The Chanukah Countdown Begins!

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In Christianity, the four weeks leading up to Christmas are known as Advent – a time to prepare for Christmas spiritually and educationally. For some, Advent Calendars are an integral part of this four week preparation period. These calendars contain little “windows” that are opened on each day of Advent. Inside each “window” is a little teaching or treat that is intended to prepare the Advent Calendar user for Christmas. After reading an article a few weeks ago about the Advent Calendar, I realized that we need aJewish version of this holiday countdown tool. What an incredible way to remind ourselves and teach our children and grandchildren about the upcoming holiday of Chanukah. And so, Cheryl and I have created The Kislev Calendar: Your Chanukah Countdown which you can find online HERE (www.chanukahiscoming.com).

Our calendar begins this Saturday night, the first night of the Jewish month of Kislev. On the 25th day of Kislev (Tuesday night, December 16), we light the first candle of Chanukah. Each night, beginning Saturday night and running through the last night of Chanukah, we invite you and your family to click on the virtual window corresponding to the appropriate date. Inside the windows you will find a special Chanukah lesson, blessing or gift. Some of the windows will get you thinking. Others will get you laughing. All of them, we hope, will make this year’s Chanukah celebration more meaningful for all of you. Remember, The Kislev Calendar begins tomorrow night. This morning on Twitter, The Kislev Calendar got the attention of Manischewitz. We hope it gets your attention. Share it with family and friends and enjoy!

What Do I Do Now? What To Do When There Is A Death In The Family

what do i do nowIn this week’s Torah portion, we read about the passing of Sarah, Abraham’s wife. We watch Abraham purchase a burial plot for her and begin the mourning process. As we have spent a lot of time talking about recently, Judaism urges us to count our blessings and focus on the things that bring us happiness and joy. This being said, Sarah’s passing and Abraham’s experience as a mourner remind us that we do need to spend some time planning for the unhappy moments of our lives. I believe that if we do this planning, we can, to the best of our abilities, make the death of a loved one and the mourning process less complicated. Click HERE to download a copy of What Do I Do Now? What To Do When There Is A Death In The Family, which I hope you will never have to rely upon but I hope you will read. As you do read it, let me know if you have any questions or concerns.

Disagreeing, Moving Forward, Growing Closer – Learning From Abraham and God

 

 

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In this week’s Torah portion, Abraham and God don’t agree with each other. God is disgusted with the immoral behavior of the residents of Sodom and Gemorrah and plots to destroy these cities. Abraham, while not condoning the people’s behavior, disagrees with God’s plan to annihilate the cities. He works very hard to change God’s mind by challenging God with great respect. In turn, God listens attentively to Abraham and responds with due respect. Ultimately, Abraham is not successful in changing God’s mind, but the relationship between Abraham and God is not strained by this disagreement. If anything, they grow closer to each other and forge a stronger bond.

After Tuesday night’s election, lots of us don’t agree with each other. This ability to disagree is one of the blessings of living in our country. But, our ability to disagree feels more like a curse than a blessing these days. Many who are unhappy with Tuesday’s election results have failed to reflect upon the growing frustration in our country and have resorted to explaining Tuesday’s results on the ignorance of those who were satisfied with the results. At the same time, many who felt victorious on Tuesday night, are chomping at the bit to suppress the views of those who lost and dismantle what has been built over the past few years more out of vengeance than out of what is best for our country. Both sides are behaving recklessly – showing no desire to respect, listen to or learn from, those with whom they disagree politically. As a nation, we have a lot to learn from Abraham and God’s ability to disagree, move forward and grow closer.

Judaism teaches us that there is nothing wrong with a good disagreement. The rabbis teach us that “any dispute which is for the sake of Heaven will ultimately endure.” (Pirkei Avot 5:20) If you passionately believe in something and are certain it will make the world a better place, stand up for it! But, Judaism warns us, don’t stand up for something by undermining someone else: “Who is honored? The one who honors others.” (Pirke Avot 4:1) Honoring each other, even when we do not agree is a fundamental Jewish value. No matter what we feel about Tuesday night’s election results, we owe it to each other to embrace this value and come together as a community that can model the lesson expressed by the ancient disagreement between God and Abraham: we can respectfully disagree and actually grow closer to each other.

Dybbuks, Demons And Other Things That Go Bump In The Night: A Haunted Synagogue

 

image003Two of our 7th graders experiencing our “Haunted Synagogue” at Ramat Shalom

As you might have heard, Wednesday night we transformed Ramat Shalom into a “Haunted Synagogue” for our 7th-12th grade students. While Halloween is by no means a Jewish holiday, Judaism has its own collection of ghosts, witches and things that go bump in the night. What better time of year to teach our teens about this creepy side of Judaism than the week before Halloween?
On Wednesday, the Oneg Room became The Dybbuk Museum. For centuries, there have been Jewish stories describing haunting spirits and demons. In the 17th century, these spirits and demons, particularly those that sought to possess the body of someone who is alive, became know as “dybbukim” (singular: “dybbuk”), or those that cling to another being. In response to these possessing spirits, exorcism became a rite practiced within Judaism. You can see an example of a 16th century exorcism here.

In 1914, S. Ansky completed his play, The Dybbuk, which was based upon Jewish folk beliefs pertaining to possession and exorcism. The play remains an important piece of Jewish/Yiddish theater. The Dybbuk has influenced many other artistic works. It was adapted into a film in 1937. In 1951, the opera The Dybbuk, also based on the play, premiered. In 1974, Leonard Bernstein composed music for Jerome Robbin’s ballet, Dybbuk. The Dybbuk: An Opera In Yiddish premiered in Tel Aviv in 1999.
While by no means an adaptation of Ansky’s play, the 2012 horror movie, The Possession, uses the concept of the dybbuk to frighten modern audiences. While the film relies more upon Hollywood scare tactics than Jewish tradition, it does indeed capture draw upon Jewish sources. As you can see by looking at the Jewish exorcism cited above, it was believed that a dybbuk could be removed from a person by drawing it into a vessel. This concept has certainly fostered the birth of dybbuk boxes – haunted vessels that hold possessed souls. Oddly enough you can buy supposed dybbuk boxes on eBay!? The Possession claims to tell the “true” story of a family that purchased one of these dybbuk boxes at a yard sale.
On Wednesday evening, our 7th-12th graders got a chance to learn about the real history dybbuks in a dark, candlelit Oneg Room. After this, they watched clips from The Possession and had a chance to see and touch what they thought were actual dybbuk boxes (unbeknownst to them they were 100% fake). In a wonderfully staged series of events, one of our parents, Tracy Rubens, grabbed one of the boxes and opened it to prove that nothing bad would happen to anyone. Well, wouldn’t you know it, Tracy, (who is a wonderful actor and member of our theater group, HaBimah), became possessed and began acting the part rather well. Fortunately, I had planned for this. As our 7th-12th graders stared in horror, dismay, confusion, I called upon our resident exorcist (another member of our theater group and a great actor), Bruce Abrahams, to perform the 16th century, Jewish exorcism cited above. And, thankfully, it worked. Once Tracy returned to her normal self, she passed around candy…..but many of our teenagers wanted to know, was that all real?

So no, Halloween is not Jewish. But a lot of spooky stuff that makes Halloween so much fun/creepy, is very Jewish. With this in mind, if you are planning to go Trick-or-Treating this evening, please note that Judaism teaches us in Pirkei Avot 5:6 that demons were created as the sun set on Friday night. Some say these demons are still being created at this time…beware…I hear that lighting Shabbat candles and having a nice Shabbat dinner before Trick-or-Treating helps to keep them away. (Try making Challah filled with candy!!!)

Shabbat Shalom and Chappy Challah-ween

Don’t Give Up On Hope!

-xoo-xoo.me-www-template-12416-p17aadq592t3e10bk1qq31ueab939-600xI am working really hard at living the messages that I shared during the High Holidays. I am wearing my “Grateful” wristband and regularly focusing my attention on the good stuff that fills my life. I think I have been pretty successful at counting my blessings each day and seeing the glass as half full…that is, until this week.

The terrorist attack in Israel that left a 3 month old baby girl dead, the terrorist attack in Canada that left a soldier and father dead and now the possible terrorist attack in Manhattan that resulted in the injury of two police officers and another woman all rocked the hope and gratitude that have permeated my life as I began this new year. The media frenzy surrounding Ebola and the negative political ads that infiltrate television and radio are not doing anything to reinforce my positive outlook on life. At times like this, it is hard to believe in hope.

Fortunately, I found the perfect cure for my hopelessness in this week’s Torah portion – the story of Noah and the Flood. In this story, the world is out of control. Morality is out of whack. God has lost hope and gives up on humanity, with the exception of Noah and his family. Therefore, God orders Noah to build an ark which will be a refuge for Noah and his family as God floods the world. It is in the directions that God gives to Noah, detailing how to build the ark, that I found the cure for hopelessness:

“You shall make a window for the ark…and the doorway of the ark you shall place in its side.” Genesis 6:16

Yes, God has had enough of the absurdity that was wreaking havoc on the planet. But, God has not given up on hope. God has Noah build an ark with a window – so Noah could see when the storm clouds had lifted and the horrific storm had come to an end. God has Noah build an ark with a doorway – so that Noah and his family could, in time, come out of the ark and start again. Yes, at the beginning of this story, the world was a mess. But, God knew that it would not stay this way. Eventually, Noah would look out the window and see that the rain had stopped. Eventually, Noah and his family would be able to leave the ark via the doorway that he built. Eventually, the survivors of the flood would see the beautiful rainbow in the sky and know that all was good once again.

This week’s Torah portion reminds me that even God gets tired with the craziness that goes on in our world. But, God, knew that the craziness and those who brought about this craziness were temporary. Noah and his family sought shelter from the craziness in the ark. We all need a protective ark when things go crazy. But, we must insure that our ark does not completely isolate us from the world around us. We need a window in our ark – because just as the craziness will come – it will also go. We need a door in our ark – because once the craziness goes, it is time to re-engage with life. The window and the door that God commands Moses to build into the ark symbolize hope – hope that things will get better. No matter how chaotic it all seems, no matter how horrific the storm, we will see the skies clear and as we walk out the door, the rainbow will appear and, yes, all will be good once again.

My Kol Nidre Sermon: The Haunting and Hopeful Words of Unetaneh Tokef

Image from the collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society.

The haunting words of Unetaneh Tokef:

On Rosh Hashanah it is written and on Yom Kippur it is sealed. How many shall pass on and how many shall thrive. Who shall live on and who shall die. Whose death is timely and whose is not. 

As I spoke about on Rosh HaShanah, on the surface, this prayer seems to suggest that we have no control over our destiny. It appears that God determines our fate today by either writing our name in the Book of Life, thus insuring that we live another year, or leaving us out, guaranteeing our demise in the months to come. But, a closer look at this prayer teaches us that teshuvah (personal growth and change), tefillah (prayer or, as we discussed on Rosh HaShanah, living a life of gratitude) and tzedakah (doing our part to heal the world) can help to insure that our name is written in the Book of Life.

Tonight, on the holiest night on our calendar, I want us to dive even deeper into the words of Unetaneh Tokef and explore how this prayer, which has filled many of us with dread year after year, actually contains a precious lesson of hope which encourages us to feel confident that our name will be inscribed in the Book of Life.

You can see this message of hope yourself. Turn with me to page 871. Third paragraph down:

It is You (God) who shall open the Book of Remembrance (same as the Book of Life), but its contents shall speak for themselves, for it bears the signature of us all, which our deeds and our lives have inscribed.

God opens the Book of Life. But, God does not put our name in this book. Unetaneh Tokef makes it explicitly clear that we do this. Our actions allow us to sign in, to place our signature in this holy, albeit, symbolic book. This is a very empowering message if you really think about it.

So, how do we sign in?  Well, we go back to the line we focused on last week on page 876:

u’teshuvah u’tefillah u’tzedakah ma’avirin et ro’a hageserah

When we strive to live meaningful lives, lives in which we challenge ourselves to grow, evolve, give thanks, and help others, we sign ourselves into the Book of Life. Our actions say : “Count me in this year; I want to live a meaningful life!”  Our actions, according to Unetaneh Tokef, give us the ability ensure that we are sealed in the new Book of Life that has just opened. Untaneh Tokef reassures us and gives us hope that last year’s shortcomings and failures will not bring about our demise this new year.  This is why tonight, during Kol Nidre we could all recite the words on page 695:

V’yomer Adonai: Salachti Kidvarecha/God said: I grant you forgiveness as you ask!

We don’t need to look back in fear. We can look forward with hope because by living a meaningful life, we place our signature in the Book of Life, guaranteeing that we will be sealed in the Book for another year! So there should be no despair in the sanctuary tonight. If you are willing to commit to a meaningful life in the year ahead and add your signature to the Book of Life of 5775, you can do so. It is up to you.

To help drive this point home, as you leave tonight or over the next several days, you will actually have a chance to add your signature to our own Book of Life in the hallway. Our Book will be open until sundown on Tuesday evening, October 14th – the last official day of judgment, the day the Book of Life is sealed, the day known as Hoshanah Rabbah. The Book does not close tomorrow night, You have some time. Once it is sealed, it will be placed in the ark in the library. As you sign in, commit to living up to your potential this year, promise yourself that you will grow, you will be grateful and you will share your blessings.  Add any note you want along with your signature as you sign in. Our Book of Life will visible in the library ark – there for you to visit throughout the year; there as a reminder that you committed yourself to live a life of meaning; there as a reminder that with the new year, we are offered a new beginning, a promise of another chance at life. We will open our Book of Life next year as the holidays begin and we are once again charged with reflecting on the year that has come to a close.  As we look at our signature next year, we will ask ourselves, did we meet our expectations? Did we live a meaningful life? If not, what will we change as we sign ourselves into next year’s Book of Life?

So, by teaching us that we can sign ourselves into the Book of Life by living a meaningful life, Unetaneh Tokef sends us a hopeful message: our names will be in the Book when it is sealed!

But, is this really the case?! Unfortunately, we know too well that just because someone signs into the Book of Life, it does not guarantee that that they will have an incredible year or that they will even be here physically to sign into next year’s Book. And this reality upsets us and tramples upon the message of hope that we were just talking about. But hold on! By focusing our attention on our signature that we place in the Book of Life, Unetaneh Tokef is quietly imploring us not to give up the hope that quickly. Unetaneh Tokef, if you listen closely, is telling us that despite the unpredictability of life, we do not need to despair. Rather, the prayer is telling us something very deep….that despite the uncertainties of life, we can be confident that our existence never ends. Unetaneh Tokef is promoting an ancient Jewish concept, one that is not spoken about often, but one that has been embraced by some of the greatest Jewish thinkers over the centuries, including the famous Moses Maimonides. This is the concept of immortality – the idea that, while our bodies might give out, our soul, our lessons, our inspiration – all of these things are sealed in the Book of Life with our signature; all of these things continue even if we physically slip away from this world.

To help us understand how Unetaneh Tokef teaches this ancient Jewish belief, I want to share words that our congregant, Joel Dreher, shared last month at his wife Jody’s unveiling. Jody passed away just days after last year’s Book of Life was sealed. This being said, everyone who knew her would agree that there is no doubt that she inscribed herself into the Book of Life of 5774. We know that her spiritual signature continues to touch us. Joel writes:

You’re not in the next room doing yoga, you’re not snuggled next to me in the bed. There aren’t numerous jars in our pantry full of indescribable kelp like stuff (Jody was a health nut) nor are there jars in my luggage prompting the TSA folks at the airport to want a further search. There aren’t trays of wheatgrass.   It’s quiet.   I don’t hear you teaching yourself a song nor a dance nor a rap to use for your students (Jody was a music teacher). Now I have to get my dose of you by inadvertently seeing a leftover handwritten reminder note to yourself to buy non pasteurized milk or probiotics and having your handwriting hit me because it came from you and is still here.  

Let’s appreciate for a moment the simple yet awesome power of Jody’s written words – written by her own hands. Look at what these words have given to Joel. They serve as a testament of Jody’s very existence, helping to share her lessons despite the fact that she is no longer physically here. Her written words help Joel discover that Jody is still present, still teaching and still inspiring. Her written words have given Joel a glimpse of Jody’s immortality.

In the same way, by referencing our signature in the Book of Life, Unetaneh Tokef is teaching us that while some who sign in to the Book of Life this Yom Kippur will not physically be here next Yom Kippur, their spiritual signature in the Book of Life will be here, serving as a reminder that they were, during their lifetime, committed to living a meaningful life. Their spiritual signature and the meaningful life that inscribed their signature into the Book of Life will forever serve as proof that they were indeed inscribed in the Book of Life this year. And realize, their spiritual signature can never be removed. It will forever capture their life and their determination to live. It will inspire those left behind to live meaningful lives.

Immortality is how we combat the unpredictability of life. By living a meaningful life and, thus, according to Unetaneh Tokef, inscribing our signature in the Book of Life, we secure our legacy. We make an impact on the people in our lives. An impact that insures that, when our time comes, we won’t be forgotten. Yes, it is unsettling that we don’t know for certain if we will be blessed to sign next year’s Book of Life. But, despite this, we do know with great certainty that we can sign this year’s Book and, in doing so, guarantee that, no matter what – we make it clear that this year, we choose to embrace life. Further, by signing the Book, we can be confident that our spiritual signature, a testament of our life of meaning, will speak for us and be our immortality.

Interestingly enough, while Unetaneh Tokef quietly encourages us to think about our own immortality, many of the other prayers and rituals of Yom Kippur push us to accept our own mortality. We are actually rehearsing our own death on this holy day. We dress in white, symbolizing the ritual shroud we will be buried in at the end of our days. We fast, making our body feel weak, as if we are slipping away from life.  We recite confessional prayers like Ashamnu (p. 424) which are recited before we die.  And even Unentaneh Tokef pushes us think about our own death: “how many shall pass on and how many shall thrive.”  While this push to accept our own mortality might make us feel helpless and hopeless, it should not.  Sure, this day makes us face the fact that our death is, hopefully many, many years from now, inevitable and not at all predictable. But, Unetaneh Tokef, by urging us to embrace life and sign into the Book of Life is teaching us to take as much control as we can. Unetaneh Tokef is begging us to own our legacy, asking us: “How will we be remembered?” If we don’t know the answer to this question, if we don’t like the answer to this question, today is the day to change your life. Unetaneh Tokef is, like the blast of the shofar, a wake up call! Unetaneh Tokef is pleading with us: “HAVE AN IMPACT; MAKE A DIFFERENCE; LIVE A LIFE THAT MATTERS and allows you to leave a mark on this world – a mark that is expressed by the values and lessons that your life instilled within others – a mark symbolized by your signature in the Book of Life. A mark that is your immortality.

So, yes, some of the messages of this day are unsettling. But, in the end, I see Yom Kippur as a day of hope, a day that tells us to “grab life by the horns” and live it fully. If we do so, we get a new beginning. We get to sign into the Book of Life. We get to leave our indelible mark. If we live the lessons of this day, we can take comfort in the fact that our life and our lessons are immortalized by our spiritual signature.  We can enter this new year confident that we are in control of our destiny and the life we are living will leave a deep, meaningful and lasting impression.

By signing ourselves in – may we seal ourselves in the Book of Life for a year of great meaning.

My Yom Kippur Sermon: My Statement of Values – Signing Myself Into the Book of Life

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Last night, I spoke about the importance of symbolically signing the Book of Life and leaving a permanent mark on this world. I urged us all to actually sign our own Book of Life that is in the hallway – and I invite those who haven’t yet done so, to please add your signature! Today, I want to share with you one way that I am working to move beyond symbolism to insure that I am more than just a signature in the Book of Life; to insure that the life that I am leading is worthy of being inscribed in the Book; to insure that my life will create a meaningful mark on this world.

Over the past few weeks, I have worked to prepare a personal Statement of Values – a document that, as I explained in an email earlier this week (Please see comments below which contains email I sent out; you can find questions that will help you prepare your own Statement of Values in this email), expresses key principals and beliefs that are important to me. Since the time of the Torah, our ancestors have created and shared such statements. Jacob and Moses both express their core principals in the Torah, teaching us the importance of being able to clarify who we are, what we stand for and what we hope to share with those in our lives.

Preparing my Statement of Values has not been easy. There is a lot to think about. I have rewritten my statement many times and know that I will do so again in the near future. This being said, writing this statement has been extremely rewarding. It has helped me figure out what my signature in the Book of Life stands for. It has given me a better sense of who I am and what I find to be important and meaningful. It has also given me a better sense of the lessons I want to share with the people in my life. And, preparing my Statement of Values has encouraged me to think about the legacy I would like to leave, hopefully, a long, long, long time from now.

Most importantly, writing my Statement of Values has taught me that despite the unpredictable nature of life that Yom Kippur has us face, I do have the ability to control what my life stands for. I can be certain that when I sign the Book of Life, my signature means something – not just to me, but to the people who know me. In this world that is filled with so much uncertainty, creating my Statement of Values has filled me with great hope – hope that my life is filled with meaning, meaning that will make a difference, meaning that, I hope, will transcend my lifetime.

As I put together my Statement of Values, I found myself being driven by the words of the Vahavtah: “v’shinantam l’vanecha/ teach them (morals, ethics, values) intently to your children.” While I have many roles in my life, one of course being the lucky rabbi of this community, I found that as I put together my values and wrote them down, I was inspired to do so not as a rabbi, but as a father. And so, my Statement of Values that I share with you today is written to my children, Abigail and Jonah. This being said, the values I share with my children are values which, I hope permeate all aspects of my life – particularly my role as your rabbi.

STATEMENT OF VALUES – 5775

Prepared by Rabbi Andrew Jacobs

 Abigail and Jonah,

This Statement of Values that I have prepared as I begin the Jewish year 5775 will serve as my signature in the Book of Life. While I am far from perfect and make many mistakes, I hope that through my words, deeds and actions, I share my values with you in ways that have encouraged you to lead more meaningful lives.  I hope that nothing I share in this document surprises you, as it has been my intention to live the values I share below. If there is a surprise or two, I apologize for not doing what I should have done to share all of my values with you.  Please know that I consider myself truly blessed to be your father and I am honored by the fact that you trust me to be one of your teachers.  Also know that the lessons you have shared with me have made me a better person.  I thank you for listening to this document, as it affirms my signature in this year’s Book of Life. While I sincerely hope that you will embrace the values I share in this statement, I respect that you will make your own choices.  I ask that you formulate your own values and act on these values as you journey through life.  Don’t be impulsive.  Think things through.  And think about the consequences.  What will your actions say about you?

Let me begin by saying: There is nothing more important than family.  It is your rock.  Abigail and Jonah, you and your mother are the center of my life. While I am not always successful at balancing my family life and my professional responsibilities, I do believe that nothing should ever come before family.

As family, our bonds of love are deep – but we must never forget that these bonds still require that we treat each other with the utmost respect and honor.  It is by uniting our love for each other with our respect for each other that we achieve  the Jewish concept of Shalom Bayit – peace in the house/family.

You both know that I have spent many years researching our family tree.  It is a huge, magnificent tree.  Yes, like most family trees, there are branches that do not speak to other branches.  Despite this, know that you are blessed to have a 99-year old great-grandmother, grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins.  Please do your part to nurture these relationships as you grow.  In doing so, you honor the memories of those no longer here with us physically who gave up so much to insure that their family could have what you have.

Abigail and Jonah, I pray that you fall madly in love one day and marry your best friend.  However, I want you to remember that love alone does not make a marriage.  A great Jewish sage teaches that we should treat our spouse “like a left hand protecting the right hand and not an independent limb.”  You must truly become one with your spouse.  This takes a lot of work.  You must listen to each other.  Honesty, openness and communication will be required to learn how to act together to build a home.  Shared values are required to raise children.  Common goals are what will propel you forward as partners.

Despite what the Torah teaches us about the obligation to respect our parents, I don’t believe that it is simply the title of  “parent” that requires our children to respect and honor us.  Respect and honor are achieved through the excruciatingly hard work of parenthood.  Abigail and Jonah, your mother and I are not here to be your best friends.  We are here to help lead you down a meaningful life path with the hope and expectation that you will be capable of navigating this path on your own in the future.  I pray that, one day, you get the privilege of leading your own children down this path, continuing the journey your mother and I began with you – and living the words “l’dor v’dor/from generation to generation”.  And, I pray that by giving you the tools needed to travel down the path of life, your mother and I earn your respect.

Your Judaism is a gift.  Your mother and I are anomalies in our respective families.  On my side of the family, your 99-year old great-grandmother has 9 great-grandchildren.  You two are the only ones who have embraced Judaism.  On your mother’s side of the family, your grandmother has 6 grandchildren.  You two are the only ones who have embraced Judaism.  Making Judaism an integral part of your lives, insuring that the words “l’dor v’dor” actually meant something, and honoring the legacy that was left to us by the generations that came before us, were our dreams as your mother and I began this journey of parenthood.  Not that long ago, millions of Jews were wiped off the face of the earth simply because they were Jewish.  It brings me such joy that today, my two children openly love their Judaism, are strong supporters of Israel and know their way around a siddur, a Haggadah and a Torah scroll.  Thank you.  As you grow into adults, I sincerely hope that Judaism remains a significantly meaningful part of your lives.  In the world you are growing up in, I know that this won’t be easy.  However, I hope that by honoring and respecting the bonds of family and filling your lives with those who share your values, you will indeed pass Judaism on to the next generation.

I do not expect, nor do I want you to only surround yourselves with Jewish people.  The world we live in is filled with many diverse, incredible people who can bring great meaning into your lives.  Open yourselves up to the lessons that the world can teach you.  Respect those who are different from you.  They have much to share.  Do not be afraid to be challenged by other viewpoints.  Engage in healthy, respectful debate.  I trust that as you get older you will make meaningful choices that will allow you to thrive.  This being said, please remember that: “kol yisrael arevim zeh la’zeh/all Jews are responsible for each other.”  Please, take care of your fellow Jews.  Do everything in your power to strengthen the Jewish community.  Support and stand with Israel.  If you don’t, who will?

As you journey down the path of life, there will be obstacles to overcome.  As Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav teaches us, “the whole world is a very narrow bridge; the essential thing is to have no fear at all.”  Never take for granted the bonds of family, for within these bonds you will discover the antidote to fear and the skills necessary to cross that narrow bridge.

Pirke Avot teaches us to “acquire a friend.”  In addition to your family, I want you to have close friends.  People you can truly trust.  People you can confide in, laugh with and cry with.  People who will travel down the path of life with you.  Family is so important.  But so are friendships.  They are what make us part of a community.  Rabbi Hillel teaches us: “do not separate yourself from the community!”  I do expect you to live by these words.  Whether it be a synagogue, a team, a social group, or a professional group, surround yourself with good people who can challenge you to be your best, support you when you stumble and lift you higher when you celebrate.

Pirke Avot also teaches us to acquire a teacher.  Fill your life with teachers.  Educate yourself.  Whether it be traditional classroom learning, traveling, reading or mentoring, I want you to constantly be learning and expanding your mind.  Every time I present a bar/bat mitzvah student with a Torah I say: “Hafoch ba, hafoch ba, de’kula ba – Turn it and turn it, for everything is in it.”  Treat life the same way.  Turn it and turn it and get as much out of it.  There is so much to learn out there.

As you think about your future and what school you will go to and what you will do professionally, know that all I want is for you to be happy.  To me, being happy means to live a life filled with meaning.  Your family, friends and Judaism will help you discover meaning by providing you with a strong sense of belonging.  Being grateful for all that you do have and remembering the obligation we have to perform tikun olam/healing the world by balancing the scales and giving of ourselves to help those in need will also enable you to discover meaning.  Gratitude will allow you to look to tomorrow with optimism and hope and this is this is a recipe for a happy life.  I want you to find meaning in your everyday actions and I want you to do everything in your power to make this world a better place.  In doing so, you not only guarantee your own happiness, but the happiness of others.

I want you to find a career that brings great meaning to your life.  While I have no expectations as to what you will do professionally, I hope that you will not work just to make money.  I want you to build a life that has a purpose and allows you to leave a lasting mark on this world.  I hope that your career will be a part of this mark.  Don’t get me wrong, I want you to be financially independent and comfortable.  Judaism has no problem with financially successful people.  This being said, I never want you to think that you are too good to get your hands dirty working hard or that anyone owes you something.  The Book of Proverbs teaches us that “He who puts in the effort and tills his soil will have bread, but he who puts in no real effort, he has nothing.”  I want you to put in a lot of effort.  I want you to work hard – really hard.  I want you to understand the value of a dollar and appreciate the rewards of a hard day’s work.  I want you to respect the money you make and learn how to save it and invest it.  Remember the words of Ben Zoma: “Who is wealthy?  The one who is happy with what he has.”  Don’t define yourself by material possessions, but make certain that you can purchase what you need and, yes, some things that you want.  Live within your means.  Stay away from credit cards.  Learn about the stock market.  Put money away for the future.  And, please, allow your financial success to benefit others by supporting a synagogue and other causes that are meaningful to you.

Be a rebel.  Think outside of the box.  Don’t be afraid of change.  The Jewish people have survived because of their ability to evolve with the times.  Remember, if it were not for the invention of the synagogue 2000 years ago, there would be no Judaism today.  The synagogue was a radical concept.  Some didn’t like it,  It was different, scary.  But it worked.  Believe that you have the ability to bring about radical change that will make the world a better place.  At the same time, surround yourself with people you trust and listen to them. If they suggest you are off course, step back and think about what they are saying.  You don’t necessarily have to agree with them – but hear them out.

Apologize.  You will screw up.  Embrace the lessons of our new year rituals and genuinely say “I am sorry” when you hurt someone.  Forgive those who hurt you.  Forgive yourself.  Carrying a grudge and seeking vengeance drag us down and surround us with negativity.  Let it go.  At the same time, do not be foolish.  Judaism teaches us to “Zachor/Remember” the wrongs that have been done to us by others so that we don’t become a victim twice. So, yes, forgive, but learn from the hurt.

Don’t ever compromise on what you believe in.   Rabbi Hillel teaches us: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?”  Stand up for yourself.  You deserve to live your life the way you want to.  The Torah teaches us to “Choose life!” Never forget that you are in control of your life– don’t let others choose your life for you.  If someone does not respect who you are, let them go.  They do not deserve you in their life.  Believe the words of Anne Frank: “people are really good at heart” but never overlook the fact that evil is real.  Keep your eyes open. Be cautious – not paranoid.  Do your homework, ask a lot of questions and protect yourself.

Choosing life will also require you to take care of yourself physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually.  Eat well.  Exercise.  Treat your body like the holy vessel that it is.  Go to the doctor.  Never be afraid or too proud to seek and ask for help when life is overwhelming.  We all need help at times.  Continue to develop your relationship with God.  And surround yourself with good people.  Don’t ever be afraid to be who you really are and know that if you genuinely and honestly choose life with all your heart, mind and soul, you will make the right decisions, you will make a great name for yourself and you will make your mother and me very proud.

Realize that you will make mistakes.  We all do.  When you do, remember that first Torah that Moses brought down from Mt. Sinai, the one he smashed in anger after he found the people worshipping the Golden Calf, all of its broken pieces were placed in the sacred ark, along with the whole second Torah that Moses received from God.  This story teaches us that both our broken and whole pieces are holy.  They define who we are.  While we take great pride in our accomplishments, appreciate that some of our greatest blessing are taught to us by our mistakes.  Perfection does not give us the scars that make life meaningful.  Our mistakes expand our horizons and force us to grow.  Embrace your mistakes.  Learn from them and never forget that they are holy.

Your mother and I will hopefully continue to earn your respect and remain integral parts of your lives.  Know that we, as your parents, will continue to suggest, advise and nudge you.  If we overstep our bounds, we want to be told, as the Shalom Bayit we work to create in the house requires that we all feel respected.

In closing, I want you to be open to all the gifts the world can and will give you if you live with your eyes wide open.  I also expect you give back as much as you receive.  Share your gifts with the world.  Finally, please find the time to laugh so hard you cry tears of joy.  Don’t allow the intensity of life to keep you from discovering the deep wells of joy that are out there.  Smile and know that a happy you will be my best legacy.

I love you forever,

Daddy

This year, as you know, I have encouraged us all to prepare Statements of Values. It is not enough to sign ourselves into the Book of Life. We have to live meaningful lives in order to insure that our signature stands for something. I encourage you to work on putting into words what you stand for. It will give a voice to your hopes. It will capture your faith. It will clarify your goals and expectations. And it will serve as the foundation of the legacy you want to leave. I’ve prepared some questions that will help you get started on your Statement. You can find them in your email or on my blog. Try to answer them. Share your answers with the people you love. And realize that as you do this, you’re helping to leave a beautiful and indelible mark on this world. Don’t put it off. As Rabbi Hillel asks us, “If not now, when?”