This is the second in the “Being There” 5783 High Holiday series. You might want to start with the first one: You Need a Minyan.
The Big Book of Jewish Humor is one of the most-beloved items on my bookshelf. My copy was in fact a bar mitzvah present in 1983, and I have managed to hold onto it now for nearly four decades. Rabbi Goodman and I, in fact, are both so familiar with the material in that book that we occasionally walk by each other’s office and just recite a punch line, which sends us both into stitches.
The book includes a few faux-Hasidic tales by Woody Allen (pp. 200-201), including the following:
Rabbi Tzvi Hayyim Yisroel, an Orthodox scholar of the Torah and a man who developed whining to an art unheard of in the West, was unanimously hailed as the wisest man of the Renaissance by his fellow Hebrews, who totaled a sixteenth of one percent of the population.
Once, while he was on his way to synagogue to celebrate the sacred Jewish holiday commemorating God’s reneging on every promise, a woman stopped him and asked the following question: “Rabbi, why are we not allowed to eat pork?”
“We’re not?” the rabbi said, incredulously. “Uh-oh.”
What’s funny and ridiculous, of course, is that it is clearly impossible that this Hasidic rabbi could have missed the memo on pork.
And yet, I must say that it is surprisingly easy for even deeply-committed members of our community to miss things that are going on here at Beth Shalom. Yes, it is true that there are many, many things happening.
But I am often surprised when, for example, a few months after returning from our last synagogue trip to Israel in 2018, a member said to me, “Gee, Rabbi, wouldn’t it be great if we could organize a congregational trip to Israel?”
It is true that we are not always paying attention. Not just to Beth Shalom events, of course, but to lots and lots of things. Part of the challenge is that there are so many more means of distraction today, and you all know what I am talking about.
But of course there are many other reasons for this as well. Many of us are squeezed for time, as our work has invaded all corners of our lives thanks to the digital leashes that most of us are carrying around in our pockets. Many of us are pulled in so many different directions, between child-rearing or taking care of aging parents or trying to scrape together a living or just trying to find a few moments of peace.
But the greater challenge regarding our ongoing connection to Jewish life is the disconnection from the institutions which have shaped our lives. Not just organizations like synagogues, but some of the essential ways that our contemporary society has structured itself.
We are all, it seems, compelled to be independent operators; we are all, to some extent, “bowling alone.” And this disconnection from the established organizing principles of society and religion and culture threaten the foundations of our lives.
Our theme over these High Holidays is “Being There.” And the angle I am taking today is Beit Kenesset – the synagogue, the traditional “place of gathering” of the Jews. What I mean by that is that our Beit Kenesset, Beth Shalom, is here all the time – standing not only at the corner of Beacon and Shady, but also in our hearts. And most of us only set foot in it once in a while: on holidays, on benei mitzvah, or perhaps for a yahrzeit (that is, saying qaddish on the Hebrew date commemoration of a loved one’s death).
But whether you come here regularly or not, Beth Shalom is always here, and Jewish life is a continuum marked by a set of rituals and traditions and halakhah / Jewish law. And those items, in particular those distinctly Jewish actions, are essential to being Jewish. Without them, without that continuum of practice, Judaism cannot provide the framework that makes you a better person and this world a better place.
I recently heard about a fascinating new book by University of Connecticut sociology professor, Dr. Dimitris Xygalatas. It is called Ritual: How Seemingly Senseless Acts Make Life Worth Living.
In it, Dr. Xygalatas describes how rituals “help individuals through their anxieties, they help groups of people connect to one another, [and] help people find meaning in their lives.” He describes how, when he was a child growing up in Greece, he was forced to attend church and participate in rituals that did not seem to have any immediate, tangible result. He did not appreciate the rituals, or understand why he had to perform them.
But academic studies have shown that all types of rituals provide a benefit to people, just not necessarily what they are ostensibly for. Fisherman in Papua New Guinea, for example, who perform a ritual before going out to fish in the open sea, cannot prove that the ritual actually helps them catch more fish. But it certainly helps them cope with the stress of open-sea fishing, which can be dangerous, and provides them a framework into which they can lean for support.
But here is the thing about rituals: you actually have to perform them regularly and consistently for them to have that kind of effect. And Judaism goes even one better than this, because if you are performing our rituals properly, and you are paying attention, you also know the textual basis from which they come, and that adds even more meaning and guidance.
Ḥevreh, you have heard me speak fairly frequently about the value of our ritual framework. About the value of prayer, of tallit and tefillin, of Shabbat and our holidays and kashrut and studying our ancient holy texts.
So here’s the thing: I want you to make your Jewish connection less sporadic. Jewish life, Judaism, is not just something that you do on Shabbat morning, or on the High Holidays, or Purim or Ḥanukkah.
Rather, if you are doing it right, Jewish life is a thread that weaves through all the pieces of the fabric of your life. And it is up to us, following the model of Avraham Avinu / our father Abraham, to say, Hinneni! Here I am, as we read in the Torah this morning. To show up. To be present. To be there.
Consider, for example, a line which my son chanted on the day he was called to the Torah as a bar mitzvah a month ago, in Parashat Re’eh. It is a line that you may know from the Passover haggadah:
Devarim / Deuteronomy 16:3
לְמַ֣עַן תִּזְכֹּ֗ר אֶת־י֤וֹם צֵֽאתְךָ֙ מֵאֶ֣רֶץ מִצְרַ֔יִם כֹּ֖ל יְמֵ֥י חַיֶּֽיךָ׃
Lema’an tizkor et yom tzetkah me-eretz mitzrayim kol yemei ḥayyekha.
In order that you remember the day of your departure from the land of Egypt all the days of your life.
It appears in the Maggid / storytelling section of the seder, in the bit that you may know as follows (although it’s originally from the Mishnah, Berakhot 1:5):
אָמַר רַבִּי אֶלְעָזָר בֶּן־עֲזַרְיָה הֲרֵי אֲנִי כְּבֶן שִׁבְעִים שָׁנָה וְלֹא זָכִיתִי שֶׁתֵּאָמֵר יְצִיאַת מִצְרַיִם בַּלֵּילוֹת עַד שֶׁדְּרָשָׁהּ בֶּן זוֹמָא, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר, לְמַעַן תִּזְכֹּר אֶת יוֹם צֵאתְךָ מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם כֹּל יְמֵי חַיֶּיךָ. יְמֵי חַיֶּיךָ הַיָּמִים. כֹּל יְמֵי חַיֶּיךָ הַלֵּילוֹת
Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah said, “Behold I am like a man of seventy years and I have not merited [to understand why] the Exodus from Egypt should be said at night until Ben Zoma explained it, as it is stated (Deuteronomy 16:3), ‘In order that you remember the day of your departure from the land of Egypt all the days of your life;’ ימי חייך – ‘the days of your life’ [indicates that the remembrance be invoked during] the days, כל ימי חייך – ‘all the days of your life’ [indicates that the remembrance be invoked also during] the nights.”
The Torah tells us that we should remember the Exodus every day and every night of our lives. This should be read as not just once a day and once per night, but of course we should hold that idea with us at all times.
There are good reasons for this: they are among the reasons that Pesaḥ is among the most resonant holidays of the Jewish year, still observed by most of us:
- We should never be so proud of ourselves that we forget our origins; our peoplehood was founded in slavery, and we remember what it means to be a slave.
- This collective memory should guide us in our interactions with others: recalling our historical oppression guides us to stand up for justice wherever we can.
- The redemption from Egypt also reminds us that we can bring future redemption: if we remain faithful to our tradition and to God, that holy partnership will ultimately yield a time of peace for the whole world.
We should remember the Exodus, and all of the symbolism and meaning thereof, all the time. And those of us who attend synagogue on a daily basis know that remembering the Exodus pops up in all sorts of places: in the third paragraph of the Shema, for example, so if you are saying it evening and morning (as mandated in the first paragraph), you are remembering the Exodus every day and every night at Ma’ariv and Shaḥarit. And we also mention it in the Friday night qiddush. And certainly we should remember the Exodus when we sit in the Sukkah. And, well, on every Festival. And it appears multiple times in the scrolls found in every set of tefillin. And so on.
So, if you’re doing Judaism right, the lessons learned from our having left slavery are with us every day, not just for a night or two in the spring. And the daily rituals which frame our lives in the continuum of Jewish practice give us the strength and resilience to appreciate and act on the meaning embedded therein.
But not just that: kashrut, the set of Jewish dietary principles, reminds us every time we put food into our mouths that we have an obligation to be holy. And that what comes out of our mouths should be at least as holy as what goes in. And those two activities, eating and talking, take up much of our days.
And there is more: the Jewish principles of business law which should guide our work activities, principles like not withholding wages from a day laborer (Vayiqra / Leviticus 19:13) and using honest measures in the marketplace (Vayiqra / Leviticus 19:35-36). This is the sort of guidance our tradition offers, and these principles guide us in making just choices every day.
I could cite many more examples of how the nexus of practice and text, of ritual and the Jewish bookshelf, help us be better people. But we cannot just cite them and be done with them; we have to perform these rituals. We have to live by them.
If our Jewish connection is always there, always present with us through our customs and values and text, it will help us through our days.
Yehoshua / Joshua 1:8
לֹֽא־יָמ֡וּשׁ סֵ֩פֶר֩ הַתּוֹרָ֨ה הַזֶּ֜ה מִפִּ֗יךָ וְהָגִ֤יתָ בּוֹ֙ יוֹמָ֣ם וָלַ֔יְלָה לְמַ֙עַן֙ תִּשְׁמֹ֣ר לַעֲשׂ֔וֹת כְּכׇל־הַכָּת֖וּב בּ֑וֹ כִּי־אָ֛ז תַּצְלִ֥יחַ אֶת־דְּרָכֶ֖ךָ וְאָ֥ז תַּשְׂכִּֽיל׃
Let not this Book of the Torah cease from your lips, but recite it day and night, so that you may observe faithfully all that is written in it. Only then will you prosper in your undertakings and only then will you be successful.
… says the book of Joshua, a verse which we read during the haftarah on Simhat Torah. Repeat these words day and night, and live by them, so that you may receive the benefits that our ancient tradition affords us. We recite tefillah / prayer and study and argue over our ancient texts so that we might prosper – not only financially, of course, but in our relationships with the people around us, which of course are far more important than money.
If you’re doing it right, the sense of connection to our tradition, to our text, to our rituals, to our values, should be with you all the time. Try to cut through all the noise in your life to keep these things in front of you all the time.
Think of your beit kenesset, Congregation Beth Shalom, which has been perched up here at the top of Squirrel Hill for an entire century. Stable, solid, consistent – standing here as a reminder to come back. We are the continuous beacon on Beacon Street, symbolizing and promoting what we have done for thousands of years, that ancient continuum of ritual and wisdom.
That is the principle of Being There. In order to reap the benefits, you have to show up. You have to be present. You cannot phone it in, or be using your phone while you are engaging with our tradition. Don’t let all of that day-to-day hustle crowd out the essential pieces of our tradition, the continuum of Jewish life.
And here is something else: the stakes are high. As we read in Pirqei Avot (2:15):
רַבִּי טַרְפוֹן אוֹמֵר, הַיּוֹם קָצָר וְהַמְּלָאכָה מְרֻבָּה, וְהַפּוֹעֲלִים עֲצֵלִים, וְהַשָּׂכָר הַרְבֵּה, וּבַעַל הַבַּיִת דּוֹחֵק
Rabbi Tarfon said: the day is short, and the work is plentiful, and the laborers are indolent, and the reward is great, and the master of the house is insistent.
Somewhere along the way, in our embrace of modernity, we have forgotten that Judaism is not a “religion” in the Western sense, but a mode of living. That is, you cannot just show up sporadically or include little pieces or symbols here and there. Rather, we should always be striving to do more, to reach higher, to fill our lives with our tradition and its teaching. “Religion” is something you do in church; Judaism colors our lives with meaning.
Because the value is infinite, and our future as a people as well as the future of this world depend on our daily choices.
Rabbi Mark Goodman pointed something out to me recently: that the Zoom participants in our weekday morning services were not able to hear the shofar being blown. Apparently, Zoom’s noise-canceling software heard the shofar and immediately assumed that it was unpleasant background noise that needed to be eliminated, so the folks tuning in via Zoom could not hear it. Yes, indeed: Zoom canceled the shofar.
Now, there are two possible lessons to be gleaned here:
- That being in person for services is better. OK, so I certainly agree with that, and I am grateful that the vaccines have enabled us to do so safely, but of course there are still some people who have reason to be concerned due to their compromised immunity, and others who simply cannot physically make it into the building for other reasons, so of course we will continue offering services by Zoom. Nonetheless, it is better to be here in person!)
- The other lesson has nothing to do with Zoom, but rather is a question of really hearing the shofar, and everything else that we do. If your world is filtering out the content and meaning of Jewish life, if you find yourself unable to hear the words of the ancient bookshelf, then you are missing something.
The solution to hearing the shofar over Zoom, by the way, is actually to turn on a setting called “Original Sound.” This setting turns off that technology that mutes the shofar.
I am going to suggest the following: find the settings in your life that will enable you to hear more, to do more, to derive more meaning from what we do. I understand that you may not be able to show up for every service, every program, every type of gathering (and we do offer many, many opportunities to gather). But the only way to keep that thread of Jewish connection flowing through the fabric of your life is to refresh the connection every day and every night. Don’t miss a note of the shofar, or a word of Jewish learning; it is through that continuum of practice, of Being There, that we can all truly benefit from our tradition.
The key to finding the meaning in Jewish life is Being There. And this place, the synagogue, the beit kenesset, both stands for that idea, and serves as the place in which we make it happen. So keep coming back.
On Yom Kippur we will talk about being part of our world-wide qehillah qedoshah, sacred community, and the true value of ḥevruta, partnership.
(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, second day of Rosh HaShanah 5783, 9/27/2022.)