The Difference Between Knowing And Doing

There is a difference between knowing and doing.

We all know what is right, more or less. And by now we all, hopefully, have a general sense of what the Torah tells us to do. We know about Jewish values and mitzvot. We know we are supposed to feed the hungry, and care for those who have no one else to care for them. We know we are supposed to give tzedakah, take care of the environment, be kind to others, and watch out for our fellow man.

But there’s a difference between knowing and doing. And I’ll be the first to say that I don’t always do what I know I should.

As a child, I sometimes begrudged the surrender of my quarters to the family tzedakah box and the one at Religious School. When I learned that Jewish tradition teaches us that it is better to willingly give less than it is to give more but to do so grudgingly, I worked to overcome my selfish hold on my quarters. But it was hard.

And it was even harder in college and rabbinical school, when money was tight and I struggled to make ends meet. During those years,giving really was a sacrifice – one that even caused me to feel angry because if I gave to another, my own plate, quite literally, would be less full.

I tried to calculate the percentage that Jewish tradition sets – no less than 10% and no more than 20% of our income is required for tzedakah – and I tried to take to heart the teachings that even a person who is receiving tzedakah must set aside a portion of what little they have to give to others, but I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t still feel resentful about it sometimes, or that I gave as often as I should have, or that I didn’t wonder what difference it would make – my meager 10% in a world full of need.

The truth is that I don’t think I really felt good about giving tzedakah until the money I was turning over was money I had earned on my own – not through a token allowance, or through scholarships or generous parents – but through hard work and sacrifice. Only then could I truly feel a sense of gratitude for what I had and a responsibility to take care of those who had less.

Time is another thing that I have struggled with giving. None of us has enough time anymore. And I could sermonize about the society that makes us work ourselves to death; about the culture of over-committed parents and kids; about how much time we spend at our desks compared to how much time we spend with the people that we love, but I’m not here to reprimand you for what I suspect you already feel badly enough about. I’m here to say that I share your struggles; that I feel badly about it too; that I am also over-committed and over-extended; that I also don’t spend enough time with the people I love.

When I became a rabbi, with luxuries I didn’t have as a student, I again felt a sense of gratitude for my improved situation and I made a commitment to volunteer once a week in a local organization, something I never had time to do while in school, and had always felt guilty about. I volunteer on my day off even though it would be easy enough to volunteer during work hours and justify it by saying that rabbis are expected to volunteer in the community, but I felt that would lessen the selflessness of my deeds and rob me of the sense of sacrifice that I believe goes hand in hand with the sense of fulfillment we get when we truly and completely give of ourselves.

And there are definitely weeks where I need that time for other things: for laundry and errands, for catching up on much needed rest, for cleaning my apartment, for socializing with friends…But when I’m not giving of my time, I feel like I’m not being the best rabbi I can be or the best Jew I can be or, maybe most importantly, the best person I can be.

And still, I often feel I am not doing enough. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed when we compare ourselves to others. I am sure that many of you, like me, have friends and colleagues who seem to find endless amounts of time to engage in tikkun olam – acts of repairing the world. They go to Washington DC and rally for important causes; they run marathons; they canvas on behalf of political candidates; they go to Africa with NGO’s and build bathrooms and dig wells. . .

Comparing ourselves to others in this way – feeling guilty about what we can’t do – eats away at our moral conscience; the weight of wanting to do everything we can to make the world a better place while at the same time, knowing that we only have so much time, so much money, so much energy to give.

How do we know if we are doing enough?
How do we know when we have done enough?

Jewish tradition teaches us, lo alecha hamlacha ligmor, v’lo ata ben chorin l’hivatel mimena – “You are not responsible for completing the work, but nor are you free to desist from it.” No one is fully responsible and no one is exempt.

This year, when I participated in the Shave for the Brave there were many different reactions to my commitment to shave my head, but I was surprised by how often people said to me, “I could never do that!”

Each time I would think, “Hmmm….well…maybe there’s something else you can do.”

After all, there are lots of different ways to do good.

Rabbi Rebecca Einstein Schorr did not shave her head this past spring, but she did spend countless hours of her time to organize and encourage the rest of us. She was the brainchild of the 36 Rabbis Shave for the Brave Campaign and she worked much harder than any of us to make a grieving mother’s dream a reality (or at least, the dream we had control over).

After The Shave, Rebecca blogged about people who “mitzvah-shamed” her for not shaving her own head. Mitzvah-shaming, she explained, “is the act of making someone feel inadequate, guilty, or inferior…for not observing the same mitzvah as the rest of the group.” When we Mitzvah-shame, we fail to recognize that even the smallest act makes a difference, and that different kinds of actions may have different degrees of meaning for different people.

There are so many different ways to be involved in helping others. There are different ways to save people; different ways to give to people; different ways to get involved and support other’s efforts to do good in the world.

We Jews often translate the word “Tzedakah” as charity, meaning donated money, but tzedakah is really any act of righteousness, not just donating funds.There is no end to the ways in which Jewish tradition encourages us to help one another and to take care of the world around us. We are commanded to give of our financial resources to be sure, but we are also commanded to give of our hearts.

But when I think back to the guilt I felt as a struggling student who’s 10% was so very meager; when I think back to the invective to give even if you are dependent on receiving from others, I can’t help but wonder if our own tradition doesn’t Mitzvah-Shame us just a little bit.

Then again, if Torah didn’t obligate us to give no matter the direness of our own circumstances, would we give even when we could afford to? Give, not because the value is instilled in us by generations of Jewish teachings and traditions passed down and held dear, but because we are inherently generous? I like to believe in the inherent good of people but history and sociology and sometimes even my own experiences tell me that complete faith in the good of humanity is naive. Torah strives, time and again, to curb our baser instincts; to redirect our human faults. When we are struggling to survive, our instinct is not to give generously, but to cling to what we have. That’s why it’s so moving when one person gives their last bite of bread to another; that’s when we find ourselves asking, would I do that in their place? Would I be able to be that selfless?

On the other hand, Albert Einstein once said, “We cannot despair of humanity, for we ourselves are human beings.”

Jewish tradition says it too, B’makom shein anashim hishtadel lihiyot ish, “In a place where no one is acting human, strive to be humane.”

Many of us might not think we are strong enough to give away our last bite of bread, and we feel ashamed of that, and our shame holds us back from contemplating what else we might be able to.

We don’t all have to be marathon runners and head shavers. The little sacrifices matter too. I have faith in humanity because I have heard so many wonderful stories of people helping one another, and because I have been ashamed of my own inaction, and I have turned that shame into action, and I believe that others can do the same.

I am so inspired by the people in this community who give of themselves in so many different ways. I recently asked the members of our TBD Facebook group to share stories with me of how they are making a difference in the world. There’s not enough time to share each story this morning, nor would it be fair to all of those whose stories I don’t know about, but I hope you will share your stories and achievements with one another over the days and months ahead, because when we hear about what other people are doing, we are often more motivated to do something ourselves. I almost talked myself out of doing the Shave for the Brave. I could never do that, I said to myself. But then my friend Marci signed up and I knew that if she could do it, I could do it too.

On Rosh Hashanah, we contemplate how we can be better people in the year to come. How we can be less begrudging with the dollars we donate or with the time we are asked to give to our communities. One of my classmates and colleagues, Rabbi Joel Simons, recently wrote the following words: “Through the High Holy Days we ask that God write us in the book of life. And as we conclude Yom Kippur we transition from asking God to write us in the book of life to asking God to seal us in the book of life…(But) what is a life worth writing? What is a life worth sealing?  We cannot simply ask God to write and seal us in the book of life; we must commit to God a life worth living…and a life worth sealing.”

What actions will we take immediately after exiting the sanctuary on these most sacred of days? Hopefully, we will not be shoving others out of the way to get to the Break-Fast table! “Will we guide ourselves and others to a life worth living?” Rabbi Simons asks, “or will we go through the motions of another year and find ourselves in the same place one year later? No better, no worse, just the status quo?”

This year, we’re giving you an easy and immediate opportunity to exit services on Yom Kippur and start the year off right with a simple act. On Yom Kippur, we will be holding a bone marrow drive with Gift of life, one of the nation’s public bone marrow registries helping children and adults find donors for bone marrow transplants.

Gift of Life has been able to match over 10,000 individuals and facilitated nearly 2500 transplants. And you could be one of those registered donors; one of those who saves a life.

Believe it or not, registering is quick and painless. On Yom Kippur, between morning and afternoon services, we will have a Gift of Life station here at TBD. There, you’ll find volunteers, led by Eileen Harvey, who will ask you to fill out some paperwork, and take a swab of your cheek with a large q-tip. No needles. No blood. Ten-minutes of your time for the opportunity to save a life.

The Talmud teaches: if you save a single life, it is as if you saved the entire world. Each life is a world of its own, and we have an obligation to protect and secure that life. I registered with Gift of Life earlier this year. I hope you will join me in helping to fulfill the mitzvah of pikuach nefesh, of saving lives.

Only those between the ages of 18-60 are eligible to register but there are other ways to participate – you can help volunteer, or simply spread the word. Your neighbors and friends who are age-eligible to register are welcome to come between services, so please invite them to participate. They do not need to be members of TBD or have High Holiday tickets. Jewish tradition suspends its regular rules for the purpose of saving a life, and so will we.

And of course, if you choose not to participate – if for some reason you feel that you just can’t – then not to worry, no one here will Mitzvah-Shame you. We only ask that you find something else that you CAN do. On Yom Kippur we are giving you the opportunity to start off right but the next 353 days of the Jewish year are up to you.

I know it’s not as easy as I make it sound,and that not all opportunities to give of yourselves are as easy and as a quick and painless cheek-swab, but I think that Jewish tradition isn’t trying to Mitzvah-shame us, even if that’s sometimes how it feels. I think Jewish tradition is trying to say to us that we have to overcome the challenges of giving – the financial challenges, the time-commitment challenges – and give anyway.

I know we are all stretched too far and too thin. But I also know that kol Yisrael aravim zeh l’zeh, each member of the Jewish people, and each member of the human race, is responsible for one another. And I know that if we don’t take care of our world no one else will.

I know that I am asking you to make your life a little harder so that someone else’s life can be a little easier; to give of yourself to someone else, even if it’s not easy or inexpensive or convenient.

There is a difference between knowing and doing.

Know that it is hard. And then do it anyway.

Kein Yehi Ratzon. May it be God’s Will.

The Case For Liberal Zionism: An Erev Rosh Hashanah Sermon

This summer was a challenging one for the Jewish people.

Israel, once again under attack. Another war; another round of us vs. them. Another deep sigh as we try to figure out what it all means; what we think and feel and believe; what we can realistically hope for.

Another frustrating round of media coverage and finger pointing, of hatred and labels: Anti-Israel, Anti-Palestinian, Antisemite. . . And so much death. No words can adequately express the tragedy of it all.

It feels endless and hopeless. It is sad and painful. It evokes questions we have difficulty answering.

Last month, I invited members of this community to join me in a dialogue about this summer’s war in Gaza; to bring their questions and thoughts to share.

One of the outcomes of that conversation, was a reminder of how important it is to be informed about Israel – to know what the issues are and how you feel about them – not only during times of crisis, but more importantly in some ways, during times of relative peace. So that when the conflict flares up again, we’re not caught off-guard – scrambling to catch up, overwhelmed by the media and social-media onslaught; trying to figure out what channel to watch, what print and online newspapers to read, who to believe, and to whom we should direct our financial support.

It’s so important to know where you stand in relation to Israel.

I am proud that during this critical summer we sent members of our own temple community to Israel along with family and friends from our local Church communities, to explore their own relationship to the country where both Jews and Christians feel deeply connected. During a time when others were criticizing Israel, we were affirming our support, and during a year where the UCC is contemplating boycotting Israel, this shared support is more important than ever.

And it’s not always easy to support Israel, even if you’ve been there. The challenges are varied and complex. They tug at our heartstrings; they touch deep, primal and tribal parts of us that maybe we didn’t even know we had; they put our values in tension with our loyalties.

And yet, it is important to have a clear statement of relationship; a place from which to begin; a point to which we can always return.

If there’s one thing I know for certain when it comes to where I stand in relation to Israel, it is this: I love Israel.

Let me say it another way: I am a lover of Zion – or, how’s this? – I am a Zionist.

ZIONISM.

When I say it, do you cringe? Are you wary? Curious? Could you confidently explain what it means?

The term Zionism was coined in 1890, a relatively new idea for a people dating back over two millennium. In general, it can be explained as a movement for people who hoped that Jews would one day be able to return to the land of Israel, not just as residents, but as an autonomous, self-governing people.

In 1948 that dream was realized and since then, Zionism has also come to mean the movement for those who care about the development of the State of Israel and its ability to protect and defend itself.

If you Google Zionism and scroll past the definitions and credible information, you will also find a lot of misunderstanding, misinformation and hatred. Zionism has come to be used as a dirty word by those who seek to make Jews look bad by equating it with colonialism and racism.

But Zionism is neither of those things.

Colonialism has been understood to mean, “living by exploiting others,” but the Zionist pioneers were idealists; city-dwelling Jews who strove to become farmers and laborers and live by the work of their own hands.

And as for Zionism being racist – an idea first promoted In 1975, when the UN adopted a resolution equating Zionism with racism – the accusation falls flat.

Racism is the belief that all members of a race possess characteristics or abilities specific to that race. It includes prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against those of different races based on the belief that one’s own race is superior.

Zionism, on the other hand, holds that Jews, like any other nation, are entitled to a homeland of their own. In other words, Zionist’s don’t claim entitlement to a homeland because they think Jews are superior to others, Zionist’s claim entitlement to a homeland because they believe that Jews are the SAME as others!

While Zionism recognizes that Jewishness is defined by shared origin, religion, culture and history, Zionism does not promote prejudice, discrimination or antagonism of those who are not Jewish, nor does it limit the definition of Jewishness to exclude particular visible ethnic or racial characteristics.

Fortunately, the UN’s equation of Zionism with racism has been reconsidered, and the General Assembly voted to repeal it in 1991.

But even after we’ve dispensed with the negative rhetoric, Zionism is no less easy to understand.

Although Zionism has been advocated by Jews of all kinds, from the political left, right and center, and from both religious and secular communities, disagreements in philosophy have led to rifts in the Zionist movement so that a number of separate forms of Zionism now exist including American, Christian, Messianic, Political, Practical, Religious, Revisionist, Socialist, Spiritual, Synthetic, Territorialist, and Liberal forms of Zionism (to name a few!).

Clearly, we don’t have time to define and discuss each of these this evening! But I do want to talk about Liberal Zionism with you, because I am a Liberal Zionist, and I want to share with you what that means to me and why I feel it is crucial to support liberal Zionist efforts.

If I can leave you with one summary of what it means to be a Zionist, it would be this one, put forth by Rabbi Josh Weinberg, who is the President of ARZA, the Association of Reform Zionists of America. He recently wrote that being a Zionist, “means to work to improve Israeli society and hold Israel up to high standards, in addition to wanting Israel to reflect our values.”

To me, being a liberal Zionist means that I want to see my values – the values of democracy, equality, freedom and justice, values that I also identify as ones coming from Torah – reflected throughout Israeli law and society. It means that I see Israel as extended family, and, just like with my immediate family, I love them even when I don’t agree with everything that they do; and sometimes I show that by lovingly sharing my concerns about their actions or choices, by making suggestions for how they can improve themselves and/or their relationships, and by offering to support them as they endeavor to make those changes.

Sometimes the support that they need is financial, but there are other ways to support family as well, and Israel, just like family, needs us to do more than just throw money at the problem.

We often feel powerless when faced with Israel’s myriad conflicts. Israel’s relationship with it’s neighbors is overwhelming enough, never mind all the societal concerns – the ethnic racism; the religious and gender inequalities. But how can we do that when we don’t live there when we can’t vote for the politicians and policies that might affect change?

Believe it or not, we can.

We can influence policy in Israel, and not just through our finances, although that, in and of itself, actually gives American Jews more pull than you might think, when it comes to political advocacy.

Many of you may not realize it, but there is a system in which YOU can vote, that directly influences political and social change in Israel.

That system is the World Zionist Organization. Often called the “Parliament of the Jewish people,” the WZO was convened in 1897 by Theodore Herzl, “the father of modern political Zionism.” At it’s inception the goal of the WZO was to unite the Jewish people and to bring about the establishment of the Jewish state. Today, it continues to try to unite the Jewish people and to support the now-established State of Israel.

The WZO is a global organization. International political parties, representing different groups of Jews around the world, compete in elections every five years to determine their number of delegates within the WZO. In addition, Jewish organizations like Hadassah and B’nai Brith have fixed representation, and Israel’s political parties are represented based on the number of seats they have in the Israeli government.

Reform Jews are represented in the WZO by the international party called Arzenu, which means “Our Land”. Arzenu’s mission is, “to imbue all Reform Jews with a common vision of Jewish peoplehood” and, “to see…Israel as the Jewish, democratic state inspired by Reform (and) Progressive values.” For liberal Zionists like me, voting for Arzeinu is the best way to ensure that those who share our values have a seat at the table where pressing matters about Israel are discussed, and have the ability to influence the decisions made there, which directly impact Israeli policy.

Why is this important? Here’s an example:

On behalf of the Reform Movement in Israel, Arzenu uses its position in the WZO to impact budget allocations in Israel with an eye to equality for all Jewish streams. This has led to the Reform movement in Israel receiving more federal & charitable funds than ever before, although they are certainly a long way from getting funded on par with the Orthodox communities.

Arzenu’s influence in the WZO is also important because it has established a Joint Faction with some of the important Israeli political parties. This Joint Faction allows them to influence the Israeli government and society with Reform Jewish values as a guide.

At the Zionist General Council meetings held in 2013, the Joint Faction was able to pass three resolutions, one of which called on the Israeli government to implement the establishment of egalitarian prayer at the Western Wall.

These resolutions were an important step in the creation, finally, of a state-sanctioned and funded section of the Western Wall where men and women can pray together, and where women can legally wear talitot and read from the Torah.

This summer, I stood in that place with a talis on my shoulders, with both men and women from our TBD community, and I wept with joy. It was the first time I truly felt at home in that most sacred place, the first time I felt that Israel, my homeland, validated and supported my religious choices instead of those who would prefer to sublimate them.

If Arzenu loses the ability to influence Israeli policy-makers then that amazing place might not exist next time you or I go to Israel, and all the progress made in the past year or so to gain religious and gender equality in Israel could easily be reversed.

This summer, the need for active and articulate liberal Zionists was clearer than ever. In response to the Gaza War, Rabbi Weinberg, who speaks on behalf of liberal Zionism in America, wrote the following words: “As a liberal Zionist, I take pride in the fact that we openly express sympathy for the loss of Palestinian life in Gaza, question the necessity of ground incursions and targeted strikes, and actively support Israel’s ongoing – but lesser known – humanitarian aid to the Palestinians…I take pride in the notion that we do not turn our back on Israel, even though we may be at times critical. We do not view our connection to or support for the Jewish State as conditional.” Rabbi Weinberg called on the Israeli government to look towards diplomatic steps toward lasting peace, to look to the international community, including the Arab states, as partners in the pursuit of peace, and in the rebuilding of Gaza.

Reading his words, and his call to action, I was proud to be a liberal Zionist, and grateful to have my values so clearly articulated for the public and the politicians to hear, in both Israel and North America.

If Rabbi Weinberg’s sentiments strike a chord in you as well; if you agree with all or even most of his points; if you found yourself nodding along or feeling relieved that someone was voicing your perspective, then you may be a Liberal Zionist.

Arzenu’s website states, “If you care about the Reform Movement in Israel, if you support egalitarian prayer, if you believe in freedom of religion, the right of Reform rabbis to conduct marriage, divorce, burial and conversion, if you believe that women should have equal status…” (then you are a Liberal Zionist).

And if you are, you may want to consider voting in the next WZO election, so that your voice can continue to be heard.

Often, we end discussions about Israel with the question, “What can we do?”; How can we ensure that Israel is a place that reflects not just our history and heritage but our values as well?

This is one answer.

If you’d like to know more about participating in the WZO elections then please refer to the postcards that were on your seats when you entered the room this evening. You can also find them in our lobby after services.

Our Sages taught, kol Yisrael aravim zeh l’zeh, each member of the Jewish people is responsible for the other.  After a summer like the one we just had; after far too many years of racial and religious inequality in the country we call home, we can no longer afford to be silent.

I am a Zionist.
I am a lover of Israel.

If you love Israel too, and you want to have a say in how the Jewish Homeland conducts itself, this is how you do it.

May we no longer sit idly by.

May we live to see a day when Israel is a true reflection of our values and of the values of Torah.

Kein Yehi Ratzon. May it be God’s will.