Sunday, September 26, 2010

Yizkor of Three Parts: Privacy, Heirloom and “I Still Can’t Say Goodbye”

Yizkor Yom Kippur 5771 September 18th, 2010

Rabbi Gary S. Creditor

Richmond, Virginia


This Yizkor sermon is a "Sermon in Three Parts."  The first is to address a request made of me. The second is poem that I just ran across in my incessant reading in preparation for this season and these sermons. And the last is a song that I stumbled upon last spring and had an "Aha Moment" and said: "I know when I'm using that!" The poem and the song fit together. I just add a parenthetical statement. During my Rabbinate my writing has evolved from the theoretical, philosophical and abstract, to the more personal, reflecting on Judaism and our heritage through the prism of my life. The longer I live, the more facets to the prism. I hope that through this style of writing the words really reflect the issues and realities of all our lives. Maybe not everyone each time, but for many, often. It is the authentic "I" with which I speak.


Part 1


The time leading up to a person's death is the most difficult time in life. It is or can be difficult for the person dying. It is certainly difficult and stressful for that person's family. Lastly, it is trying for the person's friends. In this web of relationships each person is in a very singular and complex place. The person dying is at the center of a series of concentric circles. The inner most are those of family, each uniquely arranged. The outer are friends and community. Sometimes there will be friends closer than family and family more distant than friends. No doubt. There just those who are in a more intimate position and others who are more removed.


One truly never understands something until you experience it yourself. I had been the Rabbi to hundreds of families before my father died. My existential experience of his death taught me more than any book or course. In particular I refer to the following: It was more than being a public persona. It happened from every quarter of my life that everyone wanted to know the details of what was happening to my father and our family. It wasn't from bad or mean people. It came from loving, people. People close to me. Perhaps they thought that it would help me if I 'got it out.' In truth, as time proceeded, the only person I wanted to talk to was Ruby and even then we sometimes just shared the silence and tears. We talked to the children, my mother, my brother and my aunt. I didn't want to give an extended litany to friend and stranger, to the well-intentioned and those with prurient interest. It wasn't right. What did I need? What did I want?


There is a concept in Judaism called 'tzinut,' usually translated as "modesty." It applies to  language, attire, and behavior. Essentially one whose life is guided by this value respects their own privacy and the privacy of others as well. Especially during the closing days of my father's life and the immediate days afterwards, I needed privacy, not to be trapped in uncomfortable conversations that forced me to reveal details that were essentially private. Even when I knew that these people loved me, I was discomforted by the intrusion, even invasion of my family's life and death. It was unseemingly. I needed respect of privacy, respect of boundaries, that not every detail is proper and worthy of public knowledge and conversation.


What did I want? There is a powerful story in the Talmud of a Rabbi lamenting. His friends and colleagues come to help him. One by one they offer their advice. No matter how well-meaning, informed, philosophically correct they were, instead of helping they hurt him more and more. He did not want their scholarship, their theology about God and life, their explanations. It would not help the pain. Until the last colleague asked him: "Does it pain you?" And he answered: "Yes." Then the colleague offered him his hand and lifted him up. What I wanted was just the hug that was potent with meaning: I was still alive; I was loved; the world was still in place no matter how much it spun; I wasn't alone. I didn't want words. I wanted a hug. There is a halacha that when we visit an avel, a mourner, we are not supposed to initiate the conversation. They are. Until they do, we sit in pregnant silence. There could be much to say. It has to wait for the proper moment and with tzniut. Then we as friends can help raise a person, physically and spiritually.


I know that these words describe the experiences of at least one person who shall remain anonymous, and asked me to address these thoughts in this Yizkor sermon. I don't compose them theoretically or philosophically. I portray that from my life and allow you to reflect from yours. Perhaps you have felt this way. Perhaps you did and couldn't describe what bothered you. For all of us, when we encounter our family and friends in these places of the journey, maybe these words will help those of both sides of the equation. May we fulfill the mitzvah of zokaf kefufeem, straightening the bent, elevating the broken, with love, with modesty and with respect. May we set aside our perceived needs and only attend to theirs and bring shalom to their hearts.


Part 2

A.M. Klein was a prolific Jewish poet who was born in the Ukraine and emigrated shortly thereafter to Canada. He was a devoted Zionist and wrote a great of poetry and other literature. Intermittently I would discover some of his works. Particularly the last line in the following piece entitled "Heirloom" grabbed me. In these days Ruby and I spend considerable time in my aunt's apartment in New York City assisting her to continue to enjoy life in the safety, security and warmth of the place she has known for forty-five years. She is 96. She and my uncle, who died in 1988, have a wonderful library. I have opened up different books, on art, religion, and stand in amazement of things I found inside. I then think of my library. My mind wanders and speculates. It is my nature. So this poem caught me. And in these moments of Yizkor I share it with you.


Heirloom – by A. M. Klein

My father bequeathed to me no wide estates;

No keys and ledgers were my heritage;

Only some holy books with yahrzeit dates

Writ mournfully upon a blank front page—


Books of the Baal Shem Tov, and of  his wonders;

Pamphlets upon the devil and his crew;

Prayers against road demons, witches, thunders;

And sundry other tomes for a good Jew.


Beautiful: though no pictures on them, save

The Scorpion crawling on a printed track;

The Virgin floating on a scriptural wave,

Square letters twinkling in the Zodiac.


The snuff left on this title page, now brown and old,

The tallow stains of midnight liturgy—

These are my coat of arms, and these unfold

My noble lineage, my proud ancestry!


And my tears, too, have stained this heirloomed ground,

When reading in these treatises some weird

Miracle, I turned a leaf and found

A white hair fallen from my father's beard.


Part 3

I have often turned to country and folk music to reflect values and thoughts that resonate in Judaism and in my life. I wasn't searching for this song. It just popped up on one of those side-bars. In a song by Clint Black called "Ode to Chet" he refers to Chet Atkins as CGP.  So I followed this piece, learned that those were the initials for Certified Guitar Player and that led me to this song. When I listened to him I knew it was for this moment. When I found A.M. Klein's poem, I knew they fit together.


I Still Can't Say Goodbye – by Chet Atkins


You know every time I look in the mirror I see my Dad.

I think that's why this song means so much to me.


When I was young

My dad would say

"C'mon son let's go out and play"

Sometimes it seems like yesterday.


And I'd climb up the closet shelf

When I was all by myself

Grab his hat and fix the brim

Pretending I was him.


No matter how hard I try

No matter how many tears I cry

No matter how many years go by

I still can't say goodbye.


He always took care

Of Mom and me

We all cut down a Christmas tree

He always had some time for me.


Wind blows through the trees

Street lights they still shine bright

Most things are the same

But I miss my dad tonight.


I walked by a Salvation Army store

Saw a hat like my daddy wore

Tried it on when I walked in

Still trying to  be like him.


No matter how hard I try

No matter how many years go by

No matter how many tears I cry

I still can't say goodbye.


Perhaps this the magnetic pull of the cemetery that Judaism has implanted within us through the mitzvah of kever avot,  cyclically visiting the graves of family and friends, of standing there and speaking with or without words but often with tears. Perhaps it is the attraction of driving past places we once lived, or visiting them in our minds, or of objects exactly or nearly similar to the hat in Chet Atkins' song that ignites memories of long ago and return us to yesteryear when we were young. Perhaps it is the words of the Yizkor service, in which paragraph by separate paragraph we recite for each of our relatives in their personal relationships. I insert each Hebrew name individually for my father, mother-in-law, uncle and grandparents, Ruby's and mine. We stay in constant dialogue with the generations. I can't say goodbye and don't want to either. Will our children and grandchildren pause when they see a slanted black hat or my summer straw one? Will it provoke memory like this song did to me? I leave it to them.


Likewise I have lots of books. Lots and lots of books. I haven't read them all, by no means, but I have read many parts of many of them. I haven't used snuff, so they won't find any of that. But I have left little sticky notes, unmarked. I want to leave them a puzzle. What was I looking for on that page? Sometimes when I go back into a book and find one, I can't remember myself! Yet like the poem, they most certainly will find hairs from this white beard. I leave this for their memories and hopefully many smiles. I will never say goodbye.


So let us continue in dialogue with the generations. Let us remember sweet times, semi-sweet times, and even difficult ones too. Let us be part of a continuum that gave us our past and will secure us a future. We never say goodbye. We just say Yizkor.



Repentance, Reconciliation – Personal and Public: Judaism & the Consequences of the Civil War

Kol Nidre 5771 – September 17, 2010

Rabbi Gary S. Creditor

Richmond, Virginia 23221


On November 6th, 1860 Abraham Lincoln was elected President of the soon to be divided United States. On April 12th, 1861 the Civil War erupted with the firing upon Fort Sumter in Charleston harbor, South Carolina. The sesquicentennial, one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of these events is soon upon us. The wounds from the War Between the States are not healed. They can be seen in the dispute whether or not VCU should pave the parking lot near Main Street Station because there might be graves of slaves in that location; in the bus lines that don't run to the counties; the fight over the location of the Diamond; the separation of school systems; of responsibility for crime, poverty and the homeless. It is political agenda to which religion must also speak.  I was invited to co-develop a special seminar for the Osher Institute at the University of Richmond. My task was to glean from the wisdom of Judaism and our history to reflect on the issues of retribution, revenge and forgiveness. We have a compelling and unique message to our immediate community of Richmond, to the larger society and to ourselves on these subjects. They are present in both the macro and microcosms of existence. We cannot undo the most terrible conflict ever fought on this soil. We do have to deal with its consequences. On the personal level, we have all been in the position of causing hurt or being hurt. The human heart in its basest level can simply want revenge. The message of Judaism leads to forgiveness and reconciliation. This is the heart of our observances of Yom Kippur, our purpose for being here tonight. Perhaps this sharing will be helpful to our individual lives, perhaps for our wider community.


In redacting my material for tonight, I focus only on the following questions:

1. What are the core Jewish values that undergird society, both community and family?

2. What is the mechanism of Teshuva?

3. What is the relationship between forgiving and forgetting?

 Who has the obligation to ask for forgiveness?  Is there an obligation to forgive?

 Who can forgive whom, especially when it spans 150 years?

4. I want to talk about Alex Lebenstein, zichrono livracha.


Our Core Values:

When asked for the most important verses in the Torah, the Rabbis picked two, one from Leviticus, the famous "Love thy neighbor as thyself' and one from Genesis (5:1) "This is the record of humanity when God created humanity in the image of God, He made them." The Rabbinical tradition stresses these because they elevate the humanity, the dignity, the honor, the holiness of the human being, as primary in God's sight, and thus in ours. In Hebrew: K'vot Haberiyot. How beautiful is the Torah. It commands us to be proactive on behalf of those with disabilities and not to capitalize on them. The Rabbis strongly expressed the idea that no one's blood is redder than someone else's, that the honor of the other person should be as precious to us as our own. For God, from the Genesis quote, humanity is undifferentiated. Being white, black, or any color of the rainbow, being young or old, firm or infirm, of one gender or another does not elevate nor subordinate us before each other or before God. Judaism teaches the equality of humanity as its core value. Each human being is holy. Our holiness comes from God. No one else can give it. No one else can take it away. Judaism could not have countenanced slavery. Our Torah and Prophets are clear. The Rabbinical literature is unequivocal. On the personal level, whether it is abuse of ourselves through substances, spousal abuse, abuse of the elderly, ignoring poverty and homelessness, lying and cheating, these diminish God's image in us. We have no right to diminish others. We must not diminish ourselves.


Woven through the Machzor and Siddur are the core values of rachamim, chemlah and gemilut chasadim, mercy, compassion and deeds of loving-kindness. Judaism presents these as Godly values for they describe His attitude towards us. In return, we are commanded to imitate God in our daily life, in our relationships between each other, in our families, at work, in the extended society.  Judaism teaches that all life is precious and should be handled with care. Through the enactment of these values in our lives we preserve and enhance the dignity of all people. I think of this, and then I think of the movie Roots. How disparate?! How demanding, how humane are the dictates of our tradition!


God's covenant with Israel, our gift to the world, is enunciated in the verse in Genesis explaining why God chose Abraham to proclaim His message to the world. (18:19) "I know Abraham, for he will command his children and household after him, that they may keep the way of the Lord, to do righteousness and justicetzedakah v'mishpat." In Leviticus we are commanded to pursue justice. One of the core pieces of this season's liturgy is to balance the two values together and to base society on both of them. In that way we observe and protect each one's honor and holiness.


In the famous story in the Talmud (Shabbat 31a), Hillel summed up the entire Torah by saying that you should not do unto others what is hateful to you. Sinah – hatred and sinat chinam, baseless hatred, are the most destructive dynamics of the human heart. Despite the harshness of Egyptian bondage, there is no echo of hatred towards them in our tradition. Instead, at Seder we remove a drop of wine from the cup at the mention of the ten plagues and their abbreviations.  The true Jewish hero is the one who can turn his enemy into a friend (Avot DeRabbi Natan 23). Whether in society or in our families, the Jewish way is not to hate another. There is no fixing, no mending, and no repairing through hatred.


When composing this sermon and reaching this point my mind wandered away from Richmond and the Civil War, away from our families and wondered if any of this is shared across the borders of Middle East. I wondered if someone might create parallel texts from the different traditions that echo the same teachings and preach it from every mosque and synagogue. I wonder if anyone is listening. Maybe. Just maybe. I hope. I pray.





To deal with the world and our wounds, our pain and anger, to repair the world and ourselves, Judaism proclaims the process of teshuvah. Uusually it is translated as repentance but I would like to translate it as either turning or returning to our pristine, pure innocent childlike origin. There are five steps: (1)hakarat ha-cheit – recognition of sin, (2)charatah – remorse for having done it, (3)azivat ha-cheit – stop doing it, (4) peirar'on –restitution when possible, and( 5) viduiy – confession. The list is simple. The process is not. It takes guts to admit what we have done and turn to another, to confess and ask forgiveness. I watch Menachem instructing Ariel, Moshe and Raya to ask each other when they have hurt the other when playing or taking the toy from the other. Even children for simple things realize its difficulty.  The highest form of teshuvah is that done from ahavah – from love and not from yirah, from fear. We should fix things and mend relationships because we love each other not because we are afraid of each other. We should heal broken hearts because we are motivated by love.  We need to fix our society by turning to each other, sincerely and openly, in love. According to Jewish law, the person to whom one has turned is obliged to forgive, to give mechilah and selichah, renounce the debt owed and forgive from the heart.

Judaism teaches that the process of teshuvah needs to be done face to face. Only the person wronged can forgive the person who wronged him. That works between us here in this room or in our families for those alive. But how do we ask the dead for forgiveness? I have stood by my father's grave and asked him. How does he forgive me? The answer lies in the faith that even from olam habah, the world to come, there is a metaphysical bridge and if my sentiments cross it in purity and sincerity, completeness of heart and soul, then forgiveness crosses back to me. This is a leap of faith but it is worthy of making.

A cardinal Jewish belief and law is that we cannot forgive on behalf of others. Only the person hurt can forgive. There are many eloquent statements made about the Holocaust that we do not have the right on behalf of the dead to forgive all those who killed Jews. Only the dead can forgive. We can't. I know that we will never forget the Holocaust nor forgive Hitler and all the accomplices. We haven't forgotten the destruction of Solomon's Temple in 586 B.C.E. by the Babylonians, nor the Second Temple by the Romans. Yet I don't hate the Iraqis, descendants of the former, or the Italians, for the latter. They have no true connection to the events of 2500 and 2000 years ago, respectively. Time and generations have intervened. Maybe that is the way it will be with Germany and the Jews, and generations far after us. Not forgiving. Not our right. Not forgetting. History is our inner fabric. Each society receives the consequence for the sins of earlier generations, even if they are not guilty for sin perpetrated. But we can change the relationship. We can turning to each other.

To transition, who asks, who is asked, who can forgive those involved in the slave trade and slavery in this country? How can teshuvah be done? What did you and I have to do with slavery? My family came long afterwards. What can I be guilty of? Of what do I need atone? My answer to the seminar was that there is no one alive who can ask to be forgiven and there is no one alive who can forgive. Time has removed them all. Yet we are here, all citizens of Richmond, of this country, of the world, indelibly intertwined with each other. That chord cannot be severed. We have received the consequences of what earlier generations have done. We have to deal with it. We can turn with the values I enumerated  with open ears and hearts and work to change our city and region, work to understand the historical record that each community carries on its back. We can work to change our world. The sesquicentennial must be a time of turning of communities and people in reconciliation with each other.


Alex Lebenstein:

I knew Alex when we both lived on Long Island. I was his Rabbi. We were both surprised to find each other here in Richmond. I hope that all of you know his life story. He survived the Holocaust and came to America, the only survivor of 19 Jewish families in Haltern am See, Germany. He throbbed with pain and anger. He ceased speaking and reading German.  In 1994 two girls from the middle school in Haltern contacted Alex to come and speak to them about the Holocaust because they knew that their parents were not telling them the whole story. Alex was bitterly torn. He had fantasies of bombing the place. He decided to go. In the last days of his life when I was sitting with him in the hospital, he needed to speak of these events. He said to me: "How could I hate these innocent children? They hadn't done anything to me!" His trip there was transformational. While he would struggle to his dying day, the joy that animated him, the reconciliation that occurred in his heart was miraculous. It was more than that they named the school after him. It was the relationship with the new generation, the openness and honesty, the sharing, the physical contact with a generation twice removed, that created a metamorphosis with him.


Not everyone can be an Alex Lebenstein, but all that I have said above came true in him. I think that Alex and his life is a great paradigm for our society and individually. He didn't forgive those that murdered his family. They were dead and didn't ask for it. He didn't forget. The Holocaust defined his existence. He relinquished he desire for revenge. In seeing Haltern face to face Alex and they were transformed, elevated to a higher, holier plane of existence. They saw his humanity and he saw theirs. They turned to each other with respect and dignity, and were reconciled. That knowledge accompanied Alex to heaven. I have faith that there he knows true peace. That is the goal for us all, a true and complete peace.



This is the paradigm that Judaism and our history offer Richmond 150 years after the onset of the Civil War whose consequences still afflict us. This the paradigm that Judaism offers our individual lives on how to heal broken hearts and bind up wounds that otherwise would fester and destroy us. The process of change is difficult. Everyone arrives at their own place. It takes time, courage, patience and sincerity. Yet Judaism holds before us the promise of kapparah, a true cleansing and atonement from God for our souls and peace in our hearts.


L'shanah tovah tekatayvu and vtaychataymu.

So may we be inscribed and sealed in the Book of Life for life.                    Amen.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

When Nearly Perfect is Truly Perfect: It’s More Important To Be a Mentsch: Armando Galarraga

When Nearly Perfect is  Truly Perfect: It's More Important To Be a Mentsch: Armando Galarraga

Erev Rosh HaShanah First Night – September 8th, 2010

Rabbi Gary S. Creditor


An oft repeated phrase is: "Only God is perfect." But in baseball, humans can be too. My cognizance of "The Perfect Game" was the one most often rerun on television, namely that of Don Larsen of the New York Yankees against the Brooklyn Dodgers on October 8th, 1956, where, at the end, Yogi Berra jumps into his arms. Of the 'holy grail' of all sports, this is probably the most difficult to attain. The formal definition is that of a nine inning game where twenty-seven batters go up to hit, and none of them – none of them get on base. Twenty-seven up and twenty-seven down. The pitcher doesn't walk a batter. The fielders don't make any errors. The fielders sometimes have to make spectacular fielding plays. They will help by catching any and all pop-ups in foul territory. Twenty-seven up and twenty-seven down. Having played a little baseball in my youth, as a batter, as a pitcher and as a fielder, this is based on skill, on the assists of the team, and on luck. In less than a matter of inches can perfection be attained or perfection denied. It also depends on the eyesight of the umpires. In baseball, humans can be perfect.


There are only twenty men who have pitched perfect games. As per Wikipedia, more men have been to the moon. No one has ever pitched more than one. The first occurred on June 12, 1880 by Lee Richmond of the Worcester Ruby Legs against the Cleveland Blues, winning 1 – 0.  Some of the names will be instantly familiar to baseball aficionados: Cy Young, Jim Bunning, Sandy Koufax, Catfish Hunter, Kenny Rogers, David Wells, David Cone, Randy Johnson, Mark Buehrle and Roy Halladay. Many of the other names would never be remembered nor recognized. Some are in the Hall of Fame and some will probably be so honored at a later date. The perfect game, dependent on others, on skill and on luck is the 'holy grail' of sports. I don't know how many major league ball games have been played since 1880, but twenty is an infinitesimal percentage.  In these rare instances, humans can be perfect.


Not since 1880, when the first perfect game was pitched on June 12th and the second, five days later on June 17th had two perfect games been pitched in the same year. One hundred and twenty years later this occurs on May 9th, 2010 and May 29th, 2010, twenty days apart. No one can explain this phenomenon. But there really should be twenty-one perfect games in the record book with the last one on June 2nd, 2010 with only four days intervening.  Therein lays the tale and the moral of this story.


For reasons known only to God, I have watched on television several parts of perfect games and saw the end of Roy Halladay of the Philadelphia Phillies on May 29th. But on June 2nd, 2010 I was watching Armando Galarraga, of the Detroit Tigers, a pitcher of whom I had never heard before, pitching against the Cleveland Indians. These are two teams going nowhere this season. For twenty-six batters, Galarraga was perfect. It did require several phenomenal plays by his fielders, especially in the ninth inning. Nine times before in history pitchers arrived at this moment, batter number twenty-seven. I recognize some of them from the modern era: Billy Pierce, Milt Pappas, Milt Wilcox (also of Detroit), Dave Stieb, and Mike Mussina. Nine times they all failed. The batter either was hit by a pitch walked or got a hit. Perfection was lost. There are many superstitions held by baseball players during no-hit and perfect games: what you say to the pitcher, or not; where you sit in the dugout; and, walking over and not touching the white lines. Even the crowd's reactions are different. The twenty-seventh batter was Jason Donald. He hit the 83rd pitch of the game towards the second baseman. Galarraga ran to first to field the throw. The throw got there first with Galarraga's foot on the bag. And the umpire, Jim Joyce called him safe. From every angle, professional and amateur, Donald was out. Jim Joyce called him safe. It was close but he was clearly and indisputably out. It was a perfect game. It was not to be a perfect game.


I don't know about you, but as I watched the events unfold I was muttering to the television, "look at the replay," "ask the other umpires," "reverse the call." If I was a screamer, I would have been screaming. This was more than "he was robbed!" Maybe once in a lifetime can you even dream this! It is impossible to describe the emotions of that moment going through everyone in the stadium and everyone watching on television.

How would you have reacted if you were Armando Galarraga?    Physically? With rage?

How would you have acted if you were Jim Joyce, otherwise known as an outstanding umpire?


While neither men are Jewish, their behavior reflected the essential teachings of these days. Both of them were mentches. Neither of them, not Detroit's manager nor the players behaved with anger, nor bad language, or ill will. I can see the smile of resignation on Galarraga's face as he looked in disbelief, and then turned to the mound to go finish the game. Even the fans realized that the man had just made a mistake. And he had to live with it. It couldn't be undone. It couldn't be erased. He was human. He made an error. And because of it, the pitcher lost a perfect game. Here was a 28 year old journeyman with a 20-18 won/lost record, unknown to most, who would have had his name enshrined with the legends of the game to be recorded for all time. And it was gone. The umpire acted humility and regret, charatah. He admitted that he had sinned, chatah. Even without asking, the pitcher bestowed mechilah, forgiveness to him. I have replayed the YouTube recording of the interview after the game. Galarraga was entitled to be embittered, even angered. Joyce had umpired a long time. He should have called this one correctly. And yet, Galarraga was explaining that Joyce was human and he just made a mistake, and he forgave him. Sports do not usually exemplify such menshlichkeit. And when Jim Joyce said: "I just cost that kid a perfect game. I thought he beat the throw. I was convinced he beat the throw, until I saw the replay." Then he admitted his error. Teshuvah, repentance, begins with recognition, hakarah, of wrong doing, proceeds through the stages to regret, charatah, for having done it, and the asking for and receiving forgiveness, mechilah and selichah by the one wronged. This process doesn't change history. What was done is done. Yet it enables a cleansing of the soul and the rapprochement between two individuals. It mitigates pain and encourages healing of soul and heart.  This process makes a whole out broken parts. At the beginning of each baseball game, a representative of each team brings out the line-up cards to home plate and meets there with the home plate umpire. The umpires rotate their positions each game, home, first base, middle infield and third. The next day, Jim Joyce rotated to home plate and the Detroit manager Jim Leyland sent  Armando Galarraga to home plate. Remember what I said about the perfect game being the Holy Grail. Here were the two men facing each other, one the person who earned it and deserved it, and the other the denier, depriving the former of fame and fortune and a place in Cooperstown, baseball heaven and nirvana rolled into one.  I urge you to privately and silently consider that if anyone of us was put in this position, to face the person who so sorely hurt us and can only offer after-the-fact words, how you would have behaved. What you would have said or done. On June 3rd pitcher Armanda Galarraga embraced umpire Jim Joyce at home plate. It was a most remarkable scene. There was true kaparrah, atonement, true mechilah and selichah.


I don't know if Galarraga will ever even come close to what he did on June 2nd. I hope he does it. That would be divine justice. And even if he remains an otherwise unknown 500 pitcher, he will never be forgotten, he will be a true hero of sports because of his menchlichkeit, his humanity, and unbeknownst to him, his implementation of core Jewish values of this season. My hat goes off to Jim Joyce for his conduct and his humanity.  They are both heroes that labored in relative obscurity. Now the spot light shines on them both. That night, nearly perfect was truly perfect.


I wish them a Shanah Tovah, a good year. Thanks for the lessons. See you at the game.


Shanah Tovah.

“Admat Kodesh” – “Holy Ground”: Where Is It? How Do We Find It?

Do We Build a Mosque, Church or Synagogue on It?

Second Day Rosh HaShanah – September 10, 2010

Rabbi Gary S. Creditor

Richmond, Virginia


As I typed in the title for this sermon, having already decided on its content, I realized that the next day, tomorrow, would be nine-eleven. What used to be numbers reserved for emergency usage will forever mark a day that divides history, before and after 9/11, a day on which many will say a personal kaddish, a day when we will all recite kaddish. While I have not visited the field in Pennsylvania, I have driven past the Pentagon numerous times and stared at the now rebuilt side of the structure. I am most familiar with the World Trade Center Towers. I still long to see them in the distance as I approach the city, despite all that I know. New grass grows on the field. The Pentagon is reconstructed and new edifices will rise in the area of the Towers. It won't be like the original, but something will be there.


The Pentagon couldn't be left ruined and destroyed. There was some controversy concerning the field. We all knew that "Ground Zero" would eventually be emptied of the rubble and something would be erected on the spot. There was controversy over its architecture. Yet I knew that I hoped in vain that they would just leave it alone. Privately and secretly I just wanted them to fill it in and leave it alone. Then it could be called "Holy Ground" and as a park with benches, we could sit in silence only broken by the traffic on West Street and occasional sirens. That is lost in the construction. It will be another part of Manhattan with offices and hot dog stands and people coming and going. Forever it will be "Ground Zero." But I am hesitant to call it "Holy Ground." All this calamitous harangue about what or not to build two blocks away pains me greatly. I share these thoughts on Rosh HaShanah, the eve of 9/11.



The phrase "Admat Kodesh" – "Holy Ground" is used only once in the entire Bible, in the Torah [Exodus 3:5] when Moses discovers God's presence at the bush-that-is not-consumed at a place that will become known as Mt. Sinai. It is also called Mt. Horev and "HaHar," "The Mountain," with no further appellation. Because of its holiness God commands Moses to take off his sandals. Obviously that was the method of showing respect.  Though without the word 'admat,' the ground being called kodesh occurs in Joshua 5:15 in a similar experience this time an angel representing God's presence, telling him that the land is holy.


Yet these two places were never sanctified in Jewish tradition. We did not designate the place in the Sinai Peninsula as Mt. Sinai. Christians did. We took the experience of Sinai and made that holy and did not try to find and sanctify the place where Moses stood. Similarly, the location of Joshua's experience was never identified. Even places that were or are known, such as Shilo, never achieved such status as "Admat Kodesh" – "Holy Ground." Much later in Jewish history there will be four "Holy Cities" in the land of Israel, Tiberias, Safed, Jerusalem, and Hebron, but were still normal places to live.

In Jewish tradition there are only three "Holy Ground's,'" a cemetery, the land of Israel in general, and the Temple Mount specifically. The Aron HaKodesh, the Ark, only has holiness, kedushah, to the extent that it houses the Torah scrolls. We have holy things such as the Torah and our bodies because they both come from God. We have holy time such as today, all the chagim and Shabbat. Time is always holy.  When I was researching for this sermon and googled 'holy ground' I found that there are many songs with that title, one which I will include in these remarks. Otherwise it was a lot of citations to the current imbroglio.


Let me ask – and answer - a few questions:

1. What is "Holy Ground?"

2. What makes an otherwise common place "Holy Ground?"

3. Do we really need "Holy Ground" in our lives?

4. What should we do with "Holy Ground?"


I am drawing upon, without necessarily citing some of the thoughts in articles that I googled. You can do the same. Just put "Holy Ground" in the search engine. Have fun.



Judaism would answer my first question by saying that Holy Ground is the place where the voice of God is heard. Holy ground can be this Sanctuary, the Okun Chapel, in our Talmud and Torah classes. For me I think it was during my youth in both my Hebrew school class and Junior Congregation. I remember studying in the original Seminary Library Reading Room and "heard" God as I studied. I certainly heard it in the voice of the saintly Rabbi Krett who tutored us in the Talmud, in the European cadence of his voice reviewing the holy text, in alcove off of the then daily chapel.  I have felt "Holy Ground" standing on the seashore and sensed God's power manifest in the unending waves. Their ceaseless flowing to the shore evoked in me a sense of eternity and that brought me to God. I don't think that the ground that both Moses and Joshua stood upon was inherently different from any other clod of earth. What happened there made all the difference. For whatever reason, it was there that they experienced God, they heard God's voice. Common ground can become Holy Ground. It is what happens to us there that makes the difference.


Let me pose a question for you to answer to yourselves: Have you ever stood in a place and felt that it was "Holy Ground?" Have you ever had "Holy Ground" experiences in your life? Do you recall those places which in and of themselves were not sacred, but because it was in that special place you heard God's voice and saw God's power and they became "holy ground" to you? Was it under chuppah when you got married? Was it in the delivery room at the birth of your child? Was it watching your child or grandchild ascend the bemah as bar/bat mitzvah? Was it standing under Niagara Falls or atop the Empire State Building or high above the clouds in a plane, or watching the first man on the moon, or the eclipse of the sun?  Have you ever felt a moment of transcendence? Where did it happen? What happened to that place afterwards? Did it return to being normal? Have you ever had an experience in which you want to "take off your shoes?" Holy Ground is the place where we have a vision of God, His power, His presence, His eternity.


"Holy Ground" can be anywhere. It doesn't have to be somewhere specific. It doesn't have to be in a place previously designated. It doesn't have remain "Holy Ground" forever. Just for that moment.



Do we need "Holy Ground" in our lives? I think so. I hope so. If Holy Ground is that place where to have such a powerful experience, then I really want to have that experience and need I that place. It is an inconceivable thought that from this time and place – Olam HaZeh – I can connect metaphysically to the Power-that-has-made-all-this, to the Power-of-the-Cosmos that cares about me. In an article I found while googling Sabine Barnhart wrote: "the holy ground was part of my life that I walked on…Places become holy because of their significance to the people who experience life and relationships there…The relationship that I have with this place has already created a holy ground within me…If a society can learn to understand the significance of holy ground, mankind could walk this earth with less fear of conflict…Holy ground cannot be conquered. It has to be honored continually so that it will grow in blessedness."


Holy Ground can be a place where I stand, like where Moses and Joshua stood. Holy ground can be a place inside of me, wherever I am, at any moment, at every moment. Holy ground can be a physical place. It doesn't have to be. It can be a physical place in my mystical memory and a divine place in my heart. I will always search for such a place and delight in the moment and capture it in my heart and mind forever. Holy Ground can be the quintessential human–divine experience.



When all the construction is finished Ground Zero will not be Holy Ground. To the best of their ability, all the remains of the Towers and its people have been removed. It will be an office building with a great view. There will be some empty space, but nothing to evoke that which stood, the agony of the day and the pain of history. It probably won't bring us closer to God. It will be an unforgettable and indelible moment in time that changed all history. All the rhetoric sounds so trivial. It doesn't matter if a church, synagogue or mosque – really an Islamic version of the 92nd Street YMHA with a mosque in it – is built two city blocks away. If the United States reneges on its multi-cultural and multi-faith composition and foundational values, we all lose that which is most precious to every citizen. There once was a time when we couldn't build synagogues in this country. This is a confrontation that destroys our moral fiber, the holy ground within us. That is unworthy. That is a sin. Then all this is in vain.



The one song that captures these thoughts that I found in researching for this sermon is written by Woody Guthrie. References were made that it has been sung by the Klezmatics, but I haven't heard their edition.



Holy Ground

Woody Guthrie, Lyrics


Take off, take off your shoes

This place you're standing, it's holy ground

Take off, take off your shoes

The spot you're standing, it's holy ground


These words I heard in my burning bush

This place you're standing, it's holy ground

I heard my fiery voice speak to me

This spot you're standing, it's holy ground


That spot is holy holy ground

That place you stand it's holy ground

This place you tread, it's holy ground

God made this place His holy ground


Take off your shoes and pray

The ground you walk it's holy ground

Every spot on earth I trapse around

Every spot I walk it's holy ground


Every spot it's holy ground

Every little inch it's holy ground

Every grain of dirt it's holy ground

Every spot I walk it's holy ground



We need to discover our national holy ground.

We need to discover our personal holy ground.

We need to discover our religious and spiritual holy ground.

Here in shul we must experience holy ground.

We must take it with us when we leave.


In a spiritual, metaphysical way let us live our lives, like Moses and Joshua with our sandals off, walking our lives on admat kodesh, holy ground.                               Amen.


Sunday, September 12, 2010

The Cornerstones of Conservative Judaism

The Cornerstones of Conservative Judaism

First Day Rosh HaShanah - September 9th, 2010

Richmond, Virginia

Rabbi Gary S. Creditor


I know why my family affiliated with a Conservative synagogue. In 1956, when looking to move from Brooklyn, New York to New Jersey where my father found a job, a flat tire led my parents to inquire about housing in the little town of Belleville. There was one synagogue. It was Conservative. They joined it. There my brother and I grew up. It was the portal to Judaism and everything else Jewish for four generations, from my parents to my grandchildren. There I discovered my Jewish identity, the content of our religion, the language of Hebrew, the far away country of Israel, and the five thousand year long history of our people. I was captivated. I was enriched. I was proud. While I heard about other divisions of Judaism, they did not interest me. Conservative Judaism, steeped in tradition while vibrant and modern had more for me than I could possibly have absorbed to fill my religious quest.


Clearly the style, brand, [the word I loathe - "product" - ]called the "Conservative" synagogue was very appealing. Synagogues like Temple Beth-El sprung up across North America mainly because of the nature of its presentation of Judaism, neither too far right nor too far left, attracted the growing American Jewish population. Yet I believe, that in all those decades, it would have been most difficult for the members of these synagogues to answer the following two questions:

1.      Are you a member of a Conservative synagogue or are you a Conservative Jew?

2.      What is Conservative Judaism? What does it stand for? What does it represent?

In concise manner, I phrase the question:


Why are you in this synagogue today and not elsewhere?


While it was not necessarily wrong, but because we were so completely dedicated to teaching Judaism, so devoted to the Jewish people in general, we never articulated clearly and meaningfully that we were presenting Judaism through a very specific prism. We never inculcated "brand loyalty." We didn't 'grow' Conservative Jews.  I remember that the language always was: we were not Reform and we were not Orthodox. We needed to articulate what we are! What is so unique, so completely special, so distinctive that is Conservative Judaism? Why should anyone join us? Why should anyone remain here?

 I will answer that today.


At the Rabbinical Assembly Convention this past May, held at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City, Rabbi David Wolpe opened the Convention by addressing this very issue. He challenged us to come up with a new name. I haven't, though I have thought hard. I have taken up his suggestion to define us. Rabbi Wolpe's suggestion was to define Conservative Judaism through the prism of relationships, because our core word is covenant – brit. Conservative Judaism is unique because it brings us to stand in a series of special relationships. I build these remarks on those of Rabbi Wolpe. I call them: The Cornerstones of Conservative Judaism.



1. We stand in relationship to God. The Jewish story begins with Abraham who heard God's call. That call called our people into being. That is our raison d'ĂȘtre.  Faith gives us the purpose to exist. We gave the world the gift of our faith.  Historical events such as the destruction of both Temples in Jerusalem, the many persecutions, the Holocaust, never robbed us of our faith in God. I suppose that every Jew throughout history has had their moments of doubt and questioning. Maybe we have taken Abraham's posture and even argued with God. Conservative Judaism means to standing in that relationship, even as it changes as we do, even as it grows, even when challenged, for it is the core part of our identity and daily life as a Jew.


2. We stand in relationship to Torah. Conservative Judaism teaches to study Torah, in shul, at home, in classes, on the computer – and any other media. Torah is alive today. We see the Torah text as speaking in the present tense. We are the participants in its drama. In its laws and in its narrative we find the core values of our faith, different from all the others. We use modern as well as classical scholarship to continue to discover its meanings. We hear God's voice in and between its lines. I pay homage to my predecessor Rabbi Milgrom, may his memory be for a blessing, who brilliantly elucidated the Biblical texts. He truly represented Conservative Judaism.


3. We stand in relationship to our tradition and mitzvot. Conservative Judaism teaches us that we are the inheritors and repository of gold: Shabbat and the Chaggim, these holy days, Jewish law and personal mitzvot, our liturgy and our literature. They connect us to God. They weave us into relationships with each other. They are beautiful! They are joyful! They are glorious! Each and every component is imbued with meaning, and spirituality. I wish we could feel the pulsating power of Tevye's singing "Tradition," not that I want to live in Anatevka, but with the unfettered freedom to know that the wisdom of the ages is ours, the connecting web that transcends time and place to reach to the infinite is ours. While not every tradition with a small 't' will speak to each of us, so much can, and so much more can be added to the stock of tradition. Our relationship is infused with joyful obligation to halacha, Jewish law.


4. Klal Yisrael – We stand in relationship to every Jew alive. While there are many divisive ideologies, Conservative Judaism stands for the unity of Jew with Jew, the overarching unity of the Jewish people: those born, those by choice, those with kipot, those without, those of every color, those with faith, those without, those of every gender, here in Richmond and around the world. There are compelling reasons to propagate and maintain the existence of the Jewish people. Conservative Judaism teaches that we stand face to face with each other as the Jewish people, bar none. We may argue. We may fight. We are one.


5. We stand in relationship to the State of Israel. As Conservative Jews, we are Zionists. Conservative Judaism teaches that while Israel is a political state, and we don't have to agree on every policy, it is a religious-state-of being for the Jewish people. We do have different but dual allegiances. I am a faithful citizen of the United States. I am a loyal Jew to Medinat Yisrael. We do have a national corporate entity. Israel is part of the faith of a Jew. When the faith wanes our loyalty becomes subject to politics. We may differ on our politics but never on our loyalty to Medinat Yisrael. That is a core value of Conservative Judaism.


6. We stand in relationship to the non-Jewish world – HaOlam kulo. In our distinctiveness we are a part of the world, neither shunning it nor being overwhelmed by it. We are proud to maintain our identity in the marketplace of America, even when making difficult choices to observe our traditions and law. As Conservative Jews we bring our Jewish values into play with the issues of our day: illegal immigration, unfair taxation, gay civil marriage, the unemployed.  Conservative Judaism welcomes those who truthfully seek to join the faith, to embrace those who embrace the faith. We truly welcome with a warm countenance and respect those who accompany their Jewish spouses and partners without any condition. Securely and confidently we face inward and we face outward.


7. Lastly - We stand in relationship to our history and our posterity. I receive many college and church classes in this Sanctuary. There is an audible awe when I teach them that this place – the synagogue - is two thousand years old, that Jewish history began nearly two thousand years earlier than that. There is such a depth to have our rootedness. We sweep the panorama of time and place. Conservative Judaism teaches us to have a positive relationship with our past as we live it and use it to write the present and future. It includes all the languages we have spoken and the Hebrew of our liturgy and Medinat Yisrael.  Conservative Judaism uniquely teaches to appreciate and critically review the immense expanse of being a Jew.


God, Torah, masoret and mitzvot, Klal Yisrael, Medinat Yisrael, HaOlam kulo, and our history, these seven, like the days of creation, are the cornerstones of Conservative Judaism. This number represents the creative forces and dynamics which are so special about Conservative Judaism. While other formulations of Judaism contain some of these components, we have them all, in our unique and singular combination. These are the elements that define us and shape us, in the past and in the future. Our Conservative Judaism stresses the covenantal quality of our existence, internally and externally, inwardly and outwardly. I feel it beautiful and a faithful and faith-filled formulation of Judaism. I am thankful for my family's good fortune that brought us to Belleville, New Jersey, a Conservative synagogue and Conservative Judaism.


The world has changed greatly from the heyday of Conservative Judaism. It is the time when the daughter of the past President of the United States and the Secretary of State, a Baptist and a Methodist respectively, married a Jewish boy on Shabbat, with a ketubah, under a chuppah and wearing a Talit with a minister and a rabbi. These are complex and complicated times. In the ongoing discussion about the marriage of Chelsea Clinton and Marc Mezvinsky, Rabbi Irwin Kula wrote a masterful article on the Huffington Post: "From the Cathedral to the Bazaar: What Chelsea Clinton's Wedding Says About Religious Syncretism." He notes that the fastest-growing religious identity in America is "none." 18% of Americans say that they don't belong to any religious group. He then introduces a new acronym – MBBS -  to characterize American society: "mixers, blenders, benders and switchers…Religious identity is becoming fluid, permeable and an ongoing construction."


 The challenge for Judaism and particularly Conservative Judaism is to be compelling, to be a source for spiritual nourishment, to have a persuasive and convincing presentation to ourselves and to the world, to maintain our integrity while being magnetic. We can do it! For the future of the American Jewish community, we must do it! These pieces that I have enumerated – and others - are the cornerstones for our expression of Judaism.


We need to live them, to express them in a life-giving community.

We need to be a true community.

We are not a membership list. We are a holy community – kehilah kedoshah.

Then we have something precious to say to ourselves, to our children and grandchildren.

Then we have something captivating and compelling to say to the world, to the MBBS.


In this year ahead, let us come together as such a community.  Let us be pray together, learn together, work together, throughout the year, not just these days. These days must be the foundation from which we climb higher.


May that climb begin today, layla u'l'ayla.


Shanah Tovah Tekatayvu.

May this be a great year.