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1102 East Lasalle Avenue
South Bend, IN, 46617
United States

(574) 234-8584

Sinai Synagogue – an integral part of the South Bend community since 1932.

Sinai Synagogue is a proud part of the Masorti (Conservative) Movement, a dynamic blend of our inclusive, egalitarian approach and a commitment to Jewish tradition.

Sermons

Yom Kippur 5779 - Tikkun Olam: Good or Bad for the Jews?

Steve Lotter

Over Shabbat Shuvah and last night I spoke of how teshuvah is about change. The Maharal of Prague taught that teshuvah was about changing and correcting the transgression but also changing the transgressor. Last night I showed how our sacred literature changed the image of Aaron from his characterization in the Bible to that which we find in the rabbinic period and how that can serve as a model for change for us as well. These ten days are about change. But not just change for its own sake, change for the better. This idea of personal transformation is not unrelated to another key motif in the our Jewish conceptual universe – that of tikkun olam, repairing the world. Just as we seek to improve ourselves, so it is understood by most Jews that we have a responsibility to mend the brokenness of the world.

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Kol Nidre 5779 - The Image of Aaron as a Model for Teshuvah

Steve Lotter

The talk of the entertainment season has been the movie hit Crazy Rich Asians. Not only because it is a rom-com that viewers enjoy, but because of its portrayal of Asians. In the film all the characters, the protagonists as well as side kicks are played by Asians. In the Time Cover story on the movie, the title of the article is Crazy Rich Asians Is Going to Change Hollywood. It's About Time: with the subtitle: The much-anticipated movie signals a major step forward for representation—and for the industry. The author notes that while some viewers may just see a delightful romantic comedy, others “might walk out with a deeper understanding of the class gradations even just within Singaporean society, and the collectivist vs. individualist tensions found in many Asian families. And there’s no obvious stereotyping. For decades, female Asian actors have been asked to portray stereotypes like the vindictive dragon lady, the submissive China doll, the nerdy overachiever or the inert sex worker. Crazy Rich Asians avoids all of these, instead showing the nuances of Asian women’s experiences across generations.”

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Shabbat Shuvah 5779 - How Does Teshuvah Work?

Steve Lotter

This is probably not the question you want your rabbi asking at this time of year but I wonder: Does teshuvah really work? That’s a little like a physician saying to his patient, You know I always wonder if this antibiotic thing is for real?

But teshuvah is problematic. We are told we must do teshuvah, sometimes translated as repentance, or change or turning, to correct the wrongs we have done. But how? Can teshuvah truly be efficacious?

If I punch someone in the nose, despite any remorse I may feel, despite my efforts to help repair the person’s nose, despite confession and appeasement and resolve not to break people’s noses ever again, the nose breaking does not go away. The person attached to the nose retains the memory of the fist making contact. The nose may heal but it won’t be the exact same; the event occurred and can’t be undone. For all the good that may come of remorse, appeasement and resolve how can teshuvah correct a wrong that cannot be made to disappear? This bothers me. But not only me.

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Rosh HaShanah 5779, Day 2 - Judaism Adores Boundaries: A Response to Michael Chabon

Steve Lotter

In the beginning all was tohu vaVohu, chaos. And then in a burst of creative energy, the world came into being. The Divine Force began to separate and fashion, distinguish and form. Within 6 days everything in the universe, stars , planets, oceans, continents, mountains, valleys, creatures of every size and variety came into existence. However, God’s overwhelming creative energy threatened to devastate the universal canvas; what began as wrenching beauty out of chaos, now endangered the world by returning it to bedlam and disorder. Until God said, Dai! Enough! And the world was bound in orderliness. And this, our sages tell us is why one of God’s name is Shadai, the God who said Dai! Enuf!

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Rosh Hashanah 5779, Day 1 - Disruptive Change & Sinai's Response

Steve Lotter

Earlier this year, Facebook made history by losing more than 100 billion dollars in value in a single day. This was the largest ever single day loss for an American company. Facebook’s valuation went from 630 billion dollars to 510 billion dollars. Even at 500 billion dollars, Facebook is still one of the largest companies in the world. Its rise has been meteoric. To make this point, do you know what Facebook’s public valuation was just 15 years ago?

Zero, it did not exist. That is a meteoric rise. But not only in Market capitalization, but Facebook’s place in American culture, society and politics has changed our country, the world and the humans who inhabit this planet in ways we simply could not have imagined 15 years ago.

And that change is not slowing down.

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Shabbat VaEthanan 5778 - Disappointments of a Liberal Zionist

Steve Lotter

Allow me to begin this morning with a shocking statement:  The election of Donald Trump as President of the United States is the best thing that could have happened to liberal Zionists.

Seriously.  For years, those of us who are proud Zionists but not fans of the current rightwing government of Israel have had to defend on ourselves on two fronts.  To Likud supporters and Israel ‘right or wrong’ advocates, we have had to defend our position that belief in a two state solution is not anti-Semitic but rather the best hope for a strong Jewish State.  And to the left we have had to argue that criticizing the government of Israel is acceptable but condemning its existence is not ‘anti Zionist’, it is anti Semitic.  Every country in the world acts inappropriately on some level - if not down right barbaric - but only Israel’s whole reason for being is questioned because it is not perfect.

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Shabbat Mattot Masei 5778 - What are Your Priorities, Israel?

Steve Lotter

With a long Torah reading and our celebrating again a new addition to our community we have very little time for a davar Torah.

So I will make it short.

In this morning’s reading the tribes of Reuben and Gad who have great amounts of cattle recognize that the land outside the Land of Israel that the Israelites have just conquered would be wonderful grazing land for all their sheep.  They magnanimously offer to Moses that they will remain behind on this land and the rest of the Tribes can share the land of Israel.  Moses is appalled at the idea “Don’t you realize that the reason we have been wandering the desert for 40 years is because your parents did the same thing?  They refused to go into the Land.”  But the Reubenites and Gadites clarify that they are more than willing to help conquer the promised land, in fact they will even be the shock troops, the Halutzim, who will lead the fight and when all of Israel is settled they will come back to this land and settle it.

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Shabbat Balak 5778 - Goodnesss and Wickedness Are Often Commingled

Steve Lotter

One of the news stories in the Jewish world this week was about five American Jews who walked off their Birthright Israel program in protest of the program’s lack of discussion regarding the occupation of the West Bank and joining a tour of Hebron led by the anti occupation group Breaking the Silence composed of Israeli army veterans.

When I saw the story, my initial reaction was to be impressed with the young women’s integrity.  Birthright has no political agenda but elides the whole occupation issue.  But as I thought about it, I said to myself, “Wait  a minute - these women were offered a free trip to Israel by a group whose goal is simply to introduce young American Jews, lacking basic knowledge about Judaism, Jewish history and the state of Israel, to their Jewish heritage and to see Israel as the amazing nation it is.  The Israeli Palestinian issue is not on their agenda and that is perfectly OK.”  Instead the actions of these women proved to be ungrateful and self-inflating.  It also turned out that, in fact, they did have an agenda.  They were all activists in If Not Now, a group of young Jews who are opposed to Israel’s occupation policies.  They came with the intention of making a political point.  What initially seemed like an act of integrity now appeared to be a stunt, even if they have every right, and perhaps should be respected for not accepting the status quo on the occupation. 

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Shabbat Hukkat 5778 - The Spiritual Meaning of the Red Heifer

Steve Lotter

Sinai Synagogue, Shabbat AM, June 23, 2018
Rabbi Michael Friedland

I read an opinion piece this week that suggested if “your pastor is not speaking about the forced separations between asylum seeking parents and children on the border, find a new congregation”.  I guess my response would be if a pastor has to give a sermon explaining how wrong these separations are to his or her congregation, the pastor should find a new congregation.  It should be obvious to all how horrific and immoral this is.  Even the President’s biggest supporters have criticized him about this terrible injustice.   

However it is worth mentioning the statement which Jewish organizations signed, representing Jewish organizations across the religious spectrum and representing many causes and perspectives, criticizing this policy: https://rac.org/blog/2018/06/13/jewish-organizations-trump-administration-families-belong-together

But let’s talk about something else because reading what our nation is doing regarding asylum seekers, undocumented workers, the environment, LGBTQ, women’s health issues, etc on a daily basis should make all of us feel dirty.  Thank God this week’s Torah portion is Chukat – how to reclaim purity! Ritual purity at least.

According to Professor Ed Greenstein, professor of Bible at Bar Ilan University: “The ritual of the red heifer is the only way to rid a person of ritual pollution (tum’ah) after the person becomes tainted by contact with a dead person. Although there are many forms of ritual pollution, the type derived from contact with a corpse is the most severe form. Such a person is purified (taharah) by means of a mixture made from the ash of the sacrificed red heifer, some additional components that reinforce its redness, and pure (freely flowing) water. Curiously, the red heifer ritual entails a well-known mystery on account of a seeming contradiction: the people who handle the heifer—who burn it and collect its ashes—purify themselves prior to their activity, but they become tainted afterward.”

The modern bible scholars, Jacob Milgrom and Ed Greenstein, maintain that purity symbolizes life, which is what God favors, and pollution symbolizes death, which God abhors. The red heifer concoction, comprising a sort of enhanced blood (red-skinned cow blood plus reddish cedar wood and red dye), purifies the tainted person from the strongest form of pollution. Accordingly, if the most purifying matter purifies the most tainted of persons, why should it pollute the purified ministrants who handle the purifying stuff?  It seems illogical. 

A midrashic compilation known as Pesikta D’Rav Kahana explains it this way: We have learned in another place: All those who handle the (red) heifer from beginning to end become polluted in their clothes—but the heifer itself purifies the polluted! But the Blessed Holy One says: “I have given an ordinance (hukkah), I have laid down a decree, and you are not allowed to violate my decree”—This is the hukkah of the teaching (torah) that Adonai has commanded”  (Num. 19:2).  

The Sages in trying to understand certain Jewish laws in the Torah distinguished between a “judgment” (mishpat)—a law for which you can find a reason or justification—and an “ordinance” (hok)—a law for which there is no known reason.  According to the Rabbis, the rite of the red heifer, which purifies the tainted and taints the pure, is the classic example of an ordinance. 

However Dr. Greenstein argues that for modern Biblical scholars, using tools the rabbis either did not have or did not have as advanced as we do today offer different ways of looking at hukkim, these non rational rules.  One set of tools is comparative studies with what was done or legislated elsewhere in the ancient Near East—a tool that grows more powerful by the day by means of new discoveries and new insights.  The second set of tools is anthropological, and especially structural anthropological analysis, which Professor Greenstein writes, lays bare ideas and themes that find concrete expression in the search after the underlying principles of the law.

Using those tools he offers two models how to make sense of this strange law that purifies the impure, while impurifying the pure.

In the first model he asks us to imagine the ashes of the red heifer and the purified individual who handles it as two sponges, soaked with water.  Neither can absorb another drop.  When the two sponges are brought into contact, water seeps out and they begin to empty.  The ashes of the red heifer are pure in their very essence. Consequently, the person who is purified in order to handle the ashes is the party in the interaction that is diminished by the contact. One who cannot become any purer who comes into contact with pure essence must suffer a loss of purity—a depletion.  

There is a spiritual message in this.  Satiety is not the ideal.  For in fact one who is completely satiated with ritual purity can only deplete.  Likewise, it preferable to be lacking a little bit – in wisdom, in various virtues, in skill sets.  Better to be a little bit short of perfection, in order to motivate one to keep working hard, in order to know there is always room to grow.  Maimonides suggests this in terms of eating.  Always leave the table short of satiation he recommends in his Laws of Ethics.  And our tradition hints at this as well when it teaches that one who is a baal teshuvah, that is a person who has failed and corrected her faults stands in a place that even a person who has never done wrong can stand.  The imperfection leads one to a higher standing than one who is without imperfection.

Professor Greenstein’s second model of this non-rational ordinance is “Consider a person who ails from a certain disease and takes medication in order to treat it.  The medicine fills a lack or corrects a condition. Someone who does not have the ailment can be injured by the medication, for there is no lack to fill or condition to correct.  The medicine cannot be absorbed without effect—the surfeit can cause damage.”

Here too we can find a message for our own lives.  Again to borrow from Maimonides on his discussion of virtues:  He recommends the Golden Mean for most virtues.  Thus generosity – one should be generous and not miserly.  But one should also not be a spendthrift with money.  Thus if one is tightfisted and has a hard time giving tzedakah, one should be lavish in gift giving until it becomes part of one’s nature.  On the other hand if one is constantly giving away funds so that one’s family is impoverished, he should practice being parsimonious until the balance is right.  

Ritual purity, like proper virtuous behavior, is about balance – in a state of ritual purity attempting to add to it is unhealthy, whereas in a state of impurity, the purifying force of the red heifer potion is useful.

So perhaps when we stray from the path of compassion and human kindness so far that we simply become inured to the violence around us, the cruelty and hypocrisy that comes from our nation’s leadership, we need to be confronted with images that are so stark in their malice and brutality that we are shocked as a society that we have fallen so far.  May we learn from this lesson.  And June 30 come out to the Families Belong together march here in South Bend while others march in other cities.

Shabbat Behar Behukotai 5778 - The Most Destructive of Crimes

Steve Lotter

Sinai Synagogue, Shabbat AM, May 12, 2018
Rabbi Michael Friedland

Amos was a prophet in the kingdom of Israel in the 8th century.  He was first of the literary prophets in our canon, that is the prophets whose book is named for him and his orations.  Amos railed against the moral and economic injustices that he saw all around him and specifically in the Northern Israelite kingdom.  In Chapter 9 of the Book of Amos, he envisions God standing over the sacred altar and demanding that it be torn down: I saw my LORD standing by the altar, and He said: Strike the top of structure so that the threshold quakes, U’v’tza’am b’rosh.  That phrase in Hebrew is very hard to translate but a midrash explains the moral implications of Amos’ charge.

Rabbi Yudan explained the verse in this way, “it is like a basket full of sins.  Which sin brings about the ultimate indictment?  Theft and fraud.  This is a play on words for the Hebrew word U’v’tza’am in the verse sounds like batza, a synonym for theft and b’rosh means “at the top”, so of all the sins theft is at the top.  The midrash continues, Rabbi Yohanan analogized the situation to a person who is guilty of idolatry, and murder, and adultery and theft, yet it is B’tza’am b’rosh fraud is the most severe.  Thus in our Torah portion this morning, in reference to the Jubilee year, Moses warns the people: “When you sell property to your neighbor, or buy any from your neighbor, you shall not wrong or defraud one another.”

It seems odd to put robbery or fraud at the top of the list of significant sins but I think what the sages are trying to point out is that what agitates most societies, what causes ultimate disruption in the societal fabric are pocket book transgressions.  Murder, moral turpitude, religious heresies can exist and societies absorb these actions, or ignore them but economic inequality and corruption will cause an upheaval to societal structure. And given our contemporary situation I think we can relate.

A day does not go by without new revelations of corruption and wrongdoing by this current administration.  Adultery, sexual assault, war mongering, influence peddling and conspiring with Russia to impact on our free elections make for shocking and titillating news stories, yet it will be economic issues that have the greatest impact and will be the factor that either weakens or strengthens this administration. 

There is no doubt that the elections in 2016 and 2017 all hinged on the unfairness that many Americans see in our current system and the impact on their lives.  An example from the newspaper this week:  The airline industry has made significant profits for the last five years.  Last year was the same, despite Airline representatives noting that fuel and labor costs increased by more than $7 billion when compared with 2016.  So how did they make a tidy profit? To the tax overhaul legislation adopted by federal lawmakers last year even while the annual American Customer Satisfaction Index study of more than 12,000 Americans found that satisfaction with airlines dropped 2.7 percent this year reversing all of last year’s improvement.  So companies at least in this industry are increasing profits not because they are providing better service but because the government gave them huge tax breaks.

And both ends of the political spectrum see the system as unfair.  On the right there is the belief that open immigration policies and lackadaisical policing of undocumented workers keep wages down; on the left is the belief that it is the systemic nature of our capitalist system that makes economic inequality grow and keeps workers scrambling while corporate interests increase profits. 

The Torah recognizes that fair and just economic policies are a balance between those who have the resources or the capital and those who do not.

Nechama Leibowitz in discussing this parasha notes that both buyers and sellers are addressed by the Torah.

When you the vendor sell property to your neighbor, or you the purchaser buy any from your neighbor, neither of you shall wrong the other.  In buying from your neighbor, you the purchaser shall deduct only for the number of years since the jubilee; and he the vendor in selling to you the purchaser, shall charge you only for the remaining crop years: the more years that you the buyer will be able to benefit from the use of the land, the higher the price you pay; the fewer such years since in the Jubilee year you will have to return the land to the family of the original owner, the price will be lower; for what he is selling you is a number of harvests. Neither of you shall wrong one another, but show reverence for your God; for I the LORD am your God.”

Leibowitz points out that the Torah is not concerned with exclusive protecting the interests of either purchaser or vendor, rather both parties have been admonished to abide by the principles of justice and honesty which alone should reign in the world and should not be crowded out by selfish greed. 

In these verses the phrase “neither of you shall wrong the other”  occurs twice.  The Torah never uses words indiscriminately, what lesson is being expressed here by admonishing us twice in so concise a section?

Rashi explains that there are two kinds of fraudulent behavior that are being placed in check. 

“First [The text] comes to warn against wronging [by overcharging, [namely, that] when you sell or purchase land, you should be aware of how many years remain until the [next] Jubilee, and according to [that number of] years and the crops that it is fit to yield, the seller should sell and the buyer should buy. For indeed, the purchaser will eventually return the land to the seller in the Jubilee year. Thus, if there are [only] a few years [left until the next Jubilee year], and the owner sells it for a high price, the purchaser has been wronged. And if there are many years [left until the next Jubilee year], and the buyer will eat many crops from it but he underpays, the seller has been wronged. Therefore, it must be purchased according to the time [left until the next Jubilee].”

With reference to the second admonition, Rashi points out another form of potential fraud: “Here, Scripture is warning against verbal fraud, namely, that one must not provoke his fellow, nor offer dishonest advice to the detriment of the advisee and the benefit to the advisor. And if you say, “Who can tell whether I had dishonest intentions”  The Torah states “and you shall show reverence before your God.” Who knows the inner thoughts of a person.”

Leibowitz concludes that the Torah is thus warning us not to wrong our fellow in all varieties of fraudulent dealings.  Any taking advantage of the weakness of one’s neighbor, even raising false hopes (like promising to bring back certain industries that are no longer profitable or healthy for our environment) or tactless remarks that insult the other is wrong.

The Torah as it often does speaks to all listeners, the owners of land and the buyers, the dispossessed as well as the acquisitionists, the employer and the employed.  It reminds us that the economic ideal is balance and fairness.  The theological underpinning for this approach is that ultimately none of us own anything, all is under God’s purview.  Our responsibility as stewards of God’s world is to ensure that the Divine intention for fairness and honesty is actualized.

Shabbat Tazria-Metzora - What is the Purpose of Torah Study?

Steve Lotter

Sinai Synagogue, Shabbat AM, April 21, 2018
Rabbi Michael Friedland

When we study Torah how much of our time should be spent studying Torah and what should be the nature of that study?

In the Talmud Rabbi Nehorai taught do not assume Torah study will come after you, rather exile yourself to a place of Torah.  Exile yourself to a place of Torah is a statement of total commitment.  Think of what the imagery he is imagining means.  Exile means to leave the boundaries of community, to leave comfort and ease for a life of constant pursuit and dislocation.  Rabbi Nehorai responded to a verse in Proverbs: “If you seek ( wisdom) as you do silver and search for it as for treasures, Then you will understand reverence for the Lord and attain knowledge of God.”

Wisdom in the book of Proverbs is synonymous with Torah for the rabbis.  Their message was that one could not be complacent when it comes to the commitment to study Torah, rather one must be active in pursuit of this enlightenment. 

However should that be one’s model regarding love of Torah, to disrupt one’s life so thoroughly that must cut off the world to give it proper attention?  It is ironic that exile is usually seen as a punishment.  The remedy to exile is to bring people into community.

This morning’s Torah portion may have a response.  The majority of our double parasha this morning concerned  the disease known as Tzara’at.  The rabbis understood this disease as a punishment from God for the sin of malicious speech.  Modern science is unfamiliar with the symptomology of this disease as it is described in the Torah.  According to the Torah there are two forms of this disease, acute and transitory.  The transitory causes a discoloration of the skin and hair that disappears after 7 or 14 days.  When a person has such an affliction he is kept outside the camp in a separate area for lepers.  The priest goes to visit him and checks his symptoms and returns the healed leper when his illness is over.

If it is acute Tzara’at, more then 2 weeks long, the individual is banished from the community possibly forever.  Nevertheless the priest continues to visit and check him.  The second half of our double Parasha explains the elaborate ritual the leper undergoes when he is cured so that he may enter the community once again. 

But the whole dynamic in this section is devoted to returning the victim to the community.  Exile is the opposite of what is desired.  According to the Kli Yakar, Rabbi Ephraim of Lunshitz,  it is Torah that brings the afflicted individual back to the community.  He employs a play on words to express this.  After the description of the disease, the Torah defines the healing or atoning ritual – Zot tihiyeh torat hametzorah “This shall be the ritual for a leper at the time that he is to be cleansed.”  But Rabbi Ephraim reads it this way -  It is the Torah of the metzora - his Torah study expresses his sincere commitment to repentance.  In this way he is cleansed of the disease by God and the priest purifies him through this ritual.

This dichotomy between the need to exile oneself from the community in order to study Torah with no distractions and the value of Torah study in creating community or returning one to community is found throughout the history of Jewish thought.

According to Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai, a rabbi from 1st century, The Torah was only given for study to those who eat manna.  What did he mean by this cryptic comment?  Torah study is for those who sit and learn without knowing where there next meal is coming from or where there clothes will come from, that is those who exile themselves from daily concerns, who are so truly committed to Torah that they live by faith alone.

This Rabbi Shimon has an interesting history.  Upon hearing someone extol the Roman government for their cultural achievements he castigated the rulers publicly.  This was a dangerous thing to do in Roman occupied Israel.  A death sentence was announced and he and his son hid in a cave for 13 long years.  All they ate were carob and they became afflicted with skin sores all over their bodies.  In their years of hiding they had become powerful through their purity and Torah study.   According to legend they had super powers.  And when they finally left the caves after so much suffering and perseverance and saw Jews farming the land and life going on as normal, they were furious: “We suffered for Torah yet these people give up the world to come in favor of the world of the moment!”  Their eyes blazed fire and everywhere they looked they scorched the earth.  A voice came out from the heavens and cried “Did you leave the cave only to destroy My world?”  And God forced to return to the cave.

This midrash while honoring Rabbi Shimon for his great sacrifice of personal pleasure in order to remain steadfast in his integrity,  also is a critique.  For his recognition of the excess in Roman culture also led him to criticize common laborers attempting to build up the land.

The difference in outlook can also be heard in a disagreement between the great rabbis Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Ishmael.  The Torah teaches “You shall observe my ordinances, statutes and laws that a person should do them and live by them”.  Rabbi Akiva understood this prescription “to live by them” meant that observing the mitzvot in this world would give  access to the world to come. He based this on the reality that observance of mitzvot did not always provide benefits in this world.  But Rabbi Ishmael’s take was different the meaning of the verse - You shall observe my ordinances, statutes and laws that a person should do them and live by them – was live by the laws don’t die because of  them.  Except for a few extreme cases, mitzvot could be broken to save lives. 

In another Talmudic passage, the Talmudic scholar Samuel said to Rav Judah, ‘hurry on and eat, hurry on and drink,(do not postpone any enjoyments or pleasures) since the world from which we must depart is like a wedding feast’. The world we live in Shmuel understood comes to an end for most of us too soon, therefore don’t refrain from the healthy pleasures that come before us, the pleasures that God has made possible for us in our beautiful world.  Or as Rashi puts it- Im yesh lekha mammon l’hanot, (If you have the funds to enjoy) al tamtin atzmekha ad l’machar, (don’t wait until tomorrow to use them) shema tamut v’shuv ayn lekha hana’ah (lest you die and lose out on your enjoyment).  It may not be the advice we want to give to our teenagers, but taken modestly all of us can benefit from that.

At times it can make sense to leave this world and exile ourselves to a place with quiet and peace and all the time in the world to study and read.  But the other pull on us is to engage in the world, and not denigrate the world we live in. The goal of Torah and Torah study should be to seek to improve our world through our study of it.

Shabbat Ki Tisa - Shabbat As An Antidote to Cell Phone Addiction

Steve Lotter

Sinai Synagogue, Shabbat AM, March 3, 2018
Rabbi Michael Friedland

Hi My name is Michael Friedland and I am an iPhone addict. 

I recently upgraded to an iPhone 6s.  Actually Hillel upgraded to an 8 and I took his 6s.  I was excited because the 6s is a little larger than the 5 which is what I had.  I spend hours of my precious time reading the tiny tiny print in news articles on the iPhone 5.  My eyes were going from bad to worse.  But I couldn’t help it – my phone would notify me of every breaking news headline from the 5 news services that I subscribe to.  And when that breaking news headline comes across, I mean, what else are you supposed to do but stop everything in your life at that moment and go to that page. 

I also follow people on twitter – I am not on twitter – but I follow certain opinion writers on twitter.  And I have to stop every, oh I don’t know, five minutes to see if they have published any new comments. 

My old iPhone 5 was barely functioning, in fact it was only held together by its otter case because I had smacked it so many times when it did not give me the news fast enough!

So it was a relief when I read that I am not alone.

David Greenfield, a psychologist and assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of Connecticut explains that "Smartphone notifications have turned us all into Pavlov's dogs.”

Whenever we hear a ding or a ping or lightning sound that alerts us to a new text, email or breaking news story, because we have received a kind of pleasurable feeling when we receive these notification, the cells in our brains are taught to release dopamine or something like it. That dopamine makes us feel pleasure, Greenfield says.

"That ping is telling us there is some type of reward there, waiting for us," Greenfield says.

In other words, just hearing the notification can be more pleasurable than the text, email or tweet. "Smartphone notifications have turned us all into Pavlov's dogs," Greenfield says.

The average adult checks their phone 50 to 300 times each day, Greenfield says. And smartphones use psychological tricks that encourage our continued high usage — some of the same tricks slot machines use to hook gamblers.

"For example, every time you look at your phone, you don't know what you're going to find — how relevant or desirable a message is going to be," Greenfield says. "So you keep checking it over and over again because every once in a while, there's something good there."

Some psychiatrists are now suggesting that over reliance on smart phones can become a behavioral addiction like gambling.

"It's a spectrum disorder," says Dr. Anna Lembke, a psychiatrist at Stanford University, who studies addiction. "There are mild, moderate and extreme forms."

For perhaps some people, the solution as with alcoholism, might be total temperance.  Buy a flip phone.

For others, the solution as for so many challenges in life is: Shabbat !

That’s right.  Shabbat is now a saving grace for our over reliance on cell phones, iPhones, iPads and all things electronic.

NPR had a report a couple of weeks ago in which Tiffany Shlain and her husband Ken Goldberg discussed their family power down from Friday night to Saturday night.  It was not a coincidence that the power down coincides with Shabbat.

The family's not religious, Shlain says, but they love the Jewish Sabbath ritual of setting aside a day for rest or restoration.

"The days felt much longer, and we generally feel much more relaxed," added her husband.

Their daughter, Odessa Shlain Goldberg, a ninth-grader, says the unplugging takes some of the pressure off. "There's no fear of missing out  or seeing what my friends are doing," Odessa says. "It's a family day."

"During the week, [we're] like an emotional pinball machine responding to all the external forces (by turning the technology off and powering down) You're making your time sacred again — reclaiming it," Shlain says. "You stop all the noise."

Moses could not have said it better himself.

Speak to the Israelite people and say: Verily, you shall keep My Sabbaths, for this is a sign between Me and you throughout the ages, that you may know that I the LORD have consecrated you. You shall keep the Sabbath, for it is holy for you. …
The Israelite people shall keep the Sabbath, observing the Sabbath throughout the ages as a covenant for all time: it shall be a sign for all time between Me and the people of Israel. For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day He ceased from work and was refreshed.

This passage, the V’shamru, which we sing on Friday night and Shabbat morning, offers us two key pieces of information about the Shabbat.  That Shabbat is holy and that God offered it to us, just as God’s self found, that ceasing from creative labor allows the soul to refresh.

It is not by accident that this passage comes just before the experience of the Golden Calf.  Rabbi Meir Simha of Dvinsk in his commentary, Meshekh Hokhmah, writes  "There is nothing intrinsically holy in the world save God, to whom alone reverence, praise and homage is due.  The Holy comes into being in response to specific Divine commandments.  Rabbi Meir Simha explains why Moses was willing to smash the Luchot HaBrit, the tablets written by God with the 10 commandments on them when he saw the people praying to a Golden idol.  “He feared they would deify (the tablets) as they had done the calf.  Had he brought them the Tablets intact, they would have substituted them for the calf and not reformed their ways.   Now that he had broken the Tablets, they realized how far they had fallen short of true faith . . . and by this, Moses had demonstrated that the Tablets of God, themselves, possessed no intrinsic holiness."

Things are not holy.  Things can represent ideals or experiences that we deem holy.  Nahum Sarna the great modern Bible scholar noted that the ancient place of worship, or even today's synagogue, "enshrines the concept of the holiness of space; the Sabbath embodies the concept of the holiness of time.  The latter always takes precedence over the former." 

This is because time is arena in which acts and deeds take place.  Acts and deeds have the potential to be holy.  As Abraham Joshua Heschel famously taught, "Judaism teaches us to be attached to holiness in time [not space], to be attached to sacred events [not things], to learn how to consecrate sanctuaries that emerge from the magnificent stream of a year.  The Sabbaths are our great cathedrals!"

Technological devices are simply another amazing creation by human hands.  They are so useful, so helpful in connecting us to the outside world, in achieving needed information instantly and working out solutions to challenges we face at work or in the home.  They are comparable to the great and awesome physical structures and palaces constructed in the past.  And because of their ability to help and assist and connect, there is a potential of holiness in accessing the most positive elements in these devices.

A phone call to a lonely person.  A tzedakah contribution made easy.  Even prayers and Torah at the touch of a button.  But like all things that represent or assist us in achieving sanctity, at some point holiness in time must assert its precedence.  The soul needs time to refresh, to reflect without the constant barrage of information, to power down.

May we all learn to appreciate the gift of Shabbat by refraining one day a week from creative labor and engage in holiness in time through Shabbat encouraged activities.  Might we learn from this “Tech Shabbat” and  apply the spiritual lessons of our tradition’s spiritual giants to the technological advances of our day.

Liberation is More than Freedom

Steve Lotter

In the Leo Lionni classic children’s story Frederick, a community of mice work hard to get ready for the winter by storing up food. But Frederick just sits and contemplates,
he seems to be loafing. He keeps telling his fellow mice that he is doing something “I’m soaking in words, and colors”. Winter comes, they eat all their stored rations, and have to subsist on crumbs for the last weeks before spring. Cold and hungry, they turn to Frederick. “Where are the words and colors you stored up?” and he sings to them of the good times to come, with images so real they can taste them. Frederick assists them to get through the last days before spring comes. Imagination is a powerful antidote to despair.

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Shabbat Zachor - The Ominous Responsibility of Zachor Al Tishkach

Steve Lotter

I know that people think I get too political in my sermons but as they say “You can’t make this stuff up”.  Today is Shabbat Zachor, it is the Shabbat that comes right before Purim and the word Zachor comes from the special verses in the Torah we read today:  Zachor et asher asah Lekha Amalek.  Remember what Amalek did to you.  We remember the cruel and vicious attack of Amalek and his tribe just after Israel left Egypt on this Shabbat because Haman the failed genocidal enemy in the Purim story is a descendant of Amalek. 

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Shabbat Mishpatim - How to Make Sense of Slavery in the Torah

Steve Lotter

I have been reading Eric Foner’s comprehensive history of the Reconstruction period in American history.  What led me to this was a biography of Ulysses S Grant and his frustrations as President to enact the promise of Reconstruction.  Soon after the end of the Civil War, Reconstruction permitted the same hierarchical power structure to remain in place from before the war.

This was partially due to entrenched racism and partially due to economics. 

The end of the Civil War and the Emancipation of black slaves led to an economic challenge:  How to create a new economy with free persons labor?  Many former slaves on principle refused to return to plantation work.  They wanted their own piece of land and to work for themselves.  But they sought to be subsistence farmers, living off their own land.  But the economy of the South, which was devastated after the war, had depended on cash crops like cotton and tobacco.  Northern textile mills depended on the continued development of the cotton crop as much as Southerners did.  What ensued over the next decades were active efforts to reinstate the older power structure in a way to replace the now formally illegal system of slavery.   Fifty years after the Emancipation Proclamation, the life of African Americans was still constrained and dreadful, even in the North where race riots occurred repeatedly. 

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Shabbat Yitro - The Heart Wants What the Heart Wants?

Steve Lotter

Woody Allen is in the news again and not because he is making movies worth watching.  Charges of child molestation by his adopted daughter have arisen again in the wake of the MeToo movement.  In the wake of the original charges over 25 years ago, he was interviewed by Walter Isaacson then of Time magazine.  The charges were made in the midst of a custody battle between Allen and his former lover Mia Farrow after Allen had begun an affair with Soon Yi Previn, one of Farrows adopted children before she began her relationship with Allen.  In the interview, Isaacson asks, Even though Soon Yi was not your adopted daughter, did you not feel that it would be disruptive for your biological son and your adopted children who saw Soon Yi as a sister, for their dad to date their sister?

To which Allen uttered the famous line paraphrasing Emily Dickinson, “The Heart wants what it wants.  It isn’t logical”.

The heart may want what it wants but how does desiring something justify it?  Isn’t desiring something that is not yours in itself a transgression of the last of the 10 commandments? Thou shalt not covet?

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Shabbat Beshallach - The Amalek Within Us

Steve Lotter

The Torah does not dwell too long on the great moment of liberation, the miraculous experience of the Exodus.  As soon as the people have sung their song of deliverance we read how they are ready to go back to Egypt because they have no food, no water and they are attacked by cruel Amalekites.

However victory over the Amalekites galvanizes them.  There is nothing like pulling together to fight a common enemy that helps a group create a sense of cohesion and purpose. 

After the victory however we note that there is something different about this enemy.  The Lord said to Moses, “Inscribe this in a document as a reminder, and read it aloud to Joshua:   I will utterly blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven”! …The Lord will be at war with Amalek throughout the generations.”   (Ex;17;14-16)  Hundreds of years of enslavement to the Egyptians and we have no recorded statement that Israel must be at war with the Egyptians forever.  In fact just the opposite we are told not to abhor an Egyptian for we were strangers in their land! (Deut. 23:8) But the Amalekites we must fight forever and eradicate. Why?

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Shabbat Bo - The Dreamers and Us

Steve Lotter

In this morning’s reading there is one verse that I have always found curious.  

And the LORD had disposed the Egyptians favorably toward the people, and they let them have their request; thus they stripped the Egyptians.

The word that the JPS translation renders as “stripped” - VaYinatzlu – comes from a meaning of ‘delivering from’ or ‘removing from’ according the Biblical Brown-Driver-Briggs lexicon. So, in its causative form, it can mean delivering from enemies – that is ‘to save’. Or, it can mean to take away, or plunder. Most  commentaries agree that, in this case, the meaning of the verse “Vayinatzlu et Mitzrayim” is that as the Israelites leave, they take spoil of the Egyptians, they plunder, or as Rashi explains, “they emptied them out”. 

In the kind of movies that I enjoy, where the bad guys are evil, so evil that the viewer wishes the most horrific punishment and suffering on them and is rewarded with such defeat over evil - think Lord of the Rings where the Gollum ends up melting in the river of fire -  a scene in which after generations of slavery the Jews get revenge by cleaning out the Egyptians must have been very satisfying, especially if you were a Jew living in a climate of oppression close to slavery in medieval Europe.

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Shabbat VaAyreh - Heschel and King: Their Common Theology

Steve Lotter

Abraham Joshua Heschel’s yahrtzeit is the 18th of Tevet and this year fell on January 5th.  This weekend is the observance of Martin Luther King Jr.’s Birthday.  In between we read the first two parashiyot of Exodus.  The confluence of these events encourages us to reflect on the legacy of these two great spiritual giants and their very special relationship.

Each of these men held the other in greatest esteem, both saw in the other the role of the Biblical prophet declaiming God’s love and demands to his human creations.

“Where does God dwell in America today?” asked Heschel before introducing King at the Rabbinical Assembly’s convention in 1968. “... Where in America today do we hear a voice like the voice of the prophets of Israel? Martin Luther King is a sign that God has not forsaken the United States of America. God has sent him to us. His presence is the hope of America. His mission is sacred, his leadership of supreme importance to every one of us.”

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Acting with compassion and kindness

Steve Lotter

In November, Lizzie and I and about 30 members of the Jewish community were guests at the home of Barbara and Dave Lerman at a communal dinner for members of the Muslim and Jewish communities. About 30 members of the Islamic Society of Michiana were invited as well. The dinner was the initiative of Bob Feferman our Community Relations Council and Haidar Alkeladar of the Iraqi Refugee community. At the dinner, before I led the motzi, I mentioned how Abraham, who is the father of both the Jewish and Islamic peoples, was noted for his quality of compassion and kindness. When he welcomed the three visitors into his home and placed hospitality as one of the outstanding acts of gemilut Hasadim, he was not aware that the result of his and Sarah’s efforts at hospitality and kindness would be a promise of a child, Yitzhak who would be born a year later. I concluded my remarks saying that when we break bread together, we break down barriers, and when acting with kindness toward others, productive and creative results occur.

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