A Shooting During Sukkot

We are in the midst of Sukkot, the holiday period that is referred to as Z’man Simchateinu, the Season of our Rejoicing. Given the horror that took place in Oregon yesterday, we have lost the desire to rejoice! But, on Sunday evening, we are scheduled to consecrate our third graders as they take their next step on their Jewish journey. On Sunday evening, we are also expected to celebrate Simchat Torah, the holiday that coincides with the end of Sukkot and marks both the end and the beginning of our annual Torah reading. On Simchat Torah, which means Joy of Torah, Judaism teaches us to fill the sanctuary with joyful music and dance with the Torah scrolls. The Jewish calendar does not have a pause button. Our third graders are looking forward to their Consecration celebration. Our Torah scrolls deserve our attention and appreciation. Given the overwhelming sadness that yesterday’s events fill us with, how do we continue embracing our Z’man Simchateinu/Season of our Rejoicing?

Following the Sandy Hook Elementary School tragedy, The Alternate Routes, a band based out of Bridgeport, Connecticut, wrote Nothing More. You can listen to it here:

The song is a lesson we must remind ourselves of while working to teach it to all of the children in our lives. The darkness out there can easily overtake us. But, Nothing More pushes us to rise above this darkness and act in a way that embraces goodness and nothing more.

To be humble, to be kind.
It is the giving of the peace in your mind.
To a stranger, To a friend
To give in such a way that has no end.
We are Love
We are One
We are how we treat each other when the day is done.
We are Peace
We are War
We are how we treat each other and Nothing More
To be bold, to be brave.
It is the thinking that the heart can still be saved
And the darkness can come quick
The Dangers in the Anger and the hanging on to it.
We are Love
We are One
We are how we treat each other when the day is done.
We are Peace
We are War
We are how we treat each other and Nothing More
Tell me what it is that you see
A world that’s filled with endless possibilities?
Heroes don’t look like they used to, they look like you do.
We are Love
We are One
We are how we treat each other when the day is done.
We are Peace
We are War
We are how we treat each other and Nothing More

We owe it to our third graders, to our Torah scrolls, to the beautiful holiday of Sukkot, to each other and ourselves, to treat each other with love and kindness. This is not only how we will find the strength to overcome the sadness we feel right now, but it is also how we will do our part to instill within our children the belief expressed so perfectly by Anne Frank: “Despite everything, I believe that people are really good at heart.” We can move forward by embracing this goodness, living it and passing it on.

I hope to see many of you tonight as we welcome Shabbat in our indoor Sukkah and celebrate our third graders and our Torah scrolls on Sunday evening.

Shabbat Shalom,

Activating The Immortality Of Those In The Still Room Called Remember

Activating The Immortality Of Those In That Still Room Called Remember

Yom Kippur 5776/2015 Sermon


My grandparents – Louis and Florence Landesman. Their memories are a blessing

While I shared this sermon from the bimah last week – on Yom Kippur – I share it today in written form in honor and in memory of my grandmother, Florence Landesman z”l, who passed away earlier this year and would have turned 100 today. I mention below that Judaism is not a religion that celebrates the birthdays of those who have passed on. This being said, I am using today to return to that “still room” called Remember to remember a lady that had a tremendous impact on my life. Gram, I know you wanted to make it to your 100th birthday. Physically that did not happen. Spiritually it did. Your memory is a blessing.

“The time is ripe for looking back over the day, the week, the year, and trying to figure out where we have come from and where we are going to, for sifting through the things we have done and the things we have left undone for a clue to who we are and who, for better or worse, we are becoming.” These words were written by Presbyterian minister Frederick Buechner and are part of a longer essay he wrote entitled A Room Called Remember. On the surface, this essay reflects Pastor Buechner’s Christian theology. However, as I re-read his essay, I heard a deeper message, one that transcends the pastor’s theology and captures perfectly the essence of our Jewish Day of Atonement. Pastor Buechner reminds us how challenging it is to do what we are required to do today: to truly look back at our life. “We cling to the present out of wariness of the past,” he says. The past can be a scary place – it’s where we fell hard; it’s where we got those scars; it’s where we tuck away the shame; it’s where we lost; it’s why we have that hurt that we try to push away. But the pastor points out that we have a deep need to go back, “to enter,” what the he calls “that “still room”” – that place “within us all where the past lives on as a part of the present, where the dead are alive again (and) where we are most alive ourselves.” The pastor says that: “the name of (this still) room is Remember—the room where with patience, with (kindness), with quietness of heart, we remember consciously to remember the lives we have lived.”

On Yom Kippur, we are obligated to remember our past – not just the things we said and did in the days, weeks, months and years of our lives that led to this moment, but to remember the people who have been part of the journey that got us here; to remember our loved ones who have passed away; to remember the generations of Jews that we’ve never met but, nonetheless, deserve our attention today because they’re part of our story.

For some of us, we began to fulfill this obligation to remember earlier this week by visiting the cemetery and placing a stone at the graves of loved ones. For some of us, we began to remember by lighting Yizkor candles as the sun went down yesterday. Some of us will ritualize this obligation to remember at our Yizkor Service this afternoon – where we say to God “Yizkor – Remember our loved ones!” Later, we’ll continue to ritualize our obligation by taking part in the both the Avodah Service – that pays tribute to ancient Jewish leaders who laid the foundation for our faith – and the Martyrology Service – that honors the countless Jews who lost their lives because of their Judaism, including the six million Jews who were murdered in the Holocaust.

Yom Kippur is not just about the living. It’s also about the dead. For if we are to truly know who we are and where we’re going, we must not only spend some time reflecting upon our actions and our relationships with the living, we must also reflect upon how those who are no longer with us transformed our lives. The dead deserve our attention today because they gave us so much.

For some of us, it can be very emotional to remember the great Jewish leaders of the past, the heroic martyrs and the innocent six million Jews who were killed in the Holocaust. With the exception of a few of us who lost loved ones in the Holocaust, however, the emotions we feel when remembering these souls do not come close to the grief we feel when we remember the loved ones we have lost during our lifetime. Many of us don’t want to enter that “still room” called Remember. It hurts too much, so we stay away. Yom Kippur, however, pleads with us: Go into that “still room” where those we have lost remain as if nothing has changed. If we let ourselves enter the “still room”, if we push through the overwhelming, all-consuming sense of loss that we feel, if we have the courage to step into that “still room” and look around, it will allow us not only to honor the dead, but it will allow us to bring new meaning into our lives.

Czeslaw Milosz, the Polish writer, said: “The living owe it to those who no longer can speak to tell their story for them.” We owe it those who dwell in that room called Remember to keep their story alive – to honor them and all that they brought into this world. What they gave to us, through their living, has made us who we are today. We owe it to ourselves to remember them, because by doing so, by remembering how they made us feel so alive, we remember who we are. We bring our life back into perspective. We bring the gifts that they gave us back to life. We learn from the dead how to feel their positive energy and in doing so, they help us transform our lives on this holy day.

Most certainly, when we return to that “still room”, there will be people who don’t capture our attention. Maybe they had no impact on our lives. Maybe we want to forget the impact that they had – because it brought nothing good into our lives. This is okay. Also, there will be loved ones who we remember, but only because they died. Not because they lived. We remember their death – not their life. This too is okay. But we’ll be drawn to those who truly made an impact on our lives and we’ll come face to face with the reality that in order to be meaningfully remembered, the deceased must have lived a life worthy of remembering. This is an important lesson for us today as we reflect upon our own lives.

Judaism is not a religion that encourages us to celebrate the birthdays of those who have passed on. We mark the yahrzeit – the anniversary of someone’s passing. We remember a person for the entirety of their life – which includes their birth, death and, what we refer to as the dash – the line on the marker that sits between the birth and death. It is this dash that defines a person. It is during the dash that we have the potential to leave a lasting impact. Today, yes, we’ll remember those whose dash was unremarkable, but we will also remember those whose dash transformed us. These are the hardest people to remember, because when we do, it reminds us of all that we have lost.

Today, we must appreciate that when it hurts, it’s because the person we remember gave us so much. It hurts because the giving appears to have stopped and we want more: more time, more laughter, more wisdom, more love, more of them. It hurts because when we allow ourselves to enter that “still room”, there they are – waiting – as if they are alive: your grandparents, your mother, your father, your brother, your sister, your husband, your wife, your soul mate, your child, your grandchild, your friend….It might take us some time to recognize them because we have fought so hard not to remember, not to hurt. But, when we enter that room and take a deep breath and look around, we can begin to see their faces, to hear their voices, to feel their touch. We begin to discover that those we have lost still have the power to make us feel – feel grief yes, but ride out the grief – and discover that they can make us feel so alive. And this is why we must go back to this “still room” today.

Move past the grief and discover that they can still have make us smile, make our heart flutter, fill us with warmth. We can hear them – not just their voices, but also their lessons, their laughter, their silly jokes. And we can still be inspired by them, their wisdom, their accomplishments, their courage and creativity. It’s all there in that “still room.” And as we sit in there, with them, in that “still room” called Remember, if we ride out the grief, for a fleeting moment, we experience immortality.

T.H. Huxley, an openly skeptical scientist, wrote that “No conceivable event, however extraordinary, is impossible; and therefore, if by the term miracles we mean only ‘extremely wonderful events,’ there can be no just grounds for denying the possibility of their occurrence.” If you feel it, it is real. And if your deceased loved one can make you feel as you sit in that “still room” called Remember – that room that connects the world of the living to the world of those who have passed on – the fact that you feel is, to me, proof that immortality is a wonderful aspect of our existence that is well within our realm of comprehension.

While I do believe in an afterlife and I do believe that the soul exists after death, the immortality that I am talking about today, the ability of a person’s essence to exist after death and connect with us, with mortals, requires that we engage with the deceased – that we go into that “still room” and remember. If we don’t go to them, they remain alone in that “still room”. It is by entering that “still room” – by remembering – that we endow those who have slipped away with immortality.

For the skeptics out there, the Spanish philosopher Miguel de Unamuno agrees with you: there is, he says, “no logical proof that immortality exists.” But, he also says that: “you should spend your life (in a way that makes) you deserve to be immortal.” You should live your life as if you believe in immortality – as if you believe in the power to touch people so deeply that the feelings you evoke in them during your lifetime can transcend time and death. If you can do this – you will not only transform your life – but the life of so many other people you care about.

This is why, today, on the holiest of days, the day that requires us to examine where we have come from and where we are going, we are pushed to visit that “still room” called Remember. When we do, for just a sacred moment, we’ll move beyond logic and experience the immortality of people we miss terribly. And we’ll be pushed to reflect upon what it is that allowed these people to return to us at that sacred moment.

What is it about those who are gone who still have the power touch us so deeply today? What did they do with their lives that makes them so powerful? What is it that makes them immortal? If we can answer this, we can strive, in our own lives, to do what Unamuno urges us to do: live our lives so that we too can be immortal. If we can do this, we will transform the way we look at our lives.

Fortunately for us, we don’t have to look far to learn what makes a soul capable of inspiring us after it leaves this physical world. Our ancestors give us the answer. Centuries ago, like us today, they had to visit that “still room” and they wondered, what was it about the souls of those who have departed this physical world that empowers them to inspire us here? The Talmud gives us the answer.

You’ve often heard me talk at funerals about the Jewish belief in heaven and that there is a special section of heaven for the truly righteous souls. I like to describe this special section as a five star resort with amenities beyond compare. One of the amenities is immortality. There are many different opinions about what you have to do with your life to be able to enter this special section and enjoy the gift of immortality. A lot of Jewish scholars believe that the sages, wise teachers and scholars, the ones who study Torah all day and night, these are the ones who obtain immortality.

However there is a Talmudic tale that speaks of a Rabbi who meets the famous Elijah the Prophet, who lived and died long before this Rabbi lived. Clearly, Elijah the Prophet, having the ability to come to life after passing away, obtained immortality. This Rabbi meets Elijah in a crowded marketplace. He is overwhelmed at coming into the presence of such a prestigious soul and does his best to learn from Elijah. He wants to know how one guarantees their immortality. So, the Rabbi asks Elijah to take him around the crowded marketplace and show him who will experience the gift of immortality. Without hesitation, Elijah points to two men in the crowd. The Rabbi approaches the two of them and asks them: “What do you spend your days doing?” Are you students of Torah, disciples of Jewish law, young, yet wise sages? “No!” The two men reply: “We are jesters. We spend our days making the sad laugh and when we see two people arguing, we try to make peace between them.” (Ta’anit 22a).

From this Rabbi’s encounter with Elijah we learn such a powerful lesson: it is those who bring happiness, laughter, levity and peace into this world – it is those who use their lives to transform sadness into joy, conflict into harmony – it is those who use their days to make people feel better and behave better – these are the people who are given the gift of immortality.

We must take this Talmudic lesson to heart as we travel to the “still room” called Remember. As we enter and push through the grief and the fear, notice that it will be the jesters that come forward and embrace us: the people who brought laughter, who sought peace, who spent their days lifting us higher, making the world so much better, making us so happy, so content with life. These are the souls who have the tremendous potential to inspire us even though they are no longer physically part of our lives. These are the ones whose memories overwhelm us – the ones we push aside because it hurts so much to remember. But, when we find the strength to remember, we not only honor their lives, we activate their immortality, allowing them to continue bringing their gifts into our lives, discovering how these gifts not only renew us, but inspire us to live a life that really matters.

May we all have the courage to go to that “still room” called Remember. And may we return transformed.

What Are You Top Five Virtues?

This letter was sent out to my congregation today in response to my Rosh HaShanah sermon that will be posted here in a few days. In my sermon, I challenged everyone to use this list to pick their top five virtues and send them to me before Yom Kippur. Below, I summarize the responses that I received.


Thank you to all who did your Rosh HaShanah homework and sent in your top five virtues. You can still download the list of virtues here. I shared our top virtues on Yom Kippur, but wanted to share them again with you today.

As I mentioned, I was overwhelmed by the response. After compiling your answers, I had an extremely long list! I have attempted to group your responses into virtue categories. They are presented here in alphabetical-ish order.


Compassion (Includes Caring, Empathy, Helping Others, Thoughtfulness)
Gratitude (Includes Appreciation, Thankfulness)
Happiness (Includes Fun, Humor, Joy)
Integrity (Includes Honesty, Honor, Truthfulness)
Love (includes Kindness)
Perseverance (Includes Problem Solving, Stick-to-it-iveness and Tenacity)


Allowing for Failure
Failure (Allowing for it)

Many of you have asked for copies of my High Holiday sermons. I am in the process of getting them ready to upload to my blog. I hope to have them posted by next week.

Spending the High Holidays with so many of you was truly special. I hope Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur were transformative for you and your family. Thank you to our teens who led us in prayer, read Torah/Haftarah and even chanted Kol Nidrei. Thank you to Daniel and Carly Tokar and all of you who joined them in supporting our community. Thank you to Barry Sanders and all of you who brought food to support those in need. Thank you to Cantor Debbie, our choir and Harold. Thank you to Beth Michell for leading our children’s programming. Thank you to Craig Mayer and our Board members for ushering all of our services. Thank you to our Executive Director, Leslie Goldman, for all that she does behind the scenes. And thank you to all of you for filling our sanctuary with your voices and your spirit. Now, it’s time for Sukkot!

Finding Ourselves In The Sea

In preparation for Yom Kippur, many immerse themselves in the Mikvah. The Mikvah empowers people to spiritually release what needs to be released, allowing folks to begin the new year with a clean slate. Here in South Florida, many of us plan to use the Atlantic Ocean as our Mikvah. E. E. Cummings’ poem, “maggie and millie and molly and may” (which you can find below), is the perfect blessing for any of us who are fortunate enough to use the sea as our Mikvah this new year. May we all find ourselves in the sea!

Shanah Tovah/Happy New Year and may you all have a meaningful Yom Kippur and fast.

maggie and milly and molly and may
e. e. cummings

SN5WUFOO0Rmaggie and milly and molly and may
went down to the beach (to play one day)

and maggie discovered a shell that sang
so sweetly she couldn’t remember her troubles, and

milly befriended a stranded star
whose rays five languid fingers were;

and molly was chased by a horrible thing
which raced sideways while blowing bubbles: and

may came home with a smooth round stone
as small as a world and as large as alone.

For whatever we lose (like a you or a me)
it’s always ourselves we find in the sea

The Sad Tzadik (A Happy Story)

sad tzadik1 copy

Rosh HaShanah begins Sunday night. I am looking forward to welcoming the new Jewish year, 5776, with all of you. As we do so, we will be focusing on our ability to transform our lives, making the changes needed to make this new year one in which we flourish.

To get us thinking about our ability to transform ourselves, I wanted to share this beautiful story told by the great Rabbi Nachman of Breslov (1772-1810).

The Sad Tzadik
(From Sippurei Maasiot, adapted from a translation by Rabbi Avraham Greenberg)

It is told that a certain tzadik (a righteous person) was overcome with a terrible sense of sadness. This tzadik fell into such a mood of deep discouragement that he found it literally impossible to move. He sat in his home, in his chair, wanting to lift himself up, but nothing could make him happy. Whenever he tried to be happy about something, he found in it something to make him depressed.

Finally he started trying to make himself happy by focusing on the fact that God had made him a good, decent person. This is certainly a reason to feel immeasurable joy since the vast gulf between the holiness of a good, decent person and the impurity of those who are evil is beyond all measure. As the tzadik sat in his chair, his right arm resting on the arm of the chair, his left arm resting in his lap, his head resting in the exact center of the back of the chair, he focused intently on how fortunate he was to have been created as a good, decent person and this did the trick! It made him feel happy. He started rejoicing and he was able to move ever so slightly. He felt himself rising little by little from his chair.

As the tzadik’s happiness lifted him higher, he literally flew out of his home and into the heavens where he traveled diagonally for thousands of miles. Suddenly, he noticed that he was very far away from his home. He began to worry that he might fall somewhere and the people in his town would be very surprised that he had suddenly disappeared. This worry, coupled with the fact that the tzadik believed that enjoying too much happiness was gluttonous, caused the tzadik’s happiness to subside little by little, and he began to descend very slowly.

As he descended from the place where he had flown in his ecstasy, he noticed that he was not returning to earth using the same diagonal path that he traveled as he ascended into the heavens. Instead, he descended straight down from where he was. Therefore, he was very surprised to discover that when his descent was over, he had returned to his chair in his home! Now, however, he was happy, content – no longer depressed.

He looked around and he saw that not only was he in his chair, he was almost in the exact position he was in before he began to ascend – his right arm resting on the arm of the chair, his left arm resting in his lap – but his head was now resting a slight hairsbreadth to the right of where it was before his ascent. The tzadik found it amazing that he had flown so far through the heavens, yet here on earth he had moved ever so slightly from his place. He was amazed that even the tiniest movement one makes to lift himself up in this world, even just a tiny tilt of the head, is equivalent to a tremendous heavenly journey.

Rabbi Nachman explains that what happened to the tzadik is best understood when we view our world as the center point of God’s universe. From this view, our world is but a tiny point. From this point you can draw as many straight lines as you wish in any direction. Where the lines start at the point, they are all very close to each another. But the further they extend from the point, the further apart they become. When the lines are very far away from the point, the lines are very far apart from one another. Given this, when the tzadik pushed himself to feel happy, he caused his body to move slightly here on earth but great distances in the heavenly realms. Even though in this world we might feel like we have hardly moved at all – the slightest change is tremendous.

As we seek to transform our lives during these High Holidays, please rem
ember the spiritual journey of the tzadik. It was his determination to change his life – his desire to be happy – that empowered him to begin moving physically and spiritually. While we might have trouble relating to his journey through the heavens, what we must take from this story is that it takes just the slightest movement to radically transform our lives. For the tzadik, the slightest movement lifted him from a terrible depression.

Now it’s your turn. What aspect of your life do you want to radically transform this new Jewish year? Now is the time to make a move – even the slightest of moves – toward real transformation.

May we all ascend to great and incredible heights together over these High Holidays. And may we return renewed, refreshed and changed for the better. Cheryl, Abigail and Jonah join me in wishing you all a Shanah Tovah – A Sweet, Meaningful, Transformative New Year.

Thank You!


Last year, during Rosh HaShanah, we spent a lot of time talking about gratitude. Many of us still wear our “Grateful” bracelets as a reminder that a life of gratitude is a life filled with meaning. I hope that the Jewish year 5775 has been a year filled with tremendous meaning for each of you.

Living gratefully requires that we express our thanks to the people that make a difference in our lives. This being said, please click here for a special note of appreciation for all that you have given to us.

I encourage you to think about the people who have made a difference in your life and send them a special note today. It is simple and free! Just visit Punch Bowl by clicking here. Express your gratitude!

Thank you and Shabbat Shalom!