Rabbi Mel Gottlieb’s 5780 Sukkot Greeting

These are days that are filled with joy and awe, received through the softness and fragility of life and the miracle of creation. We move from the ethereal heights of Yom Kippur to the earthy reality of Sukkot. Sukkot, the holiday where the fragrance of the etrog, and the branches of the Sukkah, the dwelling under the sky in moist evening, all bring us closer to nature and the Creator of nature; we invite our friends into the Sukkah, rub shoulders with them, huddle close against the cool night air, eat hot noodle soup, vegetarian chicken and kugel and carrots, invite in our ancestors and guests from Jerusalem to continue the dialogue, the conversation of the generations.

But do we also invite in people with whom we have strong disagreements politically and religiously, or do we only talk to those who ‘are like us.’ This practice of only speaking with those who agree with us can hardly be the mechanism that leads to true peace and harmony. And, unfortunately, this is a norm that is prevalent in our communities. So let us challenge ourselves this year and invite into our Sukkah those people with whom we have strong differences as well.  Conflict can represent an opportunity for us to gain insight into our neighbor’s point of view, create growth, and optimally develop new harmonious relationships with those whom we did not truly know and understand.

How can we transform conversations that can be hostile into ones that lead to greater understanding of the other?  Perhaps the head of the household can act as an example of bestowing respect on those who have different positions than s/he, and make an effort to listen and understand the underlying feelings that influence the ‘other’s’ position. This will greatly improve the relationship with the ‘other’ even if the different positions are not fully resolved. When one feels respected, rather than disrespected, the humanity of the other emerges, is palpable and this is healing to each party. The defensiveness is attenuated, and a spark of Shalom is ignited.

Sukkot is known as the holiday of PEACE and joy! So we must work to actualize this potential reality. The Sages give us several reasons why Sukkot is chosen for this noble aspiration. Firstly, we leave our homes, and go out and live in a Sukkah, a structure that brings us into closer contact with NATURE, and makes us all equal- the stars covering us, the birds and crickets singing to us, the grass and trees treating us to their aromas.  We have this sudden flash of insight that we may not need the beautiful solid structures that shut us out from nature and are often created through the sweat of such competition and enmity that we no longer have time to remember who we really are as members of this disparate but unique Jewish nation, all children of G-d.  We may begin to realize that our true security resides not in physical structures, but through faith. We can be protected by G-d in a Sukkah just as well as in our beautiful homes.

At Sukkot, we are brought into calendarial time, into a new space of memory, joining our souls to our ancestors who dreamed of a better world where the whole earth could dwell under the Sukkah of the Lord of Peace. Thus, we take each of the four different species and bind them together, symbolizing the possibility of accepting differences all under one central universal motif. Let us be blessed this year to invite both our friends and those who have not yet become our friends to our Sukkah and be elated to discover their humanity, along with the wonder of their ‘difference.’

Chag Sameach and Blessings of Peace,

Rabbi Mel

Rabbi Mel Gottlieb’s 5780 Yom Kippur Message

Building Unity

At this time of the year, we move through the ten days of penitence culminating in Yom Kippur. Our tradition teaches that it is an auspicious time that gives us the opportunity to reflect on where we stand in the world, and the conditions that we are responsible to repair. We are grateful for all the gifts that we have received and aware of the dark places that need to be repaired. Yom Kippur is a day of reflection calling us back to be serious about our stay here on earth and also to awaken us to the universal truths that must be honored in order to create a just and unified world.

Our Prophets teach about a world that will move one day to an era of reconciliation and harmony, beginning with oneself, and spread to all nations, even including the natural world, suggesting that all creation is evolving toward the unitive state. Any sensitive person can appreciate the grandeur of this process. Just observe a hive of bees at work, or walk through a forest, or live with a kind person, and you cannot but be profoundly moved by the way every aspect of creation can work with all the rest as a unit in perfect harmony. This truth has far-reaching implications in our daily life. On the one hand, every time we violate the unity of life by venting our anger on those around us, or by harming our fellow creatures we work against this evolution; on the other hand, every time we forgive others, do what benefits them, or alleviate the distress of any creature, we contribute towards this evolution.

There is nothing more important in life than learning to express this unity in all our relationships. With our family and friends, with our colleagues and fellow workers, with other communities and countries, and with other races and religious groups. The terrible consequences of disunity are plain for all to see. Violence, war, pollution, estrangement and insensitivity to our fellow creatures are external manifestations of the disunity seething in our consciousness. Because we live on the surface level of life, we are often unaware of the anger and fear burning deep within us.

How can we begin to return to the higher perception of potential unity within our world? As long as we have not seen someone who has conquered all that is self-willed in himself or herself, we find it hard to believe that we can overcome our separateness, and awake to the unity of life. But even one person standing against oppression, violence and greed, (whether it is in the home, in the community, or between nations), can become a source of inspiration for everyone who comes into contact with him or her. The words from our Scripture are not just to remain on the written page, but the man or woman who practices its wonderful teachings will give constant strength and inspiration to those who seek to turn judgment into compassion, fear into courage, and selfishness into kindness, in the joy of the whole.

Because we see often see the world through the eyes of skepticism and separateness, we think of ourselves as frail, fragmented creatures, with hardly any strength to stand up in life, and make our contribution. But a shift in consciousness, as a result of witnessing others’ examples, of perceiving the grandeur of nature, of trees and oceans, of an uplifting symphony, of the inspirational words of our poets and sages, can begin to arouse our souls to a higher level of perception.

This arousal, however, takes continuous attention to insure continuity. For living in a tension filled world, there are few of us who do not harbor some form of resentment and anger toward others, and toward ourselves. Before we heal the world, we must begin the task of healing ourselves. So we must utilize daily self-reflection to deal with our feelings and create reconciliation with ourselves, others and G-d, some sense of achieved forgiveness. This is the season which reminds us of G-d’s love for us, and asks us to return to the callings of the soul, to Unity which is hardwired into creation. We are told by the sages that when we even BEGIN this process of reconciliation with ourselves and others we are forgiven, and transformed; we can then begin to accept ourselves and love ourselves because we are loved once more. Being forgiven, and being able to accept oneself are one and the same thing. So may the power and sincerity of our prayers, awaken us out of our slumber and call us to this higher calling of unity, to self-forgiveness, and to our duties to all humankind, to the meaning of life, and toward the knowledge that we are all inextricably bound together in unity. May this year be, indeed, one in which all nations and religions march together toward a new consciousness, and the concretization of these perceptions into loving actions that will heal injustice, oppression, and pain and transform the world into the unified essence it is meant to be.

G’mar Chatima Tova,

Rabbi Mel Gottlieb, Ph.D.
President, AJRCA

Rabbi Mel Gottlieb’s 5780 Rosh Hashana Message

The Time of Our Change

The Hebrew word for year, Shana, as some of our Sages suggest, comes from the word ‘change,’ Shenui. Thus Rosh Hashana can be viewed as the ‘beginning of our change. The nature of life clearly presumes and demands change and choice, and this is our season to intensify this charge.

We must all ask the question what does G-d, or the whispers of our inner soul call us to do? This is not achieved by trying to figure it out by our rational analysis; it is reached by cultivating our ability to listen (Shma Yisrael) to the ‘call,’ to pay attention to what our soul feels drawn to as a result of the gifts that G-d has bestowed upon us, from an integration of the wisdom of the head with the knowledge of the heart. It often results from a life of frustration from material choices, and that suffering leads to a shift and a willingness to finally listen to the soul’s agenda.

One of the Rosh Hashana prayers ‘U’netaneh Tokef ‘(Not a very popular prayer, ‘Who shall live and who shall die’), awakens us to our mortality and urges us to listen to the call right now. It reminds us that that life is a limited affair and the tomorrows that we plan for may not be there for us. So it is in this very moment, this year, that we are asked to do what we have always been called to do, and which we have avoided, to move from a wound identified human being towards a conscious, responsible one, to move us from relying on old ego certainties to a much larger reality. The errors that we have made may seem like barriers that will prevent us from achieving our goals, but they are also motivators to awaken us to the journey we were always meant to take. Adam too sinned and set off on a growth journey as a result. Mistakes cause suffering, but they can also lead to meaning. Sometimes our losses open us up to a whole new perspective. So they become gifts. They can lead us to a truth that on Rosh Hashana we can find. We have discovered what our souls call us to do, and we will now begin to do it. And we will be judged not only by the kindness of our heart, but also by the depth of our courage.

On Rosh Hashana we are called to HONESTLY engage with the questions of life rather than attempt to content ourselves with answers that do not resonate with our inner soul voice, otherwise we will live a life of ‘quiet desperation.’ Relinquishing the security we have struggled to attain may be very frightening, but not as devastating as leaving behind the unique person we were called to be.The terror of change is compensated by meaning. The soul has its need for meaning which is not served by power or recognition or even belonging. Accordingly, there may be times when we are painfully called upon to differentiate our inner knowing voice from the collective, or the demands of loyalty from our inner parent or tribe. This is far more difficult than living with the blessing of harmony within one’s community.

And yet how few of us implement the contemplated change that emerges on Rosh Hashana. We remain the same year after year. Something creeps in that we call resistance, or the Yetzer Hara, or what Freud called ‘thanatos-the death wish.’. There is something within human nature that wants to avoid stress and return to a state of rest, quiescence (repetition compulsion). We do not want to commit ourselves to something that pulls us out of our comfort zone. We do not wish to take on life as a development, we would rather see it as fixed; we are not prepared to see life as a series of deaths and rebirths, but would prefer to dwell in the known and comfortable. So on Rosh Hashana we are opened up to the fullness of the journey, that life contains change, and it is a positive. Hashem created us with a Yetzer Tov (Freud’s eros) as well as a Yetzer hara; within us is the desire to grow and risk and search for meaning, as well as remain the same. This is called Penitence (Teshuvah). ‘And once there is the reaching for penitence there is the reality of penitence!’ (Rav Kook). Rosh Hashana is the time to experience this growth journey and be awakened to the Yetzer Tov – our Soul’s desire to grow up, to go with movement; and once we enter this commitment (Teshuva) G-d helps us by manifesting Presence. If we can align ourselves with this truth, no matter how difficult the challenges of the world, we will feel healing, hope and a new life, we will feel G-d’s Presence right along with us. In the exhilaration of growth, or spirit energy, we will forget our ‘small selves’ and enter a zone that is far larger. It is my experience (for example when I am teaching a beautiful piece of Torah) that when we are following our ‘call,’ we lose our self consciousness, our separateness, lose our awareness of time and solitude, and we just move through time till we are called back to ‘dinnertime.’ But this state of being necessitates a continual reinforcement of daily mitzvah practice. Choosing an alternative vision of life is a matter of learning to see and hear differently, to live differently. This takes constant effort, a daily practice of prayer, study and good deeds. Every day must be a Rosh Hashana, a Rosh Shinui.

May this Rosh Hashana teach us that we must yield to the inevitable rhythm of the lifespan which is filled with development and change. And though we may never ABSOLUTELY know what our specific, mysterious journey is about on this earth (Sfat Emet, Vayechi), we are still called to live it with courage and joy. V’kain Yhi Ratzon!

Rabbi Mel Gottlieb’s Speech at LMU Mass – Aug 25, 2019

HINEI MAH TOV U’MAHNAIM (Psalm 133:1)

AUGUST 25TH, 2019

HOW GOOD IT IS TO DWELL TOGETHER WITH BROTHERS AND SISTERS?

What is good?

1) Togetherness; and 2) overcoming doubt thru communication, honesty and authenticity-expressing doubt leads to discovering the Light in the darkness.

Thank you for inviting me to share a message of faith as we, my brothers and sisters come together at this particular time in our history. HOW WONDERFUL THAT WE BROTHERS AND SISTERS ARE GATHERED HERE TODAY TO PRAISE THE LORD, AND HONOR THE VALUES OF PEACE, LOVE, AND JUSTICE! WE COME WITH THE HOPE THAT SOMEDAY ALL WILL ACKNOWLEDGE THAT WE ARE ALL G-D’S CHILDREN, CREATED IN THE IMAGE OF G-D AND INDEED, BROTHERS AND SISTERS ON A JOURNEY TO UPLIFT OUR WORLD IN GRATITUDE TO OUR CREATOR, AND FULFILL OUR MANDATE TO MAKE OUR WORLD INTO A PLACE OF LOVE, BEAUTY, AND JUSTICE.

THERE ARE MANY CHALLENGES IN THIS, OUR WORLD, TODAY, IN ADDITION TO OUR PERSONAL CHARACTER TRAITS THAT HAVE TO BE CONSTANTLY MONITORED AND IMPROVED.  ONE MAJOR CHALLENGE IS HOW TO RESPECT AND UNDERSTAND THE VALUES, FEARS AND ASPIRATIONS OF THOSE WITH WHOM WE DIFFER, HOW TO LISTEN WELL, HOW TO BE OPEN TO DIFFERENT POSSIBILITIES AND WHAT WE CAN LEARN FROM THOSE WHO DIFFER FROM US WHILE RESPECTFULLY AND CONFIDENTLY EXPRESSING OUR VALUES, THOUGHTS AND ASPIRATIONS THAT MAY DIFFER FROM OUR BROTHERS AND SISTERS. I BELIEVE THAT THE BIRTH OF INTERFAITH DIALOGUE IS A GREAT NEW POWER INTEGRATING THE BEAUTIFUL AND PROFOUND TEACHINGS OF OUR DISTINCT TRADITIONS AND DISCOVERING SERENDIPITOUSLY THAT THE CORE OF EACH TRADITION IS THE SAME VALUE OF LOVE EVEN THOUGH EACH OF US MAY LIVE  THROUGH DISTINCT HISTORICAL EXPERIENCES AND CULTURES THAT EXPRESS THIS VALUE IN DIFFERENT LANGUAGES AND IDIOMS.  IN OUR BOOK OF THE TALMUD THERE IS A DISCUSSION AS TO WHICH IS THE MOST IMPORTANT VERSE IN THE ENTIRETY OF HEBREW SCRIPTURE. ONE SAGE, RABBI AKIVA SAYS IT IS THE VERSE IN LEVITICUS, CHAPTER 19, ‘LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR AS THYSELF.’ THE SAGE BEN AZZAI DIFFERS AND SAYS THAT THE VERSE IN GENESIS, CHAPTER 5:1 ‘THIS IS THE BOOK OF THE CREATION OF ALL HUMANITY’ IS EVEN GREATER FOR HE CLAIMS LOVING SOMEONE WHO IS LIKE YOU (YOUR NEIGHBOR) IS NOT SUFFICIENT. WE MUST LOVE ALL HUMAN BEINGS, EVEN THOSE DIFFERENT FROM US, FOR EACH IS CREATED IN THE IMAGE OF G-D.  THE RABBIS DECIDED IN FAVOR OF BEN AZZAI. THE RABBIS REPEAT THIS TEACHING IN THE MISHNA IN SANHEDRIN 4:5, WHEN THEY ASK WHY DID G-D CREATE ADAM SINGULARLY, AFTER ALL G-D COULD HAVE CREATED THOUSANDS AND MILLIONS OF HUMANS IN THE BEGINNING. AND THEY ANSWER TO TEACH US THAT EACH HUMAN BEING IS OF ABSOLUTE VALUE FOR IF YOU DESTROY ONE HUMAN IT IS AS IF YOU HAVE DESTROYED THE ENTIRE WORLD (AND IF YOU SAVE ONE HUMAN BEING IT IS IF YOU HAVE SAVED THE WHOLE WORLD), ALSO TO TEACH US THE VALUE OF EQUALITY, NO ONE CAN SAY ‘MY FATHER IS BETTER THAN YOUR FATHER,’ AND THAT EACH PERSON IS CREATED UNIQUELY, FOR THE SAKE OF ENJOYING THE WORLD AND BEING RESPONSIBLE TO UPLIFT IT. ABRAHAM JOSHUA HESCHEL PUT IT SUCCINCTLY: “EITHER G-D IS THE G-D OF ALL PEOPLE OR THE G-D OF NO PEOPLE.”

SO WE MUST OVERCOME OUR FEAR OF DIFFERENCE AND GET TO MEET AND KNOW OTHERS, THIS IS THE ONLY WAY WE CAN DEVELOP INTIMACY AND EMPATHY AND OVERCOME OUR STEREOTYPES BASED ON FEAR AND LACK OF KNOWLDEGE OF THE OTHER. UNLESS WE CAN TRANSFORM OUR ENEMIES INTO FRIENDS THEY WILL ALWAYS HAVE POWER OVER US, AND THAT INCLUDES THE ENEMY WITHIN. YES, WE MUST IDENTIFY THOSE ENERGIES WITHIN THAT PREVENT OUR CLOSENESS, ACCEPT THESE DARK PLACES, (R. NACHMAN) MAKE FRIENDS WITH THEM SO THAT WE FIND SELF-COMPASSION AND THE COMPASSION TO LOVE OTHERS WITH ALL THEIR WARTS. AS THE GREAT CHRISTIAN THEOLOGIAN OF THE PAST CENTURY, PAUL TILLICH PUTS IT:”ACCEPT THE FACT THAT YOU ARE ACCEPTED, DESPITE THE FACT THAT YOU ARE UNACCEPTABLE. THIS IS GRACE!”

WE MUST ALSO ENGAGE WITH EXPERIENCES THROUGH WHICH OUR EGOCENTRICITY CAN BE CHANGED. ONE WAY IS THROUGH THE RECOGNITION OF A POWER GREATER THAN OUR OWN WILL AT WORK IN OUR LIVES, A SECOND WAYS IS THROUGH EXPERIENCING OUR SUFFERING, AND A THIRD BY COMING TO CARE FOR SOMEONE OTHER THAN OURSELVES.  AND ALWAYS REMEMBER THAT ALL TRADITIONS REMIND US ‘THAT WE ARE NOT RESPONSIBLE TO COMPLETE THE WORK, BUT NEITHER ARE WE FREE TO DESIST FROM BEGINNING IT.”(AVOT,2:21). JUST LITTLE EVERY DAY SMILES AND KIND WORDS DO A WORLD OF GOOD, AND BRING G-D INTO PEOPLE’S CONSCIOUSNESS, PROMOTING FAITH AND STRENGTH TO ACT WITH GRACE AND BEAUTY. AS OUR SAGES TEACH, “RATHER THAN WORRY ABOUT ANOTHER PERSON’S SPIRITUAL LEVEL, AND YOUR OWN PHYSICAL NEEDS, WORRY ABOUT ANOTHER’S PHYSICAL NEEDS (ARE THEY HUNGRY) AND YOUR OWN SPIRITUAL LEVEL”(RAV YISRAEL SALANTER).

HOPEFULLY, THIS NEW REALITY CAN BE EMBRACED THROUGH EDUCATION AND ACTION, UPLIFTING VALUES AND VISIONS THAT ORIGINATE FROM THE RECOGNITION THAT WE ARE EACH BROTHERS AND SISTERS GIVEN THE GIFT OF LIFE AND THAT OUR RESPONSIBILITY IS TO BE RESPONSIBLE FOR (TO) THIS GIFT AND UPLIFT, HEAL AND LOVINGLY EMBRACE ALL THE BEAUTY OF CREATION AS WE CONTRIBUTE OUR SOULS TO OBVIATE INJUSTICE, CREATE PEACE AND BLESS OUR CREATOR WITH OUR GRATITUDE AND OUR SWEAT AND EFFORT. MOREOVER, AS MEMBERS OF THE HUMAN COMMUNITY AND AS CITIZENS OF OUR PLANET WHOSE CLIMATE AND ANIMALS AND PLANTS WE MUST PROTECT AND NURTURE, WE MUST NEVER FORGET OUR RESPONSIBILITIES TO THEM AS WELL. REMEMBER THE WORLD DOES NOT CHANGE, WE HUMANS CHANGE IT.

THE PROPHET ISAIAH INSTRUCTS US THAT AT THE END OF THE DAYS ALL THE NATIONS OF THE WORLD WILL WORSHIP IN G-D’S TEMPLE AND WE WILL RECOGNIZE THE ONENESS OF ALL HUMANITY, THOUGH OUR OWN UNIQUE WAYS, UNDER THE LOVING CARE OF G-D.

TO CONCLUDE, THOUGH IT IS IMPOSSIBLE TO COMPREHEND OR CONTROL EVERYTHING IN THIS WORLD OUR JOB IS TO BE FULLY ALIVE IN THE LIFE WE HAVE, TO PICK UP THE INVISIBLE THREAD OF OUR OWN STORY AND THE STORY OF OUR ANCESTORS, AND FOLLOW IT WHERE IT LEADS US. OUR JOB IS TO FIND THE THREAD OF OUR OWN DREAM AND LIVE IT ALL THE WAY TO THE END. (MEADE). ACTUALIZING OUR GIFTS, ACKNOWLEDGING OUR CONNECTION TO OTHERS, TO THE EARTH AND TO G-D IS OUR HOLY OPPORTUNITY!  FRIENDS, ‘WE CAN LIVE OUT OUR DREAM OR DREAM AWAY OUR LIVES!’ (WICKES). WE ARE CALLED TODAY IN THE SPIRIT OF INTERFAITH AND FRIENDSHIP TO AFFIRM OUR UNIQUE DESTINIES AT THIS VERY HOUR AND THEREBY UPLIFT AND HEAL OUR WORLD AND LET US SAY AMEN!  (ZUSYA).