Shanah tovah! Welcome to 5778, and of course welcome to Beth Shalom as we continue to celebrate our 100th year.
You may recall that, two years ago, when I first stood before you at this moment, the first day of Rosh Hashanah 5776, I made a heartfelt confession as a way of introducing myself. I confessed that I know next to nothing about sports, and that I would not be able even to make cocktail-party-level conversation about what’s going on with the local teams.
So I now have some very good news. No, I have not been following the Pirates this summer (although I was there at the stadium for Jewish Heritage Night in August). But the good news is that since I have been in Pittsburgh, the Penguins have won the Stanley Cup two years running! Coincidence? I don’t think so.
One hundred years ago, long before there were Penguins in Pittsburgh, there was no rabbi to give a high holiday sermon in Squirrel Hill; there were only a handful of optimistic Jews who needed a place to daven (to pray), and set up over a store on Forbes. A century later, it is clear that we, that you have built something truly awesome. We will be celebrating by throwing the party of the century on November 11th, and I hope you will join us then – gala chairs Marlene Silverman and Bernice Meyers and the rest of the centennial team are cooking up something wonderful for that night.
So 5778 is a truly special year for this congregation. As such, I am framing this series of High Holiday sermons on past, present, and future. At the current moment, we are at one end of a lengthy time line. But there are thousands of years before us, and (we hope) thousands after us as well. 100 years, though it may seem like a lot to us, is really only a very small slice of the Jewish path through history.
So that’s a weighty thought. Here we are in 2017, the beginning of 5778. We are looking backward one century, and looking forward into the next. But really, we are at the nexus of a paradigm shift as to how we relate to Judaism. We have received thousands of years of tradition, and now it is our job to carry it forward, to make it our own and make sure that our children and grandchildren carry it as well. This is, in my mind, the primary reason we are gathered here today. This is the reason we have a synagogue. This is why we need Beth Shalom.
But the framework here is not only about past, present, and future. For the four sermons over these holidays, I am also going to borrow from another holiday, one that is a reflection of the High Holidays directly across the cycle of the year: Pesah / Passover, and specifically, the Arba’ah Banim, the Four Children. (I know the tradition is sons; I prefer the more egalitarian, non-gender specific “children.”) To refresh your memory, the Four Children are:
- The Wise Child – חכם (hakham)
- The Wicked Child – רשע (rasha)
- The Simple Child – תם (tam)
- The Child Who Does Not Know How to Ask – שאינו יודע לשאול (she-eino yode’a lish’ol)
How is it, you may ask, that I can just borrow a theme from a totally different part of the Jewish year? Simple: we do this all the time!
For example, there is a custom that some have of saving their lulav and etrog after Sukkot, allowing them to dry out, and using them to help burn the hametz on the day before Pesah. On Simhat Torah, there is the custom of using melodies from the entire Jewish year in the hatzi qaddish before Musaf (it’s called, in Yiddish, the “yareskadish,” the qaddish of the whole year. There is the custom that some have of wearing a kittel, the white robe that is traditionally worn on the High Holidays to suggest purity, at the Pesah seder. And so forth.
Our customs connect us across the Jewish year. Melding past, present, and future with the Four Children, we arrive at the following:
Today, I will speak about the wise child, the one who sees past, present, and future.
Tomorrow, I will speak about the wicked child, who sees only the present.
On the evening of Kol Nidrei, I will discuss the simple child, who sees only the past, and does not know how to connect it with the future.
And, on the day of Yom Kippur, I will focus on the child who does not know how to ask; that child is our future. And we have to show them the way in.
Today we consider the חכם, the wise child.
Stephen Hawking, in his work, A Brief History of Time, cites a familiar story about theories about the world:
A well-known scientist (some say it was Bertrand Russell) once gave a public lecture on astronomy. He described how the earth orbits around the sun and how the sun, in turn, orbits around the center of a vast collection of stars called our galaxy.
At the end of the lecture, a little old lady at the back of the room got up and said: “What you have told us is rubbish. The world is really a flat plate supported on the back of a giant tortoise.”
The scientist gave a superior smile before replying, “What is the tortoise standing on?” “You’re very clever, young man, very clever,” said the old lady. “But it’s turtles all the way down!”
Perched up here in 5778 / 2017, looking down at all the turtles supporting us, or better, at the giants of our history upon whose shoulders we stand, we have the benefit of hindsight. We have a sense about where we have been. And, like wise children, we will take the lessons of the past, apply them in the present, and thereby shape the future.
What has brought us to this day is the past. But as we stand here in the present, we must look toward the future. The future is in innovation – the kind of innovation that will help lead us onward while strengthening the roots that connect us to our tradition.
And the cynical among us might ask, “Why should we care about our tradition?” Because we need it. And I am going to make the case over these holidays for how we will move forward – standing on the shoulders of giants, as it were, creating the innovation of the future, and helping you to find your way in.
What makes Judaism so special is that we continue to acknowledge the depth and breadth of our past. You may be familiar with the popular, witty summary of every Jewish holiday: “They tried to kill us; we survived; let’s eat.” Cute, yes. Accurate? Well, not really.
Jewish history, our national story, continues to inform us; we continue to learn how to be better people, how to improve ourselves and our relationships from the lessons of history.
My family has recently become obsessed with the soundtrack for the Broadway musical Hamilton; its success has as much to do with Lin-Manuel Miranda’s hip-hop grooves as it does with the eternally-valid lessons of history.
How did we get here? To paraphrase (badly) the opening lines of Hamilton (if you’re reading this on the blog, please imagine a tall, skinny, white rabbi trying to rap):
How did a worn-out, ragtag bunch of former slaves
emerge from the desert a new nation,
to give to the world the most meaningful,
the most magical,
the most awe-inspiring long-lasting story ever written?
How did we outlast the Romans, the Babylonians, the Assyrian Empire, the Crusaders?
Was it because of ritual?
Was it because of commitment to Torah?
Was it because of bagels? Or a prodigious talent for comedy?
(OK, so I’m not much of a rapper.)
The answer is, of course, is not simple; there is no particular moment or item that we can point to and say, “Aha! There it is. That’s the reason we are still here.”
At the very least, there are three dates in Jewish history that you should memorize. And I’m going to pretend that the wall behind me is our time line. (Did I mention how much I love time lines?):
- 586 BCE, the destruction of the first Temple by the Babylonians;
- 70 CE destruction of the second Temple by the Romans; and
- 1948, establishment of the State of Israel.
- 1492, the Expulsion from Spain, is a bonus.
And of these four dates, one is a wee bit more special than the others. One particular moment in history, one cataclysm that spawned a paradigm shift that forced innovative thinking, enabling us to survive until today. That change was the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans in 70 CE.
What happened in the Temple was NOT what we think of as Judaism today; our ancestors practiced, until about 2,000 years ago, an ancient form of animal sacrifice, coordinated by a priestly class, the Kohanim and Leviim. The way you expressed your gratitude to God or sought atonement for your transgressions was by bringing animals or grain to be sacrificed by the priests on the altar. There were no synagogues and few rituals that could be performed without a kohen. Everything in Jewish life was centrally controlled in Jerusalem and rigidly hierarchical.
So what did the Romans do? By destroying the Temple, by putting an end to the sacrifices performed there by our ancestors, they caused us to rethink who we are and what we do. They created a situation in which everything that the Jews had known up to that time about God and the Torah became suddenly irrelevant.
But while the Romans thought that they had crushed the Jews and Judaism, the joke’s on them, because we’re still here, and where are they?
The Jews had no choice but to create a new framework. That is the framework that ultimately was written down in volumes you find on the Jewish bookshelf: in the Talmud, the midrash, the Torah commentaries, the medieval halakhic codes of Jewish law, and so forth. The Romans are long gone. But by burning Jerusalem and ultimately banning Jews from living there, they caused us to re-invent ourselves, and make it such that our tradition was no longer top-down, no longer specific to one particular mountain in the Middle East, no longer in the hands of a privileged few.
Judaism became open to the Jews. The regular folks. And, in some sense, the rest of the world as well. The events of 70 CE enabled us to create a system in which we were bound not to an ancient sacrificial altar, but contained within the “arba amot shel halakhah,” the four cubits / six feet of personal space in which we each carry out our tradition as individuals. That system is what we know as Judaism today; it is what we refer to as “rabbinic Judaism” – the Judaism that was created and led by rabbis, not kohanim. Rabbis are decidedly NOT priests; they are teachers.
So the last two millennia of Jewish life, of rabbinic Judaism, have been dedicated to the ongoing project linking our hearts and minds; of learning and interpreting our texts and creating personal and communal rituals. This 2,000-year project of fashioning Judaism after the Temple has been about finding a way to connect the Torah with how and where we live, how we treat ourselves, others, and the world, day after day.
The most wonderful secret of the pages of the Talmud is that the lessons to be found therein crackle today with vibrancy. Jewish texts provide a framework for life that has worked for these two millennia. Our tradition is rich with advice on how to live and improve our lives and our relationships, ideas that still apply today.
Just a small taste, straight out of the Mishnah, Avot 4:1:
.איזה הוא מכובד? המכבד את הברייות
Eizehu mekhubad? Hamekhabed et haberiyot.
Who is honored? The one who honors all of God’s creatures.
Imagine what a spectacular world we would live in if all of us went through life remembering that every other person, every other living thing, and even the earth itself deserved honor and respect? Imagine what this world could be like if we took to heart the kedushah, the holiness all around us?
This is only one tiny but resonant example. We are all inheritors of a wonderful, rich, inspiring tradition. It’s all there if you reach out. The past is part of our present. The novelist William Faulkner said, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” And he was not even Jewish.
Our past is not past; it is our future.
The Jewish future in America depends on two things: our willingness to open those ancient books, and our willingness to accept change. Because as much as many of us are committed to this – this building, this mode of worship, this siddur – the Jewish future will require us to recommit to the most essential mitzvah of Jewish life: Talmud Torah: learning the words of our tradition.
The events of 70 CE were a paradigm shift in Jewish life. And we are on the verge of another shift. The Information Age may not change the value of our ancient texts, but it has certainly already made their dissemination easier. And we all have the potential to benefit in ways that our parents and grandparents could not.
To be wise children, we have to take the past and make it the future. We have to think about what comes next.
As you may recall from just about anything you might have heard me say over the last two years, the time is now for us to be rethinking what we do as Jews. Gone are the days when people would simply join a synagogue because, well, that’s what you did. Today, we have to continually make the case for what involvement in Jewish life will give you. We have to show the world that being a part of a synagogue community, learning the words of Jewish tradition, and engaging with our customs and rituals will enrich your life, will strengthen your relationships, will bring you a greater sense of appreciation and satisfaction and will better our world.
So what will it take to be innovative? Well, we have already begun. As you may know, we have just begun to build, in conjunction with our Centennial fundraising campaign, the new set of programming offerings known as Derekh, meaning literally, “the way.”
We have hired Rabbi Jeremy Markiz, who is also our director of Youth Tefillah, to get this program off the ground, to fashion the entry points into our tradition. The whole idea, of course, is to make the synagogue essential to your life, to help you find your way into our tradition, to help you discover the various ways that Judaism can benefit you individually and communally.
Derekh is our engine of innovation; it is the means by which we will be wise children, seeing past, present, and future. We will be using the new technologies at our disposal to reach out better. We will be thinking creatively about new ways to reach you, and to engage the people who are not in this room. We will be offering new means to connect to Jewish text, to Jewish culture, to social action, to Israel, and to the mindfulness that our tradition teaches.
Today’s Beth Shalom is firmly rooted in our 100-year history, and the 2,000-or-so year history of rabbinic Judaism. But tomorrow’s Beth Shalom will rely on your willingness to embrace innovation, to consider new paths in Jewish life, and to invest yourself in building this community.
I want you to reach higher. I want you to come around for something you do not usually do. Come join me for a lunch and learn discussion on a Jewish philosopher that you should know. Have coffee with me or with Rabbi Jeremy to discuss building community. Take advantage of all the monthly beit midrash programs, in which you’ll learn about the ancient wisdom which continues to guide us. Come learn with scholars from the whole community in JJEP’s adult learning programs. Come to the new early Shabbat morning program (on non-benei mitzvah days) at 9 AM, in which we will offer a rotating offering of meditation, niggun singing, and text study. Watch for an upcoming film series. Check out a weekend retreat. Check out the range of short videos we are putting out through the Beth Shalom Facebook page. We’ll be putting together a trip to Israel as we begin our next 100 years.
We have so much new stuff going on, and I promise you that it will be informative, connective, and worth your time. Join us.
So even as we recall all the turtles supporting us, even as we invoke and cherish what our ancestors have given us, even as we celebrate 100 years, we have to reach higher. We have to be the חכם, the wise child.
I am, in some sense, throwing down the gauntlet. Here is a challenge to you: let’s make this community sparkle with all the illumination that our ancient texts still shed. Come find your way in.
(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, first day of Rosh Hashanah 5778, 9/21/2017.)