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All of This Belongs to You: Be a Jewish Superhero! – Rosh Hashanah 5780, Day 2

(This is the second in the “All of This Belongs to You” series of High Holiday sermons. You may want to read the first before this one: The Greatest Jewish Hand-Off Play Ever)

While I was in Philadelphia with my Israeli son this summer, we stumbled across an exhibit of Marvel characters and memorabilia at the Franklin Institute. And I thought, OK, it’s wonderful that Stan Lee, born Stanley Lieber, a nice Jewish boy from New York, created these characters and this universe and the tremendous wealth of entertainment value that they have all produced, but a museum exhibit? Really?

Now you may know that I am not the most avid consumer of pop culture. I have no clue who Lizzo is. But something that this exhibit made me suddenly aware of was the great power and cachet that the very idea of superheroes has today. On some level, we all wish that we had some superheroes today. Since we’re entering the year 5780, that means we’re back in the ’80s, people! Here’s an appropriate musical cue:

Consider the milieu in which the first contemporary superheroes emerged. American Jewish kids, children of immigrants from Europe, hatched the first comic-book based superheroes because the Jews needed them. Hitler was murdering our people in Europe; Jews in America and elsewhere seemed powerless to convince their governments to stop the transport of Jews to camps, to halt the Nazi death machine. They needed help, help which they did not have. Help which was greater than any government or law-enforcement agency.

And so Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel created Superman in 1933. And Bob Kane (Kahn) and Bill Finger created Batman in 1938. And Joe (Hymie) Simon and Jack Kirby (Jacob Kurtzberg) created Captain America in 1941. And so forth. These, and many others, were the fantasy heroes who would save the Jews.

And there was even precedent for this in Jewish folktales of the middle ages: the golem, a mythical defender of the Jews fashioned out of clay, most famously put into action by the Maharal of Prague, Rabbi Yehuda Leib ben Bezalel, in the 16th century. As some versions of the story go, the clay form would come to life when the Maharal would inscribe the letters of alef-mem-tav, emet, the Hebrew word for “truth,” into its forehead, and then would return to a clay mass when the alef was removed, leaving the word met, dead, in its place.

So it seems that the alef was the animating letter, the one that held the power, the silent letter that carries far more than its own linguistic weight.

And it is the same alef that begins the Hebrew word for love: ahavah. And it is also the same letter with which God speaks to the Israelites en masse at Mt. Sinai, opening the words of the Decalogue, the Ten Commandments, with the silent alef of the word Anokhi, I, the letter that speaks volumes without making a sound.

If I were a Jewish superhero, I would certainly wear an alef on my chest.

***

If you were here yesterday, you know that our theme for 5780 is, “All of This Belongs to You.” Now that the American-Jewish project of assimilation has run its course, the outstanding question is, “How might we reclaim our tradition for the needs of American Jews today?”

The welcoming gate pictured here is a typical “sha’ar” – the illustration found in the front of all printings of the traditional Vilna layout of the Talmud, dating to the 1870s. It is an invitation into the text.

My appeal to you today is as follows: be a Jewish superhero! Proud, committed, open, willing to go the extra distance, maybe even bend the rules a bit to get the job done; not limited by convention – the Jewish world needs you!  

The folks who attend services on the second day of Rosh Hashanah are the more committed folks – the ones who are more likely to show up for synagogue events, who are more likely to participate in many of the aspects of Jewish life, to be more engaged.

So I am going to make the pitch to you to stand up for a new American Judaism – to be the superheroes who will forge that path of the Jewish future, the one that maintains and modernizes our heritage and highlights it for generations to come.  

We need a Beth Shalom, a Conservative movement, an American Judaism that reflects who we are and how we live right now. Yes, to some extent Judaism tells us how to live. But we must acknowledge that today, people relate very differently to Judaism, and to religion in general. While at one time, religion was an organizing principle that helped create a society in which you could trust people whom you did not know, our data-saturated and secular law-infused age has, to some, made this type of organizing principle unnecessary.

But that does not mean that Judaism is irrelevant. Quite the contrary! I think that the numbers of high-profile criminals with Jewish names that have floated across our screens in the past few years are only a symptom of what we have lost along the way to complete assimilation.

You have probably heard me say that Judaism, Jewish life, Jewish practice, Jewish learning offer us real value: they help make us better people and help build a better world. 

If only more Jews were to learn and live Jewish values! If only more Jews were to seek out and engage with Jewish practices – halakhah, learning the words of the Jewish bookshelf, and so forth – then perhaps, just perhaps we would not have had the likes of Bernie Madoff, Harvey Weinstein, Michael Cohen, Jeffrey Epstein. 

If more Jews knew their heritage and engaged with it, then maybe we would have a better chance of truly repairing the world.

So that is where you come in.

I recently heard a wonderful interview (On Being with Krista Tippett) with Rabbi Lawrence Kushner, a well-known Reform rabbi and author. He told the following story about the time he gave a tour of his synagogue’s sanctuary to children in the pre-school, and they theorized about what might be behind the curtain in the aron hakodesh, the ark:

One kid, obviously destined to become a professor of nihilistic philosophy at a great university, opined that behind that curtain was absolutely nothing. Another kid, less imaginative, thought it had a Jewish holy thing in there. A third kid, obviously a devotee of American game show television subculture, guessed that behind that curtain was a brand new car.

And the fourth kid said “No, you’re all wrong. Next week when that rabbi man comes and opens that curtain, behind it, there would be a giant mirror.” From a four-year-old. Somehow, that little soul knew that through looking at the words of sacred scripture, he would encounter himself in a new and heightened and revealing way.

Torah, by which I mean not just the scrolls behind the curtain but all of accumulated learning and commentary and argument and behaviors it has yielded over the last three millennia, is not an old, dusty collection of obscure literature. It is us. It is a reflection of who we are and how we live. It is an assessment of our lives, an opportunity to consider who we are and how we can improve ourselves.

It IS a mirror.

But when we truly pay attention, when we embrace and commit ourselves to learning the wisdom of our tradition, we see who we are. It is a mirror that reflects not our outsides, but our insides.

And, truth be told, not everybody wants to stand in front of that kind of mirror. We do not want to be judged. We usually do not want to have to think too deeply about our own shortcomings.

But I want you stand before that mirror and think, How can I infuse my life with just a little more qedushah, more holiness? How can I teach Torah through my words, through my consumption choices, through my philanthropic donations? How can I bring a little more Torah to the world in how I interact with all the people around me? How can the awareness of myself and the world that Torah brings me shed a little more light on us all? 

Can I imagine myself with a giant, red alef on my chest, bringing my whole self into the synagogue, and then out into the world, armed with Torah? Heck – we already have the cape…

And the answer is, yes. Yes you can. You are going to be the alef.

And as a Jewish superhero, you’re going to need a mission. You know, “Fighting for truth, justice, and the American way!” Or “Here I come to save the day!” And here it is: Positive Judaism.

I have recently read a book that provides a blueprint for how to do that. It’s called The Happiness Prayer, by Rabbi Evan Moffic, who is a Reform rabbi who leads Congregation Solel, in Chicago. The premise of the book is that, drawing on the principles of positive psychology, Judaism can be a force for good in our lives and the world. I’m not going to go deep into the background on positive psychology – you can feel free to do that on your own time. 

Rabbi Moffic derives the principles of “Positive Judaism” from a well-known passage in the Talmud that he calls, “The Happiness Prayer.” It goes like this:

אֵלּוּ דְבָרִים שֶׁאָדָם אוכֵל פֵּרותֵיהֶם בָּעולָם הַזֶּה וְהַקֶּרֶן קַיֶּמֶת לו לָעולָם הַבָּא. וְאֵלּוּ הֵן. כִּבּוּד אָב וָאֵם. וּגְמִילוּת חֲסָדִים. וְהַשְׁכָּמַת בֵּית הַמִּדְרָשׁ. שַׁחֲרִית וְעַרְבִית. וְהַכְנָסַת אורְחִים. וּבִקּוּר חולִים. וְהַכְנָסַת כַּלָּה. וּלְוָיַת הַמֵּת. וְעִיּוּן תפילה. וַהֲבָאַת שָׁלום בֵּין אָדָם לַחֲבֵרו וּבֵין אִישׁ לְאִשְׁתּו. וְתַלְמוּד תּורָה כְּנֶגֶד כֻּלָּם:

These are the deeds that yield immediate fruit in this world and continue to yield fruit in the World to Come: honoring parents; doing deeds of lovingkindness; arriving at the beit midrash / house of study early–morning and evening; providing hospitality; visiting the sick; helping the needy bride; attending to the dead; probing the meaning of prayer; making peace between one person and another, and between husband and wife. And the study of Torah outweighs them all.

This prayer appears in many traditional siddurim / prayerbooks, and it is based on passages found in the Talmud (Mishnah Peah 1:1, BT Shabbat 127a). 

Rabbi Moffic universalizes the language somewhat while preserving the prayer’s original intent. He interprets them as follows:

כִּבּוּד אָב וָאֵם / Honor those who gave you life.
גְמִילוּת חֲסָדִים / Be kind
הַשְׁכָּמַת בֵּית הַמִּדְרָשׁ, שַׁחֲרִית וְעַרְבִית / Keep learning
הַכְנָסַת אורְחִים / Invite others into your life
בִקּוּר חולִים / Be there when others need you
הַכְנָסַת כַּלָּה / Celebrate good times
לְוָיַת הַמֵּת / Support yourself and others during times of loss
עִיּוּן תפילה / Pray with intention
הֲבָאַת שָׁלום בֵּין אָדָם לַחֲבֵרו וּבֵין אִישׁ לְאִשְׁתּו / Forgive
תַלְמוּד תּורָה כְּנֶגֶד כֻּלָּם / Look inside and commit

Now, this is a really fabulous template for finding happiness in Judaism, but I really do not have time to explain each of these. You might want to check out Rabbi Moffic’s book. But among these ten items, I think the most important ones are as follows:

גְמִילוּת חֲסָדִים / Be kind

Practice random acts of kindness and senseless beauty, says the bumper sticker. Well, yeah. (They do not have to be random or senseless.) Find ways to do good works for others and for society, because that is how we make this world a better place while endowing our own lives with a sense of meaning. The 20th century Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas explained that suffering is the root of kindness – understanding that we all suffer in one way or another, this suffering is always an opportunity to provide comfort through deeds of kindness. That, says Levinas, is God’s vector in the world; we become God’s hands.

הַשְׁכָּמַת בֵּית הַמִּדְרָשׁ. שַׁחֲרִית וְעַרְבִית / Keep learning

An 80-year-long monumental study of life satisfaction began at Harvard University in 1938. One of the study’s key findings was that the happiest people were the ones who pursued and shared wisdom, which they attained through a lifetime of learning: from travel, from classes, from new experiences, from other people. The Jewish value of learning is not just about the Beit Midrash, the traditional study hall, but also that as we walk through life, we should always strive to acquire more knowledge, more wisdom, more experience. 

הַכְנָסַת אורְחִים / Invite others into your life

One of the major challenges that we face as a society is isolation. Thanks to our newfangled digital devices, it is possible for us to feel connected even when we are not. I’m not judging our use of technology, but I think there are reasons to be concerned. The antidote to this isolation is to reach out to others any way you can. Perhaps the most powerful connector in Jewish life is the Shabbat meal at home, or a festive meal in the Sukkah, and we should all be hosting more of them and inviting more people. But gathering in synagogue is also a powerful tool. I am especially grateful that Beth Shalom is attracting many new members nowadays, and that is due to your talent at hakhnasat orehim. But there is always room to grow – to reach out to somebody else, to get to know someone whom you do not. The power of community is found in the sharing of stories and experiences. By this time next year you I hope for you to count how many times and how many people you’ve hosted, and take stock of the ways in which these instances impacted and enriched your life.  

הֲבָאַת שָׁלום בֵּין אָדָם לַחֲבֵרו וּבֵין אִישׁ לְאִשְׁתּו / Forgive

Related to the challenge of isolation is the fact that all of what we learn about the world through online platforms – Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, etc. – is curated to do one thing: keep your eyeballs on that platform as long as possible. And so these platforms are constantly putting in front of you items that they already know you love. The difficulty here is that the algorithms are effectively constantly telling us, “You’re right,” continuously affirming our perspective. How much harder, then, is it for us to excuse the people around us for viewing the world in a way we feel is 100% wrong? And how much easier is it, then, to dig in our heels, even when doing so pushes us apart?

One of the most essential things that we should be thinking about, as we consider the brokenness of the world, is how to bring people together. And the key to doing so, to repairing the world, ladies and gentlemen, is forgiveness. And that does not mean overlooking the misdeeds of others who have treated you badly; it means reaching deep within yourself to find the intestinal fortitude to let go of the animosity and the desire for revenge. 

Forgiveness, says Rabbi Moffic, is actually a form of revenge – “a favor we do ourselves because it releases the energies we would have expended in feeling hurt and aggrieved.” Letting go of the anger we hold onto can be tremendously liberating. I have seen this happen.

עִיּוּן תפילה / Pray with intention

You all know that I pray regularly, and that daily prayer brings real value to my life. And it can bring real value to yours as well, if you commit to it. However, tefillah / prayer is simply not one of those things that you can enter lightly. You really have to be intentional about it, and that is hard. In fact, it does not necessarily get easier the more you do it. But once you get the rhythm, the choreography, the themes, the language, it allows you to access yourself in a way that is unlike any other. It’s like yoga for your head and heart, soothing your soul and sensitizing you to the others around you. You cannot be a part of a minyan, a quorum of ten, without the others in the room, and that is by design. That magic combination of doing something good for your soul, reflecting quietly, reciting ancient words of tradition from a place of humility, and doing it in fellowship with others is healthy for your body, your mind, and your community.

תַלְמוּד תּורָה כְּנֶגֶד כֻּלָּם / Look inside and commit.

As a Jewish superhero, you have to be committed to the prime directive of the Jews, and that is to spread light in a too-dark world. And the way to do this is to know and understand the range of wisdom found on the Jewish bookshelf, and to use it to locate that mirror that Rabbi Kushner described. Our ancient wisdom is our stock-in-trade, the Jewish gift to the world. And you need to know more of it, so that you can bring out the best in yourself and in others. Pirqei Avot (6:1) teaches that the one who learns Torah for its own sake is clothed in humility, reverence, and modesty, and is slow to insult. If only more of us carried those qualities with us at all times!

***
Those are the pieces of the Happiness Prayer that I find most appealing, but you should not take my word for it. If you are going to be a Jewish Superhero, if you’re going to help create the Judaism of the 21st century, to help us reclaim our spiritual heritage, you are going to have to investigate some of this for yourself.

So find a big alef, whether physical or metaphorical, and pin it to your chest. Without the alef, we are met / dead. With the alef, we are emet / truth.

You are the alef. You are the superhero. All of this belongs to you! Now go out and make it happen.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, second day of Rosh Hashanah, 10/1/2019.)

Continue reading the next installment in the “All of This Belongs to You” series: All of This Belongs to You: Do Not Be Indifferent – Kol Nidrei 5780

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