Rabbi’s High Holiday Sermons

Writing on the Wall

“Now let Daniel be called, and he will declare the interpretation” Dan. 5:12

Monday, September 30, 2019

Rosh HaShanah 5780 – A Ledor Vador People: Climate Change

A version of this sermon was delivered at Temple B’nai Torah – A Reform Congregation on Rosh HaShanah Morning, 5780, Monday, September 30, 2019.

In the middle of August, after a two-hour hike, on a barren hillside in Iceland, around 100 people gathered.  As the sun held its position in the sky, the mourners arrived.  The mayor was in attendance and a representative from the UN.  Together, they shared poems, held a moment of silence, and reminisced.  It wasn’t much different than any other funeral you may have been to, except that in this case, the funeral wasn’t for a beloved statesman or a famous daughter of Iceland.  No, these folks gathered to mourn the loss, the death, of a glacier, some 700 years old.

Just last week, a small crowd of 250 gathered in Switzerland at the site of the Pizol glacier to say goodbye.  They know that by the year 2030, just 11 years from now, the glacier will be no more.  Overall, The Alps are expected to lose around 50% of their glacier mass by the year 2050.

Matthias Huss, a geologist at ETH Zurich University said of the occasion: “We can’t save the Pizol glacier anymore.  But if people acted now, many of the negative effects of climate change could be contained. “Let’s do everything we can, so that we can show our children and grandchildren a glacier here in Switzerland a hundred years from now.”[1]

In Iceland, the mourners set up a monument to the departed.  It reads: “In the next 200 years all our glaciers are expected to follow the same path. This monument is to acknowledge that we know what is happening and what needs to be done. Only you know if we did it.”

A message to the future.  Only you know if we did it.  Only the next generation, our children and grandchildren, will know whether or not we accepted the evidence and did all that we could in order to combat the effects of climate change: rising temperatures, rising sea levels, extinctions up and down the food chain, the death of our oceans, and if we continue to look away, the ultimate death of our species and planet.

We are a ledor vador people, a generation to generation people who pride ourselves on leaving something of value and import for the next generation.  We teach our children the importance of teaching their children.  It’s why we are here today.  We are a people who, for thousands of years, have told again and again our sacred story, the story of a God who is able to overcome nature, splitting seas, sending locusts, turning water into blood and staves into snakes.  We tell these stories to recognize that only God rises above the forces of nature.  It has become clear that we were wrong.  Storms are stronger, temperatures more extreme, and the effects, from human migrations to famines to flooded cities, are our doing, not God’s.  We have played with the equilibrium of the climate, by pumping carbon into our atmosphere, and have altered the creation God left us, to leave to our children.  But we can still change the future.  The Days of Awe remind us that the future is not yet written, and we are always able to turn our attention and to change our actions.

Just last week, a new UN report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change highlighted the damage we are doing to our oceans.  This report is the product of “[m]ore than 100 authors from 36 countries [who] assessed the latest scientific literature related to the ocean and cryosphere[, areas covered in ice,] in a changing climate…referencing about 7,000 scientific publications.”[2] The results are startling but not surprising to anyone who has been paying attention.

I’m not a scientist.  That’s my brother’s department.  I’m the rabbi. But, I have read the same reports and reporting that you have, and I am convinced of the following:

First, to quote Ko Barrett, Vice-Chair of the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change: “‘The world’s ocean and cryosphere have been ‘taking the heat’ from climate change for decades, and consequences for nature and humanity are sweeping and severe, forcing people from coastal cities to remote Arctic communities to fundamentally alter their ways of life.’”

Second: Sea levels are rising:  In the 20th century, the oceans rose globally by about 15 cm, but that has already increased to twice that rate.  Even if greenhouse gas emissions are mitigated, the sea may still rise between 60 and 110 cm—that’s between 2 and almost 4 feet.

Third: Ever since the Industrial Revolution, when fossil fuels became the primary means of providing energy for our planet, the amount of carbon in the atmosphere has gone up.  As carbon has gone up, so have the temperatures.  A graph of temperature trends over the last 2,000 years shows that after a long period of gradual cooling, beginning in the 20th century, the mean temperature on earth has steadily and sharply risen.[3]

Finally, and most importantly: This is a human-created problem and will require a human solution.  The Dean of Science at Columbia University explains that today, anywhere between 80 and 100 percent of the unusual warming we’ve seen is due to greenhouse gasses.[4]

That is what we know.  The only questions are what we do about it and why we ought to care.

Today, as we celebrate the creation of the world, we are called also to work to protect it, so that our children will know that we did the work to leave it for them, so that we uphold our status as a ledor vador people!  At the end of our Shofar service, we proclaim: “Hayom Harat Olam,” today is the day of the world’s creation, jubilantly and with literal fanfare from our Shofarot!  As we celebrate and express our gratitude to God for creation, we ought to be cognizant that we are also acting less than gratefully to God by neglecting the commands that we have to be stewards of this earth, caretakers for the next generation.

Our tradition makes it clear that the earth is ours to watch over and protect.  The Psalmist sang: הַשָּׁמַ֣יִם שָׁ֭מַיִם לַיי וְ֝הָאָ֗רֶץ נָתַ֥ן לִבְנֵי־אָדָֽם׃, The heavens belong to the Eternal, but the earth God gave over to humanity.[5]  The story of our origins makes this even more clear.

In the second chapter of the book of Genesis, after God creates Adam, God creates Eden and places Adam therein, but with purpose.  “The Eternal God took Adam and placed him in the garden of Eden, to till it and protect it.”  The Hebrew for protect in that verse is from the root shamor, the same word God uses when teaching us about keeping Shabbat. We protect things that are important and Holy, worthy of our protection, worthy of our partnering with God in the endeavor.  God intended that humanity always be stewards of the earth, to help it provide for humanity.  Even before God creates Eve, God reminds Adam that his responsibility, and therefore humanity’s, generation after generation, dor lador, is to watch over the earth.

In the midst of the Garden, the Midrash sees God going even further than the Torah’s sparse words. God impresses upon Adam that the earth is not an infinite resource. It will require care and concern. The earth is fragile, and there is only one. We read in the midrash to the book of Ecclesiastes that God says to Adam: “Look at My works! See how beautiful they are—how awesome! I created them all for your sake. See to it that you do not spoil and destroy My world; for if you do, there will be no one else to repair it.”[6] Adam is cautioned to take care with this world, because it is Divinely created. It is the only One God will be creating. Even in the time of the rabbis who penned this Midrash, there was already a recognition that the earth is a finely balanced system and requires upkeep.

In the morning liturgy, we read: Mah Gadlu, ma’asecha Adonai, kulam bechochmah asitah – How glorious are your creations, Adonai, you made them all in wisdom.[7] Each morning, we recognize the beauty of creation, the divine design left in our hands to administer.

We know and understand what happens when nature does not do what we expect. Our Torah is filled with stories of our ancestors living with the consequences of the whims of nature. Abraham and Sara, and then Jacob and his family, arrive in Egypt due to a famine, looking for food. Noah and his family survive a cataclysmic flood due only to their righteousness, but also their recognizing the signs and preparing for the deluge. At the end of the story, God tells Noah that They will not again destroy the earth in this way and seals that promise with a rainbow. But, God says nothing about how humanity may come to do so.

Our prayers call out to God to give rain in its proper season.  The rabbis of old understood the dangers of unpredictable weather.  They understood it as a message from God.  What a shame if we don’t understand it in the same way, a message from God, telling us to open our eyes and save what we see!

On Yom Kippur afternoon, we read the book of Jonah. The story of Jonah begins with a man called by God to go to Nineveh and tell the people to repent of their sinful ways. Nineveh is to the East, and Jonah goes West to the port of Yaffo to flee from God’s call by sea. While on the boat, Jonah goes to take a nap and sleeps through a gathering storm on the waters. As the boat is tossed to and fro in the tempest, he continues to sleep. The captain has to wake him up! The crew recognizes that someone’s God is trying to send them a message. When they realize it’s Jonah, he says to them: “Cast me overboard into the sea, so that the sea may calm around you, for I know that this terrible storm surrounds you on my account.”[8]

Ultimately, they throw him over the side of the boat, the sea is calmed, and a great fish swallows him. You can find out what happens to Jonah next on Yom Kippur afternoon, but the message this morning is clear: sometimes the waters around us are trying to send us a message, and all we need to do is wake up and listen to it. We need to listen to the cry for help from our planet and jump into solutions that we know will work. We have the power in our hands and our minds to change the course of this impending calamity, if only we decide that we have the will to do it as well.


This is a problem that took a few hundred years to create.  How can any one of us make a difference?  Important question.


To answer, I’d like to talk about one more boat this morning. The zero-emission boat that 16-year-old climate activist Greta Thurberg piloted across the Atlantic Ocean to America in order to plead her case and the case of her generation to the powers that be in Washington and at the UN. If you haven’t yet had the opportunity to hear her remarks either before Congress or at the UN, I urge you to find them and listen to her.


A year ago, Greta began a protest in her native Sweden.  For three weeks leading up to the elections, she skipped school and sat outside Parliament House.  After the elections, she continued to protest, but only on Fridays, dubbing her effort Fridays for the Future.  She was by herself.  She was one young woman, a sign, and a belief that the adults in the world owe her generation a livable world and solutions for how to ensure that happens.  Greta would not remain the only one protesting the climate crisis like this.  Inspired by her, a young woman named Alexandria Villaseñor began protesting every Friday at the UN beginning last December.  And there were others, inspired by Greta or not, trying to do the same.  Cut to one year later, and the largest global climate protests on record, just last week, which started in part because of one 15-year-old.  From one person to more than 4 million people. From one city in one country to more than 2,500 events in more than 163 countries covering all seven continents, organized and populated by and large by the youth.


Responding to the global climate strikes, Rabbi Nicole Roberts commented:

The children are protesting. They are frustrated, angry, disappointed, and scared. Adults aren’t doing enough, they say, to heal the climate in time, before the damage is irreversible, and our children and children’s children pay the consequences. Ma’asei avot siman l’banim, our sages said. “The actions of the parents are a signal for the children.” Our inaction has prompted them to act. Good for them.[9]

Good for them indeed; and thank God for them!

Who says one person cannot make a difference?  We can each have an impact.  And as we do our work, we ought to be guided by three main values:  Ledor Vador, from generation to generation.  Im lo achshav aimaitai, if not now, when?  And Lo aleicha hamlacha ligmor, it is not up to us to finish the task, but neither are we free to desist from it.

What can our congregation and community do?  First, I am announcing a new initiative here at TBT, called TEVA.  TEVA is the Hebrew word for nature, but for us it stands for Temple B’nai Torah Environmental Vision and Action.  After the Holidays, I will be reaching out to see who would like to work on this in conjunction with me and the Social Action/Social Justice committee.  Under the auspices of TEVA, we will be exploring ways that we can work to make our congregation, in particular our building, more environmentally conscious.  How can we reduce energy use?  How can we reduce consumable usage and plastics?  How can we seek to have less of a carbon footprint?  How can we use our property in the best way?  Once our building is covered we expand our reach and ask: how can we help our congregants do similarly at their homes?

All of these questions have a variety of answers, many of which we hope to find as we work to become a sustainable congregation under the seal of HAZON, a not-for-profit organization, guided by Jewish values, seeking to create sustainable and healthy Jewish communities.  We will join HAZON and work with their help toward our goal.

Finally, I want us to plant trees.  I want our congregation to be responsible for planting 5780 trees, one for each year of creation, between now and our Mitzvah Day in late May.  I want us to use an old, Jewish solution to a global problem.  Our ancestors understood the importance of planting trees.  So important is that act, that even if the Messiah arrives while you have the sapling in your hand, you are supposed to finish planting the tree before going to greet him, according to the sages.[10]

After the fires in the Amazon this past summer and global deforestation in the last decades, the earth just doesn’t have enough trees to filter the carbon dioxide.  While it may take many millions even billions of trees to reverse climate change, we can still do our part and our tradition tells us we must.  There are not-for-profit organizations who work to reforest areas of the globe for as little as a dollar a tree.[11]  Our religious school students will be raising tzedakah for this purpose.

Imagine if this coming year, for every birthday, anniversary, bar and bat mitzvah, baby naming, confirmation, graduation, basically every time Hallmark makes a card, if you took one dollar and planted a tree, what a difference we could make.  You want to plant a tree in Israel, go for it!  You want to plant a tree in your yard?  Go for it!  But, keep me informed of all of them!  We will be tracking our progress on a Tree-mometer which is being made from recycled materials and which will be displayed.  We will have a check-in at Tu B’Shevat, the date when in the ancient world the trees were counted for tax purposes.  And, I’ve already started us off.  To wish you all a Shanah Tovah, I have planted one tree for every member family of our congregation.  550 trees!  (I rounded…)

Now, we know what we can do and how to start.  Over the year, we will be sharing more ideas with you.  We can see our way out of this mess.  We can begin to turn back the tide of climate change, but we have to act quickly.  Time is running out.  Dr. Kate Marvel, an associate research scientist at NASA’s Goddard Institute, reminds us: “there is no scientific support for inevitable doom.  Climate change is not pass fail.  There is a real continuum of futures, a continuum of possibilities.”[12]  The future is in our hands, it is not yet written.  As ledor vador people, we owe the future our fight and our hard work.  Let this day, creation’s birthday, be the day we make that commitment!

This work is exciting because it is necessary and important.  Let today be the day when we as a congregation said to ourselves that, though we will not be here in 200 years, we see what is coming.  Let our great-great-grandchildren know and understand that we fought like their lives depended on it because we knew that they did.  Let them know that we did it.  Let them look back at us so that rather than hang their heads in shame on their houseboats, they look back with pride that we came together to save that which was left to us to leave to them; and let them be inspired by us to do the same for their future.

Master of the Universe, in whose hand is the breath of all life and the soul of every person, grant us the gift of this New Year. With all of our senses may we perceive the glory of Your works. Fill us with Your goodness, that we may attest to Your great deeds. Strengthen us to become Your faithful partners, preserving the world for the sake of future generations. Adonai our God and God of our ancestors, may it be Your will to renew Your blessing of the world in our day, as You have done from the beginning of time.[13]


Shanah Tovah


[1] https://www.reuters.com/article/us-climate-change-swiss-pizol/climate-activists-hold-event-to-mark-vanishing-swiss-glacier-idUSKBN1W70GA

[2] IPCC Press release, September 24, 2019. https://www.ipcc.ch/site/assets/uploads/sites/3/2019/09/SROCC_PressRelease_EN.pdf

[3] Cf. Mann, et al., 1999.

[4] https://blogs.ei.columbia.edu/2017/04/04/how-we-know-climate-change-is-not-natural/

[5] Ps. 115:16

[6] Ecclesiastes Rabbah 7:13

[7] Yotzer Or

[8] Jonah 1:12

[9] Used with permission of author

[10] Avot de Rabbi Nathan, 31b

[11] Onetreeplanted.org

[12] In NYTimes: Schwartz,John Will We Survive Climate Change, Nov. 19, 2018

[13] Nevins, Rabbi Daniel, Prayer for the Renewal of Creation, Siddur Lev Shalem, pulled from: http://hazon.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/09/JCAN-HIGH-HOLIDAY-CLIMATE-PACKET.pdf

Posted by Rabbi Daniel Bar-Nahum


Kol Nidre 5780 – Family. Community. Generations

A version of this sermon was delivered at Kol Nidre, 5780 at Temple B’nai Torah – A Reform Congregation

Each year, on this day and this day alone, Yom Kippur, the High Priest of Israel, direct descendant of Aaron, Moses’s brother, would make his way from his home in Jerusalem, through the community, into the Temple complex, and up to the Temple Courtyard.  Within a few hours, the entire procedure for the day was completed. The people of Israel had been forgiven their sins for another year. 

It was a precarious day for the people of Israel.  Would they be forgiven?  Would the High Priest do his duty as prescribed?  Would he ensure that the rites and the rituals would be carried out exactly as they had been for generations, since God first gave instruction to Moses, generations ago in the wilderness? 

And what a day for the High Priest… One misstep, one word wrong, one scratch, one error, and the entire procedure would have to start over.  Or worse, his prayer would be denied by God.  He would be struck down.  The people’s forgiveness delayed. 

He was awakened at midnight, an air of anticipation, until the crack of dawn, when he would begin to make his way to the top of the mountain.  To God’s abode.  To the center of the spiritual universe, to the locus of holiness.

The High Priest was surrounded by his acolytes, who stood outside the ritual bath with a curtain between so that they would not gaze upon him.  He bared his flesh, immersed himself, and then put on the eight priestly garments, for he had prepared himself in conformity with the unchanging law.  Appropriately and unerringly, he offered the sheep, spilled its blood, offered the incense, lit the lamp, arranged the sacrifice on the altar, and poured the libation.

Then he once again came out to the porch to sanctify and immerse himself – this time putting on the white linen vestments, not the gold ones. He stretched his hands over the bull and confessed his sins, and those of his household, withholding nothing in embarrassment.

And thus he would say:

Adonai, I have committed iniquity, I have transgressed, I have sinned against you, I and my household. I beseech you, Adonai, by your holy name: forgive the iniquities and the transgressions, and the sins that I have committed against You, I and my household, as is written in the Torah of your servant Moses: “On this day, atonement shall me made for you, to cleanse you of all your sins before Adonai…”

When the priests and all the people standing in the Temple Court would hear the glorious and awe-inspiring name explicitly enunciated, in holiness and purity, by the lips of the High Priest, they would bow, and kneel, and fall prostrate to the ground, saying; Baruch Shem Kevod Malchuto l’olam va’ed! Praised be God’s glorious majesty for ever and ever!”

The High Priest would intentionally prolong the utterance of the Name while the people recited their praise, whereupon he would complete the verse saying: “…You shall be cleansed!”

And You, [O God] out of Your goodness, aroused your love and forgave the one who was faithful to you. [1]


With this first confession, the High Priest, in the ancient Temple in Jerusalem would confess his sins and the sins of his family.  He would go on to repeat the same procedure twice more, in the early hours of the morning of Yom Kippur.  The people’s forgiveness could not wait.  Each time, he would confess again, broadening his vision and his scope. After atoning for his family, he would then atone for his tribe, the entire house of Levi.  Finally, he would atone for the sins of all the community of Israel.

When the entire procedure was done, when the sacrifices were concluded, when the scapegoat had been sent to the wilderness carrying the sins of the people, when the instruments had all been washed, and the vestments buried, “the crowd accompanied their faithful leader home, exulting that the red thread had been turned to pure white [meaning their sins had been forgiven by God].  They gave thanks, gathering the fruits of peace; they sang praises, reaping fulfillment.”[2]  For generations, each Yom Kippur, the people would celebrate behind the High Priest, looking forward to a year ahead, to their work ahead and to doing so imbued with God’s forgiveness and a reminder about the holiness inherent within them.

The High Priest was sent on a journey every Yom Kippur to find expiation for his family and his community.  In so doing, he also encounters the most Holy.  Not just because of where he is and what he’s doing, but because of how he does it, and how in order to find the holy, he has to search for the center.

In the middle of Jerusalem stands Mount Moriah.  At the top of Mount Moriah stood the Temple complex.  In the middle of the Temple Complex, the Temple Courtyard.  In the middle of the Courtyard, the Temple itself.  And in the middle of the Temple, the Kodesh HaKodeshim, the Holy of Holies, Sanctum Sanctorum, the locus of Divine presence on Earth.  In the middle of everything.  Everything emanates from this point on Earth: the Entrance to Eden, the spot chosen by God to show Abraham.  In this most central of spots, God’s presence dwelt between the cherubim on the cover of the Ark, only to be approached on this one day.

The Mishnah for Yom Kippur is found in a tractate called Yoma, Aramaic for “the day.”  That tractate takes pains to express the specialness of the day and explain in some detail the service of the High Priest on Yom Kippur.  When he would enter into the Holy Of Holies, the priest would take a handful of incense, throw it on burning coals in a golden vessel, place that vessel down between the poles of the Ark, and fill the small innermost chamber with smoke as he pronounced the prayers of atonement for himself, his family, and his community. 

In that place in the middle of everything, he would commune with the presence of the Eternal, shrouded in smoke, and by just a few words, inspire not just his family and his community, but the generations that would follow, that they too could be in relationship with God. 

In order to approach God, in order to have the deep connection to God, the High Priest needed to make his way to the center, needed to be sure to leave the extraneous outside.  The most holy is in the middle.  And that is not unique to the experience of the High Priest on Yom Kippur.  The book of Leviticus, the book of the priests is the middle book of the Torah.  In the middle of that book, we find God’s instructions that we are to be holy as God is holy, and that we are to love our neighbor as ourselves, the most central of the commandments, according to Rabbi Akiva and Hillel.

If the middle is where the holiness is found, then finding middle ground, making space for ourselves and others, is a practice in creating holiness.  If the middle is where the holiness is found, then the work of compromise is the work of creating holy solutions.

Over this last year, the first as our newly merged congregation, we have striven to find the holiness of the middle as we’ve merged two traditions.  There were a lot of decisions to make and a lot of issues to overcome, but the leadership of this congregation, committed to our shared values, and to creating a sacred community, sought always to find the appropriate holy center.

The holiness of compromise means making space for all voices and working hard to include different viewpoints.  The holiness of the middle means working to not allow extreme points of view to become the only voices heard.  The holiness of the middle means striving to come up with something wholly new, never before seen, bringing with it the best of what has come before.  Friends, I think this evening, we have surrounded ourselves with holiness, and we ought to be proud.

But wait, Rabbi, it’s Kol Nidre, should we really be feeling proud?  Aren’t we supposed to be atoning?  Isn’t this a day about self-affliction?  Yes, it is all of that.  But if it is only that, we are only doing half the work.  You see, the High Priest, yes, was surely filled with dread as he made his way into the sacred center, but he entered that space knowing that he had done all he could to follow all the rules and regulations so that the day would go as planned and so that the people would be forgiven.  He ended the day jubilantly, knowing that he had done good work, that he had followed God’s path.  That he had connected to his family, that he had created a community of forgiven souls devoted to God’s project, and that he had inspired his generation, as his predecessors had done and as his successors would do.

Yom Kippur is about taking stock.  It doesn’t say that it has to be only a list of the negatives.  Certainly, we’ve all been stubborn when it comes to our opinions.  We all haven’t always sought the holy middle.  I know that I am certainly guilty of that, and for those times when my zeal got the better of me, I apologize.  But alongside that sin, there is the knowledge that at times, we did make space.  We did empathize.  We did give a little.  And what that shows us is that we are all capable of finding the holy middle.  We all know what it takes, how it feels and how to do it.  If we don’t acknowledge the good, we cannot commit to doing more of it in the year ahead!

As I explained when we affixed a new mezuzah to this holy space, each mezuzah that adorns our doorposts is to be hung at an angle for no other reason than because a man and his grandson disagreed.  Rashi, our tradition’s greatest sage, who lived and worked in France in the 11th Century, in a comment on a piece of Talmud about the mezuzah, notes that it should be hung vertically, it’s top pointing toward the heavens. 

His grandson, Rabbeinu Tam, an accomplished sage himself, disagreed, and instructed that the mezuzah should be hung horizontally, since the 10 commandments were laid horizontally in the Ark, which rested in the Holy of Holies.  On the same page of Talmud, we can see Rashi’s comment and Rabbeinu Tam’s.  Both men are revered for their understanding of Jewish Law, and both make compelling arguments.  And neither of them won!

Ultimately, Rabbi Jacob Ben Asher, 150 years later in his law code, decides that to honor both, to uphold the holiness of both opinions, a compromise must be reached.  He advises hanging the mezuzah at an angle, in between Rashi’s preference and Rabbeinu Tam’s. 

The words of Torah, reminding us to love Adonai with all our heart, soul, and might, those words which we place inside our mezuzah, those words we hang on our doorposts to remind us of God as we come and go, they are also a symbol of the holy middle, of the possibility of compromise.  The marker of Jewishness reminds us of the holiness of compromise. 

Looking around our sanctuary this evening, I cannot help but be reminded of that sacred compromise, as we gaze upon our newly installed memorial boards, all hung at angles, honoring all equally.  All the names given the same space in the same Holy space.  The committee that worked very hard to oversee the design, installation, and administration of these boards, containing thousands of names, containing countless memories, certainly had to make compromises. In their work, they focused on shared values, and ultimately, ensured that there would be space for everyone’s name, and that everyone’s memory would be equally honored.

Our holy space, our sanctuary, and our holiest task, the task of memory, now also serve as symbols of the holy middle, of the holiness of compromise.

The Temple in Jerusalem is no more.  Ever since the destruction of the Temple, the Rabbis instituted that rather than the actual service of the High Priest, a recitation of that service would suffice for God.  But prayer without action is incomplete.  The recitation of this service calls us to seek the holy middle: to strive for it, to seek out that holiness, or to create it for ourselves by channeling the divine call to holiness.

Before we even receive the 10 commandments, we are called by God to be a nation of Priests, a holy people.[3]  Tomorrow afternoon, we will read from the middle of the middle book of the Torah that we are to be holy because God is holy, Kedoshim tihiyu.[4]  We are called to channel holiness. 

Like the High Priests of old, who brought about expiation and ultimately jubilation for their family and their community over generations, we recognize the role we have to play as well.  We are the inheritors of the mantle of the High Priests, making our way toward the holy middle, and like the High Priest, we have a job to do.  And that job is to make of this holy congregation a place that connects families, creates community, and inspires generations.

How are we working with our families to provide opportunities for every member?  How are we working to connect families to each other so that we build our circles and reinforce our social lives as much as our social media?  How are we helping our families live Jewish lives in the ways that they want and the ways that are important to them and add meaning to the daily chaos?  How are we encouraging each other to find a place in the holy center, even if, especially if, some of us are accustomed to being on the outskirts? 

How will we go about strengthening our community?  How will we work to bridge the gaps between the different generations and the different arms of the congregation?  How will we ensure that we are providing a safe and comfortable space for everyone, where everyone is also willing to be pushed in their thinking, and to struggle with what God asks of us?  How will we use our community to pursue and spread righteousness in our neighborhood and in our world?  How can we marshal the power we create by coming together in the holy middle to spread our influence of holiness wider each day and each year?

The answers to these questions and more are before us.  But these questions are not the questions of two communities coming together.  These questions are posed to a new, strong, Holy congregation, chomping at the bit to do what we are called to do—create a thriving, inspiring Judaism for future generations to inherit. To make this congregation a locus of holiness.

Connecting families.  Creating community.  Inspiring generations.  These are our sacred tasks. 

This day, the day, we are reminded over and over that the future is in our hands and the answers to the questions before us are waiting for us to discover.  Yom Kippur is a day of optimism for the future.  A day when we commit to the best possible future, when we recognize the opportunity for perfection on this Sabbath of Sabbaths.  The future of this congregation is bright and filled with holiness because each of us is a conduit for that holiness.  We are conduits for that holiness when we work together and create a holy middle.

The future is before us.  May it be good, sweet, and centered around holiness.

G’mar Chatimah Tovah.

[1] Jonathan HaCohen Ben Yehoshua – Seder Avodah, trans. Machzor Lev Shalem

[2] Ibid.

[3] Exodus 19:6

[4] Leviticus 19:2

Posted by Rabbi Daniel Bar-Nahum


Writing on the Wall

“Now let Daniel be called, and he will declare the interpretation” Dan. 5:12

Thursday, October 10, 2019

Yom Kippur 5780 – Accepting our Fragility: Antisemitism

A version of this sermon was delivered on Yom Kippur 5780 at Temple B’nai Torah – A Reform Congregation

An old joke:

Rabbi Altmann and his secretary were sitting in a coffeehouse in Berlin in 1935. “Herr Altmann,” said his secretary, “I notice you’re reading Der Stürmer! I can’t understand why. A Nazi libel sheet! Are you some kind of masochist, or, God forbid, a self-hating Jew?”

“On the contrary, Frau Epstein. When I used to read the Jewish papers, all I learned about were pogroms, riots in Palestine, and assimilation in America. But now that I read Der Stürmer, I see so much more: that the Jews control all the banks, that we dominate in the arts, and that we’re on the verge of taking over the entire world. You know – it makes me feel a whole lot better!”

This joke serves as many jokes in our tradition do, to make light of that which is difficult, to try to bring some levity to the complexity of life as a Jew in a world where we are always a minority, the complexity of life as Jews in a world where there are many who do not like us and who see us in the worst light, all the time.

In January, I was forwarded an email sent to a local middle school principal by a parent in our congregation. I share this email with the family’s permission. It has been edited for confidentiality.

Last night, my child reported to me that as he was leaving school, he was confronted by a young male student who said, “I love Hitler.” My child stopped and asked the boy to stop saying that because he found it offensive and that it was a racist thing to say. The boy continued to repeat the statement. My child threatened to go to the dean of students and the boy responded by saying that he would just deny that he had said it.

This type of incident is, unfortunately, more and more common. Some school administrations deal with it better than others, and act to respond, not sweep away. Not a year has gone by that I haven’t heard a story about something like this at one of our local schools. When we brought in the ADL a few years back to help our middle and high schoolers learn how to respond when confronted with this kind of antisemitism, so many hands went up when the facilitator asked who among the young people had experienced antisemitism.

Often these kinds of incidents, particularly graffiti of swastikas, fall into the category of kids pushing boundaries, to see how far they can go, and what they can get away with. Kids push boundaries in lots of ways. When they do so using hate, it’s coming from somewhere. Ignorance and stupidity are not always the motive. Sometimes the motive is truly hatred. It is our responsibility to work with the schools to ensure that they are handling these issues appropriately, that students know and understand why it is wrong and hurtful for them to draw these images and say these terrible things to their Jewish classmates.

To understand how this kind of behavior hurts, let me share another piece from this parent’s letter:

One evening in December, I was driving through town with my son and I commented on how beautiful some of the homes were with all of their Christmas lights and decorations. He responded by saying that he wished that we could put up decorations for Chanukah. When I told him that I would buy some blue and white lights and a menorah for the window he told me that he doesn’t think that it would be a good idea to decorate because it would bring attention to the fact that we are Jewish. He said he worried that someone would vandalize our house or do something to us. I was shocked! I reassured him that we live in a safe town and that he shouldn’t be worried about anti-Semitism here in our town. That’s when he told me that I was wrong. That he has been seeing swastikas drawn on the walls in school, especially in the boys’ bathrooms, both at his middle school, and at his elementary school before that.

A middle schooler. Worried about what might happen to him and his family if they make their Judaism too known to their neighbors. A middle schooler. Sharing with his father the difficult reality of his life at school. A middle schooler targeted by his classmates because he is a Jew.

We all know that this email is not the first like it that I have received; and it will not be the last.  The statistics of antisemitic attacks or incidents are only reporting what we already know, and what we already feel around us.  According to the ADL,[1] though 2018 saw a slight downtick in total incidents, it also saw the deadliest attack on Jews on US soil in American history at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh.  2018 still saw the third highest number of incidents since tracking began 40 years ago.  The numbers for 2018 are 48% higher than 2016 and 99% higher than 2015.  And that’s just the United States; statistics in Europe are even worse.

Antisemitism never went away, it seems.

For a long time in this nation, and in much of Western Europe, we did not need to worry.  In the shadow of the Second World War, Jews enjoyed a kind of protected status, in part based on the west’s guilt.  But no longer.  I guess the statute of limitations is up, if it ever existed, in living memory of the fires of Europe that consumed more than 1/3 of world Jewry.  And because it is so present, it certainly can feel like the tide is turning against us.

Professor Deborah Lipstadt , in her recent book: Antisemitism: Here and Now traces the uptick in antisemitism in the last decade, while also putting it into historical context.  Lipstadt defines antisemitism concisely using the old line attributed to Isaiah Berlin: An anti-Semite is someone who hates Jews more than is absolutely necessary.  “Imagine if someone has done something you find objectionable.  You may legitimately resent the person because of his or her actions or attitudes.  But if you resent him even one iota more because this person is Jewish, that is antisemitism.”[2] 

Lipstadt goes on to explain how Antisemitism has a long history, and how it has morphed and changed over the millennia. 

In ancient and medieval times antisemitism was religious in nature. Jews were hated because they refused to accept Christianity and, later, Islam. In the 18th century, racial and political rationales were added to the religious one…By the 19th century, those on the political right were accusing all Jews of being socialists, communists, and revolutionaries. Those on the political left were accusing all Jews of being wealth-obsessed capitalists who were opposed to the social and economic betterment of the poor and working classes.[3]

Lipstadt adds that adherents of eugenics saw in Jews both negative and positive qualities. “Jews were maliciously intelligent, and because they were able to easily mix with non-Jews, they used those traits to wreak havoc with non-Jews’ lives.”[4]


Yes, this means that Jews are ascribed contradictory qualities. No, it does not make sense. But logic and sense are not the game of antisemitism. Rather, conspiracy, forgery, fallacy, and otherness are the trades of this ever-evolving hatred.

On tour, promoting her book, How to Fight Anti-Semitism, New York Times Columnist and opinion writer Bari Weiss, who grew up Jewish in Pittsburgh commented on one theory as to why we are seeing such an uptick. “Anti-Semitism is not just about the Jewish community, it’s about the health of a society. When a society becomes antisemitic there is something wrong in their body politic.” Weiss goes on to say, “Societies where antisemitism thrives are societies that are either dead or dying. Why? It’s because antisemitism is the ultimate conspiracy and when anti-Semitism thrives it’s a sign that the society has replaced truth with lies.”

Lipstadt and Weiss do an excellent job recognizing and explaining that antisemitism is not a phenomenon on which any one side of the political spectrum has a monopoly.  It’s coming at us from all sides.

In today’s America, we are rightly concerned by the emboldened white supremacists who march carrying torches shouting, “Jews will not replace us.”  This chant, by the way, is not about Jews taking their place.  It is deeper and much more sinister.  This chant puts into words the belief that Jews pull the strings of power politically and economically and we have the ability to replace White people with immigrants and refugees.  These are not fine people.

It was concern for fair and humane treatment of immigrants and refugees, concern that we treat strangers appropriately, as the Torah commands us again and again, for we were once strangers, which influenced the Pittsburgh shooter.  Far-right antisemitism, and those that turn a blind eye toward it or even subtly encourage it are to blame for the martyrs of our people lost in the last year.

Far Right, Alt-Right, White supremacy, white power, neo-Nazis, whatever we’re calling them doesn’t quite matter.  We have seen this movie before and are not quite shocked by it.

The hatred from these groups isn’t new.  What is new is that the anti-Israel, anti-Zionist movement championed by some of the left has also become a haven for antisemitism.  A new breed of antisemitism, perhaps more difficult to recognize because it’s more subtle.  It speaks in the language of liberation and redemption for oppressed peoples, never considering the millennia of oppression suffered by the Jews.  No, the Jews are seen as European colonialists and interlopers in the Middle East, even though as of last count, Israeli Jews hailing from Arab lands make up just over half the population.  Those Jews, by the way, like my mother from Egypt, were often forcibly deported, their possessions confiscated, for no reason except that they were Jews.  But again, logic and history are not the games anti-Semites play. 

The Boycott Divestment Sanctions movement, which seeks to ostracize Israeli business and academia for Israel’s behavior toward the Palestinians, does not seek a peaceful resolution to the conflict.  Instead they seek to quell dialogue.  They seek a one-state solution for the territory between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, and it is not a Jewish state.  Denying Jews uniquely the right to national self-determination is an act of antisemitism. 

I am a Zionist and a citizen of Israel.  I believe that Jews deserve a homeland in our ancient home.  I believe that Israel can and should be criticized when it does not live up to its ideals.  I believe that Israel has had many triumphs and has made many mistakes, as all nation-states.  When Israel is singled out for criticism unlike any other nation, when Israel, uniquely, is questioned in terms of its legitimacy as a member of the international community, when Jews in the diaspora are made to answer for Israel’s actions, or questioned about their dual loyalty, the conversation is no longer about Israel.  It’s about hating Israel, the lone Jewish state in the world, more than is absolutely necessary.

Whether you see yourself as on the right or the left, our job as Jews and those who love us is to call this out where and when we see it, and not only when it comes from the other team.  The truth is for all of us, anti-Semites are always the other team!  We would do well to remember that. 

We would also do well to recognize that unlike other times in our past, the hatred is not state-sponsored.  We do not live at the pleasure of a local duke, fearful of expulsion.  We are not living through an era of state segregation of Jews.  Those facts are comforting, but they do not diminish the reality that something has shifted.


So, what are we to do? What next? How are we supposed to react to this renewed antisemitism? It is not enough to just know about it; how do we deal with it?

Today, Yom Kippur, has an answer.  On this day, the liturgy and the rituals are meant to bring us to recognize the fragility of our lives.  We empty ourselves. We fast.  We wipe away our niceties and adornments.  We pour out our hearts until we are left in as close to the condition that God created us.  At that moment, when we come face to face with the impermanence of our existence, when we’ve given God all that we can, all that is in us, then, God reaches out to us, giving us a hand, through the miracles of repentance and forgiveness.[5]

The rabbis in the middle ages, at the time of the crusades, who were well versed in dealing with communal tragedies, made this day even more potent when they added a section of the service known as the Eleh Ezkarah: these I remember.  This section of the service is so titled because of the opening poem which begins: Eleh Ezkerah venafshi alai eshpecha: These do I remember, and my soul melts with sorrow; for the bitter course of our history, tears pour from my eyes. Our Machzor calls this the Martyrology.  In the last number of years, this section of the service has been shortened again and again by many.  It seemed out of fashion.  It seemed unnecessary to dwell on the Jews of ages long past who were killed because of their Judaism.  That’s not our reality.  Last year, in this congregation, we skipped it altogether.

That section of the service was written as a cry out to God in the aftermath of the martyrdom of so many Jews during the Crusades.  In their cry, they discovered a kinship with the martyred rabbis of the ancient world, who were killed by the Roman authorities in the aftermath of a rebellion.  These Jews could think of nothing else but to cry out to God in the sacred act of remembrance for those who were taken, as our tradition says, al kiddush hashem, for the sanctification of Adonai.

If Yom Kippur is about recognizing our fragility as humans before the Divine, then the Eleh ezkarah section is about recognizing the added fragility that comes with being a Jew in this world.  This year, perhaps, we feel that even more keenly.  On this day, when we believe that heaven and earth are at their closest, we cry out to God for those who were taken because they were just like us.  We cry and wail to God demanding answers to questions that will not come.  We cry and remember that throughout our many wanderings, more often than not, living as a Jew was a fragile proposition.

Friends, today, in our nation, we are still in the one year period of mourning for the martyrs of this soil, who were killed al kiddush hashem, who were killed because they had the audacity to go and pray as Jews, who were killed because they were Jews.  A little bit later this Yom Kippur, as we transition into our Yizkor service, together we will remember these martyrs with a new eleh ezkarah for Pittsburgh and Poway, CA.  Together we will do what our ancestors have always done: sit in our precarious predicament.  Together we will mourn for our people, and together we will accept the fragility of our Jewish existence.

Toward the end of her book, Bari Weiss makes the point that protesting won’t change much.  She quotes Rabbi Jonathan Sacks who said: “Non-Jews respect Jews who respect Judaism, and they are embarrassed by Jews who are embarrassed by Judaism.”[6]  Weiss takes this as a signal that passive reaction to antisemitism won’t cut it.  It is time to move from “crouching to standing, from defense to offense, from doubt to confidence, from shame to pride.”[7] 

It is only once we come face to face with our fragility in this world that we can truly see the answers that Judaism has for us, and the answers that this day asks us to consider.  If the underlying theme of Yom Kippur is fragility, and the specific fragility that comes with being a Jew, what counteracts it?  How do we come back to that sense of pride? How do we stabilize ourselves on such shaky ground? 

We respond with the stability of God, the stability of our traditions, and the stability of our community. 

The stability of God.  At the end of this long day of repentance and prayer, before the tekiah gedolah is sounded, we proudly declare three lines.  The first is the Shema, reminding us that God is one and one alone.  The second line, we recite three times: Praised be God’s name forever and ever!  And finally, we announce seven times: Adonai Hu HaElohim!  Adonai is God!  Seven times, like the seven days.  A new creation as we exit the fog of our fasts and afflictions.  Though our bodies bend from our repentance, God remains.  Though we come and go, God remains.  Though we struggle and strive.  God remains.  Though we are often under attack, God remains, as God has been and will be forever.

The stability of our traditions.  We have been saying the same prayers for thousands of years.  The hatred directed toward us may change with the ages, but our faith, our belief, our connection to our ancestors, and our recognition of our place in the chain of tradition does not.  And it offers us stability of identity, pride in our Judaism, when those that would do us harm try to redefine who we are.

Though the Eleh Ezkarah has been a known part of Yom Kippur for more than 1,000 years, it is not found anywhere else in the liturgy all year.  We only bring this up on one day a year.  We do not dwell on it liturgically, even if it is always at the back of our minds.  Even when we know that we now need extra security here at TBT, and that we now make a point of announcing where the exits are, we only dwell on the martyrdom, and the specific fragility for one day.  We are not supposed to dwell on death.  This morning, we heard words from the Torah reminding us that we are supposed to incline toward blessing and life, not curse and death.  And so our traditions remind us that we are to always remember the complications of our existence, but not spend so much time doing so that we become overly engrossed with it.

The stability of our community.  A few years ago, in East Meadow, some high schoolers came to me to tell me about some troubling antisemitism at their school.  Together we determined the best course of action, that the response to these incidents needed to not be by individuals, but by the community.  The students rallied support and went as proud Jews to see the principal, who then reached out to the community rabbis.  We are stronger as a community.  And when we make it clear that we will not tolerate hatred against us or anyone, we make it clear what our community stands for.

Our parents and grandparents who proudly donated their time and funds to build these communities understood this.  In addition to a house of worship, they knew that they needed a place to go where they were comfortable and did not feel like the other.  They knew that they needed a place where their children could come and be free from the fragile life of being a Jew in the world.  Let our community continue to serve that purpose. 

Last year was a difficult year for us, friends.  I pray this one will be easier.  As we enter into 5780, let us not only have pride in God, our traditions, and our community.  Let us also be strengthened by them to keep going.  It was the strength and resolve of our ancestors’ faith which propelled them through times much tougher than ours. 

May that which afforded them so much conviction – God, Tradition, Community, Memory – may these strengthen each of us and all of us in this new year.  And as we are strengthened by each of these, let us strengthen one another.   Amen.  

G’mar Chatimah Tovah.


[1] https://www.adl.org/audit2018

[2] Lipstadt, Deborah E., Antisemitism: Here and Now. Schocken, 2019. p 14

[3] Ibid. p 16-17

[4] Ibid. p 17

[5] After Atah Notein Yad, Neilah Service

[6] Weiss, Bari. How To Fight Anti-Semitism, Crown, NY. 2019. p 167

[7] Ibid.

Posted by Rabbi Daniel Bar-Nahum