All You Have to Do is Breath

I received my first lesson in Jewish theology from my grandmother, who my sister and I called Nanny. When I was a child growing up in Maplewood, I distinctly remember asking Nanny, “What does God look like?”

Nanny promised to go to S. Klein’s department store in downtown Newark and get me a picture of God. I guess a month went by and there was no picture from S. Klein’s department store.

I asked my grandmother when she was going to bring me that picture. She finally admitted that she could not bring me a picture of God because there was no such thing.

This Shabbat we begin reading the second of the Torah’s five books, Exodus. The Hebrew name for Exodus is Sefer Shemot, the book of names. That’s because we are introduced to some very important names at the outset of the book. One is the name of the great liberator of the Jewish people — Moses or Moshe. Another very important name is the name of God.

God’s name is the four Hebrew consonants: yod heh vav heh, referred to in fancy language as the tetragrammaton. In Jewish tradition only the High Priest was allowed to recite God’s name and even he could do so only once a year on Yom Kippur.

That’s why in prayer we don’t actually speak God’s name but employ a euphemism. Whenever we see the name yod heh vav heh we say “Adonai.” “Adonai” means “My Lord.”

The name yod heh vav heh is a verbal form of the Hebrew root “to be.” God’s name means “the One who causes to be,” the One who brings into existence,” “the ground of all being,” the “source of all life.”

Now what does God’s name sound like? It all depends on which vowels you apply to the consonants. For example, one possibility is “Yehovah” which is how Jehovah’s Witnesses get the name “Jehovah” for God. Biblical scholars are pretty sure they know how God’s name was pronounced in ancient Israel. But since I am no High Priest, I cannot pronounce it.

What we also know, teaches Rabbi Arthur Waskow, is that all four letters of God’s Hebrew name are soft consonants. If you try to pronounce them without any vowels, the sound that emerges is like the sound of an exhale. Yahhhhhhhh.

That’s God’s name! God’s name is a breath. We exist, we live, we are, solely because we breath. Every single time we breath, we are pronouncing God’s name.

Every time we breath is an opportunity to know that God is not only up there, but in here. Every time we breath is an opportunity to know that God is not far away, but very close by. Every time we breath is an opportunity to feel that God flows in us and through us. With every inhale and exhale, we can feel the Source of all life and all love in this universe.

Looking back, my grandmother actually did me a favor by not coming through on her offer to get me a picture of God. She helped me understand that I had been looking for God in the wrong place.

If I could talk to my grandmother now I would say, “Nanny, it’s been 60 years since we last had this conversation. I have learned how to bring God into my life. Guess what Nanny? All you have to do is breath.”

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I am proud to announce that the docent program for the Temple Emanu-El Holocaust Remembrance Center at Temple Sinai is up and running. Eighteen people came to the first training session, committed to serving as docents. That was a remarkable turnout. And our teen training program is almost complete.

One of the themes that we talked about is the bystander phenomenon, the human tendency not to get involved, to adopt a code of silence, to look the other way. The Holocaust happened in part because of the bystander phenomenon.

The Holocaust required thousands upon thousands of ordinary people to choose to be passive bystanders, to do or say nothing, to look the other way about the brutality and the injustice they saw taking place all around them. If more people had been upstanders, the lives of more Jews might have been saved. Righteous Gentiles are the greatest upstanders of all.

Last week I was told that one of our Temple Sinai teens was the victim of an anti-Semitic slur at her high school. I have been taught by my African-American colleagues that black teens experience racism on an almost daily basis. What will it take to get this to stop?

It’s not only the perpetrators who we need to reach. We need to reach the people around them who hear the remarks and stay silent. Such silence is interpreted by the perpetrators as agreement or at least acquiescence. It emboldens them to continue. But calling them out acts as a deterrent.

Our sacred Torah teaches that if we see an injustice, if we see someone being hurt, we must help. We read in Leviticus, chapter 19, verse 16, “You shall not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor: I am Adonai.” We are not allowed to say that we didn’t know, we didn’t see, we didn’t hear. We cannot look the other way or make excuses for ourselves. We are morally obligated to take action. We are obligated to be upstanders, not bystanders.

I would like to see our Summit community affirm the principle that every citizen of our community has a responsibility to be an upstander, to speak up and to protect his/her fellow citizen.

One of the most prominent social scientists in the field of bystander research is Professor Ervin Staub of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.  He tells the story of why he dedicated his professional career to study what motivates people to be upstanders and not bystanders.

In the summer of 1944, Professor Staub (then 6 years old) and his family, like all Jewish families in Budapest, were set apart from their neighbors by the Nazi regime. Food was strictly rationed. Desperate to get a loaf of bread to feed her family, Professor Staub’s 13 year old cousin waited in a long bakery line after the curfew for Jews and without the yellow star she was supposed to wear.

Dr. Staub recounts, “Someone pointed her out as a Jew and three young thugs tried to take her away. But she ran into our house to hide and my aunt yelled at the thugs with such defiance that she scared them away.” At a very young age, Dr. Staub learned from first hand experience that speaking up can make an incredible difference.

Sure, sometimes it’s hard not to get intimidated. But don’t we all have to  look ourselves in the mirror every day? Let’s not be bystanders. Let’s be upstanders. Let each of us be proud of who we see in the mirror.



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Our Response to Swastikas…Live Jewishly

As you may have already heard, swastikas were found at Lawton C. Johnson Middle School on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving and then again last Thursday. More swastikas were found on Friday at Summit High School .

These incidents are a sobering reminder that Chanukkah is not just about dreidels, latkes, and gift-giving. Chanukkah commemorates our people’s rebellion against a ruling power that denied us our freedom to be Jews. Chanukkah celebrates the victorious restoration — at great cost — of our religious freedom and Jewish national sovereignty in the land of Israel.

I wonder if you have ever considered the fact that the existence of the Jewish people and the Jewish faith in the 21st century makes no rational sense whatsoever. We have been the victims of discrimination, oppression, and persecution. We have been the targets of Crusaders and Inquisitions, expulsions and pogroms, the Holocaust. We know something about the consequences of powerlessness. Yet the Assyrians and the Babylonians, the Greeks and the Romans are all gone — and we are still here.

To my mind, far greater than the miracle of the cruse of oil is the miracle that the Jewish people still lives, and not only do we exist, we flourish.

So how should we respond to these latest incidents of anti-Jewish hatred at Chanukkah time? The festival of Chanukkah gives us the answer. The word “chanukkah” means “dedication.” Rededicate yourself to your Jewish faith, traditions, and culture. Rededicate yourself to the study of our sacred Torah. Rededicate yourself to the highest Jewish ideals. That’s our response to hate. That’s our response to swastikas. Live Jewishly.

I was recently reminded by Dr. Betty Adams that “kids in our public schools are subjected to overt and covert expressions of exclusion and hate every day” — just for being Black, Latino, Muslim, Gay, Transgender, an Immigrant, Jewish. So our additional response to swastikas is to reject hatred in all its ugly forms.

And this is where the deeply moral message of Chanukkah can inspire us all. That message is embedded within the menorah rituals. You know this. Each night of Chanukkah, we kindle one more candle. We increase the Light.

Chanukkah teaches us not only to kindle light but to be a Light. Think of yourself as a shamash (user) candle. Beginning on Sunday night, I encourage you to bring more Light into the life of a different person every night.

Do you know someone who feels depressed? You can cheer up that person.

Do you know someone who feels hopeless? You can help that person feel hopeful again.

Do you know someone who feels lost? You can help that person rediscover his/her strengths.

Do you know someone who feels afraid? You can help that person find courage.

Our world can be a cold, cruel, and dark place. But let’s not just bemoan the darkness. Let’s do something about it! Each of us possesses the power to push back darkness, to push back against hate.

Together, let’s be the love, the warmth, the compassion we want to see in the world.

And let us start on Sunday night. I want to wish everyone chag urim sameiach — Happy Festival of Lights.

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The celebration of Israel’s 70th birthday last Wednesday night and Thursday fills us and Jews all over the world with pride and joy.

Over the last 70 years no other country has faced so much demonization, so many attacks on its right to exist. At the same time, over the last 70 years no nation has achieved more.

Israel has become home and refuge for the majority of Jews in the world. Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East with a dynamic free press. Israel’s universities and think tanks have made extraordinary scientific, technological, and medical contributions to the world. Israel is fulfilling its prophetic mission to be  a “light unto the nations.” Israel is a miracle.

But we know that Israel is not perfect. Israel still discriminates against Israeli Arabs, marginalizes non-orthodox forms of Judaism, gives too much power to ultra-orthodox political parties, and has not resolved its conflict with the Palestinians.

Israel is a miracle but a “messy miracle.” As Rabbi Levi Weiman Kelman observes, “We will not apologize for the need for a national Jewish homeland, nor will we shirk from trying to make Israel worthy of the most enlightened and holy Jewish values.”

For all its faults, Israel still represents the greatest achievement of modern Jewish history. The Jewish people were expelled from the land of Israel by the Roman empire in the first century of the common era. After 2,000 years of dispersion, in the shadow of the Holocaust, the Jewish people returned to our historic homeland and resurrected the Hebrew language.

Israel represents our collective Jewish rejection of a long history of Jewish victimization. Israel changed our collective self-image as a people from powerless to powerful, from banker to farmer, from yeshiva boy to army general, from weakness to strength.

As we celebrate Israel’s 70th anniversary, we know that Israel is a work in progress. Just think for a minute about our country when it was just 70 years old. In the 1840’s, slavery was the norm. Think also of how our country was treating the native American people. Just as there was — and still is — more work to be done in our country, so there is more work to be done in Israel.

As Reform Jews, our task is two-fold: on the one hand, to continue to challenge Israel to manifest the highest Jewish and democratic ideals; and on the other, to travel and study in Israel, to provide Israel with political and economic support, and to defend Israel from military attack and verbal demonization.

Tonight, upon the occasion of its milestone 70th anniversary, we join with Jews around the world to celebrate our joy and pride in the state of Israel.

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A Liturgical Change at Temple Sinai

Tonight I want to share with you a liturgical change that is taking place in the Reform movement and here at Temple Sinai.

The Mourners’ Kaddish is one of our most cherished prayers, a prayer that gives us great comfort. Yet many do not know what this prayer actually says.

Here is the English translation (p. 294) from Mishkah Tefillah:

“Exalted and hallowed be God’s great name in the world which God created, according to plan. May God’s majesty be revealed in the days of our lifetime and the life of all Israel – speedily, imminently, to which we say: amen.

Blessed is God’s great name to all eternity.

Blessed, praised, honored, exalted, extolled, glorified, adored, and lauded be the name of the Holy Blessed One, beyond all earthly words and songs of blessing, praise, and comfort. To which we say: amen.

May there be abundant peace from heaven, and life, for us and all Israel. To which we say: amen.

May the One who creates harmony on high, bring peace to us and to all Israel. To which we say: amen.”

As you can see, the Mourners’ Kaddish is an elaborate prayer of praise to God. It calls upon God to rule the world right away so that we live to experience it. The Mourners’ Kaddish asks God to bring peace.

Surprisingly, what doesn’t the Mourners’ Kaddish talk about? The Mourners’ Kaddish makes no direct reference to death. The two fold reference to peace may be an indirect reference to peace for the living and peace for the dead. But the words of the Mourners’ Kaddish are focussed more on the living. The Mourners’ Kaddish praises God even in the face of loss.

So how is it possible that the Mourners’ Kaddish not speak about mourning? The answer is that the Kaddish was originally intended for another purpose. And the Kaddish comes in different versions. For example, in the Shabbat morning service of Mishkah Tefillah (p. 106) we find the Kaddish but it’s not the Mourners’ Kaddish:

“Exalted and hallowed be God’s great name in the world which God created, according to plan. May God’s majesty be revealed in the days of our lifetime and the life of all Israel – speedily, imminently, to which we say: amen.

Blessed be God’s great name for all eternity.

Blessed, praised, honored, exalted, extolled, glorified, adored, and lauded be the name of the Holy Blessed One, beyond all earthly words and songs of blessing, praise, and comfort. To which we say: amen.”

The difference between this Kaddish and the Mourners’ Kaddish is two-fold. First, we do not employ this Kaddish in the context of mourning. We actually use it to mark the transition between the introductory prayers and the main prayers of the Shabbat morning service.

The second difference you will notice is that this Kaddish does not include the last two paragraphs of the Mourners’ Kaddish. That’s why it’s called the Chatzi Kaddish, literally “the half kaddish.” And the Mourners’ Kaddish is called Kaddish Yatom.

It may surprise you to learn that the recitation of the Mourners’ Kaddish only became standard Jewish practice in the 13th century.

Now, to the point of our conversation tonight, there is something more to recognize about the Mourners Kaddish. I wonder if you noticed it.

The Mourners’ Kaddish asks God to bring peace for the Jewish people alone. But as Jews living in the 21st century, doesn’t it seem more right to include everyone in our prayers for peace?

In 1967, new Hebrew words were added to the Mourners’ Kaddish — not by Reform Judaism here in America — but in England. In the 1967 prayerbook of the British liberal movement the Mourners’ Kaddish reads “May the One who creates harmony on high, bring peace to us and to all Israel and ve al kol b’nei adam “for all human beings.”

Subsequently, Reconstructionist Judaism here in the United States added slightly different Hebrew words to the Mourners’ Kaddish. In the 1989 Reconstructionist prayerbook called Kol Haneshamah, we find veal kol yoshvei teiveil which means “and for all who dwell on earth.”

Our Reform Judaism has embraced this Hebrew phrase as well. It certainly comes from a great source: The book of Isaiah chapter 18, verse 3 and the book of Psalms chapter 33, verse 8.

You may have noticed that the Mourners’ Kaddish in our new High Holy Days prayerbook Mishkan haNefesh includes veal kol yoshvei teiveil. And the phrase will certainly appear in the next version of the Reform movement Shabbat and festival prayerbook twenty five years from now.

But I have asked our Ritual committee and our Board of Trustees that we not wait 25 years to pray for peace for every human being.

And so, beginning tonight, it will be the custom of Temple Sinai to include these words in the Mourners’ Kaddish. Again, the reason is obvious: expressing our care for every human being — no matter their religion, their nationality, or the color of their skin – is consistent with everything we stand for as Reform Jews.

That said, no one is obligated to recite it. If you don’t like it, or you are uncomfortable with it, please feel free to pass. You may certainly recite the Mourners’ Kaddish as you see fit.

Now some of us may say I don’t want to include the new Hebrew phrase because “ it’s not traditional.” But let keep in mind that the prayer that immediately follows the Mourner’s Kaddish is the Aleinu prayer. Now the Aleinu prayer was added into our liturgy as late as the 13th century.

I’m sure there was someone who said at that time “we can’t add the Aleinu prayer it’s not traditional.” And if that voice had won out, the Aleinu would not be in every Jewish prayerbook and we would most certainly not rise to pray it. But now the Aleinu prayer is deemed traditional.

And that’s how it goes with so many of our most beloved prayers – including the prayers we pray every Friday night like Shalom Aleichem and Lechah Dodi— which came into our liturgy as late as the 16th century.

All these prayers and more were once new. And undoubtedly someone objected to their inclusion in our liturgy. But they withstood the test of time because they were deeply meaningful to the Jews who prayed them. And now these prayers are not only traditional. They are beloved. We can’t imagine a prayer service without them.

So my dear friends the time has come to make the new phrase veal kol yoshvei teiveil “and all who inhabit the earth” part of our beloved Jewish tradition as we recite the Mourner’s Kaddish.






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Remembering Pastor Mac

When The Rev. Dr. Murdoch MacPherson, the senior pastor at Faith Lutheran Church in New Providence, unexpectedly passed away on Sunday, August 13, the Jewish people and Temple Sinai lost a great friend.
Pastor Mac and I became dear friends when we were asked to co-chair the New Providence Diversity Task Force from 2008-2010. I quickly learned that Mac was one of the most compassionate, joyous, and wise individuals I have ever had the honor to meet.
Pastor Mac was a great friend of the Jewish people. Because there was no synagogue in New Providence or Berkeley Heights, Pastor Mac offered to place a Chanukkah menorah on the church’s property so that the Jewish community could properly celebrate the holiday.  
When I presented Faith Lutheran Church with a mezuzah as a thank you gift, Pastor Mac invited me to recite the blessing and to affix it to the doorpost of the church’s main sanctuary.
Pastor Mac was a lifelong student of the Holocaust. The murder of 6 million Jews greatly pained him. For Pastor Mac, teaching about the Church’s complicity in the Holocaust was a moral obligation.
One of Pastor Mac’s favorite biblical passages was from the prophet Micah: “He has told you, O mortal, what is good, and what Adonai requires of you: Only to do justice, and to love goodness, and to walk modestly with your God.”  Pastor Mac lived up to those words each and every day.
Temple Sinai mourns Pastor Mac’s passing. We extend our deepest sympathy to Mac’s cherished wife, Carol, and to the entireMacPherson family for your loss.
Pastor Jane, Pastor Mac and Rabbi Gershon

Pastor Jane, Pastor Mac and Rabbi Gershon

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Like So Many Jewish Generations Before You

On Sunday morning, August 6, Temple Emanuel removed its Torah scrolls from the ark. Please read the remarks I offered at this sad and mournful occasion.

My dear friends I just returned on Friday afternoon from a 12 day congregational mission to Israel and Poland. It’s about 3am for me right now. Hopefully, I’m going to make sense! On this trip I learned so many insights about the arc of Jewish history, insights that are relevant — and hopefully meaningful — to us this morning.

I learned that the Jewish people were welcomed to Krakow in the 14th century and expelled in the 15th. Polish Jews moved on to create new Jewish life in nearby Kazimierz and in other towns and villages of Polish Galicia. So too, the Jewish people arrived in Warsaw in the 15th century and expelled in the 17th. Polish Jews moved on to create new Jewish life in Belarus, Ukraine, Latvia and Lithuania.

I learned that the Jewish people were expelled from Jerusalem by the Roman emperor Hadrian in the mid-2nd century. Jews moved on to create new Jewish life in Rome, Alexandria Egypt, Constantinople, and North Africa. The Jews who remained in the Land of Israel moved on to make a new life for themselves in the Galilee.

Indeed, when all seemed lost after the destruction of the great 2nd Temple in Jerusalem, it was the in the Galilee that a new Judaism arose from the ashes. In the new holy cities of Tiberias and Sepphoris (Tzipori in Hebrew), the Temple was succeeded by the synagogue, the priest by the rabbi, the study of the Torah by the study of the Mishnah and the Talmud. It was in Tiberias that the system of Hebrew vocalization – the dots we place above or below the Hebrew letters — was invented.

We Jews have never wanted to leave our communities, to pick up and move, to embrace radical change. We were happy in Krakow, in Warsaw, in Jerusalem  and in so many other communities around the world — including Livingston.

By the same token, we Jews have always accepted the reality of our situation. We always found the way to look forward — not back — and to build an even better and even more glorious Jewish life in new communities, whether that community be in Babylonia or Shanghai or London or America.

Like so many Jewish generations before you, Temple Emanuel, today you move on from Livingston to Summit. God knows you do not want to go….But like so many Jewish communities before you, you are resilient, you are ready to do what you must, you are prepared to rise to the occasion. Do keep in mind that the commute between Livingston and Summit is nothing compared to the commute between Rome and Jerusalem!

And don’t forget this Temple Emanuel: You take with you everything that is most important. You take with you your Sifrei Torah, you take with you your customs and traditions  and — above all– you take with you each other!

Like so many Jewish generations before you, a glorious new future awaits you Temple Emanuel.




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