Sermons of Rabbi Joel N. Abraham
Yom Kippur Morning 5779 - Wisdom is in the Application of Knowledge
Yom Kippur Morning 5779
Temple Sholom - 19 September 2018

When she moved from the big city out into the countryside, Chanah needed to find her way around.  Her new town was not very big, but there were still places that she needed to find.  Things, however, were difficult.  It was not that her new neighbors were unhelpful - often they were overly so.  However, the directions they gave never seemed to work out.  For example, when Chanah was at the library and was looking for where the gardening books that explained local plants were, the very tall librarian told her to walk down the third aisle and look up two rows.  Those did not seem to be the books that she wanted, which she had to get a stool to reach.  When she asked for directions to the post office, she was told to walk about ten minutes down the main street and then turn left.  Chana walked at her city pace and was almost half a mile outside of the center of town before she turned - it turned out that she had passed the Post Office ten blocks before.  And, when they tried to help her find the grocery store, the landmarks they mentioned were buildings that had been torn down and rebuilt, or businesses that had changed hands a generation before.  What was she to do?  She needed to learn from her new neighbors, but their advice did not match her experience.

When I was in rabbinic school in Los Angeles, I had the great fortune to study the k’tuvim - the section of the Hebrew Bible known as the Writings - with Dr. Rachel Adler. Professor Adler, one of the great rabbis and teachers of our age, was not a fan of the book of Kohelet  - Ecclesisastes, which the rabbis attributed to the wise King Solomon on his deathbed.  The book begins with a rejection of study - hevel, hevel, hakol hevel  - mist, and vapor, all is ephemeral (or “Vanity, vanity, all is vanity!”, as the King James has it.) and goes on to say that there is nothing new under the sun.  For her, the book reflected the embitterment at the end of a long-life, and there was little to redeem the text.  I worked very hard to find another interpretation.  The final grade for the class was an oral examination, and when we had finished discussing what I thought I had learned, she mentioned the paper that I had written on kohelet - and thanked me for teaching her a new way to look at the text, a way to find value in it.  It was one of the proudest moments of my time at rabbinic school.

Enough bragging, what is the lesson that I found in kohelet?  In the text, Solomon details all things that he has done in his life.  He has engaged in experiencing the world - in eating and drinking.  He has read different texts.  He has travelled.  He has spoken to many different people.  In the end, however, he has little to pass on.  The book ends by saying, “The making of many books is without limit and much study is a wearying of the flesh” - seeming to undercut the very notion of having read this far.  Yet this phrase was where I found the meaning of the book.  Much like Chana’s dilemma in the story above, the transmission of wisdom is difficult.  Wisdom is the acquired experience of our lives, and experience is much easier to live than to explain.  King Solomon, the wisest of all Israelite kings, seems to be saying to us - do not ask me to give you wisdom.  I have seen and done much and, no matter what I tell you, you cannot receive my wisdom.  Knowledge - accumulated facts - can be transmitted, but wisdom must be lived.  Therefore, the subtext of the book is a message of freedom.  Here is the way that I have lived, says Solomon.  You can choose to live in whatever way that you will, but you will only learn wisdom for yourself. There is nothing new under the sun - do not worry about trying things that may seem too strange.  Rather, whatever you may experience, find a way to learn from them and build your own knowledge.  You cannot have my wisdom, for it would do you no good.  Instead, seek your own.

In this moment, as we reach the end of our High HolyDays, the time has come to hold ourselves to our own accounts, to seek our own wisdom.  This moment is not to hold ourselves to someone else’s standard, for what can they know of our interior monologue, our personal battles?  Often, we we err, we are trying our best.  Sometimes, when we are praised by others, we were only doing what was expedient or selfish.  For that reason, this process of t’shuvah, although lived in community, is truly for personal introspection.  We are comforted by a Divine Ruler on a great throne judging our deeds; we are less comfortable judging ourselves.  We can hope that we slipped one by God, or that we can be judged on fortuitous results, rather than benevolent intentions.  In our own hearts, we cannot avoid the knowledge of what we have done, and why we have done it.  Wisdom occurs not in the doing, but in the reflection, so let us take this time to reflect.

Our Torah portion challenges us to remember the moment of standing and entering into covenant with God.  The text reaches out of the page to address not just those standing with Moses, but all those who will ever be included in the covenant.  We are told that this teaching is not far above us in the heavens, nor far away across the sea.  Rather it is in our hearts and our mouths that we may do it.  The words of the covenant may be set for us - in the Ten Commandments, in the teachings of the Torah, in the Jewish texts and practice of which we learn, but the fulfillment of the covenant is in moving those words into our lives -  of processing the knowledge of our hearts into the wisdom of living.

Over the past ten days we have taken moments for shared reflection. We have been challenged by the idea that if we are the same people sitting in the same seats, from one year to the next, then the High HolyDays have not worked for us.  We have asked ourselves not just to change, but to change in a conscious way; to set goals for ourselves.  In the lobby, we have envelopes with a piece of paper for each of us to set down how we hope to change our Jewish community, our world, and ourselves.  In changing our Jewish community, we have asked ourselves not just to imagine what our congregation could be, but what we can do to get there.  In changing our world, we have looked at the book of Proverbs as a guide to help us move toward wisdom, to stand up, even if we are only one voice, because we cannot remain silent in the face of injustice.  Finally, this morning, we come to change that underlies them all.  If we cannot change ourselves, even by resolving to judge ourselves, then we have little hope in changing the circles in which we move.

So, at this moment, rather than speak to those around us, let take a moment to truly speak to ourselves.  Think about what you learned over the last ten days and the decisions that you have made.  Think not only of how you have engaged in self-criticism, but also how you have dreamed to do better.  Take this moment to imagine yourself taking the steps you need become that person that you envision.  Then, take this moment to not only commit to making that first step, but to holding yourself accountable for continuing forward.

Begin with the question that we asked on Erev Rosh haShanah - if you find yourself, sitting in this seat, and you are the same person that you were a year ago, the High HolyDays are not working for you.  At this last moment, at the end of the ten days of repentance, how will you make them work for you? Give yourself a gift at this moment. Take this opportunity to make a concrete plan.  Make a promise to yourself.

[Pause]

Ten days ago, we thought of our Judaism as a gift passed down to us by our ancestors - whether they were our direct ancestors, our adopted ancestors, or even through other members of our family.  If the gift stays wrapped in the box, it is pretty and still valuable, but not practical.  Judaism is a practical gift - one that we can use every day and which grows in use, rather than diminishes.  The more we use our Judaism to make our lives and those of our neighbors better, the more we have to use.  Together, in 5779, we have resolved to make our community live up to our ideals; to bring our world to a place of opportunity and justice for all; to push ourselves forward to be the people that we hope to be.

Despite the fact that kohelet, the book of Ecclesiastes, decries the transmission of wisdom, chapter three is one of the most quoted sections of the Bible.  We are told that there is a time and purpose for everything under heaven - a time for both birth and death, building and tearing down, laughing and crying, grieving and dancing.  The moments, the time, exists for us to do what we can imagine - all that prevents us from moving those dreams into reality is taking one step at a time, one day after the next, until we have a year to look back on to be proud of.

We will meet again in these seats in 5780.  We will be different people.  Look around at the people sitting around you.  Say goodbye to them, and look forward to meeting their better selves next year.  Look forward to introducing your better self to them.

Let us seal ourselves for a good year - l’shanah tovah t’chateimu.





Kol Nidrei 5779 - Peace in Ourselves; Justice for the World
Kol Nidrei 5779 
Temple Sholom - 18 September 2019

As stated at Rosh haShanah, the age-old conundrum that we are confronting in this New Year is the following: If you find yourself, sitting in this seat, and you are the same person that you were a year ago, the High HolyDays are not working for you.  On Rosh haShanah evening, we challenged ourselves to imagine the changes that we might make in the coming year - and commit to that change by writing it on the slips of paper in the lobby and sealing them in an envelope to be mailed to us in Elul, the month before Rosh haShanah 5780.  On Rosh haShanah morning, we accepted the challenge of changing our Jewish community - of the need to stand up and imagine what we could and should be, and then commit to the work to get there.  Tomorrow morning, we will take a more traditional Yom Kippur stance, and imagine the change that we want to make in ourselves, to live up to our potential and to the relationships of those around us.  Tonight, we are going to look at our responsibility to the greater world, imagine the change that we want to see, and commit to work for the change that will bring us to that place.  In all of these endeavors, we have taken the words that the Talmudic Sages ascribed to King Solomon.  Today, we will take the text that they credited to his middle age, the book of Proverbs.

Last year, I was invited to participate in a celebration of World Peace Day by the Dhammakaya Meditation Center in Fanwood.  I engage in a lot of social justice work, and my usual partners are Unitarian Universalists, Presbyterians and other liberal Protestants, some Catholics, increasingly Muslims, but rarely Sikhs, Hindu, or Buddhists.  I thought this event would be an interesting exception, so I was happy to participate. At the event, I spoke about the Jewish drive to pursue justice tzedek, tzedek tirdof, that we are compelled to seek out justice in the world, and make the world a better place for others.  The monks who spoke gave what I thought was a different, and enlightening (to me) take - that the only way to make peace is to first make peace in one’s self - or world peace through inner peace.  As I sat there, I thought I understood why I had not seen a Buddhist social justice movement.  Our religion pushes us to find peace in outside acts; and this strand of Buddhism teaches a path to peace through inside acts.  Perhaps, if everyone adopted this ideal, we would get to justice, but the Jewish way seemed more efficacious, to me.

In preparing for this sermon, I have perhaps stumbled upon a middle path - not just looking to make peace through others, and not solely in ourselves, but in both how we view ourselves and how we act, combining to create peace and justice in the world.  The book of Proverbs, for the most part, is the formulated as the advice that a parent gives to a child - the best way to live in the world; sharing adult wisdom with one entering into that world.  The advice might seem at times obvious, or even corny - as Shakespeare parodies its like in Polonius’ speech to Hamlet - but it is anachronistic not to credit these old saws as the most original and ancient texts of such advice that we in Western civilization have.  The overall guidance is that Wisdom personified calls out to those without knowledge, and prepares for them a feast.  Foolishness stands on the streets to waylay those who search for easy answers.  Aphorisms are presented in opposites - the reward or consequence for taking the wise choice compared to the result of following the foolish.

Chapter 28, which is being passed out, is a chapter similar to many others, but which seems to speak to the issues of today with startling clarity.  In a world in which the very nature of truth is being questioned, a search after wisdom seems counter-cultural.  Your invitation this evening is to look through the verses of chapter 28 of Proverbs. Find a verse that speaks to a situation that you find in the world today.  Name it.  Find someone sitting near you and begin a discussion - ask them what their quote and situation is, and then brainstorm ways to help effect the change in the world, through the advice of the text.  For example, verse 3 - “A poor man who withholds what is due to the wretched, is like a destructive rain that leaves no food” - could have been ripped from the headlines of Hurricane Florence.  We understand the “destructive rain that leaves no food” - that too much of a necessary thing can cause great destruction, and that if all of us, no matter what our means, reach out to help, we can help build a strong society that will support us when we are need. 

[For those who wish to help those in peril because of the hurricane, we will share some information during the announcements. https://urj.org/blog/2018/09/17/preparing-hurricane-florence ]

[Time to study Proverbs, chapter 28, reprinted at the end of this sermon.]

Whatever your view on the world, or your political persuasion, there is much to be found that resonates in these words. Verse 16 states: “A ruler who lacks understanding is very oppressive; the one who spurns ill-gotten gains will live long.”  While some Americans might apply those words to particular administrations, all might agree our legislators need to work more on understanding and hope that a focus on ill-gotten gains will lead to a shorter political life.  Verse 21 teaches: To be partial is not right; a person may do wrong for a piece of bread.  This text seems to teach two different messages.  Partiality in the Biblical context is usually bending justice to serve either the rich or the poor, rather than serving justice directly.  The second message seems to indicate that some will do evil, even for a minimal reward.  Yet, putting these two together, we see a greater nuance.  We should not put ourselves so strongly on one side or another, that we fail to see the person who is starving in front of our faces.  Political difference is but a means to at solving the problems of our world.  We can sometimes lose out on solutions, because we refuse to listen to those who are doing the suggesting.

The chapter ends with the phrase, “When the wicked rise up, people go into hiding, but when they perish, the righteous increase.”  This statement is perhaps less of prescription and more of a prediction - an admonition for us to act differently.  We must ask ourselves, what good is it, if the righteous only speak up in the absence of evil?  As Pirkei Avot suggests, are not mensches needed more in a place of inhumanity?   The Sages differ on their interpretation of Noah.  Was he called “righteous in his generation” because he was only comparatively righteous, compared to the evil around him, or because it took even more courage to be righteous when he was surrounded by poor examples?  Abraham is praised because he speaks up for justice, when God can only see the evil of the inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah.  If we see evil, then we must not go into hiding, we must speak up.  Then we can banish the evil, and bring back righteousness (and the fair-weather righteous).

The malaise of our generation is found in the righteous who hide.  “Why should I vote?”, they ask, “What difference will my one vote make?”  One might as well not bother conserving or recycling, or donating to charity.  What difference can one person make?  Very little, considering the whole of the world.  Yet, if each of us decides to hide in the face of wickedness, than a whole generation of the righteous cedes the stage to those who are indifferent to the welfare of others.  Our individual action may not matter in itself, but in choosing to be part of a participating majority.  Each one of us makes individual choices.  No one makes a collective choice for us all.  Yet, the aggregation of those individual surrenders can mean defeat for us all.

This High HolyDays, let us resolve to do what part we can to make the world a better place - to stand up the evil that pushes us to despair.  There is not only great power in numbers, but in the individual as well. One person standing up is one more person not lying down and letting the world steamroller over them.  One person can hold up another, and another, and another.  We are all here as a community to support each other in our personal journeys of self-reflection and t’shuvah. Let us also support each other in our public journeys of reproof and toch’chah.  We are taught in our tradition that the world was created for our sake; that were we not born a unique soul would have been lost to the world.  Let us take that uniqueness and make the change that only we can.  Let us make peace in ourselves in order to create peace for others; let us seek out justice to provide peace for all.

L’shanah tovah, tikatevu.



Proverbs Chapter 28 (from the new JPS Tanakh):

1] The wicked flee though no one gives chase,
But the righteous are as confident as a lion.
2] When there is rebellion in the land, many are its rulers;
But with a person who has understanding and knowledge, stability will last.
3] A poor person who withholds what is due to the wretched
Is like a destructive rain that leaves no food.
4] Those who forsake instruction praise the wicked,
But those who heed instruction fight them.
5] Evil people cannot discern judgment,
But those who seek Adonai discern all things.
6] Better is a poor person who lives blamelessly
Than a rich person whose ways are crooked.
7]An intelligent child heeds instruction,
But the one who keeps company with gluttons disgraces their parents.
8] the one who increases their wealth by loans at discount or interest
Amasses it for one who is generous to the poor.
9] The one who turns a deaf ear to instruction—
their prayer is an abomination.
10] The one who misleads the upright into an evil course
Will fall into their own pit,
But the blameless will prosper.
11] A rich person is clever in their own eyes,
But a perceptive poor person can see through them.
12] When the righteous exult there is great glory,
But when the wicked rise up people make themselves scarce.
13] The one who covers up their faults will not succeed;
the one who confesses and gives them up will find mercy.
14] Happy is the person who is anxious always,
But the one who hardens their heart falls into misfortune.
15] A roaring lion and a prowling bear
Is a wicked person ruling a helpless people.
16] A ruler who lacks understanding is very oppressive;
the one who spurns ill-gotten gains will live long.
17] A person oppressed by bloodguilt will flee to a pit;
Let none give them support.
18] The one who lives blamelessly will be delivered,
But the one who is crooked in their ways will fall all at once.
19] The one who tills their land will have food in plenty,
But the one who pursues vanities will have poverty in plenty.
20] A dependable person will receive many blessings,
But one in a hurry to get rich will not go unpunished.
21] To be partial is not right;
A person may do wrong for a piece of bread.
22] A miserly person runs after wealth;
and does not realize that loss will overtake it.
23] The one who reproves a person will in the end
Find more favor than the one who flatters him.
24] The one who robs their parents mother and says, “It is no offense,”
Is a companion to vandals.
25] A greedy person provokes quarrels,
But the one who trusts Adonai shall enjoy prosperity.
26] The one who trusts their own instinct is a dullard,
But the one who lives by wisdom shall escape.
27] The one who gives to the poor will not be in want,
But the one who shuts their eyes will be roundly cursed.
28] When the wicked rise up, people go into hiding,
But when they perish the righteous increase.

Rosh haShanah Morning II 5779 - Don't End Like Solomon
Rosh haShanah Morning II 5779
Temple Sholom - 11 September 2018

These High HolyDays we are considering what it means to change.  We know that we, ourselves, change from year to year, day to day, and even moment to moment - as we know more, as we experience more, we feel things differently and our reactions may change.  The High HolyDays come as an opportunity to not only reflect on that change, but also to take control of what we can in the pathways of our lives.  Over this Rosh haShanah and Yom Kippur, the words of King Solomon have been a trigger to our conversation.  While Solomon’s father, David, has the most extended biography in the Bible, there is less on his son Solomon.  Because the Tanakh extols his wisdom, the Sages of the Rabbinic period wanted to have more material.  They  attributed the books of Song of Songs, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes to Solomon in his younger days, his middle-age, and his older years.  However, there is some biographical material in both I Kings and Chronicles, which shows us a brief, but perhaps less flattering picture of Solomon, and which definitely shows change.

Solomon comes from a less than ideal parentage.  In the age of #metoo, we have to acknowledge the difficulty with David, a person whom privileged geography literally places above Bathsheva - so that he can look down on her roof and see her bathing, and then uses his power to engage in a sexual relationship with her and, when there is fear of it being discovered, first manipulating her husband into unwittingly providing cover, and then having him killed in battle when he, unknowingly, refuses to comply.  David is confronted by the prophet Nathan, repents, and is forgiven, but Solomon’s older brother pays the price by dying at birth.  Despite that beginning, Bathsheva becomes one of David’s wives and their next son, Solomon, eventually succeeds to the throne.  His first order of business, as dictated by his father on his deathbed, is to kill of the enemies David had been unable to kill during his lifetime.

Solomon, himself, is generally painted in a much better light.  David, whose hands are stained with the blood of the wars needed to solidify the kingdom, is not allowed by God to build the Temple in Jerusalem, despite his dedication to the return of the Ark to Jewish possession.  God promises David that his son, Solomon will be able to do so.  Solomon, in turn, when offered by God various blessings as king, refuses wealth and power, and instead asks for the wisdom to rule such a diverse and fractious people.  God, impressed by the request, promises to give Solomon wisdom, as well as riches and fame.

The Tanakh tells the stories of the two women quarrelling over a baby and of the Queen of Sheba - stories with which we are familiar, but we are less familiar with Solomon’s end.  Solomon ends up with many wives, who have come from kingdoms and cultures very different from his own.  Each one of them worships different gods, and the Tanakh tells us that Solomon is turned aside by his wives, and not only worships those other gods, but also builds shrines to them.  Because of this lack of faith in the God for whom he built the Temple, God first warns Solomon, and then tells him he will strip him of his kingdom, although after his death, and, out of respect for his father David, leave one tribe - the tribe of Judah.

Solomon ends up the victim, perhaps, of unintended consequences (which could be said to be the story of his whole life).  He asks for wisdom, and is given riches, as well.  Those riches lead him to abandon his wisdom.  Perhaps distracted by all of his horses, palaces, and spouses, Solomon could have used time to stop and engage in self-reflection.

There is a stream in American religion of what is called the Prosperity Gospel. Those who trust in God, and give what they have, will be given much more in return.  Yet, how many TV preachers have we seen who have been brought down by misuse of the wealth that they have accrued?  We need to think not only about what we pray for, but how we use and value what we receive.  Money, wealth, and security are not ends in and of themselves, but tools that allow us to take care of ourselves, our families, and better the world around us.

We cannot know what it was like to face the temptation of Solomon, to stand at the pinnacle of Biblical society.  We can, however, take the lesson that whatever heights we may reach, whatever gifts we are given, or that we earn, our responsibility is to use them well.  As we consider the changes we will make in the New Year, let us resolve to keep that in mind, to change for the betterment of not just ourselves, but our world as well.

L’shanah tovah.

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