Here are my sermons from Rosh Hashanah 5783:
Help Me Talk About What I've Been Through and Who I Am
Wishing everyone a Shana Tova Umetukah, a good and sweet new year!
Here are my sermons from Rosh Hashanah 5783:
Help Me Talk About What I've Been Through and Who I Am
Wishing everyone a Shana Tova Umetukah, a good and sweet new year!
Posted at 09:20 PM in Calendar, Coronavirus, Current Affairs, Election, Elul, Ethics, Gratitude, Hakarat Hatov, High Holidays, Holidays, Hope, Middot, Midrash, Prayer, Rosh Hashanah, Soul, Speech Ethics, Spirituality, Synagogue, Talmud, Teacher-Student Relationship, Television, Teshuvah, Theology, Torah, Tov! Podcast, USA, Yamim Noraim | Permalink | Comments (0)
These are to me the best of my Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur sermons from years past. I'm collecting them here because you find them useful to read and think about in Elul. They aren't in chronological or any particular order.
Hope In An Uncertain World (5777/2016)
What the Chanukkah dreidel can teach us about four kinds of hope.
Who Knows? (5780/2019)
How the story of Esther even more than the Torah can guide us to live in a world of mortal dangers.
How Good Do I Have to Be? (5777/2016)
With assists from the Green Monster, Pesky's Pole, Naomi Shemer and Reb Simcha Bunem.
Still Small Voices (5778/2017)
We are a community where many people have prayers they don't reveal out loud about the difficult things happening in our lives and families. How to be there even when we don't reveal or don't know what those prayers are.
Finding Purpose and Direction (5773/2012)
Figuring out your purpose, especially in up in the air times, or transitions in life or work.
Lost and Found (5779/2018)
When the pieces of life's puzzle aren't gone, but someone else has yours to give you back, or vice versa.
V.O.R. -- Vision-Opinion Ratio (5779/2018)
Fewer superficial reactions to public things, more visions -- how to find and speak about the things you are truly committed to, and quieting down about the rest.
Holy Impatience (5775/2014)
Some impatience is selfish, unfair expectations. Holy impatience is rooted in love, a concern for someone else who doesn't have the life or peace they deserve.
Helping Someone Else Change (5771/2010)
No one can change someone else -- but sometimes we can support other people in their changes. Starring a mitzvah in Leviticus and some social psychology research.
Why "Busy" has become the answer to "How are you?" and what we can do about it.
Moral Adventure (5776/2015)
Adventure isn't just for heroes and myths. Our own lives are different when we recognize them as moral adventures, and the people we go through life with as our fellow students and sidekicks.
Long Tables, Shabbat Meals (5772/2011)
Why long tables are better than round, long meals are magical, and Shabbat creates relationships different from friendship but no less powerful.
Back to Better Than Normal (5782/2021)
As we transition from the Covid-19 pandemic, the old normal is certainly not what what we want to go back to.
Being Present in a Digital Age (5774/2013)
How to make people and not devices more central to our daily lives.
Look Up (5780/2019)
In a cynical age, we need to focus more on looking up to people -- the everyday people in our lives, the people who need us, the best leaders we know.
Body Talk (5779/2018)
How to show others we really believe they are the image of God.
Posted at 04:37 PM in Calendar, Coronavirus, Current Affairs, Election, Ethics, Gratitude, Hakarat Hatov, High Holidays, Hope, Justice, Leadership, Middot, Patience, Ritual, Rosh Hashanah, Shabbat, Teshuvah, Tikkun Olam, Torah, Tzedek, USA, Yamim Noraim, Yom Kippur, Youth | Permalink | Comments (0)
This is based on what I said on Shabbat morning, August 27, 2022 at the start of the month of Elul. It was the day of a Bar Mitzvah and an aufruf (blessing to a couple about to get married)!
Usually I think of Elul as a time of introspection before we get together in a big way on Rosh Hashanah. But the past few years I’ve been thinking that it would be great to start the month leading to the ten particularly intense days with a dance party, a disco party! First we should celebrate that we’ve gotten here -- we should look at each other and who’s in this together with us and going to help us look back and look ahead. And wow, this past year having been what it’s been and the year before that, we ABSOLUTELY should start it with a party. And my dream came true and I didn’t even realize it when we scheduled Jonah’s Bar Mitzvah celebration and when Rachel and Joel told me the date of their wedding. So this is how it should be. A new month, that little sliver of moonlight that says to the shade: You are going away, we’re going to make our own energy here and we’re going to gather our powers together so we can make a new year.
It's been quite a year, and we need more than the three days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur to do our reflecting and our redirecting and our rebooting – our teshuvah, our returning. The spiritual recalculating on the GPS of our hearts. I don’t even know if a month is enough.
The point isn’t to come to services on the holidays. The point is to figure out what we each need from the next 40 days (really it’s more like 52!) – and what of the many offerings of spirituality and learning can support each of us:
I’ll send you daily e-mails with thoughts and ways to gather for conversation or learning or spiritual practice. But the point isn’t to read the e-mails! It’s to use them. It’s really simple: Use this month and the next for you, for the better life you’ve been thinking about having or creating. Use it to figure out your piece of making the world better -- boy do we need that.
Say thank you as many times as possible, in a world that doesn’t do that enough and where there’s plenty you’re not happy about. You don’t have to decide if the world is more bad than good, or maybe you have decided there is more bad now -- but just find gratitude every day and express it, out loud, to someone or to your own ears. That will ripple out. No one can change only out of sadness and anger. Not unless you can connect it to someone you love whose suffering is what powers your anger, your sadness. Not unless you can find a lighthouse ahead for hope, powered by someone you deeply appreciate.
This time of year is serious, but it doesn’t have to be solemn. That’s why it needs a party today, and at the end of the season on Simchat Torah we have another one! I am so happy we’re together, and thank you for listening to my prayers this first hour and saying Amen, even if you don’t know what all my prayers were. Thank you, even if you didn’t know that’s what you were doing.
So I hope you’ll tap into the energy of today, not just the energy of joy but of words of Torah in many forms, to help you launch into Elul and a month of individual reflection that’s good for you and good for us all when you do it.
On “The Good Place”, Janet makes and reabsorbs Derek, her rebound guy; Tahani and Jason almost get married; and Eleanor reveals to Chidi their love from a previous reboot. On the podcast, David Shyovitz and I roam through Talmudic and medieval Jewish texts about soulmates – whether they are earthly or for the next world, whether they are decreed on high or discovered in life, and what the stakes of those questions really are in Jewish thought.
On “The Good Place” Shawn offers Michael a promotion, and among the humans only Eleanor has faith that Michael is actually still on their side. On the podcast, Leah Jones and Jon talk about how little they know about Kierkegaard – but how a leap to faith opens you to clues, lessons, and ethical possibilities you wouldn’t otherwise have access to.
I testified at two committees of the New Hampshire legislature on bills to change or repeal our new "divisive concepts" law -- Senate Judiciary and House Education. I said essentially the same things at both hearings. Here it is, video and my written statement (they are the same).
Mr. Chairman and Honored Representatives: Thank you for your service and for this opportunity to address you. I am Rabbi Jonathan Spira-Savett. I live and work in Nashua, and I am the father of three children who are students and grads of our Nashua public schools. I myself have been a high school teacher of American history and literature, and I currently serve on our state’s Commission for Holocaust and Genocide Education. I come to speak to you in strong support of HB 1576.
This country saved the life of my family and my wife’s family, from the tyranny of the czar and the genocide of Hitler. I am a proud American and a religious person who says a blessing over freedom whenever I vote – and on voting days and occasions like today, I wear those commitments together on my body, above my head. I feel that my own group’s history obligates me in gratitude to be a civic leader in this country, and I carry responsibilities as a member of both a religious minority and the white majority.
Earlier in my career I had the opportunity to create from scratch a course for juniors about America in place of the usual AP history and literature out of that sense of obligation. I was working at a private Jewish high school, and together with a colleague, we set out to give our students interdisciplinary tools to look at American history and culture, and to look at themselves as critical citizens -- connected critics, to use the terminology of the political philosopher Michael Walzer. Perhaps this was natural for us as Jews, a group of whom so many have lived the “American Dream” and a group so often the targets of violence and discrimination even in this country. But what we did in that school was to prototype a concept with application far beyond our specific group and private school setting.
I am proud that the alums of that course have become those connected and critical citizens – doing work in everything from our national defense and intelligence, to representing the underrepresented before our Supreme Court. Facing all of our story as a nation, in an honest and questioning spirit, only fueled their engagement and their intense dedication to our country, their resilience to keep working on problems especially in times of crisis from 9/11 through now.
How will we motivate our public school students to locate themselves as creators of a more perfect union? How is it possible to draw lessons about the dynamics between one’s ideals and group pressure, if you don’t learn about three-fifths compromise and sit in shame and embarrassment, as well as understanding of political strategy? How is it possible for our students to learn about the inner challenges of actual leadership, what it’s like to sit where you sit where we hope they will one day -- unless they can probe Thomas Jefferson in both his idealism and his cowardice? Why bother reading Thoreau if we don’t allow students to take seriously his indictments of the nation and even of his own friends? How can we study Twain without asking whether he was lampooning the racism of his time or swept up in it?
Sometimes as teachers we have to make sure that a perspective that was or is in our history, that is so opposite of what a patriot teachr like me would ever want to entertain or say out loud, is made vivid and alive in class so students know what’s at stake – slaveholder, or Stalinist -- so it can be addressed in the safe and trusting container of our classrooms.
If the creators of divisive concepts laws such at the existing one are concerned about America lapsing into an unpatriotic socialism – well it is the hallmark of socialist dictatorships to write laws that hide their implications behind innocent sounding words, in order to sow doubt about whether you or someone else is breaking the law, and to create a situation where an official or another citizen can take legal action against you or just threaten to do so. Which is exactly what is happening in New Hampshire and elsewhere with such laws.
Members of my Jewish community have lived under such laws in our lifetimes in other lands, and that’s why they came here. I have had conversations with people running for school board or attending meetings – they are at my kid’s school, in my American neighborhood -- and there is never any actual incident of a teacher declaring that someone is “inherently racist” or that America is. There is only “I have heard of a few times”; “no, I can’t tell you the name of a school” and “I’m just trying to make sure it doesn’t happen here.” That is what the current law is, and it sure doesn’t sound like the American Constitution to me.
If that is not how you intended the current law, then consider my remarks to be teacher comments on an essay whose thesis was confusing and needs a rewrite. If you are serious about education for a proud and patriotic American citizenship, not just for diversity but for a difficult unity -- and I hope that you are, then show you are serious, by getting engaged with the fine work of our social studies leaders and our civic education thinkers. Pump more substantive standards into our system and invest in the resources and training for our educators around critical citizenship and a true patriotism. And in the meantime, get these words out of our current laws and pass HB 1576. Thank you for your time and I am happy to respond to any questions.
Posted at 09:19 AM in #integratingamerica, 9/11, Antisemitism, Books, Community Relations, Current Affairs, Education, Equality, Ethics, Freedom, History, Holocaust, Hope, Immigration, Inclusion, Interfaith Dialogue, Jewish Education, Justice, Leadership, Study, Taking Sides, Teacher-Student Relationship, Tikkun Olam, Tzedek, USA, Youth | Permalink | Comments (0)
I wrote this midrash on the 5th of Sheva 5782 (January 8, 2022) as my Dvar Torah for Parashat Bo, and in particular chapters 11-12 of Exodus, which introduce and lead into and through the last of the ten plagues in Egypt. I was thinking about issues of collective accountability and responsibility, which are the ethical and spiritual dilemmas of the plague narrative. And I was thinking about how to tie this part of the Torah to everything going on right now, the pandemic and politics. This is what emerged. I could have written more and better, but was working on a deadline and also wanted to keep this particular version to less than 15 minutes (it's about 13m30s). It's a bit clunky in all kinds of ways, but it is certainly better than the expository Dvar Torah I had in mind. If anyone wants to take this and rework it, make it your own, you have my complete permission -- all I'd love is some reference to "from an idea by Rabbi Jon Spira-Savett."
Sabba and Savta are Hebrew/Aramaic for grandma and grandpa, which is a bit anachronistic. Rechavia is the name of one of Moshe's grandsons, reference once in the Torah as having many children. I had never known his name, much less thought about him, until I needed another character for this midrash.
Here's a video of me reading it (recorded not on Shabbat), and my text follows.
Rechavia was standing in the doorway of his grandfather Moshe’s home. It was night time in Goshen, and quiet -- more quiet than usual for a night with a moon that was almost full. Even in the worst of slavery, bright spring nights were when children wandered the alleys of Goshen with their littlest lambs and sang songs -- Peh Peh, Hashem Ayeh? Poh, Poh, Hayom Yavo. Rechavia was forty when he had to learn these songs for the first time for his grandchildren, starting a year ago when Sabba Moshe announced that the whole family was leaving Midyan and going to Goshen to rescue their people. Peh Peh, Hashem Ayeh -- it was a kids’ song about Yosef’s bones and the secret code that would lead back to them, on the day Hashem would come out of hiding and lead them out of Egypt -- Poh Poh Yavo Hayom; here, here, it’s coming today.
But no singing tonight. Going out was not safe, not a day before everyone would be slaughtering the sheep or goat they were keeping, and every home would be in danger, Egyptian and Israelite, from the plague of death that Sabba had announced two weeks before. Rechavia was full of thoughts, but his house was full of kids, twelve of them! So he snuck out to go see the one person who was always willing to talk with him. Or, brood with him.
Sabba? Rechavia called out again, quietly on this quiet night, but in his firm voice. For a few seconds Rechavia stood by himself in the entrance, a hand on each doorpost. His right hand could feel a spot that was smoother than the rest, it was about a third of the way down from the lintel. He knew his Sabba had smoothed it, probably stood there for an hour each day since the new moon, contemplating this spot where the blood would be tomorrow, which later they would all remember by putting a scroll of Torah in such a place in their desert tents and their eventual homes.
Savta Tzippora saw him standing there. Rechavia, what are you doing here?
I’m looking for Sabba. I wanted to ta.... I think he wants to talk.
You think he wants to talk? No, Sabba is all talked out. To me, to you, to Pharaoh. He just wants to be out of here. He’s hardly said a word the past week. That’s not true, I heard him the other day muttering -- keep the lamb from the tenth day until the fourteenth day and then slaughter it, why five days’ waiting inside? Wouldn’t two or three have been enough? Oh well, once a shepherd, always a shepherd, your Sabba. And me too, I’m named for the birds after all. And you Rechavia -- your name means wide open space. Look at you, standing in that cramped doorway of all places, what kind of a place for a man with such a name?
Rechavia tapped his hand. I like the doorway. I like to look in, and out. It’s important what we do in here, what we say inside. It’s all perfectly clear when we can talk ,and ask all our questions, and address all points of view. Everything makes sense. Everyone knows what they’re accountable for. If only that were good enough, to get it right in here. But we’re connected to what’s going on out there. The other families in Goshen, the homes in the rest of Egypt. I wish I could be in all of their conversations and not have to wonder what they’re thinking and planning.... When I’m out I need to come in and when I’m in I need to go out. So, I like standing in the doorway.
Rechavia closed his lips and bobbed his head, down once and back. End of speech. Then he tilted his head, gave a little shrug. Tzippora smiled at him.
Ah, this is why you are such a blessing to us, Rechavia, she said. Sometimes I think your Sabba is still trapped in that little box his mother saved him in, even when we was roaming the hills in Midian with my father’s sheep for all those years.
I can see you need to talk and so does your Sabba. Go out and find him. He also couldn’t stay inside tonight. I’d have gone out with him, but someone had to watch this lamb, Hashem forbid she escapes! How would it look if this was the one house without blood on our doorpost and lintel tomorrow. I saw him go out and head left, just after sunset. Stay safe, Rechavia. See you when we’re free.
Rechavia blew her a kiss, turned around, held his hand one more second on the smooth of the doorpost -- then out and to the left. It wasn’t hard to find Sabba Moshe, at the end of their alley on a small hill looking out toward the Nile.
Oh, Rechavia! You shouldn’t be out. I shouldn’t be out. Ha -- of course we all should be out! I can’t wait until we are out, tomorrow night finally.
But something tells me Sabba you’re not quite ready.
.... No, I’m ready. But I just keep asking myself: Does it have to be like this? Is this how we get our freedom -- someone in every one of their homes dies? Someone in Goshen forgets and maybe one of us dies too?
I know Sabba. I’ve been thinking about that too. I don’t know many Egyptians -- we’ve only been here the year. I know the taskmasters but it’s hard to believe that’s all they are.
Moshe gestured toward the Nile -- the shimmer of the moon over the wide waters. See Rechavia, right below the hill here, that’s where my Imma put me in the water, in a basket. And just over there is where Pharaoh’s daughter found me, and it wasn’t just her but the girls with her. You’ve heard the story. They decided together to save me. They knew it was right. They knew it together.
And Rechavia, so many hated us, or went along. I never knew until I turned thirteen. But from the start I always judged them one by one. You know this, I taught you about this when you were little.
That’s right Sabba. When you killed the Egyptian it was one man, threatening the life of another. You made me repeat it: No one shall die for the sins of his father, but only for his own sin.
Yes Rechavia. So why not that way tomorrow? Why can’t Hashem just punish the homes of the taskmasters, or the magicians advising Pharoah, and the king himself? I ask Hashem. I ask the one known to Avraham, and I get no answer.
Sabba, do you remember the day I turned thirteen? You said: Today you come out to the sheep with me, just like your father and uncle when they were your age. You said: I want you to watch carefully and understand. Sometimes a sheep runs away, and even if you can’t remember ever noticing a special streak of color in their wool, you know it is this one sheep, this particular sheep, whom you love and you do anything to bring it back. Then there are other times, when the sheep move together to water or pasture, it’s so miraculous-- how they change the shape of the flock to grip the hills so no one falls, protecting and nurturing each other, and in those moments there is no such thing as a single sheep, there is only a flock. In those moments no one sheep would ever consider running away. And a shepherd learns to know ahead of time the moment just before a flock becomes sheep or sheep become a flock again.
That is what you taught me Sabba. I think this is why Hashem chose you. You always knew long before the moment a flock turns into sheep and long before the moment sheep become a flock. All I ever wanted was to know this as you do.
But Rechavia, tonight I am having trouble with the difference. I know the Egyptians are like a flock of evil sheep -- they lose themselves as they oppress us, they are responsible together. They won’t save each other’s lives let alone ours. We gave them so many chances to run away and I, I myself would have taken any of them in, even if I couldn’t have recognized a single streak in them from before. None of them did. They are responsible, every one of them. So why am I still troubled? Why do I sit like a shepherd on a hill under the moon and look at them still?
The other night, Rechavia, I dreamed of a day I am even older, and we are far along out of this place, and our people are thirsty and I help them find water. And all of a sudden I am sitting right here looking down at this Nile and I am seeing the girls lifting a baby up out of a basket -- and then I hear their cries at the death of their firstborn. In the dream it is too much for me, and I shriek and lash out with this staff and then everything disappears.
Rechavia looked out toward the Nile for a long moment. Then he gestured with his head back, toward the houses, and said: Come on. I have something to show you. They stood up and Rechavia led them back to Moshe’s home.
Rechavia stood in the door frame, felt the smooth part of the post on his right, then moved inside and said: Sabba, stand here. Stand here, and feel this right here.
Moshe took his spot, and Rechavia held his hand and placed it so it touched the part that Moshe had made smooth.
I like the doorway, Rechavia said. What happens inside is important. We talk in here about all the things you asked outside. Who is responsible, for their own actions and for the actions of their nation or their friends, when are you responsible for your own sins and when for the sins of your fathers, and we address all points of view. We decide in here how we will act if this is the truth or if that is the truth. In here, we figure out how to hold each other accountable.
Now Sabba, keep your hand where it is, and turn around. Moshe turned carefully, holding his hand against the doorpost and looking out.
We look outside, Rechavia said, and we hope that inside other doorways it’s the same as in here. But we know it’s not. Not in too many Egyptians homes, and not even in all Israelite homes. It’s all right to wish that other homes would be like ours. When they aren’t, people die. The wrong people are punished.
If we only look out, all we will see is that the wrong people die, how they are all responsible and they are never accountable. We’ll think that is all there is. So each time we look out, we have to look back in here.
Sabba, we have to stand right here, and look both ways. How did you tell it to me once -- when you are sitting in your home and when you are out on your way. A doorpost that shows blood, a doorpost with Hashem.
It was midnight now. Moshe held his arms against the posts. How did you know, Rechavia, that I have been standing here an hour every day since the new moon, feeling this spot over and over, trying to smooth what won’t ever be smooth enough.
He looked at Tzippora, with her hand on the lamb. Moshe thought: Today each of us is a precious lamb, and I do know the moment in twenty-four hours exactly when we will become a flock, losing ourselves as we protect each other on the way out of here.
You know, said Sabba Moshe, I still have my sources still down the Nile. There are Egyptians who today want to come with us, and I have heard that on their doorposts they put up a sign, in our own language as a code to find each other: V’erev rav alah itam. I sent them a message today -- take down the note and put up blood instead and meet us tomorrow after midnight.
Maybe it’s the grandchildren of the women who fished you out, Sabba.
Do you think their homes will be spared from the plague?
I hope they will, Rechavia. When we talk of these things in the future, to your grandchildren -- that’s how we should want them to remember it. It was good to talk, Rechavia. I needed to talk before we left.
Not talk, said Rechavia. Teach. You just needed to teach. See you when we’re free.
Rechavia walked out, under the almost full moon. And without realizing it, he was humming a child’s song, peh peh Hashem ayeh, about the secret hiding place of Yosef’s bones and the day coming when Hashem would no longer hide but redeem them, and if not everyone in Egypt at least many more would be free tomorrow -- poh poh, yavo hayom.
That's Rabbi Sari Laufer, my partner for Chapter 5 of Tov!
"To Measure or Not to Measure" -- on “The Good Place” Eleanor is excited when she is polite for the first time without thinking, Tahani’s philanthropy doesn't score enough points with her parents or the algorithm, and Chidi doesn’t find pleasure in doing the most good. So on the podcast Jon has his first stomach ache and Sari Laufer (new rabbi on the team) helps us think more about where measuring goodness does and doesn’t make sense. Oh, and where intellectual vs. sensual pleasure fits in!
Check it out here or wherever you get podcasts!
On “The Good Place” Michael tries to guide Chidi and Janet toward new things, but it’s Eleanor who finds unexpected inspiration because of Tahani. So on the podcast, Jon Spira-Savett and Audrey Marcus Berkman explore reincarnation Jewish-style and who the teacher you need turns out to be.
Posted at 08:45 AM in Calendar, Education, Elul, Ethics, Foregiveness, High Holidays, Holidays, Hope, Jewish Education, Leadership, Middot, Rosh Hashanah, Soul, Spirituality, Study, Talmud, Teacher-Student Relationship, Television, Teshuvah, Torah, Yamim Noraim, Yom Kippur, Young Jewish Adult, Youth | Permalink | Comments (0)