Thursday, July 30, 2020

Life is About What We Learn along the Way

Here is my take on this week's Torah portion: V'Etchanan.  

Moses pleads with God to be allowed to enter the Land of Israel, but alas he will only get to see it from afar.  Life can be like that. Sometimes despite our best efforts we fall just short of reaching our ultimate goals.  But the real blessings are to be found in the journey, and all that we learn while traversing along the path of life.

Tuesday, September 24, 2019

A Year of Thoughtfulness and Forgiveness

Words can hurt, yet words also have the capacity to heal. For congregational rabbis, this time of year is focused primarily on the power of words as we assemble our thoughts and choose the appropriate themes to discuss during our holiday sermons. 

There are always more worthy issues to address than time will permit, and so rabbis perform a kind of “sermonic triage”, limiting ourselves to only a few topics at the expense of others that are just as deserving. The contending issues are weighty indeed. Immigration, refugees, gun violence, climate change, anti-Semitism, Israel’s standing in the world, and the erosion of public trust. The list goes on and on. 

But what about the spiritual state of our Jewish community?  Are we Jews growing more disconnected from God, Torah, and from one another?  In our toxic political climate, have we wounded others with our words? Have we been forgiving to those who have wounded us?

If there is one thing I hope to focus on in the year ahead it is to bridge the gaps that are driving us further apart from one another. As we become more entrenched and inflexible in our points-of-view, we don’t usually discuss our differences as calmly and respectfully as we should.  Instead we use social media, slogans or bumper stickers, which often undermine any opportunity for meaningful discussion. All these things do is to proclaim: “I’m right, you’re wrong”.

Judaism teaches a different way. One of the great strengths of Judaism is that it developed as a religious tradition full of compromises, and valuing the opinions of others. 

As Judaism evolved, different practices began to emerge in different communities, and we had to decide which ones were the best to follow.  For example, when we hang a mezuzah we always hang it on an angle. Did you ever wonder why that is? Well, there was an argument between two rabbis whether to hang it straight up and down (vertically) or whether it should be hung horizontally. 

There were cogent arguments to be made for each position. Ultimately however, the decision was made to hang our mezuzot on the diagonal. In other words, a compromise was hammered out between the two competing opinions. The inherent value of each was preserved. The clear lesson is that for there to be peace in any home (shalom bayit), there must be compromise and respect for the positions of others. A place where we can forgive those with whom we disagree.

It’s not a far stretch to see a small community or even an entire nation as one big extended family. And a society or even a small village is strengthened when there is community-wide shalom bayit -- where we practice forgiveness; where we raise each other up instead of tearing each other down. 

Debate can be wonderful but only when it is coupled with respect. That’s how we learn. And we Jews are not usually shy about sharing our opinions! At the same time, we must be on guard not to divide and conquer ourselves. We need wisdom in our speech and compassion in our actions. We must never forget how important it is to remain am echad, one people, despite our differences; and to forgive those who may not always be as gracious.

We are all “others”.  We have all gained different experiences, and traveled along different paths while on life’s journey.  My prayer is that in the year ahead we learn to value, care about, and even forgive another, while we work to uplift and strengthen our Jewish community. That way we can make 5780 a real Shanah Tovah -- for all of us. 

Now will a single sermon change the lives of those who listen?  No rabbi has that expectation.  But what we do hope for is that at least some of our words will resonate and make an impact. As rabbis, we hope that our words during these Holy Days will penetrate the soul, and inspire a life of meaning and of kedushah, holiness.

Monday, May 20, 2019

Torah and High-Tech

I have always been a great lover of all things tech-related. In fact, for much of my college years I vacillated between two career paths that could not have been more different from one another: computer science and the rabbinate. Linda will say that she ALWAYS knew I would be a rabbi, but honestly, I did not.  So perhaps I can say that Linda knows me better than I know myself!

Technology is cold and impersonal, and the rabbinate is, well, supposed to be the opposite! Ultimately I chose the rabbinate, but never quite recovered from my passion for the former and the “cool factor” that the latest feature brings. So of course, in our home I have Google Assistant set up to respond to my voice and turn on lights, change TV channels, alert me to people at the door. etc.  It doesn’t write sermons, make the bed, or start the coffee yet -- but I’m sure we’ll get there!

While tech is convenient, we would all prefer to speak to a human being rather than a computer. (Who among us has not fought with an automated phone system trying to get to a human representative on the phone!)

Yet there are certainly great lessons to be gleaned from technology, and fitting analogies from the world of science-fiction have often found their way into a sermon or two of mine. (But I still must admit that since the end of the classic “Star Trek” series, I’ve never really found any of the current crop to be as thoughtful or philosophically poignant as the adventures of James T. Kirk - the original!)

So let me share a few technology-related thoughts that I think are spiritually relevant today. And I promise you won’t have to be a computer maven to understand my point.

All kinds of signals are hurtling through space and through our bodies at every moment.  Just as multiple signals travel through the airwaves, they can only be made sense of if there is a tuner on the other end to pull-in that particular frequency, or an algorithm that knows how to interpret the incoming data. (I won’t confuse or bore you by talking about frequency hopping or the digital signal encoding formats which are so important in today’s world of cell phones and wifi.)  At the risk of over-simplification, the TV, laptop or cell phone only “receives” the signals they are tuned to, and they remains completely oblivious to all of the other signals out there.

Our relationship with God can be understood in much the same way.  The Kotzker rabbi was once asked by one of his disciples: “Where is God to be found in the world?” The rabbi answered: “God can be found wherever he is allowed in.” In other words, you have to tune yourself to the right channel in order to be touched by the Divine.

We are always deciding what signals we wish to focus on in life.  And often we choose the wrong signal.  Heschel suggested in his renowned book “God in Search of Man” that God is reaching out to us on several of those frequencies, trying to make contact with us and touch our souls.  But we are usually so busy surfing through every other signal out there that we fail to find the holy places in life where God can be found.  We switch stations so fast that we often skip over any vestiges of holiness altogether.

In our busy lives today we simply have too many responsibilities and distractions. We’re always busy shlepping the kids somewhere –to birthday parties, music lessons, play dates or the doctor. We are beset by countless errands that we never seem to catch up with. And mounting work deadlines always manage to keep us apart from our families and further erode any meaningful private time.

That is the beauty of the Sabbath.  It forces us, at least once a week, to cut out all the static from our lives and focus on the things that truly matter. Regular prayer and study also helps attune us to the sacred and keep our fleeting lives in proper perspective.  The Divine “signal” is out there.  It just takes an act of will for us to tune it to that station.

For our ancestors coming out of Egypt, God was very real, very near.  Everywhere our ancestors looked, they saw God’s handiwork and splendor. We, on the other hand, are fascinated by our own power and our own creations.  It is fine to glory in our own achievements, but we should never lose sight of the source that has given us the power to attain them.

When our ancestors arrived at Mt Sinai to receive the Torah, they were awed by God’s presence. On Erev Shavuot we attempt to recreate that sense of actually receiving the Torah by spending an evening engaged in Torah study, as a way of spiritually preparing ourselves to receive the Torah anew during this season. This tradition is called a "Tikkun Leyl Shavuot". 

On Saturday evening, June 9, we will be holding an innovative Tikkun at Beth Shalom beginning at 7:15 PM with Seudah Shlishi (the 3rd Shabbat meal). I invite you to join us as we study together, learn from one another, and reconnect ourselves with the Torah on Shavuot as we celebrate Z’man Matan Toratenu, the giving of the Torah at Mt Sinai.


Rabbi Mark Zimmerman

Saturday, April 27, 2019

Enough is Enough: Another Tragic Shooting...

Only six months have passed since the tragic shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. And once again, on a sacred day for the Jewish people, the peace of Shabbat has been shattered by another brazen anti-Semitic attack -- this time at a Chabad shul in California.  So far what we know is that during Shabbat / Passover services, a congregant has been killed and several others injured, including the rabbi of the synagogue.  Many details are yet unknown, but it is clear that this was another horrific hate-crime targeting Jews simply for being Jews.

This attack, having occurred on the last day of Passover, calls to mind a passage we just read together at our seder tables in the Haggadah only a few days ago: B'chol dor vador omdim alenu l’chalotenu… In every generation there are those who have risen up against us to destroy us.  And yet despite our history, often living in an unwelcoming and hostile environment, Am Yisrael Chai, the Jewish people lives. We are a resilient people, and we will not be intimidated by hate-mongers, or stop living as proud Jews.

Sadly, the Jewish people have not been strangers to threats, violence and intimidation throughout our history. In fact, just this past week, a congregant reached out to me after his child was being harassed on the school bus to her middle school with anti-Semitic threats.

Those who perpetrate such cowardly acts on innocent shul-goers want us to cower in fear and run away from our Jewishness. That will not be our response. We will remain proud of who we are and join together as a kehillah in worship, fellowship, learning and tikkun olam.

And we join together in this effort with the majority of Americans who believe in showing goodwill to all no matter where they come from -- not only toward Jews but toward one another. From the dawn of our great nation, people of all faiths have been free to worship as they wish. While there have been dark periods in which bigotry gained momentum, thankfully we live in a country that is committed to the well-being of all its citizens.

Let us not forget that as we comfort one another and work to repair our broken world.

Shavuah Tov,
Rabbi Mark

Wednesday, April 3, 2019

Life is a Journey

The holiday of Pesach is known by many names.  It is known as the festival of spring, the festival of matza and the festival of freedom. But at its core, Passover is all about freedom. And our exodus from Egypt has long been the paradigm of the human longing for liberation.

And yet, the moment of exodus didn't result in an immediate panacea for our people. There were still plenty of troubles and obstacles that lay ahead. Sometimes the Israelites wished they could go back to the certitude of Egyptian bondage. Slavery in Egypt may have been awful, but at least it was predictable. You knew where your next meal was coming from. So what Passover actually kicked off was not instant salvation, but the beginning of a long, exciting, and sometimes arduous journey.

And that is life in a nutshell. As it has been said, life is more about the journey than the destination.

It is hard to believe that over 30 years have passed since I left the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, and came here as a very young rabbi, along with 2 young children and a brand-new baby in tow. I remember being a bit culture-shocked upon my exodus from New York and our arrival to the “deep south”, where congregants sometimes recited their Hebrew prayers with a decidedly southern drawl.  I also remember glancing at the license plate on the rear of my car and thinking to myself “what in the world is a nice Jewish boy doing in fakatka Georgia?!”

Now, 30 years later I can look back and marvel how we have grown up together and created a synagogue that we all ought to be very proud of today.

“Together” is the operative word. As one person, I could never have made our Beth Shalom into the synagogue that we kvell about and call home today. A rabbi’s efforts must be shared by many others who are willing to roll up their sleeves and labor along his/her side in order for those results to take shape. And this is what has made our shul such a truly special place. We continue to be blessed with dedicated leadership, creative staff and a warm and caring congregation that is filled with ruach and simply feels like family.

Jews have always looked upon themselves as family, albeit sometimes a dysfunctional one. But it is because we have always cared about each other as family that we established a network of synagogues, hospitals, organizations, and even helped to build a State of Israel in the 20th century.

After the Holocaust, the Jewish world was confronted with the challenge: “to be or not to be”. And what we became is absolutely incredible! And it’s all because we see each other as family.  A Christian in America doesn’t feel the same connection to an oppressed Christian in Egypt as a Jew feels for our people scattered around the globe. Judaism is a religion, a nation, a people... and a family!

There is a wonderful Hassidic story about Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov who would pray for many hours every day.

His disciples had long finished their own prayers, but out of respect for their master they would form a circle around him to listen to the sweet melody of his prayers and behold the spectacle of his soul soaring up to heaven. And it was an unspoken rule amongst the Hasidim that no one would leave until their rabbi had concluded his prayers.

One day his disciples were particularly tired and hungry as the rabbi went on with his davening. They reasoned to themselves that since the rabbi still had much davening left to go, they would slip out for a few moments for a bite and to make a “l’chayim” together. Based on past experience, they were sure that they could return in plenty of time, and that the Baal Shem Tov would not even notice their absence.  But to their great surprise, as soon as they returned, they found that their rabbi had already finished his prayers and left.

Later they asked, “Tell us, Rebbe, why did you conclude your prayers so early today?”
The Baal Shem Tov told them that to answer their question, he would have to tell them a story:

Once, a group of people were journeying through a forest. Their leader, who had very keen eyesight, spotted a beautiful bird perched atop a tall tree.

 “Come,” he said to his friends, “I would like to capture this beautiful bird. Let us form a human ladder so that we might capture the bird and enjoy looking upon its beautiful plumage”. And so they did. Together, they formed a chain reaching toward the sky, to bring their leader up to reach the beautiful bird. But eventually they became tired and went off to eat and rest, and the man at the top of the ladder came tumbling down to the ground.

“So”, said the Baal Shem Tov, “when I am davening you become the ladder that allows my soul to soar to the heavenly heights.  I do not merit having my own personal ladder. So once you had left me I instinctively felt your absence. I quickly davened the required prayers and went back home.”

Our wonderful congregation with its unique blend of caring, talented and dedicated members has been that “ladder” for me over the course of these past 30 years. For that, I feel truly blessed to have found my spiritual home among all of you here at CBS, and to have had the privilege of serving as its rabbi for over three decades now.

God-willing, I hope we will be worthy of sharing many more meaningful and productive years together in the future!


Rabbi Mark Zimmerman

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

What Would the Maccabees Do Today?

Before the State of Israel was born, and for much of our history, we Jews were a rather submissive, pacifist people. We endured inquisitions, pogroms, and genocide, and for the most part we were not in control of either our security or our destiny.

But it wasn’t always so.

In 167 BCE, Matathias the High Priest and father of Judah the Maccabee, returned to Modi'in. When he was ordered by a representative of the Greek emperor Antiochus IV Epiphanes to offer sacrifice to the Greek gods, he refused to do so, and slew the official. So began the Hasmonean Jewish revolt, followed by a resounding Jewish victory, the re-dedication of the Holy Temple, and the miracle of Hanukkah.

Yet surprisingly, the celebration of Hanukkah is much better known for the Talmudic story of the cruise of oil which miraculously lasted for 8 days than for the stunning Jewish victory over the more powerful Hellenistic Greeks. This remarkable victory is plainly depicted in the Book of the Maccabees, while the story of the cruise of oil only appears later in the Talmud. It is the miracle of the oil that takes center-stage (and why we eat so many oily delicacies like latkes and sufganiyot), while the military victory is hardly discussed. And the sages had more to say about how to light the Menorah than why we actually celebrate this holiday.

So why is that?

The truth is, our sages were rather ambivalent about Hanukkah. They didn’t much care for the Maccabees or their militaristic nature. The rabbis of the Talmud lived during a time of Jewish powerlessness, and they were clearly uncomfortable with Hasmonean militarism being the model of Jewish behavior. This is reflected in the Haftarah they chose to recite on Shabbat Hanukkah, where it states in Zechariah 4:6: “This is the word of God: Not by might, and not by power, but by my Spirit alone”. The rabbis even excluded the Book of the Maccabees from the Biblical canon altogether, which is why we hear more about the cruse of oil than about the heroic military victory of the Maccabees.

Once the Second Temple was destroyed in the year 70 CE it left the Jewish people without a homeland, without a military, and without the ability to ensure their own safety. For the next 2,000 years we lived (or died) at the whim of various rulers, kings and tyrants.  We shuddered in fear of the next crusade, pogrom, or anti-Semitic attack, relying on the good graces of the king or government to protect our communities.  And often there was no protection to be found.

So for much of those 2,000 years we were a vulnerable people, who often had to flee from one country to another to escape persecution.  And this largely remained the case until 1948, unless you were fortunate enough to make it to the shores of the New World.  Israel exists today because the Jewish people finally recognized that there are times when we must take up arms and protect ourselves – just as the Maccabees did.

America has certainly been a different experience for us.  Anti-Semitism was still there, often just below the surface, but it was largely limited to rhetoric and discrimination.

That was until the horrific attack on the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh.

Jews feel under attack once again. And if there is a lesson to be learned from the Hanukkah story, it is that complacency is not an answer. Yes, we know we must defend ourselves, but at the same time we also need to be on guard not to become aggressors ourselves. In an increasingly dangerous and hostile world, that is the great challenge that both Israel and America must face going forward.

Post Pittsburgh, we are reminded that the world does not always deal kindly with the Jewish people. Now our synagogues are having to bear the cost of being under armed guard -- and those costs are both financial and spiritual. We also know we must remain alert to the renewed specter of anti-Semitism as it rears its ugly head, often in the guise of anti-Zionism or anti-Israel BDS movements.  Our college students increasingly feel the effect of this new reality.

Yet these threats are not new for us. The Jewish people have been around for 4,000 years, and we are not going away anytime soon. God willing, the heroism of the Maccabees will inspire us and provide us with the courage to face whatever challenges lie ahead.

May the lights of the Hanukkah menorah continue to inspire us, strengthen our resolve, and give us the fortitude to achieve a more peaceful, tolerant, and compassionate world.

Hag Urim Sameyach,
Rabbi Mark

Sunday, September 9, 2018

The Days of Awe – It is Never Too Late to Return

The High Holidays are arriving a bit early this year. At least so rabbis keep hearing. But did you notice that the Holidays never seem to arrive on time?

So when exactly is “on time” for Rosh Hashanah?  For many of us the answer seems to be: one week later than when they appear on the calendar! But actually “on time” should be when we have properly prepared our souls for the experience; when are ready to return to our roots and make a fresh start. That’s what the month of Elul leading up to Rosh Hashanah is supposed to be about. A month of preparation to truly experience the Days of Awe.

I often wonder why so many Jews, particularly those who are not as connected to the rhythms of Jewish living, put everything else aside to go to shul during this particular time of year.  There must be some mysterious force that brings us back year after year.  I know some of us come out of a sense of religious conviction. Others come out of a sense of guilt, or simply force of habit.  But like the salmon that must return to the stream from which it spawned, there is an almost irresistible force that calls most of us back to shul to usher in the New Year.

Something often pointed to in the world of Yiddish culture is the concept of das pintele yid, that tiny part of a Jew that just never quits. It is that little spark of Jewishness dwelling inside each and every one of us that is virtually indestructible.  No matter how hard someone tries to leave their Jewish-ness behind, there is a part of us that cannot get away.  Run to the ends of the earth, and it will still be there.  Tell everyone you’re not that religious, and the 'pintele yid' will tug at your neshama (soul) and call you back home.

Whatever it is that brings us back to connect one with another and to become part of a synagogue kehillah is certainly praiseworthy.  People join congregations for many different reasons, and often sign up for one of the various “life plans” that resonate with them.  There is the “High Holiday Plan” (available in either the one, two, or three day a year option); the “Bar/Bat Mitzvah Plan” which expires once the youngest child reaches 13 years of age; and of course, the “Lifelong Membership Plan”.  But those who join the “Frequent Daveners Plan” are clearly the winners, getting the most for their synagogue shekel.

Perhaps part of what I find so inspiring about the High Holidays is that it is during this special time of year that all the different facets of our shul communities come together in one place, notice one another, and acknowledge each other’s presence -- becoming a real kehillah kedosha, a holy community.

Jewish demographers explain that the sense of belonging that our parents and grandparents held so dear doesn’t always resonate today. But I’m not so sure. I often think it’s just one of those cyclical parts of human nature. Often those who have left their Judaism far behind come to realize later in life that something isn’t quite right; that a certain ruach is missing. And many times, it is that spiritual hunger that brings the disaffected among us back home again -- sometimes when you least expect it.

The High Holidays have long been that catalyst that brings Jews back home when they are spiritually hungry. These powerful days teach us that it is never too late to do teshuva, to come back into the Jewish fold and rekindle your relation with God, Torah and the Jewish people.  By returning we can recapture what we have lost, or even acquire what we never had in the first place.

We are blessed to live in a wonderful Jewish community that offers countless venues through which to deepen our knowledge and connection to our heritage. And at Beth Shalom we have created a special community for those who have decided to come along with us on their Jewish journey, and share meaningful Jewish moments together throughout the year.

There are so many ways for us to recapture and rekindle the Jewish spark in your lives.

The Holidays are almost here.  It is time to come home.