First thing, before we go any further: let’s have a moment of gratitude for being able to gather once again. I know that for many of us, this is the first time you have been in this sanctuary for perhaps two years. Probably for many of us as well, this might be the largest gathering you have experienced for almost as much time.*
You’re OK! It’s all good! Take it all in. Let’s say sheheḥeyyanu to acknowledge how awesome this is:
ברוך אתה ה’ א-להינו מלך העולם, שהחיינו וקיימנו והגיענו לזמן הזה
Barukh Attah Adonai, Eloheinu Melekh ha’olam, sheheḥeyyanu, veqiyyemanu, vehigi’anu lazeman hazeh.
Praised are You, God, for giving us life, sustaining us, and for enabling us to reach this extraordinarily holy moment.
Second, I think we need to acknowledge that, even though some of us are here in the Sanctuary, many more are still not, because we are still not free from pandemic anxiety. Even as we gather at this moment, we continue to pray for a time when we can do so without any concern for our health and safety.
I’ll be talking today about what it means to gather as Jews. But first, a brief introduction to this year’s High Holiday theme: Make it Meaningful!
When I went to Israel for the first time in the summer of 1987 on the Alexander Muss High School in Israel program, I had a very good friend named Josh Kosoy. We were singing buddies – he wrote songs and played guitar quite well, and I helped sing and harmonize. Josh was from Houston, and although we were both entering 12th grade, he had already been through rehab for drug addiction, so he was a sort of fascinating character to me in that his life had been so challenged in a way that mine had not.
And he looked the part, too. When we visited the Dead Sea with our group, as we were getting off the bus, two plainclothes Israeli policemen pulled Josh and me to the side and searched us for drugs, paying much more attention to Josh. There were none, of course, but I’ll never forget THAT.
At one point during the summer, Josh adopted a stray kitten that had found its way into our dorm. For several days the kitten and Josh were inseparable. Then one morning, Josh awoke to find the kitten lying on his belly, dead. We were all very upset by the loss of this cute kitten, who had wandered into our lives only to leave abruptly. We gave the cat a very moving funeral.
In retrospect, the story reminds me of the end of the book of Jonah, which we will read on the afternoon of Yom Kippur, in which Jonah feels compassion for a dead squash plant. When he expresses remorse, God rebukes Jonah for caring so deeply for a plant, after failing to have compassion for the people of Nineveh. God, of course, having created both the squash and the Ninevese, correctly framed Jonah’s earlier failure: how could Jonah have felt more for the dead plant than for people?
What made this tiny, homeless cat meaningful to us? It was that it had become part of our lives, part of our story. It had given us partnership, a few hours of cuddly enjoyment. It was a living thing that Josh could care for above and beyond his own needs; make him feel protective and needed and responsible for this life. It gave him, at least for a couple days, a special sense of purpose. And then it was gone.
One of the themes to which I regularly return is how engagement with Jewish life can bring us meaning. My mission as your rabbi is to ensure that Judaism is meaningful to you, that your involvement is never merely “checking the box,” or a mere reflex, or something that you do just to please your parents or grandparents or because you feel guilty. Practicing Judaism actually helps you improve your life, your community, and the world. And the key to making that happen is to find the meaning.
But it’s not like meaning just wanders in, like a stray kitten. Rather, you have to make it happen. To borrow an idea from physics, you have to put a little work into the system, some activation energy. If you just let Yom Kippur go by, or Pesaḥ, or Ḥanukkah or Sukkot or Shavuot or Tish’ah BeAv or your nephew’s berit millah or your friend’s wedding without framing it properly, you will not benefit from the experience.
Yes, I know that is hard, particularly if you do not have the tools with which to frame things Jewishly. But I’ll let you in on a little secret: [stage whisper] that’s why I’m here! I can give you those tools. And not just me: all the people that work here at Beth Shalom. That’s why we are here: to help you make Judaism meaningful. We offer ideas and activities and programs and discussions all the time to help you frame your life with meaning.
And that is what we will be talking about over these High Holidays. Our theme this year is, “Make it Meaningful!” By which I mean, don’t let life go by without paying attention, without putting it all in Jewish perspective, without putting in the activation energy that is the catalyst for change in yourself and the world. That is what our tradition is for. And we are going to look at this idea of making it meaningful through four perspectives:
- Gathering (today)
- Finding the Why (Rosh HaShanah Day 2)
- Engaging With Israel (Kol Nidrei)
- Framing Holy Moments (Yom Kippur day)
What I hope you will come away with is new ideas on how our tradition can fill your life with meaning, so that you can improve your outlook and reap the benefits of a purposeful life, and that we as a community and really the whole world may also be improved through your engagement with Judaism.
I reconnected with my friend Josh when I moved to Houston in 1996, back in my engineering days. Almost coincidentally, he was part of a group of friends who were running a ragtag theater troupe with which I had become involved.
I left Houston in the spring of 1999, returned to Israel for a while, and then ended up in cantorial school in New York. Sadly, Josh die three years later, a victim of his own internal struggles. Reflecting on his tragic life and death, I understand that the meaning embedded in our friendship was, of course, much deeper than what we had with that poor kitten. But the process was the same: time and energy invested in friendship, in singing and traveling together, in being harassed by police together, and all the little experiences and moments that make for the depth in relationships.
Embedded within those moments, in the interstices of life, we find meaning.
I do not think that our ancestors thought too deeply about meaning in being Jewish. They did not have to: Judaism was the scaffolding of their lives. The lifecycle events, the holidays, the laws and customs and foods and all sorts of boundaries. They lived and breathed Judaism, knowing that they were different from their non-Jewish neighbors, but, like the fish who does not see the water, Jewish living was simply the fabric of their lives. It was not “religion,” in the distant, Protestant sense with which we understand it here in America. Rather, being a Jew was to live with Judaism as the spiritual wrapped up in the mundane, while keeping in step with the calendar of our tradition. It’s what made them a people, distinct from the others around them, and connected to each other.
That is not true for us. We can choose to be here or not. We can choose to open the siddur / prayerbook, to belong to a synagogue, to give tzedaqah, to avoid ḥametz on Pesaḥ, and so forth. Or not. Many, many of us have opted out, and of course I find that very sad. That is the great irony of contemporary America: on the one hand, we live here more freely than at any other time in Jewish history, but we also have the freedom to not be Jewish.
But I think the reason that so many Jews have opted out of Judaism is because they were unable to find Jewish engagement meaningful. I cannot count the number of people who tell me about how their grandmother used to make the most wonderful Shabbat and holiday dinners, and how they were so special, but then when grandma died, that custom, which was so meaningful for the whole family, just went away. I cannot count the number of people who remember going to synagogue regularly as a child with their family on Shabbat mornings, but do not bring their own children to shul.
Where did that meaning go? Was it merely eclipsed by pressure to achieve at school or work, social media, travel soccer leagues, stress over government dysfunction and a worldwide pandemic and a myriad other things? Did we check it at the door at Ellis Island? Have we somehow forgotten about the power of Jewish life?
I do not know. But I will tell you this: we need it. We need meaning. And most of us are probably searching for it in the wrong places.
We need meaning because, unlike our ancestors who swam in a Jewish sea, we have no framework. We have been burdened with the curse of infinite choice. Paper or plastic? Whitening, breath-freshening, cavity-preventing, enamel-restoring, or tartar-fighting toothpaste? Harvard or Yale or CMU or Pitt? Squirrel Hill or Shadyside or Lawrenceville? Brand-name or generic? We are constantly barraged with choices, choices which wear us down, but also have us always second-guessing ourselves. Did I make the right choice?
And ultimately, many of those choices are meaningless, in the Big Picture. But we spend so much energy on them that if we do not have a framework to our lives, guideposts to help us along, most of us just blindly stumble from thing to thing, not framing our direction in a way that is helpful, letting the world act on us without individually acting within the world. This is likely a contributing factor to the epidemics of anxiety, depression, addiction and the like that plague our society.
Not that Judaism is a 100% foolproof cure for all those ills. But there is no question that when one gains spiritual satisfaction from a traditional framework, the positive benefits tend to push some of those other things out of the way.
One of the primary ways in which we derive meaning from our tradition is through gathering. From the moment in Bereshit / Genesis when God takes a piece of Adam’s rib to create Eve, saying, לֹא־ט֛וֹב הֱי֥וֹת הָֽאָדָ֖ם לְבַדּ֑וֹ – Lo tov heyot ha-adam levado – It is not good for this person to be alone, we understand that the fundamental building block of meaning is relationship with others.
And so we gather.
At the center of virtually every Jewish custom is gathering. We of course gather for tefillah / prayer, as we are doing right now. We gather for holiday meals, particularly on Shabbat and Rosh HaShanah and on Pesaḥ. We gather for lifecycle events – weddings, baby namings, beritot millah (ritual circumcisions), benei mitzvah, funerals, and so forth. We gather to learn and to celebrate. We also love to gather institutionally – there is never a shortage of Jewish organizations, with a palette of alphabet-soup abbreviations: JCC, JAA, JCRC, JFedPGH, JJEP, CDS, USCJ, URJ, HIAS, AJC, and on and on. We are the only people who love gathering so much that the presidents of our organizations have a meta-organization: The Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.
And we do that gathering pretty well. Yes, I know we like to complain about our organizations and our gatherings, but that only demonstrates how much we care about gathering. The author and consultant Priya Parker, in her book The Art of Gathering, although not herself Jewish, praises the Jews for our gathering talents. In teaching what she calls, “good gathering,” Ms. Parker invokes the “Passover Principle”: that before anyone convenes or participates in any type of gathering, we should ask ourselves, “Why is this gathering different from all my other gatherings?”
What is it that makes for good gathering? What makes gathering meaningful? Intentionality. Gathering for a specific purpose. This year in particular, following our gradual (and, I hope, ongoing) emergence from the pandemic, our intentionality is a low-hanging fruit. Remember when we said “Sheheḥeyanu” a few minutes ago? That simple ritual, a well-known berakhah, helped us bring these High Holidays into focus: We are grateful merely for the ability to gather once again.
Intentionality is the key to good gathering. And we have our own word for that: kavvanah. No Jewish gathering, or ritual of any kind, should be lacking in kavvanah. It is the glue that holds our words together, that unites our hearts, minds, mouths, and hands. You may think that tefillah / prayer is a jumble of words in an ancient language which you do not understand, and without kavvanah it is exactly that. But if we have prepared ourselves properly to gather, with kavvanah, with intention, then tefillah becomes not just a jumble, but an opportunity – to check in with ourselves, to take inventory, to meditate, to breathe, to attempt to feel the qedushah / holiness in the air around us and in our lives, to remember the others in our midst and our connection with and obligations to them.
And as far as Ms. Parker’s guidance is concerned, many of the other things we do as Jews are great gathering principles. We have been preparing for these Ten Days of Teshuvah for at least a month, by blowing shofar and reciting Psalm 27 every morning, and over the past nine days as we have recited Seliḥot, prayers asking for forgiveness, every day. And virtually every Jewish holiday requires preparation, Pesaḥ being perhaps the most physically extensive.
And Ms. Parker also highlights an idea that I think we also do quite well: that the best kinds of gathering transport us to a temporary alternative world.
To go back for a moment to something I mentioned earlier: our lives are not saturated in Judaism like those of our ancestors. We live in multiple worlds, but most of the time we are just Americans, fully integrated into the society around us. The water in which we swim is American culture. So when we take that opportunity to do something Jewish – perform a ritual, go to a synagogue service, enjoy a festive holiday meal, learn a piece of Talmud, and so forth – we are actually doing exactly what Ms. Parker suggests. We set up a kavvanah, an intention; we speak a foreign language, we don special paraphernalia, we use unique choreography, we eat particular foods, we perform certain, curious customs.
You are sitting right now in one corner of this temporary, alternative world. And sure, it does not feel so strange to most of us, because some of us have been doing this all our lives. But think of how unique and powerful this world might seem to others who have not yet experienced it. And consider how fortunate you are to have been given this holy opportunity, by virtue of birth, or by having joined the Jewish people.
And think of how awesome it is that all of us are experiencing this holy moment together, right now. And particularly after a year and a half of isolation, of added anxiety and distance and loneliness. Consider how wonderful it is to gather right now at this moment, even as the pandemic is still not done with us. Consider how meaningful it is to be a part of this community, to be a part of this qehillah qedoshah, this holy congregation.
So here is a brief prayer for this holy moment of gathering, full of meaning:
Modim anaḥnu lakh. Grateful are we to You, God, for endowing human beings with the tools to engage with physics, chemistry, and biology, and the wisdom and ability to manipulate our world, to produce vaccines which have enabled us to gather today. Thank You for giving us the ability to connect with one another, to share stories and celebrations and grief, which help us through our days. Thank You for the gift of family and friends and community, for which we are so grateful as we support each other through these long months of separation. Thank You for the gift of prayer and the framework of tradition, which have enabled us to open our hearts and lend structure to our lives.
How fortunate are we to have these gifts!
I hope that, as we move forward from this point, that we continue to be grateful not only for being in each others’ presence, but also for the Jewish framework that we have received to help bring meaning to that gathering.
We’ll talk more tomorrow about how digging deep into the Jewish bookshelf can further fill your life with meaning.
Next in the 5782 High Holiday series:
Rosh HaShanah, Day 2: Make it Meaningful! Seeking the Why
Rabbi Seth Adelson
(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, first day of Rosh HaShanah 5782, September 7, 2021.)
* On the day this sermon was delivered, during a period in which the Delta variant had caused a significant local spike in infections, about 300 people gathered in the Faye Rubinstein Weiss Sanctuary at Beth Shalom, a room that seats about 1600 people. All who were allowed into the Sanctuary were fully vaccinated against the coronavirus, and all were required to wear masks for the entire time that they were there.