Reflecting on 25 Years as a Rabbi

Rabbi Shoshana Kaminsky

Beit Shalom Synagogue, Adelaide South Australia

A joke for Kol Nidre: on the eve of Yom Kippur, the rabbi, cantor and president of a large synagogue are kidnapped by terrorists. The terrorists tell the three Jewish leaders that they will be executed, but that all three have been granted a last wish.

The rabbi speaks first, “Ah—Yom Kippur. Over my forty year career, I have given my most memorable sermons on Yom Kippur. They were so deeply moving! Some of them were close to 45 minutes long, but I can recall them all in perfect detail. If I could just recite those sermons once again, I could die happy.”

Then the cantor joins in: “Yom Kippur is the most glorious festival of all for cantorial music. How beautiful it is to sing those long passages, to hold the high notes until everyone swoons. The way I sing Kol Nidre it lasts twenty minutes, and that’s just my warm-up. If I could sing all of that beautiful Yom Kippur music again, I could die happy.”

Finally the terrorists turn to the synagogue president to hear his last wish. Without a moment’s hesitation he says, “Take me first.”

So I thought I’d grab this Kol Nidre night and use it as an opportunity to reflect a bit on my twenty-five years as a rabbi. After all, it’s not every year one marks such a significant milestone. Where I am today as a rabbi is a completely different place than where I started out on my journey, but I feel quite content with the path my life has taken.

I grew up at Temple Sinai in Washington, DC, with the late Eugene Lipman as my rabbi. As a girl, I saw Rabbi Lipman not so much as a religious leader but more as a miniature version of the president of the United States. Rabbi Lipman seemed to me to be a political activist first and a spiritual figure second. The term tikkun olamhad not yet come into popular use, but that was Rabbi Lipman’s life passion: he saw a broken world in great need of repair, and he poured himself into the task body and soul. I grew up with him as my hero, but with very little idea of what a rabbi actually did. I had a fire in my belly for justice, and reckoned that working as a rabbi I’d have lots of followers to fight with me for a better world.

I’m embarrassed to admit that it wasn’t until my second year of rabbinical school that I discovered that political activism wasn’t generally the core work of rabbis. I became the student rabbi of a small congregation with very few political ambitions. When at the age of 23 I gave a passionate sermon about one or another things that were wrong with the world, my members would smile condescendingly and ignore me. Considering that I had been announcing since I was ten years old that I was going to be a rabbi someday, this experience represented a significant setback.

I found my feet again in the field of hospital chaplaincy. My first experience was as a student chaplain for ten weeks of Clinical Pastoral Education in the summer before my last year of rabbinical school. I was part of a group of students who staffed a busy teaching hospital with a major trauma centre, including sleeping at the hospital once every ten days to be available for emergencies. Hospital life meant life intensified: I had day after day of meeting people at crisis moments. It was challenging, confronting, and exhilarating all at once. When I finished rabbinical school in 1994, I signed up for a full year as a clinical pastoral education student and chaplaincy intern at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylania, which had an even busier trauma unit. My year there corresponded with the launch of the American drama ER, and I often felt that I was as much a character on that TV show as a person in real life. I also knew that there was no way I could withstand the level of trauma and tragedy I encountered on an ongoing basis.

The following year, I left Philadelphia for a studio apartment in the Ronald McDonald House in Manhattan’s upper East Side. The Ronald McDonald House was a home away from home for children who were undergoing medical treatment at hospitals nearby—most especially Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. Many of my patients died that year, and even more of them passed away the year after I left. The hospital in Philadelphia had meant an ongoing parade of intense trauma; the Ronald McDonald House exposed me to tragedies that unfolded slowly. Both experiences tutored me in the art of what we called pastoral care and what is now often called spiritual care. I have recently hit on a definition for spiritual care which I like quite a lot: spiritual care providers are there to remind you that you are a person as well as a patient. That’s what I did full-time for two years.

I had the opportunity just last week to find out first hand what it means to have my spirit cared for in the midst of a frightening setting of the hospital. On Wednesday morning, my son Nadav landed up in the emergency room of Calvary Wakefield Hospital, where he was quickly diagnosed with appendicitis and told he would need surgery later that day. In our little cubicle in the emergency room, we were visited by my friend Wendy McKay, who is one of the chaplains there. Wendy asked Nadav where he would normally be on a Wednesday, and with that question she took him out of the hospital for a time and back into his regular life. He found the experience deeply touching. I continue to feel privileged that I have had the opportunity to accompany people through the most difficult moments of their lives just as Wendy did for us.

Difficult as the Ronald McDonald House was, it also helped to teach me at last what it means to be a rabbi. As the live-in chaplain there, I followed the patients and their families through their lives. I was with families at their high points and at their low times. Nearly ten years after I had begun my rabbinical studies, I began to understand that the work of a rabbi can be about the small moments of connection as much as about the big work of tikkun olam. I finally felt ready to begin life as a congregational rabbi.

To the shock of many who couldn’t imagine a meaningful life outside of the five boroughs of New York City, I moved to Pittsburgh and became the rabbi of the Beth Samuel Jewish Center in Ambridge—a forty minute drive away from the Jewish paradise of Squirrel Hill. The rhythm of congregational life was completely different from that of the hospital. Instead of moving from one crisis to the next, I moved from Shabbat to Shabbat, from one festival to the next. I now had the joy of experiencing the life cycle at its natural pace: I officiated at baby namings and brit milah ceremonies, lots of b’nai mitzvah, a few weddings, and more than a few funerals. In Ambridge, I found my political voice not in fighting for social justice on a large scale but in attending to the grave needs of our local, impoverished population through my work at our local food pantry. There was also healing that needed to happen within my congregation itself, which was a merger of the five synagogues that had served this area during the steel boom.

In 2006, my family and I made the very big move to South Australia. Many of you have been through this experience, and may recall just how challenging an international move can be. Of course, our luggage stayed behind in Los Angeles, and I remember standing in front of the toothpaste display on my first day in Australia, trying to choose among all of those unfamiliar brands and trying to make some sense of the prices. I reckon it took me at least a year to find my way around a supermarket.

My life as a rabbi in Adelaide has been challenging, occasionally tumultuous, and never dull. Many of you have come to South Australia from other Jewish communities, and will appreciate what an utter shock it can be to land in a place where Jews are so rare. A few months ago, a visitor from interstate complimented the challah at Friday night services, and asked, “Where do you source it from?” The answer, of course, was somebody’s kitchen. I already had a well-established Jewish life when I arrived here, and I have endeavoured over the years to sustain it. I am full of wonder for those who have spent their lives here far away from a thriving Jewish centre and still have cultivated rich Jewish lives for themselves and their families.

For the ceremony in which I was honoured for my 25 years of service, I was invited to reflect back on my career so far. Here’s some of what I wrote for that occasion: I have been very happy as the rabbi of small congregations, where I can form close long-term relationships and build community. In 2020 I will officiate at b’nai mitzvah for kids I have known their entire lives, which is pretty amazing. My work in Adelaide has been wonderful but also challenging in recent years, when I have been the only recognized rabbi in the entire state of South Australia. I have also had lots of fun in activities like singing in our small but wonderful choir and acting in the Purim shpiel.

In recent years, I have tried to renew my vocation: after 19 years away from the world of Clinical Pastoral Education, I began to work towards accreditation as a supervisor in 2014. In 2015 I made my first trip to Indonesia, where I have an ongoing relationship with six indigenous communities across the country. I’ve visited twice more since then and expect to return at the end of this year.

In Adelaide I have worked hard to forge friendships across religious communities and now have long-term relationships with leaders from many different faiths. As a CPE supervisor, I have the chance to shape people’s view of Judaism and also their idea of pastoral care one student at a time. I have also made close contacts through my activism in fighting Australia’s draconian asylum seeker policy, including eight Christian leaders who joined me in a civil disobedience action. I was the first rabbi ever arrested in Australia for a political cause.

When I was a rabbinical student and then in my early years as a rabbi, I had an idea that I would do big, earth-shaking work. Ultimately I have done very little of a public nature. Much of my work has been small and gentle. I believe that I have touched lives, and that is what makes me proud.

One of my most sacred duties as a rabbi is to hold the stories of those who have passed away. One of the most central people in my life at my congregation in Ambridge was Lou Zell, a Holocaust survivor with an Auschwitz tattoo on his arm. He never spoke of his war experiences, but lived with joy, love and endless devotion for our little congregation. I still hear his voice each year at different points in the High Holy Days service. In Adelaide, I’ve been privileged to tell the stories of people like Regina Zielinski and Garry Rogers, who left beautiful memoirs of their lives. But  I also can tell the story of Michelle Lewandowski, who was given the identity of a Polish farm girl so that she could find work in Germany during the war and of Marta Rejto, who survived unimaginable atrocities in the Shoah and then went on to live a life of service to others. And, of course, the dozens of others whose stories have been entrusted to me and who I carry in my heart.

On Rosh Hashanah, I touched on the theme of finding meaning and purpose in our lives. I have been so very blessed to have a profession that enables me to be of service every day. 25 years ago, did I ever imagine that I would be plying my trade in South Australia, with occasional visits to distant corners of Indonesia? Of course not! But luck and fate have brought me to this beautiful part of the world, and I have made my life here. I admit that, as a rabbi, it’s not hard to identify the ways that my life is meaningful. For others, it might not be so easy. But figuring out why your life matters is, I think, essential work—especially for this time of year. May the year ahead bring all of us many opportunities to make a difference—for ourselves, for each other, and for the world. Shana tova.

 

Soul, Role and Context—a sermon for Rosh Hashanah

Rabbi Shoshana Kaminsky

Nothing says Monday morning like an email from the Ethnic Schools Association with the subject line “new and updated policies.” This particular email included a 409-page attachment with updates to 25 existing policies and five new ones. My favourite new policy was the “criminal background check” policy, apparently necessary in addition to the fifteen or so existing policies that already mandated criminal background checks.

As the administrator of an accredited ethnic school, it is my responsibility to make sure that we are in compliance with the dozens of policies laid out on our website. I am thankful that this is a very small part of what I do as a rabbi, but I am quite aware that for professionals in many other fields, policies, compliance, and other bureaucratic paperwork are eating up a larger and larger part of their days. I’m sure that more than a few people find themselves trying to remember what happened to the career they thought they were entering.

In July, I participated in three days of workshops with master pastoral supervisor Michael Paterson from Scotland. Michael literally wrote the book for people who supervise spiritual professionals in various settings to assist them in working through the issues and challenges they encounter. He has ultimately shortened his definition of what pastoral supervision is to a very quick summary: it is the work of assisting the person being supervised to balance soul, role and context.

Soul is who we are. Depending on your theological bent, you may think of it as who God shaped you to be. Our souls encompass our strengths and weaknesses, our gifts and our learning edges. We have the ability to tweak who we are, especially at this time of the year, but at its essence our soul remains the same throughout our lives.

Role is how we fulfil the longings of our soul in our professional work. Some feel happiest doing work with their hands as builders, sculptors, landscapers. Others enjoy working with numbers as accountants, mathematicians or computer programmers. Some people love the idea of an ordered society and so may pursue a career in law or politics. Others have an enterprising streak and start businesses. And so on and so on through an almost infinite number of possibilities. There are people who are sure they will be happy in a certain role, but realise either early or late that they were wrong. I went to rabbinical school with quite a lot of people who had worked as lawyers, scientists or teachers before realising they really wanted to be rabbis. I also have colleagues who have ultimately decided they would be happier if they stopped working as rabbis. Some people, of course, may move through multiple roles in their lives, finding things to treasure in many different professions.

And finally comes context, which is where we find ourselves acting in our roles while trying to nourish our souls. If you are a doctor, the hospital or clinic where you work is your context. If you’re a teacher, it’s your school. If you’re a rabbi, it’s the synagogue, or possibly school, hospital, university campus, or community where you’re located. I have chosen to speak on this subject today because I am having more and more conversations with people who feel called to be in a certain role, but who are finding that their context is in danger of destroying their souls. I have a theory about why this happening, and I also believe it’s possible to make it all a bit better.

We live in a society where we are increasingly aware of the possible risks that lie all around us. Equipment can prove dangerous. Facilities can be dangerous. Even sitting in an office chair for too long turns out to be dangerous. Managing money comes with its own risks. Most terrifying of all, the people we work with and trust may turn out to be dangerous. Businesses and institutions are engaged in a battle to try to reduce those risks down to zero. Or, if they can’t make the risks go away entirely, they can at least document the steps they’ve taken to try to prevent the risks. The higher the risk associated with a certain institution, the more the paperwork load. Those same organisations may impose a large number of rules and structures to limit risk, even if the rules then sometimes prevent the employees from performing their jobs as they feel they should.

When the minutiae of bureaucracy and rules becomes more important than an organisation’s original mission, there is the possibility for the employees who are dedicated to their work to get lost. Employees who jump through the correct hoops in the right order are appreciated. Those who are more interested in the work itself may find themselves sidelined, marginalised, even bullied.

Now I appreciate that I may be exaggerating a bit, but I’m convinced there’s more than a kernel of truth here. I’m speaking for the teachers, health care providers, academics and government employees I’ve spoken with in recent years who feel that they’ve lost something precious in their work. The passion is gone, and all that is left is the dread. They no longer jump out of bed each morning, eager to race off and do the work their souls feel they were meant to do. Instead, they pull the covers tightly over their heads and try to hide from the world.

When the context comes into conflict with our soul and role, the route of least resistance has traditionally been to quit our jobs and even to switch careers. I’ve seen this happen many times over the years and have seen far too many gifted and loving people burned out in their chosen professions.

But what if there were another way? Michael Paterson had the opportunity to see if this was possible.

A number of years ago, he was approached by the Scottish National Health Service at a time of crisis: morale was way down, job dissatisfaction was low, burnout levels were high. People were miserable. Michael had developed a tool for chaplains with the unwieldy name VBRP–values-based reflective practice. The idea was simple: people from similar professional backgrounds would gather in small groups to reflect on their work in a non-judgmental, supportive environment. The hope was that this work would help everyone to draw closer together while providing a safe outlet for those who were struggling in some way with their work. Michael was given permission to expand his program out to work with everyone in the Scottish NHS. An analysis of this experiment conducted in 2014, only a few years into the program, showed dramatic results. VBRP was impacting positively on every aspect of people’s work and lives, from their professional practice to their engagement in their work to their communication and relationship with their co-workers. Amazing, inspiring, and deceptively simple!

The anecdotal stories were just as powerful. Michael shared the experience of rolling out his program to physicians at a local hospital. The dean of medicine greeted him with a surly look on her face. It was clear she saw what he was doing as a distraction from real work. Michael sat down with the doctors and began facilitating an introductory session of reflective process. Part of the way he dared to gaze over at the dean of medicine, who was watching at the side. She had tears streaming down her face. At the end of the hour, she approached Michael to tell him how she had lost touch with the reasons why she had gone into medicine in the first place. Now she felt safe to reclaim that part of herself.

It’s extraordinary to see how a broken system could be transformed by the introduction of such a simple tool. The experiment in Scotland suggests that when discontent is just beneath the surface, just a very gentle push may be required to make things better. The only question is who will be the one to do the pushing? For surely those who push must be prepared for there to be push-back. But if the ultimate result is a life-giving environment for all, it would surely be worth it.

Why speak about this topic on Rosh Hashanah? Because we spend at least 1/3 of our waking time at work, and for many it’s far more than that. Because this time of year is when we are meant to look both inward and outward–to reflect on what we’d like to change within ourselves, but also on what change we’d like to bring to the world. Because I see it as a terrible tragedy that people who feel in their hearts that they are called to do certain work see their circumstances are blocking them from doing so. How can the year ahead be completely sweet when the hope of fulfilling the work of the soul is extinguished?

When I heard Michael talking about his work, my first response was to exclaim, “You need to bring this to South Australia!” That probably won’t happen, but his model is freely available to adapt to workplaces here. So is the hope that lies behind it: the possibility that even the most difficult work environments can undergo tikkun—they can be healed and repaired.

I spoke last night about how important it is for each of us to find meaning and purpose in our lives. For so many of us, the primary place we live that out is at work. I dream of a day when all people are nourished by the work they do. I can only begin to imagine how our world might blossom as a result. Shana tova—may the year ahead be rich with meaning and possibilities!

Reaching for Meaning—a sermon for Erev Rosh Hashana 5780

 

No one in my household felt there was a real need for a fourth Toy Storymovie. For those of you who missed it, the first Toy Storyfilm was released to extraordinary acclaim way back in 1995. Toy Story 2, considered an even better film that its predecessor, came along four years later. After an eleven year break, the third film in the franchise was released, and then what I’m sincerely hoping will be the last Toy Storyfilm ever came out earlier this year–a full 24 years after the original. If you have never seen any of the movies, I absolutely recommend the first two. Many people loved the third movie, although I think of it more as an ending in search of a plot. And the fourth movie was delightful, if somewhat unnecessary.

All four films are based on the inner life of toys. Quite early in the first movie, we learn that toys come to life when the children who play with them are not watching. In the home of Andy, a young boy, there is a definite hierarchy of toys, with Woody the cowboy serving as their benign leader. The toys mostly cooperate among themselves, but squabble over access to the children and argue about who are the favourites. In many ways, they come across as distinctly human: they laugh, they cry, they play, they love. But they are different in one significant way: they can only find true contentment if they are loved by a child.

Toy Story 2conveys this idea with particular poignancy. In this film, we are introduced to the Prospector, an antique toy action figure who is in mint condition because his box has never been opened. As the film unfolds, we learn that the Prospector is a deeply bitter toy; his life is incomplete, because he has never known what it is like to be a part of a child’s life. Other toys in this and other of the Toy Story films share tragic tales of rejection: having once been the centre of children’s lives, they were eventually cast off as their children outgrew them. The cowgirl Jessie tearfully remembers the day that her beloved Emily left her in a box at the kerb along with other unwanted toys.

Ultimately, all toys in these movies face the same dilemma: their children will eventually outgrow them, but they’ll never outgrow their need to be in children’s lives. Over the years, the writers at Pixar have come up with different ways to solve this problem, usually involving the toys finding new children to embrace them. And so the cycle begins again.

I must have been in a particularly tender place when I watched Toy Story 4 because despite the fact that the plot of the movie was similar to the other three films, I was very touched by the story. 24 years into the franchise, I felt that I finally had realised an organising theme of all four movies: they are about what it means to live a life that has meaning and purpose. In the Toy Story world, toys that are loved by children find that their lives are full and content. Toys that are marginalised or rejected hold grudges and becoming increasingly bitter. They end up focusing on themselves rather than on others and become even more unhappy as a result.

Our lives are far, far more complicated, but I believe that most of us are also striving to figure out what gives us meaning and purpose. There is no one answer that fits everyone. I personally believe that the purpose of life is to leave the world a better place than when we entered it, but there are an almost infinite number of ways that we might make that happen. Some people feel called to a life in the spotlight and end up involved in politics or other areas of leadership. Others feel more comfortable living a quieter life—perhaps volunteering locally, whether that means coaching a sports team, working on a community vegetable patch, taking in foster children, or a thousand other possibilities. Many people strive to find meaning through their work; it is important for them to be able to say at the end of each day that they’ve done something that has made a difference. Many people dedicate themselves to raising ethical, kind children who will grow into wonderful adults and may well change the world themselves. It is up to each one of us to determine what it is that we will do with our lives that will bring about a better world.

“On Rosh Hashanah it is written,” says the prayer, “and on Yom Kippur it is sealed.” There is much that is beyond our control, but there is also so much that we can do. This season asserts that each of us has the power to rewrite our destinies—we can be the ones doing the writing and the sealing.

So tonight, we begin to ask the questions: what will we change, and what will we keep the same? How will we make more time to spend with those we love? How will find a way to do more of the activities that bring meaning and purpose to our lives? What activities do we want to add to our weeks? What activities might we consider reducing or eliminating altogether?

Rabbi Arthur Green notes that the High Holy Days draw us in because they feel more like part of the life cycle than part of the year cycle. Life cycle events like births, marriages and deaths occur quite rarely. But once each year, at the start of the month of Tishrei, the life cycle and the year cycle touch. On these days, we are repeatedly reminded that our lives are finite. They will be what we make of them, and none of us know how much time we each have to shape our lives in the direction we’d like.

Treat each day as a gift, whether the day goes as you’d wish or not. Treat each person you encounter as created in the image of God, even or perhaps especially those people who seem to us to have no resemblance to God. Treat your loved ones as the precious treasures they are. And never forget the power that each one of us has to change the world in ways big and small. Shana tova—may the year ahead be filled with health and joy, sweetness and peace!

Opening Our Eyes by Rabbi Shoshana Kaminsky

I watched the 2016 movie Spotlight on a long-haul flight. I had put off watching it when it was first released, because I was afraid that I would find the depiction of child sexual abuse too upsetting. As it turns out, the film spends almost no time focused on the actual abuse. This is a movie not about the abusers, but about bystanders choosing to overlook the abuse.

For those of you who are not familiar with the film, here is a bit about it: the term “Spotlight” refers to a small group of reporters employed by the Boston Globe newspaper to engage in long and complex investigations. In 2001, the Spotlight team discovered that the Boston Catholic archdiocese had been covering up sexual abuse by priests for decades and shifting offending priests from one parish to another. The articles published in early 2002 shocked the public and ultimately led to the resignation of Boston’s powerful Catholic cardinal Bernard Law.

Of course, child sexual abuse had been taking place in the Boston area for years and years before the Boston Globe broke its story. It becomes clear in the film that abuse allegations had been finding their way to Globe journalists on and off for quite a while before the Spotlight unit finally began its investigation. At the start of the film, the newspaper hires a new editor: Marty Baron is a Jew from Florida, taking the helm of a newspaper in a city with a deep and pervasive Catholic culture. He meets with the Spotlight reporters and joins them in a brainstorming session to come up with a new target for their investigation. When a reporter mentions the abuse allegations, the editor pounces and suggests that this could be an important story. The reporters themselves are sceptical–after all, they’ve written a few assorted stories over the years. What need is there for more coverage? Ultimately, the Spotlight unit begins its investigation and uncovers not only the extent of the problem but also the way the Archdiocese has been covering it up.

I was so struck by the fact that it was the Jewish editor from Florida who recognised the significance of this story–not the Catholic reporters. Appalling things had been happening for generations in the Boston area, but it took the arrival of a complete outsider to open up the journalists to a new perspective. The movie pushes each of us to ask, “What are we not seeing? How are our own pre-existing biases stopping us from recognising potentially horrifying behaviours?”

This week, we heard from two prominent columnists at the Murdoch press that Cardinal Pell couldn’t possibly be guilty of the allegations against him. Andrew Bolt wrote, “Declaration: I have met Pell perhaps five times in my life and like him. I am not a Catholic or even a Christian. He is a scapegoat, not a child abuser. In my opinion.” Miranda Devine wrote, “It’s devastating because I don’t believe that Pell, who I know slightly and admire greatly, could be guilty of sexually assaulting two choirboys in a busy cathedral after Sunday mass when he was archbishop of Melbourne in 1996.” What both of them are saying is basically, Cardinal Pell is a very intelligent and likable person. Therefore he is incapable of perpetrating evil on others. Therefore his victims must be lying.

Twenty-five years ago, I attended my very first seminar on clergy sexual abuse. It was conducted at my annual rabbinical conference, and I sat in a room together for dozens of other rabbis–some of whom were beloved friends and all of whom were respected colleagues. We watched a video showing how abuse might occur. The person depicted on the screen was a caricature: someone whose behaviour and mannerisms were so bizarre and inappropriate that you would have had to have been blind not to pick up on them. At the time, I looked around and thought, when abuse is exposed among us, it won’t be some strange person who is the perpetrator; it will be one of the people in this room.

I would suggest that the most pernicious reason why abusers can offend again and again is that we adults take the side of the fellow adult that we know, trust and respect over the words of a child who is suffering. It is a natural human tendency to think well of the people in our lives. How incredibly difficult to come to the realisation that we are wrong–the person we thought was so worthy of admiration has inflicted terrible harm on a child. Easier not to believe the child than to see our own world view so shaken up.

Two years after I finished rabbinical school, the unthinkable happened: a rabbinical student was expelled weeks before his ordination when it was discovered that he was a sociopath who had been sexually assaulting female students at the school for years. He also happened to have been the university roommate of the president of the seminary. When his victims would threaten to go to the seminary president to expose what he had done, he would gleefully say, “Who do you think he’s going to believe? You or his university roommate?!” So the assaults remained secret for a very long time.

All of us need to see ourselves as being that potential safe person who might trusted by a child with a shocking revelation. Perhaps we would do well to each ask ourselves—if someone came to me tomorrow and made an accusation against someone I knew, liked and respected, what would I do? Would I be prepared to have my eyes opened? Would I be prepared to have my foundations rocked? And if not, who am I? Shabbat shalom.

Rabbis and Politics–just prior to the Wentworth by-election

The mainstream press was all abuzz last week with talk about my colleague Rabbi Jeffrey Kamins, longtime rabbi of Emanuel Synagogue in Woollahra. For those of you who don’t know Sydney, Woollahra is right smack in the middle of the Wentworth electorate. News emerged that Rabbi Kamins had used the synagogue’s email list and website to ask his members to consider the disastrous implications of climate change in deciding who to vote for in the upcoming election. He did not actually suggest which candidate his members should vote for, but even so his appeal caused quite a stir. I would dare say that if the Liberal party had an actual progressive strategy on climate change, Rabbi Kamins’ plea would have not have resulted in such a fuss. But because the party and especially the government has chosen to ignore the IPCC report from last week, Rabbi Kamins is seen as encouraging his membership not to cast their votes for the Liberal candidate.

In wading in on this election that the Saturday Paper called “The race that stopped the nation” Rabbi Kamins has raised an eternal issue for rabbis and other clergy: how active do we get in the political life of this country? Over the last several weeks, I’ve been to two very different gatherings which married the religious and the political. The first was an event on religious responses to climate change, run by the Multifaith Association. That organisation has generally steered clear of politics in the past, but I’m personally encouraged that it has decided to wade in on this and perhaps other issues. I’ve concluded over the years that the best chance for meaningful multifaith relationships to develop is to join together to work on social justice and community service projects. I was serving as chair of the ministerial association of my little town of Ambridge, Pennsylvania, when I suddenly found myself thrust into the role of re-inventing our local food bank to be more effective in meeting the needs of the many who were not able to make ends meet each month. It was hard, hard work, but it also brought together people from nearly every one of the 24 congregations in the town.

The second event was a conference held by the Anti-Poverty Network, an organisation made up of those who are trying to get by on low incomes and Newstart as well as their advocates. The conference took place at Clayton Wesley Uniting Church—the enormous monolith at the corner of Portrush Road and the Parade. Although much of the day was non-religious, it was significant that this church had opened its doors up to the meeting and that its volunteers catered lunch. I was part of a panel that included the vicar general of the Adelaide Catholic Archdiocese and the South Australia moderator of the Uniting Church. I must say I felt like quite a small fish, making a tiny splash in a state where care for the most vulnerable is dominated by church-based agencies. After we panelists spoke, there were questions and comments from the audience. One audience member, a long-time advocate for the homeless, wanted to know why it was that religious organisations were now so meek when it came to standing up for the poor. What had become of our prophetic voices? Why weren’t we doing more to speak out for those who felt themselves voiceless? Sue Ellis, the very impressive moderator of the Uniting Church, spoke of declining numbers of church members leading to decreased funds and a lowered ability to get things done. She said, “This is the reason—but it’s not a justification.” Meeting in a church named in part for an early Christian abolitionist, we were reminded of how religious leaders have often been at the forefront of battles for a more just world.

It can be a delicate balance. I recently read a stinging Facebook comment by someone who noted that Chabad has been successful worldwide in luring Progressive Jews to their fervently Orthodox synagogues because they are as passionate about Judaism as we Progressive Jews are about social justice. Ouch. Not too long after I read that, a colleague on one of my rabbinic Facebook lists lamented that she had to lead services for the first day of Sukkot when what she really wanted to be doing was getting arrested to protest the Brett Kavanaugh nomination. I was so astonished that I had to work very hard to suppress the desire to write, “Was that why you became a rabbi? To get arrested while wearing a tallit?”

An old adage says that the role of a clergy person is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. Congregations are often completely happy when their clergy comfort the afflicted. But those of us who are comfortable would clearly prefer not to be afflicted. Too often, that means ignoring suffering happening very nearby. There are plenty of people out there in need of comforting, and we could do much to be of help to them. I was reminded yesterday that a significant percentage of Australians are trying to live on a Newstart allowance which has not been raised by either party since 1994. Most of those folks are so caught up in trying to meet their daily needs for shelter and nutrition that they have no energy left to advocate for themselves. That’s where we come in—not only clergy like me, but caring citizens like you. We Jews are part of a proudly prophetic tradition. Isaiah, Amos and, yes, Abraham, whose story begins this Shabbat, all spoke up on behalf of others. It is possible to rejoice in our lives as Jews and also advocate for a more perfect world. Let’s strive to do both. Shabbat shalom!

If you have three minutes, I recommend the song “It’s Time,” which advocates for a raise in the Newstart allowance. I spotted a familiar face in the choir! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t1-m53y0Xi4

Guarding the Earth–a sermon for Parshat Noach

I am well and truly blessed that part of my bicycle ride from home to the synagogue takes me along Adelaide’s gorgeous Linear Park. I rode in this morning, revelling in the shrieks of the lorakeets in the gum trees, admiring pink-breasted galahs on the grass, and enjoying the Torrens gently trickling down. It’s almost too beautiful for words. As I was riding, I was reflecting on the news from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the terrifying report it issued early this week. The grass is already turning brown after the dry winter—what will this park look like in ten years? Twenty? Will rainbow lorakeets still flock to the gum trees? Will galahs still be able to find tasty insects in the grass?

The release of the IPCC’s report fortuitously falls in the week that synagogues around the world read the story of Noah, his ark, and the destruction of the world. In recent years, parashat Noah has become an unofficial environmental Shabbat, as Jews reflect on the possibility of a second global catastrophe.

Climate change is, without a doubt, the most daunting challenge the world has ever faced. Decades of technological and medical advances have enriched us in ways that would have been unimaginable one hundred years ago. We can now travel anywhere in the world we want. Some of us own large homes and enormous cars. Our food comes from all over the world. It has occurred to me lately that two of my favourite foods—coffee and chocolate—are also among the least environmentally friendly, as both have to travel vast distances to reach me. We are increasingly reliant on technological miracles—phones and tablets and computers spun together from rare earth minerals dug up at great expense and dramatic environmental impact. Entire nations (including ours) have become wealthy through digging up, refining and selling coal and petroleum to perpetuate our lavish lifestyles. Why would we ever want to give all that up?

In this week’s Torah portion, God tells Noah to build an ark of cedar wood. In an ancient midrash, Noah plants cedar trees and nurtures them for a hundred years until they’re ready to be harvested and their wood used to build the ark. Year after year, people would approach Noah and ask him why he was letting his trees grow taller and taller. Year after year, he would warn them of the impending flood and of the need for them to repent. They never did. Some climate scientists have been issuing warnings for decades, and now the estimate is that 97% of scientists are in agreement that climate change is real and caused by human beings. Humanity is quick to embrace the innovations of medical science, engineers, and agricultural science. But somehow a 97% consensus on climate change is still not enough to bring about the radical, systemic change that is desperately needed right now, and in all probability thirty years ago.

As a small start, this week I went onto the website https://livingthechange.net/ and made a personal commitment to reduce my demands in three areas: energy, transport and food. I have given up red meat entirely and am making an effort to minimise the amount of milk and cheese I consume. For several years, all of my energy has come from renewable sources. All electric companies will give you that option, and of course thankfully South Australia is ahead of many other places when it comes to our renewable energy production. And finally, I’m trying to ride my bicycle and take the bus more. I’m a bit appalled at the cost of taking the bus in this city, but would still like to do it more often. Making these commitments hopefully shows our federal government and other nations that we, the voters, are prepared to make the sacrifices necessary to preserve our world for the future.

It says in the Torah that God gave Adam and Eve the Garden of Eden to tend and to guard. In a midrash, God further warns this first human pair: Be careful how you look after the garden, for if you destroy it there will be none after you to restore it. This amazing world is our garden. Let us do all we can to tend it. Shabbat shalom!

Welcoming Guests–Kol Nidre 5779

On Rosh Hashanah, I began a series of sermons on the five values that are a part of Beit Shalom’s mission. At those two services, I spoke about chesed–grace, and also Torah. This evening, I want to talk with about hachnasat orchim.

First, a Hebrew lesson. The word hachnasat comes from the word “to enter.” The meaning of Hebrew verbs changes depending on what conjugation pattern is applied. Hachnasat uses the hif’il pattern of conjugation, which makes the verb causal–meaning, causing someone else to do something. So the word katav means “he wrote” and the word hikhtiv means “he dictated.” Hachnasat means “to cause to enter,” and orchim means “guests.” To practice hachnasat orchim is to cause guests to enter—into our homes and our hearts.

Many of us make inviting guests part of our weekly or monthly schedule, but Judaism has turned the action into a mitzvah. As with the giving of tzedakah, welcoming guests is not only a nice thing to do, it’s actually a religious obligation. The Talmud tells us, “Welcoming guests is a greater action than welcoming the presence of the Shekhinah, as it says in the Torah: “He said, “my lords, if I have found favour in your eyes, please do not turn away from your servant.”

The quote here is from Abraham in chapter 18 of the book of Genesis. It is this story which sets up the model for what true hospitality looks like. When we meet Abraham at the start of the chapter, he is sitting at the entrance of his tent in the heat of the day. A different source suggests that he sits at the entrance of the tent specifically to spot travellers in need of hospitality, but here the rabbis understand that he is also recovering from his circumcision, which only happened at the end of the previous chapter. Presumably, he is not at his best. And yet, when he spots three angels disguised as dirty, dusty strangers, he leaps onto his feet and goes to work. Never has a 99-year-old man moved so quickly. He races from one tent to the next, organising food for his company. He begs them to stay, offering to wash their feet, and plying them with freshly-killed lamb and newly-baked bread. And all of this before he even asks their names.

The rabbis pondered many times over why God plucked Abraham from obscurity and chose him to be the father of the Jewish people. This story provides as good an insight as any into his generous and genuine character. There is so much that is extraordinary in this episode. Abraham rises far above and beyond what we might think of as the call of duty to look after people he has never met. Surely it would have been acceptable for him to say, “I’m not well today. I believe that my neighbour a few hills over can look after you.” But he didn’t say that. He welcomed in the strangers and completely spoiled them.

Of course, we know how the story ends: these men turn out to be angels bearing a thrilling message for Abraham and Sarah–that in a year, they will have a son. But it is important that Abraham does not know the identity of these men. We get the sense that this is how he treats each and every person who happens upon his tent.

Of course, it would have been far easier for Abraham living a nomadic lifestyle in a sparsely populated land. Nowadays, it is rare that we take a complete stranger into our homes. Rare, but not unheard of: each year in the weeks, days and sometimes even hours before the first seder, the office receives calls from the strangers in our midst. They may be overseas students, people here on business from interstate or overseas, and the occasional tourist. I have never had difficulty finding a seder table where they will be made to feel welcome. It helps that it says right there in the haggadah “Let all who are hungry come and eat.”

But hachnasat orchim is not a once-a-year mitzvah. Ideally, it’s a mitzvah for every Shabbat, or at least every festival. I note that nowhere in the texts I’ve checked is there a requirement that you offer your guests a gourmet five-course dinner appropriate for Master Chef. We all do the best we can–me most of all. My slow cooker is my friend, and whenever anyone asks, “What can I bring?” the answer is never, “Oh–you don’t need to bring anything.” I bake and freeze stuff, and I’m definitely not above taking advantage of the local bakery or pizza parlor to feed guests. Because it’s not actually about the food–it’s about the welcome we extend. I have a wild mix of crockery, used furniture, and a humble home which I am keen to open up to many more guests in the coming year, just as soon as my new puppy gets a little more used to strangers.

Rabbi Yosi son of Yochanan is quoted as saying, “Let your house be open to the winds, and make the poor members of your household.” The rabbinic work Avot d’Rabbi Natan expands on this idea by speaking of Job, who tradition tells us had entry-ways to his home facing north, south, east and west so that all who passed by would find their way inside. In my years as a rabbi, I have been present at many funeral meetings in which adult children have said fondly of their mothers, “her house was always open and full of kids from the neighbourhood.” Some of these mums had home-baked cookies and slices waiting to feed the hungry hoards. Others just opened a packet and a carton of milk. What the kids remembered was the open door–not the quality of the food they were fed.

I note that hachnasat orchim is not only about entertaining the people who are already your friends. It’s about opening up your home to people you don’t know well or barely know at all. I specifically chose this night to talk about this subject, because tonight is the night when you are most likely to be surrounded by people you don’t know. With us this evening are exchange students and tourists, newly-minted Jews and people who have recently relocated to Adelaide. With us as well are longtime Beit Shalom members that you may not have seen in quite a while, but are no less worthy of a warm welcome and a dinner invite.

I started thinking about giving a sermon on hachnasat orchim when a colleague of mine posted on a Facebook page that her congregants believed this to be a mitzvah that only the rabbi needed to worry about. She even had someone approach her and say, “It’s amazing that you manage to put on a dinner party every week,” to which she said, somewhat perplexed, “You mean–Shabbat?!” I’m delighted that this is not that kind of community. We have a wonderful tradition of hachnasat orchim at Beit Shalom—so much so that Alison Marcus’ challah–dearly missed!–and Merrilyn Ades’ creme caramel are legendary enough to have both become fixtures of Purim shpiel scripts. But both Alison and Merrilyn are known above all for the warmth of the welcome they extend. Others in our community have also been incredibly generous in hosting out-of-town visitors and guests at their homes. I hope that everyone who is here tonight will consider extending their hands in friendship as well.

Practicing the mitzvah of hachnasat orchim is often its own reward. I have gained friends, learned amazing things and added to my professional networks as a direct result of welcoming people I didn’t know particularly well into my home. I have carved the smile lines more deeply into my face as a result of all the laughter, and occasionally been present for extraordinary moments of connection. It is in no way an exaggeration to say that it’s all been an absolute pleasure.

On this night when we’re called to stand back and a take a long look not only at our lives but at the world beyond, I’d like to digress for a moment and talk about the global value of hachnasat orchim. We live in an era when countries are less and less willing to extend a hand of welcome. It is increasingly difficult to pick up and start a new life in a new country. Australia is no exception. Decades ago, the spouses of Australian citizens were automatically entitled to begin applying for citizenship as soon as they arrived. Today, a partner visa costs $7000, and the application process can last years. The answer to one of the questions on my citizenship exam was that a benefit of Australian citizenship is the ability to sponsor family members to come here to live. But if you visit the Department of Home Affairs website, you will see that there is a quota on how many such visas are issued each year, and as a result family members might have to wait years or even decades for approval. It seems to me that if these are both rights of Australian citizenship, the least the government can do is to extend the hand of hospitality to our family members whom we choose to bring to this country.

And then there is the issue of refugees. According to the UNHCR, more than 68 million people worldwide have fled their homes and are in need of care and protection. 40 million of those are internally displaced within their home countries, but 28 million more are living in a country not their own. We know that Australia is far from the only nation that has closed its doors to all but a trickle of refugees. In fact, it seems the world’s unwillingness to be open and welcoming to the most vulnerable has increased in direct proportion to the numbers of those needing refuge. It is not a far jump from the concept of welcoming guests to hachnasat hager—welcoming the stranger. As it says in Pirkei Avot, we are not expected to complete the work, but that does not mean we are free to ignore it entirely. We should seek to be part of the solution, rather than the problem.

Over the next twenty-four hours, we’ll spend a lot of time contemplating how we will try to be better in the year ahead. Hachnasat orchim—welcoming guests—is really not that difficult in the great scheme of things. And it has profound benefits, not only for us individually, but for us as a community as well. I wish you well over the fast, and may this new year be filled with joy, good health, and new connections and friendships as well. Shana tova!

Being Torah–Sermon for Rosh Hashanah morning

Last night, I began a series of sermons on the values that Beit Shalom has as part of its mission statement. I spoke about the concept of chesed, which has traditionally been translated as “lovingkindness” but is more accurately understood as grace. This morning, I’d like to talk about Torah. For starters, I want to make sure that we all agree on what Torah is. Many Jews will confidently state that Torah is the first five books of the Bible, and they’ll be right. But confusingly, the term Torah is also used by the rabbis to represent all Jewish teachings from all time, right up until today. The Talmud, midrash, kabbalah, Shulkhan Arukh—all can be considered Torah, and the study of any of those texts, along with thousands of other Jewish texts, is all talmud Torah—the study of Torah.

Torah study, even of those first five books of the Hebrew Bible, is a world away from what Christians call Bible study. In Bible study, there are a limited number of questions, and each question generally only has one answer. When Jews get together to study Torah, there are many many questions and just about an infinite number of possible answers. The rabbis cheerfully include contradictory answers right next to each other, adhering to a teaching from the Talmud that many find challenging: “These and these are the words of the living God.” The goal of Torah study appears not to get to The Answer but rather to reach an answer that feels right for each of us. One interpretation may ring true one year, but feel wrong in another year. As is quoted in the Talmud of the Torah, “Turn it and turn it and turn it, for all is contained within.”

Few passages in the Torah have been interpreted and re-interpreted more than this morning’s Torah reading. The wonderful website Sefaria.org records no fewer than 64 commentaries and midrashim discussing just the very first verse! Some of those 64 interpretations themselves include multiple understandings, such as the medieval commentary Chizkuni who quotes four conflicting interpretations of the verse, “Sometime afterward, God put him to the test.” The rabbis very early on observed that the word דברים can mean “events” or “words.” They generally opted for the second definition, and then set about trying to figure out what conversation had precipitated God’s test of Abraham. Here are Chizkuni’s answers: “Ishmael had boasted to Isaac that he had voluntarily undergone circumcision at 13, an age when it was most painful, to which Isaac had replied that he, Ishmael, had endured pain only on one part of his body, whereas he, Isaac, would be prepared to undergo such pain on his whole body, i.e. he would even give his life for G-d. Another interpretation of the words: ויהי אחר הדברים האלה is that they refer to the treaty concluded between Abraham and Avimelech, when Abraham had voluntarily postponed the fulfillment of G-d’s promise to him without having first obtained G-d’s permission to do so…Another interpretation, one which places the emphasis on the words נסה את אברהם, “God tested Abraham.” Abraham was not tested in order for G-d to be convinced of his willingness to offer up his beloved son, seeing that God, Who is omniscient, already knows such matters; he was tested by the attribute of Justice which had dared question the degree of loyalty Abraham could summon when so tested. Passing this test successfully would convince the people around him of the absolute obedience to any command G-d would issue to him. There was no way the nations of the world could challenge his faith thereafter.”

Each of these three different interpretations paint the story of the Binding of Isaac in a completely different light: the first interpretation makes it all about Isaac, who brazenly challenges his older brother Ishmael to a very serious game of truth or dare. In the second interpretation, Abraham’s faith is actually placed in doubt, as it appears that he himself postpones God’s promise of the gift of the land without asking God first. And finally, the third interpretation suggests that the whole test was intended to prove Abraham’s faithfulness to the world. Another commentator Ibn Ezra challenges this third interpretation, noting that the only ones who witnessed Abraham’s faithfulness were God and Isaac. And so the debates continue on and on over centuries. Ultimately, it is generally this last interpretation that prevails. In the end, it is not important that there were no human witnesses present but rather that God was watching and was favourably impressed. We blow the shofar today and even invoke Abraham’s faithfulness in our prayers to remind God that though our own deeds may be small, we are descended from someone whose faith was tested and found to be true.

Chizkuni includes a fourth interpretation of the first verse that first appears in the Talmud, is quoted by the famous medieval French rabbi Rashi and is repeated by many others after. Says Rashi, “Some of our Rabbis say that it means after the words of Satan who denounced Abraham saying, ‘Of all the banquets which Abraham prepared not a single bull nor a single ram did he bring as a sacrifice to You ’. God replied to him, “Does he do anything at all except for his son’s sake? Yet if I were to bid him, “Sacrifice him to Me’’, he would not refuse.” Knowledgeable readers will immediately recognise in this ancient midrash an echo of the opening of the book of Job. The start of that book, buried in the back of the Tanakh, sees God engaged in conversation with Satan. God boasts of Job’s faithfulness, but Satan question the depth of Job’s loyalty, pointing out how abundantly God has blessed him. God rises to the challenge, permitting Satan to make Job’s life completely miserable so that his fidelity to God can be confirmed. And so by the end of the first chapter, all that Job has is gone, including his seven sons and three daughters.

My teacher Rabbi Jacob Staub pointed out how the Talmud’s twist on the opening words of our Torah portion turns the story dark and sinister. No longer is Isaac’s ordeal justified as a demonstration of his father’s faithfulness to the world. Instead, the whole test happens to decide a bet between God and Satan as to just how devoted Abraham is. All of the uplifting potential of Abraham’s selflessness and suffering are negated by the petty dispute between two beings who hold his fate in their hands. Rabbi Staub pointed out how Rashi, the greatest of all interpreters of ancient Jewish texts, was an old man when he witnessed the start of the First Crusade, an event which proved catastrophic for Jews scattered across Europe. Was it any wonder that, in sifting through the dozens of explanations for why God might have tested the faithful servant Abraham, Rashi settled on the most capricious and terrifying of them all?

Jews have continued to wrestle with this text ever since, striving to make meaning and sense out of a spare few verses which reveal so little and hide so much. I have done my part over the years, turning the story this way and that each year. I have spent significant time with Genesis 22 for thirty years and still feel I have more to understand.

It is essential to understand that you don’t have to be a professional to study Torah. Far from it. But an open and inquiring mind is essential. So is a willingness to listen with a whole heart to those whose interpretation differs from your own. Torah study is all about vikuach l’shem shamayim: argument for a higher purpose. Traditional Torah study is conducted in pairs with a chevruta—the word comes from the word for friend, but is closer to a sparring partner. You and your chevruta drive each other to go deeper and deeper into the text. You challenge one another, you contradict one another, and you affirm one another. Your ultimate goal is not to better your partner but to leave your hour of study having gained insights would never have reached on your own.

For decades, it’s been my pleasure to use the textbook Being Torah for teaching the classic stories of Genesis to students aged 9-12. The book, published in 1986, features children cast in the roles of the biblical characters. My students poke fun at the silly costumes and the felt beards. But children are cast as commentators as well. At the end of each story, three or more kids share their own interpretations. The invitation is clearly given to the children reading the stories to do the same, and happily my students pile on.

We studied the story of how Jacob wrestled with a mysterious man the night before he was due to confront his brother Esau. The Hebrew text is compellingly ambiguous about what actually happens that night. One student piped up, “Maybe he was wrestling with his own conscience.” The students noticed how even after Jacob’s name is changed to Israel, the text continues to use both names to refer to him. They noted his shadow side—how after he reconciles with his brother, he promises Esau that he will follow closely behind, only to head in the opposite direction. Even though he is trying to be Israel, he still slides back into his Jacob self—a sobering message for us at this time of the year as we hope to attain our better selves.

The following week, we moved on to the start of the Joseph cycle. The kids had very little patience for the spoiled brat that is Joseph at the beginning of the story. They were particularly offended that at multiple places in the story, the text notes, “God was with Joseph.” But why?! they wanted to know. This was Joseph who dobbed in his brothers and then related dreams to them that seemed designed to offend them further. Then one student jumped in, “Maybe Joseph doesn’t know that God is with him.” And yes, there is nowhere in the entire story where we ever see God speaking directly to Joseph.

Finally, in the week before Rosh Hashanah, we had another look at the binding of Isaac. The story—all 19 verses of it—is short enough that I can recite it from memory nearly exactly as it appears in the Torah. The kids are subdued and sober. Then one bursts out, “Why does God insist that we have trust but doesn’t trust us?! If God trusted Abraham there would be no need for the test.” We reflected back on the dream of Jacob’s ladder, how after God appears to him Jacob places conditions on his faith: “If God brings me safely home and gives me food to eat and clothing to wear, then Adonai will be my God.” Yes, but. It’s one thing for a person to be lacking in trust, but it’s definitely problematic when the one lacking trust is God.

These exercises make me very happy and fill me with pride. I see my students growing into mature, thoughtful students of Torah who are comfortable asking hard questions and are prepared to accept ambiguous answers. I see that this mind-stretching work helps them to develop into complex, nuanced thinkers who will hopefully resist the temptation to settle for easy answers. I wonder whether respectful Torah study might be one solution to the increasing problem of how often we fail to listen deeply to one another.

Talmud Torah–the study of Torah–happens at Beit Shalom all the time. We discuss the parshah at every Shabbat service, and twice a month members are invited to join in for a lively 45 minutes or so where we delve deeper into that week’s Torah portion. In October, I’ll be teaching Talmud one again–the ultimate in sacred Jewish arguments! If coming to synagogue is tough, there are virtually endless ways to study Torah at home, at the office, alone or with family and friends. I invite you in the year ahead to consider making Torah study a part of your weekly routine. Let your brain stretch in new directions, and see where it leads. Shana tova–may this be a year of sweetness, good health and spiritual growth for us all.

Chesed–Embodying Grace

Rosh Hashanah 5779

Even long-time Beit Shalom members may not be aware that this congregation has embraced five Jewish values as its core mission. They are chesed, Torah, tikkun olam, hachnasat orchim, and tzedakah. I have decided that this year I’m going to dedicate my High Holy Day sermons to these topics and what each of us might gain in the year ahead by working to embrace all of these values. Tonight’s topic is chesed. I’m specifically not providing a translation at this point in the sermon in the hopes of keeping you on the edges of your seats wondering when I’ll reveal the answer. Stay tuned!

It was a hot, steamy day in Washington, DC as my son Onyx, my father and I boarded the subway at the Bethesda station bound for a day of museum visits. We had just found seats when Onyx said to me, “Someone’s fainted.” I looked to the middle of the car, and saw a man lying on the floor. Now, you may know me as your humble neighbourhood rabbi, but I also have a secret identity as a first aide provider. Armed with the knowledge provided by occasional one-day first aide training courses, I strode confidently down the car and went to work. The man was thankfully breathing and was actually awake and talking a bit. I knelt down next to him, introduced myself, took his hand, and set about doing what we first aiders do best: reassuring the patient and waiting for the professionals to show up. A fellow passenger knelt on the other side of the patient and kept him company as well. Two other passengers were on the subway intercom, talking to the driver and letting her know what was going on. Another passenger passed over her bottle of water so that the man could have a drink, and yet another passenger watched over the man’s briefcase.

Help came just a few minutes later at the next subway stop. The driver announced that the train would stay at the station while this medical situation was tended to. My fellow first aider and I helped our patient very slowly to his feet and walked him out of the car and to the bench on the platform. We were met there by a Metro employee, who said she would watch over him until the paramedics arrived. The man was reunited with his briefcase. We helpers got back on the train and watched the man recede as the train started moving towards the next station.

It was only much later as I reflected on the episode that I understood that I had witnessed and also participated in an act of chesed. Chesed is a word which is too often translated as lovingkindess. The translation is problematic because there isn’t actually such a word. As I write this, “lovingkindness” is underlined in red because the word simply doesn’t exist. If you use google translate, it will tell you the plain meaning of chesed is “grace.” We Jews are inclined to think of grace as a Christian concept, but that’s incorrect. We have grace too. The Hebrew word is chesed.

Chesed is kindness freely given, with no expectation of ever being repaid or rewarded. There is a reason that many chevrot kaddishah—burial societies—have the word chesed in their names. Preparing the body of someone who has died for burial is the ultimate example of a kindness for which the recipient cannot possibly repay the favour. Very few people feel called to perform this particular mitzvah, but each of us have opportunities to perform acts of chesed nearly every day.

You’ll remember about twenty years ago there was a popular call to “practice random kindness and senseless acts of beauty.” The concept has not gone out of fashion even though the phrase has. Within a Jewish framework, random acts of kindness are known as g’milut chasadim. Another tricky phrase to translate, because the word g’milut doesn’t exactly mean “acts.” It’s a verb whose meaning is closer to “to deal with.” The expression implies that we have made the choice to deal with someone kindly rather than cruelly. It continues the message that human beings—like God—have the ability to gift acts of kindness to people completely at random and with no expectation that they’ll get anything in return. Simply the knowledge that they have done the right thing at the time.

There are two different categories of mitzvot—those that are between human beings and God, and those that are between one person and another. The first category covers religious mitzvot such as observing Shabbat, hearing the shofar on Rosh Hashanah and wearing a tallit. The second category covers ethical mitzvot such as paying our workers on time, welcoming the stranger, and visiting the sick.

While performing g’milut chasadim is an ethical mitzvah, chesed itself is not a mitzvah at all. Chesed is not an action, but rather an attitude. Danny Segal, founder of the Ziv Foundation, points out that giving tzedakah is a mitzvah. It’s a religious obligation, meaning that we are required to do it whether we are in the mood or not. But surely giving from a place of chesed is the preferred way to give. Maimonides suggested that someone who donates in a grudging way is not as worthy of praise as one who donates cheerfully. So too for all the other mitzvot we do. The rabbinic classic Pirkei Avot includes a quote from Antigonos, man of Sokho: “Do not be as servants who are serving the master in order to receive a reward, rather be as servants who are serving the master not in order to receive a reward; and may the fear of Heaven be upon you.” There is a Jewish ideal that we should strive to give of ourselves to others not because we will be rewarded for doing so or even because it will make us feel good about ourselves, but simply because that is the right thing to do. We hope to act from the most selfless motivation possible.

I note here that true selflessness is increasingly rare in this age of social media. Facebook is crowded with videos of people engaged in acts of chesed while someone else films them for posterity. In this era when our phones allow us to record our significant moments, it can be too tempting to make sure that all of our friends and acquaintances are aware of just how full of chesed we are. It can be tempting too to turn these moments into Rosh Hashanah sermons…No one is going to sneak into our brains and explore whether our motivations for our actions are truly selfless. But Jewish wisdom suggests that the purest form of chesed is when it’s bestowed with no hesitation and with no thought of whether we’ll get more likes as a result.

That is what happened on my eventful subway ride back in July. I was part of a sudden outpouring of chesed. Half a dozen or more passengers instinctively sprang into action and did the right thing, with no expectation of reward or thanks. And, as I said, there are opportunities for acts of chesed nearly every day. We may see that someone we care about—or even someone we barely know—is going through a difficult time and jump in with a listening ear or a helping hand. We may come upon someone who is clearly hungry and make sure they get a meal. Sometimes it’s just a small action, like introducing ourselves to an unfamiliar face at Rosh Hashanah services and inviting that person to sit with us.

Of course, Jewishly we strive to act with chesed because God acts with chesed. The word is everywhere in our High Holy Days prayers. We have just sung out our request that God act towards us with tzedakah and chesed and we will do so again at every service on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Earlier tonight, we named God as gomel chasadim tovim–the One who bestows great kindness. In the morning prayer Sim Shalom, we pray that God will grant us chen, v’chesed v’rachamim: kindness, grace and compassion. As we celebrate the extraordinary gift of life at this time of year and count our abundant blessings, I hope we will feel called to give back to the world around us.

This time of year brings with it a spiritual vocabulary which is strange and often confronting. Many of us are disturbed by the suggestion that God personally decides each of our fates at this time of year. The workings of the universe are inscrutable and mysterious. But these Yamim Nora’im–these awesome days–affirm how much power is in our own hands. Gertrude Hildreth Housman wrote the essence of this in her poem “The Gift of Choice:”

I came into the world without being asked,

And when the time for dying comes

I shall not be consulted;

But between the boundaries of birth and death

Lies the dominion of Choice:

To be a doer or a dreamer,

To be a lifter or a leaner,

To speak out or remain silent,

To extend a hand in friendship

Or to look the other way;

To feel the sufferings of others

Or to be callous and insensitive.

These are the choices;

It is in the choosing

That my measure as a person is determined.

Shana tova–may we all be blessed with a year of sweetness and joy, of health and peace, and may each of us bring these gifts to one another and to the others we have the opportunity to touch. Amen.

The Worst of Times and the Best of Times

(pictured above: Rabbi Aryeh Azriel, Reverend Eric Elnes and Imam Mohamad Jamal Daoudi of the Tri-Faith Initiative.)

I haven’t uploaded a sermon in ages, so I’m going to make up for lost time by adding in several all at once. I hope you enjoy them. This sermon was written before it became apparent that we are most likely going to see more of the revolving door for prime ministers that has characterised these last ten years or so:

 

It was the worst of times, it was the best of times. It was a time when a newly-minted senator believed it was acceptable to stand on the floor of the senate and talk about how much better Australia was when everyone was white and Christian. And it was a time when nearly every other senator and member of parliament expressed their dismay and adamant disagreement. It was a time when that same senator could call for a “final solution” on Muslim immigration and a time when two members of parliament—one a Muslim man from the Labor party and the other a Jewish man and the grandson of a Holocaust survivor from the Liberal party—could embrace as friends in the parliamentary chamber.

Not surprisingly, I’d much rather focus on why it was the best of times rather than the worst of times. On Wednesday night, I got to hear journalist and football tragic George Megalogenis speak at the Hawke Centre on his new book The Football Solution: How Richmond’s Premiership Can Save Australia. It was a very brave thing to come to the home town of the premier-losing Crows and talk about Richmond, but happily no one threw anything at him during his talk. The book itself is about how the Richmond football club finally realised after thirty years that its long-time practice of sacking coaches and captains as soon as there was a losing season was not doing the team any good. It took the club’s first woman president Peggy O’Neal to transform the culture of the club and especially of the board, and that was the beginning of a new approach and so an entirely different and better football team.

Megalogenis’ message is directed especially at our Federal government, and how it continues doing things exactly the same way with ever less impressive results. He argues for a change in how the government runs and especially in how it leads. I confess that I didn’t buy the book, but I was charmed by how he wove football and government together. Did you know that the Richmond football club has more members than the national Liberal and Labor parties combined? That football clubs around Australia are among the most trusted institutions in this land? News to me!

It was impossible for Megalogenis not to talk about Fraser Anning’s incendiary and offensive maiden speech, which he had delivered just hours before the lecture. He noted the splintering of Australian society, in which an estimated 40% of the population is now disinclined to vote for either of the major parties. Only about a quarter of that 40% embrace the agenda advocated for by Fraser Anning, Bob Katter and the One Nation party. But they are the loudest 10% and so the people who are most likely to be noticed. I’m also guessing that a lot of them are concentrated in the rural regions of Queensland, represented by people like Barnaby Joyce and Peter Dutton. Megalogenis was puzzled as to why the current government seems so concerned about appealing to this 10% that it is prepared to antagonise the remaining 90% of Australians. But the reassuring message is that only 10% of the Australian population hold these extreme views.

I was deeply moved by the outpouring of support for Australia’s vibrant multicultural identity. As Katherine Murphy wrote in The Guardian:A line has been crossed in Australian politics. At least we know a line still exists.” I thought Penny Wong’s speech to the Senate was magnificent, and it was so important that her resolution received backing from such a diverse range of parties. I was even a little amused that Pauline Hanson was offended by Darren Hinch’s comment that Anning’s speech was like Pauline Hanson on steroids. If something is too offensive even for Pauline Hanson, that’s really saying something.

I wish I could say that I am sharing the universal Jewish view when I talk about how upsetting Fraser Anning’s speech was. But there is no one Jewish view. We live in an era when the prime minister of Israel extends an official welcome to the authoritarian, anti-migration Hungarian prime minister. When extremist rabbis in Israel and elsewhere regularly teach that Jews are biologically different to other human beings. Our own texts speak repeatedly of how Jews are different and holier than non-Jews. We Jews are just as susceptible to messages of hate and intolerance as other people. Such an easy way to unify us—by turning us against others who seem different.

One of the pieces of really good news from this last week was about the annual Tri-Faith Picnic in my sister’s home town of Omaha, Nebraska. The initiative was in large part a vision of Temple Israel’s now retired rabbi Aryeh Azriel. Along with Reverend Eric Elnes and Imam Mohamad Jamal Daoudi, Rabbi Azriel spent years pursuing his dream of a campus where Jews, Muslims and Christians could pray, learn and socialise. Today, a synagogue and a mosque share space on a re-purposed golf course. A church is under construction and will open later this year, and there are plans for a community centre to bring all three faith groups together. Each year, the Tri-Faith Initiative puts on a community barbecue. Attendees all bring a side dish, and everyone eats, chats and plays together. It is a simple but amazing thing. I note that the Tri-Faith memorandum of understanding was signed in 2006, but that the first completed building—Temple Israel—was not dedicated until seven years later. I would not have wanted to be in on the years and years of discussions that led the Tri-Faith Initiative to take shape, but I am in awe of the final result.

What is at the heart of this success is the appreciation that there is far more that unites us than divides us. It is also important to celebrate our differences rather than to believe that we can never find common ground. These are hard messages to hold onto in this era when our own elected officials are sometimes the source of divisiveness. So all the more gratifying when government and opposition, Greens and cross benchers, rise as one to affirm our vision of an Australia immeasurably enriched by our diversity. Shabbat shalom.