Jewish Hope

Image: A person blows a shofar against a background of clouds. ((Shutterstock, all rights reserved)

This is the sermon I gave on Yom Kippur 5782 in a Zoom service for Jewish Gateways.

We are living in times that are genuinely frightening.

We meet tonight virtually because there is a deadly virus circulating in our world, and so we refrain from gathering in person because we want to live, and we want our neighbors to live.

We are living through a time of political unrest. Whatever our individual political positions, surely we can agree that we’ve never seen times quite like these before.

We are living in a time when the world is teeming with refugees: climate refugees, political refugees, and refugees from housing insecurity.

We are facing the realities of climate change: our state is literally on fire, while other parts of the country face killer storms. We are suffering through a drought, while other parts of the country and the world, are drowning.

And personally, we each have stories of injury and loss. Our beloved Rabbi Bridget is recovering from a fall that injured her badly. Some have lost jobs. Some have lost their homes. Some need medical care but cannot access it.

Tomorrow we will read a prayer called the Unataneh Tokef, the Yom Kippur prayer that affirms that we don’t really know what may happen in the coming year, who will live and who will die, who will suffer and who will have comfort, and so on. Even in an easy year it is a difficult prayer. Last year and this year, it has a terrible resonance, because the times are so uneasy.

What’s a Jew to do?

Our tradition is actually quite clear on this, and it offers us resources. Jewish tradition does not encourage us towards empty optimism. Instead, it encourages us to remain hopeful, even in the darkest moments. Not every individual Jew will survive, but as a people, we shall work towards better times, a better world.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks z”l was the Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom, a major Jewish voice in the 20th and 21st century. He wrote:

“Optimism is the belief that things will get better. Hope is the belief that, together, we can make things better. Optimism is a passive virtue, hope an active one. It takes no courage – only a certain naivety – to be an optimist. It takes courage to sustain hope. No Jew – knowing what we do of the past, of hatred, bloodshed, persecution in the name of God, suppression of human rights in the name of freedom – can be an optimist. But Jews have never given up hope.”

It’s true, we Jews as a People have been through some truly terrible times over the millenia. Our Temples were destroyed – twice. We lived in exile for centuries. We suffered the Inquisition and the Holocaust.

But we have never, as a people, lost HOPE.

Hope – the belief that we can make change for the better — is baked into our tradition.

The book of Genesis begins with a statement of hope:  Bereshit bara Elohim et haShamayim v’et ha’aretz. “When God was beginning to make the heavens and the earth…”

The Torah’s first words, Bereshit bara Elohim – when God was beginning to create – Those hold Hope. The Torah tells us that creation is not finished, and God is not finished with creation. Nothing is a done deal. Change is still possible. That’s HOPE.

In Exodus, Moses asks for God’s name. God answers with a mysterious name, Ehyeh asher Ehyeh. All a translator can say for sure about it is that the Name of God is in the future tense. Some translate it, “I will be what I will be.” Again, things are not done, not finished: Judaism focuses on the future.

In the beginning of the Book of Ruth, the widow Naomi gives up hope. She says to her widowed daughters in law, “Even if I thought there was hope for me, even if I were married tonight and I also bore sons, should you wait for them to grow up?” One way to read the Book of Ruth is to say it is the story of how Naomi lost all hope of grandchildren – and then at the end, she gets a grandson. Ruth does mitzvot, Boaz does mitzvot, the people of Bethlehem do mitzvot, and hope is reborn.

Jewish hope is not mindless optimism. It looks at a difficult, sometimes cruel world and says, “We can fix this.” Sometimes it has to be very tough-minded. As Yehuda Amichai wrote in his poem Ein Yahav, “And I said to myself: That’s true, hope needs to be like barbed wire to keep out despair, hope must be a mine field.” Those are ugly images, but I think the poet is onto something important: the opposite of hope is despair, and we must guard against despair for hope to survive.

Many of the Jewish texts that speak of hope talk about hope in God. That may be very comforting for believers in a personal God, or it may be a challenge, if our idea of God is more abstract. When I read those texts, I remember that we are God’s hands in the world. God is still creating the world, but now God does it with our hands, our brains, and our determination.

How does that work? A person who lives a life of Torah does their best to keep the mitzvot, the commandments in the Torah. They are following God’s directions as expressed in our Torah. When such a person feeds the hungry, God is feeding the hungry. When such a person welcomes a stranger, God is welcoming that stranger. When a person who lives a life of Torah takes action to save the earth, God is saving the earth. No single human being can accomplish much by themselves, but we are not alone: we are part of Am Yisrael, the Jewish People, in all our diverse splendor. We are the erev rav, the mixed multitude, who left Egypt together, Jews and people who love Jews or who dwell with Jews, and all together, living lives of Torah, there is hope: we’ve got this.

So now I look out through this screen at all of you, and I feel my faith renewed. Members of this congregation stepped up this High Holidays to take care of one another while Rabbi Bridget was injured. You are continuing to do mitzvot even while your rabbi and teacher has to be out sick. You lift one another up, you speak kindly and truthfully, you do what needs to be done.

That is Jewish hope.

We have what it takes to survive difficult times, to learn what can be learned, to record what can be recorded, to remember those who need to be remembered. We can do this.

As Rabbi Sacks wrote, no Jew can be a mindless optimist, knowing what we know about how low humanity can go. But Jews – and those who love Jews – can face reality, and have a quiet resolve that we will do our part to heal this troubled world. We will not give up hope. 

So I want to finish this sermon tonight with a quotation from the end of Psalm 27, a psalm about hope,

A psalm that challenges us to keep walking forward, to keep on keeping mitzvot, to keep on doing what needs to be done in the world:

Kaveh el Adonai, hazak v’amatz libehkha, ukaveh el Adonai  —

Hope in the Eternal One;
be strong and of good courage! 
O hope in the Eternal, hope in one another.

“Chazak v’amatz” – be strong and of good courage – let’s say it together, to each other —  chazak v’amatz!

Keyn y-hi ratzon, may it be God’s will.  Amen.

Yom Kippur Greetings for Beginners

Image: Rabbi Sharon Sobel blows a large shofar. She wears a colorful tallit.

The High Holy Days have one good all purpose blessing that actually keeps working through the end of the cycle, at the end of Sukkot. We can say, “Shana tova!” [Good year!] to which “Shana tova!” is a perfectly acceptable reply.

But if you are spending any time, even online, with other Jews, you may hear some other greetings. Here are some of the choices:

G’mar tov! — (g’MAHR TOHV) — A good finish

G’mar chatimah tovah! — (g’MAHR khah-tee-MAH tow-VAH) — A good final sealing

Tzom kasher! — (zohm ka-SHAYR) — Have a proper fast

Tzom kal! — (zohm KAHL) — Have an easy fast

The good news is that all of those are answered just as they are asked. Just say them back, and it’s all good.

There are also some all-purpose greetings you may hear. They are a bit less common on Yom Kippur, given its sober tone.

Chag sameach! — (khag sa-MAY-akh) — Happy holy day!

Goot yuntiff — (goot YUN-tif) — Yiddish — Good Holy Day.

Join me for Yom Kippur?

Image: Jewish Gateways Logo for High Holidays 2021. Colorful abstract.

I will officiate at online Yom Kippur services this year at Jewish Gateways. If you still need somewhere to attend, we would be glad to have you. For information, and to register, visit their High Holidays webpage. You must be registered to attend.

The schedule for Yom Kippur Services, all times Pacific:

Wednesday, September 15, 7:00-9:00pm, Erev Yom Kippur

Thursday, September 16, Yom Kippur Day                        

  • 9:00-9:45am: Yom Kippur Family Service for children under 9 and their families
  • 10:30am-12:30pm: Yom Kippur Morning Service
  • 1:00pm: Questions and Open Discussion with Jewish Gateways community members
  • 6:00-7:30pm: Yom Kippur Afternoon Services
    • 6:00-6:30pm: Healing Service
    • 6:30-7:00pm: Yizkor • Memorial Service
    • 7:00-7:30pm: Ne’ilah • Closing Service

G’mar chatimah tovah! (May you be sealed for goodness.)

Online Class: Intro to the Jewish Experience!

Image: Two hands fit two puzzle pieces together, with the words “Introduction” above and “To the Jewish Experience” written below. Artwork from pixabay, modified by Rabbi Ruth Adar.

CLASSES BEGIN SUNDAY, SEPTEMBER 26.

Introduction to the Jewish Experience, or “Intro,” is a 24-week online class in Basic Judaism. The series is for anyone who hasn’t had a basic Jewish education, or who wishes to learn as an adult.

We study in three terms of 8 weeks, which students may take in any order:

In Jewish Holidays & Lifecycle, we learn about the Jewish year and Jewish time as we explore the important days in the Jewish year, as well as the life ceremonies of Judaism. (Offered Sunday afternoons, 3:30-5pm Pacific Time, via Zoom, beginning 9/26/21)

In Jewish History Through Texts, we learn the history of the Jewish people through approximately 1000 CE, along with the literature of Rabbinic Judaism (Torah, Hebrew Bible, Midrash, Talmud) and we explore the concept of “Jewish Law.” We also explore the origins and history of antisemitism and Jew-hatred. (Offered Sunday afternoons, 1:30-3pm Pacific Time via Zoom, beginning 9/26/21). Will also be offered in January 2022.)

In Traditions of Judaism, we explore those things that the Jewish People worldwide share (Shabbat, the prayer book, the worship service) and we learn about Jewish history through the lens of the varieties of Jewish communities: Sephardic, Ashkenazi, Mizrahi, and others. We learn about modern-day streams of Judaism (Reform, Orthodox, Conservative, Reconstructionist) and the history of North American Judaism. We finish with an exploration of Jewish food customs. (Will be offered in January and March 2022.)

TO REGISTER: Send an email to CoffeeShopRabbi@gmail.com, with:

  • Your name
  • The class(es) you want to attend
  • A phone number
  • The name of your rabbi, if you have one.
  • Late signups will be accepted until October 1.

TUITION: The cost of classes is $200 for each 8-session term. However no one will be turned away for inability to pay.

Payment takes place through Eventbrite. Click the class link below, and when you get on the page, click the green box “Tickets.” That will take you to a page where you can choose between “Full Tuition” and “Pay What You Can.” Payment is processed by Jewish Gateways, the sponsor of the class.

Jewish Holidays and Lifecycle

Jewish History through Texts

I have had students from the Reform, Conservative, and Reconstructionist traditions. I welcome students from many places: curious about Judaism, converting to Judaism, just want to understand Jewish relatives better, and some who just began working for a Jewish nonprofit. I welcome students from marginalized Jewish backgrounds: persons of color, LGBTQI persons, and students with disabilities. I am myself a fat woman, a lesbian with disabilities, and I became a Jew as an adult. I am a member in good standing of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the Women’s Rabbinic Network, and the Northern California Board of Rabbis.

Join Me for the High Holy Days?

Image: Brightly colored logo for Jewish Gateways‘ High Holidays 2021 Logo. A pomegranate is cupped in a blue arc like a hand. A rainbow surrounds.

L’shana tova! Happy New Year! The Jewish New Year of 5782 begins at sundown on Monday night, September 6, and continues until sundown September 7.

Normally I’m a “Jew in the Pew” for High Holy Days, but this year I am pinch-hitting for Rabbi Bridget Wynne, who is recovering from an accident last week. If you’d like to join me for online services with Jewish Gateways, the registration and information for that is available on their website.

For more information about the High Holy Days I recommend reading my article High Holy Days for Beginners, 2020. The dates have changed but the information is the same.

Other ways you may hear Jews refer to these days, all correct:

  • High Holidays
  • Days of Awe
  • Yamim Noraim (Hebrew) (ya-MEEM no-rah-EEM)
  • Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur (ROSH ha-sha-NAH and YOM kee-POOR)
  • “High Hols” (very informal)
  • HHD’s (in tweets and other shorthand media)

Whatever you call them, I wish you a Good and Sweet New Year. May it bring you health, healing, light, and love.

L‘shana tova! Happy New Year!

Yemima: An Elul Opportunity

Image:

Naama Sadan is offering a wonderful online class this Elul. She is a teacher of Yemima, which she learned from her grandmother. What’s Yemima? This is Naama’s account of it:

Yemima Avital was a contemporary Moroccan-Israeli healer and a feminine Hasidic Rebbe. Her teachings help the learners build stability and groundedness and develop personal mastery.
The practice includes dictation, journaling, discussion, and self-inquiry. She teaches us tools to help us come back to ourselves with acceptance and compassion. Classes are taught in English and require no prior knowledge. 

“In fact, it is an awakening, to an understanding to renewal. Act to your ability and make many errors. You are allowed to make mistakes and as many as you want. Here she makes a mistake, here she repairs. The power of repair is greater than the power of the error. “ (Yemima)

— Naama Sadan

The art of effortless change. Elul is a time of introspection, the high holidays are coming to remind us that one year has passed and another is about to come. They ask – what has changed?

This question can be intimidating since we often have a complex relationship with the idea of change. 

Yemima suggests a different way: inner work isn’t about change but about connecting. My job is to connect with the soul instead of trying to correct what is wrong. The focus of this series is to prepare for the new year by learning Yemima’s teaching about connecting with our inner world, our source of renewal. 

My name is Naama, I was born in Jerusalem, I learn and practice Yemima for 11 years and it grounds and nourishes me every day. I want to share it with anyone who can benefit from it.

Want to learn a bit more? Click here for more information about the series and Yemima.

Shabbat Shalom: Ki Teitze

Image: One of my bookshelves, with Bibles, a crown, and a yahrzeit candle. (Ruth Adar)

This week’s Torah portion has a little surprise in it.

Readers familiar with the Book of Ruth may be puzzled to read the commandment against marrying Moabites in Deuteronomy 23:4:

“An Ammonite or a Moabite shall not enter into the assembly of the Lord.” Ruth, the great grandmother of King David, was born a Moabite: that is the whole point of the Book of Ruth.

How could King David be descended from a forbidden marriage?

The sages struggled with this text and its apparent conflict with the Book of Ruth, especially since the prohibition is reinforced by a line from Nehemiah 13:1-2: “At that time they read to the people from the Book of Moses, and it was found written that no Ammonite or Moabite might ever enter the congregation of God, since they did not meet Israel with bread and water, and hired Balaam against them to curse them; but our God turned the curse into a blessing.”

The sages resolve the issue in M.Yevamot 8:3, ruling that the prohibition is only against Moabite men converting or marrying a Jewish woman; Moabite women are permitted to convert. The Gemara elaborates with a story about an Edomite who suggested to Saul that David may not be fit even to be part of the kahal, since he descends from Ruth the Moabite. Saul’s general, Abner, replies that the prohibition applies only to males, because women stay in the house when men go out to meet strangers. (Yevamot 76b)

Another possibility from modern scholarship: Megillat Ruth (The Scroll of Ruth) was composed from a legend that had circulated for centuries. It was written down in the early Second Temple period when Ezra was making his proclamations against “foreign wives.” It was composed as a reply to Ezra’s attitude about intermarriage, by arguing that even King David had an ancestor who was not born a Jew.

At every point in Jewish history, there is someone warning against converts in general or against a particular convert. As a giyoret (female convert) myself, I take comfort in knowing that there have also been, in every age, someone speaking up for us.

Shabbat Shalom! – Shoftim

Image: A blackboard with “Rules for Prophets” written on it. (Source: Ruth Adar.)

Parashat Shoftim contains what we might call the Rules for Prophets. First we are told what prophets are not: they are not augurs, soothsayers, diviners, sorcerers, casters of spells, or consulters of ghosts. Deuteronomy 18:12 twice uses the word to’evah (abomination) to describe such people. We do not look to the prophets to “tell the future” to us. We look to them for messages from God about God’s priorities.

God promises to raise up prophets for Israel from among the people, citing our choice at Sinai to hear the word of God through Moses instead of directly. Prophets are answerable to God, but we will have to choose which prophets to heed: according to Deuteronomy 18:22, if they speak in the name of God, and what they say comes true, then the prophet is genuine.

This circular solution — believe them IF what they said comes true — is not entirely satisfying. In Jeremiah 28:9 Jeremiah debates Hananiah, a false prophet, and reminds him that “only when the word of the prophet comes true can it be known that YHVH really sent him.” In M. Sanhedrin 1.5, we get a sense of the seriousness and difficulty of determining the veracity of a prophet from the requirement that it requires a full Sanhedrin court of 71 to try a prophet. Jesus of Nazareth may have been thinking of this week’s Torah portion when he said, “Beware of false prophets… you shall know them by their fruits.” (Matthew 7: 15-16)

The Age of Prophecy is over, but the problem of judging those who claim to predict the future is still with us. Jewish tradition encourages us to be skeptics and to require facts, to ask, “What are your results?” before we put our faith in a human being. In practical terms, that means we need to question information that comes before us. What is the source? How good a source is it? How well does it prove out, when held up against reality?

The Rabbi Goes Back to School

Image: The cover of Reading Hebrew with Tikva, one of the textbooks for class.

Today, on the first of Elul, I did something I’ve needed to do for a while: I signed up for a class in Modern Hebrew.

“But rabbi, don’t you already read Hebrew?” I can imagine a reader thinking. And yes, I read the Jewish Bible just fine. I can read the medieval commentaries, and of course the prayers in the prayer book.

However, drop me into the middle of Tel Aviv, and my shortcomings will truly shine. Biblical Hebrew is to Modern Hebrew as Shakespeare is to Modern English — yeah, they are the same language, sort of, but the vocabulary has changed. I’ve never been very good at Ivrit Modernit (Modern Hebrew) and my last class was 20 years ago. So, time to fix that!

Would you like to learn Hebrew? Tikva Farber, my teacher, is a highly trained teacher who gets excellent results with students. You can find her upcoming classes on her website, Hebrew with Tikva. If the class times are not good for you, or if you are shy, she offers private lessons, too. I’m signed up for the intermediate class, since I have not forgotten everything, but there are classes for total beginners, too.

Why learn Hebrew? There are many good reasons:

  1. Do you love Torah? Hebrew will take you into the heart of Torah.
  2. Do you care about Israel? Learning Hebrew is a way to express your love for Israel. It is not enough to say, “Oh, many Israelis speak English!” Many Israelis don’t speak English. Moreover, even if they do, Hebrew language is a key part to understanding and being understood in modern Israel. There are words and concepts that do not translate easily — by learning Hebrew, you make a beginning at understanding Israelis.
  3. Are you a critic of Israel? You, too, could benefit from learning some of the language. For one thing, if you want to be taken seriously by Israelis, one way to say, “I’m committed” is to learn some Hebrew.
  4. Attending services is entirely different when you’ve learned to understand Hebrew.
  5. Planning to visit Israel? The person who visits who speaks no Hebrew will be stuck as a tayar, a tourist or sightseer. Want to ask questions of someone beside your tour guide? Want to make friends? Learn some Hebrew!
  6. Finally, are you parenting a Jewish child? Want to communicate to them that Hebrew school is important? Children believe what they see us DO, not necessarily what we SAY. Tell you child Hebrew is important by learning some yourself.

It’s OK to struggle. It’s OK to not be good at it. I am hard of hearing, and I’m terrible at understanding spoken Hebrew. I want 5782 (2021-22) to be the year that my Hebrew gets better, not worse. I invite you to join me!

“Mann Tracht, Un Gott Lacht”

The title of this post is an old Yiddish saying, meaning “People plan, and God laughs.” We can plan all we want, but sometimes things turn out in unexpected ways. I thought I was done with Coffee Shop Rabbi and this blog– then God laughed.

I will definitely continue to teach Intro to the Jewish Experience, but in a new place: Jewish Gateways, in Albany, CA. The classes will all be online, via Zoom. Classes will start in September, 2021, after the High Holy Days. I will tweak the syllabus a bit. More about that in future posts.

I will return to keeping this blog, although I’m not sure exactly what I mean by that, yet. There will be new posts from time to time, and they’ll have to do with topics that interest me. Again, more about that as clarity emerges.

Here’s a question for regular readers: What topics interest YOU? What would you like to hear more about? You can reply in the comments.

Image: A photo of a little lemur with a surprised look on its brown and black face. Image from Pixabay.com.