- Rosh Hashanah services were well attended and the social hour afterwards was a big success, allowing new and old members alike to share and connect.
- The Marketing Committee presented analytics from Instagram and Facebook showing we are getting quite a bit of traffic from our social media ads.
- Applications for membership by Corin & Adam Bessie, Sue Rosenoff & Peter Thelin, and Sonia Kaufman were approved.
- Sukkah building will take place on Sunday, September 24th, around 10:15 am, since Sukkot starts at sundown on Friday, September 29th.
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Shana Tova Everyone!
It is so wonderful to see everyone return after our long hiatus. We hope everyone had an easy fast this past Yom Kippur. Continuing with our Holiday Rush, we will be celebrating Sukkot this coming Sunday, October 1, both during and after Religious School. Rabbi Dean will be hosting a gathering along with a lecture from a representative from Urban Tith at 2:00 p.m., which is a great organization promoting agriculture and land management. We encourage everyone to attend. Also, if you have not already done so, please sign up to bring snacks sometime this month so our kiddos will have renewed energy for the second part of the day.
And now for the recap. We restarted our Tefillah Service with Rabbi Dean leading us in prayer. The rest of the day was largely spent getting ready for Sukkot. Thank you to all the parents who stayed to help put up the Sukkah. And a special shoutout to Sam for her skills in putting the pieces together. The younger grades created lanterns and decorations and then helped put them up in the Sukkah. They also learned about the rituals of Sukkot.
For the B’nai Mitzvah class, we spent the first hour helping to put up the Sukkah. The second hour was spent kicking off our main project for the year: Building Our Family Trees. Each student brought in information on their immediate families (thank you to all the parents who helped them find the information) and we then put that information into their personalized family tree on the ancestry website. Over the course of the year we will use this website to build out their family trees and then tell the story of their families stretching as far back as we can. There are already plenty of hints to explore!
And that about covers it for now. We look forward to seeing everyone on Sunday! And please mark your calendars for November 19, when we will have our first field trip to the Contemporary Jewish Museum.
Today is the 50th anniversary of the Yom Kippur War. In the secular calendar it began on October 6 1973. But we call it the Yom Kippur War for a reason: In our calendar, the Jewish calendar, it started today, the 10th day of Tishre in the year 5734. Many of us can remember exactly where we were when the war began. Some of us were right here, in this room, or in another synagogue. I was in France. I can still remember watching the news on a black and white TV and hearing the French newscasters say that this war would be very long and hard, tres longue et dure. This was a very different war from the Six Day War which had been fought just six years earlier. That victory created a sense of Israeli invincibility. The Yom Kippur War shattered that conception. Even if, in the end, the Yom Kippur War ended in a greater military triumph than the 1967 war, the cost in lives, and the specter of defeat and national annihilation, if only for a brief time, changed Israeli society yet again. Kibbutzim, for the first time, began to mark Yom Kippur, which most had never commemorated, not as a day of atonement, but as a day of mourning. The melody we use for Unetaneh Tokef, is a reminder of that mourning, composed by Yair Rosenblum, a secular Israeli, in memory of the 11 members of Kibbutz Beit Ha Shita who fell in that war, the highest casualty rate per capita of any community in Israel.
I still can remember that feeling of vulnerability; that Israel’s survival hung in the balance. Can you remember those feelings of dread and fear? It’s hard to put ourselves back there now. Israel has come so far in the last 50 years. It takes an effort of imagination to remember how we felt back then. To remember also, the courage, the sacrifice, and the refusal of the Israeli army to break and ultimately to turn the tide of that war. It’s hard even now to remember the suffering and loss that lingered on for years after the war ended. How the war shook the country to its foundation, sparking changes we are still living through today.
The irony is that the Yom Kippur War was the last time Israel would be seriously threatened by its neighbors. Never again would it face an existential military challenge. Four years later Anwar Sadat flew to Israel and spoke to the Knesset, offering peace in exchange for land. Two years later Menachem Begin and Sadat made peace. I can remember the shock and joy of that too. It took longer, but eventually King Hussein made a personal, warmer peace in 1994. Syria collapsed internally over time and ceased being a military threat, although today it is a proxy state of Iran along with Hezbollah in Lebanon, and Hamas and Islamic Jihad in Gaza. As real as these threats are, the balance of military power lies with Israel now, not its enemies. They may hate the Jewish state, but they are not able to wipe it off the map as they claim to desire.
Today, the greatest threats to Israel are internal. Over the past nine months we have seen the contradictions that have always existed in Israel, but simmered below the surface, burst out into the open. The so-called judicial reform proposed by the current government was the spark. I say so-called, because it is not a reform at all but a fundamental change to how Israel has been governed since its establishment. This is a coup attempt, as its opponents claim. What we are witnessing is a battle over Israel’s national character. The issue at stake is not simply how Israel’s judicial system works, but whether Israel will remain a liberal democracy, more or less, or become more tribal, inward looking and theocratic. This is why the reaction against it has been so fierce and sustained. These two world views, liberalism and tribalism, have riven the Jewish world since the Enlightenment when we Jews received citizenship and civil rights in Western Europe and the United States, for the first time.
Liberalism and universalism are values of Jewish secularists (among them many Zionists, except religious nationalists) and the so-called “liberal” Jewish religious movements, Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist and Renewal, that began to emerge in the middle of the 19th Century.
Jewish religious tribalism is the view of ultra-Orthodoxy, the so-called Haredim and became the view of the Religious-Nationalists who make up the hard-core of the settler movement. Their ideology is a fusion of Zionism and messianism. Their goal, to incorporate the West Bank into the State of Israel is not just political, it is messianic. They see themselves as fulfilling God’s will for the Jewish people. For these two groups turning Israel into a theocracy makes both religious and political sense. Democracy, civil rights, and minority rights are alien to their world view.
For most of its history, Israelis were willing to tolerate each other’s differences, even if they hated each other in private. Social solidarity and national survival trumped a desire for one side to dominate the other. Now that tolerance has broken down. The ultra religious, the most extreme settlers, and some populist (read authoritarian or fascist) ideologues on the right have decided to fundamentally change the way Israel is governed, so now these conflicts are coming to a head. It is not clear which side will prevail.
Looking at the vote totals from the last election, the current polling numbers, the number of Israelis who continue to take to the streets in protest, week in and week out, as well as the essential sectors of society that are opposed to these reforms, I suspect that the liberal-democratic forces will “win.” I say win in quotes because I don’t know what it means to win in this context. Once the bonds of solidarity are broken, or once tolerance has evaporated, how does one rebuild a society.
If a more centrist secular government comes to power and forms a coalition without any Haredi or National-Religious parties, they may punish these groups for trying to impose their political will. Government monies they count would dry up. Haredi boys and girls would be drafted. Many Haredi leaders understand that they may have overplayed their hand and are afraid of a coming backlash. Combined these two groups are maybe a quarter of Israeli society. Significant, but a minority nonetheless.
Any of these actions are possible, now that the pandora’s box has been opened, but all have risks. For example, if the settlers understand that the population no longer supports them, will they resort to violence? Could there be a civil war? Once a society is broken apart, the desire for payback is strong. The ability to repair, limited. The path forward, unclear. How does one reknit the bonds of social solidarity? Are there some sane politicians who see the risks and are willing to work out some kind of compromise?
What about Israel’s enemies? Will they be more emboldened if they sense that Israel is fragmented and see that as a weakness that can be exploited? Will everyone rally around the flag if they feel they have been betrayed by their fellow citizens?
We are in uncharted territory now and the outcome is unclear.
To put it simply, our house is on fire. What is happening now may be as serious as The Yom Kippur War, the stakes are that high, and the tragedy is we are doing it to ourselves. Perhaps it was inevitable. Perhaps the contradictions in Israeli society were always too great to hold together. But Israel is at grave risk, so what is happening right now should matter to us. The outcome will affect all of us and the destiny of the Jewish people.
Remember the first words we will here in this mornings Torah reading, אַתֶּ֨ם נִצָּבִ֤ים הַיּוֹם֙ כֻּלְּכֶ֔ם לִפְנֵ֖י יְהֹוָ֣ה אֱלֹהֵיכֶ֑ם רָאשֵׁיכֶ֣ם שִׁבְטֵיכֶ֗ם זִקְנֵיכֶם֙ וְשֹׁ֣טְרֵיכֶ֔ם כֹּ֖ל אִ֥ישׁ יִשְׂרָאֵֽל׃, “You stand this day, all of you, before your God—your tribal heads, your elders, and your officials, every person in Israel,” Klal Yisrael, every person in Israel, the entirety of the Jewish people is a fundamental concept of Jewish identity that goes back to Sinai. We are, all of us, American Jews and Israelis, part of the same people. What happens to any of us, happens to all of us. We cannot be complacent. Right now this is our most important Jewish issue.
If you are opposed to the occupation, this is your issue. Because if these changes go through and Israel takes a hard right, theocratic turn, what will happen in the West Bank and Gaza will be brutal and hard and make what has come before seem mild. If Israel becomes a theocratic, authoritarian state. It will be isolated by the rest of the world and will sooner or later lose American support. It cannot survive as an international pariah. If the best minds, the most creative business people, the finest professionals and the best soldiers leave, how will Israel support or defend itself? The Jewish people cannot absorb such a blow again.
This current conflict, is in short, existential. Maybe I’m an alarmist, but I don’t think so. Which is why, to me, the response of American Jews overall, has been pathetic. I have received hundreds of emails from every Jewish organization under the sun wishing me a happy new year and asking for my financial support, and only one mentioned the crisis in Israel. Really? Right now? Don’t they get it? Our house is on fire!
Right now I am not going to donate to a fund to ensure the next 150 years of Reform Judaism. Right now that is not important enough. Nor do I plan to give money to help AIPAC fight Iran in the halls of Congress, as they are asking me to do. Right now that is not the primary threat. Don’t they see that? I will not support the Center for Jewish Spirituality (even though I like them), or the Jews of Color Initiative, even though I support them, or any of the JCC’s or film festivals, or Yiddish Library or whatever cultural institution wants my attention and money. When your house is on fire, the first thing you do is grab a bucket and put out the fire, not fundraise for your particular institution. From what I see our American Jewish community just doesn’t get it. I think the response shows that something is fundamentally wrong with our community and our institutions and our connection to the State of Israel. The one organization that is talking about this crisis: JStreet.
I am begging you to see it. Fifty years ago, during the Yom Kippur War, thousands of American Jews volunteered to go to Israel and fill jobs in the civilian sector while the soldiers were in the field and our communities raised hundreds of millions of dollars to cushion the financial impact of the war. Today, we need to mobilize again. We need to act. Write President Biden and tell him to keep the heat on Netanyahu to give up on his plan. Write your local congressional representative and tell them to sign the Israel Pro Democracy Resolution that is currently in the House of Representatives. Write to Prime Minister Netanyahu and tell him of your opposition and how it will impact your support for Israel. Participate in pro-democracy demonstrations here in the Bay Area and donate to UneXceptable, the Israeli expat led group that is leading this fight here in the US.Let our local Jewish Federation know that you want them to support democracy in Israel more forcefully than they have. If they don’t respond and if you are a donor, let them know you will be directing your money to an organization that supports democracy in Israel. I’m sure brighter minds than me have many other ideas. But at least it’s a start. It’s something you can do as soon as Yom Kippur is over. It’s that urgent.
But here is where it gets hard. If this attempt to remake Israel into a theocratic autocratic state is stopped, how do Israelis rebuild their social solidarity? That is the essential next step and I have no answer on how to do that, particularly if you don’t live in Israel. That is a path that I am afraid Israelis will have to find for themselves. But I think we can do some things. If you get engaged in this struggle, which I hope you will, stay engaged. Read Israeli newspapers. Listen to Israel radio, they have English language broadcasts. Go to Israel, especially if you have never been. You need to see it. It is an amazing place; you must experience it if you want to understand. Let me say this again, we are one people. Let Israelis know how you feel on social media. Defend Israel here at home from its detractors.
I will end on a positive note. I began by marking that this Yom Kippur is the 50th anniversary of that terrible war. Israel emerged from that crucible stronger, even when in the beginning things looked very dark. Perhaps that will happen this time. I am a person of faith, and my faith makes me optimistic. Israel has changed the historical conditions of the Jewish people in profound and positive ways. It has been such a change that we take Israel for granted. It is time to stop. What is happening in Israel is too important to ignore. On this day of self-examination, let’s commit as individuals and a community to re-engage with Israel in a serious way. Israelis are looking to us for it.The times demand it. Our tradition requires it.
There is something in the opening moments of the Yom Kippur evening service, right before Kol Nidre, that always speaks to me, “עַל דַּֽעַת הַמָּקוֹם וְעַל דַּֽעַת הַקָּהָל. בִּישִׁיבָה שֶׁל מַֽעְלָה וּבִישִׁיבָה שֶׁל מַֽטָּה. אָֽנוּ מַתִּירִין לְהִתְפַּלֵּל עִם הָעֲבַרְיָנִים:” With the consent of God, and the consent of this congregation, in the heavenly court, and in the earthly court, we are granted permission to pray with sinners.”
What struck me this year, was not so much the permission to pray with sinners, which I have spoken about in the past. That we are all sinners, we all transgress, we all do harm. Especially on Kol Nidre, when our awareness of our shortcomings should be at their highest. If we did not have permission to pray with sinners we would not be able to pray at all. No, what struck me this year was simply being given permission to pray at the very start of Yom Kippur.
This is the only service I know of where we are given explicit permission to pray and it’s a good thing because we spend most of Yom Kippur immersed in a sea of prayer, in a language most of us don’t understand relying on translations that are sometimes adequate but rarely great. And even if we understood the Hebrew, we would find ourselves grappling with a world view that is very, very old and thus comes out of a different set of values and even a different way of seeing the world than our own.
Further, prayer is not something most of us do regularly or at all, so we don’t really know what to do or how to do it. In one sense, of course, we know what to do. If you have ever wished for a yellow light to stay yellow just a little longer when you are running late, you are praying. Whenever you ask that your loved one gets home safely, you are praying. Whether you know it or not. But that is spontaneous prayer. To do what we are setting out to do, to engage with all these words, these ancient forms and structures with concentration and focus and have some kind of transformative experience, that kind of prayer is hard.
Rabbi Brent Chaim Spodek, in an article in The Forward, titled “Wow, please, thank you: How I learned to pray on a walk in the woods,” said: “I cannot believe that what the Holy One wants from us is to just rapid-fire shoot through a whole bunch of words without really absorbing them, growing, changing,”
He continues, ““If you can move through the liturgy and it’s opening your heart up — great, fabulous, go for it. But that’s not true for most people,” he added. “We Jews live in our head. And I think prayer done right is not a head exercise. It’s a heart exercise.”
The hard part about prayer, Rabbi Spodek said, is not learning the Hebrew or understanding the liturgy’s structure or knowing when to bow: “It’s can you get in touch with your own sense of gratitude? Can you get in touch with your own fear?”
So, how do we move from our heads to our hearts, from our thinking to our feelings. I certainly suffer from this affliction. I live in a world of words. I teach with words. I lead with words. I motivate with words. I comfort with words. I spend much of my time in my head, using words as tools. Words are really helpful in solving lots of day-to-day problems like writing drashot, but they can’t help me with the change or transformation I need to make at the deepest levels of my being: the levels of emotion, spirit, and belief. I can’t think my way to feeling better about myself, my self-worth. I can’t think my way through my fears and anxieties. I can’t think my way out of my need for certainty (that does not exist in life), and my fear of the unknown. Even if I could, so many of my thoughts are circular, or negative, or critical, or self-justifying, they don’t help.
Like on Erev Rosh Hashanah I am sharing some of my personal struggles with you, not to burden you, but to give you permission to grapple with some of your own. This is the purpose of the High Holy Days, to go inward, to explore ourselves at the deepest level, and to change the things we need to change. This is the essence of Teshuvah.
If Jewish prayer is too wordy and too hard to move us in our souls, sometimes a line or a word of a prayer can jump right off the page, burrow into our hearts, and trigger transformation. A few years ago, this line from Debbie Friedman’s misheberach for healing did for me, “May the source of strength who blessed the ones before us, help us find the courage to make our lives a blessing.” It was like a trigger for change. It raised so many questions. What does it mean to make our lives a blessing? How could we live in such a way that our interactions with others were not transactional but transformative and supportive in a beautiful, positive way. Isn’t that, after all, what it means to make our lives a blessing? That people feel blessed, encouraged, uplifted, supported, or strengthened by being with us? What do we need to do that? What kind of strength do we need to move beyond our own fears, egos, needs, anxieties and insecurities to be a blessing to others? Where do we find that strength? So many ideas and questions unfolding from one sentence, that I had sung for years without ever giving it any real attention. Suddenly, with a little attention, my whole focus shifted. That is what happens when we let a prayer enter our heart; it can open doors in our innermost being. It can transform us and how we want to be in the world.
During these chagim I am grappling with making some real changes in my life and one of the things that prevents me from changing, from loving the way I know I am capable of but don’t yet believe is my sense of self-worth. Yes, I think I like myself well enough. But at the deepest level, at the level of my soul I am not so sure if I am really a good person. This belief about myself cripples me in some essential ways. It keeps me stuck. And then, I thought of this line from our morning prayers, אֱלֹהַי נְשָׁמָה שֶׁנָּתַֽתָּ בִּי טְהוֹרָה הִיא אַתָּה בְרָאתָהּ אַתָּה יְצַרְתָּהּ אַתָּה נְפַחְתָּהּ בִּי, My God, the soul which you have given me is pure. You created it, you formed it, you breathed it into me.”
Wow. What a simple truth: our souls are pure. Or, if you don’t like soul, if that’s too religious then use essence, or spiritual core, or highest values, or whatever works for you. But, if I had to boil down the essence of Yom Kippur from all the prayers we will recite and all the words we will say, it would be this: our souls are pure. We may obscure them through distorted beliefs. Or tarnish them through mistakes and actions that hurt others. But our souls, our essences are pure. We need to regain our understanding of that. We need to return to that purity of soul and to live from there. Yom Kippur teaches us that this is possible. God (or substitute your own noun here) will forgive us. Can we forgive ourselves? Can we recognize that the soul God breathed into us is pure and the way to retain that state is to identify where we have done wrong, where we have harmed others, admit it, feel genuine regret and change.
On Rosh Hashanah I talked about awareness of our mortality. In traditional Jewish thinking, we will live as long as the soul God gave us resides within us. When it departs from us, we die. Can we use the time we have to make the most of this pure soul.
I have certainly squandered a lot of my time and I don’t want to waste any more. What I am doing today and what I commit to doing tomorrow, and each day throughout this New Year is to remember, at the beginning of each day, that my soul is pure and then living from that place. So when my fear or anxiety comes up, as it inevitably will, or my feeling that I’m not really a good person, as it does with stunning repetitiveness, and I become paralyzed and stop taking a risk or doing the next right thing, I am going to pray these words, “ God, the soul which you have given me is pure.” I trust that they will give me the strength to change, to take that risk, to do the next, right thing. That’s my commitment for this New Year.
Rabbi Spodek concluded, “The tradition says, and I believe, the Holy One wants my heart, “I want to be able to open my heart fully to the holy one. I want to be able to open my heart fully, period.” That’s what I want too. It’s what I believe each of us wants. That’s what all these prayers, all the words, are here to help us do. If we are lucky, we can find one line among all these words that can help us do that. One line, one verse that touches our hearts, that puts us in touch with our deepest fears and helps us move through them, that helps us find the strength to change.
I always say this is not a performance, that we are praying together. There is no “right” way to pray. Just find something here, a line of prayer, a verse of poetry, a fragment of melody and bring it into your heart and, like a key, use it to transform yourself and reconnect with your pure essence, your pure spirit, your pure soul.
Writing drashot is hard, particularly for the High Holy Days. I’ve been doing this for a while now, 17 years I think more or less. Times four, that’s a fair number of High Holy Day drashot over the years. Plus, remember I write shorter ones, twice a month during the year. At some point I get tired of hearing myself think out loud. So I thought, why not let ChatGPT do the heavy lifting this year? After all, students are doing it now and academics have probably been using it for years, since most of their writing is unintelligible anyway. But it’s Rosh Hashanah and I shouldn’t be mean so I’m going to have that last laugh line stricken from the record.
So I created a ChatGPT account, the free one of course, and wrote a prompt, “Write a sermon about Abraham binding his son Isaac. How it was sublime proof of his deep faith.” And I got this for the opening paragraph, “Dear brothers and sisters, today we gather to reflect upon one of the most profound and challenging stories of faith found in the pages of our sacred scriptures – the story of Abraham binding his son Isaac. This tale from the Book of Genesis not only reveals Abraham’s unwavering devotion to God but also offers us valuable lessons about faith, sacrifice, and the divine plan that shapes our lives.”
I thought, this is a little to Christian sounding so I wrote another prompt, “Write the same sermon but within a Jewish context,” This time I got, “Shalom, dear members of our community. Today, we gather to delve into a poignant narrative from our sacred Torah, a story that resonates with the essence of Jewish faith – the Akeidah, the binding of Isaac. This story found in the Book of Genesis not only highlights Abraham’s unwavering devotion to Hashem but also offers profound insights into the power of emunah, faith, that forms the bedrock of our tradition.”
That sounded a little better. I appreciated the sprinkling of Hebrew… you know, shalom, Torah, HaShem and so on. But in my opinion it should have written Sefer Bereshit, not the Book of Genesis, but perhaps Chat GPT is not as Jewishly literate as I had hoped. Also, something else was missing. You all know that I frequently like to begin my sermons with a joke or a personal anecdote to draw you all in, so I wrote, “Keep the Jewish sermon but open with a joke.” I got, “Shalom, wonderful members of our community! Before we delve into our sacred teachings, allow me to share a lighthearted Jewish joke that beautifully sets the stage for our discussion today.
Joke: Why did Isaac bring a calculator to Mount Moriah? Answer: Because he knew it was time for some serious “counting” on God’s promises!
Now, with a smile on our faces, let us turn to a profound narrative from our Torah, the Akeidah, or the binding of Isaac. This story not only tickles our sense of humor but also profoundly touches on the core of our faith – the enduring power of emunah, our unwavering belief in Hashem.” So first of all, what makes this lame joke Jewish? Sounds more like an accounting joke. Plus, this story “tickles our sense of humor?” You can say many things about the Akeida and believe me I have over many Rosh Hashanah mornings. But, tickling our sense of humor is not a phrase I would ever apply to this story. Horrifying, yes. Difficult, yes. Incomprehensible, ok. But humorous, I don’t think so. That transition sentence was seriously lame… exquisitely bad. So, at least for the moment I am not worried about ChatGPT taking my job.
Then I decided to go for broke, because I would really like it if I could get a computer to write my drashot. So I wrote, “Write a Rosh Hashanah sermon, approximately 1,000 words, about what makes us human and whether AI can have faith and feelings. Tie it into Abraham binding Isaac. Make it sound like a rabbi wrote it.”
Here is the newest opening, “Shalom and blessings to all of you, my beloved congregants, as we gather on this sacred day of Rosh Hashanah to reflect upon the mysteries of existence and the profound questions that define our humanity. As we blow the shofar, its reverberations call us to awaken not only to the new year but also to the depths of our souls, where we seek to uncover the essence of what it truly means to be human.
In our Torah portion for this Rosh Hashanah, we encounter the story of Abraham’s binding of Isaac. A tale that has echoed through generations, this story prompts us to explore the nature of faith, sacrifice, and the unique qualities that distinguish us as human beings.”
Pretty journeyman like, but much better don’t you think? Here, in my opinion, is the essential paragraph, “This foundational tale teaches us that our humanity is rooted in our capacity for moral discernment, empathy, and choice. These are qualities that set us apart from all other forms of life. As we stand on the precipice of a new era marked by advancements in artificial intelligence, we are confronted with a profound question: Can machines possess the qualities that make us uniquely human?”
So at least the computer got the fundamental question: what makes us human and can we create a machine that emulates us? Of course, that wasn’t hard. It was what I asked it to do. But I think the computer, the AI, or the large language model, call it what you will, provided the wrong answer: both in the Jewish sense and in the truest sense.
First, in the traditional, Jewish view what makes us human is that we are created by God in the Divine image. Each of us is unique, creative, free to make choices, and endowed with inherent dignity as creations of God. Machines, of course, are creations of human beings. They are not even created in the human image, let alone the Divine one. They are mass produced, not unique, and have no inherent dignity beyond their utility, just like any tool such as a hammer or a saw. They are neither creative nor make choices. At least today. Will that change in the future? Perhaps, but who knows.
Our tradition is well aware of non-human beings. In the Mishnah, Masechet Kilayim (dealing with mixtures) Chapter 8, Mishna 5, it says, וְאַדְנֵי הַשָּׂדֶה, חַיָּה. רַבִּי יוֹסֵי אוֹמֵר, מְטַמְּאוֹת בָּאֹהֶל כָּאָדָם. Wild man-like creatures are [in the category of] hayyah. Rabbi Yose says: they cause impurity in a tent like a human being.” The Adnei Ha Sadeh, is some kind of wild human-like creature. The Tifferet Yisrael, a commentary on the Mishnah, says Adnei Ha Sadeh is an orangutan. Maimonides says that Adnei Ha Sadeh looks like a man, talks constantly, but is unintelligible. In the Ohr Zarua, he is described as appearing like a man in all ways, face, hands, and feet, but being of large size with an umbilical cord attached to the ground from which he draws his nourishment. If you want to kill it, sever the umbilical cord with an arrow (you don’t want to get too close). Further, it is written that there were soothsayers who could insert a bone in the mouth of Adnei Ha Sadeh and they could talk, while Rashi says that the Adnei Ha Sadeh could prophesy if the bone was put in their mouth. All very weird stuff, for sure. But, the important point is that our tradition believes that there can be something like a human being, who is not fully human. A missing link between humans and animals. Resembling a human being, but wild, and seemingly without volition.
Of course, most of us know about the Golem. The most popular story is of the Golem of Rabbi Yehuda Lieb of Prague, who creates a creature from clay, to protect the Jews from a pogrom and brings it to life by writing the word אמת (truth) on its forehead. But the Golem ultimately cannot be controlled and begins to run amok, so Rabbi LIeb erases the א from the Golems forehead creating the word מת (dead) and the Golem turns to dust. Jewish tradition suggests that we are all Golems in a way, for Adam, the first human is formed from clay, from soil (אדמה) and only comes to life when God breathes life, an animating soul, into him. Then Adam and Eve eat from the tree of knowledge of good and evil and they develop self-awareness, of themselves as separate creatures, of their bodies, of their desires, of their mortality. Until that moment they are more like animals than humans.
This seems to me to be the fundamental difference between human beings and all other forms of life, as well as machines: we alone are self-aware and the most important awareness may be of our mortality. All of us know that our time is limited and, sooner or later, we will die. As far as we know animals do not have this perception, they live in the moment (like Adam and Eve before they ate the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil) and theoretically speaking, machines don’t die. It is our self-awareness of the fleeting nature of our lives, the limited time we have on earth, that makes us human.
There is something else in the Golem story, and there are multiple Golem’s from Talmudic times through today, In every case where a human being tries to emulate God by creating artificial life, and that is what the Golem is, the creature ultimately goes beserk, beyond its creators control, and must be destroyed. This is a cautionary tale for us, about our technological reach going beyond our grasp. One that we consistently ignore. Since the Enlightenment, at least in the West, we have believed that technology improves the human condition, despite the Holocaust, where all the tools of Western technology, industrial production, engineering, efficiency, were employed for mass murder. Or the undeniable evidence of our destructive impact on the Earth’s climate balance. What of AI? The Golem story reminds us to ask: what are we creating, what are the implications, and should we continue? Just because we can, doesn’t mean we must.
The Golem also hints at a confusion we have about AI. The Golem emulates a human being, but it is not human. It has no moral core, no understanding of right and wrong. It has not eaten the fruit of the tree. Many of us are intrigued by AI’s intelligence, or its potential intelligence. How a computer can beat a chess master. How a computer can process information so much faster than we can. But in this infatuation with intelligence (or maybe just processing speed) we confuse two different concepts: intelligence and goodness. There are lots of very smart people who do very bad things. Among Hitler’s earliest and most enthusiastic supporters were academics, university students, and professionals. The SS was filled with Phds, Well educated people, who we think should have known better. Clearly education and intelligence is no guarantee against evil. The smart thing to do is not necessarily the right thing to do. I don’t know if it is smart to help the poor, or care for the weak and the disabled, or to show no special favor to the rich and powerful, but according to Jewish law it is the right thing to do. That is how we, and our society, are ultimately judged, not by how smart we are. Kindness and empathy may not be efficient, but they are what makes us good. Can a machine be good? Who cares how smart it is, if it has no moral grounding? Especially, if those controlling it have no moral grounding.
Our conversations about AI seem to be centered around how it will impact the labor market. Will it make lawyers and doctors more efficient, or unnecessary. Will students use it to write papers? What we’re not talking about, what we never talk about with emergent technology, is the moral implications, how it will impact us, how we treat each other. We have already seen the negative effects of social media on our political life, on our children’s mental health. Did we not see this coming or did we choose not to think about it?
At this point you may be wondering why I’ve been talking about AI and not the Torah portion, or maybe not, but I do feel some obligation to do so, not the least because this is the assignment I gave ChatGPT, and because we’re in the Torah service and the traditional purpose of a drash is to provide some insight into the Torah portion.
So here is what ChatGPT got wrong about the Akeida. What makes it so powerful, no matter how often we hear it, is that we understand, viscerally, that God is demanding Abraham perform an impossible task. A demand that God should not be making. No God should demand a parent murder their child. Who is capable of such an act? This is the demand of a tyrant, not a God that is the manifestation of ultimate morality. And Abraham agrees: immediately, without hesitation. This is why the story is so unsettling. For millennia, apologists, Jewish and non-Jewish, have argued that this is a demonstration of Abraham’s faith, his complete trust in God; just as ChatGPT put it. Our sages also argued that this story proves that God does not want children to be sacrificed to him, as was supposedly common practice in the ancient near east and that it took such a soul shattering story to bring this change about.
I don’t buy it. Rather, I think this is where our awareness of our mortality comes in. Sarah and Abraham have been waiting their entire lives to have a child. Isaac is the child of their old-age. He is the one through whom all their hopes and dreams will come true. Then God asks them to destroy their future and with it all their hopes and dreams. We all know, in the deepest recesses of our hearts and souls, this is an unreasonable demand, because we know about hopes and dreams and the fleeting nature of life. God may be able to see all eternity, but we cannot. We just see our little slice of it: our lives, our children’s lives, maybe our grandchildren’s lives. That is how we view the world. This is where our humanity is forged and where our morality is formed.This is also the source of our empathy: from this place we can imagine Abraham’s internal suffering, Isaac’s fear, and (unspoken but real) Sarah’s shock.
What is the outcome in the end? Isaac is spared. The angel speaks. The ram is seen caught in the thicket. And… God never speaks to Abraham again, although he lives another 75 years. Sarah dies at the beginning of the next chapter. Isaac’s perception is forever altered. He never sees clearly again, for the rest of his life. What an absolute disaster. By the way, ChatGPT mentions none of this. It is a poor scholar of Biblical interpretation, but I digress.
As I share these pieces of the story with you, some are present in the text, some are present by their absence from the text, I hope you can feel every emotion of this story. One moment, one act, leads to such utter devastation in our founding family and echoes across time until today. This is not a function of intelligence or knowledge, or processing speed, but a function of emotions, heart, and our ability to relate to the suffering of another.
Perhaps this is why we read this passage on Rosh Hashanah morning, to remind us that life puts us in difficult places. That we sometimes have to make difficult decisions and the place to make them is from the heart; from the place where we can empathize with another. Not in certainty…, but in doubt. Not in absolute faith… but in questioning, in listening to our heart and conscience. It’s the best we can do, from the limited perspective that we have. It is what makes us human.
And even Abraham made mistakes, profoundly wrong judgements, as do we. Each year Rosh Hashanah comes around again with the chance to acknowledge our mistakes and change… if we want to. It is not about intelligence, it is about our shared humanity, our empathy, and our understanding that our lives are short and we can try to make the best use of them.
Shanah tovah, Happy New Year, and bruchim habaim, welcome. As always, as we stand together on the edge of this new year, I want to welcome everyone and remind you that whether you have been coming to High Holy Day Services your whole life, or have never come before, or are returning after time away from a synagogue, you are welcome here. You have found your place. You are in your right seat. Before we begin I want to make a couple of logistical announcements. First, if you brought your cell phone with you, please take a moment now and turn it off… unless you are a doctor or a first responder where your response is a matter of life and death. Otherwise, enjoy a couple of hours unplugged. Second, if you are joining us on Zoom please remember to be muted at all times, unless I ask you to unmute. Third, the golden book in your hands is called a mahzor in Hebrew. It contains all the prayers and Torah readings we will be engaging with together tonight and tomorrow. It is your guide. Use it as much, or as little as you wish. Also, please remember if you don’t know what’s going on (which is quite possible) feel free to turn to the person next to you and ask them. Also, this is not a performance. It is communal and personal prayer. In the Jewish world we sing most of our prayers. Please, please join in. If you can’t sing, don’t worry, you’re in good company here. Just belt it out. Finally, if you see kids running around and making noise, do not be annoyed, they are not a distraction, they are our collective Jewish future. Enjoy.
As always, on Erev Rosh Hashanah I like to set a tone for these Days of Awe. And each year I begin by wondering, why do we come here, why do we continue to participate in these ancient rituals and prayers? And this year I thought further, why do we continue to bother to be Jewish at all? Do we have a reason, beyond familiarity, or family loyalty, or historical identification with our people? All of which are good reasons by the way. And let’s not forget another essential one, because some of us believe in God or some Jewish sense of a God to whom we owe something for this inimitable and precious gift of being alive. I say this knowing that many who sit here tonight do not believe in God and also know that that is ok too, belief is not a prerequisite for being a Jew.
I ask these questions, why are we here and why be Jewish, because I think they are essential questions. And the Days of Awe are the time for essential questions. It is a time for self-examination, and rebuilding self-awareness.
If you have a highly developed sense of Jewish identity and live it out in an authentic manner daily, please come see me after services, I want to get some of what you have. But, if you are like most of the rest of us then I’m guessing, you know you are Jewish, but you’re not sure why, or what that really means in your life, or you have doubts, or don’t think about it much except this time of year and maybe Pesach or maybe when you lie awake, alone in the dark hours of the night. If that sounds like you, then you are like most of us, groping your way, trying to find meaning.
Maybe that is one of the reasons you are here. If that is so, I want to suggest you read a series of four essays that have been published periodically in the New York Times over the last couple of years by Sarah Wildman, about coping with her daughter Orli’s cancer and, recently, her death, this past May, at age 14.
I can’t think of anything worse than the death of your child. There may be, but I can’t think of it. Ms. Wildman’s essays, each one breathtakingly beautiful and heartbreaking, are her attempts to find some kind of meaning in the midst of life’s chaos, or learning to be present for what life is, not we wish it had been or what it might be, but for what it is at this moment.
In one essay she wrote, “Of the many, many hours of prayers offered during the Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur liturgy (the Jewish New Year and Day of Atonement) perhaps the most resonant text of all is the Unetaneh Tokef. In it Jews ask how each of us will receive God’s judgment this year, who will be allowed to see another year at all, and what we can do to alter our fate… I was drawn to the sentences that enjoy less notoriety than the others: “Who shall be at rest and who shall wander,” the poem asks… It goes on: “Who shall be at peace and who shall be pursued? Who will be calm and who will be tormented?” To be forced to wander another week, another month, another year is physical and also spiritual, literal and also emotional. In almost three years of cancer and pandemic, I have wondered how my family can find rest as we wander. It has been, and continues to be, I think, in these small in-between moments, in the noticing.”
In another essay, written a year later, about continuing complications from her daughter’s cancer, she wrote this: “It is not the first time we have been in what rabbis call the meitzar, the biblical narrow place — a place of compression. The meitzar is an expression of all the things that can make life impossibly hard. It appears in Psalm 118: From the narrow place I called to God, the psalm says; I was answered, it continues, from expansiveness. We are constantly seeking moments of that expansiveness, to take a deeper breath.”
And this, in August: “In Jewish tradition, a child who loses a parent is required to say Kaddish, the mourner’s prayer, every day for 11 months, and the community recognizes you as an avel, a mourner, all that year… But as a parent who has lost a child, as I did this spring, when my 14-year-old daughter, Orli, died, you are on your own.
She concludes that essay with these words, “The pain is always there for us. It will be waiting at the apartment when we return tonight, it will be lying next to us in bed or come to us when we wake; we always have it. But we have to let this beauty in, too. That will be the work of all the rest of our days: to hold this pain and this beauty side by side, without letting the one crush or crowd out the other. We have to let this beauty in, too.”
I know this is a heavy subject. But this is Rosh Hashanah after all, when we are supposed to consider our lives, how we have lived in the past year, what we are pleased with and what we regret, how we might live better, knowing that we and everyone we love is mortal and must die. The death of a child is an extreme tragedy, but all of us have been in the narrow place, the meitzar, as she puts it, “all the things that can make life impossibly hard,” at some point in our lives. Some of us are in it now. We are sick, or someone we love is sick, or in distress. Or someone we love has died. If we are not there now, we have been before and know we will be in it again and we must find a way to get through it, to the place of expansiveness, to the place where we can breathe again.
Last year we spent the year studying the Jewish view and response to suffering and evil. I can tell you with great confidence after a year of study, the answers are unsatisfactory. Childhood cancer, or a tsunami, or an earthquake that kills tens-of-thousands? The Jewish answer is that this is just the way God made the world. It is beyond our comprehension. We just have to cope with it as best we can.
Human caused suffering is easier to explain, even if we don’t like the answer. God gives us freewill, that is one of the things that makes us human, the ability to make moral choices. If God interferes in human affairs then we have no freewill. Why didn’t God stop the Holocaust? Why doesn’t God stop a baby from dying in a locked car on a hot day? We all want the sea to part, like it did in Egypt, but it won’t anymore, if it ever did. Those days are over. Making the world a better place is up to us now. Pretty thin soup, if you think the way things are isn’t fair. But, this is the way things are.
Our Torah begins with God creating the world out of chaos. Then God destroys the world because of unrestrained human evil. God is not so sure about this freewill thing at first, because unrestrained evil is what happens when people are left to their own devices. God swears to never destroy the world again, perhaps because God tires at the thought of having to destroy and repopulate the world, over and over again for all eternity. So, recognizing the human capacity to do harm, and our seeming inability to make better choices, God gave us Torah (revelation), a way to live, a way to control our impulses and be decent human beings.
Decency, in short, is compassion and empathy. In our tradition this is not theoretical but comes down to very practical behaviors. Like not harvesting all your crops, so the poor and landless can eat and live. Like paying an employee on the day they worked, so they can feed themselves and their children. Like not taking a poor person’s coat as collateral for a loan, so they won’t be cold. Like not cutting down fruit bearing trees when besieging an enemy city, because long after the war is over, people, enemy and friend alike, will need to eat and, in any case, the trees are innocent; they did not cause the war. Like requiring each of us to give at least 5 percent, but no more than 10 percent, of our income each year to the needy. Not if we want to, but because we must, because the poor must be able to eat and live. Like understanding that whatever success in life we achieve is not the result of our own individual merit and effort, but comes from the help of others, our parents, our community, and God (or nature, or the universe, if that suits you better) so we are obligated to demonstrate gratitude and humility in how we live. The entire Jewish religious system is designed to turn us away from selfishness and egotism, from doing harm, toward decency and community, and doing good.
That is why we are obligated to visit the sick, to comfort the mourner, to provide the poor family with an interest free loan, or give them the money they need to bury their loved ones and marry off their children. That is why we are commanded not to shame others but to comfort and help them. To return to Sarah Wildman for a moment, I think what she is getting at is that we cope with life through the simple but difficult acts of being present: for the beauty of life as well as the pain, for each other, in this way and through our daily behaviors we build community. Our Jewish tradition gives us a framework through which we can live it out, because it is not a religion of individual fulfillment or salvation, but a collective effort to build communities that help us sanctify our lives. I can’t think of a better practical explanation of why living within the Jewish tradition has value and can help us cope with life. It can, maybe, make the space for us to hold the pain and the beauty side-by-side.
I must confess that I am not very good at holding the pain and the beauty side-by-side. I focus more on the bad than the good, the painful, more than the joyous. Probably because my parents are Holocaust survivors. Probably because my father died when I was young. It doesn’t really matter. I created a strong emotional suit of self-protection. That self-protection is familiar, it feels safe, but it is not joy. In my desire to keep out the pain, I also keep out the joy. In doing this I short change my own life and I hurt others who love me. I want to take it off, but I haven’t yet, I haven’t done enough, yet. And I know I don’t have unlimited time. I share this because some of you might be in the same situation, or one that is different but also hard
Being present for others and for life is difficult. That is why we fall short, consistently. It is in the nature of being human. We fail. But Jewish religion teaches us that we have to keep trying. We are not perfect, but we can keep trying. That is why we have these Days of Atonement each year. If we wish to use them, to help us reorient ourselves and get back on the right path. To find balance. That is what Sarah Wildman has been writing about, from the depths of her pain, finding life’s balance.
So as these High Holy Days begin, perhaps this can be a focus of our hesbon ha nefesh, our accounting of our souls. I know it will be mine. To be decent. To do the simple and hard things that make life good, for us and for others. To support our friends and fellow congregants in their times of need. To visit them if they are lonely. To comfort them when they are mourning. To make sure those who live in our broader community, who we don’t know, have enough to eat and a safe place to sleep. To extend kindness and grace to others, especially those who we feel have wronged us, because we really don’t know what they are going through or their suffering. To see each other and be present for each other.
Maybe if we do that, starting tonight, our lives will be richer, our community will be stronger, and we will find a way to get through life together, from the meitzar, the place of compression, to the merchav, the place of expansion. To be able to hold both the pain and the joy of life in balance.
G’mar Chatima tovah.
Thanks to everyone who assisted at our booth at the Solano Stroll this past Sunday. It is always so nice to see our families contribute to our broader community. As a reminder, this upcoming Sunday we will not have Religious School because of Rosh Hashanah. We will be restarting our regular classes on Sunday, September 24, at 9:30 a.m. Also, the Hebrew School started off well this week and will continue through September and October each Tuesday at 5:00 p.m. Please let me know if you have any questions. Thanks everyone!
We hope everyone had a great Labor Day weekend. As a reminder, this upcoming Sunday we will not have Religious School because TBH will be hosting a booth at the Solano Stroll. We hope to see everyone there and please let us know if you would like to volunteer. Also, the Hebrew School started off well this week and will continue through September and October each Tuesday at 5:00 p.m. Please let me know if you have any questions. Thanks everyone!
Religious School Update:
We have now entered the crazy part of our schedule. Thank you to everyone who made the first two weeks of Religious School an excellent start for the year. There will be no Religious School next week on September 4 because of Labor Day. In two weeks, on September 10, we will all be meeting at the Solano Stroll to assist at the TBH booth. A huge thanks to everyone who has signed up and there are still plenty of opportunities to volunteer if you wish. The following week, September 17, we will have no school because it is the second day of Rosh Hashana. We will return to Religious School on September 24 and resume our regular schedule. However, I am pleased to announce that midweek Hebrew School will begin this Tuesday, September 5, at 5:00 p.m. I look forward to see all the kids who have signed up!
And now for the recap. As always, Rabbi Dean and Cantor Marney led us in the Tefillah Service before we adjourned to our classes. All the classes were concentrating on the theme of the High Holidays. The younger kids continued their art projects and the middle grades built plaques with their Hebrew names.
In the Bnai Mitzvah class, for the first hour we learned the critical prayers for Rosh Hashana, including the Candle Blessings, Shechechianu, and the Blessing for Apples and Honey. We also dived into the deeper meaning of these blessings and how they relate to the past, present and future (all themes of the High Holidays). For the second hour, we conducted a Tashlich ritual,; pondered the dilemma of what to do if we found money on the street;, and considered what we want to do with the rest of our lives. All the kids were happily engaged and came up with creative ideas for life-long projects, including skydiving and traveling the world. Next time we will be covering the other major holiday of Yom Kippur.
And that about covers it for now. We look forward to seeing everyone at the Solano Stroll. Thanks everyone!
Religious School Update:
And we have begun! It was so wonderful seeing everyone together again after our summer break. It is so amazing how much all the kids have grown! We started off the year with Tefillah service hosted by Rabbi Dean and Cantor Marney. I think everyone got back into the rhythm of the prayers quite well! Our next class will be next week on August 27 at 9:30 a.m.
For the first hour all the classes engaged in introductory exercises and “Getting to Know You” games. Jenny’s class worked on art projects while Heather’s class learned some key parts of the prayers (including in ASL!) In the Bnai Mitzvah class, we mainly went over the class rules, the key virtues for pursuing a Jewish life, and setting up the work cubbies. All the students then thought about what would be the most useless present anyone could receive at a Bnai Mitzvah along with what excuse they would use if they had to miss class (there were some pretty funny ones!) Finally, we went over the big project for the year, which will be putting together family histories. Parents of the Bnai Mitzvah class can help their children fill in the initial Family Tree sheets that will get us started. Please have your child fill them in by September 24.
For the second hour of school, we all gathered for a fun party of bubble toys, pizza, cupcakes, and socializing. Several members of the community joined us and there was a lot of fun all around. Overall, the kids had a great first day!
And that about covers it for now. As a reminder, please sign up for bringing snacks, hosting one Oneg for the year, and adding midweek Hebrew School if you would like your child to participate. We will see everyone next week on August 27. Thank you everyone!