The story of the Jewish people begins with God’s call to Abram to journey to an unknown land in order to fulfill a mission – to be a blessing. While the move from Mesopotamia to Canaan is swiftly and uneventfully reported, once Abram and Sarai get to the Promised Land, life gets complicated. The pioneering couple have to meet many challenges – physical, spiritual and moral.
Abram’s faith is tested again and again. But, after Divine reassurance, the Torah reports: “And he (- Abram) had faith in the Eternal, and He (- God) accounted this for him as a righteousness.” (Gen. 15:6) Yet, right after we learn of Abram’s steadfast faith in God, the text continues: “And He said to him, ‘I am the Eternal Who took you out of Ur of the Chaldees to give this land to you to inherit it. And he said to Him, ‘My Lord, Almighty God, by what means shall I know that I will inherit it?” (vv. 7-8)
On a beautiful day of sunshine, our synagogue hosted a luncheon in our Sukkah. We invited as our guests Pastor David Noble and his congregation at the Central Presbyterian Church to thank them for hosting us during our time of need when our synagogue was flooded. Approximately 20 of his congregation family joined 50 of ours sharing a heartfelt afternoon of prayers, singing, food, and friendship. Continue reading →
We introduced, on Sh’mini Atzeret, the prayer praising God for bring rain. And now we read a Torah portion that tells of the Flood. Invariably we make jokes any time it rains in our parts during this time. But these days the rains are no joke. Florida is being hit by devastating rains as I write. Scientists explain that global warming will tend to produce ever greater storms of ever greater destructive impact. The levels of the oceans will rise and cause terrible flooding. The United Nations has just released a report sounding the urgent alarm that we have very little time to turn things around so as to save the entire planet.
And our country is run by people who refuse to listen and who, in the name of economic profits, actively seek to negate any effort to save this planet.
As if anticipating the “LP era,” Josef Haydn wrote, in just about three-minutes, absolutely captivating music, expressing the joy and amazement of the first humans. Adam and Eve, as they awaken to the world and to each other, are dazzled and hypnotized by God’s creation. All is “so wonderful” as they echo each other, again and again:
By Thee with bliss,
O bounteous Lord
The heav’n and earth are filled [stored]
This world, so great, so wonderful
Thy mighty Hand has framed
The “Season of Our Joy – z’man simhatenu” concludes with a flourish. We finish reading the last section of the Torah and then begin right away, again.
But the conclusion of the Torah’s text seems anything but joyous. The last Torah portion begins: “And this is the blessing that Moses, the man of the Almighty, blessed the children of Israel before his death.” (Deut. 33:1) It concludes with the report of Moses’ death: “And Moses, the servant o the Eternal, died there, in the land of Moab, by the mouth of the Eternal.” (Deut. 34:5) We are told that all of Israel wept over his death for thirty days. And the last verses of the Torah tell us that, although Joshua faithfully stepped up to lead the people, Moses was uniquely great and irreplaceable. “No prophet has ever arisen in Israel like Moses.” (v. 10)
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, in his jewel of a book, The Sabbath, famously contrasted the Jewish tradition of architecture with the Christian tradition. We are amazed and moved by the cathedrals built through the ages. Their beauty is astounding and their presence is a constant in our image of civilization. But the Jewish people have not been so fortunate as to erect permanent structures rooted in and dominating their communities. Our architectural creations have been more modest and, tragically, too often destroyed. Rabbi Heschel celebrated, instead, the “cathedral in time” that we have maintained through the ages, the observance of Shabbat. Continue reading →
Editor’s Note: Rabbi Greenstein originally gave this sermon on Yom Kippur 5779 (Sept 2018).
“Why is this day different from all other holidays of the whole year?” For, on all these other occasions, including celebrations of the New Moon, Passover, Shavuot and Sukkot, we sing psalms of joy and praise, called Hallel.
But we don’t sing the Hallel on Rosh Ha-Shanah and Yom Kippur. Why not? The Talmud presents this question in dramatic form. The sages imagine the angels of heaven using this omission of ours as a chance to criticize the people of Israel. The Talmud relates:
“The angels inquired of God, ‘Master of the Universe, why does Israel fail to sing the Hallel songs of praise before You during Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur?’
And God replied, ‘When the Ruler sits on the throne of judgment before the books of life and death, could Israel utter such songs?’” (BTRosh Hashanah 32b) Continue reading →
Editor’s Note: Rabbi Greenstein originally gave this sermon on Kol Nidre 5779 (Sept 2018).
A new rabbi arrives in town and the congregation eagerly awaits his first sermon. They are all ears as he eloquently speaks about the importance of observing Shabbat.
After services the President of the shul approaches the new rabbi and confides to him, “Rabbi, you can’t speak about observing the Sabbath to this community. No one observes the Shabbat here. You’ve got to know your audience! Believe me; I’m trying to help you out.”
The rabbi is suitably grateful. The next Shabbat he gets up and gives an impassioned sermon, citing chapter and verse, on the virtues of keeping kosher.
After services the President goes up to him. “Rabbi, you can’t talk about keeping kosher to us. Keeping kosher is not who we are!”
Up to this point, Moses’ long oration has been delivered before the entire assembly of Israel. This Torah portion tells us that, after the people went back to their own homes, Moses went (- Va-yelekh) after them and spoke to them some more. The shift creates an atmosphere that expresses the shift that the people are undergoing. They are losing their leader, the only leader they have ever known. But this is not only a socio-political shift; it is a profoundly personal moment. Moses has come off of his podium because he has come off of his leadership position. He speaks intimately about this loss of powers as he nears his end.
There have been many amazing and powerful moments in Moses’ career as Israel’s leader. He brought about the plagues and led Israel to freedom. He split the Red Sea. He stood above them at Mount Sinai and gave them the Torah. And on and on. These were public moments of impressive impact. But now, as the people begin to wonder how they will be able to cope with his loss, how they will be able to go on without him, Moses seeks to reassure them by subtly touching on his most unique and momentous achievement, an achievement that took place away from anyone’s sight.
A Camden, New Jersey, police officer talks with a neighborhood child. (Photo: Andrew Burton/Getty Images)
Editor’s Note: Rabbi Greenstein originally gave this sermon on the first day of Rosh Hashanah 5779 (Sept 2018).
So you’re driving along with your beloved – maybe on the way to a movie or something. All is well. You’re talking about this and that. You approach the quiet intersection and the light turns red. But you give some gas and make the turn.
And then you hear the siren and see the flashing lights drawing up behind you. Your spirit sinks. You pull over. You are in a foul mood now. Maybe your beloved shoots you a look or lets out an expletive. Who are you more upset with? The officer, your beloved, or yourself? Continue reading →