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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

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Shabbat Aharei Mot 5779

Steve Lotter

Sinai Synagogue, Shabbat AM, May 4, 2019
Rabbi Michael Friedland

Our Torah portion begins this morning, Va Yidaber Hashem el Moshe Aharei Mot shnai b’nai Aharon b’korvatam lifnei Hashem vayamutu God spoke to Moses after the death of the two sons of Aaron who died when they drew too close to the presence of God. We begin this Shabbat acharei mot Lori Gilbert Kaye v’hevrei Bet Knesset Tree of Life, after the death of Lori Gilbert Kaye at Chabad of Poway CA and the members of the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh back in August who were drawn to the presence of God coming to worship in their communities on Shabbat.

And just as Aaron their father must have realized that the world was to be perceived differently after the traumatic loss of his sons, we too feel that something is different about our place in America. We’ve known that something was different about our nation ever since this President was elected in 2016 but maybe we felt it wasn’t going to effect us. Many of us were secure to some extent professionally or financially. America has always had a violent culture but one was mostly protected if you lived in the right areas and took proper precautions. Jew hatred was a feature of society, but not like what our grandparents or great grandparents experienced in Europe, not even what our parents may have experienced from bigotry on the streets. But now something is very wrong and frightening and it has seeped into our most holy spaces. The pathological hatred of Jews that hid in dark corners and the margins of our society are now being activated in open rallies and murderous rage and we are being told to build stronger walls and higher gates because society has no other solutions.

The Baal Shem Tov commenting on the opening verse of our Torah portion Va Yidaber Hashem el Moshe Aharei Mot shnai b’nai Aharon b’korvatam lifnei Hashem vayamutu (God spoke to Moses after the death of the two sons of Aaron who died when they drew too close to the presence of God) noted that the word mot death appears twice in the verse. He explained that it is a midrashic principle in explicating Torah verses, that the word acharei implies distance. The shock of Nadav and Avihu’s death was that the fear of death was always far away from them. For in their capacity as priests working in the Tabernacle where God’s presence was most keenly felt, and aware that God’s presence could be comforting but also terrifying, they did not think that the danger they lived with would actually strike them. They were aware that death lurked nearby but assumed it would not happen to them. They were too protected.

We too live during an age when in fact for most people death is distant. Compared to generations before us, when life expectancies were much less than today we expect to live longer. In fact when certain community’s life expectancies are worsening, we acknowledge that these are social policy issues not health issues. The opioid crisis and access to good prenatal care are two reasons why life expectancy is worse for some demographic groups. But these losses are not due to lack of medical knowledge or medicines to battle disease, it’s healthcare policy decisions that are not being made or made for the wrong reasons.

Rather the reason why previous generations, though life expectancies may have been shorter, may have felt safer and less anxious than we do today is because we live in a world where weapons that can kill multifolds easily and rapidly are plentiful. Whether it is bombs and IEDs that blow up churches with hundreds of worshippers or semi automatic weapons that shoot dozens of bullets in seconds, death is closer than it should be in our advanced society. And of course it is not only places of worship. Days after the attack in Poway, a young man opened fire and killed two classmates at the University of North Carolina.

And neither of the killers in Poway or UNC had a record that revealed them to be of concern to police or even friends and family.

On Thursday, the local ABC station asked me and four other clergy to come together for a discussion on violence against religion. You can watch the short program via a link we sent out on our webpage. One of the questions posed was what can our congregations do to effect change and stop or at least limit such violence? And there were two kinds of responses. One, offered by Reverend Jean Hope was for our people to work for legislation that limits easy access to powerful guns. The other from Father Kohrman was to work to change people’s hearts. I could not help myself -- I suggested, first let’s change the gun laws and see if that helps, while working on changing hearts. I guess as the Jew in the group I was being practical. Because Father Kohrman’s suggestion was beautiful and would ultimately lead to a better, kinder society. But it’s a lot harder.

At the URC prayer breakfast earlier that day, the featured speaker David Carlson, a professor at Franklin college, offered a vision of how to change hearts. He said that in his studies of how different religious communities live together in multifaith societies he identified four levels of interaction. The lowest level is isolation. The religious community retreats into safe, self contained spaces and refuses to interact with others. The next level is toleration. We used to speak about the importance of tolerance of others who are different. But he pointed out, tolerance may be more respectful towards the other than isolation, but it is still putting distance between you and the other. We tolerate a cold but we don’t want one.

A level above toleration is understanding. Here the individual seeks to understand and appreciate the other’s religious traditions and culture. This is most admirable. The weakness of this level of interaction with other religions, however, is that we still can achieve understanding of the other at a distance. I can read a book about Islam to understand it, to know its major features and holidays, its history, and never have a conversation with a Muslim.

The highest level of interaction is spiritual friendship. Spiritual friendship is more than knowing about another religion or even knowing a person who practices another faith. It is about sustaining a relationship with someone who practices another faith and caring that they be able to live out their creed to the best of their ability. We have moved beyond knowing the other so that I can better understand to a transitive expression of concern for the other so that they be able to live their faith.

He shared a few examples of groups engaged in such friendships. One is the trifaith initiative in Omaha NE. The Reform synagogue, led by my former Olin Sang Ruby counselor Rabbi Aryeh Azriel, was gifted a parcel of land of about 40 acres to build a new Temple. The community realized they did not need all of the land and decided to reach out to the local mosque and later a protestant church offering the land to them to build their houses of worship. Soon all three will be completed and a fourth structure will be built, a communal gathering for all three which will be called The Tent of Abraham.

This is a real life example of the image we heard from Isaiah in the haftarah for the last day of Pesah, a future time when harmony would reign among natural enemies – the wolf and the lamb, the cow and the bear lying together with their children grazing together. It is beautiful -- and it is a much harder vision to produce. Not only that but those motivated by such a vision are not likely to be the ones walking into populated areas and opening fire on innocent people. The causes that lead a person, even one filled with hate, to act on it are numerous and often unfathomable. Mental illness, isolation and loneliness, susceptibility to internet conspiracy theories, social upheaval in which blaming scapegoats for one’s turmoil are reassuring, all these and more are reasons that some express themselves through violence. Can we make enough spiritual friendships to correct this?

Perhaps, perhaps not. But one must start somewhere.

Once the Tiferet Shlomo, Rabbi Shlomo Rabinowitz of Radomsk stopped in the city of Krakow. He was asked by the people of the city to preach. In his preaching he taught that for a righteous person to be worthy of merit, they must bring blessing down from the heavens on to the Jewish people. This was the deficiency of Nadav and Avihu, Aaron’s sons who died. For the verse we recited earlier stated that they died “in drawing near to God”. That was the problem, taught the Tiferet Shlomo, they were too comfortable being near God, in isolating themselves and focusing on their own spirituality. The goal of a righteous person is to bring blessing and goodness on others.

The same is true for us, who want to be good and want to be righteous. We can’t isolate ourselves and only seek to protect our interests. We need to seek out spiritual friendships and make sure that all religious people are safe and whole and able to follow their path.

Let’s work together with others – it can be through connections with other Jewish congregations in town, it can be connections with other faiths as our synagogue team that works with other congregations through the Faith in Indiana initiatives, or connecting through United Religious Communities. And we can also follow through on Pastor Hope’s suggestion to work for safer and smarter gun laws so that no religious sanctuary need fear a shooter can enter and shoot 100 rounds of ammunition in seconds. And in so doing, like the tzadik, we will bring down divine blessing and goodness on us and all of our society.

Shabbat Pesah I 5779 - What I Learned From Cleaning For Pesah

Steve Lotter

Every year I learn something from cleaning for Pesah.

This year I realized that cleaning for Pesah teaches us to accept life as it comes.

What do I mean?

When I begin to clean for Pesah, I begin with an ambitious plan: I will not just clean out the hametz but I will use this opportunity to clean parts of the house that never get cleaned. Since I am cleaning the house anyway lets really clean! For example, the armoire in the dining room with glass shelves, filthy with years of accumulated dust. Get the windex!

And I won’t just clean the floor, I am going to pull out the oven and clean all that shmutz in the crevice next to the oven that I can see but can’t reach. I will move furniture to clean the dirt as opposed to sweeping the dirt under it.

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Shabbat Metzora - HaGadol 5779 - The Meaning of Pesah and Why We Need It More Than Ever

Steve Lotter

Bereisheet, the Israeli space rocket that was headed for the moon, only the fourth nation in the world to reach it, crashed on landing this past Thursday. Which seemed like an apt metaphor for many as to the political direction of Israel after this week’s elections.

While almost half the country voted against Netanyahu retaining the premiership, and his party only gaining 27% of the vote, it is still not hard to see why he remains prime minister with the most right wing, anti pluralism, and racist government in Israeli history. As Michael Oren, the former US Ambassador pointed out, the economy is doing well, Israel’s international relationships are the strongest in a generation, terrorism is sporadic and Israel is one of the leading nations in the world in science and technological advancement. Despite the growth of world wide anti Semitism and Anti Zionism, the world needs Israel.

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Shabbat Tazria-Rosh Hodesh-HaHodesh 5779 - Combatting Compassion Fatigue

Steve Lotter

This past week I was at the conference for Rabbis who Serve Small Conservative Congregations in Wilmette. It is a conference that my colleague David Krishef in Grand Rapids and I created 8 years ago and this was the fifth conference that we organized with help from the Rabbinical Assembly of the Conservative Movement. This year 15 rabbis from all over the country came together to hear from rabbis and educators and therapists speak to us about issues that affect our work. We always have at least one session on self care and this year we brought back Mary Jo Barrett an expert in healing therapy who has done extensive work with rabbis in the field to talk to us about compassion fatigue. Compassion Fatigue is a display of chronic stress resulting from caregiving work.

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Shabbat VaYikra Zachor 5779 - The Dangers of Defending Antisemitism

Steve Lotter

This Shabbat is Shabbat Zachor, the Sabbath before Purim. The special reading today is about Amalek and his attack on the Israelites as they were escaping Egypt. The haftarah describes Saul and his army’s defeat of the Amalekites under their leader Agag and Saul’s disgrace at not wiping out this vicious tribe in order to keep the spoils. Haman the genocidal enemy in the book of Esther is a descendent of Agag. So this is good week for paranoid Jews to remember “everybody hates the Jews”.

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Shabbat Pekudey 5779 - Rebuilding the Mishkan from Failure

Steve Lotter

This morning’s Torah portion is the final portion in Exodus and concludes the building and setting up of the Mishkan. For the last five weeks we have been focused on this very special structure. While the first portions in Exodus are quite exciting with lots of action and drama, describing the foundational stories of our people, these last parashiyot (with the exception of the sin of the Golden calf) cause anyone but a contractor’s eyes to glaze over. For good measure after describing the details of materials and plans of the Mishkan, the last two parashiyot review the details as the Mishkan is constructed. We get to hear it twice.

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Shabbat Mishpatim 5779 - Our Concern for the Most Vulnerable

Steve Lotter

Years ago at a Rabbinical Assembly Convention in Los Angeles when the issue of welcoming gay Jews into JTS rabbinical school and solemnizing gay marriage was causing great consternation in the movement, the Convention happened to invite Dennis Praeger to be one of the guest speakers. Praeger used his talk to plead with members not to give in to the growing swell of support for normalizing homosexuality, insisting that the verse in Leviticus had to mean something. During the response period, Harold Kushner got up and stated, “It is not that we choose verses we like, and dismiss others. But we take the entire Torah seriously. There are verses which teach us that God is compassionate, that we should love our neighbors, that we should love the stranger, the outsider, and not to oppress the powerless. These verses contradict that verse. If we observe the verse which tells us that homosexuality is not permitted, we will be violating these other mitzvot. The Torah is not either/or, we have to use our judgment and understanding to balance all of its teachings.”

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Shabbat Yitro 5779 - Are Jews White?

Steve Lotter

Ishmael Reed, the black activist and awarded poet and playwright, recently had an article in the online Jewish magazine Tablet. In the article, called Do American Jews Still Believe They’re White, he called out Jews as naïve who are shocked at the level of anti Semitism in this country. He wrote, “Appearing on CNN, presidential historian Tim Naftali said that the massacre at the Tree of Life was the canary in the coal mine. That it was a warning of dire events to come. What Naftali doesn’t realize is that the canary was killed by the carbon dioxide of hatred decades ago, even though some Jews, those who have successfully assimilated into the American mainstream, hadn’t noticed.”

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Shabbat Beshallach 5779 - The Theology of the Common Deed

Steve Lotter

In February 1964, in a paper presented at the Metropolitan Conference on Religion and Race, at the height of the Civil Rights movement, Abraham Joshua Heschel offered a midrash on a portion of this morning’s Torah portion. The climax of our Torah portion is the splitting of the Sea of Reeds; according to the Sages this moment was comparable to the Revelation of the Divine at Sinai. And yet just verses later, in fact in the very same Torah aliyah, we are told that three days into the desert the people are complaining bitterly that they have no water to drink. Heschel pointed out this seeming discrepancy, how was this possible?

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Shabbat Bo 5779 - We Won’t Know Until We Get There

Steve Lotter

Last week was the yahrtzeit of Miriam Price, Paul Price’s mother. Miriam was a tremendous individual and a passionate Jew. A great businesswoman, she owned a popular children’s clothing store here in South Bend, Buttons and Bows, a lover and supporter of Jewish music, she and Manny her husband gave the synagogue funds to bring Jewish musical programs to our congregation, and a true baalat tzedakah. When I came to South Bend, Miriam and a few other members of the synagogue – Ilene Golden and Susan Sandock were regulars too – were part of a group that would visit Jewish members of the nursing homes in town. They brought me along for the first couple of years I was here. It was a tremendous commitment because there were about 5-6 places and maybe one or two Jews in each location. Nursing home populations are also quite fluid. Every time we would go, we would check the lists of who was in each nursing home. But our lists were usually out of date and it was not unusual to show up at the location and the Jewish person was no longer a resident. And every time, after pouring over the lists, Miriam would conclude, "Well when we get there we will see who is there". Because the goal for Miriam and the others was to do acts of gemilut Hasadim, and whoever we visited would be the recipient of kindness. In acts of spiritual sublimity, you just have to respond to what the situation calls for.

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Shabbat VaYigash 5779 - Michael Cohen, Judah and the Meaning of True Freedom

Steve Lotter

The accused stood before the lord, head down, aware that his guilt had been uncovered. Years of covering up the heinous crimes had finally caught up and now his only hope was to admit the pain he had caused and hope for mercy which he knew he did not deserve: “What can I say to my lord? How can I plead, how can I prove my innocence? God has uncovered the crime of your servant.”

OK actually Michael Cohen did not say it exactly like that, but I was getting confused between the news reports and the Torah portion. This morning’s Torah portion opens with a heartfelt plea by Judah on behalf of his brothers before the Vizier of Egypt who has accused their youngest brother of theft. Judah senses that this can’t be serendipitous, but rather that God is now avenging the crime that he and his brothers committed against their brother Joseph years before. In the East they call it ‘karma’, but we Jews call it ‘Midah k’neged Midah’ or measure for measure.

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Shabbat Miketz Hanukkah Rosh Hodesh 5779 - Hanukkah and the Rohingya

Steve Lotter

Last week when our city celebrated the initial lighting of the South Bend Community Menorah – thank you to Jodie Freid and all the donors – the TV news stations wanted an interview about Hanukkah. I don’t like giving interviews but I flippantly said, “If I can’t talk about Hanukkah off the cuff, I am in the wrong business”. Ha, Ha, except that Hanukkah is the most difficult holiday to talk about off the cuff, and if there is one thing that I am grateful for to our Talmudic ancestors it is the story of the miracle of the oil. Because that story, which you can tell in 5 minutes in a way the littlest child can understand, which is about all the complexity that TV news can handle, is completely apocryphal and has no bearing on reality. Great story, not historically accurate.

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Shabbat Bereishit 5779 - Lilith, Eve and Judge Kavanaugh

Steve Lotter

…[A]t the time when the Holy blessed One created the world, God created first man, and when God saw that [this man] was alone, God immediately created a woman from the earth like him, and he called her Lilith, and he brought her to Adam. Immediately, the two of them began a quarrel. He said: “You will lay on the bottom.” She said, “You will lay on the bottom, since we are both equals. We were both made from the earth.” They would not allow each other to be heard. Once Lilith saw this, she uttered the special name of God, flew off into the air, and escaped…” (Eli Yassif, The Tales of Ben Sira in the Middle-Ages: A Critical Text and Literary Studies, (Jerusalem: Magnes, 1984), 231-232)

This midrash comes from a medieval collection called the Alphabet of Ben Sira. Lilith entered the popular imagination as a demon who endangered babies. This is why according to Ginsburg’s The Legends of the Jews, Jewish mothers placed amulets on the cribs of their children.

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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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