11 Life Lessons From Noah’s Ark

By Rabbi Evan / October 4, 2013

In Jewish synagogues this weekend, the Biblical reading is the story of Noah’s ark. I came across this insightful and amusing list that can enrich those of any and all faiths. Everything I need to know about life, I learned from Noah’s Ark… 1. Don’t miss the boat. 2. Remember that we are all in the same boat. 3. Plan ahead. It wasn’t raining when Noah built the Ark. 4. Stay fit. When you’re 600 years old, someone may ask you to do something really big. 5. Don’t listen to critics; just get on with the job that needs to be done. 6. Build your future on high ground. 7. For safety’s sake, travel in pairs. 8. Speed isn’t always an advantage. The snails were on board with the cheetahs. 9. When you’re stressed, float a while. 10. Remember, the Ark was built by amateurs; the Titanic by professionals. 11. No matter the storm, when you are with God, there’s always a rainbow waiting. –Author Unknown

Why Did Moses Shatter the Tablets of the Ten Commandments?

By Rabbi Evan / September 28, 2013

The Jewish holiday of Sukkot (Tabernacles) just ended. The biblical reading for the holiday contains the famous scene where Moses shatters the tablets containing the Ten Commandments.  This act emanated from his anger at his people’s worshipping of the golden calf. In trying to make sense of this text, the Jewish sages asked a poignant question. What happened to the shattered tablets? Did they just remain on the edge of Mount Sinai? Of course not! They contained the handwriting of God. They could not simply be left behind. The sages offered a profound answer. When Moses returned to the top of Mount Sinai to receive the second set of tablets, he picked up the shattered remains of the first. He placed both the new and shattered also tablets in the Ark of the Covenant, which the Israelites carried with them in the wilderness. Why It Matters The shattered tablets symbolized where the Israelites had been. The new set represented where they were going. They carried both sets with them on their journey. I also see the two tablets as a metaphor for our lives. The broken and the whole live together. They both shape who we are. No life is perfect. We have our highs and lows, our moments of shattered pieces and of divine inspiration. Together they make us a human being, created in the image of God. Together they make us holy.

The Hardest Sermon I’ve Ever Given

By Rabbi Evan / September 15, 2013
 What follows is the sermon I gave on the holiest night of Jewish Year, Yom KippurIt is what I believe about God.  Last year I began with a poem by Robert Frost. It was one of his more famous ones, “Stopping By The Woods On A Snowy Evening.” Tonight let us begin with one of his more obscure poems. It calls out our task for this evening. It is entitled “Revelation.”
We make ourselves a place apart
Behind light words that tease and flout
But oh, the agitated heart
Till someone find us really out.
Tis pity if the case require
(Or so we say) that in the end
We speak the literal to inspire
The understanding of a friend
But so with all from babes that play
At hide-and-seek to God afar,
So all who hide too well away
Must speak and tell us where they are.
An Endless Game of Hide and Seek Often, in our daily lives, we hide behind what Frost calls “light words that tease and flout.” We ignore our “agitated heart.” Tonight is when we speak out. We stop hiding. We put aside our fears, our anxieties, our complacency, and find out where we are. Tonight we stop playing hide and seek with God, because God is with us every second of our lives. Some of us do not believe this truth. I would estimate that at least 50 percent of those of us here would say, “Rabbi, I like Judaism and the community and the values. But God isn’t a big part of it. I can’t really get my hands around it. The prayers are nice, but I don’t really believe everything they say. I’d be fine if we really didn’t discuss God too much.” Continue reading

Question 1: Who Do We Need to Forgive?

By Rabbi Evan / September 13, 2013

A nineteenth-century Hasidic rabbi once pointed out that a finger held up to the eye can block the sun. For us, a misspoken word or a seeming slight from a colleague can block everything else. It can permanently mar or even destroy a relationship. It has happened to all of us. For Jews, last week marked  the beginning of the New Year. The New Year commemorates, according to the Jewish tradition, the anniversary of the creation of the world. Perhaps we can begin a new chapter in our relationships. Perhaps we can turn the page on what happened yesterday for the sake of what can happen tomorrow. Can a child teach us to forgive?  A fellow rabbi once sought to urge his congregation to try this. He decided to do an experiment. He cited the standard biblical texts. And then he brought his one-year-old daughter up onto the pulpit. He kept going on with the sermon, as she played with his tie and kissed his cheeks. Everyone chuckled and wondered what was going on. Finally he stopped and said, “Now is there anything she can do that we would not forgive her for.” Most of the congregation nodded in recognition. Smiling, the rabbi waited for silence and then asked, “And when does that stop? When does it get so hard to forgive? At three? At seven? At fourteen? At thirty five? How old does someone have to be before we refuse to forgive?” (Also Recounted in Naomi Remen’s My Grandfather’s Blessing) Today each of us can ask ourselves what we are doing to forgive? Are giving people the benefit of the doubt? Are we holding a grudge because it allows us to avoid doing something difficult. The prayerbook asks us those questions. Only we can answer them.

Change Your Questions, Change Your Life

By Rabbi Evan / September 12, 2013

Isador Rabi was a Jewish scientist who won the Noble Prize for Physics in 1944. In his autobiography, he tells the story of the key question that shaped him. “Every day when I came home from school,”  he said, “my mother would not ask me how I did. She would not ask what happened in school today. She would simply say, ‘Izzy, did you ask a good question today. Hearing that question repeatedly,” he said, “made me a great scientist.” Not just for great scientists, but for each of us: Asking the right question can make all the difference. Consider the biblical story of Abraham and Isaac. God asks Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, his treasured son. How does Abraham respond? He asks no questions.  He does not ask God why he has been commanded to murder his son. He does not wonder about his responsibility as a parent and conscience as a human being. He does not even ask Isaac how he feels after everything has happened. This Abraham contrasts sharply with the Abraham who pled on behalf of the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah earlier in Genesis. That Abraham questions relentlessly. That Abraham pushes God to the brink. That Abraham pleads for justice and righteousness. That is the Abraham we admire. That is the Abraham is the one who teaches us the power of asking the right questions. For this evidence of this truth, recall the way President Kennedy phrased that famous line from his first inaugural address: “Ask not,” he said, “what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.” He was urging us to change our question. If we change our questions, we can change the world. The Next Four Blog Posts Will Present Four Questions We Must Ask Ourselves. Stay Tuned…

Would You Carry Me Down a Mountain? Jewish New Year Sermon #1

By Rabbi Evan / September 6, 2013

I recently came across a report from a professor at the Harvard Business School. She had been hired to improve the accuracy of the numbers customers give on their auto insurance forms. We know how it goes—the forms ask us how many we miles we drive each year. We fill them in, and sign a declaration that the numbers we reported are accurate. Well this professor had a suspicion that these numbers were not always accurate. The reason? Sometimes it could be blatant dishonesty, but other times it could be simply rounding downward since people thought fewer miles would lead to lower rates. Continue reading

What Everybody Ought to Know About the Jewish High Holy Days

By Rabbi Evan / September 3, 2013

This Wednesday evening Jews around the world will gather in synagogue to begin the Jewish High Holy Days. The first is the New Year celebration. Known as Rosh Hashanah (meaning “Head of the Year), this holiday centers around prayer, study and a festive meal. It also begins the year 5774 on the Jewish calendar, reflecting the chronology of the Old Testament, where the calendar begins with the creation of the world. The theme of Rosh Hashanah is best captured in a ritual item known as a shofar. A shofar is a ram’s horn sounded throughout the worship service on the day of Rosh Hashanah. It calls us to look inside ourselves to see where we can grow and change. Rabbi Harold Kushner compared it to a wake-up call whose message is a challenge. Don’t just plead with me for a year of life. I’m giving you life; what are you doing with it. In other words, the shofar  pierces through our routines and habits. It awakens us from the slumber of everyday living. It challenges us to think, to question, to wake up! What are we doing with the challenges and opportunities life puts before us? What meanings are we making out of the experiences we face? That is the question we grapple with during the Jewish New Year.  Can We Forgive? Ten days after Rosh Hashanah is the beginning of the Jewish High Holy Day known as Yom Kippur. The phrase Yom Kippur means “Day of Atonement.” Its central theme is making amends with God and with fellow human beings. An array of prayers reminds us to apologize and to forgive. Without doing so, we become trapped in the past. Yom Kippur helps us shape the future by coming to terms with our past. A Rabbi and His Baby A favorite story reminds me of this imperative to forgive. A fellow rabbi was giving a sermon on forgiveness. He mentioned the standard biblical passages  And then he brought his one-year-old daughter up onto the pulpit. He kept going on with the sermon, as she played with his tie and kissed his cheeks. Everyone chuckled and wondered what was going on. Finally he stopped and said, “Now is there anything she can do that we would not forgive her for.” Most of the congregation nodded in recognition. Smiling, the rabbi waited for silence and then asked, “And when does that stop? When does it get so hard to forgive? At three? At seven? At fourteen? At thirty five? How old does someone have to be before we refuse to forgive?” (Also Recounted in Naomi Remen’s My Grandfather’s Blessing) On Yom Kippur we ask ourselves what we are doing to forgive? Are  we giving people the benefit of the doubt? Are we holding a grudge because it allows us to avoid doing something difficult? The prayers challenge us with these questions. We pray for God’s wisdom and our own strength to answer them.

Does Judaism Believe in an Afterlife?

By Rabbi Evan / August 29, 2013

Faith begins in mystery. Among the greatest mysteries we face is the afterlife. What happens when we die? Do we see our loved ones? Do we know them? Do they know us? The questions are endless. Jewish wisdom offers no definitive answer. We can identify, however, several core teachings.

  1. There is an afterlife: Texts from every era in Jewish life identify a world where people go when they die. In the Bible it’s an underworld called Sheol. In the rabbinic tradition it’s known by a number of names, including the yeshiva shel mallah, the school on high. The Hebrew word for skies, shamayim, also came to refer to heaven.
  1. Heaven has open door policy: Heaven is not a gated community. The righteous of any people and any faith have a place in it. Our actions, not our specific beliefs, determine our fate. No concept of Hell exists in Judaism. The closest we get is the fate of apostate (a person who renounces God, faith and morality in this world), who is said to be “cut off from his kin.”
  1. The afterlife can take many forms: Professor A.J. Levine expresses this truth mosteloquently, “Jewish beliefs in the afterlife are as diverse as Judaism itself, from the traditional view expecting the unity of flesh and spirit in a resurrected body, to the idea that we live on in our children and grandchildren, to a sense of heaven (perhaps with lox and bagels rather than harps and haloes).”
  1. The afterlife is here on earth: One strand of Jewish thought sees heaven as a transitory place where souls reside after death. They reside there until they reunite with their physical bodies at the time when messiah comes. Rabbi Shmuley Boteach articulates this view in his early book, The Wolf Shall Lie with the Lamb. This approach differs from reincarnation since the return to life happens only in the messianic era, not as a regular occurrence, as in Hinduism.
  1. We live on through others: The Reform Jewish prayerbook expresses this idea through the metaphor of a leaf and a tree. A leaf drops to the ground, but it nourishes the soil so more plants and trees spring up. The same is true in our lives. We nourish the future through the influence we have on those who follow us. It can happen in unimaginable ways.
Novelist Dara Horn described this beautifully:
My mother came from a very assimilated family, not very involved in the Jewish community. But they sent her to Hebrew school, and she was inspired by one of her Hebrew school teachers. He ended up becoming a professor at NYU and she did her doctorate with him.” It is because of this man that my mother taught me Hebrew. It is because of this man that I am as involved as I am in Judaism. He had a profound influence on me, even though I did not know him or have any biological connection to him.
Dara Horn is not alone. All of us manifest the lives and influence of those who came before us. The way we live now shapes the way we live on. Do you believe in an afterlife? Why do you think Judaism has so many different perspectives? Leave a comment below. 

Can God Make You A Better Person?

By Rabbi Evan / August 21, 2013

“Without God all things are permissible.” -Fyodor Dostoyevsky

I was recently in the executive lounge at an upscale hotel. After filling my plate with pita chips and hummus, I began nibbling on the way back to my table. A chip (somehow!) fell from my hand. I picked it up and continued walking.

A few seconds later, a server rushed over and began thanking me profusely. “What did I do?” I asked. “You picked up the cracker and threw it away,” he exclaimed. “You would not believe how many people don’t. Most kick it with their foot, creating more crumbs, and try to hide it under the table.” I couldn’t believe my ears. Picking it up seemed like a natural courtesy. You drop something. You pick it up. Now I was being treated like a saint for doing so. Has civility and manners in our culture really deteriorated to such a point? Someone Is Watching Perhaps we need to be reminded of an old Jewish story. It tells of a famous rabbi who hired an assistant to be with him at all times.The assistant had a simple job. Every hour he was to say out aloud, “Someone is watching.” Even if they were alone at night walking, the assistant had to say it. Through this simple story, the rabbi was teaching us something profound about the role of faith. It reminds us to do what is right, even when no one is watching. God is the voice from outside of us that lives inside of us. When we hear God’s voice, we know we are not alone. We know our deeds matter, even if no one is watching. How Do I Teach My Kids?  As a parent of young children, I struggle to find ways to teach them this lesson. My faith has been the best means for doing so. My Jewish values remind me of what is right and good. Prayer reminds me to pay attention and follow the voice of conscience that I hear, but could easily ignore. I don’t believe faith is the only way to teach such values. Nor am not saying every religious person has good values and good manners. Rather, I am saying faith reminds us to take right and wrong seriously, even if those around us do not. It reminds us of what is right and good. It compels us to pay attention and listen to the voice of conscience we hear inside us. What do you think? 
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