[Hillel] used to say: If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, what am I?…
Pirqei Avot 1:15
I was extraordinarily shocked this week to hear reports of the testimony from whistleblower Frances Haugen, who worked at Facebook in their “civic integrity department,” about how Facebook’s leadership has been aware, from their own extensive research, of potentially toxic effects of its products on its users’ mental health. Despite this research, showing, among other things, that the use of Instagram (which is owned by Facebook) increases thoughts of suicide and eating disorders among teenage girls, Facebook has done effectively nothing to prevent these toxic effects.
But in particular, the thing that shocked me the most was that at Facebook meetings, CEO Mark Zuckerberg would often conclude by repeating the mantra, “Company over country.”
The accusation that weaves through Ms. Haugen’s testimony is that Facebook has, except in a few limited circumstances, consistently chosen to try to keep your attention focused on Facebook or Instagram or WhatsApp, because the more you keep your eyeballs on those products, the more money Facebook makes, regardless of the cost to our mental health.
We must ask ourselves, how many fewer people could have died of Covid-19 if no misinformation had been spread via Facebook and other social media platforms? How many fewer young women would be suffering from eating disorders or other emotional health issues without the influence of Instagram? How many of us would be spending better quality time with our children, if our noses were not permanently pointed at our screens? Would there have been a home-grown terrorist attack on the halls of Congress, the seat of American democracy, without these tools?
But the problem does not end with Facebook. The wider problem with the very idea of “company over country” is that it sounds like our social contract is broken, that the ties that bind us together as a nation are dangerously frayed; that we have lost the social capital in our society that holds us together, that we have forgotten that we are all in relationship with one another. It is easy for us to recall the first part of the mishnah from the great 1st-century sage Hillel, “Im ein ani li mi li?” If I am not for myself who am I? But perhaps it is more difficult to remember the second part: “Ukhsheani le’atzmi mah ani?” And if I am ONLY for myself, what am I?
And the challenge here is not limited to our social and emotional health. What about the warming climate? The microplastics in the ocean? The chemical contaminants that are now found in our drinking water, and throughout our ecosystem?
Humans are brilliant at manipulating our environment with our God-given intellect and abilities. We are always striving to create new technologies that help us do that even better and cheaper and easier. But we are very, very bad at anticipating negative long-term consequences of such manipulation. We all rush to embrace new technologies, because if something makes your life easier and better, why wouldn’t you?
But we rarely have the patience or the collective will to determine how these innovations will ultimately affect us over years of use and exposure, how they will affect our brains, our bodies and our environment. And when that change is incremental – rapid in terms of geologic time, but very slow in human years – it is even harder to see and respond to.
Ukhshe-ani le’atzmi mah ani? What am I? Who are we? And what are we destroying by being only for ourselves, and not looking out for others? By focusing on company over country, by looking out only for number one rather than considering the common good?
Parashat Noaḥ opens with a general observation about the state of the world, of the people of his generation (Bereshit / Genesis 6:11):
The earth became corrupt before God; the earth was filled with lawlessness.
“Vatishahet,” here translated as “became corrupt,” could be better understood as “destroyed.” The Earth was destroyed before God, in the passive (nif’al) voice. Medieval commentators want to make it clear to us that people did this, we were the destroyers. God’s Creation did not merely corrupt itself, as the passive voice suggests. Ibn Ezra, for example, writing in 12th-century Spain:
The meaning of לִפְנֵ֣י הָֽאֱ-לֹהִ֑ים before God is that the humans acted brazenly, like a servant, who in the presence of his master, disobeys him and thereby shows that he does not fear the master.
And this is in the wake of God’s imperative to humanity, which we read last week in Parashat Bereshit (2:15):
God took the man and placed him in the garden of Eden, to till it and tend it.
The first people had a mission: to take care of the world. And, only one parashah, a few chapters later, like deceptive servants with no respect for their Creator, they abused Creation for their own purposes.
So what does God do to remedy this unfortunate situation? A flood, to start again. To give (as our bar mitzvah said earlier) humanity a second chance.
Ladies and gentlemen, if we have no respect for what we have been given, if we have no fear or reverence for our Master and Creator, if we continue to take, to steal, to abuse, to manipulate, our future looks bleak indeed.
We are destroying. We are corrupting the Earth and ourselves once again. We have placed company over country, time and time again. And we cannot be sure that there will be a second chance this time.
So what are we going to do about it?
We could wait until the flooding is so bad that climate refugees are streaming into Pittsburgh. We could just wait for another mass shooting, streamed to Facebook Live. We could wait for the troops of chaos mustered by white supremacist groups to cause democracy to crumble. We could inspire even more young women to feel inadequate about themselves. We could install air conditioning in our sukkot, to keep ourselves from sweating as fall temperatures rise, and just let the challenges continue to mount.
There are naysayers in the world, and I am hearing their voices more frequently, who are saying that we are doomed. That we will never be able to prevent the corruption of all life that will lead to the ultimate cataclysm.
But here is where I prefer to be an optimist. And here is the solution, ladies and gentlemen:
But not like you think. Not necessarily to move God to act to save humanity from itself. But rather, the human side of prayer, prayer which brings us together. Prayer that focuses us and galvanizes us to act. Prayer that serves as the fulcrum of the arm of intention.
Worldwide prayer. Prayer across communities. Prayer across continents and timezones. Praying together in multiple languages, in multiple religious contexts.
We have to say words of prayer together so that we can think together and act together and understand that we are all in this together.
And of course, some of you are thinking, “Oh, come on, Rabbi. Religion is going to solve this?”
Well, I have news for you: People of faith are great at one thing: Gathering. We gather for community, to harness intent and to tap into our spiritual well. It is through gathering with a holy purpose that we can arouse the worldwide will to take on the intransigence of governments and corporations, who actually have the power to save us from ourselves.
We have many microcosmic prayer groups scattered all over the world. But people of faith – people who understand the value of religious traditions and teachings and reverence for what God has given us – have much more strength if we are united, so that we can stand together against the corrupt, destructive path of “company over country.”
Google announced this week, perhaps inspired by Facebook’s missteps, that they will no longer place ads alongside climate change denial. Many of the world’s automakers have pledged to turn their fleets electric in the coming decade. Some governments are coming around to the need to rein in the “company over country” model. Those are all good pieces of news.
But what will really make sure that we understand that we will only solve these challenges together? It will only happen if we can lead the world to a better place through shared meditation, shared words of peace and reverence and contrition, gathering together, however that might happen, to respect the qedushah / holiness in one another, to break bread together and sensitize ourselves to the needs of the other, to see humanity over company and country, and to seek the common good over myopic selfishness.
Ukhsheani leatzmi, mah ani? If I am only for myself, what am I?
I must say that this past week we celebrated what I think was the most joyful Simḥat Torah of my lifetime. We were outside in the Ohel (tent) at Beth Shalom both Tuesday evening and Wednesday morning, which made it more comfortable for many families with young children to come and join us. So it was wonderful to sing and dance with abandon, and to celebrate the ancient wisdom of our tradition as we do on Simḥat Torah, and to feel some joy after 18 months of isolation and anxiety.
I have always been of the opinion, by the way, that if you want to really experience Judaism, and you only have two days out of the year on which to do so, you should be at synagogue on Simḥat Torah and Purim, not on the High Holidays. While the gravitas of Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur is certainly powerful, the true joy in Jewish life and practice is found on the celebratory days.
But what concerns me, of course, are the people who were not there, who still do not feel comfortable coming because they are anxious about the Delta variant or cannot get vaccinated for health reasons or have other complicating factors. It is for those people that we of course are still making our services accessible via Zoom, and of course we will continue to do so for some time.
There is, however, a slight problem with Zooming synagogue services. I’ll come back to that.
You may know that I am fond of comparing and contrasting the two Creation stories of Parashat Bereshit; the first Creation story of Bereshit Chapter 1, the one which features six days of Creation followed by Shabbat, is about order, that the world which God created is an orderly one that is, in God’s estimation, “good.”
But the second story, beginning in Bereshit Chapter 2, is the human one, the one in which Adam is fashioned from the adamah, the Earth, and there is almost a sense of human-Divine partnership in that story. Adam is called upon to till and tend the Earth, and to give names to all the creatures and plants in the Garden of Eden. And ultimately, this story is about disorder, about human failure to meet God’s expectations, the messiness of humanity.
Early on in that second story, Adam is lonely, and God says, (Bereshit / Genesis 2:18):
Lo tov heyot ha-adam levado; e’eseh lo ezer kenegdo.
It is not good for the man to be alone; I will make a fitting helper for him.
It is of course striking that, as the 19th-century Volhynian commentator Malbim notes, that all of the other creatures were created in male-female pairs, yet this human partner to God is unique in that Adam is initially alone. But furthermore, one of the essential features of humanity is, of course, society. There could be no concept of “humanity” without other human beings.
Rabbi Ovadia Seforno, in 15th century Italy, reads this verse as follows:
The purpose of the human species on earth will not be achieved while the one who is supposed to reflect the divine image will be left to personally carry out all the menial tasks of daily life on earth by being solitary.
In other words, we humans, having been created (in the first Creation story) betzelem Elohim, in the image of God, have a job, and that job is to be God’s hands on Earth, to spread physical manifestations of the qedushah, the holiness embedded in that fundamental relationship with God. And that task clearly cannot be completed by one person. Reflecting the Divine image requires a lot of people; it requires human society.
And so God creates a second human being, to be an “ezer kenegdo,” a term that is not easy to translate. I said “fitting helper” a moment ago, according to the Jewish Publication Society translation. But there is a complication here! The term “fitting helper” does not capture the sense of opposition in the Hebrew.. “Ezer” means helper. But “kenegdo” includes “neged,” which means, “opposing.” So the human partner here can both help and oppose.
If we might envision this moment of the creation of Adam’s ezer kenegdo – when one became two, which became 4 and then 3 and then many others as we journey through the genealogies later in the parashah – as the beginning of human society, then we might read this passage as suggesting that we can stand with or against each other. We can advocate for each other or we can oppose. We can elevate the qedushah / holiness in the world together, or we can disagree about exactly how to go about that and accomplish nothing. We can solve problems, or we can argue about them.
That is one fundamental aspect of what it means to be human, to be in relationship with each other, to be a part of society.
And I am concerned that we are leaning too heavily into the “kenegdo,” the oppositional aspect of humanity today, rather than the “ezer.”
And while certainly there are some bad actors who are doing this deliberately (e.g. those who knowingly spread false information about vaccines), there are many more of us who are doing this unintentionally.
What do you mean, Rabbi?
Thanks in part to the Internet, which has allowed people to connect with and gather with each other and create micro-communities across continents and time zones, it is completely possible that today you can find the other people whom you perceive to be just like you all over the world. They think like you, they act like you, they have your particular tastes and inclinations. They watch all the same stuff on YouTube that you do.
So on the one hand, that’s great. It’s wonderful to know that people who have been marginalized for various reasons, for example, can find community.
But on the other hand, once you are socializing and forming communities with people who are far away from you, whom you cannot see in person, you are losing some of the essential aspects of what it means to be in relationship – that is, both the “ezer” AND the “kenegdo.”
And we are all actively creating this, even if we are doing it not on purpose. I am certainly not going to stop Beth Shalom from providing services via Zoom to people all over the world, but of course if you’re Zooming into a bar mitzvah from far away, and not actually coming to visit your friends and family in Pittsburgh, yes, you are sparing the atmosphere some carbon dioxide and contributing less to global warming. But you are also missing something else: the idea that synagogue, and, well, life takes place locally.
And of course this applies across all of our platforms, which both connect us and separate us.
The pandemic certainly has upended our lives in many ways, and the Zoom phenomenon is just one. All of the forces of isolation were in play long decades before the arrival of Covid-19, and even the Internet; sociologists and political scientists and psychologists have been talking about these things for years. (Many of you have heard me speak about the “Bowling Alone” phenomenon identified by sociologist Robert Putnam.)
“Unable to attend live services and visit the sukkah due to worry about leaving my ill wife!”
“I used to be Jewish. I am alone. People have not invited me to anything for a number of years.”
“Used to have a sukkah every year when my kids were here.”
There were of course some positive responses as well. But these kinds of statements make my heart ache. Social isolation is a problem in particular for people who are homebound, but it is growing for all of us as well. Perhaps we need to do a better job as a community to reach out to people who feel disconnected.
Fortunately, there is a remedy for that: communal organizations. And even more fortunately, we the Jews are very good at being organized: Bend the Arc, Repair the World, ZOA, NCJW, the Jewish Federation, and of course, your local synagogue are all organizations which help to mitigate the challenge of isolation.
And in particular, in places like synagogues where you might rub elbows with people who are as much ezer as kenegdo, we need to ensure that we continue to be in touch with and serve all people, people of all walks of life, of all ages, colors, backgrounds, gender identities, financial means and yes, even people of all political persuasions.
That is what it means to be in community; that is what it means to be God’s hands in doing the holy work of being made in the Divine image. And that experience, of doing God’s work together in partnership, is a highly local endeavor, one that we do with ALL of our neighbors.
Yes, the pandemic is still going on, and of course we must continue to emphasize vaccination and the wearing of masks. But just as we saw lots of joy over this Simḥat Torah, just as people expressed their tremendous gratitude to me and other leaders of Beth Shalom for making it possible for us to be able to daven together in the building over the High Holidays, we will learn to live with this, we will continue gradually to protect everybody from the disease, and we will gather with even more joy and celebration and just the pure happiness of being together.
So, while I am grateful for Zoom, I am also looking forward to the day when we can all gather freely once again, to be ezer kenegdo to one another, as God intended.
Utter futility!—said Qohelet— Utter futility! All is futile! What real value is there for a person / In all the gains one makes beneath the sun? One generation goes, another comes, But the earth remains the same forever. The sun rises, and the sun sets— And glides back to where it rises. Southward blowing, Turning northward, Ever turning blows the wind; On its rounds the wind returns. All streams flow into the sea, Yet the sea is never full; To the place from which they flow / The streams flow back again. All such things are wearisome: No man can ever state them; The eye never has enough of seeing, Nor the ear enough of hearing. Only that shall happen / Which has happened, Only that occur / Which has occurred; There is nothing new / Beneath the sun!
Qohelet / Ecclesiastes 1:2-9
What’s the problem with Qohelet?
First, while some might point to this passage and see nihilism, that is, the idea that everything is meaningless, that our actions do not matter, that there are no objective truths or morality or values, that is actually not Qohelet’s philosophy.
Others have suggested that Qohelet is the original existentialist, meaning that our individual choices are solely ours, the responsibility and consequences thereof are solely ours, and the universe is more or less indifferent to them. This is also not an accurate description of Qohelet’s world view.
When Qohelet says, “Havel havalim, hakol havel,” Utter futility! All is futility, he is not saying that everything is meaningless. What he is saying, rather, is that our actions matter, but not in a way that we could possibly understand. And for sure, we will be called to account for our actions, but we may not ever know why, so we should be grateful for what we have and enjoy it, even as life continues to slip past unnoticed.
He is actually in good company with the anonymous author of the book of Iyyov / Job, who, when he finally challenges God, gets the most unsatisfying response ever. God’s retort to Job is effectively, “Be quiet! Who are you to tell Me what I can do or not do? Who are you to decide what is right and wrong?”
I have never been a “The-Lord-works-in-mysterious-ways” kind of rabbi, nor have I ever really sought any kind of consistent understanding of God.
However, the approach of Qohelet and Iyyov, which further obscure the way that God works, is especially problematic. It flies in the face of the most prominent piece of practical theology in Jewish life: the framework of 613 mitzvot, the berit, the covenant we have with God, in which we keep those mitzvot, and God provides us with life and sustenance and joy and love and meaning. If our job, at least according to how we read the book of Deuteronomy, is to keep those mitzvot, then it cannot be that our actions are not at all related to our fates.
Didn’t we just get through Yom Kippur, pouring our hearts into our fervent prayer and pursuing teshuvah because, as Rambam tells us (Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Teshuvah 3:4), we are supposed to see our lives in this period as hanging in the balance? That we have a number of merits, that is, mitzvot completed properly in their time and place, in the “black” column that is exactly equal to the number of transgressions indicated in the “red” column?That all we need to do is one more mitzvah than sin during the Aseret Yemei Teshuvah, the Ten Days of Repentance, to get a tiny nudge into the Book of Life?
That is why the ancient rabbis did not like Qohelet. There is actually a debate in the Talmud about whether or not Qohelet is actually a holy book (Mishnah Yadayim 3:5), compared to all the other books of the Tanakh.
But I am of the opinion that Qohelet is not only essential to Jewish life, it might actually be the most important work in the entire Tanakh.
Why? Because, while Qohelet might appear to contradict some other essential principles of Jewish life, he is also one voice out of many. And that is essential because we are not, and never have been, completely unified on any particular matter, including our understanding of how God functions. On the contrary: Qohelet provides a needed contrarian voice, one that subverts the “party line.”
One of the traditions we have on Sukkot is that of Ushpizin, inviting ancient guests into our sukkah during our meals every evening. It is a kabbalistic tradition which draws on our understanding of the positive traits of our classical forebears, traits which we desire to emulate. Qohelet is not typically one of them. But consider this picture of some of those Biblical characters (although perhaps this is the wrong image, but I’m kind of picturing a Jewish version of da Vinci’s The Last Supper)*:
At the table we find Avraham, who is faithful enough to very nearly sacrifice his own son when God demands this. And yet he also challenges God, when God intends to destroy Sedom and ‘Amorah.
And here is Sarah, who, though righteous and wise, laughs when she receives a divine message that she will have a child.
Here is clever Rivkah, who carries out God’s word through deception.
And here is hapless Isaac, who never takes the initiative and is always acted upon.
And here is Moshe Rabbeinu, who receives the Torah on Mt. Sinai, has an anger management problem, and also argues with God not to destroy the Israelites following the Molten Calf episode.
Here is Miriam, who finds water whenever the Israelites are wandering in the desert, and leads the women in song, but also engages in slander of her brother Moshe and is punished for it.
Here is Devorah the Judge, who leads the troops in battle,
And here is Yael, a brutal assassin masquerading as a gentle homemaker.
Here is Yonah, who runs away from God but is given a second chance, and still doesn’t quite “get it.”
And here is David Melekh Yisrael, who captures Jerusalem, but steals the wife of Uriah and then has him killed.
And over at the far end, Qohelet. Sitting there, wearing a beret and smoking a Gauloises while looking all smug, saying, Ein kol ḥadash taḥat hashemesh. There’s nothing new under the sun. We’ve seen this movie before. Don’t think you’re all so holy. Qohelet is really the only philosopher in the whole Tanakh. He does not care for dogma – he’s really all about the questions of why we do the things we do, a completely understandable Jewish activity.
And by the way, the JPS commentary tells me that Qohelet is likely not even a name, but rather a title, something like the town crier. The word is related to the Hebrew root q-h-l, meaning to gather or convoke, just like the titular word in Parashat Vayaqhel, in which Moshe convokes the Israelites for instruction on how to observe Shabbat. So this Qohelet, our Qohelet, is this figure that brings the Israelites together to discuss the transience of life and the futility of understanding God, as if in some ancient intellectual salon.
You see? Qohelet fits right in. He is as complicated as all the other human characters in the Jewish bookshelf. Why is he not in the regular list of Ushpizin invitees? Sure, so his philosophy is not necessarily what we want to hear, and contradicts in some sense the standard theology of the Torah. But when have you known the Jews to agree on anything, particularly God?
We need Qohelet because his voice is actually, sometimes, our voice. Maybe that is where we are today, with the sense of futility that occasionally marks our lives. No matter how good or bad our behavior, no matter our choices, we cannot deny that the sun will come up tomorrow, that some people will be born and some will die, that some of us will thrive and some will suffer. And no matter how pious or skeptical we are, we understand that we have no control.
I would like to think that just as there is a little Avraham, a little Moshe, a little Miriam and a little Yael in all of us, so too is there a generous portion of Qohelet. This town crier might just be crazy, but he might also be onto something: that as we go from holiday to holiday, from year to year, keeping mitzvot or missing the mark, expressing gratitude or asking for forgiveness or watching our children and grandchildren grow and learn and struggle and succeed, that we remember that this is how life goes, and we have to enjoy it if we can, while we can.
As I have shared with you on multiple occasions, I am an optimist. And yet, these 18 months of pandemic have tested my optimism severely.
At one point during the last eighteen months of pandemic-induced isolation — it was sometime last winter, during the coldest, darkest, most isolated period — I found myself looking for a good recording online of a song that I had once sung for a concert with my synagogue choir at Congregation Brith Shalom in Houston when I lived there in the late 1990s. The song was “Make Our Garden Grow,” the finale of Leonard Bernstein’s operetta, Candide, which was based on the novel of French writer and philosopher, Francois-Marie Arouet, best known by his pen name, Voltaire. I probably spent 45 minutes listening to various versions.
And I found myself crying.
Crying from the pain of isolation, from the gnawing feeling of all of the missed opportunities for teaching, for celebrating together, for being unable to gather our community in person for all the things that we do. I was crying for what seemed at the time a lost world.
And the song is just so darned beautiful. If you are unfamiliar with Candide, you might want to check it out:
And you know how some songs are just so appealing, so powerful that they give you the shivers, or that they make you cry? Well, I’m a sucker for a gorgeous song.
But even more so, what got me more than Bernstein’s music (the sextet, choir, and orchestra) was Voltaire’s message. Candide, published in 1759, was primarily a rejection of the philosophy of optimism, and in particular the school of thinking headed by Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, the German Christian polymath of the late 17th / early 18th century. Leibniz believed that we are living in the best of all possible worlds that God could have created. Voltaire clearly abhorred this philosophy, and set out to lampoon Leibnizian optimism by making Candide and his teacher, Dr. Pangloss, seem like utter fools for believing in it. As the book draws to a close, they realize the error of their ways. And so the operetta concludes thus:
Let dreamers dream What worlds they please Those Edens can’t be found. The sweetest flowers, The fairest trees Are grown in solid ground.
We’re neither pure, nor wise, nor good We’ll do the best we know. We’ll build our house and chop our wood And make our garden grow. And make our garden grow!
“Let dreamers dream what worlds they please / those Edens can’t be found.”
The lyrics, written by American poet Richard Wilbur, include what might be a hidden nod to a well-known midrash about Creation: that God created and destroyed many worlds before creating this one. That is, the creation of the world that is described in Bereshit in the story which we will read tomorrow morning as we start the cycle of Torah once again is only the last one in a whole line of less-than-perfect worlds. (I do not think that Wilbur was Jewish, although of course Bernstein was.)
A few chapters later in Parashat Noaḥ, God acknowledges that life on Earth has become corrupt, and destroys virtually all living things in the flood. The implicit message of the midrash and the subsequent flood story is that, although many worlds came before and God settled on this one, the world that we are in is clearly NOT perfect. We cannot be living in the best of all possible worlds, but God had effectively given up on trying to create that world.
Dr. Pangloss, and hence Leibniz, were absolutely wrong, in Voltaire’s opinion. And so when Candide and his friends sing these words at the end, they are confessing to the failure of optimism. We do not live in the best of all possible worlds, but we have this world, and it is up to us to live and do the best we can, given that reality. We should, therefore, build our house and chop our wood and make our garden grow, and not be deluded into thinking too optimistically about our lives. Life is ultimately about the hard work of taking it day by day, of not necessarily expecting the best possible outcome, but rather accepting the routine ups-and-downs.
Voltaire’s language even echoes that of Bereshit / Genesis 2:15, which tells us that God put humans in the Garden of Eden le’ovdah ulshomerah, to till it and to tend it, or in Latin, ut operaretur.
“I know also,” said Candide, “that we must cultivate our garden.”
“You are right,” said Pangloss, “for when man was first placed in the Garden of Eden, he was put there ut operaretur eum, that he might cultivate it; which shows that man was not born to be idle.”
“Let us work,” said Martin, “without disputing; it is the only way to render life tolerable.”
This conclusion is not far from that of Qohelet / Ecclesiastes, which we read on Shabbat morning. And I suppose that is why it was so cathartic when I played and replayed Bernstein’s musical take on Voltaire’s rejection of optimism.
The holidays of Tishrei run through a whole palette of emotions: from the foreboding and triumphant grandeur of Rosh HaShanah, to the gravitas and genuflection of Yom Kippur, to the pure family-centric joy of Sukkot, to the statement of vulnerability as we beat willow branches on the floor Hoshana Rabba, to the wild dancing and singing with abandon of Simhat Torah. Oh yeah, and then there’s Shemini Atzeret, whatever THAT’S about.
Well, actually, although the origin of Shemini Atzeret is as the eighth day of Sukkot, it is probably most associated today as a day of Yizkor, a day of remembrance of those whom we have lost. This is, of course, a Yom Tov day, a day of happiness and family meals (although eating in the sukkah is considered optional today), but the inclusion of Yizkor guarantees that this is a day of reflection, of perspective.
For Shemini Atzeret and Simḥat Torah, at the very end of a long and grueling holiday run, I often find myself feeling a lingering sense of eternity, of looking at this snapshot of our lives as we begin 5782, and thinking, where was I last year, spiritually speaking, and what does this year hold for me? And it makes sense that on this day of reflection, we might flip back in our minds to both the good and the not-so-good times.
That is why tomorrow, just before Musaf, when I chant the Ḥatzi Qaddish, I will use melodies from throughout the Jewish year in a relatively obscure, yet interesting cantorial tradition known in Yiddish as the Yahres Kaddish, the Kaddish of the full year. It is a reminder not only of these holidays, but the entire spiral of the Jewish year, as we continue onward and upward, around and around as we grow and mature and learn and fail and succeed.
These are days on which we remember not only grief and loss, but also joy and happiness and celebration. And we also remember to keep in perspective what enables us to keep going around in that upward spiral, that sense of taking each day as it comes, trying to do the right thing for ourselves and each other, working and learning and playing and spending time with friends and family. Good things will happen in the coming year: people will get married; babies will be born; children will graduate from high school; there will be moments of joy. And so too will beloved family members die, and get divorced, and projects will fail and people will have financial hardships, and there will be bored moments and suffering and of course more disease and corruption and malfeasance.
And all those things are features of the jumble of our lives. As Qohelet / Ecclesiastes (1:9) tells us, “Ein kol ḥadash taḥat hashamesh.” There is nothing new under the sun. Put another way, Pirqei Avot (5:22) says, “Hafokh ba vahafekh ba dekhola ba.” Turn it over and over, because everything is in it. “It” of course, is the Torah, but Torah is likewise a reflection of the complex tapestry of our lives.
On this day of Yizkor, this day of remembrance, let us not forget that those whom we remember in these moments, who gave us life and nurtured us and gifted us their talents and wisdom and yes, sometimes even their flaws, are still a part of the weave of that tapestry.
And as we conclude this holiday season, we also remember that, in the words of Candide, we’re neither pure, nor wise, nor good, but we will do the best we know. We will try to be satisfied with sacrificing the perfect for the sake of the good enough. And that is perhaps the most valuable message we might take away from right now, as we add another year, another layer.
As is standard in many workplaces today, I have occasional performance reviews, and I am grateful to all of you for giving me a very positive review this past spring. There were, however, a few minor complaints – no big surprise for a community of Jews, of course; I would have been really surprised if there were NO complaints.
But one such complaint was that I speak too often about items in Jewish law like kashrut, Shabbat, tefillah, and so forth. I am sure that some of you have heard or read my series of sermons about the fundamentals of Judaism, called, “I’m a Fundamentalist.” I am committed to the idea that the essential pieces of Jewish living are good for us. So thank you for noticing.
It reminds me of the apocryphal story about the rabbi who is applying for a position at a synagogue, and when the president picks him up at the airport, she starts asking pointed questions about the sermon the rabbi will give on Shabbat.
“Well,” says the rabbi, “I thought I would speak about the value of Shabbat.”
“I don’t know, Rabbi,” says the president. “Many of our folks work in retail – they all have to open their stores after Shabbat services.”
“OK, so then maybe I’ll speak about the importance of keeping kosher.”
“Not such a great idea, Rabbi. One of our major donors is the largest shellfish distributor in the whole state.”
“Well then,” says the rabbi, “What do YOU think I should talk about?”
“You know, Rabbi,” says the president, “something Jewish.”
But of course, I hope you will understand that advocating for Jewish law and customs and learning and tefillah / prayer is exactly what rabbis do! A rabbi, you may recall, is not a priest; the word “rav” in Hebrew literally means “teacher.” My job is to teach you about being Jewish and doing Jewish – you as individuals and as a community.
However, my approach to teaching Judaism is that I want your Jewish engagement to be meaningful! I want you to feel something, to feel a connection, to “use” Jewish life and learning as a way of improving yourself and your world! Even though I am clearly on the cheerleading team for Torah and mitzvot, I am decidedly not in favor of merely fulfilling a mitzvah for the sake of checking a box. That is why our High Holiday theme for this year is, “Make it Meaningful!”
I believe firmly that the real reason to practice Judaism – keeping Shabbat, kashrut, daily tefillah / prayer, digging into our ancient texts – is that they can fill our lives with meaning, that these things create a lens that will help you see the world a little clearer, that they will help bring the important things into focus, that they will teach you how to highlight the qedushah / holiness in your life and in your relationships with the people around you.
So that is good news! But here’s the less-than-stellar news: most of those folks who agree that being Jewish is important do not feel that doing traditional Jewish things is essential to being Jewish. When asked about the essential parts of being Jewish, only 15% (about one in 7) say that observing halakhah / Jewish law is important. By comparison, 76% (three-quarters) cite “Remembering the Holocaust” as essential to being Jewish.
Now, I know that re-interpreting what it means to be Jewish is all the rage right now, and I certainly do not want to throw shade at that idea. I am, however, concerned that, when the vast majority of Jews do not see learning about and practicing Judaism as being an essential aspect to being Jewish, we may be in an unsustainable situation.
In order to actually pass on Judaism to your children and grandchildren, something which I know many of you are interested in doing, you have to “do” Jewish. You can’t just “be.”
And yes, “doing” Jewish can take on many forms. It need not look like what Judaism looks like in black-hat Brooklyn, say, or what it looked like to our great-grandparents. But without the practice of Judaism, with only our sense of pride in being Jewish, we will have no basis for why living Jewishly is meaningful, and without meaning, our children and grandchildren will only be puzzled by their Jewish identity.
Here are a few examples of the fundamentals of doing Jewish:
Holy eating, also known as keeping kosher or kashrut,is meaningful because it reminds us of our role in the world “to till and to tend,” as the second Creation story in Bereshit / Genesis puts it. When we premise our consumption upon God’s expectation of us to live sustainably in cooperation with the Earth, we have a better chance of handing an unspoiled world to our children and grandchildren.
Putting on tefillin on a daily basis is meaningful because it reminds us on a daily basis of the need to connect our hearts and minds with our hands. Would that more of us could be mindful of how our actions affect others and our world! Physical rituals such as tefillin help reinforce our daily mindfulness with a tangible action.
Learning the words of our ancient texts – which you can easily do -is meaningful because it teaches us how to be better people, how to improve our lives and our community by understanding ourselves and the holiness embedded in all our relationships. Plus, there is the added bonus of keeping our minds flexible and engaged, something that the medical establishment certainly recommends as we get older.
Singing Jewish music, liturgical or otherwise, is meaningful because it brings joy to a world that could really use a whole lot more joy. Sometimes melody can express our deepest emotions, particularly when words alone fail us.
And here is something that we perhaps take for granted, and yet in which many of us participate in greater numbers than most mitzvot: lifecycle events.
Yes, you know what I’m talking about: those things that mark our lives as we saunter through: berit milah (you all know that by the Yiddish term “bris”, but I don’t speak Yiddish! I’m a Zionist – I speak Hebrew), baby-naming, bat mitzvah / bar mitzvah, wedding, pidyon haben (redemption of the first-born), funeral and mourning. Some might add confirmation in there, and of course some might add graduation from medical school as well.
And it is wonderful that so many of us are still doing these lifecycle events. Perhaps more so than most Jewish rituals, people still show up, at least to honor and celebrate with the family. Even during the depths of the pandemic, when travel was nearly impossible, people came to lifecycle events in droves: we had benei mitzvah services here at Beth Shalom that attracted well-wishers from Japan and South Africa and France and England and Israel and Thailand and Australia and probably a bunch of places I’m not even aware of. Berit milah, weddings, funerals, shiv’ah – all continue to bring in family members and friends from far and wide.
And that too, is wonderful. The power of the framework of Jewish lifecycle rituals is great. What is more meaningful to us than celebrating a newborn baby, dancing joyously with newlyweds, or mourning the loss of somebody we loved?
One of the greatest features of living a Jewish life is acknowledging holy moments. We actually have a berakhah, a blessing for that, one which you all know well. It’s the same berakhah – Sheheḥeyyanu – that I have been urging you to recite upon your first opportunity to return to the synagogue space after months of isolation.
We mark our holy moments, not only with a berakhah, not only with ritual, not only by gathering with friends and family and sharing a meal and good times, but with meaning.
Think back for a moment to an especially meaningful lifecycle event for you. Was it your bat mitzvah? Your wedding? Confirmation? A dear friend’s funeral? (I’m guessing it wasn’t your own bris!)
What made it meaningful? Was it the people there? The words of Torah offered by the rabbi? The food?
Maybe all of these things. But also, perhaps what made it most meaningful was the sense of perspective. The feelings surrounding what it took to, as with the the berakhah, vehiggi’anu lazeman hazeh – to arrive to this moment, the feeling of the ancient hand-off play that we keep playing as Jews, from generation to generation.
Two different young people who recently became bat / bar mitzvah here at Beth Shalom asked me, not long before the ceremony itself, effectively, “Why am I doing this?” It seems that this question had not been answered along the way, perhaps lost in the shuffle of preparation, maybe further obscured by the pandemic.
Now, I suppose I could have said, “Because it says so in the Mishnah,” but that would not have been an effective answer. “Because your parents want you to,” is also not really satisfactory.
Rather, I said the following: “Because you are the next link in a chain that stretches back thousands of years. You are the inheritor of a rich and valuable collection of wisdom and traditions that has crossed continents and centuries, and survived empires and attempted genocide. This ceremony, when you are called to the Torah as bar/bat mitzvah in the synagogue, in the presence of your family, friends, and community, is a signifier of the fact that you are now carrying the Jewish flame, holding it aloft to illuminate the world as our people have always done and will continue to do. We are handing this tradition to you, and now it is your turn to take care of it, cherish it, continue to deepen your understanding of it, and then pass it along to your children and grandchildren.”
They were speechless, perhaps because it had not yet been presented that way.
We should never take for granted that everybody involved in the holy moment of a lifecycle event appreciates the meaning embedded therein. That is why I am going to offer a pro tip for making your Jewish involvement even more meaningful, and this is something that comes from the author and consultant Priya Parker, who I mentioned on the first day of Rosh HaShanah, when we spoke about the meaning and power of gathering. Ms. Parker’s essential tip for making gathering meaningful is to prepare in advance. And yes, of course that means the food and the chairs and the guest list. But more than that, prepare the content.
Give your attendees an assignment. For a wedding, for example, you could have them write out messages to the bride and groom to be displayed as part of the ḥuppah, or at the reception. For a baby-naming, have your participants do a little research into their own Hebrew name, to share at lunch. For shiv’ah, you could ask people who did not speak at the funeral to prepare in advance three sentences that describe the deceased, or even (as was fashionable a few years back) a six-word-eulogy.
And similar things can be done for holiday observances: have invitees to your sukkah bring an item that tells a story about their Jewish journey. Before lighting the Hanukkah candles, have everybody gathered around give an example of a way that they feel they have personally cast some light in this world. For Pesaḥ, have each participant prepare in advance a piece of the Exodus story to tell in their own words. And so forth. Your creativity only makes doing Jewish things that much more holy and special, and reinforces that sense of being a link in an eternal chain.
The more meaning we derive from these holy moments, the more powerfully connected we are to our history and culture and tradition, and the stronger the link in that generational chain.
It is the holy moments which frame our lives with meaning, give us structure and support, and help us through the tough times together. Ideally, they reflect our values, teach our wisdom, and connect us with our past and our future. Don’t let them slip by without trying to make them more than just gathering for dinner.
“Make it Meaningful!” conclusion:
I hope that over these High Holidays I have given you a few things to think about regarding making meaning in Jewish life: through gathering, through digging deeper into the Jewish bookshelf to understand the backstory, through engaging with Israel, and through framing holy moments.
It is worth putting a fine point on the message by reminding us all that merely “being Jewish” is unsustainable; it will not last another generation here in America, land of freedom and infinite choice. Rather, if you want your children and grandchildren to be links in the ancient chain, you have to “do Jewish” with them, and frame it properly. Teach them to love our tradition the way you do; show them how meaningful it can be by doing. Frame it with intentionality and love. And of course you can always reach out to me for guidance. It would be my pleasure and privilege to provide support on your journey. That is what I am here for.
And one final, related note before we move on to the Yizkor service.
Since Adar of 5780, also known as March of 2020, we have been subject to a worldwide pandemic that has, in many ways, turned our lives upside-down. The 3-year-olds in our ELC only know a world in which everybody is wearing masks in public; children have suffered from the failure of some schools to provide adequate schooling; in addition to the loss of so many loved ones and the suffering of those with long-Covid symptoms, there is evidence of so much more malfeasance in our society – addiction, abuse in all forms, and so forth, and the economic toll has been devastating.
Even if somehow we were all miraculously vaccinated tomorrow, there would still be so much pain – evictions, homelessness, joblessness, anxiety, and so much suffering.
A young man I know recently lost his father, from whom he had been estranged for a number of years. As you can imagine, he was filled with various types of regrets; his grief was palpable.
A recent column by New York Times columnist David Brooks (if you have been paying attention, you surely know that I am fond of David Brooks), spoke about the rising incidence of estrangement from family members. I have encountered this regularly in my pastoral work, and it is one of a range of social ills to which Brooks points as evidence of what he calls the “psychological unraveling of America.” We are suffering in so many ways, and often we have no salve for our pain, no balm for the many sources of grief we all carry right now. Brooks cites the Franciscan friar Richard Rohr, who said, “If we do not transform our pain, we will most assuredly transmit it.”
And we the Jews, of course, have an extra measure of pain – the pain that has been handed to us from our history, from expulsion and pogroms and Holocaust and terrorism and anti-Semitic attacks, one right here in our own neighborhood.
But the silver lining here is that, at least with one kind of pain – the pain that comes from the loss of beloved family members – that we do have a way of transforming that pain: we have the framework of Jewish ritual for grief and mourning, including the Yizkor prayers that we are about to recite. Not only do we have shiv’ah, when we offer comfort to the bereaved for the week after burial, but also sheloshim and a year of mourning and annual yahrzeit observances, and of course Yizkor.
And all of these are means by which we transform our pain and grief through ritual. By doing traditional Jewish things, we have a mechanism which helps to ease the pain, helps to remember the deceased, helps to remind us all that they are still with us, if not bodily, then at least in spirit.
If that is not an argument for meaning-making in Jewish life, I do not know what is.
Many of my rabbinic colleagues give a sermon about Israel over the course of the High Holidays. I have generally not done so for two reasons: (א) because I give sermons about Israel from time to time throughout the year, and (ב) because the High Holidays seem like the best time to talk about the ways in which Jewish living can enrich your life and our world. So many of us make it to Jewish adulthood without deriving meaning from our customs and rituals, and since most of us are paying attention on the High Holidays, this is the time when I feel I must teach about the essential value and meaning of our tradition.
However, I noticed an opening this year that needs to be addressed. (Or, “needs addressed,” in local parlance.) Our theme this year is, “Make it Meaningful!” and Israel is very, very meaningful to me as a part of what it means to be Jewish today, and I know that Israel is meaningful to many of you as well. But I am, I must confess, a little concerned that it may not be meaningful enough for some of us. I am concerned that American Jews are drifting away from Israel.
And all the more so for me personally right now, since my oldest son, Oryah, is serving in the Israel Defense Forces, in the Ḥeil haTotḥanim, the artillery brigade. So I have, you might say, quite a bit of skin in the game at this particular moment. It’s worth noting that, come November, we will have two more young members of our congregation serving in the IDF: Naomi Kitchen and Ari Gilboa. That is actually a fairly significant group of ḥayyalim, Israeli soldiers directly connected to Congregation Beth Shalom.
Not only am I the father of an Israeli soldier, I am also a proud Zionist. I fell in love with the State of Israel – the people, the land, the culture, the optimistic idea of a modern Jewish state in the historical land of the Jewish people, built on the yearnings and hope of 2,000 years – I fell in love upon touching down at Ben Gurion Airport for my first visit there in the summer of 1987 when I was a participant in the Alexander Muss High School in Israel program. And that love only deepened when I returned there as an adult to live and study there in 1999.
Not only am I a proud Zionist, but I am also concerned for the welfare of ALL all the people on that tiny strip of land. I have spent time working as an idealistic volunteer on kibbutz, and climbed Masada multiple times and studied every aspect and angle of the contemporary Israeli story and hiked from the Kinneret / Sea of Galilee to the Mediterranean. I have also visited Israeli Arab and Druze villages, engaged with light political chatter with Palestinian citizens, been in a forum with Palestinian Authority politicians, been to West Bank locales such as Ḥevron and Mt. Gerizim and Jewish settlements and was once even turned back by Palestinian police at the crossing point while trying to visit Shechem, also known as Nablus. I have been and have experienced, in the words of the Israeli author Amos Oz, פה ושם בארץ ישראל, here and there in the land of Israel.
52% of American Jews over 50 consider “caring about Israel” to be “essential” to being Jewish, while only 35% of those under 30 do.
For the over-50 crowd, only 10% say Israel is not important to their Jewish identity, while for those under 30, that figure is 27%, nearly three times as much.
The handful of us in the American Jewish community who remember the 1940s know that we helped make the State of Israel a reality. There were the American fighter pilots who volunteered to serve. The Americans who donated to help build the new state. The Pittsburghers, who, as described in our member Dr. Barbara Burstin’s books on the history of our community, created a major hub of Zionist activity all the way back to the 1890s. Dr. Burstin assures me that Pittsburgh was second only to New York in terms of Zionist fervor and support, with a range of organizations and activities.
That is our legacy here.
But for many American Jews today, Israel is far away and not so consequential; for some Israel is no longer a source of pride. And that is what I find truly disheartening.
And one more brief “not only”: Not only am I concerned that disengagement of the American Jewish community is a threat to the future of Israel, I am also concerned that whatever I say about Israel, I am going to disappoint a whole bunch of people, and perhaps anger a few as well. While once upon a time, an Israel-based sermon was an easy slam dunk, today many rabbis actually shy away from talking about Israel from the pulpit for that reason.
Consider the pop singer Billie Eilish, who, in promoting her new album last month, created a series of brief videos on TikTok aimed at her fans in different countries. In the one addressed to her fans in the Israeli market, where there are apparently plenty of Billie Eilish fans, she said, ““Hi Israel, this is Billie Eilish, and I’m so excited that my new album, Happier Than Ever, is out now.” In doing so, a Twitter-storm erupted of people calling her out, for saying nothing more than, “Hi, Israel.” How dare she even attempt to sell albums to Israelis?
Of course, Billie Eilish is not a rabbi, and the membership of Beth Shalom is hardly akin to a Twitter mob. As one who has had a life-long love affair with Israel, with all its attendant complexity and angst, and as a cheerleader for Jewish tradition, my task is to tell you not only why Israel is so meaningful to me, but why it should be for you as well.
We are going to consider the meaning in our relationship with Israel from three different perspectives: Jewish tradition, Jewish power, and Jewish culture.
At the simplest level, we cannot separate our connection to the land of Israel from our Jewishness. Certainly the arc of the Torah, and indeed the entire Tanakh / Hebrew bible, revolves around getting to or returning to Eretz Yisrael. And from the time that the Romans destroyed the Second Temple in 70 CE, and hastened the Jewish dispersion all over the world, much of Jewish creativity – the Talmud, midrash, commentaries, liturgy, music and art – has been focused on the yearning for return and rebuilding our land.
On virtually every page of every siddur / prayerbook, including the maḥzor many of you hold in your hand right now, this yearning is evident. Consider what you just recited a few moments ago in the Amidah, words which we recite in every Amidah, at least three times on every day of the year:
And may our eyes behold Your merciful return to Zion.
The addressee here is, of course, God; but the implication is that if God returns to Israel, so might we as well. (By the way, I’ll never forget seeing those words inscribed on the wall in the secret synagogue found at Terezin, the Nazi concentration camp not far from Prague.)
Or, right before the Shema, as we say every morning (we’ll say this tomorrow at about 9:20 AM.:
Raḥem al Tziyyon ki hi beit ḥayyeinu. Vela’aluvat nefesh toshia bimheira veyameinu.
Have mercy upon Zion, for it is the source of our life; and for the downtrodden of spirit bring salvation speedily in our days.
Zion is not merely some fantastical poetic reference. It is the land of our ancestors. It is the very real place that hosted the establishment of the Jewish people. It was our homeland for a thousand years, thereafter occupied by one empire after another for nearly 2,000 more, with continuous Jewish settlement (at times minimal) throughout that period.
In exile, this yearning for the land of Israel has been our inspiration and salvation and essential Earthly link to our tradition and to God as long as Jews have existed. Our connection to the land is not only inseparable from our tradition, but it has soaked every siddur / prayerbookwith tears for two thousand years.
And, with the modern Zionist movement, which began a century and a half ago in Eastern Europe, the establishment of a Jewish State in that land has become a central plank in what it means to be a contemporary Jew.
Of course, the establishment of this state has come with its share of challenges, some of which the early Zionists anticipated, and some they did not, pre-eminent among them the challenge of creating a respectful living situation for the Arabs who live alongside our people in that land.
For virtually all of the last two millennia, our people were powerless exiles, and in some cases even refugees. We were subjects of empires, kings and queens, and feudal lords, and lived at their mercy. We survived, but we managed to do so with our wits, while clinging steadfastly to our tradition and to each other.
Our powerlessness enabled the Crusaders’ slaughter, the Expulsion from Spain, the medieval blood libels, and the pogroms. Our powerlessness permitted the Nazis to actually calculate the number of Deutschmarks required to kill each Jew; to realize that one bullet per dead Jew shot by the Einzatsgruppen was too expensive, and hence the use of Zyklon B poison gas and BMW engine exhaust in the death camps.
But, in the wake of the Shoah / Holocaust, in which 6 million of our people were murdered due to their powerlessness, the desperation that our people felt aroused the sympathy of much of the world. Although the return to Zion had begun more than 80 years prior, it was to some extent this sympathy, which played out in the League of Nations partition plan vote on November 29, 1947, that allowed David Ben Gurion to establish the State five and a half months later.
And suddenly the Jews had sovereign state power. But power is complicated. Power requires making ethical choices, sometimes between two bad possible outcomes. The State of Israel is a democracy with a thriving set of checks on power – free elections, a free press, free academia, the rule of law, a court system. Tzahal, the Israel Defense Forces, has a principle of “tohar haneshek,” the purity of arms, that is, the soldier’s obligation to maintain her/his humanity in combat. As a result, there is healthy internal evaluation and criticism of Israel’s military choices.
When I was living in Israel in the summer of 2000, the Camp David Summit broke down with no resolution. The Second Intifada began a few weeks later. In that context, Rabbi Yitz Greenberg, speaking to the General Assembly of the United Jewish Communities in November, 2000, on “The Ethics of Jewish Power Today,” said the following:
Jewish power is never self-validating, so we have to sit in continual judgment upon ourselves… [And] given the evil that cannot be avoided, there is still some best possible or least evil way of exercising power.
In an ideal world, all people would be treated absolutely equally. In the real world, you distribute your priorities and in fact it may be that some people will get a shorter stick than others. What makes this moral is you try to do the best you can.
Secondly, you have a continuous process of correction. In a democracy you have elections or you have a free press or other forms of correction, and therefore whatever flaws there are subject to further improvement and further correction. So you have to have both. And the criteria of the moral person is the one who consciously makes those kinds of choices…
So that means in the real world I may err trying to protect the security, overreact and even inflict pain or damage. The criteria of morality is I try to inflict as little as possible and I try to maximize the good. Keep in mind that’s the balance wheel to the other principle, which is that we are only human and we can’t be perfect, so we are going to make some mistakes, which we are then going to go on and try to correct or try to have some mechanism of correction.
No, Israel is not perfect. But yes, Israel’s democratic process is trying to do the right thing, balancing all the moral criteria with the fact that sometimes people make mistakes.
Remember the Nazi calculation of how much it cost to murder each Jew, that one bullet per Jew was too much? How much did the State of Israel pay to bring the Jews of Ethiopia to Israel? By one calculation, $35 million was paid to the leader of Ethiopia in 1991 for 14,000 Jews. That was, to put it bluntly, a bribe, just to allow the Jews to leave, and did not account for the price of the airlift itself, or the resettlement in Israel, or all the other ancillary services required.
That is the meaning of Jewish power. So which would you rather have? A situation in which, at any moment, Jews may need to flee out of fear of persecution or expulsion, and have no place to go, as has happened so many times in our history? Or a reality in which there is a sanctuary, even an imperfect one, where the doors are always open? Medieval powerlessness, or the power to be responsible for our own destiny, for better or for worse?
Perhaps the greatest value of the State of Israel, and the easiest for Diaspora Jews to appreciate, is its thriving culture. I hope you are familiar with some of the pop-culture products that Israel has exported to the world, particularly the television series (some of which you can find on various streaming services) and films and music and dance.
When I lived in Israel as an adult, now more than 20 years ago, I discovered that Israel’s culture is not merely thriving, but vital; Hebrew rock blasts from outdoor cafes; the theater and dance scene is fresh and exciting; the contemporary architecture is unique and distinctly Israeli. No Jewish Diaspora subculture, even in the mighty United States, the second-largest Jewish population, has come even close to creating as vibrant and distinctive a culture as Israel has. Israel’s entrepreneurial spirit, hatched by necessity from the hardscrabble existence which new olim / immigrants have always faced, is evident in all the ways that Israelis express their singularly Jewish, home-grown national culture.
The vision of Israel as a cultural center, a merkaz ruḥani, did not belong to Theodor Herzl. Rather, it is the vision of one of Zionism’s earliest and greatest internal critics: the essayist and thinker Ahad Ha’am.
What is a nation without culture? Ahad Ha’am saw Herzl and some of the other leaders of political Zionism as focused on the wrong thing. In his essay from 1888 (!), Lo zu haderekh (“This is not the way”), he took them to task for focusing merely on bringing people to Israel, and not considering what they would do once they arrived. Rather, Ahad Ha’am was laser-focused on drawing on our history and literature to fashion a contemporary Hebrew culture, and the strength of this culture and its values would ultimately lead them to want to face the much greater challenge of building a Jewish national home in Eretz Yisrael.
And, to some extent, when I look at Israeli culture today, when I listen to Israeli hip-hop or enjoy an Israeli wine, I think of Ahad Ha’am and his idea of the merkaz ruḥani. Israel is my spiritual and cultural center.
I could speak all night on Israel (and let’s face it: it’s Yom Kippur – what else are you doing tonight?). But I want to add one final note, from Israel’s Minister of Diaspora Affairs from the Labor Party, Dr. Nachman Shai. In a recent blog post on the Times of Israel website, Dr. Shai suggested that rabbis share with their congregants over these High Holidays that Israel wants to make amends for ways in which it may have failed Diaspora Jews, particularly non-Orthodox Jews like us:
Share with your congregants that we in Israel are slowly but surely taking responsibility for our side of the relationship in a way that you have never seen, that we realize we have disappointed you and are doing teshuvah, repentance, with a sincere desire to make things right in the future. Share with them that this new government is committed to bringing back a Kotel Compromise — that is, formalizing an egalitarian prayer section at the Western Wall. It is committed to learning and understanding how our actions impact your communities. Tell them that we believe in you and that we are ready for both your critique and your ideas.
Most importantly, share with your communities that Israel desires to be your partner, to not let our politics or diverse identities serve as barriers to our fundamental belief that we are a people with a common fate and destiny.
I am grateful that Dr. Shai is beginning the process of reaching out to the Diaspora, and in particular the American Jewish community, to, I hope, repair the broken aspects of our relationship with the State of Israel. I am also hopeful that the new coalition (still holding together! And including an Arab party for the first time in Israel’s history) will be good for that relationship.
How do we make Israel meaningful? Through understanding the lenses of ancient Jewish yearning, the ethical pitfalls of Jewish power, and the joy of resonating with Jewish culture.
But most importantly, by going there. By experiencing Ahad Ha’am’s merkaz ruḥani personally.
Go there. See the land, the historical sites. But also, speak to the people. All the people – the Jews (so many varieties of Jews!), the Palestinians, the Druze, the Circassians, the Armenian Christians, the Filipino nurses, the Chinese and Romanian hired laborers, and on and on. Get to know them and understand the challenges that they face on a daily basis. And you will soon see that beyond the spin, beyond the this-side-or-that-side-ism, beyond the seemingly insoluble political challenges, there are 13 million people on that small strip of land trying to make a living, trying to enjoy time with their families, trying to eke out some kind of respectful existence.
If we could only somehow convince all the extremists in our midst to consider the others around them, we would have a chance to make peace blossom and solve the deep, genuine challenges that the region faces. Alas.
We at Beth Shalom put together a congregational trip to Israel three years ago, and it was a fantastic success. We will have another such trip in the next couple of years, but meanwhile, you might also want to consider going on the Federation Mega Mission next June. (If you’re going on that trip, please let me know.)
In 1948, David Ben Gurion was faced with the decision of when to declare independence, knowing that in doing so the neighboring Arab armies would invade the new state. He asked his friend and adviser, Yitzḥak Tabenken, what he should do. Tabenken answered that he would respond in a few days, after he consulted a few other people. When he returned, he told Ben Gurion that it was imperative that Ben Gurion declare the new state right now.
Later, when Ben Gurion asked him whom he had consulted, Tabenken responded, “I spoke to my deceased grandparents, and my as-yet-unborn grandchildren, and asked them, ‘What do I owe you?’”
Seventy-three-and-a-half years later, we owe it to our people, to ourselves, to be in meaningful relationship with Israel. And how do we do that? By knowing and understanding the Jewish state. By engaging with her culture, her politics, her successes and challenges. By being intimately familiar with her people, her history, her complexity. Yes, by appreciating the value and responsibility of Jewish power. And by continuing to yearn through the words of prayer and tradition.
Make it meaningful!
Shanah tovah! May you be sealed for a 5782 that is full of meaning.
I’m starting our discussion today with a simple, highly unscientific poll. Now I want you to be honest:
Raise your hand if you feel that your Jewish education (Hebrew school, day school, or something else) was sufficient for your contemporary needs?
Raise your hand if you wish you had learned more about your tradition and spiritual heritage?
Raise your hand if you really have no clue what this is all about.
Well, I have some good news for you: it’s never too late. And I am going to make the case for why you should want to learn more.
And the bottom line is this: because understanding what we do and why we do it as Jews will fill your life with meaning.
Our theme this year is, “Make it Meaningful!” Yesterday, we spoke about how gathering, and in particular on this Rosh HaShanah as we oh-so-gradually emerge from the pandemic, is meaningful to us. Today, we continue the discussion with finding meaning in learning.
But first, a brief correction from last year’s High Holidays sermons. Some of you may recall that, exactly one year ago according to the Jewish calendar, on the second day of Rosh Hashanah, I told the following story, which I am going to retell right now to refresh your memory:
There is a classic rabbinic story about the mother who is teaching her son how to make a meatloaf for their Rosh Hashanah lunch. After mixing the ground beef and onion and egg and breadcrumbs and spices, she rolls up the loaf, chops the ends off and throws them away, and places it in the meatloaf pan.
The son notices that she has chopped off the ends, and, concerned about unnecessary food waste in a world in which climate change and sustainability are paramount, asks his mother why she throws the ends away.
“I don’t know,” she says. That’s how my mother, your grandmother did it.
They call the grandmother to ask. She says, “I don’t know. That’s how my mother did it.”
They call the great-grandmother to ask. She is not well; she is weak, and can barely talk. “Why did I chop the ends off?” she asks, reflecting deep into the recesses of her mind. “Why did I chop the ends off? Because the pan was too small.”
Now, at lunch after services on that day, it was pointed out to me – well, actually, I was mocked – by members of my family because, they said, I screwed up the joke. It should have been brisket, they said, not meatloaf, because of course meatloaf can be shaped into whatever shape you want, whereas if the brisket does not fit in the pan, you’re stuck.
Now, leaving aside the fact that it’s only the Jews whose family members criticize each other for telling a joke wrong, I actually think that it’s funnier if it’s meatloaf, precisely for the reason that it could be shaped, and yet they continued to slice off the ends. But hey, what do I know? I’m a vegetarian! I haven’t eaten either brisket or meatloaf in more than three decades.
I used the story to make a point about minhag, custom, that it is the customs of Jewish life, which enrich our lives as we hand them down from generation to generation. But, in a seemingly-magical feat of rabbinic re-interpretation (don’t try this at home!), I am going to take the very same joke today in another direction.
There is another angle to the story: it’s that the mother and the grandmother are only going through the motions. They do not even know why they are chopping the ends off the meat. They don’t even really seem to have thought about it. And therein lies an important message:
It’s the reason why we do something, rather than the actual thing that we do, that makes a particular custom meaningful. And in order to really understand and appreciate Jewish life, in order to gain the insight and wisdom and thereby improve ourselves through Jewish engagement, we have to know those reasons.
Perhaps one of the most depressing moments I have had as a rabbi occurred at my previous synagogue on Long Island, ironically at our annual Comedy Night. It took place on a Saturday evening after Shabbat ended, and the cantor and I had led havdalah before the comedy program, and then we left the havdalah set – the wine, the multi-wicked candle, the spice box – on the bimah. So when the first comedian came up to do his set, he looks at the ritual paraphernalia, picks up the bottle of Manischewitz, and, trying to be funny, says, “I’m not Jewish; I don’t know anything about your traditions.” Somebody in the crowd, most likely a member of the congregation responded by saying, “Neither do we.”
People laughed. But my heart sank, and although I’m sure there was a little bit of hyperbole in the sarcastic retort from the audience, the kernel of truth embedded therein reminded me of my mission as a rabbi: to teach what we do, why we do it, and how it improves your life.
For example, consider two of the most common Jewish things you do: holding a seder on the first two nights of Pesaḥ and fasting on Yom Kippur. Most likely, if I asked you why you did those things, you would probably say, “To celebrate our freedom from slavery,” and, “To afflict our souls in helping to atone for our sins.” And those would be good answers.
But if I asked, why does our tradition hold daily prayer services three times a day? Why can’t you spend money on Shabbat? Why do we have two loaves of challah on Friday night and sprinkle them with salt before we take a bite? Many of us would have to check with Rabbi Google to come up with answers. Now please believe me when I say that if you do not know the answers to these questions, or many others about why Jews do what we do, there is nothing wrong with you! You are welcome and belong here.
It’s just that the “whys” behind these traditions were not necessarily taught in Hebrew school, or maybe you missed that day because of soccer practice, or your family did not observe them. Or your family could not afford Hebrew School and shamefully no effort was made to help bridge the financial gap. Really, I barely knew what Shavuot was until I was in my 30s. And Shemini Atzeret? Fugettaboutit!
I have long been a proponent of an incremental entry, or re-entry into Judaism: that while we as a community affiliated with the Conservative movement uphold the whole kit and caboodle of Jewish life, the entire collection of 613 mitzvot / holy opportunities, the way in is clearly not to try to grab everything at once. Rather, if you intend to step up your Jewish game, you should do it a little bit at a time: Say the blessing and light candles on Friday night before sundown, paired with a moment of quiet contemplation as you separate yourself from the chaos of a busy week. Or spend a few moments to say the words of the Shema, just the first line if that’s what you know, before going to sleep, as you reflect on the day.
And why would you want to do that?
Because engaging in Jewish life – observing mitzvot, coming regularly to synagogue, keeping kashrut, setting Shabbat aside as a holy day – can improve your life, your community, and your world. While I would be hard-pressed to make the case that eating brisket, or meatloaf, can do this, I can assure you that the Jewish framework for living certainly does.
But you should not take my word for it. In order to understand this, you’ll have to learn the why.
First of all, you should know that there is a lot of “going through the motions” throughout the Jewish world. There are plenty of Jewish people who are doing Jewish things, even though they may not understand the reasoning behind them or derive any meaning from them. In fact, the Talmud (Pesahim 50b) teaches that learning Torah and the performance of a mitzvah for its own sake is more valuable than doing it for some kind of reward.
… As Rav Yehuda said that Rav said: A person should always engage in Torah study and performance of mitzvot, even if one does so not for their own sake, as it is through the performance of mitzvot not for their own sake, one gains understanding and comes to perform them for their own sake.
The 13th-century Catalan commentator, Rabbi Menahem Meiri, writes that the one who performs mitzvot for a reward is acting out of fear, and the one who is doing so for its own sake is acting out of love, and love is surely a nobler motivation.
There are plenty of us in the Jewish world who are engaging with Judaism for less-than-ideal reasons: fear, guilt, or out of a sense of duty to one’s parents or grandparents, or without any clear sense of why at all.
Every person’s path to and with Torah is different, and all paths to and with Torah are valid. But if, says the Meiri, you can get to a place where you’re doing it out of love – for Torah, for our tradition, for our community, for yourself, for the world, for God, however you understand God – harei zeh meshubbaḥ. That is worthy of praise.
So how do you get to that place? As the Talmud suggests, the more you do something, like seeking to understand our tradition, or regular tefillah / prayer, or setting aside time to observe Shabbat with family and friends, the more likely you are to see how doing so creates more love in this world.
But let’s face it: life gets in the way. We are all busy. Tefillah takes time. You might think you need Saturdays to go shopping or mow the grass or respond to work emails that you didn’t get to during the week. It can be hard to carve out time to do Jewish, let alone explore the question of why we should.
So that is why I am going to propose the following: add a little regular Jewish learning to your life. And I’m talking specifically here about Jewish text. Let me tell you why you should do this.
Because this tradition is yours, because it can help improve your life, and most importantly, because you can.
Once upon a time, Jewish text was impenetrable if you had not studied rabbinic Hebrew for years. And Hebrew schools did not have the time or the energy to teach that, so they focused on holidays and lifecycles and prayers and songs. But the real foundation for Jewish life is the Jewish bookshelf, and that was only the domain of the scholars, men with long beards.
We failed to teach that foundation. We failed to demonstrate not only the rich, scholarly basis for why we do what we do, and the pleasure of arguing over the meaning of our texts and discovering how they can help us be better humans today.
But we are now living in a period of great democratization of Jewish wisdom. With a few keystrokes, you can learn Torah! Talmud! Midrash! Halakhah / Jewish law! Mussar / ethics! And so forth. All in perfectly readable and in some cases interpreted English! Sefaria.com is probably the best source, available wherever you have access to the Internet, but there are other sources as well. There are podcasts and blogs and Daf Yomi study groups and all sorts of paths into our tradition.
The stunning wealth of information available today is, at least in this case, a blessing! But you might need some help, and that’s what I am here for. This is what Rabbi Goodman, our interim Director of Derekh and Youth Tefillah, is here for. This is what Rabbi Freedman, head of our Joint Jewish Education Program (J-JEP) is here for. Rabbi Shugerman, our new Director of Development, is also happy to help.
We are all happy to help guide you through the Jewish bookshelf. We offer many opportunities, through Derekh in particular, to get in touch with our ancient texts, which, once you dig into them, can glow with the contemporary shine of personal meaning today, but are grounded in the weightiness of ancient authority.
And what kind of things might you learn? I’m so glad you asked!
Here are just a few of the things that we have covered in various sessions at Beth Shalom in the past year:
We learned how to manage our anger, and why silence is key to wisdom from one of our greatest thinkers, Maimonides.
We learned that giving tzedaqah is “psycho-effective,” that is, it not only benefits the receiver in a physical way, but also helps the giver understand that we should all be less attached to our own possessions and moreso to our own spiritual relationships, from 18th-century Rabbis Hayyim Vital and Jonathan Eybeschutz.
We have discussed the importance of speaking up in the face of corruption, and of pursuing justice over material things, from our ancient prophets Jeremiah and Isaiah and Ezekiel.
We have explored our need for gratitude for what we have, from the Mishnah.
We have learned that the essential goal of prayer is not an empty recitation of words in an ancient language, but rather an opportunity for self-judgment. That is exactly the meaning of the word, tefillah.
George Bernard Shaw is purported to have said, “Youth is wasted on the young.” It is adults who can truly appreciate how awesome and rich our people’s wisdom is. So you might have missed these things in Hebrew school. But the good news is, as Benjamin Franklin said, “The doors of wisdom are never shut.” We put a lot of emphasis on teaching children, who are not wired to appreciate the complexity of our tradition, and not enough emphasis on initiating adults into the most important mitzvah, the most essential holy opportunity of Jewish life: finding meaningful guidance in our texts.
One of the great challenges that we face as Americans is what I see over and over as a crisis of guidance. We hold in front of us the principle of freedom, and understand that to mean that everybody is entitled to make their own choices, with no judgment from others allowed. And the challenge that I see, particularly in younger people, is that we are rudderless. We may be taught how to prepare for a career, but we are not taught how to shape our relationships, to live as part of a community, to think about how our actions affect the greater good.
And that is what our tradition offers – guidance on how to be better people, how to improve ourselves and our world. “When I pray,” said Rabbi Louis Finkelstein, former Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, “I speak to God. When I study, God speaks to me.”
Perhaps one of the most tragic things we have experienced over the last year-and-a-half of pandemic has been the resistance by some to effective public health measures such as wearing masks and getting vaccinated. Our tradition, and the framework of mitzvot, is essentially about commitment to one another and to society, of being aware of the common good and pursuing it.
The essential meaning of living inside the Jewish framework of mitzvot is understanding that we do not function solely as individuals, that we are not merely in this to pursue only our own whims and fantasies, but rather to see ourselves in relationship to the others around us, to act on and elevate the qedushah / holiness in those relationships.
Our actions, our words have meaning; our connection with and respect for others has meaning. And when we seek that meaning through learning and living our tradition, we create a better life for ourselves, with happier, healthier relationships with all the people around us.
My challenge to you on this Rosh Hashanah is to seek meaning. Don’t be a Jew by default. That is no longer good enough in our modern American context. Seek the “why.” Discover the meaning in Jewish life by learning. Doing so will open up whole new worlds of understanding for you that will help you be a better person, offer guidance at crucial moments, and raise the qedushah around you.
Reach out to me or my colleagues here at Beth Shalom. We will set you on the path. But we will also help you take it slow. Set a goal of learning one thing – just one – in the coming year about Judaism that you did not understand: Why we pray, why we read the Torah out loud, why we say berakhot before we eat or drink, why we continue to lament the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem, nearly 2,000 years ago, even if we are not expecting it to be rebuilt, and so forth.
And then, when you have learned that one thing, learn another. You’ll be glad you did. Seek the why. Make it meaningful!
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
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:
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.
* 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.
My kids went to camp this summer, for the first time in two years. Not just any Jewish summer camp, but Camp Ramah in the Poconos, one of the 15 camps in the Ramah system, which, like Congregation Beth Shalom, is affiliated with the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism. As some of you may know, I am a Ramah alumnus, having been a camper, a counselor, and specialist at Camp Ramah in New England over the space of a couple decades. So I must concede that I am a little biased toward the Ramah camps.
You may also know that Pittsburgh is in the catchment area for Camp Ramah in Canada, but of course due to the whole pandemic business, the Canadian border was closed to Americans at the start of the summer, so two of the American Ramah camps, Wisconsin and Poconos, took in the “Canadian refugees.” So my children, along with our bar mitzvah, Niv, were among the handful of Pittsburghers who spent the summer in the Poconos.
Given camp loyalties, I recall Niv’s mother Shiri (a proud Ramah-Canada alumna) saying early in the summer, that she wanted the Pittsburghers to have fun at Ramah in the Poconos, but not TOO MUCH fun, so that they would want to go back to Canada next summer.
So that was definitely the case for our daughter – she is ready to head north again next June. Our son might have had too much fun in the Poconos.
But actually, it was something else that Zev said upon returning that made me think that this summer was totally worth the thousands of dollars of investment. He returned from camp with a new sense of excitement about Jewish life, saying, “I really enjoyed tefillah at camp. Doing Jewish stuff is fun when everybody else is excited to be doing it together. You can feel the joy.” He came back with a renewed sense of purpose for the coming year, as he prepares now for becoming bar mitzvah next August.
You may not be aware that Jewish summer camps are a relatively new phenomenon in Jewish life. The first, Camp Cejwin, was established in upstate New York in 1919, to help instill Jewish culture and values in urban Jewish youngsters, as well as to get them out of the overcrowded city for some fresh air. To this day, many scholars who study Jewish education agree that Jewish summer camps have been among the best tools that we have in teaching our children Jewish traditions. It is truly the only environment in which children can be immersed in Jewish living and Jewish values all day long, and an incomparable vehicle for creating a sense of connectedness to Jewish life.
One of the things that Zev also mentioned about camp was how much fun it was to chant Birkat HaMazon, the berakhot of gratitude recited after meals, with lots of loud, raucous singing and fellowship and joy in Jewish practice.
Now, you may know that, while I love raucous singing, I also do favor a certain amount of decorum in Jewish life. My wife thinks that I’m generally too serious.
For a couple of the summers that I spent on staff Ramah-New England, when I was in cantorial school, I held the title of Rosh Tefillah, which roughly translates as, “Director of Prayer Education.” Now, it should be noted that the Rosh Tefillah is among the most despised characters in camp. Whenever you see the Rosh Tefillah coming, you should try to get away as quickly as possible, lest he assign you a Torah reading, or make you schlep siddurim from one end of camp to the other, or some other prayer-related task.
So, here’s me, the too-serious cantorial student in charge of prayer education at camp. And there’s the raucous, table-banging, clapping and gesturing and shouting Birkat HaMazon. You can understand how, on the one hand I was pleased that kids were singing; I was just hoping that they would learn to do so somewhat more respectfully.
One day, Rabbi Gordon Tucker was visiting camp. Rabbi Tucker, now retired, is one of the leading lights of the Conservative rabbinate; at the time he was a pulpit rabbi in White Plains, NY, but who had also already been a dean of the Rabbinical School at JTS. And lunch is over, and Birkat HaMazon is at its full-on raucous maximum. I’m scowling. Rabbi Tucker is shouting along with all the kids, throwing his hands in the air, adding inappropriate English insertions, and then he turns to me and says, “God loves this!”
That is the magic of Camp Ramah.
Ladies and gentlemen, what is the point of Jewish education? My kids may end up being performing artists or attorneys fighting for environmental justice. Why do they need to know about Judaism? Why do they need to know how to lead services, or read Torah, or what the textual basis for giving tzedaqah is, or how we seek teshuvah / repentance on Yom Kippur? Why does anybody need to know Birkat HaMazon, much less to sing it with gusto?
Why do our children need to know how to “do Jewish?” Because this familiarity with Jewish practice and wisdom is the reason that we are still here.
Parashat Ki Tavo opens with a statement that is familiar to most of us from the Pesaḥ seder (Devarim / Deuteronomy 26:5-9):
My father was a fugitive Aramean. He went down to Egypt with meager numbers and sojourned there; but there he became a great and very populous nation. The Egyptians dealt harshly with us and oppressed us; they imposed heavy labor upon us… The LORD freed us from Egypt by a mighty hand, by an outstretched arm and awesome power, and by signs and portents. God brought us to this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey.
The context for this statement, however, is not Passover. It is this: in ancient Israel, when you brought the first fruits of your harvest to your local Kohen (priest) on חג הבכורים / Ḥag haBiqqurim, the festival of First Fruits (which we call today Shavuot), you would make this statement, a brief encapsulation of the history of our people, at least up until that point. If you can picture yourself in this situation – you are a farmer, whose life and whose family’s ability to eat depends on the success of this harvest, and you are required not only to bring some to the Kohen as a sacrifice of gratitude, food which could have actually been eaten by your family. So you are making a big sacrifice, but not only that, but also to recite this formula recalling our history, demonstrating the high importance we place on our connection to that story.
From the most ancient beginnings of the people of Israel, we have made knowing and learning and explicitly connecting our tradition to our very livelihoods an essential part of what it means to be Jewish. It is a fundamental plank in our sense of peoplehood: we repeat and share and teach our history, our tradition, our pipeline to the past. When you do anything Jewish today – singing Birkat HaMazon at the top of your lungs, “throwing away your sins” at Tashlikh, learning text, schmoozing with friends in the sukkah – your story, our history, is right there with you.
A little later in Parashat Ki Tavo (Devarim / Deuteronomy 27:1-4), Moshe tells the Israelites furthermore that when they enter the Land of Israel, they have to inscribe אֶֽת־כׇּל־דִּבְרֵ֛י הַתּוֹרָ֥ה הַזֹּ֖את “et kol divrei haTorah hazot” – all the words of this Torah – on large stones coated with plaster and set them up on Mt. Ebal, to remind them all of their tradition and obligations, and to do that even BEFORE they build an altar to God. The story, the words of Torah, are not just an integral part of the ritual, they actually PRECEDE it.
And of course you all know the phrase embedded in the first paragraph of the Shema, which we read from the Torah a few weeks back in Parashat Va-etḥannan: veshinantam levanekha – you shall teach these words to your children. It is up to us to make sure that our children know our history, to know our tradition. It is up to us to pass it on. It is up to us to get their attention, to make sure they are listening, to make sure they hear these words and that they understand them and recite them and teach them to their own children some day.
We send our kids to day schools like CDS and supplementary Hebrew schools like JJEP so that the words of our tradition will be integrated into their daily lives. We bring them to synagogue so that they will know their tradition, that they will not be strangers in their own people’s house.
And we send them to camp to feel the joy, to feel the magic of an environment that is fun and low-stress and raucous, when they can make lots of noise and be together and feel connected to our peoplehood, our traditions.
And there is no place like camp for that. Camp brings together practice and learning, along with some Hebrew and some love of Israel, with sports and art and dance and singing and swimming and all the joy of summer in the woods.
God loves it; God loves the magic of Jewish camp.
I am best equipped to speak to the minds and hearts of adults more so than children. But I know, and you do as well, that our children need to feel the magic and the joy if they are to continue to cling to our tradition. And if you are committed to a Jewish future, to our children understanding the value our tradition brings to our lives, send them to camp. If you are committed to the values in particular of the Conservative movement – of commitment to an egalitarian environment focused on a zealously contemporary yet traditional approach to Jewish living, send them to Ramah, and let the magic do its work.
(And thank you so much to Ramah Poconos for taking in my refugee children!)
As I have watched events unfold over the summer – the heartbreaking return of the Taliban, the dramatic spread of the Delta variant, the wrangling over schools and vaccination and masking and the general Covid anxiety which has returned with great aplomb – I must say that I am having a hard time keeping my usually-reliable optimism in front of me. While the early part of the summer made it seem as though everything was moving the right way, those doors seem to have closed, and everything seems suddenly more stressful.
Is anyone else feeling that? Or is it just because I’m preparing for the High Holidays, which is, for rabbis, something like training for a marathon?
When you think about it, Elul is a pretty good month for anxiety. We are supposed to be taking stock of our lives, preparing for Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur and the odyssey of teshuvah, of doing the hard work of repentance. We should be a little stressed. Facing our own misdeeds and failures is not meant to be a pleasant experience.
This season is also a time of returning to God, or at least that is how it is framed in our liturgy. We open Rosh HaShanah by saying, שָׁל֨וֹם ׀ שָׁל֜וֹם לָרָח֧וֹק וְלַקָּר֛וֹב אָמַ֥ר ה / Shalom, shalom, laraḥoq velaqarov, amar Adonai – Peace, peace to those who are near, and to those who are far, says God. We welcome those who feel close to God and to our tradition, as well as those who are returning from having been far off. And just before Kol Nidrei on Yom Kippur, we give ourselves permission to pray amongst the avaryanim, the sinners, that is, those of us who have not been here for a while.
So of course it makes sense for us to be thinking about theology at this time. What do we mean when we invoke the term, “God”? What, or who, is God? How does God function? What is God’s name? Is God with us? Is God controlling anything? Is God actually working in humanity’s interest, or has God quietly exited through the back door? Has God created us or have we created God?
It is with that backdrop that I read with interest a pitch for God by New York Times columnist Ross Douthat. Mr. Douthat is a thoughtful political conservative and a faithful adherent of Roman Catholicism, and, as with many people of faith today, he is engaged in the project of promoting religious involvement.
Douthat’s essential argument is one that I have made myself, even from this very pulpit, and it is more or less this: Although scientific achievements have raised challenges to certain features of religion and perhaps to God’s very existence, the basic underpinnings to religious ideas that inspired our ancestors still apply. In other words, although some today might argue that a scientific perspective negates the Torah’s telling of how we came to be, there are many questions that science cannot answer, and it is within that sphere of uncertainty where religious ideas can still flourish and sustain us. And no matter to how many questions scientific inquiry DOES find successful answers, I am certain that there will always be a place for religious inspiration.
Put yet another way, it is perfectly reasonable, for example, to accept that the universe is 14 billion years old rather than 5782, that it was not created ex nihilo in six days, and yet still believe that the essential mitzvot and values of the Torah and rabbinic literature and all the human intellectual creativity that our tradition has yielded are still binding upon us. It is still possible, if we allow ourselves, to accept that our Torah scroll flows originally from God, even though it clearly exhibits the features of a human work.
I think it is worth remembering on this subject that science and religion offer answers to different questions. Science is trying to answer the question of, “How are we here?”, while religion tackles the “Why?” Science is the realm of cold, hard facts. Torah and all that flows from it is the realm of our spirit and of our origin story as a people. These are not mutually exclusive, but rather different lenses, both of which enable us to put our lives in perspective.
Mr. Douthat anticipates in his introductory remarks that the response to his piece will be something along the lines of, “I am down with the ethical teachings of religion, but I just cannot accept the idea of a personified God, as described in the Bible and in religious prayers.” And, true to form, the readership of the New York Times, at least on-line, responded predictably, with thousands of people “liking” comments that were more or less to that effect, if not openly hostile to the idea of religion.
There is no question that humans have committed all manner of transgressions in the name of religion throughout the ages; I am sure you can think of some contemporary examples, not limited to the extremism of the Taliban. And of course, we the Jews have had a complicated history in our interactions with other religions, from the dhimmi status forced upon our ancestors who lived in Muslim lands, to the slaughter wrought by the Crusades, to the dramatic failure of the Catholic church to attempt to save the Jews of Europe during the Shoah.
And yet, religion and religious involvement have also done so much good for humanity, from the constant reminder of our obligation to see the holiness in others, to feed the hungry and clothe the naked and house the homeless, to the inspiration that God’s presence in our lives has offered in challenging times, in times of grief and times of joy. People motivated by those obligations have created hospitals and schools and charities that care for the needy and the wretched, filling the gaps between commercial interest and insufficient government programs.
What are the mitzvot / holy opportunities of Jewish life for? They are there to provide a framework for holy living, for ensuring that we treat each other with respect, that we treat ourselves with respect and God’s Creation with care and responsibility. They are there to provide shape to our days and our years, to mark the holy moments and bring comfort when we mourn and to give us the words, in God’s own language, to help us express our innermost concerns and desires. When we need to cry out, we have those words; when we need to dance and sing with abandon, we have that language and music and movement.
Unlike secular law, Jewish law aims to be not only a moral compass, but also a practical guide for maintaining the holiness in our relationships with all those around us, a framework for holy living. No matter how arcane the mitzvah, there is always a fundamental reason behind it which makes our performance of the mitzvah a practical one.
While Ross Douthat sees understanding and relating to God as an essential part of that equation, I must say that I am more laissez-faire when it comes to God. Like Martin Buber, I cannot put any kind of condition on God that diminishes the foundational presence that God plays in our lives, immediately and constantly there and yet completely impossible to define or be limited by the boundaries of human understanding.
We should not be so arrogant as to suppose that our brains can actually interpret and quantify the way that God works through us and around us. Rather, we might want to simply respond by throwing up our arms and acknowledging Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s “radical amazement” in response to God.
And let’s face it: however we might understand God, right now we need God in our lives more than ever. If not the personal, savior God to which some religious folks appeal, at least the process God, the one who works around and through us to make for good in this world, to help us in our moment of need. When I say, three times per weekday in the Amidah, “Refa-enu Adonai venerafe,” Heal us, Adonai, and we shall be healed, I may not necessarily expect God to personally heal those who are suffering, one patient at a time. Rather, I invoke the God-enabled framework by which we as humans, using the Divine gifts we have received, the intellect and technology at our disposal, do the best we can to heal this world.
When I say, at the end of every Amidah, “Oseh shalom bimromav,” May the One who makes peace in the heavens bring some peace down to all of us, I am hoping that, in partnership with God, we as humans find a way to lay down our swords and shields and to study war no more. God is on our team in both the healing of the world and the pursuit of peace.
And so here is the good news that we can take with us back into the anxiety-inducing, post-Shabbat world: This take on God cuts across all religious, political, social, ethnic, and international lines. We need God right now, perhaps more than ever; let’s stand together and bring those Divine values to all of us down here on Earth. And let us say, Amen.