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From Sinai Forward

By Rabbi Boaz D. Heilman

Sermon/D’var Torah for Parashat Mishpati

One of my all-time favorite movies is “School Ties.” Set in the early 1950’s at a prestigious Massachusetts boys’ prep school, “School Ties” tells the story of David Green, a high school senior who is brought in from the grungiest part of Scranton, PA, to play on the school’s football team and help it win its annual homecoming game. Oh yes, David Green also happens to be Jewish.

Beautifully filmed, scored and acted, the screenplay (by Dick Wolf) is as sharp and incisive as can be. In one of the most powerful lines of the movie, Green tells the headmaster of St. Matthew’s, “You used me to win a football game; I’m going to use you to get into Harvard.”

Truthfully, it’s not a beautiful sentiment. People using people isn’t the way society ought to work. Yet that is exactly the picture that “School Ties” paints. The movie is a microcosm of America in the 1950’s, a time that, today, some of us gaze back at with a kind of romantic longing. For many Americans, those were, indeed, “the good ol’ days,” days of optimism and success. World War Two was over, the Great Depression was gone, and with America now a global superpower, the American Dream was finally becoming real for the common man.

Yet despite the shiny veneer in which the period was portrayed—think “Father Knows Best,” “The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet” and, of course, “Leave It To Beaver”—just beneath the surface were deep fissures, class, gender and race divisions that would blow up a mere decade later in the social upheaval and furor of the 1960’s.

A society so deeply divided, a society where people get ahead by using one another, is not a healthy society. Reliance on one another is a much healthier model. It’s a subtle distinction, I know, but it makes all the difference in the world.

A society of users cultivates prejudice, disparity and inequality. This is the kind of society Abraham Lincoln called “a house divided against itself,” in which some become rich and powerful, while others are marginalized, ridiculed and scorned. Despite claiming to be a model of freedom and opportunity, this kind of society is bound for trouble; it truly cannot stand.

Which brings me to this week’s Torah portion, Mishpatim (“Judgments,” Exodus 22:27—23:5).

Coming on the footsteps of last week’s Torah portion, Yitro, which contains the Ten Commandments, Mishpatim at first glance seems to be the total opposite of its exalted predecessor. In Yitro, Moses climbs up Mt. Sinai to receive from the very hands of God Himself the Two Tablets of the Law, those monumental principles that would become the cornerstone of Western Civilization. Mishpatim, on the other hand, delves into the most mundane subjects of all—those crimes and misdemeanors, legal torts and offenses, the rights and wrongs that have little if anything to do with God, and everything to do with the way we behave among ourselves.

In Mishpatim, we are told to observe the Sabbath not because God made it holy, but rather because the people and animals we rely on to do the hard labor in our fields and homes deserve a day of rest. The lofty commandment “Honor thy father and thy mother” here is replaced by the much bleaker ruling that states, “One who strikes his father or mother… or curses his father or his mother shall surely be put to death.” And the exalted vision of liberated slaves is replaced with regulations that merely limit the kind of abuse an owner can heave upon his slaves.

There is very little mention of God in Mishpatim, and only one reference to the holy days.

On the other hand, much weight is given in this portion to how we behave toward the stranger, the poor, the homeless, the widow and the orphan among us. We are told to treat the earth with respect and to feel compassion for the animals we would otherwise take for granted.

Mishpatim teaches us that it isn’t only God’s word that is holy. In our everyday transactions, our word becomes sacred. Honoring God means honoring one another. We dignify life not only by the clothes we wear or the sacrifices we offer, but also by the way we show dignity and respect to our humblest among us.

Mishpatim is all about how we create a great society versus an unhealthy one, the total opposite of the kind of society that “School Ties” portrays.

This year—in fact, this week, the week of the intensely anticipated New Hampshire primaries—we have an unparalleled opportunity not only to listen to the candidates, but also to observe ourselves. As we look at—and listen to—the various candidates that come begging, cajoling, promising, scaring and reassuring us in turn if only we vote for them, we have to also judge ourselves and our society.

As a nation, America is facing serious issues and problems. The issue of security is ever-present of course. Every decade brings its enemy, a culture so hostile to our own that it seems willing to stop at nothing short of mayhem, chaos and even total destruction. America’s position as leader of the free world has been made precarious not only by the advances of such a culture, by a group of people so ruthless and barbarian that it can rightly be called evil, but also by our own seeming indecisiveness at how best to counter this attack.

Poverty and marginalization in our cities have contributed to greater street violence than ever. Opioid addiction has reached epidemic proportions. The social media, once touted as tools of positive change, have become shouting matches where insults, bullying, bigotry and prejudice seem the rule rather than the exception.

Education, both in our elementary schools and in the institutes of higher learning, seems to have been taken over by a system that cares more for higher grades and measureable results—at any cost—than for true learning and scholarship.

These—and more—are huge problems, but they are not insurmountable. Yet the solution is not fear mongering or finger pointing. We can only achieve positive results when we work together; not when we use one another, but rather when we rely upon each other. Each component, every member of our society, from the highest to the lowest, is of equal value to the wellbeing of the entire community.

America’s greatness is not on some high mountaintop; it exists in how we relate to one another. If America is to keep its position as leader of the free world, it is not going to happen by spouting anger and frustration, but rather by the way we treat one another; by the way we treat the earth, water and air around us; by the way we treat the animals that we rely on for food, labor and companionship.

God’s holiness is not found only on this mountaintop or another. Nor is it limited to this house of worship or another. Rather, God can be found in our handshake. God’s holiness is in the word we give one another.

God’s oath is present not only in what we promise we will do in return for God’s favor, but rather, as Mishpatim teaches us, תִּֽהְיֶה֙ בֵּ֣ין שְׁנֵיהֶ֔ם שְׁבֻעַ֣ת יְהֹוָ֗ה –God’s oath is between a man and his neighbor (Ex. 22:10 in the Hebrew, 22:11 in the English translation). It’s OK to lift your eyes up to the mountain for hope and vision, but what really counts, what really matters, is what we do down here, on this earth, among ourselves, among our neighbors and among our fellow living creatures.

May the meditations of our hearts, the words upon our lips, and the deeds of our hands all lead us forward to that vision that Moses and all Israel saw revealed at Mt. Sinai—a vision of freedom, respect and dignity for all for all humankind.

Amen.

Rabbi Heilman

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Installation Sermon

By Rabbi Boaz D. Heilman

President Ostroff, Cantor Funk; fellow rabbis, educators and clergy of many faiths; members of the Board of Directors and congregants of Temple B’nai Israel; honored guests and friends, I begin with the most beautiful word in the Hebrew language, shalom! Peace!

Having just begun serving as rabbi of Temple B’nai Israel, you will forgive me, I hope, for still feeling a little bit like “the new kid on the block.” You see, I’m still looking around, still trying to familiarize myself with the area, the people and the culture.

To tell the truth, about a year ago, when I began looking at this fresh and new venture, I didn’t know what to expect. I was finishing a 20-year rabbinate in the Boston area, an area known for its erudition in academia as well as Judaica. What would I find in Laconia, New Hampshire?

The whirl of events surrounding my transition left me almost in a daze. It was good that soon afterwards I left for some R&R in Israel. Israel is my home. My mother lives there, my brother and his family – my family… It is where my entire being finds nurturance and replenishment, where my roots reach as deep as the most ancient strata of my people’s history, and where my boughs extend up and out, even to the most modern times and innovations.

When I returned at the end of the summer, I felt refreshed, ready to begin this new chapter in my life. Yet I still didn’t know quite what to expect, and the High Holy Days met me with a bit more than the usual trepidation in my heart.

What I did find astounded me – and still continues – to this day.

Not only did I find the kind of powerful and dramatic beauty of nature that New Hampshire possesses. Within the first few weeks, I found some time to hike up a couple of mountains and explore a couple of nearby trails. I experienced the magnificent kind of New England fall that artists and poets rhapsodize about.

Not only did I discover a slower, more patient, more easy-going way of life; a place where you don’t need to cut off another driver just to get in the line of traffic; where, if you want to stop and enjoy the moment, you can, and do.

Not only did I discover a thriving Jewish community here, but one that has been in existence for well over one hundred years!

I discovered a community of people so devoted to their Judaism that they took it upon themselves to make sure that it survived and even thrived. Working first with volunteers and then with student-rabbis–many of whom went on to become national leaders in their own right–this group took on the mitzvah – the imperative – of maintaining their Jewish way of life for themselves and their children. Volunteers all, they not only ascertained that the temple stood on solid financial ground, but also that it faithfully followed our customs and traditions and became a warm and welcoming home–in the fullest, most “heimisch” sense of the word–for all its sons and daughters.

Maybe that’s what has to happen in places like New Hampshire, where we Jews find ourselves more isolated and therefore more dependent on our own skills and abilities than in some other, larger and more specialized communities. The responsibility of being Jewish, of living Jewish, of making sure the Jewish People continue beyond us, is so much more incumbent upon us here.

At the same time, however, Laconia is not so isolated from the rest of the world, not in this age of social media and instant communication. The same problems and issues that Jews face all over the world are as crucial here as elsewhere.

Living as a small minority among other cultures has always made keeping Jewish traditions alive and meaningful a difficult task. It is possibly even more of a challenge today, especially in places where gathering to worship and study as a k’hilla, as a sacred community, means we have to get in our cars and drive nearly an hour just to get to a temple.

Throughout our people’s history, the study of our sacred texts has been key to Jewish existence. Yet today, in our time of unprecedented progress in research, science and technology, a day when the study of the cosmos can take us to the very first milliseconds of the universe’s existence, the stories of Creation that we find in the Torah seem – at least to some of us–irrelevant and childish.

Laws that once regulated our people’s behavior–what we wore, what we ate, even whom we socialized with and married – are less in keeping with our contemporary lifestyle than they ever were before.

Perhaps it was the Holocaust, less than a lifetime away, or maybe the advances of photography–particularly images of war and terrorism – that allowed the most horrifying crimes, the most horrendous cruelty ever exercised by human beings, to penetrate the safe havens that once were our homes and break down the walls of our carefully structured lives.

Israel, the homeland our people returned to and rebuilt as a safe harbor, a refuge from the age-old scourge of anti-Semitism, is still being attacked and delegitimized among its many enemies and detractors. Among us, too, some of us are examining our relationship to our homeland, trying to understand both the politics and the special bond that exists between Israel and the Diaspora, and what that means for us – and more importantly, for our children, who have never known a world without a State of Israel, without an Israel Defense Force to help defend and protect them, and to fill us with joy, gratitude and pride.

To quote a line from one of my favorite Broadway musicals, “Fiddler on The Roof,” these are all problems “that would cross a rabbi’s eyes!”

And yet, just as we’ve never lost hope in the past, so we remain hopeful today. Our strength as a people has never come only from within us. And surely, as our third patriarch, Jacob, learned to recognize so long ago, surely God is present here, among us, at this sacred time and place.

When I first walked into this community and sanctuary, I felt–as palpable and as tangible as anything in the physical world that can be perceived, measured and gauged – love and devotion that are nothing short of miraculous.

Our very presence here tonight is proof that, despite all the challenges and difficulties, we have not abandoned our faith, nor lost any of the love that we’ve always carried with us, throughout our journeys. Our love for our heritage, for our people and our land and, ultimately, for our God, is still the single most powerful force that has always inspired us to create and maintain our sacred communities.

Despite the relative isolation of this congregation – or perhaps because of it – Temple B’nai Israel has become hallowed ground for this community. They just can’t seem to stay away from it! From the Board of Directors to the volunteer teachers, caretakers, cooks and handymen (and women); from Cantor to Educator; from the children and the parents or grandparents who bring them here, to a rabbi who drives two hours every other weekend so we can all celebrate or mourn together, learn together, and worship together. Surely there is excitement here, a spirit of innovation, a true miracle of survival and existence.

Temple B’nai Israel is a staple in the rich communal life of the Lakes Region of New Hampshire. Every summer, it participates in the Food Festival, offering a wide array of traditional Jewish foods. In the fall, the school children glean the fields of local farms and prepare soup for Salvation Army lunches. The annual Interfaith Thanksgiving Service will take place here, in this sanctuary, a week from this Sunday; and proceeds from tomorrow night’s performance, at the Winnipesaukee Playhouse, of the Boston College Jazz Band and Vocal Ensemble will benefit the Central New Hampshire Visiting Nurse Association and Hospice.

Services at Temple B’nai Israel are a true example of what the rabbis called not only avodat hakodesh – the sacred service – but also avodat halev – the service of the heart. And the enthusiasm shown by the children as well as adults who come here to participate in Torah study and Jewish learning only highlights the nearness of the message of Torah and Judaism to our hearts and minds.

All these – beauty of nature, a vibrant community, challenges and blessings – and yet so much more, have I found here, at Temple B’nai Israel, in Laconia, NH.

Not too long ago, a child asked me a wonderful question. “Rabbi,” he said, “how do you know that God hears our prayers?” I looked him in the eye and answered, as truthfully as I could, “Because you are here.”

My friends, I feel blessed to be here tonight with you, to participate with you in this joyful occasion. I feel blessed to have been asked to be one of a long line of rabbis who found inspiration, purpose and meaning here. I am humbled by the kindness, trust and faith you have shown me by entrusting into my hands not only your own spiritual care, but also the care and education of your children and grandchildren. It’s a gift I will always treasure.

As always, I am filled with love and gratitude to my wife, Sally; to our children Hannah and Jonathan; to our parents, family and friends for always being there for me and supporting me along my path.

I feel particularly blessed and grateful to have a role in the history of our people, to carry God’s message forward, to help bring to reality the vision of the prophet Isaiah:

“These I will bring to my holy mountain and I will give them joy in my house of prayer. Their burnt offerings and sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house will be called a house of prayer for all nations” (Is. 56:7).

Thank you and may God bless us all tonight and always. Amen

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Sermon: July 3, 2015

By Rabbi Boaz D. Heilman

Shalom chaverim (friends),

This week’s Torah portion, Balak (Numbers 22:2–25:9), contains the famous line, “How goodly are your tents O Jacob, your dwellings, O Israel.” Spoken by the pagan seer Balaam, these beautiful words have entered the Jewish liturgy as the opening of every morning service. Though Balaam was hired by King Balak of Moab to curse Israel, from his perch on top a mountain overlooking the ancient Israelite camp, Balaam is overwhelmed by the vision of Israel he sees from the heights and his evil purpose is turned instead into a blessing.

I was reminded of this line a few days ago as the El Al jet I was in was making its final approach to Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv. The coastline of Israel emerged from the mist and grew ever closer. From the heights, the roads and buildings of Tel Aviv, the green fields and the forests, the rocky mountains around Jerusalem all formed a breathtaking pattern. It’s a sight that takes one’s breath away no matter how many times you see it. What made this flight different from all others, however, was that it was El Al’s maiden non-stop flight between Boston and Tel Aviv. Festivities at Logan Airport continued in the boarding area, replete with flags, ribbon-cutting ceremonies, speeches and champagne. Teddy bears dressed in T-shirts with “El Al: Boston to Tel Aviv” logos awaited every passenger. More champagne, cupcakes and mint tins with the same El Al logo were offered after the meal. The plane was filled with a diverse multitude of passengers comprised of exuberant youth groups, rabbis coming to Israel for study or R&R, tourists, business people, older people visiting Israel for the first or umpteenth time, and children speaking a mixture of English and Hebrew. It was a complex mixture of people united by one thing–a love for the people and the land of Israel. When the plane touched down in Tel Aviv, applause filled the cabin, and while some people began to sing, others offered a silent prayer of gratitude. Tears were in the eyes of many.

Israel has a way of doing that to people. Emotions spring up from somewhere deep inside your heart and cause your spirit to soar. Poor Balaam never stood a chance.

Mah tovu o-halecha Ya’akov, mish’k’notecha Yisrael, “How goodly are your tents O Jacob, your dwellings, O Israel.” How fortunate and blessed we are to have Israel to go to today, to take its presence for granted, to assume that it will always be there for us, a source of hope, strength and pride.

Especially today, almost the 4th of July, I can’t help but think of the close connection between America and Israel. It’s a connection I feel in a most personal way. I sometimes feel torn between the two homes I have, while the truth is that within me, the two merge into one. Prime Minister Binyamin (Bibi) Netanyahu, in a congratulations message sent to the US for the 4th of July, said that Israel has no greater friend than the US, and the US has no greater friend than Israel. The truth of this message is apparent in every possible way, from the personal to the national; from the strong economic ties to the cultural; and certainly in the unwavering military and security partnership that exists between the two countries.

A prayer that should be said by all on this Shabbat day is that God continue to bless both America and Israel. Together we all pray that, with God’s help, we will continue making the world a better place for all its inhabitants.

May God grant strength to God’s people, may God bless us all with peace.

Happy Fourth of July and Shabbat shalom to all,

Rabbi Heilman