Monday, December 31, 2012

Interesting Resource Regarding Jewish Views on Guns ...

I published my sermon on guns and violence here and wanted to follow up with an article which details different views on how the rabbis of old addressed issues similar to gun violence ... consider what the article says and make your own choice regarding how to respond.

And, as today is December 31st, may we each have a safe, healthy, and meaningful (secular) new year.   : )

Monday, December 24, 2012

I'm Struggling in the Aftermath of the Connecticut Tragedy ...

Sermon Delivered at Temple Israel of West Palm Beach on Friday, December 21, 2012 

Shabbat shalom.

I have been struggling this week … struggling to understand the pain of the Connecticut tragedy, and struggling to understand what lessons should come from it.
I have listened to clergy of other faiths talk about evil and sin in the world in response and I am shattered by the thought that this is the meaning taken from the event … because it is not as simple as “there is evil in the world” and "being a good person will eradicate evil."  We humans are much too complex to think these simple ideas will solve our problems.
I have been forwarded news articles and sermons regarding the tragedy.  I have read and I have sat in silence to contemplate … I have written … and I have cried ... and I am worried that I will too soon reach the point of being burned out from compassion fatigue.
As many of you know, I have chosen to be without cable since Yom Kippur and, last month, I even went on what I called a “Facebook Diet.”  Yes, I receive the Sunday paper each week and I have access to the Internet, and I listen to the news pretty much every day on this old-fashioned thing people used to call a “radio,” but I have intentionally been trying to reduce the amount of information I receive for a while now … because, frankly, the news is disturbing and overwhelming.
I say "disturbing" because there is gossip included in what we call "news," because the race to be first reporting something has trumped the ideal that whatever is reported should be double- and even triple-fact-checked … so perhaps we should change the name from "news" to something different … perhaps we should all sit down and watch the “6 O’clock Speculation.”   This is reckless.
Worse, sitting down to watch the news soon becomes repetitive, even though I gather my news from very limited sources ... and the problem is, hearing it over and over, and seeing it over and over ... this repetition can make us immune … but, in a weird way, thankfully immune, because, if we weren’t just a little bit immune, if our hearts weren’t hardened just a little, we couldn’t make it through the day.

            I hear about the prayer vigils that have been occurring around the country and, again, I am disturbed … I am not disturbed by the well-meaning people who come together to express their faith and support for the victims, but disturbed because I am concerned that this is where their actions will end. 
I am concerned that people will believe that their prayers are sufficient to heal this broken world.
I am concerned that their hearts will somehow be relieved of the burden and responsibility we all share to ensure that this does not happen again.
I am concerned that, once the victims are finally all buried, since the gunman is dead and there won’t be a trial, I am concerned that we will just all "move on" without the urgency of making sure it never happens again … just like when we moved on after Columbine, even though we talked about the shooters being outsiders and mentally ill … just like when we moved on after Gabrielle Giffords was shot and 6 people were killed by 22-year-old Jared Loughner … just like when we moved on after the theater shooting in Colorado, just 5 months ago, where 12 people were killed and 58 people were injured … just like when we moved on until last Friday when 20 children and 7 adults died.

I was told last night that this is not a new phenomenon … it turns out that, on May 18, 1927, 38 elementary schoolchildren, 2 teachers, and 4 other adults were killed, along with 58 other people injured in Bath Township, Michigan, by Andrew Kehoe, who was angry after not being re-elected to public office … but his weapon of choice was explosives.
That was 1927 … it’s 2012 and sick people are still aiming for schoolchildren.

            I'm tired that violence seems to be a recurring response to anger.  I’m tired that  violence is still acceptable … and, yes, it is still acceptable because we haven’t done anything real to address the cause.

You should know that I’ve been going back and forth all week regarding preaching on gun control … I grew up in Georgia and my parents owned guns.  In fact, when my parents worked nights for their business when I was a teenager, I slept with a gun under my mattress … of course, I always tell people I couldn’t have lifted the mattress fast enough to ever use it, so I’m not sure why we put it there. 
And then there’s the story that, when my law school roommate woke up one Sunday morning to a man breathing in her window, the window which her bed was under, the first call that morning was to the local gun shop because she wanted to buy a gun.  I told her we could have one in the apartment as long as we both took a gun safety course … and I have never been so thankful for California’s ten-day waiting period. 
By the way, you should know that the most powerful thing about taking that course was when we went to the shooting range with the San Diego Police Captain who taught the course to try out different kinds of guns.  He had us shoot at a moving target coming at us from 21 feet ... so I want you to imagine the distance 21 feet.  [Walk to a distance of approximately 21 feet.]

You should know that, no matter how good a shot we were, not one of us could hit the target ... and that was in spite of the fact that the gun was in front of us on the ledge, that was in spite of the fact that we were all wide awake and all of us could see it, that was in spite of the fact that the target was farther away than the distance from most beds to most bedroom doors, and that was in spite of the fact that the lights were on.  Not one of us could hit that moving target.  That was a pretty powerful exercise.
So, yes, I’ve been going back and forth on the problem. 

There's a part of me that says we need more gun control, that we need longer waiting periods, and that we need more background checks ... and then there’s the part of me that understands the reality that the criminals will still have guns if we make it harder to get them and there is always a way to get a gun.
I’ve been going back and forth on the idea of mental illness being focused on as the sole cause … I’ve been going back and forth on the bumper sticker that says, “guns don’t kill people, people kill people.”  I’ve been going back and forth on whether the violence we experience via the movies and video games cause the problem.
I’ve been going back and forth on it all … I’ve been struggling with how to solve the problem and am sad that the only easy solution that makes sense to me comes from a comedian, who said that we will solve the problem if we charge $5,000 for a bullet.
I’m struggling with the idea that this is a difficult problem and there is no right answer and that we will, yet again, become so overwhelmed with the problem that we end up doing nothing. 

I’m struggling with the realization that we are so worried about offending someone’s right to own guns that have magazines that can shoot 10 or 11 or 12 or 13 or 14 or 15 bullets at a time that we forget that there was no such thing as a magazine that held 10 or 11 or 12 or 13 or 14 or 15 bullets at the time the Second Amendment was written. 

I’m struggling with the fact that mass shootings and mass murder is almost exclusively American … you don’t hear too much about Canadians shooting each other in these mass shootings, you don’t hear too much about Europeans doing it … in fact, pretty much the only time you hear of a mass shooting somewhere else is when it is related to another crime, like drugs, being committed.

I’m struggling because violence is how we Americans respond too often to things we don’t like.  Violence has become too American.

And I’m struggling because I know this will happen again and again until we actually do something … actually, until we do many things to address the problem.  This is not simple, it will not be magically cured with a new gun control law, it will not be magically cured with more money for the treatment of mental illness … both of these, by the way, I believe are truly valid responses to what has been happening. 

I’m struggling because I know that prayer vigils are not enough.  Judaism is a religion of action and I am still trying to figure out how I can make a difference to do my part to make the world safer for all our children, and for all of us. 

I am struggling because I’m working to make sure my heart doesn’t harden to this tragedy ... and the next ... and the next tragedy that is sure to come ... I'm struggling because I know that whatever compromise we end up with will not be enough.

Shabbat shalom.

Friday, November 30, 2012

Learning How, and Who, to Trust in this Crazy, Mixed-up World ...

Sermon delivered at Temple Israel of West Palm Beach on November 30, 2012.

            Shabbat shalom.
            I think one of the most difficult life skills to learn is to know when you can trust someone … and when you can’t.
            Unfortunately, it seems like we learn this mostly via trial and error, and it’s usually most effectively learned when we are "burned" by trusting someone we later figure out that we shouldn’t have trusted … and it’s these kinds of lessons that parents want their children to learn, hopefully without too much pain.  
            For a long time, one of my nicknames was “Little Mary Sunshine” because folks thought I was too often looking for the good in people and, even as a grown up, I’ll never forget the time my dad was telling someone the differences between me and my brother … he said, "she got the book smarts and he got the street smarts" … hearing him say that really cut to the core, because I took that to mean that he thought I wouldn’t succeed in life.  
           When we talked about it later, he explained that he worried that someone might take advantage of me because I always tried look for the good in others, and he thought that going through life always, and only, looking for the good in others, without being at least a little wary, without being at least a little bit on guard, without being at least a little bit not trusting, could be dangerous.
This week, I’ve been thinking a lot about the need to trust people … how we must trust others in order to get along in this world … and, in particular, this week, I’ve been thinking about the need to trust people when it comes to politics. 
What you are about to hear took place on November 29th.
            [Played audio file of UN vote.]
            What you just heard took place on November 29th, 1947 – it was the United Nations vote on the creation of not only the state of Israel, but also for the creation of a state that would be known as Palestine.  You just heard  the vote by the United Nations General Assembly on Resolution 181 that would partition the area controlled by the British and create the two-state solution we are still seeking to this very day.
            But that was 65 years ago. 
            The Jews accepted this map [showed map from 1947], which was smaller in area than they wanted and the Arabs (as they were referred to at the time), as we all know, did not …  since that time, there has been war after war after war, or conflict after conflict after conflict, or intifada after intifada after intifada, or whatever name you want to give it.
            Take a look at what the Jews agreed to accept … and consider how different it is to what the map of Israel looks like today.  Jews would have gratefully accepted this map, without lives being shed, back in 1947 [showed 1947 map alongside current map of Israel].
            So you might ask:  "Rabbi, why did you start tonight’s talk with a discussion about trust?
            Yesterday, 65 years to the day since Resolution 181 was passed by the United Nations, another vote took place dealing with Israel and the people we now call Palestinians, the vote was 138 in favor, 9 opposed, and 41 abstaining with regards to the Palestinian people being granted Permanent Observer Status, or as President Mahmoud Abbas referred to it, "granting a birth certificate to the state of Palestine."  Please know that I am not opposed to a two-state solution … in fact, I’m in favor of a Palestinian state … but I’m also incredibly gun-shy.
             You see, I’m gun-shy because I lived in Israel from 2003-2004, during the second worst year of the second Intifada, when crazy fundamentalists were blowing things up on my street … and, please note that I choose the phrase "crazy fundamentalists" very carefully when answering people’s questions regarding my feelings on what is happening in the state of Israel.
            I tell people right up front that I am 100% biased when it comes to my views on Israel.  I tell people that crazy fundamentalists were blowing up buses right down the street from school and up the street from where I lived, and that I went through metal detectors every single day to enter into every single store, every single coffee shop, every single time I went to the mall, every single time I entered any kind of establishment open to the public.  
           And I tell people that I walked the 5-minute walk up the hill from school to my apartment  one day to find the bomb squad in front of my building sending a little robot to poke at an unattended package, which they eventually blew up … right next to the entry to my apartment building.
            I tell people I’m biased by my experience of living in fear the year I lived in Israel … I tell people I’m gun-shy about demands regarding free access into Israel, without checkpoints ... which is why I made myself go visit the West Bank and met with a Palestinian farmer and helped him pick grapes in his fields so I could see a checkpoint and so I could hear his story.  And, yes, I always tell people that it was easier for me to go through the checkpoint because of who I was than a Palestinian to go through because of who they might be … I definitely acknowledge that, but I believe that Israel has a fundamental right to keep its citizens safe.
But when I tell people I’m biased, I also tell people that, while I have hope for a peaceful solution, I don’t know who Israel can trust to make sure it happens.
I tell people I don’t know who has control over the crazy fundamentalists that blow people up ... I tell people I don’t know who has control over the crazy fundamentalists who want to wipe Israel from the face of the map … I tell people I don’t know who Israel can trust … .
Yesterday, I heard the President of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, say the following to the UN General Assembly:  “The moment has arrived for the world to say clearly: Enough of aggression, settlements and occupation.”  He continued, saying, “We did not come here seeking to delegitimize a state established years ago, and that is Israel; rather we came to affirm the legitimacy of the state that must now achieve its independence, and that is Palestine,” he said, continuing by saying:  "We did not come here to add further complications to the peace process, which Israel’s policies have thrown into the intensive care unit; rather we came to launch a final serious attempt to achieve peace. ... Our endeavor is not aimed at terminating what remains of the negotiations process, which has lost its objectivity and credibility, but rather aimed at trying to breathe new life into the negotiations and at setting a solid foundation for it based on the terms of reference of the relevant international resolutions in order for the negotiations to succeed.”
I am skeptical, but there is still a bit of “Little Mary Sunshine” in me … I want Israel to find someone it can trust, but I don’t know who Israel can trust.  Until the right people are sitting together talking with it each other, trying to figure out how to create a viable two-state solution that allows both sides to feel secure in their independence, I am unsure where this will go.
But still,  I am hopeful.
Tonight, as you enjoy dinner, I hope you will debate both sides’ actions and inactions … talk about how you feel about Abbas’ statements that he was not at the UN to delegitimize Israel … and, yes, talk about Israel’s decision to move forward today with permitting additional housing units to be built in East Jerusalem as if nothing happened yesterday at the United Nations.  
Talk about what it would feel like if you could not feel secure in your home and what you would be willing to do to protect your home and your family … and talk about why what you would do should be any different than what any Israeli should do.
Talk from the left and from the right … and when you go home tonight and all through the weekend, read everything you possibly can about what is happening in Israel, from both the liberal media and the conservative media, and intentionally try to see, and argue, both sides.
Ask youselves, what do both sides want .. what do both sides need … what is standing in the way?
Could it be something so simple, as yet so complicated, as trust?
Ask yourself, how can we build that?  What has been missing in the equation for these 65 years?
If you were in charge what would you do?
I’m not sure what I would do … but I still do have hope.
Shabbat shalom.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

My Kol Nidre Sermon on Letting Go . . .

“Treading Lightly – The Stuff in Our Lives”
By Rabbi Cookie Lea Olshein
Temple Israel of West Palm Beach
Copyright 2012

Kol Nidre Sermon - 2012


           Gut yuntif.

           If you were to look inside my car right now, I hope you would see that I have been trying to help a friend of mine help get their elderly aunt’s home ready for sale.  There are a ton of things in the car that are going to Goodwill just as soon as the High Holy Days are over … but, in the spirit of the season, I am going to confess that there just might have been a few things of my own in the back of my car before I added in my friend’s aunt’s belongings.

I’m not quite sure when it started, but before I moved here, the back of my car had become a place where things with unknown homes would go to die … and, since I’ve decided this is also the season of sharing, I have decided to share a few things I recently found in the very back of my car.

[Sharing of Things from “Rabbi Olshein's Box” … items placed on the table as they are explained …]

           Here is a water bottle that still has the cleaning information in it from a conference I attended in 2008 ... which I have never used.

           Here is a container of "Equal Spoonful" ... which I don’t actually use.

           Here is the sermon from the Senior Rabbi at my old congregation from 2009 … it was a really good sermon, but I’m not sure how this ended up in the back of my car.

           Here is a fur collar from an old coat which doesn’t fit me anymore, but somehow made it to the back of my car.

           Here is a cord from my refrigerator from my house in Las Vegas, with the water filter … I have no idea why I kept this, because (as far I know) it can’t be recycled ... the last time I lived there full-time was in 2008.

           Here are a pair of shoes I no longer wear.         

Here is my grade report, from undergrad, from 1987 … I’m not sure why I kept it this long, except to remind me that I received a “B” in my “Introduction to Business” class, which should have been an easy “A”.

           Here is the x-ray from when I broke a needle off in my toe right before traveling to El Salvador to volunteer, which I thought I should frame one day.  That was in 2007.

[Back to Reality]

Every so often, we hear stories on the news, and now via reality TV shows, about people who have so much stuff in their homes, that there is only a path from the front door to back door, so much so that people actually feel trapped in their homes.  They have invested so much into the things that they have, that they have literally boxed themselves into a world they feel as if they cannot escape.

But not everyone is an extremist like we see on the news, thankfully.  There are also people who have homes with so much stuff in them that they are afraid, or embarrassed, to open the door:  to friends, family, and even to strangers.  Heaven forbid something go wrong with the water heater or the sink or the toilet and a contractor would have to come over to fix it … and, yes, I admit, I have even heard myself say it a few times – “no, no, no, no need to come over … why don’t I just bring it to you?”  Or, “why don’t we just go out?” 

Yes, the cases we hear about on the news and in reality TV are often tied to mental illness, but that’s not what I’m talking about tonight.  I’m talking about the random stuff that has accumulated like the box of “random stuff” I have in the back of my car. 

You know that stuff that just seems to accumulate, maybe not in your car, but in your spare room?  Or maybe you have something you call your “junk drawer” … or maybe you have “junk drawers” – plural – or something we could call “the closet we dare not open”?  Or, since there are very few basements here in Florida, perhaps it’s your garage … maybe you can’t put the number of cars in the garage as the garage is advertised to hold?  OK, I know it is ONLY me … for many years, the garage in my house in Vegas held one less car than it was advertised to hold. 

Now listen, I know some of you out there are thinking, “Oh my God, we hired a hoarder.”  No, the new rabbi is not a hoarder.  : )

And I know there are more than a few of you out there who are thinking, “Rabbi, I sure do know people like that, but thankfully, you’re not talking about me.  I am organized and neat and I live by the rule:  ‘A place for everything, and …” everyone, say it with me, “everything in its place.’”  Just so you know, for those of us who DO have a junk drawer or a scary closet, we just can’t understand folks like you. 

[It’s Not Just Physical Clutter that Tie Us Down]

But a discussion about clutter really does apply to everyone, because it’s not just the physical clutter we have in our lives that tie us down … each and every one of us here tonight share what I call “mental clutter” … you could call it, “emotional clutter” … or maybe you prefer the idea of calling it, “relationship clutter,” but we all share it, and that’s in addition to any physical clutter almost all of us have. 

So now that I’ve given you a couple some different options regarding types of clutter, I want to challenge everyone to take a moment and literally close your eyes … now, no one fall asleep while you are doing this … I want you to think about what kind, or kinds, of clutter you have in your life right now? 

How long have you been carrying your clutter around with you?

Or, do you not actually carry it with you, but instead it is tied around your ankle like a ball and chain, with you dragging it from place to place, taking it with you wherever you go?

And then I have to ask … do you want to be carrying your clutter with you?


And now, open your eyes.

[Dealing with the Physical Clutter … and What It Represents]

Sometimes, when we think about the clutter in their lives, we do jump to the physical things – we really do jump straight to the stuff, like the stuff in my box … and we have to ask ourselves, why do we keep this physical clutter … why do we keep this random stuff?

There are many reasons we hold onto things … sometimes the clutter we have comes from a sense of obligation.

You see, we might have inherited things from the people we have loved and lost, with all their stuff being added to our own stuff, leading to a sense of obligation we feel to keep it.

Instead, though, what we truly should keep when people are gone are the memories of the people we have lost … not that broken lamp ... or the painting they loved ... or the half-set of dishes that don’t match ours that we never use.

By the way, please note that I am not saying that none of us should not treasure the things we inherit from our loved ones, quite to the contrary, I’m saying we actually should TREASURE the things we inherit from them … but, if we don’t have special feelings about a particular item, like if that chipped bowl in someone else’s pattern is never used, then we should not keep it out of a sense of obligation.

I told you a few minutes ago that my garage in my house in Las Vegas didn’t just house cars – in a strange way, my garage there is a sad place.  To this day, there are things still in that garage that brought my mother joy while she was alive – and now they sit collecting dust in my garage – it is now her things that have gone to my garage in a place so far away to die.

So now, when I’m visiting my house in Las Vegas, every time I see these items, I think about what they represented to her – and all I feel is guilt that I don’t appreciate them the way they deserve to be appreciated ... and that they serve no function, just sitting there in the garage collecting dust.

Authors Suzy Ormond and Marla Cilley, both experts on how we handle our home lives and our stuff, both write that we might want to consider a paradigm shift about how we manage our stuff – that perhaps we should release this stuff if we are not going to use it … and let it bless someone else.

Blessing someone else with things that have lived in my garage for far too long?  Or bless someone else with the stuff that never sees the light of day in my closet?  How about some of the stuff in my not yet unpacked boxes since I moved to Florida, now three months ago? 

Someone else just might find joy in what sits in those boxes and in things I have not used in far too long … and by holding onto these things, these things which are not bringing me joy, I might be keeping someone else from receiving that blessing. 

What’s another reason we might hold onto stuff we don’t need?  We might simply feel overwhelmed about the prospect of going through our things and physically getting rid of the items.

We all lead such busy lives that once something is put aside, it finds a new home, and it now lives “there” … so, if it is comfortable “there,” it becomes OK to leave it “there” … and suddenly we don’t even notice how the garage became full or how the closets are overflowing or how suddenly there is no space under the cabinets any more … and now it becomes too much … I simply can’t do it … it is simply overwhelming … it will never get better … so I am not even going to try.

[The Effects of Paralysis]

Which means it becomes a question of, if I can’t get the house totally clean and spotless, why should I even bother? 

This mentality of perfectionism – only the best will do — becomes paralyzing … our mental clutter affects our physical clutter and paralysis takes over … if I can’t do it all, and do it perfectly, well then, just never mind.

But maybe there is another reason we become collectors of “stuff” … some of us may have lived through the depression, or have been children of the depression which may have given us the idea of “but I might need it later” or “I’m saving it for later” … and when exactly does “later” come?

Before she died, Erma Bombeck wrote that, if she had to do it over again, she would use up that nice perfume she had received as a gift and had been saving for a special time … and the good china?  We don’t use it because the kids are too small and they might break one … but how else are our children going to learn how to handle delicate things?  And those beautiful candles with unburned wicks?  Their purpose for existing is to be burned – to release that special beautiful fragrance hidden inside. 

And that dream antique sports car that we are afraid to drive on the road?  It was made to be driven – not to sit kept in a garage, some might say, just waiting to fulfill its destiny out on the open road.

And what about anything that we might not want to use because we might mess it up?  How many of us have visited homes with plastic on the furniture?

Yes, we should all save for a rainy day, but should we save “that” and “that” and “that” for a rainy day, whatever “that” is for you?

[Dealing with Relationship Clutter]

I can hear some of you saying now, “But, Rabbi, Yom Kippur isn’t about stuff … it’s about people … it’s about relationships … it’s about making amends for the wrongs we have done and working towards being better people, right?”

Yes, that’s true, but how we treat our stuff, and how we let our stuff treat us, can sometimes tell us a lot about how we treat other people.

For example, just like keeping “stuff” out of a sense of obligation, what about the relationships we stay in out of a sense of obligation?

On Rosh HaShanah morning, you heard me quote the biblical verse, love your neighbor as yourself, and then I corrected myself saying, actually, I want you to treat the neighbor better than we treat ourselves, because some of us don’t treat ourselves very well.

Are we in unhealthy relationships out of a sense of obligation? 

I know it is hard to fire a friend, but sometimes friends aren’t really friends and they can be very destructive.  Even worse, sometimes, it is a family member … remember that old line when you are flying on an airplane to put your oxygen mask on first before helping those around you.  Sometimes, relationships can be toxic … sometimes we have to save ourselves from destructive obligations in our lives if we are to move forward in a healthy way … yes, we have to fire them in a nice way, only after we’ve tried everything else to salvage a relationship, but sometimes we have to move forward without them in our lives.

[Paralysis in Our Relationships]

And, yes, not only do we sometimes feel paralyzed about dealing with the stuff we have in our lives, sometimes, we feel paralyzed in our relationships as well.

Are we actually having honest conversations with the people we say we love?  Are we telling people when they have hurt us?  Are we communicating honestly about our needs and desires and the things that are important to us?  Or, are we closed down and have we stopped sharing what is truly going on in our heads, and in our hearts … do we feel paralyzed and have we stopped communicating? 

Do we expect all the people in our lives to simply know what we are thinking and feeling?  I mean, really, we’ve lived with them for how many years, don’t they KNOW that what are doing is bothering me … I mean, how could they not know that I don’t like that after all these years?  Why should I have to actually tell them?  Really, if they don’t know already … then I’m not going to tell them … they should just KNOW.

And then the resentment grows and grows and we carry it around with us, sometimes with the other person never even knowing how much pain we are in.  How many of us expect the people in our lives to be mind readers?  How many of us have simply stopped communicating about anything important with the people we say we love?

[I’ll Deal With it Later … But When is Later?] 

And then there are the folks who are the savers of the stuff … I know I’ll need that sometime later, so I don’t want to use it now … I better get a few more in case I need them someday.  Sometimes, the clutter in our relationships with both ourselves, and others, builds that way, too.

So I have to ask … is there something that has been bothering you for a long time that you haven’t talked out?  Do you carry this with you such that it affects your outside life? 

When we say the words of the ASHAMNU, did acknowledging that we all commit the offenses of keeping grudges or being narrow-minded jump out – have we become those stiff-necked people the Torah always warns us of becoming?

Have we let these negative feelings fester to such an extent that the relationships we are in today are not as we would hope … are they still affected by something even someone else may have done years ago? 

I think about all the folks I know who say, “it will get better when” and I think of all the folks I know who say, “I’ll get to that soon” … and I think of all the folks who say, “I’ll go see them soon.”  I hear, “now is not the right time for ___” and then fill in the blank with whatever people say is important to them.

But the reality is that what we say is important to us is not always what is important to us … and what we see as being important to us is not always what we should see as being important to us.

[Reality vs. Perception Regarding How We Rank Things]

If I were to ask everyone to think about what our lives look like and write down the things that are really important to you tonight, I think we would see lots of common things on our lists … I’m guessing that somewhere near the top of that list, I would hope to see the word “family,” with maybe “friends” close by (and, of course, since I’m a Rabbi, I hope I would see “living a good life according to your Jewish values on the list”).

But if I asked you to then open up your calendars on your phones or look at your paper calendars and compare how you spend your time with what you say your priorities are, my guess is that, for far too many of us, the two would not match.

You see, our calendars really show our priorities … they show the stuff with whom we choose to interact … they can tell us how we have chosen to spend our limited time on earth.  In a sad, scary way, our calendar really is our Book of Life.

While we are here, each of needs to tread lightly … of course, we need to tread a little more lightly physically, understanding our relationship to our stuff …

[Each individual item taken out earlier to be put back in the box …]

            I really don’t need this sermon anymore … it can be recycled.

            This water bottle and fur collar should both be donated.

            The refrigerator cord and filter can be thrown away.

            This canister of Equal can be used.

            This pair of shoes can be donated to our new shoe collection drive we are holding on October.

            I’m not sure what to do with my grade report and I really am going to frame that x-ray, but both of them need to go back in the box for right now.

[Treading Lightly in Our Relationships]

But more than we need to be careful about the physical stuff in our lives, we also need to tread lightly in our relationships with both ourselves and others. 

We need to understand that, as we choose to spend time with another person, or other people, we deserve to be treated well, just as they deserve to be treated well, too, which becomes easy once we truly take the time to love our neighbor as ourselves. 

Throughout this HHDs season, I have referred to the phrase from Pirke Avot, al shloshah d’varim, on three things the world stands, al haTorah, on Torah and learning, v’al haAvodah, on worship and service to God and others, v’al g’milut chasadim, and on acts of loving-kindness.   And for the world and, yes, I’m also talking about our own little personal worlds, these three must remain in balance.

But as I said before, it must start with the relationships inside each and every one of us.  We must let go of the harm we are holding inside … the negative feelings that only hold us back and, to the outside world, they might not even be known.  We must release the hurt, we must release the anger, we must release the guilt … we must show ourselves acts of loving-kindness. 

For if we do not dare tread lightly on our own souls, why should anyone else bother?

Yes, it is Kol Nidre … now is the time to let go … now is the time for letting go both physically and emotionally … just imagine … if we can make this happen … imagine how each of us can transform our lives into what we say we want them to be. 

Gut yuntif.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

My Rosh HaShanah Evening Sermon on Different Kinds of Learning ...

“A Willingness to Learn”

By Rabbi Cookie Lea Olshein

Temple Israel of West Palm Beach

Copyright 2012


Erev Rosh HaShanah Sermon – 2012


Gut yuntif.

Before attending rabbinical school, I was part of a group that met each week to study the Torah portion of the week.  The group was part of my synagogue, but no rabbi attended, so our eldest, most knowledgeable, participant prepared each week and took charge.

Al was then in his 70’s … he had grown up orthodox, attending cheder [orthodox religious school] as a child, and was later introduced to Reform Judaism by his grown daughters.  He embraced the idea that we could challenge what was in the Torah and it was with him that I first read the Torah all the way through, having attended Torah study every week for an entire year.  It was truly a Shehechiyanu moment for me.

Later, while I was in rabbinical school, I was able to come home and work at my home congregation in Las Vegas for 4 full-time summers and two academic years, and it was then that I became the teacher and Al became my student … but no matter the title conferred on either of us, both of us always said we learned from, and with, each other.

In my last position in Austin, Texas, I had the honor, and responsibility, of meeting with all the B’nai Mitzvah students to help them learn about their Torah portion and help them write their very first D’var Torah. 

During that first meeting, I would ask them, “What is a D’var Torah?” to which they would always say, “It’s my speech.” 

It was then I had to tell them that a D’var Torah is not a speech … and then we would talk about what the words actually mean.

Like lots of words in Hebrew, the word d’var, can mean more than one thing … actually, it can actually mean the word, “thing,” in addition to meaning “word.”  Then I would ask the kids, but what does the word “Torah” mean?

Pretty much all of the kids said it meant the “Five Books of Moses” and I would get to tell them they were sorta’ correct … yes, that is what A Torah is, but what does the wordTorah” itself actually mean?

After helping them understand that some people say the word Torah is related to the Hebrew word Morah, which means teacher, we would work our way backwards to understanding that Torah can also be translated into several different English words … for example, it can mean “Instruction” or “Teaching” or “Doctrine” … and that on the day they became a bar or bat mitzvah, they were going to give things of instruction or words of instruction to the community, in other words, they were going to be writing a lesson and they were going to be the teacher that day. 

And, in order to become the best teacher possible, they were going to have to learn everything they could about their Torah portion … together, we were going to learn from, and with, each other and then, on their big day, they were going to get to be the teacher.


[Formal vs. Informal Learning]

Today marks my 11 week anniversary here at Temple Israel … and, during this short period, I’ve been spending my time doing two kinds of learning from, and with, lots of people here. 

The formal learning I’ve been doing has consisted of adult education classes and Torah study throughout the summer and, for the kids, Religious School began this past week.  By the way, this is a great time to plug Temple Israel’s fabulous adult education program, Temple Israel Learns … you should have received the catalog in the mail by now – if not, make sure to pick one up while you’re here.  Take a look at it and you’ll find classes on so many subjects, like hands-on art classes and art appreciation classes, music appreciation, meditation, yoga, classes on social justice issues, information on our book group, TI Reads, and, of course, lots of fun classes on different aspects of Judaism … I’m even teaching a Hebrew class for people who think they can’t learn Hebrew … anything sound interesting, yet? 

But probably much more difficult than the formal learning we choose to do like taking classes through TI Learns is the informal learning each of us needs to do just to navigate our lives. 


[Informal Learning … “What Makes People Tick”]

For me, the informal learning I’ve been doing this summer here at Temple Israel has been so much more than just learning people’s names … it has been about learning about the culture of Temple Israel and figuring out how to avoid accidental potholes … I’ve been trying to figure out people’s passions and interests, what they want help in making a success, what makes our congregation tick, what ticks people off, and how can I help them understand that, if I don’t happen to be doing exactly the same thing that’s always been done, perhaps I might have a reason for doing it … this is the hard kind of informal learning going on in my daily life … it’s probably not so different than the relationships in yours.

What’s another way of looking at informal learning about relationships?

Informal learning is sometimes that kind of learning you might say happens TO you after the fact, only after looking backwards, as we might say, with hindsight.  It might even be a kind of accidental learning, a kind of learning you didn’t do willingly, perhaps even a kind of learning you did more learning from an experience rather than learning during the experience?  It’s that kind of learning where you wish you had a roadmap or a manual or a set of instructions to look at before starting on the journey … oh wait, we Jews do have that, it’s that life instruction manual we have called the Torah … the Torah instructs us regarding how we are supposed to treat ourselves and others.


[Learning About, and From, Torah]

One of the things I love about learning Torah is that, fundamentally, it is a story about community. 

It is the story of a man who took his entire family and set off on a journey to an unknown to a land that God would show him and his descendants. 

It is the story about a community figuring out who they were, and who they could become. 

It is the story about a community of people learning how to live according to shared values. 

It is the story about people taking on the obligation to care for each other. 

It is a story about relationships, both good and bad … it is about mending relationships … it is about understanding that one’s tribe or family is a priority, while understanding that those not part of the tribe still matter. 

The Torah is an instruction manual for life.


[You Have to Actually Read the Instruction Manual for It to Be Helpful]

But have you ever tried to put something together without reading the instruction manual?  How about putting an IKEA bookshelf together without at least looking at the pictures?  All those little pieces can feel overwhelming. 

That little instruction manual comes right in the box, but for it to be useful we have to pick it up and read it, maybe even twice or three times or four, we have to really digest it, pick it apart and figure out what parts make sense to apply to your life, and put its teachings into action.

Otherwise, as my B’nai Mitzvah kids used to say, the Torah is just a book.

As I have been getting to know our very special k’hilah k’doshah, our holy community, I have been listening intently to learn about your frustrations, hopes, and priorities … best of all, I have heard a tremendous sense of optimism as we try to discover things we can do to help Temple Israel build upon its successes of the past and become an even stronger community than it has been in recent days.

As I sit with so many of you, I am cognizant of the need to learn from Temple Israel’s past, and, together, we are learning to take the chance to become a renewed Temple Israel, just a little bit different than we were before.  We are learning together to take a few risks to step outside of the box that has a label on it that says, “the way we’ve always done it” … and we have even tried a few things again that might not have worked in the past, this time trying to learn from our mistakes and approach things from a slightly different angle. 

As we continue to experiment, though, please know that I’m pretty certain we are going to make a few mistakes along the way, but I am thrilled with the passion I have heard and experienced regarding a willingness to simply “try.”

Yes, all you have to do is look at me to know that I am different than all of Temple Israel’s prior rabbis ... but I want you to know that I have a willingness to work hard and learn from, and with, you, just as I have seen a willingness from so many of you to learn more about the Rabbi you selected to lead this congregation.


[“Different” Can Be Difficult, But Sometimes Necessary, to Move Forward] 

With that in mind, and in the spirit of the holidays, I’m going to ask you all for a favor … if you decide you’re not quite sure whether I’m doing something “the right way,” meaning the way it’s always been done, I ask you to stop for a moment and consider that different isn’t always wrong (and I’m working on remembering that, too, not just in my work life, but in my personal life as well).  We all have to remember that different isn’t necessarily bad, sometimes different is just different … and, yes, sometimes, different can be a great learning opportunity for everyone. 

Growing up in Georgia, my momma taught me a great old maxim which makes even more sense from an organizational perspective now that I’m a grow-up … she said, “If you always do what you always did, you always get what you always got.”  This brilliant simple lesson she taught me is perfect for the HHDs season … in other words, we must be willing to examine our prior actions enough to figure out if and when a change should be made.

Here at Temple Israel, we are being very intentional about making the few changes we have made so far.  For example, there might be a few things that sound just a little bit different this HHDs season … we are intentionally moving Temple Israel toward a more mainstream-Reform-sounding Amidah, so tonight’s Amidah might have sounded a little bit different than you remember … but, once you get used to the very slight liturgical changes being introduced, I promise it will be easier when you travel to other Reform synagogues. 

And then there is the change of the Shabbat service time … and the new philosophy and structure surrounding celebrating Shabbat. 

You know, Temple Israel has been through a lot of different service times in the past 12 years, and I know this because our great Executive Director, Linda Solomon, gave me the times for the past 12 years … and, from speaking with lots of members, we’ve learned a lot about service times … we’ve learned that families believe 730pm is too late for bedtime, which is why it has been a rarity to see children at services.

We’ve also learned that people like the idea of making an “evening out” of seeing their friends and praying as a community, so we are working on creating an entire “Shabbat experience.”  To that end, Michael Jonas brought us the idea of a pre-service Oneg, which we call a “Proneg” as a way of having a light bite and maybe a glass of wine, to help folks wind down from the busy week before Shabbat services. 

With a 530pm Proneg, people can come straight from work and have something to tide them over until after services at 630pm, then they can stay for our fabulous dessert Oneg.  But, 6:30 is also flexible enough so that, if someone wants to go home after work, they can pick up their family and still have time to come back for services … and we’ve learned that people who like to eat dinner after services can do that, too.  Being both family-friendly and adult friendly … we’re trying to learn from our experience about what people say is important to them and we’re trying something new to see how it works out … together, we are learning to be open to taking some risks.

Temple Israel is also being intentional about helping members learn how decisions are made and how things get done around here.  In seven sessions from February to May, we will be inviting interested folks to participate in our new Leadership Development Program, chaired by our Past President, Roslyn Leopold.  The goal of this program is to give people an insider’s view regarding how Temple Israel works: how our Committees get things done, how the Board is selected, and how we will be working together with other Jewish institutions in the future to strengthen the entire Jewish community, so please consider stepping outside of your box and trying something new this winter … please let me and Roslyn know if you are interested.  We think this will be a wonderful learning opportunity for everyone involved and can only strengthen Temple Israel and secure its future.


[The World Stands on Three Things:  Torah, Worship, and Acts of Lovingkindness]

There is a wonderful, often-quoted, line from a section of the Talmud called Pirkei Avot, which is usually translated as the “Ethics of our Fathers,” which says the following:

Al shlosha d’varim ha-olam omeid:  On three things, the world stands … al haTorah, v’al haAvodah, v’al G’milut Chasadim:  the world stands on three things:  on Torah study, which means learning, on worship (or service) to God, and on acts of loving-kindness.

The sages taught that, when the second Temple was destroyed, there was no place for the sacrifices God had commanded us to do to be performed.  In their stead, and I would say thankfully, our way of communicating with God, showing God respect, and continuing our relationship with God, changed from acts of sacrifice to these three acts upon which the world stands:  acts of studying Torah, that is, learning about our relationships with ourselves and others; acts of worship or service to God; and acts of loving-kindness.  Like a three-legged stool, we are taught that all three of these are needed to maintain balance in our relationship with God.

Tomorrow morning, we will discuss the second of these three items on which the world stands:  what it means to be in service to God and, on Kol Nidre, we will discuss the third item, the impact of acts of loving-kindness for ourselves, our families, and the greater world. 

Tonight, though, when you leave, I want you to think about Torah being an instruction manual for our lives, and how we can incorporate Jewish values and traditions into how we make decisions, how we act, how we treat others each and every day … .

I want you to think about how we can incorporate intentional, proactive learning into our daily lives and how intentional, proactive learning can bring greater meaning to how we see the world … .

I want you to think about how we can learn from, and with, each other in order to better navigate the world in our personal lives … I want you to think about how we can learn to appreciate differences we find in others and the things that make each of us unique … and I want you to think about how we can learn new things together and move forward united as a stronger community.

Yes, even though it’s only been 11 weeks, I’ve already learned so much from, and with, so many of you … as we continue to learn together, maybe taking a few risks here and there along the way, stepping outside our comfort zones along the way, and maybe, just maybe, if we are willing to check out God’s little instruction manual every once in a while, I think we’re in for one heck of a ride.

Gut yuntif.