Sweet Sukkot & Shabbat from KI

eDvar Shabbat Parashat Breisheet 5778 Warming faith at chilly times “If you should see my son Cain, tell him…”  These words, attributed to Cain’s biblical mother Eve, were penciled onto the wall of a railcar heading to the gas chambers.  Thus the late poet Dan Pagis sought to capture the blood-shedding legacy of humanity’s first murderer, condemned to wander and witness future human depravity. What do we believe about people?  This Shabbat we return to the dawn of human history and a post-Garden of Eden world.  What does the Torah believe about human nature?  The answer is revealed within God’s curiosity about Cain’s dejection in the face of Divine inattention to his offering, in contrast to the Divine appreciation for Abel’s offering.  Prior to Cain’s murder of Abel, God urges Cain not to let his hurt feelings incite violence against his brother.  God is essentially saying, “Hurt feelings, even anger, are understandable.  But violence is not inevitable. You don’t necessarily have to let your emotions get the better of you.” The text subtlety suggests that sin is not as powerful as human connections are.  The Hebrew words for ‘dominant urge’ (timshal and teshuka) recur in God’s conversations with Eve and with Cain (Gen. 3:16, 4:7).  For Eve the relational bond is potent enough to transcend free will.  But for Cain, God seeks to convey that sin’s urge does not overwhelm the freedom to choose.  The lesson: loving relationships built upon shared faith can withstand the allure of iniquity.  The goodness and generosity of people transcends the greediness and violence of people. Two powerful examples from this past summer drive this home.  Consider the inspiring story of how eighty strangers on a Florida beach locked arms

כ״א בתשרי ה׳תשע״ח (October 11, 2017)|Categories: archive, edvar, news|

Rabbi Starr Yom Kippur 5778 Sermon

Being Good Being Religious Rabbi David B. Starr, Yom Kippur, 5778/2017 This is my favorite haftarah. I look forward the whole year to Yom Kippur so that we can hear it chanted again. Why? Because it asks an important question: what is the point of being religious? Or perhaps more directly: how do we understand what religion is? Religion isn’t self evident to us. It may have been for our parents or grandparents, or to people in times past in places like Poland, but it doesn’t feel that way to us. A friend of mine said that to be a modern person is to fear cancer more than hell. Someone else once noted, When I go to synagogue I read the words, when my father went to synagogue he PRAYED words. There’s a big difference between the two. Consider the options. First, being religious means serving God. God creates us, commands us, gives us law in a scripture, and our tradition bids us to obey those commands. Second, religion involves serving others: we’re all created in God’s image, we’re all equal, unique, and precious in God’s eyes and therefore our obligation is to one another. Third, a la Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, religion invites us to heal ourselves. If I’m not for myself who will be for me? We have the right and even the obligation to a self, to our freedom and to self-actualize. Or perhaps religion includes all or some combination of these, and if so how? Isaiah asks this in our haftarah. What constitutes proper piety? Ritual and/or good works? In the time of the temple a large part of the atonement process required cleansing the temple of the taint brought

י״ט בתשרי ה׳תשע״ח (October 9, 2017)|Categories: archive, news|

Rabbi Bill Hamilton’s Rosh Hashanah 5778 Sermon

‘Jeremiah reverses victimization’ Rosh Hashanah 5778 Rabbi William Hamilton, Kehillath Israel, Brookline MA   It has been a very challenging year since last Rosh Hashanah when I stood before you to share deeply personal lessons from my mother’s life in the wake of her sudden passing. You don’t need to be reminded about our world’s problems - you are well aware of what ails us - from the ugly state of our public communication, to the lack of confidence in public safety and in public service, to the infectious outrage that we are bombarded with all the time. The core problem I wish to focus with you on this year is a pervasive pathology of victimhood.  Everywhere we look today, we find people claiming to be victims.  One commentator went so far as to call our new global religion in 2017 ‘group victimization’.  From Iran to Antifa, from North Korea to neo-Nazis, everybody competes for the worthiest claim of victimhood.  Groups now collect around common allegations more than around common dreams, they self-define around experienced injustices rather than around aspirational values. Three aspects of this phenomenon are particularly troubling:  1) victimhood is passive and does not encourage personal growth; 2) group victimhood is contagious and it thus sows bewilderment and doubt about a brighter future; and 3) acute victimhood can turn very dark by justifying violence and self-sacrifice against its scapegoats.  Each one of these three phenomena is ominous in and of itself.  Taken together, they are even more alarming. Where can we turn for direction and hope?  This summer I sought prophetic wisdom from Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s formative book The Prophets.  Prophets have a knack for effectively negotiating the tension between God and

י״ד בתשרי ה׳תשע״ח (October 4, 2017)|Categories: archive, news|

Rabbi Bill Hamilton’s 5778 Yom Kippur Sermon

Results without full Resolutions - Yom Kippur 5778 Rabbi William Hamilton, Kehillath Israel, Brookline, MA   They tell the story of Rabbi Levi Yitzchak walking to Shul on Yom Kippur.  On his way into the synagogue, he encounters a Jew smoking a cigarette.  He gently greets him, “You may not realize it, but today is Yom Kippur.”  “I realize it’s Yom Kippur rabbi” the gentleman responds.  “My dear fellow, perhaps you are unaware that it is traditional on Yom Kippur not to handle fire, as in the lighting or extinguishing of a cigarette.”  “No rabbi I know all about this prohibition” as he continued to puff away. Rabbi Levi Yitzhak looks heavenward and exclaims, “Dear God, see how wonderful your people are.  Smoking on Yom Kippur, and he refuses to lie about it.” We try to look for the positive side of things.  But this is challenging in today’s world because progress in so many settings is difficult to detect.  Many industries are struggling despite significant efforts to improve… law enforcement, public education, health care economics, environment-friendly habits, governance. This lack of progress is particularly challenging given our contemporary assumptions and expectations around ‘problem solving’.  We’ve grown up in a world that tells us: “No problem is unsolvable.  No ill is incurable.”  This is our dominant, post-enlightenment myth: with enough study, the best strategies, and ample resources, we can cure or resolve any malady.  This problem is that ‘unintended consequences’ intrude, and ‘unanticipated variables’ obstruct. When progress is derailed, we become impatient.  Some push to reverse course.  Others despair. This is not to say that we don’t move-the-needle on many things - we do.  KI’s Susan Wolfe Ditkoff recently authored an article in the Harvard

י״ד בתשרי ה׳תשע״ח (October 4, 2017)|Categories: archive, news|

eDvar Sukkot 5778

'Each of us is more than the best thing we've ever done'  “We choose the story we wish to tell. This may be the most important lesson I could ever teach.” Thus a colleague lovingly reflected in the wake of the sudden, agonizing passing of Rabbi Reuven Cohen (may his memory bless) - beloved teacher and precious soul - just after Yom Kippur this week.  “The story I choose to tell is not to try and make sense of God’s inscrutable ways, but to affirm that Reuven was taken from us fully forgiven, restored to his ancestors fully atoned and cleansed.” What stories do we like to tell?  Given today’s uncertain world, do we tell of fear and danger?  Or do we focus on resilience and helpfulness?  Do we favor sharing unflattering details about others?  Or do we prefer to show and tell of their positive qualities? The stories we choose to tell are telling in another way. ‘What is told’ and ‘how it is told’ says a lot about the person doing the telling.  This is because we have agency when we tell a story.  It is in our hands.  So much of what happens to us is not.  Being in the wrong place at the wrong time - whether in central Mexico, Puerto Rico, or Las Vegas - being in harm’s way is often not in our hands.  Yet the story we elect to tell says a lot about the kind of people we are. The Festival of Sukkot holds many different stories.  Moments of joy amidst the fragile and fleeting.  Returning to nature in a way that may ennoble human nature.  God’s sheltering presence.  Ingathering inclusively.  Curiously, King David is prominent.  His fallen

י״ד בתשרי ה׳תשע״ח (October 4, 2017)|Categories: archive, edvar, news|

Rabbi David Starr’s Rosh Hashanah Sermon 5778

Rosh Hashanah 5778/2017 David Starr The Song of Brokenness *Please see the end for song lyric footnotes. Everything feels broken. A tumultuous election and new administration combined with a natural order that seems increasingly chaotic and destructive. Painful plagues within our society—alienation, resentment, cynicism, mistrust of govt, our questioning of the motives of others and institutions,—it all adds up to a pervasive sense of fracture and divisiveness: globally as well as nationally. We should not take these matters lightly, or as cyclical in nature. They feel more corrosive now: our alienation from govt. threatens democracy because it DESTROYS our ability TO BELIEVE IN the POSSIBILITY OF CHANGE. Instead, we feel our skepticism degenerating into cynicism about the scope of human freedom. What should we do about the brokenness? Consider the following. First, for the sake of intellectual seriousness, I have to say that for all of the concerns we feel legitimately about political madness, the destructive pervasiveness of technology and our unwillingness to accept the fragility of our precious planet and our impact upon it,, it is also the case that we are better off now than we were a century ago, or even fifty years ago. Just ask a black person if he’d return to the Jim Crow South, or a woman who couldn’t vote, or a gay person who had to live closeted, much less marry, or a Japanese-American thrown into an internment camp in WWII, or a person who couldn’t join a union, and on and on and on. My friend Dr. Scott Plotkin tells me that medical knowledge now doubles every seven years. I am alive today because of that knowledge, as are so many of you. We go to hospitals

י״ד בתשרי ה׳תשע״ח (October 4, 2017)|Categories: archive, news|

October President’s Letter

I’ve been writing this monthly president’s column for a year now, as a way to provide members with a perspective on what’s happening at KI and to invite feedback and discussion. From what I hear from readers, the column is serving its purpose. Members tell me they feel informed about what’s going on and are more connected to the shul. A couple of the columns, including the one I wrote about the Jewish Community Study and how our campus addresses changing demographics and patterns of Jewish engagement, have been circulated to the wider community and helped get our story out. Based on the feedback and comments, I’m planning to continue writing in 5778. The only change I’m making is to stop listing the topics of each of the prior columns in the introduction. Instead, I’ll ask you to visit the President’s letters page where older issues are archived.   As always, please let me know what you think –and what you’d like me to write about—by emailing president@congki.org or calling (617) 731-3182. I really wasn’t sure what to expect with this year’s High Holidays. With the construction of our new campus there was no space for us at KI, and it was difficult to find an appropriate venue close by that was large enough to accommodate our two adult services and four children’s and family services. The solution was to hold services in two off-campus locations: Brookline High on Rosh Hashana Day 1 and Yom Kippur, when school was closed, and Temple Ohabei Shalom on Rosh Hashana Day 2, when that congregation does not make use of its main sanctuary. The logistics were complex but our professional staff and lay leaders, especially Jonathan Slutzman, Stephanie Berkowitz, and

י״ב בתשרי ה׳תשע״ח (October 2, 2017)|Categories: archive, news, President's Letters|

eDvar Shabbat Yom Kippur 5778

‘Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done’ Our sages tell a story of a wealthy landowner whose worker had accidentally dropped some crates, destroying their valuable content.  The landowner took his worker to court, seeking restitution.  The Judge, having heard the case, ruled that the law was on his side and that his employee owed him a lot of money.  Then the Judge added: “Although the law dictates that your worker fully repay you, it is a large sum for him and meeting his obligation will put him through much hardship.  I recommend, on the basis of Hesed (pure kindness), that you release him from his obligation.  In so doing, you might hope that in the future someone else might extend to you the same Hesed someday when you’re in a similarly difficult position.”  The landowner took the Judge’s advice and forgave his worker. This is what forgiveness looks like.  We all know people who don’t deserve kindness, generosity, or our faith in their unreliability.  Someone slights you.  Another demeans you.  It is natural to return the disfavor.  Yet Yom Kippur is when we note that the most disagreeable parts of a person are not the totality of a person.  As racial-Justice champion Bryan Stevenson likes to say, “Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.” What does God’s pardon look like?  Kol Nidre's summarizing forgiveness-verse does something surprising.  “And it will be forgiven for all the congregation of the children of Israel and the alien who resides among them, because it was by mistake (bish’gaga) for all the people” (Num.15:26).  God’s forgiveness for our past sins shifts intent - based on our sincere regret for,

ט׳ בתשרי ה׳תשע״ח (September 29, 2017)|Categories: archive, edvar, news|

eDvar Shabbat Parshiyot Niztavim Vayelech 5777

This changes everything “Any yahrzeits this morning?” I inquired as we prepared to return the Torah to the Ark this past Monday morning.  Since nobody present had any, we continued with the service.  It was only as we concluded, that the date dawned on me.  Yes, of course, it was September 11 and nearly 3,000 people lost their lives on this day just sixteen short years ago.  The combination of present urgencies and the passage of time cause slippage in the prominence of the unforgettable trauma our nation endured on that crisp, clear day back in 2001.  Still, I regret forgetting to pray in their collective memory. This year’s September 11 observances were faithfully honored and attended.  But the collective interest in pausing to re-enter that painful period seemed to have waned.  Perhaps one additional reason is particularly sobering.  We look back to the aftermath of that attack on America and we realize, sixteen years hence, how little progress we’ve made.  Back then the most common response to the suddenness and scope of the loss was, “This changes everything.”  Well, how much or how little has changed since then? What changes us is related to why we change.  Do we change because of fear or because of love?  Within this week’s portions of Torah we find an appreciation for the difference.  Change that is caused by fear dissipates with the receding of the danger. The same is true of conditional love, evoking our Sages maxim: “If love depends upon a specific cause, when the cause ends, so does the love” (Pirke Avot 5:19).  Conversely, change that is stirred by unconditional love is more likely to endure long after temporary urgencies and distractions.  This is why the

כ״ד באלול ה׳תשע״ז (September 15, 2017)|Categories: archive, edvar, news|

eDvar Shabbat Parashat Ki Tavo 5777

What’s our story? “Public sentiment is everything.  With it, nothing can fail; against it, nothing can succeed” Abraham Lincoln further observed. “Whoever molds public sentiment goes deeper than he who enacts statutes or pronounces judicial decisions.”  The chief way we shape public sentiment according to Mark Lilla in his important new book is through storytelling.  Aspirational stories stir generations and change history. Lilla asserts that American public sentiment has been inspired by two different stories over the past century.  From the 1940s through the early 1970s, we were motivated around a picture of fellow citizens seeking to “guard one another against risk, hardship, and the denial of fundamental rights. It’s watchwords were solidarity, opportunity, and public duty.”  From the 1980s until recently, a second story took hold which pictured “a more individualistic America where families and communities and businesses flourished once freed from the shackles of the state.  Its watchwords were self-reliance and minimal government.”  The next generation of public leadership, Lilla argues, will belong to those who can tell and instill the most compelling new story - a new story that our country hungrily awaits. This weekend we again witness the ferocious devastation wrought by hurricanes revealing human vulnerability and heroism.   We also anticipate the sixteenth anniversary of September 11, when wickedness took the lives of thousands revealing that the deepest challenges at the turn of the millennium would be ideological rather than technological.   As we witness calamities and devastation which demand the triage of sturdy systems and institutions, we await and deserve a shared story that can inspire our collective righteousness. God’s Torah shares an esteem for the influence and reach of stories.  For this reason the declaration made upon bringing the first fruits in this

י״ז באלול ה׳תשע״ז (September 8, 2017)|Categories: archive, edvar, news|