Tag: Unetaneh Tokef

How a Whole Congregation Wrote its Rabbi’s Yom Kippur Sermon

The Genesis of a Social Sermon

Utilizing a process called the Social Sermon, I developed my Yom Kippur morning sermon this year in partnership with Facebook Friends, TED talkers and a group of insightful congregants. To be blunt, this year, the whole Congregation Or Ami wrote its rabbi’s Yom Kippur sermon.

Where Great Sermon Ideas Come From
Rabbis explore sermon ideas from within the Machzor (prayerbook) and Torah, through conference calls organized by Jewish non-profit organizations, and at sermon seminars run by local Boards of Rabbis. Ideas are generated from Jewish text study, current events, issues in the public sphere, bestselling books, and powerful movies. Some clergy ask friends, colleagues, congregants for ideas. Deciding upon topics and themes for High Holy Day (HHD) sermons can be a multi-month process. The social sermon encourages rabbis to engage the congregants (and other contacts in the social media sphere) in the process of exploring the topic and teasing out important themes.

Fleshing out a Topic
Over the summer, as our community struggled to deal with illnesses and deaths of beloved congregants, I knew it was time again to explore Unetaneh Tokef, the haunting HHD prayer most remembered for its opening lines: On Rosh Hashana it is written and on Yom Kippur it is Sealed… Who shall live and who shall die. I read this text as a cosmic wake up call: God reminds us that “stuff” happens. Unetaneh Tokef forces us to face this reality and to decide: how are YOU going to deal with it?

The prayer offers three responses to the severity of life’s decree of misfortune, pain and death. We may reach around (teshuva or repentance – by fixing our relationships with those around us), reach inward (t’filah or prayer – by finding our center and the truth within), and reach up (tzedakah or charitable giving – by lifting up others we lift ourselves).

But how did this play out in real life? What lessons do people learn from enduring the hardships or challenges that life throws out way?

Facebook Friends Chime In
For assistance, I turned to Facebook (and Twitter) where my personal and congregational pages yielded some poignant answers to the question, What did you learn from going through hardship or challenge? Responses poured in from all around the congregation and around the country. The question struck a few heart strings as people posted publicly and some privately about the tsuris (problems) in their lives. Face-to-face conversations with other community members elicited many significant lessons learned. From these responses, as well as those from people I spoke with over the course of a few months, three categories of hardship rose up as being particularly challenging: financial ruin, turmoil from dealing with children with special needs, and horrible medical diagnoses.

TED Talks Provide Inspiration
Around that time, I was watching some TED Talks and became inspired by the stories I heard. About people in challenging situations, who found meaning and purpose nonetheless. The most moving sermons include powerful personal stories to illustrate the central message. It occurred to me that rather than my telling those inspiring stories, I would ask a few congregants to tell their own stories. After all, High Holy Day services offer just the forum for Jewish TED Talks. Thus was a sermon born.

I invited three congregants reflect on what they learned personal through their personal challenge. Their initial drafts were poignant. Each participant had learned powerful lessons on how to overcome the “stuff” of life on which Unetaneh Tokef focuses. Guiding the speakers to understand how their experiences embodied teachings similar to those in Unetaneh Tokef, I worked with them to weave references into their sermonette.

Simultaneously, I crafted a short introduction – utilizing a sledgehammer, if you believe it – to sharply make the point that Unetaneh Tokef comes as a Divine wake-up call. Like a sledgehammer, Unetaneh Tokef comes to break down the walls of naivety and denial that keep us from accepting a simple truth: that between this year and next, so many will live but many will die. Some will experience success; others failure. So many will encounter the unpredictability and pain of life. We are left to discover how do we keep ourselves from becoming angry, embittered, and crotchety, from giving up?

Congregants Tell their Own Stories
At different points in the service, these congregants and our President shared their stories:

Their presentations were poignant. Worshippers sat at the edge of their seats, listening in silence. Certain moments were unforgettable: When Eric and Jill Epstein spoke just after their 14 year old son Ethan led the congregation in prayer. When Mike Moxness was moved to tears as he recalled the overwhelming mix of sadness and gratitude. When Congregation Or Ami President Hedi Gross, in the traditional end-of-service Presidential sermonette, recounted her Jewish spiritual journey, including their struggle with fertility issues, unexpectedly reemphasizing the theme of the sermon and service.

Suffice it to say, the responses to the Jewish-TED-talk/HHD-social-sermon touched and moved so many worshippers.

What Lessons were Learned?

  1. Social Sermons Work: A number of worshippers later described the Facebook discussion on Facebook as a meaningful way to get them to prepare for the Holy Days. Others reflected on the Facebook discussion as an inviting way of previewing am upcoming sermon theme.
  2. Jewish TED Talks Inspire: In comments about the High Holy Days, this multi-speaker sermon topped the list of worshipper kvells (positive comments). Unanimously, post-service comments called the congregant presentations inspiring, powerful, very real, and intensely thought-provoking.
  3. Rabbinic Tzimtzum Fosters Deep Reflection: As clergy “pull back” from their up front role as sermonizer to work in partnership with congregants to craft a Jewish teaching, the message becomes that much more influential. In an increasingly DIY (Do It Yourself) Jewish world, involving other Jews in the teaching/preaching/liturgy leading roles cements their relationships to the community, the synagogue and the rabbi.
  4. Weaving in New Technologies and Methods Animate CommunitiesDarim Online and The Convenant Foundation introduced me to the Social Sermon. TED Talks inspired me to invite congregants to speak. Just Congregations of the Union for Reform Congregations taught me about listening campaigns. eJewish Philanthropy constantly pushes me to explore new perspectives and methods. Visual T’filah of the Central Conference of American Rabbis propelled me to rethink the entire worship experience. Finally, Rabbi Eugene Borowitz’s 1973 essay, Tzimtzum: A Mystic Model for Contem­porary Leadership, has long goaded my rabbinic style to pull back to invite others in.

What’s next? Already, congregants are wondering which congregant speakers will elucidate which themes next year.  And so am I!

But I do not expect to wait until the High Holy Days to invite my congregation to write my next sermon!

Lessons Learned from Living Through Hardship #3, by Mike Moxness with Debbie Echt-Moxness

On Yom Kippur, three Congregation Or Ami members shared sermonettes throughout the service on Lessons They Learned Living Through Hardship. These Jewish TED Talk/Yom Kippur Social Sermons were each moving individually and very inspiring as a whole. Read about How a Whole Congregation Wrote its Rabbi’s Yom Kippur Sermon.


Lessons Learned from Living Through Life’s Challenges  
by Mike Moxness with Debbie Echt-Moxness

Just over a year ago, I was diagnosed with metastatic stage 4 colon cancer. I suffered through a period of being very ill and it didn’t seem likely that I would be standing here today. Thanks to some effective medicines, I was able to get back on my feet and start living again. I’m not out of danger, but I’m experiencing the joy of life again. However, it wasn’t just the drugs that put me on this path, to make me whole, I frequently meditated on the love and support of family and friends.

Aaron, Mike, Molly and Debi
The Moxness Family

Being raised as a stoic Norwegian (similar to the characters from Lake Wobegon), it was difficult for me to ask for help. Many of you brought us dinners, transported our kids and provided emotional support during those dark days. I am so appreciative of everyone who came to our aid, without being asked.

Given the chance to live again is an awesome responsibility. I took the opportunity to discover what makes me happy and let go of those things that don’t. We all have a limited time on this earth and nobody knows how many moments are really left. That’s the lesson of the Unetaneh Tokef prayer – each year, some will live and some will die. So, every day, I ask myself what will bring me joy at this moment. Experiencing the beauty of the world and being with friends are usually are my first choices. I also tried to stop worrying about the future, what others thought about me and striving to get ahead. Without those worries, an amazing thing happened: I started to enjoy my work and to be more productive while spending less time at the office and more time at home.

This perspective is liberating and I wish I could teach it to everyone. It is not easy. The dark thoughts are always looming on the edge and sometimes they seep into my consciousness. Yet being open and honest about my disease has been the most effective at keeping me out of depression.

I have also learned that being engaged in a community like Congregation Or Ami has been particularly helpful to my recovery. Two of the most profound experiences of the past year have occurred at Or Ami. Last April, my 16 year old son Aaron articulated his interpretation of the Mi Shebeirach healing prayer at a teen-led Friday night service. I felt vulnerable but was comforted by the warmth of my community. This past August 3rd, my daughter Molly became a Bat Mitzvah. All of my loved ones were there to celebrate Molly and the life that our family has been able to live over the past year. I exist with a scary reality, but I have learned to let it guide me through a fulfilling life.

Yom Kippur reminds us that everyone will eventually die, we just don’t know when. My advice to you is this: Don’t wait for the life-changing event, try to change your life now.

G’mar Chatimah Tova. May you be sealed for a blessing in the Book of Life.

Listen to Mike Moxness’ Sermonette (at 00:49:49). 

Lessons Learned from Living Through Challenge #2, by Eric and Jill Epstein

On Yom Kippur, three Congregation Or Ami members shared sermonettes throughout the service on Lessons They Learned Living Through Hardship. These Jewish TED Talk/Yom Kippur Social Sermons were each moving individually and very inspiring as a whole. Read about How a Whole Congregation Wrote its Rabbi’s Yom Kippur Sermon.


Lessons Learned from Living Through Challenge  
by Eric and Jill Epstein

It is often said that God will not give you more than you can handle. When our third child Ethan was born, he must have wondered if God was right and whether he was up for the challenge of truly enlightening us.

Challenge is a relative and dynamic term. One person’s challenge is another’s day-to-day existence. Our son Ethan is within the Autism Spectrum. Just uttering those words – Autism Spectrum – used to be a challenge for us. Now, we laugh at the label, as Ethan is so social and happy defying customary views of such a diagnosis. The truth is that the only spectrum we deal with these days is the spectrum of goals we have been blessed to look forward to accomplishing.

Jill, Ethan and Eric Epstein
When Ethan Became a Bar Mitzvah

We used to wonder if Ethan would ever speak, and now we have to hold him back from pushing Rabbi Paul aside at the bimah. Congregation Or Ami has become such an important place for Ethan for many reasons. When our first son, Andrew, became Bar Mitzvah, we were so worried that Ethan might distract from the services that he was sequestered to the sound-proof kids’ room. Ethan would have none of that, as he grabbed a prayer book and took part in the services on the bimah with a quiet calm we had not seen previously.

Seven years later, Ethan was leading services at his own Bar Mitzvah service with that quiet calm we had become accustomed to. Although Rabbi Paul, Cantor Doug and Diane Townsend were prepared to modify the service as needed, Ethan would have none of that and participated as fully as another other Or Ami student. Gazing out to a crowd of friends and family, Ethan unrehearsed exclaimed, “This is my moment!”

Of course, tackling Ethan’s special needs is a team sport. That “moment” didn’t happen without a team of teachers, educational therapists, speech therapists, and behavioral therapists to challenge his short-comings head-on and who stood proudly with Ethan for a very special Aliyah. These challenges merely amplify his accomplishments.

Former Or Ami President Michael Kaplan swears that Ethan will be President of Congregation Or Ami someday. Such a statement seems as challenging as his Bar Mitzvah service was seven years ago. Why not set this as his next goal? We have learned that you hit what you aim for, and if you aim at nothing, you will hit it every time. Isn’t that a lesson of the Unetaneh Tokef prayer? That life will necessarily throw challenges our way. Our job is to reach out and find ways of finding goodness and blessing nonetheless.

For Ethan, he seems to have a special companion on this unlikely and challenging course of life that draws him to services on many a Friday evening. When Rabbi Paul once asked him in front of the Congregation what draws him to Temple. In a sentence that was simultaneously simple and yet complicated, Ethan answered, “I feel close to God.”

And we have no doubt that God is particularly close to him too.

G’mar Chatimah Tova. May you be sealed for a blessing in the Book of Life.

Listen to Eric and Jill Epstein’s Sermonette (at 00:33:40). 

Lessons Learned from Living Through Hardship #1, by David Sackman

On Yom Kippur, three Congregation Or Ami members shared sermonettes throughout the service on Lessons They Learned Living Through Hardship. These Jewish TED Talk/Yom Kippur Social Sermons were each moving individually and very inspiring as a whole. Read about How a Whole Congregation Wrote its Rabbi’s Yom Kippur Sermon

Lessons Learned from Living Through Hardship 
by David Sackman

The Unetaneh Tokef prayer talks about the struggles of life. As Rabbi Kipnes calls it, it is the “stuff happens” prayer. This is the part of Yom Kippur that I really enjoy if that’s ok to say … it’s the time to really reflect on yourself, your beliefs, and your actions.

As I reflect on this, I have realized for quite some time that it is not one’s ability to thrive during good times that make the person, but one’s ability to survive — and learn from — life’s toughest moments. Furthermore, one never knows what’s really the good and what’s really the bad. Do you think that Bill Gates’ parents were excited when 20-year old Bill told them that he was dropping out of Harvard to start his own company? Two similar phrases — “We’ll see” and “More shall be revealed” — have guided my reactions to life’s events — both good and bad — for a number of years now.

David Sackman

Because of some business and material success, I have heard some people say that I have a charmed life. What they may not be aware of are the many life’s challenges – hard times – that I have endured to learn the life’s lessons that have allowed me to have this so-called charmed life. It is, in fact, the challenging times that I think of first when I think about what has allowed me to be the man that I am.

As a child, I grew up without much money. I recall my parents actually alternating nights that they ate dinner, as there wasn’t enough money for adequate food. I recall one Chanukah with my mother crying because she couldn’t even buy small gifts for us that year.

We’ve experienced several serious health situations over the years, each quite scary, but from which we recovered. I wish I could share them with you, but they are just too private for this broad an audience.

While I’ve experienced some business success, I’ve also failed in four businesses. For one of the earlier businesses, I had borrowed a large amount of money. When it failed, I was devastated, having no idea how I would repay the money that I borrowed or properly provide for my family.

While I was going through one of these particularly tough times, a new friend said to me, “You know, Dave, this is actually a gift.” At the time, I couldn’t fathom what he was saying. But since, I’ve come to understand completely.

I have learned that each of life’s challenges – hardships as might be a more direct way of putting it – give us an opportunity to learn things that we otherwise wouldn’t learn, develop new skills, and, most of all, appreciate life for all that it is. As a result of the hardships that life has given me, I’ve developed traits and skills that I probably never would have developed without these very tough experiences — tenacity, resilience, better interpersonal skills, better leadership skills, a better ability to negotiate and compromise, a keen ability to problem solve, a more true understanding of love, and an abundance of gratitude.

Life is great. But it is fragile. And it must be cherished. As the Unetaneh Tokef prayer teaches us, we will all be faced with challenging times and joyful times. Some of the challenging times seem so unfair … whether it’s dealing with life threatening cancer, a teen’s life threatening battle with drugs and alcohol, a long period of time out of work … you get the idea … we must learn to take it all in, recognizing that this is, in fact, a gift of life’s lessons – hard as they are – that, ultimately, teach us what we need to learn and take us to the life that we all deserve.

G’mar Chatimah Tova. May you be sealed for a blessing in the Book of Life.

Listen to David Sackman’s Sermonette (at 00:22:09).