In five words, Rabbi Gordis summarized what has, all too often, been missing from the American Jewish Community’s discussion of Israel. For in recent years, when we have discussed the Jewish state, we have focused almost exclusively on three issues – security, the Palestinians and religious identity.

All of these issues are, of course, important.

Iran is a growing threat, the seriousness of which we do not fully appreciate.

The question of Palestinian sovereignty remains open more than 40 years after the 1967 war. It is a moral and demographic ticking bomb.

And we, progressive Jews, still do not have equal religious rights in the Jewish state. It is absurd.

In its own way, each of these issues addresses either the physical or the spiritual survival of the Jewish state. But while each is important, individually and collectively, it is not enough for us to focus on them alone. Why? Because “merely to have survived is not an index of excellence.” Because “survival is not a purpose.”

Focusing exclusively on these issues deflects our attention from the fact that, as Rabbi Gordis puts it, “Israel is a country with a purpose and a message.” For too long we have ignored that purpose. For too long we have overlooked that message. And in the process we have forgotten that Israel has something important to teach the world.

For Example, Israel Has Something to Teach the World About our On-going Commitment to One Another.

I was 11 when Israel boldly raided Entebbe Airport after a French plane was hijacked and landed there. I was 12 when the film dramatizing the raid came out. As I watched the movie, I was fascinated… and proud.

If you don’t recall the events, an Air France plane carrying 248 passengers was hijacked and taken to Uganda. Once there, 148 non-Jewish and non-Israeli passengers were released while more than 100 Jews and Israelis remained captive. The world looked on… and did nothing. As the situation grew increasingly dire for the hostages, Israel’s leadership realized that no one in the international community was going to help. If the hostages were to be saved, Israel would have to take matters into its own hands. It did. 100 Israeli commandos flew over 2500 miles and executed one of the boldest hostage rescues in history.

And while those events took place forty years ago, the philosophical commitments that led Israel to take action then remain.

Rabbi Gordis tells the story that some years ago his son asked him, “Abba, do you think Israel will ever negotiate with Hamas and Gilad Shalit will be freed?”

At first Rabbi Gordis wondered why his son would ask such a thing. After all, Shalit, the Israeli soldier kidnapped by Hamas, had been missing for years, and the Gordis family had often discussed his situation. He then remembered that the boy had recently received his draft notice and was preparing to enter the IDF- the Israel Defense Force. The boy had filled out the necessary paperwork and his blood had just been drawn so that if, God forbid, he were killed in an explosion, his DNA could be identified.

Suddenly, Rabbi Gordis realized his son was not asking about Shalit; his son was asking about himself. His son was asking,

“If I, like Shalit, am captured, will my country remember me? Will my country do everything possible to get me back?”

It is a complicated question to answer.

You see, on the one hand, there is the Jewish value of Pidyon Shvuyim – The Redemption of Captives. It reminds us of our responsibilities to each other and it requires us to do all we can to realize the release of those taken hostage.

But on the other hand, Judaism teaches that life is precious, and neither an individual nor a community should do anything that puts additional lives at risk. Giving in to the demands of terrorist kidnappers does just that because it increases the likelihood that they will kidnap again.

So in the case of Shalit, there were two mutually exclusive Jewish values with which the Jewish state needed to grapple.

It did. Vigorous debate erupted not only among politicians, but among all Israelis; they debated what action should be taken on Shalit’s behalf. Should the Jewish state release 1,000 terrorists with blood on their hands, to secure the return of a single soldier? Or was the risk of what those terrorists, now free, might do, too great to justify such an action? Some cited Pidyon Shvuim and stated that a nation founded on Jewish values was required to do everything possible to get the soldier back. While others referred to the case of a 13th century rabbi who was taken hostage but insisted his community take no action lest his release lead to further hostage taking.

And that is the point.

Competing Jewish values were debated… in a democratic state. You see, that’s the amazing thing about Israel. It is not a theocracy, and yet Jewish values play into the debate and ultimately the decisions that are made.

Shalit became a household name in Israel; the entire nation was consumed with his story. Tens of thousands of Israelis joined with Shalit’s parents as they marched to Jerusalem and demanded action on his behalf. Action was ultimately taken. And Shalit was freed.

Yes, Israel Has Something to Teach the World About Our Commitment to One Another.

Israel Also Has Something to Teach the World About the Treatment of Strangers.

When a terrorist approaches the Egyptian border with Israel, sensors trigger an alert; the IDF- Israel Defense Forces- quickly mobilize, go to that spot and… kill the terrorists. It is as simple as that. But not long ago, a group approached the very same border with markedly different results. The border-crossers were Sudanese refugees. They triggered the sensors and the military mobilized. But when the soldiers arrived and saw the refugees, they loaded them on their trucks, brought them to their base and gave them food and clothing.

You see, the Israeli soldiers knew to be compassionate to strangers. And the refugees, they knew the soldiers would be. One of them recalled…

“I looked at the soldiers, and on their shirts, I saw lettering that I did not recognize. I knew we were in Israel. And I knew we would be okay… I’d read the Bible so I knew that the Jews are good to strangers.” (Saving Israel, p. 113 and 115)

Now why would Israel take in refugees from a country that remains committed to its destruction? The answer is quite simple. While Israel is not a theocracy, it was established on a foundation of Jewish values. And central to those values is the understanding that Avadim hayyinu bamitzrayim – “we were slaves in the land of Egypt.”

Time and again our people have been oppressed.
Time and again we have been refugees.
Time and again we have called out for help.
And time and again none has come.

It is for this reason that Israel feels the responsibility to help others when they are in need. It is for this reason that Israel has taken in refugees from Yemen, Russia, Ethiopia, and countless other countries, as well.

An example.

The year was 1977. An Israeli cargo ship traveling to the Far East happened upon a boat filled with Vietnamese refugees. The boat was leaking and the refugees had run out of water. They were near death. The Israeli ship wasn’t the first ship to see them. A number of others had as well, but every other ship had passed the refugees by. The Israeli ship was likely their last hope, and if it did not offer assistance, the refugees would soon be dead. Not only did the Israeli vessel stop, but it brought the refugees on board and took them to Israel. Once there, none other than Prime Minister Menachem Begin granted them asylum and then, some time later, citizenship. It was his very first act as the head of state.

A month later, when asked about this, Begin explained:

It was a natural act for us. We remembered, we have never forgotten, the boat with 900 Jews [of the St. Louis], having left Germany in the last weeks before the Second World War… traveling from harbor to harbor, from country to country, crying out for refuge. They were refused…Therefore it was natural that my first act as Prime Minister was to give these people a haven in the land of Israel.
(Gordis, page 92).

It is the same story over and over again.

That is why an Israeli medical team was first on the ground to help when an earthquake devastated Haiti in 2010. In fact, when disaster strikes pretty much anywhere in the world, Israel is one of the first countries to offer assistance – even to countries sworn to destroy the Jewish state!

In 1998 Israel was in Kenya helping to search for survivors after the US Embassy was bombed.

In 1999 Israel was on the ground bringing relief to refugees in Kosovo.

In 2001 Israel helped earthquake victims in El Salvador AND India AND Peru

And in 2003 Israel helped Sri Lankan flood victims

Yes, Israel was founded by people whose tradition teaches “do not stand by as your neighbor bleeds.” And Israel acts on it.

It is a lesson the world could learn from the Jewish State.

Now all of this may sound like some version of Israeli Exceptionalism. It is… but it isn’t. But the attitudes in Israel stand in stark contrast to what we see here at home.

If you listened to either the Republican or the Democratic National Convention, you heard speaker after speaker talk about why America has been and will continue to be the greatest nation on the planet. The idea of American exceptionalism now permeates the political landscape, and yet the statistics don’t back up this claim.

In the first episode of Aaron Sorkin’s new HBO program “The Newsroom,” when asked why America is the greatest country in the world, the lead character shoots back, saying:

It’s not the greatest country in the world. We’re 7th in literacy, 27th in math, 22nd in science, 49th in life expectancy, 178th in infant mortality, 3rd in median household income, number 4 in labor force and exports… so when you ask what makes us the greatest country in the world… I don’t know what [in the world] you’re talking about.

And while there is a bit of creative license taken here (we are actually worse than seventh in literacy but significantly better than 178th in infant mortality), the point is clear.

Oh, and when it comes to happiness, America ranks number 14, coming in behind #10 Sweden, #9 Canada, #7 Finland, and #6 Israel.

I love the United States and I feel privileged to live here. But it is clear to me that American exceptionalism is based on a fantasy. Worse yet, the growing influence of the Religious Right is now mixing American exceptionalism with theology. The result is that a politician who says our country is anything but the best country on the planet and who does not profess a deep and profound belief in and love for God is all but guaranteed defeat in the next election.

The situation is far different in Israel where, outside Jewish fundamentalist circles, exceptionalism doesn’t really exist, and political discussion remains largely secular.

When I heard Prime Minister Netanyahu speak at the AIPAC Policy Conference last spring, he said:

The Jewish people are different [now than we were in 1944].  Today we have a state of our own.  And the purpose of the Jewish state is to defend Jewish lives and to secure the Jewish future.

That’s not exceptionalism… that’s a purpose.
That’s not exceptionalism… that’s a mission.

Netanyahu drove this point home in that speech last spring when he said,

This week, we will read how one woman changed Jewish history. In synagogues throughout the world, the Jewish people will celebrate the festival of Purim.  We will read how some 2,500 years ago, a Persian anti-Semite tried to annihilate the Jewish people. And we will read how that plot was foiled by one courageous woman – Esther.

Esther did not save her people because they were the best, or because they were special, or because they were perfect. No, Esther saved her people because they were… her people.
The same holds true today.

Israeli politicians know that Israel isn’t perfect, and they say so. Loudly. In fact, the first people to criticize Israel are usually Israelis. They see the issues, they argue the issues, and they are constantly working toward becoming the country they want to be. But they don’t live with the fantasy that they have already arrived.

That does not, however, detract from all Israel has accomplished in just over 60 years. Yes, a country founded on Jewish values just 60 years ago…

– has the highest ratio of university degrees to population in the world and produces more scientific papers per capita than any other nation.

– has the largest number of startup companies in proportion to its population and it is ranked #2 in the world for venture capital funds. Right behind the US.

– has the highest average living standards in the Middle East. And an economy that is $100 billion larger than all of its immediate neighbors combined.

– is the country that elected a woman Prime Minister in 1969.

And Israel was the only country in the world to enter the 21st century with a net gain in its number of trees. Not bad for a 60-year-old nation built in a desert.

Is Israel perfect? No. And Israelis know it. But it still has a sense of purpose, and there remains a great deal to be learned from the example it sets.
As we begin Yom Kippur, we pause, we reflect and we are reminded to look past the unattainable goal of perfection.

As we begin Yom Kippur, we reaffirm our connection and commitment to one another and to our community, despite those imperfections.

Tonight, especially, let us remember that Israel remains a safe haven for the Jewish people.

Tonight let us remember that Israel still gives voice to Jewish values.

Tonight let us remember that Israel still needs us as much as we need it.

Tonight let us remember that Israel has something to teach the world.

Yes, Israel is flawed, but her national anthem remains Hatikvah, The Hope. And it is my hope that, this year, we will all renew our individual and collective commitment to the Jewish State.

Yom Kippur Sermon, 2012/5773, Rabbi Cohen

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Reverend Michael Minor arrived at his new church and immediately began to make changes. No one was surprised – after all, new clergy often introduce new melodies, new insights and new approaches. That is certainly what we have already enjoyed with the arrival of Cantor Moses here at TSTI. But while Reverend Minor’s congregation expected things to be different, they never imagined the kind of changes he would bring. He did not change the worship liturgy. And he left the melodies exactly as they had been for years. But he did make a significant change…. Reverend Minor, he changed the menu.

In a sermon one Sunday, Reverend Minor announced that, because he cared about his new community, he would focus not only on their spiritual health but also on their physical well-being. Sure enough, on that Sunday morning, he announced that effective immediately, the church Sunday dinner would no longer include fried chicken, cobblers or macaroni and cheese.

And unlike the phony changes I talked about implementing in my Rosh Hashanah sermon, he wasn’t kidding. No, at least in church, the Pastor said, his community would begin eating a healthier diet.

People were outraged.

After all, it is one thing to change the liturgy or melodies of worship, and it is quite another to mess with Sunday dinner.

The pastor knew he was treading on sacred turf and that he would encounter resistance; he knew that for many people, “it’s not Sunday dinner without fried chicken.” But he held firm. Because he was committed to helping create a congregation that was both spiritually AND physically fit.

In an interview with NPR, Reverend Minor was asked if he had experienced some sort of health crisis or epiphany that caused him to change his own lifestyle.

“Well,” he replied, “…a few years ago, I had some health issues [and ] I [now] know how important it is to maintain your health.”

“Look,” he said, “once you lose your health, it’s hard to get it back.”

A great deal has been made in recent months about the ways in which the American diet is hurting us, and the amount of dialogue and debate surrounding the issue has increased since Mayor Bloomberg introduced legislation limiting the availability of jumbo-sized soft drinks.

But rarely has this discussion taken place within the context of a religious community. And rarely has it involved Jewish values. That is a shame, since we Jews have a long, proud tradition with regard to food.

We celebrate a new marriage… and we eat.

We welcome a new child into the covenant… and we eat.

We mourn a loved one… and we eat.

We atone… and we… refrain from eating.

Yes, Judaism and food go hand in hand- with food playing a central role in every single Jewish observance.

Moreover, through the long-standing tradition of kashrut, our tradition teaches us what we should and should not eat.

The basic understanding that emerges from the detailed dietary laws of Judaism is that [are you ready for this?]:

God CARES about what we put in our MOUTHS;
God CARES about what we put into our BODIES.

Now I did not grow up keeping kosher. For my family, a celebratory meal often consisted of shrimp scampi. And when we vacationed in Maine, oh those lobsters were delicious. Things changed during the week of Passover, however. And while we didn’t sell our chometz, our leavened products, we did put them into a single, off-limits closet. But with the exception of that week, I grew up in a household that did not make much of a connection between food and Judaism.

I did, however, keep kosher during much of rabbinic school. After all, how could I make an informed Reform Jewish choice about whether or not to keep kosher unless I experienced a period of time when I did so?

Initially, keeping kosher was meaningful to me, and it enhanced my connection to our tradition and history. But when I found that it ceased to enrich my spiritual life, that I had actually begun to resent it, I stopped.

You see, here at TSTI, the clergy don’t just teach Reform Judaism’s approach of “informed choice”- we actually live it in our own Jewish lives. We believe in the importance of learning about the traditions we have inherited and then making choices about which traditions we observe and which we do not.

And we do so without fear that we are better Jews if we observe more rituals and worse Jews if we observe fewer.

I stopped keeping kosher and I have no regrets.

Lately, however, I have been thinking about food and tradition yet again. This time, though, it is in an entirely new light. For I believe it is time for us to talk about the connection between food and Judaism, but not through the limited lens of kashrut.

Instead, I want to speak about food and Judaism and our health, and I believe that a day dedicated to NOT eating is the perfect time to do so.

A few statistics first.

According to a survey from January 2011, nearly 90 percent of Americans believe they eat a healthy diet. They are wrong. The vast majority of us have horrible diets, and things are going from bad to worse.

We eat twice as much meat now as we did in 1950, and by and large, the quality of that meat is lower than it was back then.

We eat roughly 570 calories more per day now than we did in the 1970s. Many of the additional calories come from high fructose corn syrup. Without even knowing it, we consume more than 40 pounds of it per person per year. Compare that to sixty years ago, when we consumed… none.

These changes correspond frighteningly well with the rise in Type II diabetes, heart disease and other ailments. There is little doubt that our eating habits, as well as other related aspects of our modern lifestyles, not only impact longevity, but impact the quality of our lives as well.

It is for these and other reasons that I would like to spend a few minutes this morning looking at three Jewish strategies I believe can help us help ourselves.

Jewish Health and Wellness Strategy #1- Don’t Eat Treif

The word kosher (kashur in Hebrew) means “fit,” or “proper for use.” The opposite of kosher is Treif, meaning “forbidden” or “not suitable for consumption.” Traditionally kashrut was all about determining what was fit for Jewish consumption and what was not. It was all about asking the question, “Is this good for a Jew to eat?”
Now there is a lot of food that is good for us to eat and I could spend all day listing it. So let’s ask the question the other way. What is not fit to eat? Or to use the Hebrew: What is treif?

The first thing that comes to mind is ever-present in our modern diet and it tastes great… Sugar.
Now, personally, I’m a fan. I have a huge sweet tooth and always have. I LOVE sugar. Gummy bears, Entenmann’s Louisiana Crunch Cake, Smarties, M&M’s, mocha cupcakes… I LOVE them… all. But when I eat them, I don’t feel well. And research explains why this is so.

Those studying sugar’s effect on our bodies have actually begun to use the word “toxic” when describing the substance. They have discovered that large quantities of sugar are not fit for consumption. Sugar… is… treif.

Last spring 60 Minutes ran a story on sugar and noted that the head of a Harvard study examining the relationship between sugar and certain diseases now, quote, “rarely eats sugar.”

In fact, according to 60 Minutes’ Dr. Sanjay Gupta,

“…almost every scientist that we talked to in researching this story told us they are eliminating all added sugars. They’re getting rid of it because they’re concerned about the health impacts.”
When the researchers themselves make specific changes in diet as a direct result of their findings, it is a pretty good bet that there’s something real going on.

So while sugar is delicious… it isn’t good for us.

The good news, as many of you know, is that there are plenty of great-tasting, healthy foods we can eat, and through our new TSTI Health and Wellness Center, we will be highlighting many of them during the coming year.

Jewish Health and Wellness Strategy #2- Yesh Gvool- Set a Boundary…

Jewish tradition is clear- if you are strictly observant of Shabbat, you are not only prohibited from driving, but you are prohibited from coming into contact with a car. The car is considered MUKSAH- untouchable. If you cannot touch the car, the rabbis of old theorized, you certainly cannot drive the car.

The same holds true for what we eat.

As is the case for many people, the food I like most is often the worst for me. Moreover, I know that if I have those foods in my house, I will eat them. I don’t have the self-control not to. It is that simple.
The solution is, fortunately, even simpler. I try not to keep foods that are bad for me at home.

Now, I’m not talking about going to extremes with regard to my own dietary habits. Yes, I can still treat myself to a Wendy’s Frosty on occasion when I’m out. But I no longer keep highly processed and sugary foods at home. After all, if only foods that are healthy for me are in my home, the question of “is it good for me” doesn’t even have to be asked in the first place.

Yesh Gevul- setting a boundary is something that each of us can do for ourselves and our families. And even small changes can help put us on a healthier path.

This kind of mindful consumption becomes even more important when children are involved. You see, Judaism has always taught that the best way to teach the next generation is to model the behaviors we want to instill in them.

If we want our kids to give tzedakah, they have to see us giving tzedakah.

And if we want our kids to be polite, they need to see us being polite.

If we want our kids to go to temple, they need to see us going to temple.

And if we want our kids to eat well so that they can lead long, healthy lives, then they MUST see us making good choices and eating healthy foods.

Which Leads to Jewish Health and Wellness Strategy #3: Make Your Table a Mikdash Me-at, a Small Sanctuary

Jewish tradition is clear that our table can be a place of spiritual sustenance- even as it is a place for physical nourishment. That is why Jewish tradition refers to the dining table as a mikdash me-at – “a small tabernacle- a small sanctuary.” The problem is, as fewer and fewer family meals occur, our tables are seeing less use than ever.

Instead of eating at the table with our families, an increasing large number of our meals are consumed alone in … our CARS.

In fact, 20% of all meals are now eaten there. And that number is growing rapidly.

It is not a healthy trend, particularly because many of those meals take place after a quick visit to one of the almost 50,000 fast-food restaurants currently in the US.

But that is just the tip of the iceberg, because eating in our cars is a symptom of a much larger problem. We are simply moving too fast.

Our ancestors understood the importance of balance between being on the go and taking time to slow down. It is why, of all the gifts Judaism has given the world, the greatest gift, the greatest innovation, was the Sabbath. When our tradition introduced the Sabbath, it was the very first time an entire day was dedicated to slowing down and doing less.

Unfortunately, in our world of constant connectivity and never-ending obligations, we now rarely stop.

Moreover, the decline in the shared meal around the dining table has been cited as both a cause and a symptom of the decline in family connection.

Slowing down and eating a healthy meal together more frequently is good for our bodies and our families.

Part of my role as your rabbi is to care about you. That means caring about you in a holistic way… that’s why I’m giving this sermon.

And I choose to give this sermon on Yom Kippur, the most serious day of the year, because I truly believe that the vast majority of us do not take our diet, and by extension, our health, seriously enough. And we need to, because, as Reverend Minor noted, once we lose our health, it is difficult to get it back. All the rest is commentary.

But I want to be clear about something.

When I talk about food, I’m not talking about dieting and weight loss.

I am talking about eating better so that we feel better and can be our best.

I am talking about changing our diet so that we can live healthier, longer lives for our benefit and for the benefit of the people who mean the most to us.

And I want to be clear that I am not talking about making radical changes in our diet.

But I am suggesting that there is no better time than at the start of the new year for us to begin making small, incremental changes, for our sake and for the sake of those we love.

And I am talking about it on Yom Kippur, a day of fasting, because of Isaiah chapter 58, where the prophet says,

…this is the fast I desire: To unlock the fetters of wickedness, and untie the cords of the yoke to let the oppressed go free… [ ] It is to share your bread with the hungry…

Isaiah calls on us to use our fast as a reminder for us to be better to one another.

Today, I ask you to use this day of fasting as a reminder to be better to yourself and to your loved ones.

Being better to ourselves means eating a better diet, but not only that. Being better to ourselves means finding new ways to lower our stress. It means finding opportunities to exercise more. It means finding ways to get more sleep. It means finding ways each and every day to improve the quality of our lives, because we deserve it and because the people we love deserve it from us.

Rosh Hashanah Morning Sermon 2012 / 5773

It is wonderful to see all of you this morning as we come together to welcome the new year and to celebrate its potential. It is also wonderful to have the opportunity to formally welcome Cantor Moses to her bimah, as she is now part of the TSTI family. I am excited to see the innovations she will roll out during the months and years to come. This morning, however, I want to discuss a few changes we are implementing immediately. They are changes I have long wanted to see made at TSTI.

First, beginning on Yom Kippur, seats in the sanctuary will be offered on a sliding price scale. Those seats with good sight-lines and easy access to the restrooms will be available for a surcharge.

Second, beginning this year, when assigning B’nai Mitzvah dates, those times of year when there are the fewest weather concerns, such as the early fall and late spring, will be available as part of a new premium temple membership.

And third, since there are multiple melodies for each prayer, and we all have different preferences, each week, those who plan to attend Shabbat services can determine which melody will be sung through an online auction.
And, beginning in 2013, we will have a similar online system to choose each week’s sermon topic.

I’m excited about these changes, and I hope you are too.

I am, of course, also kidding. Such things aren’t funny and we at TSTI would never implement such absurd changes. Then again, in today’s world, such grotesque policies are being implemented in more and more places. For, as Michael Sandel notes in his book What Money Can’t Buy:

There are some things money can’t buy, but these days, not many. Today, almost everything is for sale.

Here are a few examples he cites-

If you are in prison in Santa Anna California, you can now get a prison cell upgrade for just $82 per night.

If you are in Minneapolis and are driving alone, you can still use the carpool lane to save time. It will just cost you $8 per trip.

If you are a hunter in South Africa and you want to shoot one of the few remaining black rhinos, one of the most endangered species on the planet, it will cost you just $150,000.

And the list goes on… and on.

And don’t worry if you aren’t able to afford such luxuries, because just as there are new ways to spend money, there are also new ways to make it. For example,

Thanks to a recent campaign by Air New Zealand, you can now rent out your forehead or other body part as advertising space.

You can earn $500 or more by serving as a human guinea pig in a drug safety trial.

If you are willing to fight in a private army in Somalia or Afghanistan, you can earn up to $1000 per day. And to think the word mercenary used to have a negative connotation.

And if you are a second grader in an underachieving Dallas school, you can read a book and make two bucks. Yes, we are now paying kids to read.

As Sandel writes,

We live at a time when almost everything can be bought and sold.

He continues,

The most fateful change that unfolded during the past three decades was not an increase in greed. It was the expansion of markets and of market values into spheres of life where they [simply] don’t belong.

Sandel suggests we need to be concerned about such changes because they introduce an ever expanding degree of inequality. As he further notes –

We have drifted from having a market economy to being a market society. The difference is this: the market economy is a tool…  for organizing productive activity. [It is often a good tool and it works.] A market society [however] is a way of life in which market values seep into every aspect of the human endeavor.

In a market society, no matter where you are, no matter what you are doing, money is the bottom line. Period.

Unchecked, it can lead to an increasingly coldhearted society, one in which

we place policy before people,

earnings before individuals

and corporations before compassion.

It is in such a society that, for example,

Someone can save a life but get into trouble because doing so conflicts with company guidelines.

Just this year, in fact, a lifeguard saved a man’s life, but because it was against corporate policy to do so on that particular stretch of beach, he was summarily fired.

When contractual obligations take priority over human life, the market is in control and our priorities are skewed. It stands in stark contrast to pikuach nefesh, the principle in Jewish law that saving a human life overrides virtually any and every other consideration. (Source)

The Midrash relates that when Rabbi Joshua ben Levi went to Rome, he saw marble pillars covered with sheets, so they wouldn’t crack from the heat, nor freeze from the cold. He also saw poor people, with only a reed mats protecting themselves against the elements (Pesikta d’Rav Kahana 9).

The rabbi was struck by the stark contrast between what he saw in Rome and the Jewish values he embraced and taught, values that make people the most important consideration of all.

Our own Rabbi Herbert Weiner relates: “this is . . . the difference between Rome and Jerusalem. It is not that Rome did not value human life nor that Jerusalem did not value marble pillars, but the order of priority, what first and what is second, was off.”

Yes, marble pillars should be safeguarded, but the treatment of the poor has to come first. It didn’t in Rome and, increasingly, it does not in 2012 America. An America where, to quote Paul Krugman, “Compassion is out of fashion”. (source)

When the market drives social policy,

when we think only of ourselves

and we lose sight of our responsibilities to one another, things go awry. This approach may work in the short term, but eventually, we will all pay the price

Last summer, one of the presidential candidates told an audience that

It’s individuals and their entrepreneurship that have driven America. America is not a collective where we all work in a kibbutz… [], instead it’s individuals pursuing their dreams.

He’s not wrong. America is not a kibbutz. (In fact, having largely become privatized, a kibbutz is no longer a kibbutz.) And he is correct. The American entrepreneurial spirit has been key to our national achievement. But he’s wrong in that his statement focused only on the individual. And while America is not a collective, nor should it be, a basic sense of concern for one another is critical if we are to be more than a national corporation.
But too often, as soon as we begin to talk about our responsibility toward one another, there are those who immediately label it as socialism. And that misses the point.

You see, it isn’t socialism when we are concerned that children are going to bed hungry two miles from here.

And it isn’t socialism when we express concern that the most vulnerable in society have fewer opportunities than ever before.

And it isn’t socialism when we want our seniors to have access to medical care.

No, that isn’t socialism, that’s a society. And a society requires a balance between the individual and the collective. It requires us to, at some level, understand that we are ultimately responsible for one another. And that is what Judaism has always tried to teach.

And that is a message we are not hearing enough of in 2012 America.

There is a lot of individualism out there. There are also people who understand the need to provide a balance between the individual and the collective. And some of them, many of them, are part of the wealthiest 1%.

I recently watched some videos from Warren Buffet’s “Patriotic Millionaires” initiative. It is an initiative in which the wealthy call on the government to raise their taxes so that the poor and middle class are not additionally burdened. It was striking to hear what these wildly successful individuals had to say.

One said: “I’m a millionaire. My government gave me student loans and I got a great education. The small business administration lent money to my company which then made me millions. I want to give back.”

Another said: “I believe that in America the difference between the haves and the have nots might relate to material objects or private schools but it should never amount to meaning that some Americans should go without food, shelter or health care.”

Another said: “I’m a millionaire because of our society so I’m willing to invest in [our society].”

And another said: “We shouldn’t be wallowing in our riches while everybody else is suffering. It is simply unfathomable that we can be in this condition and not feel a responsibility. If you want to be self interested you better be self interested with wisdom and you better take care of the rest of the country.”

Now, none of these folks are giving up their wealth. Not one of them is becoming an ascetic. I suspect they all live in nice houses, drive nice cars, and take nice vacations. And all were more than happy to self-identify as rich. Most actually began with “I’m a millionaire…”

But watching the videos I was, time and again, struck by the fact that they all used words and phrases that have not been a regular part of our national discourse in recent years. Words like “responsibility” and phrases like “giving back”. And while you may or may not agree with their position on taxation, the idea that we plant seeds now for the future, that we arrived at this point because of those who came before us and, as a result, we must look out for those who follow us, is difficult to dismiss. It is also the most Jewish of mindsets.

Social conservatives often invoke Sodom and Gomorrah as a warning to us that those activities they deem inappropriate— often sexual— were the cause of that city’s downfall. By extension, they preach, that current behavior, often sexual, is the source of the troubles we now face. What is striking is that other than not welcoming strangers (Genesis 19:4–10), the Torah gives us few details about why Sodom and Gomorrah were actually condemned. Those details are filled in by later Jewish teachers, and they do not reference sexual behavior. No, they suggest that God’s decision to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah was due in part to their lack of generosity and caring: As the prophet Ezekiel teaches (16:49) “[the residents of Sodom and Gomorra] had plenty of bread and untroubled tranquility; yet they did not support the poor and needy.”

Rabbi Joseph Telushkin puts it more succinctly when he writes that from this we learn that “a society’s lack of charity makes it worthy of destruction.”

And it isn’t just charity. It’s social responsibility, as well.

As much as we love children, Elana and I decided many years ago not have kids. When we pay property tax each year, much of the money goes to the public school system. Elana and I will never see any personal return on our “investment”. Yet were we given the option to opt out, to choose not to support public education, we would not take it. The reason for this is simple. Elana and I are both products of the public school system. We want to make sure that children growing up today have the same benefits we had. Moreover, we understand that an educated populace is good for the country AND it is good for us. We feel a responsibility to our community and to society.

The midrash tells of a group of people traveling in a boat. One of them took a drill and began to make a hole beneath his seat.

“What are you doing?” his companions shouted.

“What concern is it of yours?” came the reply, “Am I not drilling under my own place?”

“But what happens to you,” came the reply, “Happens to us all.” (Quoted in Midrash Rabbah, Vayikra 4:6).

In the Torah God asks Cain where his brother Abel is to be found. Cain, of course, knows exactly where Able is. After all, he has just murdered him. God knows as well. After all, in the Biblical mind, God is both omni-potent and omniscient- all-powerful and all-knowing. Still, God asks the question and Cain replies, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”

The answer, is, “YES Cain, you are your brother’s keeper. Yes Cain, you are responsible for him. Yes, Cain, your future is intertwined with Able’s.” But Cain misses the point. And too often, so do we.

An old tale tells of a son walking with his father. The boy is distressed as they pass hungry beggars in the street, see people with crippling illnesses, and witness other scenes of suffering. “This is terrible,” the boy says to his father. “How can God allow this? Why doesn’t He send help?”

To which the father replies… “He did. He sent you.”

Perhaps our ancestors said it best when they wrote in the Talmud, “If I am not for myself who will be for me?  If I am only for myself, what am I?”

Striking a balance between our individual interests and our responsibility to one another is the only way to build a society that is caring and compassionate. And that process begins with each and every one of us.

Join Us Tonight for the Annual Meeting and Friday to Celebrate Cantor Aronson

The TSTI Annual Meeting begins at 7PM tonight. Please attend to recap the programming year that is ending,  hear about exciting changes that are coming next year and to begin celebrating Cantor Aronson as he moves toward retirement.

Friday evening we will celebrate Cantor during services. There will be wonderful music and a few surprises. The service starts at 7:30PM

And there is still time to add your words of gratitude to Cantor and support the temple he has served for 45 years. Click here for details.

Help this Year’s Confirmation Class Do Some Good

As Jews, we are commanded to perform mitzvot. Among them is God’s instruction to do works of “Tikkun Olam”, or repairing the world. As the 2012 TSTI Conformation takes to the bimah next Shabbat 1 in every 5 New Jerseyan families will be going to bed hungry.

As part of Confirmation we are collecting food to support to the Interfaith Food Pantry of the Oranges, an interfaith effort across the country with a branch at TSTI. When we take to the bimah next Friday night for Confirmation we hope to be surrounded by cans of food to remind us that our Mitzvah is not over and we must continue to help.

Please donate whatever you can, but a bag full of goods on the attached list would directly impact the lives of at least 1 of the over 80 families that come to the food pantry every week. Just remember; “if you can’t feed a hundred people, then just feed one”.

IDEAL CONTENTS OF BAG OF FOOD

1 can soup
1 can of beans

1 can pasta meal, protein meal (pasta and beef, stew, etc)
1 can of tuna or other protein item

1 box pasta
1 jar pasta sauce

1 can green vegetables
1 can red/orange/yellow vegetable
1 can starchy vegetable (corn/potatoes)

1 jar peanut butter
1 jar jelly
1 box of cereal
1 packet dried milk

1 can fruit