Monthly Archives: January 2014

Does He or Doesn’t She? Some Thoughts about God, Me and the SuperBowl

This Friday night we celebrate a very special Shabbat.  Although each Shabbat is special, certain  Shabbats  are singled out for particular meaning in the Jewish calendar.  There is Shabbat Shuvah, the Shabbat between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, Shabbat HaGadol, the Shabbat leading to Passover, Shabbat Shirah, the Shabbat where we sing of crossing the Reed Sea, to name but three of them.  Friday, January 31st, we celebrate Shabbat Super Bowl.

Super Bowl Sunday is Feb 2nd 2014.  Does God actually play a role in the Super bowl?

There is much debate in America as to whether God plays a role in the Super bowl.  According to a new survey from the Public Religion Research Institute, “half of American Sports fans say they believe God or a supernatural force is at play in the games they watch.”  This includes 26% of Americans who pray directly to God to help their team, 25% of Americans who believe their team is cursed and approximately 19% of Americans who believe God is involved in who wins the game.  This raises some very interesting questions:  What is the nature of the God you believe in?

How do we understand God?   What role does God play in our lives?

If a disaster looms, do we thank God that we were spared from the hurricane (even though the guys that were nailed were not quite so lucky)?  If we get sick, do we pray for God to make us well?

I believe the adage “there are no atheists in foxholes.”  When your life is at stake, you grab on to anything that might be a lifeline.  And foxholes are metaphoric as well as literal.  Each of us will face trials and tribulations in our lives.  It is then that we need something to hold onto, an anchor, a rock a something that says we will survive this, because regardless of whether we want it or not, misfortune will surely strike.  We do not control the event, but we can control how we get through it and how we carry on after it is over.

So where and how do you find God?

 As I sought to answer this question, I found some incredible, astounding and sobering statistics:  The Department for Veteran’s Affairs reports than an estimated 48,000 veterans are homeless or at risk for becoming homeless.  As of the end of last year, the number of non-fatal casualties from Afghanistan and Iraq surpassed the grim milestone of one million.  Over 270,000 brain injuries have been diagnosed including traumatic brain injuries and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.   These are forbidding statistics.  But there is an important point that is tragically lost in these statistics.

 These are human beings who are suffering.  They are not nameless things, but rather, they are people, people who feel sadness, pain and anguish.  These are the people our prophets seek to protect when they call out to us.  For far too long we have not felt a personal connection to these individual people. We have let the impersonal Government take care of the nameless masses.  But it is for us, however, to look at them as our brothers and sisters, members of our American family. These are the distinct brave men and women like veteran ranger Sergeant First Class Cory Remsburg who appeared at the State of the Union Address earlier this week.  Sergeant First Class Cory Remsburg served his country heroically with a valor and devotion that goes beyond the comprehension of most of us.  And Cory Remsberg will spend the rest of his life dependent upon the love and support of all of us as he struggles to recover from devastating injuries.

 We are taught, “Kol Yisrael arevim zeh bazeh.”  We are all responsible for each other. This is the charge from our God to each and every one of us, that it is our sacred obligation to protect the vulnerable.  We are commanded to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, shelter the homeless, and safeguard the widow and the orphan.  It is here that we can find our God.  For when we reach out to another, God is in that sacred space.

 We learn about God’s sacred space in this week’s Torah portion Terumah.  Here are the intricate details of building God’s house in the Midbar.  The Mishkan is a moveable structure that the Israelites carry with them on their travels through the Wilderness.  And if we take this passage as metaphor, essentially we learn in this parshah that God is with us wherever we may go.  God Himself teaches us one of the core messages of Torah.  As we are taught to build the Ark of the Covenant, two Cherubim are placed on top of the Ark with facing each other with arms outstretched.  And God then says, “Here I will meet with you.” (Ex 25:22).  That, in other words, God is found in the place we come into relationship with each other.

 So let me return to the original question, “Does God influence the Super Bowl?”  “God Knows,” but I do not.  I am sure that there is a facet of God that enjoys a good contest, revels in positive human competition, and even enjoys a good burger. Should we invite Him to the Tailgating party? Would that unduly influence the Almighty or perhaps might He just enjoy the sweet savor of something hot off the grill?

 But the real question remains: “How can you find God’s presence in your daily life?” And the answer to that question might be that maybe God does indeed have the capacity to influence everything in our lives if only we reached out to others and opened ourselves up to the possibility.

 Shabbat Shalom

Make it a “Day On”

As we prepare for this weekend’s commemoration of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I share the thoughts of a friend and colleague from the Main Line in Philadelphia:

 This weekend, we celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King’s birthday.  Even more, as we celebrate Dr. King’s legacy, and remember his teachings and challenges to us, we hopefully can embrace Todd Bernstein’s challenge to us (Todd is the founder of the Greater Philadelphia MLK Day of Service) to make Monday not a day off, but a day on–a day of service.  We will commemorate Dr. King’s visions, dreams and hopes as we join with the members of Zion Baptist Church and Rev. Jim Pollard, and of Beth Am Israel and Rabbi David Ackerman, and our Unity Choir at services on Friday night at 8:00 pm and Sunday (note-Sunday services will also be at MLRT) at 11:00 am, and in two service opportunities on Monday-one at MLRT and one at Calvary Baptist Church.

 Rabbi Joachim Prinz, himself a refugee from Germany (my parents were members of his congregation in Newark, NJ), introduced Dr. King before he delivered his now famous I Have a Dream Speech on August 28, 1963.  His words seem as relevant and moving today as then.  He said:  “When I was the rabbi of the Jewish community in Berlin under the Hitler regime, I learned many things.  The most important thing I learned under those tragic circumstances was that bigotry and hatred are not the most urgent problem.  The most urgent, the most disgraceful, the most shameful and the most tragic problem is silence…. America must not become a nation of onlookers.  America must not remain silent.”

 I look forward to being with you for this wonderful weekend of prayer, music, fellowship and service.

 Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Straus

Who is your Person?

 The URJ Biennial was an amazing conclave, several days of camaraderie and learning. It was powerful time reminding us that we are more than just ourselves; we belong to something greater, something that helps shape us and support us.  The core message of the Biennial was about the power of Relationships and Values.

 Many of us talk about relationships; It is a hot topic.  Noted Rabbis such as Larry Hoffman and Richard Address and academics like Dr. Ron Wolfson have delved into this idea.  I am a strong believer in relationships and how we find meaning in the Synagogue because of the relationships we form with each other.  But there is another piece.  That other important piece is the Values of Judaism.  How we find meaning and wisdom in our tradition not only for ourselves, but also how we transmit those values to others including the next generation.  The combination of these two powerful ideas, relationships and values, creates an important role for the synagogue as a place where they come together to form connections of deep and enduring meaning.  Now, like never before, these ideas resonate.  We live in a world where individualism is held in such high esteem that so many of us risk being cut off completely from each other.  Meaningful relationships, relationships imbued with values, are more important than ever.  Finding people to share life’s moments becomes ever more challenging and we find ourselves increasingly alone at precisely the times when we need others the most.  Sometimes it is a special someone who can make all the difference.

 For those of us who have been glued to the television set Thursday nights, we have watched with varying degrees of bated breath the unfolding saga of the lives of the people who work at Grey-Sloan Memorial Hospital on the show Grey’s Anatomy.  Two of the main characters Kristine and Meredith have bonded as kindred spirits.  Much more than close friends, their lives are inextricably intertwined, each referring to the other as “their person.”

 Does each of us have “a person?”  This goes right to the heart of what it means to be a part of a synagogue.  When we come to our congregation, the relationships that we form become our special family.  We are in relationship with others who care about us, and likewise, we care about.  We are there to celebrate each other’s joys and carry each other in their sorrow.  Each of us is challenged to consider how we interact in our congregation and to ask if indeed we have such relationships.

 Rabbi Leora Kaye of Temple Rodeph Sholom in New York casts this idea of having “a person” in a Jewish way. She asks, “ Does each of us have our own Minyan?”  This change in the concept is important; for in the synagogue we find community, not just a single person.  So as the Minyan is defined as the minimum number required for a community to be present, we then appropriate ask “who is our community?”

 Your clergy is supposed to care about you, but you are also supposed to care about each other.  It is not sufficient to say, “it is the rabbi’s job”; for it is our job, every one of us, to create the space where we can become invested in each other.  As our clergy spend much of their time providing pastoral care, so too all of us here can console the bereaved, attend the sick and be present at moments of need.  We need to reach out amongst ourselves and continue to build this aspect of our community.  How many people have we not attended to because we simply did not know there was a problem? Often a person in need is unable to reach out.  But if there was a circle of invested friends, a minyan, someone would likely know about the illness and that person could call upon the rest of us so we too could lend support. And in the interim, this minyan is already present offering love and support.  We aspire to this idea with every Mishebeyrach prayer we chant.

 But what if we do not know how to create our minyan?

 Moses provides insight into this question in parshah Shemot.  We see Moses reach out to help those unable to help themselves.  In particular, Moses strikes down the Egyptian Taskmaster in defense of the Hebrew slave.  Later, he singlehandedly fends off marauders at the well protecting the Midianite women.  This famous type-scene leads Moses to meet his future wife and being welcomed into the clan of his future father-in-law and most trusted advisor, Jethro.  Moses, the solitary leader of our people, finds comfort and a home in his new community.

 Like Moses, we then can help others who find themselves alone or unable to create community on their own.  We can invite them in and help them create their caring community.  Many of us already engage in these extraordinary acts of kindness, what Rabbi Rick Jacobs, President of the URJ, calls Audacious Hospitality.  What if we all practiced this approach to our relationships?

 We would strengthen our relationships here within our synagogue and we would welcome the outsiders into our tent who also seek relationships and meaning.  Our family grows and no one need finds themselves alone.  We create a place of extraordinary love and strength and support, a place of relationships and Jewish values.  And, hand in hand, we can make it through anything together, and continue to prosper.

 Cain yehi ratzon, May this be God’s will and our action.