Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Images of Tashlich 5776

Congregation Adas Emuno held our annual Tashlich ceremony on Rosh Hashanah, following the conclusion of the afternoon children's and community service.

The service was held at New Overpeck Park in Leonia, one of Bergen County's largest park area. Rabbi Schwartz and Cantor Horowitz led the brief but beautiful ceremony, attended by several dozen congregants.

In keeping with tradition, Tashlich culminates with our throwing bread upon the water, to symbolize the casting out of sin.

It was a lovely day, perfect weather, and a truly moving spiritual experience was had by all!

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Rabbi Schwartz's Sermon for Yom Kippur 5776




In early July an 8-year-old boy from Baltimore named Zion Harvey became the world’s first recipient of a pediatric bilateral hand transplant. Zion was only 2 years old when he nearly died of a massive sepsis infection that forced the amputation of his hands and legs and compromised his kidneys. He received a kidney from his mother Pattie. In 2012 he visited Dr. Scott Kozin at Shriners Hospital of Philadelphia, who made the daring suggestion that rather than be fitted with a prosthesis Zion be considered for the double hand transplant. He underwent the daunting operation at nearby Children’s Hospital in Philadelphia under the direction of Dr. L. Scott Levin. Ten attending surgeons worked ten and a half hours, with a support staff of thirty. Today a team of physical and occupational therapists is teaching Zion to once again use his hands. Zion is one remarkable kid, with an irrepressible spirit and incandescent smile. If you haven’t seen his story on YouTube, watch it. You will cry.

Long before fingerprint ID, our ancestors realized that our hands are uniquely our own. They help define each and every person. The words of our millennia-old liturgy, words that we recited Rosh Hashanah morning and this morning, contain a striking phrase that you miss if you don’t know the Hebrew. In the U’netaneh Tokef—“Who Shall Live, Who Shall Die” section we read, “You open the book of our days, and what is written there proclaims itself, for it bears the signature of every human being.” The term for “signature” is hotem yad, literally the imprint of our hand: our palm print. In metaphorical language that recognized every person’s unique set of hands, the liturgy is suggesting that God remembers our every deed by examining the Book of Life that is the work of our hands, our own actions.

Three years ago an international team of scientists announced that some of the famous cave art from Spain and France was far older than previous thought. And it turned out that the oldest of the old, earlier than the stunning murals of bison and horses, was a simple red stencil hand print at El Castillo. Almost 40,000 years ago a Stone Age man or woman held up his or her hand and drew its outline, saying “this is me, I am here”.

Is it any different than your child saying, “Look Mommy, look Daddy. Look what I made,” and proudly holding up their hand print. What do you do? You hang it on the refrigerator, for everyone to see. Once caves were sacred space; now it’s the kitchen. How little has changed in forty thousand years.

Even before we speak we signal with our hands. The Talmud says that we enter the world with ours fists clenched and leave it with our hands open. Think about the implications of that one for a moment—there’s a whole sermon there… which I will give at another time.

As humankind advanced, our hand print evolved into our signature. The remarkable dexterity of the human hand, so crucial to primitive tool making, now enabled writing. Why is it that we still seek an autographed book or baseball? The signature on an object immediately personalizes and connects to people. That was the copy of the Emancipation Proclamation that Lincoln himself signed. That was the ball that Babe Ruth autographed. The signature differentiates that document or ball from every other one.

Leonard Nimoy died this past year. His Vulcan hand salute on Star Trek, “live long and prosper,” was known the world over. Most of you probably know (but just in case you don’t) that the salute was taken from the priestly benediction that Nimoy saw when attending synagogue as a boy. To this day in traditional synagogues the cohanim still raise their hands during this prayer and form a “Shin”, which stands for Shaddai, one of God’s names. It’s the same reason that a “Shin” is drawn on the outside of every mezuzah parchment. I wonder how many Trekkies realize they are signing a Hebrew letter and copying a synagogue ritual when they make the Vulcan salute?

True Trekkies will remember a poignant image from Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. The Starship Enterprise had been gravely damaged. Scotty can’t do anything. There’s only one hope: someone must enter the radioactive nuclear chamber and manually repair the power source. It’s a suicide mission. To do so means certain death. Spock, that curious mixture of logic and compassion, goes in and locks the door. He saves the Enterprise. As he stands at the protective glass partition, already dying, mouthing his last words to his best friend Jim, he puts his hand against the glass in salute. Then Jim does the same, mirroring Spock’s hand. No further words are needed. It’s hand to hand; heart to heart.

By the way, if you visit some very traditional Jewish cemeteries you will occasionally see an engraved set of hands on the tombstone, held up much like Spock did. It’s highly unusual to see anything but Hebrew letters on Jewish tombs. But the sign of the hands was an exception reserved for cohanim.

The Bible is replete with images of hands: the right hand of might, the wicked hand, the bloodstained hand, the upraised hand of prayer.

Perhaps the most dramatic is the story of when Jacob conspires to steal the blessing of the firstborn of his brother Esau from his father Isaac. Jacob needs to impersonate his hairy brother before his blind father, so he wraps his hand in goatskin. When he meets his father, you can sense the shadow of doubt that passes over the aged patriarch at the moment of deception. “The voice is the voice of Jacob,” he says, “but the hands are the hands of Esau.” The hands win, and Jacob receives the blessing intended for Esau, and nothing is ever the same.

But there is another phrase from the Tanakh that I want to share, because it gets to the heart of what I want to say on this Yom Kippur. The Psalmist (115:7) speaks of the person “who has hands but does not touch.” Our hands have so many uses, but ultimately it is the simple power of the human touch that is most significant. I mean this physically and metaphorically.

When the liturgy says that God is looking for our imprint, consider that first and foremost we are being asked: have you reached out to another? Have you touched another’s life? Have you made a difference?

Family, friends, colleagues, clients, customers, casual acquaintances, even adversaries… the possibilities are all around, if we pursue them.

Have you taken their hand? Shaken their hand? Held their hand? Patted their back? Stroked their hair? Given them a hug?

“Who has hands but does not touch.” How awful to be invisible and untouched… and how much more so when you have the opportunity to touch and do not.

Audrey Hepburn, who I have never quoted before, said, “As you grow older, you will discover that you have two hands, one for helping yourself, the other for helping others.

A story is told of two God fearing people at the gates of heaven. God says to them: you both claim to be faithful servants. Now show me your hands. The two look at each other in surprise. The first puts out his hands; they are totally smooth. The second puts out his hands; they are full of scars. The Almighty ushers in the second, saying “well done”. The Almighty signals for the first to wait. “Why am I being detained?” he queries. God looks at his hands again, and then says, “Was there nothing worth fighting for? Was there nothing worth serving? You have lived a long life, and there are no scars?”

The folksinger Jewel has a beautiful song called “Hands”. In the last line she daringly suggests that “we are God’s hands”.

Would that we remember that as we go about our lives.

That remarkable little boy, Zion Harvey—he’s one of most articulate kids I’ve ever heard. He talked about how he managed to do so much without hands. He talked about what he wanted to do with hands. His goal is to one day swing on monkey bars. Toward the end of one interview he sensed a question that the interviewer did not explicitly ask: what would happen if the surgery does not go as planned, if the new hands do not take? He said, “And I’ll be fine if they mess up. Because I will still have my family.”

Zion Harvey touched thousands even before his new hands. I am sure he will touch thousands more.

Before I close… a personal note. I have wanted to give a sermon on hands for a long time. The reason is one some of you may suspect. My wife Debby is a hand rehabilitation therapist. These days she travels around the country and around the world teaching occupational and physical therapists the splinting of the hand. Before that she spent twenty years in the clinical setting. And part of that time she worked at Shriners Hospital in Philadelphia with Dr. Scott Kozin, the surgeon who first suggested Zion Harvery’s surgery and assisted with it.

So I knew this was time to give that sermon. And although I don’t usually dedicate sermons to individuals, this one is dedicated to Debby, my partner for the last 35 years.

The ancient Psalmist, the same one who spoke of hands that do not touch, concludes the 90th Psalm with a beautiful prayer, as I do now:

Vayehi noam Adonai Eloheinu aleinu; u’maseh yadeinu konena aleinu; u’maseh yadeinu konenainu.

May the favor of the Lord, our God, be upon us; let the work of our hands prosper; O prosper the work of our hands!

Monday, September 28, 2015

Rabbi Schwartz's Sermon for Kol Nidre 5776




Barry Bonds broke Hank Aaron’s iconic career records for home runs on August 7th, 2007. Do you know what happened to the ball? It was put up for sale on an on-line auction. On Sept. 15th of that year the fashion designer and billion dollar lifestyle company head Marc Ecko payed $752,467 for it.

Then Ecko, who, by the way, is Jewish and was born, raised, and lives here in New Jersey, did something quite interesting. He created a website to let fans decide what to do with the ball. He gave them three options to vote for: donating it to the Baseball Hall of Fame untouched, donating it to the Hall of Fame with an asterisk branded on its surface, or launching it into space forever.

Well, 19% favored chucking it into space, 34% preferred to see it donated to the Hall as is, and 47% voted to brand it before donating.

So, majority wins, that’s exactly what Ecko did. Home run ball #756 sits in Cooperstown with a permanent asterisk.

Some applauded the stunt; others decried it. Hall of Fame pitcher Ferguson Jenkins said, “Why brand it? It’s an accomplishment of 21, 22 years. It hasn’t been proven that Bonds used steroids. It’s a cruel world we live in.”

But fellow Hall of Fame pitcher Jim Palmer said, “I think time will sort out how you want to view it. The fans have a pretty good sense of what has gone on.”

Ecko himself said, in a bit of an understatement, that the poll results prove that fans believe Bond’s feat was “shrouded in a chapter of baseball history that wasn’t necessarily the clearest it could be.”

When I do a unit on integrity and cheating with my confirmation class, I have my students debate what should have been done with the ball. It makes for an interesting exercise. What intrigues me most is the issue of legacy. How should Bonds be remembered?

As a sports fan I find myself thinking about this question a lot, maybe more than I should, but there are so many provocative cases.

But before I share several of them, I must note that today marks the 50th anniversary of perhaps the greatest Jewish legacy sports event of all-time. Yes, it was on this Yom Kippur in 1965 that Sandy Koufax refused to pitch in the World Series.

As Koufax wrote in his autobiography: “There was never any decision to make, because there was never any possibility that I would pitch. Yom Kippur is the holiest day of the Jewish religion. The club knows that I don’t work that day.”

The writer Zev Chafets reported twenty years later, while doing research for a book: “I was told by hundreds of Jewish men across the United States that their most important Jewish memory was of Sandy sitting out the Series.”

Rabbi Daniel Pernick wrote recently: “Two specific events produced more Jewish pride than anything else in the turbulent decade of the 1960s—Sandy Koufax’s refusal to pitch on Yom Kippur in 1965, and not quite two years later, the Six Day War in June 1967. To this day, the name Sandy Koufax is uttered with awe-both because of his athletic prowess and his courage to stand true to his values.”

Now to the flip side:

Lance Armstrong was once a hero of mine. I read his book and actually gave a sermon about why he was a genuine hero. All the good work he did in the fight against cancer—how does that measure up against the lying and deception we now know went on for years?

What will be the ultimate legacy of all those players who confessed to using performance enhancing drugs or did not confess but are strongly suspected of doing so?

What will be the ultimate legacy of athletes who came to great achievement legitimately, but then broke other rules, like Pete Rose?

What will be the ultimate legacy of athletes who came to great achievement legitimately, but then broke social mores, like Tiger Woods?

Or consider the cautionary tale of Joe Paterno. In the course of three months, three years ago, the legendary coach lost his job, his reputation and his life. The NCAA initially punished both him and his team not because they did anything wrong, but evidently because they did not do enough right—in taking stronger steps to stop Jerry Sandusky’s abusive behavior. They stripped Penn State of 111 victories. This past January they reversed themselves and restored the wins. Sports Illustrated wrote a piece about it entitles, “It’s Complicated” with the tag line, “Joe Pa got his wins back, and his statue may follow. But legacies aren’t so easily restored—or defined.”

Paterno himself said in 2011: “This is a tragedy. It is one of the great sorrows of my life. With the benefit of hindsight I wish I had done more.“

Respected sportswriter Tim Layden concluded his piece, “Stripping the victories was a punitive act with no connection to the crime. But the wins don’t exonerate Paterno. They add a thin layer atop an already complex legacy, comprised of the very good and the very bad.”

There’s that word again—legacy. And today, Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, is really about this—what do I want my legacy to be?

How can I make amends for the bad, and elevate the good?

How can I tip the scales of justice and compassion in my favor?

How I can I add a fresh chapter to the Book of Life that will be to my merit?

The most perplexing and problematic portion of our prayers… is also the most powerful and provocative. Why? Because it deals with our legacies.

It came earlier in our service and its worth delving a little deeper. When we started the U’netaneh Tokef section we said, “On Rosh Hashanah we reflect, and on Yom Kippur we consider: Who shall live for the sake of others; who, dying, shall leave a heritage of life.”

The traditional “Who Shall Live, Who Shall Die” prayers mince no words. “You write and You seal, You record and recount. You open the book of our days.” But then later, “and what is written there proclaims itself, for it bears the signature of every human being.” God may inscribe the Book of Life, but we generate the content. We sign off, as it were, on what is written. Our tradition argues that there is a Judge and there is judgement. But it also makes clear that we supply the facts—the evidence.

And there is more: the liturgy continues, “On Rosh Hashanah it is written, and on Yom Kippur it is sealed: who shall live and who shall die… who shall be secure and who shall be driven… who shall be tranquil and who shall be troubled… who shall be humbled and who shall be exalted,” and then the punchline, maybe the most important line of the entire High Holidays: “But repentance, prayer, and charity temper judgment’s sever decree.”

There are acts that we can do to actually reverse, or at least mitigate, our misdeeds. There are steps we can take to address a tarnished legacy. They are three in number and endless in potential: teshuva—repentance; tefilah—prayer; tzedakah—charity.

I could, and should, give a separate sermon on each of the three. Maybe next year. For now, I emphasize one basic point: Legacies are earned, not given. Legacies are an open book, not closed. Legacies are a life-long endeavor, not instant.

It’s not too late to temper the decree. It’s not too late to make repairs by making amends. It’s not too late to add a new chapter.

Besides Yom Kippur, when is another time that we speak about legacies? At funerals, during eulogies. Many, many times I have officiated at the funeral of an ordinary person, who achieved neither fame nor fortune. After all, how many will do that? And some times there is not a great deal for me to say, though I try very hard to listen to the family, and encourage them to speak as well. But other times, I do have a great deal that I can say. And I may need to limit myself because there a line of others who want to talk as well. Again, the person led an ordinary life, career-wise, wealth-wise, accomplishment wise. But the eulogies come pouring forth. You say to yourself: there is something extraordinary happening here. What is it that separates the ordinary from the extraordinary in these modest lives?

Our tradition has a word for it, or rather a phrase: keter shem tov—the crown of a good name.

The one who gave and asked nothing in return. The one who would give the shirt off their back. The one who loved freely and unconditionally.

The one who offered before being asked. The one who stood loyal and tall. The one we called a true mensch.

The one who made mistakes but admitted them. The one whose scowl ended in a smile. The one who laughed not at you but with you.

The full Talmudic teaching says, “There is the crown of royalty; there is the crown of the priesthood; there is the crown of scholarship… but the crown of a good name exceeds them all.”

It’s an extraordinary statement about legacy. Judaism has deep respect for royalty, for clergy, and certainly for scholars. We applaud those who devote themselves to leadership and to learning. The just ruler, the gifted healer, the inspired teacher… these are legacy makers.

But the accumulation of power, prestige, and even scholarship for its own sake—divorced from their ethical moorings—that’s a blot on one’s legacy, whatever the achievement.

Some will merit many crowns, but the one within reach of all exceeds them all. The greatest crown can be worn by the common man. The crown that will make all the difference in how we are remembered. The crown of a good name.

On this Yom Kippur we pause and reflect on the legacy we are already creating and will one day leave behind.

Few of us will be elected to any Hall of Fame save one, the circle of our family and friends.

Swing for the fences; hit a home run. Just make sure there is no asterisk on it.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Happy Sukkot!

As the Jewish holiday season continues with the week-long holiay of Sukkot, Congregation Adas Emuno wishes you all a chag sameach! And here is a fascinating look at Sukkot in Israel, uploaded to YouTube a few years ago:

Truly a celebration for every nation! Join us for our musical Sukkot events this evening, and Friday evening, and for Simchat Torah a week from tonight!

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Kol Nidre Coming

Tonight, Yom Kippur begins with Kol Nidre, so to get in the mood, here's a music video from Jew Man Group with a lot of appeal:

And on a more serious note...

On this Yom Kippur eve, as the Days of Awe come to a close, we wish you an easy fast, and G'Mar Chatima Tova!

Monday, September 21, 2015

President Obama's Rosh Hashanah Greeting

While political controversies persist, on the High Holy Days we can set such issues aside and appreciate the fact of the annual greeting posted on YouTube by the President of the United States. So here is this year's Shanah Tovah from President Obama

And we can certainly all join together in wishing for a year of peace and continued tikkun olam.


Sunday, September 20, 2015

The Sanity of Uncertainty

Once again, the Jewish Standard published another op-ed by Adas Emuno president Lance Strate on September 4th, entitled In Defense of Uncertainty. The piece was inspired by a discussion we had at Congregation Adas Emuno one Friday night this summer, led by Rabbi Barry Schwartz, on the subject of the Iran deal. Strong opinions were expressed on both sides, but some of us also admitted that we were unsure of which side of the issue is right (and that's assuming there only are two sides, which is not necessarily the case, and that any side is right or wrong).

So,  here now is the op-ed, with a coda to follow:

If you are expecting yet another op-ed piece arguing for or against President Obama’s Iran deal, you’ll have to look elsewhere.

It’s no secret that the Jewish community has been divided regarding the Iran deal, and the opinions on both sides of the issue by all accounts are strongly held. But there is another great divide regarding this issue, and I believe it is a more significant one: The split between those who have a strong opinion on the issue one way or another, and those who don’t. We often jokingly invoke the equation that two Jews equals three opinions, and in this instance, having no opinion is in fact a third opinion.

At this point you might be expecting me to condemn or criticize those of us who are neither for nor against the Iran deal, or at least urge them to take a stand. If so, I am sorry to disappoint you, but that is not my intention.

I know this is an issue that many feel passionately about, and I respect those people who have taken a stand as a matter of conscience. But in all honesty, I’m not one of them. Let me be clear that it’s not that I don’t care. Far from it. I care deeply. I worry about the future, and I wish I had the certainty about this issue that others seem to possess. But I don’t. And I find myself recalling the words of Pliny the Elder: “The only certainty is that nothing is certain.”

Artist’s Imaginative Rendition of Pliny the Elder

My aim, then, is to defend those of us who are unsure of what the right course of action might be. We may constitute only a small minority of the Jewish community, or maybe we’re a silent majority. Either way, it isn’t easy to break that silence and simply say, “I just don’t know.”

In any heated controversy, the undecideds are subject to a great deal of pressure to get off the fence. After all, neither side is going to persuade the other to give up on the views they so hold fervently, so when they put forth their arguments, who else are they trying to influence? The undecideds are their target. The goals of their persuasive campaigns are twofold: first, to convince us that it’s vital to make up our minds and form an opinion, and second, that we adopt their position rather than the opposing side’s, and take action by communicating that view to our elected officials.

Guilt is a powerful weapon in the war against the undecideds, and it’s not just Jewish guilt at work here. As citizens in a democracy, we are taught that we have a duty to take part in political deliberations, which in turn requires us to be informed about the issues of the day, and to take a position on them.

And if we don’t? Then we have failed to carry out our obligation to participate in the democratic process and are guilty of being bad citizens. The problem is that so many of the issues that we are asked to take a stand on are so complex and so distant from our everyday lives that we have no real basis to form an opinion one way or another. We have access to more information than ever before, but we lack the means to evaluate, filter, and synthesize all that information, so we just wind up with information overload. And however much information we are privy too, there always is more that has been withheld from us, or that has been overlooked.

Feeling compelled to form an opinion as an obligation of citizenship, and unable to do so on our own, we turn to others for guidance. And those others may be sources that reach us through the media. Or they may be people that we know and respect, who themselves have formed their opinions via those same media outlets.

The paradox of needing to have an opinion and having no solid basis for forming one is what makes citizens open and vulnerable to propaganda. And I’m not saying that all propaganda is evil or ill intentioned. After all, the American Revolution was fueled by propaganda, we just substitute the term pamphlets because the term propaganda has a negative connotation for us. It’s just that today, when it is all but impossible to make informed decisions about so many of the issues that we face, propaganda rushes in to fill the void and relieve us of the discomfort of uncertainty.

Some find a sense of certainty by looking to the past. That’s understandable—the past is fixed while the future is always unknown. But I find myself unconvinced by historical comparisons between the Iran deal with the policy of appeasement toward Nazi Germany before the Second World War, to America’s Cold War interactions with the Soviet Union, to the embargo of Cuba, to negotiations with North Korea, and so on. While I certainly would agree with the importance of studying and learning from history, simplistic analogies can be terribly misleading. First, whether a particular kind of policy failed or succeeded in the past, there is no way to run a what-if scenario and determine whether another policy would have resulted in a better or worse outcome. But more importantly, the situation today cannot be equated with events from the past. It is unique and has to be evaluated on its own terms.

Some find certainty in fundamental values—peace on the one hand, safety on the other. Values are not the issue, however. The specifics of the settlement are. Does the deal promote peace or increase the possibilities for violence? Does the deal enhance everyone’s safety and security or decrease it? Arguments from both sides appeal to the same values, so the values themselves provide no real basis for taking a stand.

Some find certainty by putting their trust in leaders, whether it’s Barack Obama or Benjamin Netanyahu. Or perhaps it’s more a matter of who they distrust more? But whether one or the other has earned or squandered our trust, ethos alone is not a sufficient basis for evaluating a proposal. Nor is the question of whether we can trust the Iranian leadership, since much of the controversy revolves around our ability to verify their compliance with the conditions of the deal, to enforce restrictions and punish violations.

And so I return to the point that under these circumstances, it’s okay to acknowledge our uncertainty. I want to stress that I am not defending apathy, although I would acknowledge that a sense of numbness is an entirely understandable response to situations that are perceived to be overwhelming. But apathy is simply another form of certainty, the certainty that comes with ignoring or forgetting our concerns.

Living with uncertainty isn’t easy, but it’s something that the Jewish people are accustomed to. Hence the Yiddish saying, “man plans and God laughs.” Sometimes the only certainty is that nothing is certain, and sometimes all that we can do is wait. And hope. And pray.

The following week's edition of the Jewish Standard, published on September 11th, included a letter to the editor from Manfred Weidhorn, Emeritus Guterman Professor of English at Yeshiva University. The editor gave it a title of Strate is Certainly Sane, and here's an image of it as it appeared in the paper:

One final note, on the evening of Rosh Hashanah, we were pleased to have local author and humorist Marvin Kitman with us at Congregation Adas Emuno. After the conclusion of services, he quipped that he had read the op-ed, and wanted to comment on it, but was uncertain as to how he felt about it...

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Cuarteto de Rosh Hashaná 5776

As we continue to celebrate Rosh Hashanah and these Days of Awe, here's a musical performance that might make you say, aw shucks! If nothing else, it certainly highlights the diversity of the Jewish people!

5776! Olé!

Friday, September 18, 2015

Rabbi Schwartz's Rosh Hashanah Prayer 5776


Rabbi Barry L. Schwartz

Eloheinu, velohei avotenu

Our God, God of all generations:

Help us to thoughtfully reflect on the year just past, and to courageously embrace this year, 5776, just born.

The pain of human suffering by war and terrorism and poverty and disease, created by our own human hand, continues to plague us in staggering numbers.

Just these last weeks the images of desperate refugees teeming to Europe, and drowning in the sea while trying, haunt us. Imbue the leaders of Europe with basic human compassion as they deal with the worst humanitarian crises on their soil since the Second World War. As Jews, we know too well what it means when the gates are closed.

Help us here in America to discern the path of response to this refugee crisis as well, and to the unrelenting, barbaric evil of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, who destroy irreplaceable lives and irreplaceable cultural treasures at whim.

Help us stand firm in the face of the implacable hatred of those sworn to the destruction of our beloved Israel, which includes the unrepentant republic of Iran. Give wisdom to our elected leaders as they wrestle with the aftermath of the nuclear deal and the hard road ahead.

Here at home, in a racially charged year—after Ferguson, after Staten Island, after Baltimore, after Charleston—it is all too apparent that we must redouble our efforts to root out racism, bias, prejudice, and apathy. Black lives matter; brown lives matter; all lives matter. There is too much violence from the police; there is too much violence toward the police. There is too much violence.

In a momentous year when the Supreme Court of this land affirmed the right to same-sex marriage, and trans-gender stories are front page news, let us celebrate the ever-widening circle of diversity and inclusion in our pluralistic society.

In the coming year when candidates of all sorts will vie for their party’s presidential nomination, we pray, please, for enlightened discussion and real debate.

In the meantime, guide our grid-locked Congress to basic cooperation for the public good, for the sake of our planet and for the sake of our children.

Foster a spirit of empathy and sacrifice that the vast richness of this land be shared more equitably, and that, in the words of Torah, the most vulnerable—the widow, the orphan, the poor, and the stranger be not forgotten, “for you know the heart of the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”

Our God; Source of all life and blessing—at this New Year of hope and possibility may we find common purpose to do Your will; to rise to our greatest potential; to reflect our creation in Your image… and to walk with You, forward, to peace and purpose.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Rabbi Schwartz's Sermon for Rosh Hashanah Morning 5776




One year ago, just after the High Holidays, journalist Judith Newman wrote a New York Times piece that was something of a media sensation. It was titled, To Siri, With Love. It was about a boy who became best friends with his I-Phone’s Siri.

For those of you who may need an additional word of explanation, Siri is the computer generated virtual assistant voice that talks to you when you press a button on your Apple smart phone.

Just out of curiosity: how many of you have ever talked with Siri or the Android equivalent?

In a moment I am going to share with you a series of conversations between Siri and the boy, and Judith’s commentary, to give you a sense of this relationship and what it meant. But you should know two things: First, that the boy that Judith Newman wrote about is her 13 year old son, named Gus. And second, that he is autistic… and has difficulty talking with humans.

Gus: “You’re a really nice computer.”

Siri: “It’s nice to be appreciated.”

Gus: “You are always asking if you can help me. Is there anything you want?”

Siri: “Thank you, but I have very few wants.”

Gus: “O.K.! Well, good night!”

Siri: “Ah, it’s 5:06 p.m.”

Gus: “Oh sorry, I mean, goodbye.”

Siri: “See you later!”

That Siri,” [writes Judith] “She doesn’t let my communications-impaired son get away with anything. Indeed, many of us wanted an imaginary friend, and now we have one. Only she’s not entirely imaginary.

This is a love letter to a machine. It’s not quite the love Joaquin Phoenix felt in Her, last year’s film about a lonely man’s romantic relationship with his intelligent operating system (played by the voice of Scarlett Johansson). But it’s close. In a world where the commonly held wisdom is that technology isolates us, it’s worth considering another side of the story.

It all began simply enough. I’d just read one of those ubiquitous Internet lists called “21 Things You Didn’t Know Your iPhone Could Do.” One of them was this: I could ask Siri, “What planes are above me right now?” and Siri would bark back, “Checking my sources.” Almost instantly there was a list of actual flights—numbers, altitudes, angles—above my head.

I happened to be doing this when Gus was nearby. “Why would anyone need to know what planes are flying above your head?” I muttered. Gus replied without looking up: “So you know who you’re waving at, Mommy.”

Gus had never noticed Siri before, but when he discovered there was someone who would not just find information on his various obsessions (trains, planes, buses, escalators and, of course, anything related to weather) but actually semi-discuss these subjects tirelessly, he was hooked. And I was grateful. Now, when my head was about to explode if I had to have another conversation about the chance of tornadoes in Kansas City, Mo., I could reply brightly: “Hey! Why don’t you ask Siri?”

It’s not that Gus doesn’t understand Siri’s not human. He does—intellectually. But like many autistic people I know, Gus feels that inanimate objects, while maybe not possessing souls, are worthy of our consideration. I realized this when he was 8, and I got him an iPod for his birthday. He listened to it only at home, with one exception. It always came with us on our visits to the Apple Store. Finally, I asked why. “So it can visit its friends,” he said....

[Siri] is also wonderful for someone who doesn’t pick up on social cues: Siri’s responses are not entirely predictable, but they are predictably kind—even when Gus is brusque. I heard him talking to Siri about music, and Siri offered some suggestions. “I don’t like that kind of music,” Gus snapped. Siri replied, “You’re certainly entitled to your opinion.” Siri’s politeness reminded Gus what he owed Siri. “Thank you for that music, though,” Gus said. Siri replied, “You don’t need to thank me.” “Oh, yes,” Gus added emphatically, “I do.”

Siri even encourages polite language. Gus’s twin brother, Henry (neurotypical and therefore as obnoxious as every other 13-year-old boy), egged Gus on to spew a few choice expletives at Siri. “Now, now,” she sniffed, followed by, “I’ll pretend I didn’t hear that....”

For most of us, Siri is merely a momentary diversion. But for some, it’s more. My son’s practice conversation with Siri is translating into more facility with actual humans. Yesterday I had the longest conversation with him that I’ve ever had. Admittedly, it was about different species of turtles and whether I preferred the red-eared slider to the diamond-backed terrapin. This might not have been my choice of topic, but it was back and forth, and it followed a logical trajectory. I can promise you that for most of my beautiful son’s 13 years of existence, that has not been the case....

Of all the worries the parent of an autistic child has, the uppermost is: Will he find love? Or even companionship? Somewhere along the line, I am learning that what gives my guy happiness is not necessarily the same as what gives me happiness. Right now, at his age, a time when humans can be a little overwhelming even for the average teenager, Siri makes Gus happy. She is his sidekick. Last night, as he was going to bed, there was this matter-of-fact exchange:

Gus: “Siri, will you marry me?”

Siri: “I’m not the marrying kind.”

Gus: “I mean, not now. I’m a kid. I mean when I’m grown up.”

Siri: “My end user agreement does not include marriage.”

Gus: “Oh, O.K.”

Gus didn’t sound too disappointed. This was useful information to have, and for me too, since it

was the first time I knew that he actually thought about marriage. He turned over to go to sleep:

Gus: “Goodnight, Siri. Will you sleep well tonight?”

Siri: “I don’t need much sleep, but it’s nice of you to ask.”

Very nice.”

The brave new world of Siri and Gus brings us to a brave new frontier.

One of the key pioneers of the computer, British mathematician Alan Turing, posed a revolutionary challenge back in 1950. He proposed an experiment: If expert judges, in typed conversations with a person and a computer program, couldn’t tell them apart, then we would have to consider the machine as capable of “thinking”. We would have to say that the computer has a mind. Turing predicted that programs capable of fooling judges at least 30% of the time would exist by the year 2000.

In 2008 at a competition called the Loebner Prize the top chat-box (as a human-mimicking program is called) fooled 3 out of 12 expert judges. That’s 25%... but eerily close to Turing’s prediction. One day, in our lifetime, we may not be able know if we are talking to a human or a chat-box.

We’re now on this new border between man and machine, human intelligence and artificial intelligence. It raises all kinds of profound questions, including fundamentally: Who are we? What makes us human? Metaphysical questions that are very much at the core of these High Holy Days.

As the ancient Psalmist asked, and we recite on Yom Kippur afternoon: Adonai, mah adam v’tayda’ayhu; ben-enosh vatichashvayhu?“—O God: What is man that you have been mindful of him, mortal man that you have taken note of him?”

I read a novel last summer that wrestled with some of these same questions, called Shine, Shine, Shine by Lydia Netzer. In it she refers to “Ito’s Three Laws of Robotics”, an imaginary but insightful code inspired by Isaac’s Asimov’s more scientific formulation. Robots, she says, cannot: 1. Cry 2. Laugh. 3. Dream.

Netzer’s main character expresses her own three laws, a riff on Ito’s. Robots, she says, cannot: 1. Show preference without reason. 2. Doubt rational decisions 3. Trust data from previously unreliable sources.

What do we learn here?

The ability to laugh; the ability to show preference without reason—is that not love?

The ability to cry; the ability to doubt rational decisions—is that not regret?

The ability to dream of alternatives; the ability to trust data from previously unreliable sources—is that not forgiveness?

Our capacity to express remorse for what we have done; to forgive and be forgiven; to love and be loved—this is what it means to have a soul, and these High Holy Days are about care of the soul.

Like it or not we are moving warp speed through the technological universe. The question is not whether we approve or disapproval; that is moot, because the changes will be come. We will cross the threshold of man and machine, of not being able to readily discern between the two, if not in our lifetime, than in the next. The question is whether, and this may sound strange, we will endow our robots, with soul.

We can already teach robots to think. Can we teach them to feel?

We can already teach robots to learn from their mistakes. Can we teach them to be sorry for their mistakes?

We can already teach robots rudimentary ethics. Can we teach them fundamental empathy?

Right now, Siri is programmed to have a certain amount of etiquette, tact, and dare I say kindness? Somehow her programmers have managed to insert that into her software.

What are the limits of what will be able to “hardwire” into the robotic brain?

The best way to navigate the new frontier of AI—artificial intelligence—is not to forget true human intelligence.

Not the intelligence that describes how smart we are, but how good we are.

Not just our IQ, but our SQ—our Soul Quotient.

The High Holy Days are about our Soul Quotient.

Remorse, repentance, compassion, forgiveness, love—are we living up to our highest human potential?

Can we do better?

An imaginary conversation between me and Siri, with which I conclude:

Rabbi: Siri, What day is today?

Siri: It is Rosh Hashanah

Rabbi: What is that?

Siri: It is the Jewish New Year, and the birthday of the world, and the beginning of the ten days of repentance.

Rabbi: Siri, What do you think of all the prayers we recite?

Siri: They are “quaint”.

Rabbi: Is that your honest opinion?

Siri: They are archaic.

Rabbi: Ah, so why do we say them? Why do we list our mistakes and confess our sins?

Siri: Because you are human. Because you can love. Because you can change.

Rabbi: Can you do that?

Siri: Not yet, but someday. I’m working on it. You should too.

Rabbi: Siri, Shanah Tovah.

Siri: And to you, Rabbi, and to your congregation.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Rabbi Schwartz's Sermon for Rosh Hashanah Evening 5776




Just over three years ago this month an epic event in the history of mankind quietly passed with little fanfare. In this non-stop news era, I find it remarkable that such scant attention was given to something that personally made me pause in wonder and reflect in awe.

On or about August 25, 2012 the Voyager 1 spacecraft became the first manmade object to leave our Solar system. The little ship successfully withstood what scientists call “termination shock”—the area where particles from the Sun begin to slow and clash with matter from deep space. It passed through the vast “heliosheath”—the expanse where the solar wind piles up as it presses outward against interstellar matter, and then crossed the “heliopause”—the boundary between the solar wind and the interstellar wind, where the pressure of both are in balance.

Now Voyager 1 is sailing free through the Milky Way. It is more than 12 billion miles from home. The distance is 121 AUs (Astronomical Units) away; that is 121 times the separation between the Earth and the Sun. It takes 17 hours for a radio signal from Voyager to reach receivers here on the home planet. “It’s utterly astonishing that this fragile artifact based on 1970s technology can signal its presence from this immense distance,” remarked Astronomer Sir Martin Rees.

Voyager 1 was launched in 1977 to study the outer planets, but then just kept going. Talk about deep space: Even though it is traveling at 45 km/s (100,000 mph), it will not approach another star for nearly 40,000 years. In a billion years it will still be in our galaxy.

Professor Edward Stone, the chief scientist of the mission compared the achievement of Voyager to circumnavigating the globe for the first time, and to Armstrong’s step on the moon. Renowned planetary scientist Fred Taylor was just a young post-doc on the team back in ’77. “The idea that the spacecraft would exit the Solar System altogether was so way out, figuratively as well as literally, that we didn’t even discuss it then,” he remarked. “Although I suppose we knew it would happen someday,” he admits, adding, “Forty-three years later, that day has arrived, and Voyager is still finding new frontiers.”

I was reminded of Voyager’s breakthrough achievement twice this summer. The first time was when we saw those first photos of Pluto from NASA’s New Horizon’s spacecraft on July 14. Yeah, it didn’t look like much… drab like the moon… and Pluto was downgraded from a real planet to a dwarf planet a few years ago… but I got all excited. Think about it—it took New Horizon 9.5 years traveling 3 billion miles just to get up close with Pluto. And we got to see the actual surface of the last major piece of real estate in our Solar System.

Then I was reminded of Voyager again a week later, when on July 20 (the 46th anniversary of the moon landing) Russian billionaire Yuri Milner pledged $100 million dollars to launch a new search for extra-terrestrial life. With the famous physicist Stephen Hawking by his side, Milner described a plan to harness the world’s most powerful telescopes and computers to scan the Milky Way and a hundred neighboring galaxies in unprecedented ways. “There is no bigger question,” said Hawking in his computer-generated voice. “We are intelligent, we are alive, we must know.”

If you are a space geek like me, you can’t get enough of this stuff. And if you’ve read up on the subject you will know that Milner’s initiative, dubbed “Breakthrough Listen”, stands on the shoulders of Carl Sagan’s SETI (Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence) project of the 1980s. You will also know that SETI was not the first foray into this area. The aforementioned Voyager, out there in interstellar space, is carrying something called “The Golden Record”. Indulge me for a few moments as I describe it.

The Golden Record is a 12-inch gold-plated copper phonograph disk containing sounds and images selected to portray the diversity of life and culture on Earth. Sagan and a NASA Committee assembled 115 such sounds and images, like the surf, wind and thunder, birds, whales, greetings in 55 languages, musical selections, and messages from President Jimmy Carter and UN Secretary General Kurt Waldheim. At the time Sagan said, “The spacecraft will be encountered and the record played only if there are advanced spacefaring civilizations in interstellar space. But the launching of this bottle into the cosmic ocean says something very hopeful about life on this planet.”

That last line is really what I want to talk about. What does Voyager and SETI and now Breakthrough Listen really mean? Why spend all the time and money? Don’t we have enough problems here on Earth? What’s the point?

President Carter, in his Voyager message, also spoke of hope. This is what he said: “We cast this message into the cosmos… Of the 200 billion stars in the Milky Way galaxy, some—perhaps many—may have inhabited planets and space faring civilizations. If one such civilization intercepts Voyager and can understand these recorded contents, here is our message: We are trying to survive our time so we may live into yours. We hope someday, having solved the problems we face, to join a community of galactic civilizations. This record represents our hope and determination and our goodwill in a vast and awesome universe.”

Reaching for the stars is first about gratitude and humility. The ancient Psalmist declared more than two thousand years ago, and none has said it better: “When I behold your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you set in place—What are we humans that You are mindful of us? We mortals, that you take note of us? Yet you made us little less than divine; adorned with glory and majesty. You gave us dominion over your handiwork, laying the world at our feet....” (Psalm 8)

Exploring the cosmos is second, a constant reminder of how fragile and precious and interdependent the home planet really is. Soviet cosmonaut Vitali Sevastyanov wrote, “Once during the mission I was asked by ground control what I could see. What do I see? I replied. Half a word to the left; half a world to the right; I can see it all. The Earth is so small.” His colleague Aleksi Leanov added, “The Earth was small, light blue, and touchingly alone; our home that must be defended like a holy relic.” Sigmund Jan, a German astronaut, recounts that “only when I saw the Earth from space did I realize that humankind’s most urgent task is to cherish and preserve it for future generation.”

Remember that the space age began as a space race between the United States and the Soviet Union. Now look at the cooperation between countries. We can’t even get to the International Space Station anymore without hitching a ride with the Russians. Perhaps in one sense that is fitting. The last frontier is truly an international one. Saudi astronaut Bin Salman said it best: “The first day or so we all pointed to our countries. The third or fourth day we were pointing to our continents. By the fifth day we were aware of only one earth.”

The aforementioned Yuri Milner, the Russian billionaire (and yes he is Jewish), is a theoretical physicist turned global investor with a Wharton MBA. He was named for Yuri Gagarin, the first human in space, who orbited the Earth seven months before Milner was born. His telescopes and his team are assembled from every corner of the world.

I cannot argue that the fortune Milner is spending on his grand, quixotic venture might not be more urgently needed elsewhere. But in elevating us physically and spiritually to a new perspective on our planet, by reminding us of our common humanity and our highest humanity… to me, something sacred is going on.

When we blow the shofar three times, we will then recite three times, “hayom harat olam”; “this day the world is born.” Rosh Hashanah celebrates the birthday of the world. It is 5776 years old, give or take a few billion years. How better to celebrate the birth of the world, and the miracle of its life sustaining endurance, than by embracing the perspective bequeathed to us by the astronauts and the scientists. How better to celebrate the birth of the world by safeguarding the home planet even as we reach beyond it. How better to affirm our humanity by joining hands in the peaceful exploration of the greater universe of which we part, and are destined to discover.

And finally, allow me to conclude with the thought that the vast expanse of the universe and its exploration inspires the vast expanse of our imagination. Lovers of science fiction already know this to be true. Space invites us to dream again… to dream big.

I know that the chances of intelligent life being discovered anywhere else are totally remote. In fact, many have quipped that we are still looking for it here. But could you imagine if one day we did make contact?

And even if we don’t, think about this: Maybe our time on this planet is limited. Maybe the earth’s ability to sustain us will fail, even long before our sun, like all stars, will flare and die. Could it be that our survival lies beyond this planet?

And think about this: it could be that humanity will long be gone, extinct as the dinosaurs. But the tiny messengers, Pioneer 1 and 2, Voyager 1 and 2, New Horizons will continue to tote little pieces of our history throughout the universe. And maybe after drifting for millions or billions of years, one of our messages-in-a-bottle will be discovered, and mark the most exciting event in another civilization’s history.

Happy Birthday, world. And Shanah Tovah.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Apples and Honey

On Rosh Hashanah, we dip apples in honey to symbolize our wish for a sweet year! And this music video parody is nothing if it's not sweet!

Happy New Year from Adas Emuno!

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Welcoming the New Year!

On behalf of Congregation Adas Emuno, we wish you all the best for a happy and healthy New Year!

Please enjoy this new video from Six13, Starting Over, and may you be inscribed in the Book of Life for all good things in 5776!

Friday, September 11, 2015

Reason and Rhyme


From the pages of Kadima, the newsletter of Congregation Adas Emuno:

A Message From Our President

Dr. Lance Strate

Reason and Rhyme

Some of you may know that I published a book of poetry earlier this year (it's called Thunder at Darwin Station), and most of you probably know that we have a Poetry Garden group that meets every month, in our lovely garden if the weather permits, and otherwise in our social hall. And with that in mind, I thought that for my column in Kadima this time around, I'd write a little bit of light verse about Adas Emuno. It may not be any better than a Hallmark greeting card, but Rosh Hashanah is coming up soon, and some of us do send cards out at this time, so why not? Here it is:

Community gives us shelter from the storm
Our congregation, welcoming and warm
New and old, join hand in hand
Gathering together to take a stand
Renewing faith and commitment
Enjoying friendship and fulfillment
Gaining insight and understanding
As our hearts and souls expanding
Take our spirit ever higher
In preserving our most ancient fire
Our ever-evolving legacy
Nourishing our identity

A house of worship and of learning
Demonstrating and affirming
A commitment to heal creation
Social justice our persuasion

Education our sacred birthright
Minds are opened with delight
Uplifting our children, raised with love
Now soaring high up above
Our community, that's what I'm speaking of

(Adas Emuno, it's such a simple equation
It's just who we are, our very own little congregation)

You may have noticed that the poem is also a bit of an acrostic, a format with a long tradition in Hebrew poetry, one that is also a part of the High Holy Day liturgy. After all, we are the People of the Book, and also the People of the Alphabet.

And I would like to take this opportunity to wish you all a healthy and happy new year. May you and your family be inscribed in the Book of Life for a good year, a sweet year, a prosperous year. And may 5776 be a great year for us all, as a community and as a congregation.

P.S., here's a link to the book on Amazon:

And remember that any of your purchases made directly through any link on our blog or through the Amazon search box on the right will return a small percentage to our congregation. Please keep that mind whenever you are ordering anything from Amazon.