Rabbi Don Welcomes You!

“Religion is the answer
to life’s ultimate questions.”

– Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel

Life is complicated. Regardless of who we are or where we come from, we all face innately human questions like:

don-rossoff1Who am I?
Does my life have meaning?
How do I relate to others?
How do I know what is right?
Are there principles which should guide my actions?
What is the real nature of the world I live in and is there Something which transcends it?
How can I best love and best be loved?
How do I face death, that of my dear ones and my own?

Judaism offers wisdom which helps us face the questions of living and the mysteries of life. Continue reading

The blessings from our parents… the blessings to our children…

Genesis 27: 30-38

The scene breaks your heart – Esau returns from the field to bring his father what might be his last meal and finds that his brother Jacob has come to their father in deceit and taken his blessing away. Father and son are both in tears as Esau pleads, “Don’t you have any blessing for ME?” (God forbid, Esau should know that his mother Rebecca set the whole thing up. I can’t imagine how many sessions on the couch Esau would have needed had he realized that Mom really DID love Jacob best!)

It makes me wonder about the blessings that all of us have received from our parents – as well as the blessings we who are parents are passing down to our children. To be sure, as Rabeinu Larry Hoffman writes, we all receive mixed blessings – even curses, so to speak – from our parents.

Our task as children, regardless of how many years have passed, is to acknowledge both the “blessings” and the “curses,” to be grateful for the former and forgiving for the latter. Indeed, I believe that we truly become adults when we forgive our parents and take responsibility for who and what we. Our parents did the best they could given who they were at the time, how they themselves were raised, what they knew, and what they could not possibly have known.

As parents, we do our best to bring blessings to our children, yet we can’t help but unintentionally burden our children with what they will later regard as curses. Every person is different, and what is a blessing for one is a curse for another. And what is felt as a curse today may be seen as a blessing tomorrow (or 20 years from now). As parents, we can only do our best given who we are, how we were raised, what we know, and what we cannot possible know except in hindsight.

Later, when Jacob and Esau meet again, both have grown. Jacob has struggled with the angel of the “heel” he was and the mensch he strives to become. Esau has become satisfied, not with what he had been given or not but with what he himself had earned.

Ultimately, the blessings and curses we have received become what we make of them, as do we ourselves.

How Long?

In the wake of the unspeakable shooting in Las Vegas, the words of the Biblical prophet Habakkuk seem timelier than ever:

How long, Adonai, must I call for help,
but You do not listen?
Or cry out to You, “Violence!”
but You do not save?
 Why do You make me look at injustice?
Why do You tolerate wrongdoing?
Destruction and violence are before me;
there is strife, and conflict abounds.
 Therefore the law is paralyzed,
and justice never prevails.
The wicked hem in the righteous,
so that justice is perverted.   – Habakkuk 1:2-4 (NIV)

Habakkuk’s outcry reflects in many ways our outrage, our frustration, our profound sorrow, and our feelings of powerlessness in the wake of the most recent mass murders. To be sure, people are murdered every day in America. And there are many more multiple murders than our minds will allow us to absorb, lest we be engulfed in sadness all our days. But with the death toll at a record 59 and the wounded numbering past 520, particular attention must be paid! So many times before we have thought, “This time something will be done, must be done so that such atrocities NEVER AGAIN can be perpetrated!” So many times have we shouted “NEVER AGAIN,” and yet… destruction and violence are still before us and the law remains paralyzed.

Our hearts cry for those lives which were cut short – too, too, short – and for the bereaved families, friends, coworkers, and communities who will never be the same. For the wounded, we pray for refuah shleymah – the complete healing of body, mind, and spirit. They, too, will never be the same. Nor will any of those thousands who escaped physical harm but remain scarred for life.  No one who was there will ever be the same.

And what about us? Will we remain the same as we were?

The full story of why this happened has yet to be told; and it may never be. But this much we know. Semi-automatic weapons are legal while automatic weapons are nearly all banned. But semi-automatics are easily and inexpensively converted to automatics.  How long, God, will that work-around remain legal? How long, Congress, will we be hemmed in by those who prioritize power and prize over the protection of the powerless?

In his vision, Habakkuk accuses God of tolerating wrongdoing. If God tolerates such actions, then it is up to us not to. The prophet wishes to avert his eyes from violence and injustice, but cannot.

Can we?

Will we?

How long, America, how long?

20th century lessons for the 21st 

​The lessons I drew from the 20th century and which again are being played out in the 21st are : 1) the unthinkable is doable,  and 2) when crazy people tell you what they are going to do, believe them.

But we also learned that a free, uncowered  press and a mass movement for  which persons are willing to sacrifice can bend the arch of history back towards justice. 

A quote for the day with some added advice

Embarking on our existential journey requires us to be prepared to be touched and shaken by what we find on the way and to not be afraid to discover our own limitations and weaknesses, uncertainties and doubts. It is only with such an attitude of openness and wonder that we can encounter the impenetrable everyday mysteries, which take us beyond our own preoccupations and sorrows and which by confronting us with death, make us rediscover life.*

 

My advice for the journey:

Love yourself and love others.

Look bravely at your faults and imperfections.

Better them as much as you can.

Forgive yourself for what you can’t.

Forgive yourself for not being who you can’t be.

Work hard to be the person you can.

Learn and grow from your sufferings and transform them into blessings.

Be open to amazement.

Know the wonder of your being,

far less than a fraction of a fraction of the physical universe

in a fleeting moment within infinity

possessing infinite worth and godly potential.

Buber teaches that you are the only you that has ever been or will ever be.

But you won’t be for long.

It is said that the way that “Satan” brings misery in the world is by whispering in everyone’s ear, “There is always time. There is always time.”

Trust me, friends. There ain’t.

So hurry up!  – DBR


*Deurzen, E., van. (2010). Everyday mysteries: A handbook of existential psychotherapy (2nd ed). London: Routledge, p. 5.

What Sermons are You Writing this Month?

Friends, these are scary days, truly days of fear. I’m not talking about all the scary things that are happening out there in the world. I’m talking a very limited yet very real fear -the fear that strikes most rabbis around now, a month before the High Holidays. Yes see, the Hebrew month of Elul began this past week, and as it began, there was a worldwide rise in rabbinic blood pressure as we faced the fact that looming ahead at the end of the month are the highest of holidays.

Yamim Noraim, that what these days are called in Hebrew. Yamim Noraim. It translates as Days of Awe, or more literally, Awesome Days. But awe or awesome are not the only meanings of the adjective noraim. Norah, plural noraim, is related to the word yirah which means awe, reverence, andrespect. But it also means fear. That is why  the Days of Awe will begin on Rosh Hashanah for congregants, while the Yamim Noraim, days of fear, began last week for pulpit rabbis, many of whom are truly anxious about having to write and deliver all those High Holy Day Sermons.

Rarely do we rabbis go by a summer without a particular cloud of anxiety hanging over our heads, the cloud being called “sermons.” Whether in the study or at a ball game or playing with the kids, we can’t escape thinking about what needs to be said, what needs to be heard, and how do we say what we need to say in a way that it will be heard? Our Christian colleagues also have to prepare sermons for the two holidays when there are the highest expectations and highest numbers of minds to reach and hearts to move, but they have it easier. They can’t imagine having to preach Christmas sermons one day and Eater sermons 10 days later.

Rabbinic fear comes from different sources. A great fear for many rabbis, especially in the first years of being in a new congregation, is the fear of losing their jobs because of inadequate performance. This is fear which seasoned rabbis usually don’t have to worry about and which interim rabbis never have to worry about. Many rabbis are afraid of offending people; many are not. But all pulpit rabbis tremble before what I think is – or at least should be – the greatest fear of all. The greatest fear is coming to the pulpit and saying nothing of significance. The fear of insignificance, that is huge and that is deep.

Writing a sermon of significance, worthy of these awful days, is not easy. Like the creation of other forms of art – and I do think that sermon writing is an art – writing sermons takes both inspiration and perspiration, time and study and work and deep reflection. What do I need to say? What do they need to hear? What do I need to hear? For though it may not seem like it, a surprising number of the sermons we give are ultimately autobiographical. You would be surprised at how many sermons are written to gain clarity, insight and inspiration about life’s issues with which we ourselves are struggling. In some of my darkest hours, my sermons were about resiliency and hope, enabling me to preach messages that I needed to hear.

A sermon well written can have a life of its own beyond the life of the rabbi who gives it.  The messages we give can be preserved in books or on websites. But if they are indeed worthy, they can have enduring significance through the lives of those whose minds have been challenged, whose hearts have been influenced and whose actions have been changed. That’s why I think writing sermons is awesome!

But my message tonight is not about me or about rabbinic fear during this month. It’s about you. You see, Elul is the month that bids us all to be ready for the process of teshuvah, of turning, that we talk about on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.  And friends, personal transformation does not happen in a span of ten days. We have gotten used to getting what we want quickly. We have instant messaging and instant coffee and instant rice – you can even get instant cholent! But there is no such thing as instant repentance. Just like the writing of a sermon for the holidays, turning and personal growth take time, study, deep thought, critical thinking, and self-evaluation; and these things are rarely accomplished during days when our minds are concerned with being on time to get a good seat, about parking lots and tickets, about whether or not we like the music or the messages, or if we have enough bagels for break fast.

That’s why the time before the holidays, the month of Elul, is not just prep times for rabbis, it is prep time for us all. We need time to examine our lives, to do the work it takes to hold the moral mirror up to our deeds. None of us do wrong intentionally or maliciously. OK, so some of us do, but most of us do wrong inadvertently and without even knowing  what we have done or the negative consequence of our actions. The hurtful word spoken in anger, impatience, or in jest. The kind word that remains unspoken The person slighted or ignored. Corners cut. Responsibilities sloughed off. The constant prioritizing of self over others and its mirror, constantly prioritizing others over self. This month is the time to bring from the background to the foreground the things we did that we should not have and the things we did not do that we should have, reflect on them, and take responsibility for them.

So in a sense, Elul is a time when we all should be writing sermons. We all should be composing sermons born of self-reflection, of looking back with regret and of looking forward with hope and trust in our ability to grow as persons. These are the sermons that we need to write because we ourselves need to hear them.

In a sense, you are already writing sermons, not just during the awesome days but during the ordinary days as well. For in the final analysis, we write a sermon each day of our lives; for each day communicates to ourselves, to others, and to God about who we are, what are values are, what is important to us. Our lives, are sermons which, for good or bad, will continue to live after us through the immortality of our influence. Whether our lives preach mundane sermons of perspiration without inspiration, or are truly works of art, deserving of admiration and worthy of emulation, that is the challenge before us every month but especially this month.

So I invite you to be fearful too – fearful of complacency, fearful of routine, fearful of never being more than you have been, fearful of not making a difference. And let the fear of insignificance inspire lives of awe.