Category Archives: Sermons

Yom Kippur 5778: Who’s in Charge?

An ancient paradox, presented in the name of Rabbi Akiva:

הכל צפוי והרשות נתונה (אבות ג, טו)

All is foreseen; but choice is given. (Avot 3:15)

These four Hebrew words contain the classic conflict between determinism and free will. For millennia, many of the world’s greatest thinkers have struggled to reconcile the sense that we are free to decide how to behave with the obvious influence that external forces have on us. Do we have agency—personal freedom, and therefore responsibility—or is that all an illusion? The debate takes different forms in different contexts but the key question remains the same—who is in charge? Are we the authors of our own stories, or just their most prominent characters?

On this day of Yom Kippur when we deprive ourselves of physical pleasures, devote ourselves to angelic song, and lovingly recall the memory of our deceased relatives—we can imagine ourselves too as a disembodied presence, pure spirit, free from all physical restraints. But of course, we are not disembodied. We are very much alive, with stomachs growling, feet shuffling and minds wandering. And so, the question that I wish to discuss with you on this Day of Atonement is—Are we free to chart a new course for ourselves, or has all been determined for us in advance? Are we indeed like clay in the hands of the potter, or are we ourselves the potters, shaping our own lives? Continue reading

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Rosh Hashanah 5778: Just Mercy

The pick-up truck was parked outside a prison in rural Alabama. It was festooned with Confederate flags and bigoted bumper stickers; there was a shotgun in a rack. Bryan Stevenson was a young lawyer, fresh out of Harvard Law School, coming to visit a new client imprisoned on death row there. He noticed the truck and gave it a look before heading inside. As an African American in Alabama, Stevenson had good reason to worry about that truck, and his concerns were magnified when he met its owner—the very guard who greeted him at the prison gate. He had a Confederate flag tattooed to his arm, and he wasn’t smiling at Stevenson. The guard treated the young lawyer roughly—strip searching him and making him sign the visitor logbook, both against the established protocol for attorneys. The guard grabbed Bryan’s arm and told him that it was his truck, his prison, and his rules that would govern their visit.

Still, Bryan Stevenson persisted, because he was deeply motivated to help some of the most desperate people in our country—death row prisoners. He tells this and other stories in his powerful book, Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption. We learn how Stevenson set up the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, and how with great effort he exonerated Walter McMillian, an innocent man who spent six years on death row for a crime he did not commit. Continue reading

5775: A Green Rosh HaShanah

grannysmithCould it be that Rosh HaShanah is not a Jewish holiday? No—it couldn’t be! Rosh HaShanah is the Jewish New Year. On Rosh HaShanah Jews gather in Jewish houses of worship and say Jewish prayers. We hold our Jewish books, and we blow our Jewish horns. We even take one day and turn it into two—a uniquely Jewish magic trick. And then there’s all the food—the round challot, apples and honey—all of the Jewish soul foods. How could I suggest that Rosh HaShanah is not a Jewish holiday?

Yet that’s my question, could it be that Rosh HaShanah is not a Jewish holiday? I have three arguments to make the case: 1) the readings on Rosh HaShanah, unlike on Yom Kippur, address universal themes of family life; 2) the title Yom Ha’Din, Day of Judgment, indicates a universal experience of all people who live at the same time, and are affected by each other’s behavior; and 3) this day recalls creation and anticipates redemption. The bookends of history indicate our collective understanding of the value and the challenges of life. Together, these three arguments indicate that Rosh HaShanah is not just for Jews, and we err if we focus only on our insular concerns today. Let’s unpack each claim:  Continue reading

Yom Kippur 5774: The Sage of Sacred Secrets (Yizkor)

Moshe Rabbeinu, alav hashalom—Our master Moses, peace be upon him, played many pivotal roles during 40 years of leadership. He was Israel’s liberator, lawgiver, prophet, judge, general and ombudsman. He was his people’s harshest critic and their staunchest defender. He spoke directly to God, and yet was humble. Moses was our greatest prophet of all time. Oh, and he was also a spy.

What was that? Don’t remember that story? It isn’t actually found in the Torah, but the Rabbis tell many tales of the time when Moses went up to heaven to receive the Torah. Rabbi Natan (Bavli Yoma 4b) says that Moses had to fast for 7 days in order to empty himself of all food and drink and become like an angel, למרק אכילה ושתיה שבמעיו, לשומו כמלאכי השרת. Still, the angels objected to his presence in their heavenly heights and … they were right to worry. Midrash Devarim Rabba tells us what happened next:

Walking around the heavens, accepting God’s gift of Torah, Moses hears a curious sound. What is that prayer the angels are singing? Moses listens closely. It sounds like this—barukh shem kvod malkhuto l’olam va’ed—praised be the name of his glorious kingdom forever and ever!

This mysterious line is the signature prayer of the angels, a jealously guarded secret code, but Moses likes the sound of it, so he takes it home as a souvenir. The midrash says that he stole it from the angels and taught it to Israel, גנב אותו מן המלאכים ולימדה לישראל.[1]

Continue reading

Rosh HaShanah 5774 Mountains of the Spirit

Rabbi Danny Nevins

1 Tishrei 5774 / 5 September 2013

Early one morning my friend and I broke camp, hoisted our packs, and hit the trail. Soft light filtered through forests of spruce and birch, and drops of dew glistened like gems on every leaf. Approaching the trailhead, we came to the register—a big ledger inside a wooden box where hikers record their names, addresses, and destinations. I added my particulars to the ledger, listing Algonquin Mountain as our destination, and then we began the long climb to the top.

Mountain climbing is one of my favorite activities. No, I haven’t scaled the Alps, the Andes or the Himalaya. I don’t climb with an ice ax or a canister of oxygen—nothing of the sort. Just a daypack filled with the essentials: rain shell, moleskin, map; camera, water, PB&J, and always, a chocolate bar for the top. My climbs are usually in the Adirondacks of upstate NY—these are ancient hills, far older than the upstart Rockies, and they offer a quiet invitation to enter and explore their terrain, and my own state of being. I like to test myself on steep inclines of rock, plodding upwards for hour after hour, in the sun and in the rain, through discomfort and fatigue, until finally the trees clear aside, we step out onto the summit, and gasp in wonder as the world opens up all around, for miles and miles.

Some people worship mountains. In fact, a Mishnah from Tractate Hullin (2:8) says that if you slaughter an animal in honor of mountains, hills, seas, rivers or the wilderness, it is not kosher.השוחט לשם הרים לשם גבעות לשם ימים לשם נהרות לשם מדברות שחיטתו פסולה. Ancient people often worshipped nature, and even today, many cross the line between awe and idolatry, seeing nature as itself an object of worship rather than as a blessing from the Creator.

I don’t worship the mountains, but I am grateful for the challenges and rewards that they offer.  Summits are glamorous, but most of the time hiking is spent on the trail, carefully picking one’s way over rocks and fallen trees, squishing through mud, slipping on pebbles, and periodically leaping like a goat from boulder to boulder.

As I walk, I look up at the tree trunks, searching for the little metal markers that tell me that I’m on the right path. Sometimes these blazes of color come clustered close together, nudging me like an overprotective parent—walk here, not there! But other times as I walk along the path, I look for markers and simply don’t see them. My mind begins to play funny tricks. Did I miss a fork in the trail? Am I wandering on some random herd path, straying father from my destination? Should I turn back, or keep plodding on? Such moments of indecision can torment me, especially if the weather is foul, or daylight is running out, or if I fear that I’m ill-equipped for an extended stay on the trail. When the next marker finally appears, it can feel like an old friend grabbing my hand, encouraging me, “don’t worry, just keep on walking, you’ll get there eventually.”

It’s good to know when you’re on the right path. But life doesn’t always provide us with such clear markers. We often stumble and worry about the trajectories of our lives: Our health; our relationships; our careers; our soul. There are so many steps, and so many decisions to be made, that we inevitably experience doubt—did I do the right thing? Was I too hasty? Did I miss something? Can I still turn back? Am I good enough? How can I be sure? When will I get there?  Continue reading