Posted tagged ‘High Holy Days’

It All Begins With God: An Erev Rosh Hashanah Sermon

October 4, 2016

Every year we join our fellow Jews around the world in making our annual pilgrimage to the synagogue in observance of the High Holy Days.  But what is it that draws us to this place on this night?  On any given Shabbat, with the exception of special events, there are far, far more empty seats in this sanctuary than there are those that are occupied.  But tonight, the seats that are filled clearly outnumber the seats that are empty.  It is not that we are alone in this experience.  The same could be said of most houses of worship – Jewish and otherwise – across our land.  The non-Jews too have their special days on which their people flock to their sanctuaries in numbers far exceeding their Sabbath worship attendance.

But why is that?  I know that if I were to go around this sanctuary right now and ask each and every one of you individually, “Why did you come here tonight?  What is it about the High Holy Days that draws you to the synagogue” that I would receive an extensive and varied collection of responses.  While as diverse as those responses would be, I suspect that the majority of them would have something to do with connecting with one’s fellow Jews or somehow affirming one’s personal Jewish identity.  “I do it because I am a Jew and this is what Jews do.  They go to services on the High Holy Days.”

Now I am sure that there are those of you who feel that way; that there are those of you who feel truly, in your heart of hearts, that “I’m a Jew and this is what Jews do on the High Holy Days” is reason enough to be here tonight.  But is it really?  At one time, maybe it was, but is it now?

I can tell you, not only as a rabbi whose rabbinic career is drawing to a close, but more importantly, as a Jew who has spent his life in the synagogue – and not just any synagogue, but in the Reform synagogue – no longer is that answer enough.  At one time, observing the High Holy Days if, for no other reason than “I am a Jew and this is what Jews do,” meant truly observing them.  It meant, not just going to a service here or a service there and feeling satisfied that we have done our duty to our Jewish identity, but it meant truly setting aside these days for us and our families as Jewish days; as days on which we withdraw from our engagement with the rest of the world and maintain our focus on who we are as Jews.

As a child growing up in New York City in the ‘50‘s and the ‘60’s, it was utterly unthinkable for my Classical Reform Jewish father to attend the Rosh Hashanah Evening service and then go to work on Rosh Hashanah Day, or to go to work after the Rosh Hashanah Morning service, and you could count on the fact that on Yom Kippur my parents spent the entire day in our synagogue, and they were far from alone in that.  And so it was with us children as well.  There was no question in my house as to whether or not I was going to school on Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur, even for part of the day, for I was not.  If I had even broached the question with my parents – a highly unlikely scenario – they would have had none of it.  Like my parents, I was not alone in this.  For all of my religious school friends, it was the same.  We were in the synagogue for all of the services, sitting beside our parents.

Yet if my parents and most of their contemporaries were asked back then the question I asked you this evening – “What is it about the High Holy Days that draws you to the synagogue?” – many of them, including my parents – or at least my father – would have given the same answer “Because I am a Jew and this is what Jews do.”  But that was then and this is now.  For many of my parents’ generation grew up as Orthodox Jews who later discovered Reform Judaism.  My father’s grandfather had been a noted Orthodox educator back in Europe.  Theirs was the generation that experienced both the agony of the Holocaust and the ecstasy of the birth of Israel.  Their Jewish identity was indelibly impressed upon them by the forces of history and family tradition.  Therefore a more active observance of the High Holy Days was a natural expression of their Jewish identity and a product of their experiences and upbringing.

But we are not them, for our experiences and our upbringing are not theirs.  Today, the number of Jews who set these days aside and make it clear to the rest of the world that “You are just going to have to do without me on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur” is dwindling.  And it will continue to dwindle, especially as so many of our children are raised in households which choose to send then to school rather than to services on the High Holy Days.

It is not that we are bad people, or even bad Jews.  It is just that with the passage of time, the world has changed and for many Jews, being Jewish and going to the synagogue on the High Holy Days simply because that is what Jews do, is no longer enough of a reason to seriously dedicate more than perhaps a portion of these days to that part of us which is Jewish.

Of course I am certainly prejudiced on this matter, but I believe that the High Holy Days, and indeed Judaism and Jewish life itself, are too important, too precious, not only to us as Jews but to the world, to be allowed to dwindle away into nothingness.  There is a good reason why we have survived for 4,000 years in spite of the efforts of all those who have tried to destroy us.  There is a good reason why we – who have always been so few in numbers – have made such a significant impact upon not only the history of humanity but upon the culture of humanity.  And that reason is to be found enfolded into the very fabric of the Judaism we have come to this synagogue tonight to observe.  It is inherent in Judaism itself and it is both expressed and promoted in our observances and our values.  It is the Jewish perspective on what it means to be a part of humanity.  It is the Jewish call for building a better world on the foundations of compassion and right behavior.  It is the Jewish expectation that we constantly strive to make of ourselves better people.

It is vital for Jewish survival that we come to acknowledge that in the 21st century, doing Jewish things because this is what Jews do is no longer a compelling argument for us to continue to pursue a Jewish life.  There are just too many distractions and to be quite frank, many of them are simply more appealing.  They touch us in ways that are deeper than blindly following some traditions because our parents and grandparents did so.  So if we are to keep our Judaism alive, we need to seek out a deeper meaning in doing so.  Something that moves us.  Something that inspires us.  Something that touches our hearts and our souls, and fills us with a higher sense of purpose.

But where can that be found?  Where should our search begin?  Perhaps we need to go back in time, to a time before the reason Jews did Jewish things like observing the High Holy Days was just “because I’m a Jew and this is what Jews do?”  When the reason Jews lived a Jewish life was more substantive than just keeping certain traditions alive for the sake of tradition; when Jews were bound to their Jewish identity by more than just a thin thread stretching back into their past but rather they were bound by golden cords that not only stretched back into their past but also wove intimately through their present and then travelled forward into their future.

So maybe we need to go back in time and ask those Jews “What is it, not just about the High Holy Days, but about Judaism itself that drew them to the synagogue and inspired them to live Jewish lives?”  While some of them still might say, “Because I’m a Jew and this is what Jews do”, most of them would say something different. Most of them would talk about something that we today don’t spend enough time talking about, or even thinking about, for that matter.  They would talk about God and their relationship with God.  For them, God was a real player in their lives.  They felt connected to God in ways that we have somehow lost.

Of course one of the reasons that they felt more connected to God was because they felt more dependent on God.  There was so much in their world that they did not understand.  Why some people were struck down by dread diseases.  Why, at a moment’s notice, a storm could utterly destroy the livelihood and even the life of a family or an entire village.  So much seemed out of their control and therefore must be in the control of another, and that other was, in their minds, God.  So they feared God, or more precisely, they feared offending God.  They even called these High Holy Days the Yamim HaNora’im – the “Days of Awe” with the Hebrew word for “Awe” being the very same word as the Hebrew for “Fear.”  So prayer was very real to them.  It was a desperate attempt to communicate with a Divinity that was present in their daily lives, and by so doing hopefully change their future for the better.

We are most certainly not that people and the God whom they feared has little if any place in our lives.  Yet we would be sorely mistaken if we were to convince ourselves that the only God they believed in was the God to be feared. Quite the contrary, for their God was anything but one dimensional.  From the very beginning of Judaism, God was, and remains, a colorful and complex character.  As the High Holy Day prayer describes God, Avinu Malkeinu – “Our Parent, Our Sovereign.”  Powerful enough to be feared, like a king or a queen, but also loving and compassionate, like a caring mother or father.  Yes, these Jews feared God but they also loved God.  For God was not just the deliverer of punishments but also the giver of gifts. The gifts of life, of health, of food, of love, of beauty, of wisdom, of truth, of understanding, of knowledge, and of the abilities to learn and to create.  Indeed, they clearly understood that when it came to Judaism, it all begins with God.  From the moment of our people’s birth, when God first called to Abraham, Judaism was primarily about establishing a positive, healthy, and mutual relationship with God.  Without God, Judaism must fade away, for God is the foundation stone of everything that Judaism stands for.  Without God, Judaism becomes a meaningless and empty exercise, as empty and meaningless as the words in the prayer book when read by someone who chooses to watch the clock rather than search for a personal connection to God in the prayers.  For our Judaism – and for these High Holy Days – to have real meaning, we have to accept that it all begins with God.

Most Jews would agree that there is no more important a text in the Torah than the Ten Commandments.  The power of the Ten Commandments has not only touched the soul of the Jewish world but of the Christian world as well.  Our two faiths share the Ten Commandments, or so we think.  But believe it or not there are differences between the way the Christians read them and the way we Jews read them.  For the Christians, the first commandment states “I am the Eternal your God who led you out of the land of Egypt to be your God.  You shall have no other gods before Me,” while for us Jews, the first commandment is “I am the Eternal your God who led you out of the land of Egypt to be your God”, period.  For us, it is the second commandment that reads “You shall have no other gods before Me.”  The Christian version is obviously a commandment.  It instructs to action – “Have no other gods before Me.”  But what about the Jewish version?  It appears to be a declarative statement – “I am the Eternal your God…” rather than a commandment.  Where is its call to action?  Well its call to action is implied and it is essential for everything else which follows; for all the other commandments to have any meaning.  The implied commandment is simply this:  Take this statement to heart and accept it as the foundation for all that follows.  Accept that God exists and that we as Jews live in a sacred relationship with God, and that all the other commandments, all the other expectations of actions and values that are found in the Torah and grow out of it across the ages, are but functions of that relationship between us and God.  They are there to define our role in that relationship.  They feed that relationship and in so doing draw us personally closer to God.

Over the past several years, I have found it odd indeed that people are interested in talking about and seeking spirituality but not so interested in talking about and seeking God, as if the two were completely separate experiences.  But they are not.  Spirituality is far more than just a good feeling about ourselves.  It is about our reaching out for God and God touching our lives.  How so?  Our tradition teaches us that we human beings are not like any other creature living on the earth for we possess something very special; a soul.  The soul was implanted within us by God in order to enable us to connect with God.  It is our divine umbilical cord, if you will, for it enables spiritual energy to flow between us and God.  But that spiritual energy does not flow freely.  It flows at our choosing.  We control how much or how little we receive; how wide or how narrow that umbilical cord is.  If it were solely up to God, the flow would be constant and vast, but God gave us the gift of free will so that we could choose how much or how little we would let God into our lives.  There is a Hasidic saying that “there is no room for God in those who are too full of themselves.”[1]  Sadly, for too many, that is exactly what has happened.  They have turned their control valve and limited the spiritual flow to a trickle, if not closed it off completely, and in so doing, abandoned themselves to being guided primarily or solely by their base animal instincts.  They have starved their souls from the spiritual nutrients they need.

But this need not remain the case.  We can open that value, reach out to God, and feel God’s presence in our lives.  We can feed our souls and in so doing grow as more spiritual and better human beings.  How do we accomplish such a feat?  That is what a better part of our Judaism is about.  It is about how we can connect with God and let God into our lives in beautiful and meaningful ways.  Through the Torah and our sacred teachings, we have been given the owner’s manual to the soul.  We have been instructed on how to awaken and strengthen our souls so that we can come to live our lives in an ongoing relationship with God.  Not just on the High Holy Days and not even just on Shabbat, but rather on a day-to-day basis.  For whether we realize it or not, our day-to-day lives are lived in a relationship with God.  However it is up to us what the nature of that relationship will be.  We can choose to live our lives through behaviors and attitudes which strengthen the bonds between us and God or we can choose to live our lives through behaviors and attitudes which weaken those bonds.  It is up to us.

This past year, here at Temple Emanuel, I taught a series of mini-courses on what our tradition calls MussarMussar is the companion to Halachah.  As Halachah constitutes a body of Jewish laws which lead us to right actions, Mussar constitutes a body of Jewish virtues or ethical perspectives which liberate our souls and enable us to adopt sacred and healthy life attitudes.  While Halachah instructs us about what we should do while living in a sacred relationship with God, Mussar instructs us about how we can better mold our attitudes so that they ultimately instinctually guide us into right behaviors and therefore transform our lives into an active partnership with God.

While the building blocks of Halachah are mitzvot – sacred actions – the building blocks of Mussar are middot – sacred values, sacred attitudes.  I am dedicating the remainder of my High Holy Day sermons to exploring various middot in the hopes that we will begin to understand that if we choose to strengthen our souls by taking on sacred attitudes, then that can lead us to living lives filled with sacred actions, which in turn will connect us more strongly to God and help us to grow into the type of people we aspire to become.

Once we perceive of our lives as being lived in a sacred partnership with God, then we will find that there are far more inspiring reasons to come to the synagogue on the High Holy Days than merely because we are Jews and this is what Jews do.

[1] Buber, Martin, TEN RUNGS:  HASIDIC SAYINGS, p. 102.

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Rosh Hashanah Hunger Appeal 5775

October 31, 2014

Shanah Tovah Tikateivu! May each and every one of you be inscribed for manifold blessings in the coming new year!
Every year I open our High Holy Day worship by appealing to you to support the various ways in which our congregation joins in the fight against world and local hunger. Often in the past I have shared the heartbreaking statistics of how many of our fellow human beings – men and women, the elderly and little children – have been ravaged and slaughtered by starvation. Often in the past, I have pointed with great pride to the statistics of our own congregation’s effort to fight hunger; how much money we have raised, how many pounds of food we have collected, how many have walked in the CROP Walk. All of that is valuable information which deserves to be shared. But tonight I want to go in another direction.
For years I have taken this opportunity to promote our hunger programs and I suspect that by now most of you have figured out that I am passionate about these efforts. But I never really have shared with you why I am so passionate; why this particular issue touches me so deeply and why I am so urgent about it touching you as well.
One need only glance at me to realize that hunger has never been a personal challenge in my life. When it comes to food, my problem has never been too little, but too much! In my 64 years, I do not think that a day has gone by – with the exception of my annual Yom Kippur fasts – in which I have ever seriously gone without food. But that very fact, in and of itself, has helped to make this such a pressing issue for me, in very much a High Holy Days way – Guilt!
Maybe it is because I am one of that generation who were told by our parents to clean our plates at meal times because there were starving children in China. Of course, none of us could understand how not leaving food on our plates could help to feed starving Chinese children, but still the image was imbedded in our minds. While we have full plates and full stomachs, there are plenty of others on the planet who do not. So many years later, standing on the bathroom scale, unhappy with the tonnage it shows, struggling unsuccessfully with the many temptations, how can one not feel guilty about over consumption when there are starving children in China and Africa and Southeast Asia and in practically every city in our own land of plenty, including in our own Quad Cities?
I have a few pleasures in my life – God, family, the big screen and the small screen, and food, not necessarily in that order. But it troubles me to no end that when it comes to food, it is not so much for me an issue of sustenance but rather of pleasure, while there are literally millions in our world for whom food is hardly a matter of pleasure but actually a matter of life and death While I am not so naive as to believe that by my eating less they, in turn, will eat more, I do know that it is nothing less than one of the greatest of obscenities for me to continue to eat my fill without doing what I can to fill their empty bellies, and perhaps to save their lives.
Now you may not be as food centered as I am but I doubt that any of you really ever go hungry, except by your own choosing. We all fill our baskets at the supermarket and probably visit restaurants quite regularly. We never really want for food nor do we truly know what it means to want for food. But at this time of the year, when we are supposed to be taking serious stock of our moral selves, how can we, in good conscience, choose to turn a blind eye to the mitzvah opportunities that are before us to do some of what we can to relieve the life threatening hunger pangs of our co-inhabitants on Planet Earth?
So once again I encourage you to join in our congregation’s efforts to ease the suffering of the starving multitudes.
I call upon you to once again support our efforts on behalf of the annual CROP WALK Against World Hunger. We need walkers, we need donors, and of course, we need those who will do both. This year’s Walk will take place on Sunday, October 5th – the day after Yom Kippur. How fitting! The Walk will beginn at 2:00 p.m., starting from Modern Woodman Park. Bring your children. Please, bring your children! Some of my fondest memories of parenthood are of sharing these walks with my children as they learned to put into action the mitzvah of feeding the hungry. On the tables in the lobby, there are Walk forms. Please sign up to walk or pledge or both.
I call upon you to once again support our collection of non-perishable food items. For years, we have taken this time between Rosh Hashanah and Simhat Torah to collect food on behalf of our local Riverbend Foodbank. So next time you are in the supermarket, buy an extra grocery sack or two of non-perishable food and bring them to the Temple Library. As you do so, please remember that what we collect will help to feed fellow Quad Citians who are so desperately in need.
I call upon you once again to make a contribution to that very important Jewish organization, MAZON. MAZON was the first exclusively Jewish organization created to address the issue of hunger. Their goal, as expressed in the words of their mission statement, is “To provide for people who are hungry while at the same time advocating for other ways to end hunger and its causes.” You will find a self-addressed donation envelop for MAZON in your prayer books. I encourage you to make a donation equal to what it would cost to take the members of your household out for one dinner at a restaurant.
And finally, I call upon you to support the efforts of our Tikkun Olam Committee throughout the year, as they periodically prepare and serve meals for Café on Vine, one of our community’s meal sites for the homeless.
May the pleasures that we receive from all the blessings we enjoy in our lives also fuel our passion to ease the suffering and introduce some pleasure into the lives of those who are far less fortunate than are we.

Putting the New in the New Year

October 30, 2014

There is a Hasidic story about how a student of Rabbi Mordecai of Nadvorna approached his teacher prior to Rosh Hashanah in order ask permission to be dismissed. Rabbi Mordecai asked him, “What’s your hurry?” to which he responded: “I am leading the services back in my home village and I need time to study the prayer book and put my services in order.” Rabbi Mordecai then said to him: “The prayer book is the same as it was last year. It would be better for you to study your deeds and put yourself in order.”
Well, if Rabbi Mordecai said that to me this year, I would say to him: “That’s what you think, Rabbi Mordecai! Obviously you have not had a chance to look at any of the pilot services from the soon to be published new Reform High Holy Day prayer book, MISHKAN HANEFESH!”
Whether or not Rabbi Mordecai has had a chance to take a look at MISHKAN HANEFESH, and I doubt that he did, considering the fact that he lived in the 19th century, you – the members of our congregation – will get a chance to look at it, and pray from it, tomorrow morning. I suspect that some of you may love it and some of you may loathe it and the feelings of many of you probably will fall somewhere in between. But this I can promise you: It will offer us a High Holy Day worship experience which will be dramatically different from what we are used to after years of praying out of GATES OF REPENTANCE.
What can I tell you about the book? Will the service be longer? I know that is a question on many people’s minds. To be quite honest, I just don’t know. The fact that this particular service booklet has over 190 pages is not encouraging. However, the format of this book is so different – in some ways, but not in every way, similar to our Shabbat prayer book, MISHKAN T’FILAH – that many pages does not necessarily mean a long service. What about music? This service definitely has more music than the Rosh Hashanah morning service in our current prayer book. Of course music is a matter of taste but personally I like the music that has been added. I also can tell you that there are some English alternatives offered to traditional prayers that are unlike any text you probably would expect to encounter on the High Holy Days. The book also offers some surprises like various opportunities for study sessions in the midst of the service and wait until you see what they have done to the Shofar service. Love it or loathe it, one thing is definitely certain. This book will provide us with a new High Holy Day worship experience.
Now I know that when we encounter something new, often it takes a lot of getting used to. There is some¬thing about human nature – not for all of us but for most of us – which instinctively resists the new. So many of us far prefer to wrap ourselves up in the warm, cuddly, familiar blanket of the old ways.
Many of you might remember, back in 1996, when Bob Dole was the Republican candidate for President. In his nomination acceptance speech, he framed his campaign around the concept of building a bridge to the past; to an era more familiar and, at least in memory, more pleasant. Many found that approach very appealing. However, his opponent, Bill Clinton, was soon to counter that ideology by stating that it was not his intention to build a bridge to the past but rather to build a bridge to the future. And we know who won that contest. The book from which we have prayed this evening is Reform Judaism’s bridge to the past. The book from which we will pray tomorrow morning is Reform Judaism’s bridge to the future.
When you think about it, as new and as different as tomorrow morning’s service may be, it is all very much in keeping with the essential spirit of this holy day. For Rosh Hashanah is all about that which is new and our committing ourselves to a process of personal and communal renewal. Indeed, one of the significant traditional greetings for Rosh Hashanah is the greeting of “Titkadeish! – May You Be Renewed!”
For our tradition looks at the New Year as just that – a new year. It is a time to start our lives anew; to embrace new experiences; to make of ourselves new and better people. It is a time for renewal. To renew old dreams which somewhere along the way may have been laid aside. To renew old relationships which, for one reason or another, we may have left dormant. To renew our energy, our lust for life, our joy in living. To renew our commitment to our positive values – justice, right over wrong, caring, love, responsibility. To renew our connections to our Jewish identity, the Jewish people, and most importantly to God. It is a time for us to say, “Today need not be a carbon copy of yesterday, and tomorrow need not be a carbon copy of today.” To say it and to mean it. What better gift can we give to ourselves on the New Year than to start to make of ourselves a New Me?
Yet change is almost always a challenge. Habits are hard to break. Habits – that is what we allow our lives to become. We tend to live our lives habitually; doing the same things day in and day out; thinking the same thoughts, responding in the same ways. Throughout our lives we gather and acquire certain attitudes and perspectives and behaviors and we transform them into what become almost instinctual responses. How many parents have said to their children, “Go ask you father! Go ask your mother!” rather than grapple with the request their child has placed before them? In our household, that is still the Cantor’s and my instinctual go-to position – actually more mine than the Cantor’s – and our youngest child is 21 years old! It is as if we have our own personal catalogs of multipurpose answers and reactions, and we draw upon them as we seek to respond to whatever life hands us. And the content of those catalogs remain the same year in and year out.
In the end, it is all about growth, or lack thereof. It is a fundamental part of human nature to grow. Little children grow into full size adults, some fuller than others. With years of education and life experiences, most of us grow more knowledgeable and perhaps a bit wiser. Everyone of us, if we don’t fall victim to fatal accidents or terminal diseases, eventually grow old. When it comes to our bodies, growth is a lifelong process. So also should it be with our minds, our hearts, our attitudes and perspectives. But too often, for too many of us, somewhere along the line that growth is arrested, and what once was evolving within us somehow or other becomes carved in stone. We may even justify it by saying such things as “I am who I am.” But would it not be better for us to say “I am a work in progress and I look forward to what I will eventually become.”?
So Rosh Hashanah calls upon us to actively engage in seeking out change in our lives; to strive to become a new and better self. How do we begin to accomplish this? First off, I suggest that each and every one of us think back and remember last Rosh Hashanah and honestly ask ourselves, “Am I in any way, significant or otherwise, a different person today than I was then? If I am different, then how am I different and is that difference for the better or for the worse?” There will be those among us who will acknowledge that little if anything has changed from then until now. There also will be those among us who will be able to note definite changes. Yet as they consider the nature of those changes, they will come to recognize that those changes were not a matter of personal choice but rather as a matter of circumstance. God willing, there also will be those among us who will be able to say of themselves, “Yes. I am a different person today and I am different because I chose to be different, and hopefully the differences are for the better.”
If we are among those who have not changed, or who have experienced changes as a result of circumstances rather than of choice, then we need to challenge ourselves to make it possible that come next Rosh Hashanah we will be able to offer a different response; that we will be able to say, “Yes, I have changed because I chose to change, and I have changed for the better.” Even if we are among those who have experienced positive change over the past year, we still need to challenge ourselves to continue that process of positive change, for none of us is perfect. There always lies before us more of this road to travel.
Now at the same time, we need to be realistic. True change, lasting change does not happen all at once. Crash diets never sustain themselves. Durable change is an incremental and a gradual process. We need to start small and slowly, carefully, build one change upon another. There is a book on teenage suicide, entitled WHEN LIVING HURTS, which, at times, we have used with our Confirmands. Recognizing that adolescent – parent tensions can certainly contribute to teenage thoughts of suicide, one of the suggestions that the author offers is that the teenagers try a 1 week experiment in dealing with their parents. In this experiment, they should seek out ways to compliment their parents and also opportunities to volunteer to take on even small household tasks without being asked. As the experiment progresses, they should note whether or not the way their parents relate to them also changes for the better. I share this with you to illustrate that the type of change we seek can start with simple acts such as finding nice things to say to and about the people in our lives or by offering to do simple but nice deeds for them even before they ask us to do them. We can choose to make small changes which we can find will result in big differences; big differences in our lives; in our relationships; in the ways in which we interact with the world around us and in the ways in which the world around us interacts with us. As we do this and reap the benefits that these changes will bring, we will find that one small change will lead to another and another and another, as our pleasure in life continually grows. And it will grow because people who make themselves better also make themselves happier; happier with their life and with the person they are becoming – the new person they are becoming.
Just as tomorrow morning we will renew the way we worship on Rosh Hashanah, so should we, today, tomorrow, and all the tomorrows before us, seek to renew the people we are and the lives that we lead. May we embrace the High Holy Day blessing of “Titkadeish!” May each and every one of us be renewed as we seek to renew ourselves.

Penetrating the Inpenetrable Veil

September 19, 2013

While other faiths have their own concepts of the afterlife ‑ some of them quite elaborate ‑ Judaism has always held that all we can say about the afterlife ‑ that is with any conviction ‑ is that there is an afterlife and that the soul is eternal.  For the soul comes from God and at the time of death returns to God.  To say anything else is to engage in pure speculation, for there is an impenetrable veil which separates the Olam HaZeh ‑ This World ‑ from the Olam HaBa ‑ The World to Come.  Even as we make this minimalist affirmation, we do so with the understanding that what we are saying is a matter of faith, not knowledge, for no one has ever penetrated that impenetrable veil and returned to our realm of existence, the Olam HaZeh, to bring us an accurate description of the other side.

It might interest you to know that we Jews not only do not have a detailed vision of the afterlife, we even did not always believe in the existence of an afterlife or in the immortality of the soul.  In fact, 2,000 years ago, these doctrines fueled fierce debates between the Sadducees and the Pharisees.  While the Sadducees held that there is no afterlife; that our existence ended with death, for nowhere is an afterlife mentioned in the Torah, the Pharisees held that since the soul comes from God, it, like God, must be eternal.  Besides, how else could we explain God’s justice in light of the suffering of the righteous in this life if there was no afterlife in which their books would balance out?  The fact the Judaism today professes beliefs in the afterlife and in the immortality of the soul is as much a byproduct of the victory of the Pharisees over the Sadducees in their struggle to determine who would shape the future of the Jewish people, as it is a committed doctrine of our faith.

Personally, I am glad that the Pharisees won that battle.  I would hate to believe that death is the end; that nothing of us remains in this universe once our bodies cease to function; that our lives are nothing more than a flash of light in the dark realm of oblivion.

Yet it is not only my fear of eventual non‑existence which fuels my beliefs in the immortality of the soul and in the afterlife.  It also is, in its own odd way, my sense of logic.  For when I consider the human condition, I find myself confronting two undeniable, yet contradictory, facts.  The first is that all human beings are essentially the same.  We may differ in size, shape, gender, skin color, blood type, etc., but at the end of the day, biologically we are all fundamentally identical.  Indeed, as medical science continues to refine the art of organ transplantation, we see that we are so alike that our body parts are becoming increasingly interchangeable.

Yet with this in mind, the second fact seems nothing less than miraculous; that every single human being is a unique individual. No two of us are exactly alike, even if physically we are identical twins.  Still, we each possess our own unique personality and disposition.  That uniqueness is truly the essence of who we are; far more than any aspect of our physical appearance.  It is not as much visible to the eyes as it is to the heart.  So what is the source of our uniqueness?  How can it be found in the body if all bodies are essentially the same while all people are fundamentally unique?

According to our tradition, our uniqueness comes from God.  In the Talmud, God is compared to a human minter of coins.  When a human mints coins, the minter stamps each coin with one mold and every coin comes out exactly alike.  However when God mints human beings, God stamps each of us with the mold of Adam, yet not one person is like another.  We are each of us unique[1].  If that uniqueness comes from God, then the essence of our character does not reside in our body but rather in our soul.  If it comes from God, then like God, it must be indestructible.  Though our body can cease to function, our soul cannot.  With the death of the body, the soul must return to God, and reside with God eternally.  And with it, all that makes us unique; our personality, our character.  The people who we are continue to exist – our consciousness continues to exist – eternally behind the impenetrable veil – in the Olam HaBa, the World to Come.

But is that impenetrable veil separating the Olam HaZeh from the Olam HaBa – our realm of physical existence from our loved ones’ realm of pure spiritual existence – truly, completely, impenetrable?  Perhaps not. Not that it can be torn and we can traverse freely between the two realms,  But perhaps, just perhaps, it can be pierced; from either side, pierced.

We are all mourners.  There have been times, and this Yizkor service might be one of them, when we have passionately yearned for those we have loved but lost.  We ache for their presence and the ache is palpable.  It comes from deep within us.  It does not come from our body; not from our stomach, not from our lungs, not from our heart, not from our head.  Rather our ache is born of our soul, for our soul is the true seat of all our feelings.  In its own way, our yearning is our soul reaching out and grabbing at that impenetrable veil, seeking somehow to break through.

As we yearn for those we loved and lost, is it so hard for us to perceive of their yearning for us as well?  Perhaps, just perhaps, these disembodied souls, which remain the very essence of everything that they were, ache for us as we ache for them.  Perhaps, just perhaps, just as our souls reach out in search of a way to break through that veil, their souls are reaching out in much the same way.  We grab the veil from our side as they grab it from theirs.  While even together we cannot rend it asunder, perhaps, just per­haps, we can stretch it enough for the smallest of pin holes to appear, allowing our souls, even if for just a brief moment, to touch once again.

Perhaps that is what is happening when we find ourselves wanting so much to be in their company once more, to hear their voices and to feel their touch, and then somehow or other we sense that they are with us.  We hear them speaking to us, not out loud, but their voices seeming to come from within.  We feel their comfort.  We sense their love.  And somehow, if just for the moment, we feel less alone.  We are filled with the sense that they are still there for us as they always were there for us.

Let us not be afraid to ache on their behalf.  Let us not run and hide from what we fear will be the pain of memory.  Rather, let us embrace that pain and allow to take us to whatever place it chooses.  For there is a very good chance that it is taking us to the impenetrable veil so as to prick that veil with a tiny but sufficient hole for us to meet and touch once more those who we believe to be beyond our reach.  For we must never forget that our pain is but a function of our love, and that love can be the strongest force in the universe.  So when you combine our love for them with their love for us, can even the impenetrable veil resist such power?


[1]BABYLONIAN TALMUD, Tractate Sanhedrin 38a

Inside, Outside

September 15, 2013

It always does my heart good to step out onto the bimah on Rosh Hashanah Eve and look out into the sanctuary and see such a packed house!  Would that it could be so on every Shabbat.  But that’s a rabbi’s fantasy and we all know that the reality is much different.

When I was younger – like all young rabbis – I was convinced that I just needed to find the magic formula to make it so; that if I just tweaked the Shabbat service here and tweaked it there, made this change and that change, that eventually I would come upon the right formula that would bring the Jews flocking back to Shabbat, week in and week out filling the sanctuary as if it were the High Holy Days.  But, of course, I never succeeded.  Very few, if any rabbis, really do.

With the passage of time, I came to realize – all rabbis come to realize – that it is not necessarily that we failed but that there are forces at work here that are only minimally impacted by whatever efforts we take, no matter how heroic, to bring Jews to Shabbat.  That does not mean that we can’t do better.  God knows, we can, and many of us sincerely try!  Sometimes we even succeed in growing the Shabbat crowd.  Yet our success is measured not in miles but in inches; not in hundreds but in 5’s and 10’s.  That is indeed a victory, for more often than not, the reasons that draw you to tonight’s service in such large numbers, and keeps so many of you from our Shabbat services are not so much to be found in what happens on the bimah or in the sanctuary as they are to be found elsewhere.

So why do Jews pack the house on the High Holy Days?  Of course there is no one answer, for there are many reasons.  Different people come for different reasons.

There are some who come because they are seeking spiritual fulfillment.  Reciting the ancient prayers, chanting the sacred melodies, listening to the words of the Torah and Haftarah and the sounds of the shofar tomorrow, have the effect of opening up their souls and strengthening their sense of connection to God.

Others may have be drawn here by the power of memory.  Childhood memories of going to synagogue with their family on the High Holy Days wash over them.  So much so that returning to the synagogue for these services helps them to feel closer to those now gone.

Then there are others – many others – who have come here tonight because there are certain times during the course of the year when their sense of Jewish identity is stirred.  At other times it is there, but pretty much below the surface of their consciousness.  Yet at these times – times like the High Holy Days – it pushes its way up to the surface and ensnares them with a need to assert their Jewish self by coming to the synagogue and gathering – reuniting – with their fellow Jews and engaging in an act that is profoundly Jewish.  It is their Jewish fix, and their need for it is almost instinctual.

There are many reasons which draw us here tonight.  None of them are wrong.  They all are right in their own way.  Each of us has different needs which we seek to fill, and each of our reasons for coming here speak to those particular needs.

Yet we know, or have been told, that there was a time when Jewish life was much simpler.  Jews knew who they were as Jews, and they knew what they had to do as Jews, and they went ahead and did it.  In those days, the synagogue could be as full on Shabbat as it was on the High Holy Days, for Jews were Jews 24/7.  Their Jewish identity never slipped below the surface of their consciousness.  It was always right there on the top.  Some of us had parents like that, or grandparents, or even great grandparents.  But we are not them, just as our times are not their times.

We are truly the product of our own society; the one in which we grew up and the one in which we live in the present.  In so many ways, it has been a society of blessing for us.  As Jews, we do not live in fear as so many who came before us did.  While we may read or hear about the brutal hatred which marred the lives of so many of our ancestors rearing its ugly head in other lands, rarely, if ever, do we witness it in our own.  Here we feel fully accepted.   Clubs and schools and neighborhoods and jobs once closed to our fore-bearers, now welcome us with open arms, and have been doing so for some time.  As we find ourselves fitting so comfortably into the various aspects of the general society, while our sense of being Jewish does not leave us, it continues to fade deeper into our background.  We have come to feel that while being Jewish is part of our understanding of who we are, it is not nearly the totality of who we are, nor does it have to be.  We do not see this as a bad thing.  Indeed, we see it as a good thing, for it is wonderful to be accepted by others.

Yet our sense of Jewish identity can fade so deeply into our background and sink so far below the surface of our consciousness that it can almost disappear.  Not completely, but almost.  It can almost disappear to the point that we know that we are Jews but we are no longer sure of what that even means.  And there, for most of our days, it lies dormant until at special times, under special circumstances, it awakens and it struggles to assert itself, and for but a moment, our Jewish identity becomes important enough for us to do something about it, like going to synagogue, as we do on the High Holy Days.

Back in 1985, Herman Wouk wrote a book about this phenomenon.  He called it Inside, Outside.  It is the story of a American Jew in the mid-twentieth century – Israel David Goodkind – and his multi-generational family, born of Russian Jewish immigrants.  Raised in a household steeped in Orthodox Judaism, with every passing year David moves further and further from his Jewish roots.  He chooses Columbia over Yeshiva.  He becomes an attorney and chooses to be identified as I. David Goodkind, instead of Israel.  Later he even drops the “I”.  He winds up in Washington as a special advisor to the Nixon White House.  All the time he is struggling to figure out who he is as he is torn between two worlds – the inside and the outside; the inside world being the Jewish world in which he grew up and in which his family resides and the outside world being the secular world in which he conducts his professional life.  Which world will take primacy in his life?  How can he strike a healthy balance?

In so many ways, we are David Goodkind.   We have our “inside” – our Jewish side – and we have our “outside” – our secular side, and we, too, can struggle with how to juggle and balance them.  The very fact that we are Reform Jews, rather than Orthodox Jews, in and of itself makes a statement about some of the decisions we have made.  For us, living in the secular world is important.  We want to be in harmony with our non-Jewish neighbors.  We want to share in their lives and we want them to share in ours, and we see absolutely nothing wrong with that.  Yet at the same time, we are not willing or interested in letting go of our Judaism.  We acknowledge, and may even embrace, that side of our identity, and while we can sublimate it, we are not interested in eliminating it.  Yet the allure of the outside world can be so great that either consciously or subconsciously, we can let the inside world – the Jewish world – shrink within us to practically nothing.

So where do we go from here?  In fact here is a good place to start; here, on Rosh Hashanah, when our Jewish sense of self has broken through enough to bring us to the synagogue and has awakened within us the desire to be among Jews.  Here, when we have been reminded of the fact that a not so insignificant part of who we are is that we are Jews.

This is a good time for us to reclaim a better understanding of what it means for us – each of us individually – to be a Jew.  We know that we are Jewish, but do we know why or understand why it is still important to us?  It is one thing to have an identity but it is quite another to understand what that identity means to us.  That’s the quest that we need to start at this time of the year.

Coincidentally, this question of Jewish identity has been a topic of discussion for some months now with­in my own congregation.  We started talking about it in our Ritual Committee when one of our members proposed the idea of holding a Hebrew Naming Service.  That led us to questions like “What do you mean by a Hebrew Naming Service?” and “Why should we do one?”

As the person who proposed the idea pointed out, sad to say, many Reform Jews don’t have a Hebrew name.  In fact, many don’t even know that there is such a thing as a Hebrew name.  Yet a Hebrew name is very important for our own sense of Jewish identity.  It really is an “Inside, Outside” thing.  In a tra­ditional setting, Jews are known by their Hebrew name, while outside of the Jewish community, they are more commonly known by their secular name.  So, for example, to the world at large I am Henry Jay Karp, yet within the Jewish world I should be known as Chayim Ya’akov ben Shmuel V’Chavah.  In many synagogues, if I am called to bless the Torah, my Hebrew name would be the name they would use.  Indeed, on the day of my funeral, when the “Eil Malei Rahamim” prayer will be recited, it will include my Hebrew name as it offers my soul before the presence of God.  For it is our Hebrew name which encapsulates our Jewish identity, over and above our secular one.  To use our Hebrew name is to affirm who we are as Jews.

So why have a Hebrew Naming Service?  To affirm that we are Jewish and embrace our Jewish identity.  We have a handle on who we are as members of the secular society, for our secular name captures our secular uniqueness.  Is it not about time that we get a handle on who we are as members of our Jewish community; a uniqueness which we would be able to capture by taking on or affirming our Hebrew name?

Nor did our congregational conversations about Jewish identity conclude with our Ritual Committee’s discussions.  Rather this question has been carried forward to our Temple Board.  However, their discussion did not center on the question of the Jewish identity of the individual.  Rather it focused on the question of the Jewish identity of the group; in our case, the “group” meaning our congregation.

A significant question was posed.  What is Temple Emanuel’s Jewish identity?  Yes, we are a Reform con­gregation and have been so for almost as long as Reform Judaism has existed in America.  Yet, what does that mean?  Especially in this day and age, what does that mean?  We in Reform Judaism are proud to proclaim that we are a big tent; that because we believe in freedom of choice and personal autonomy, we welcome into our fold all sorts of Jews with widely varying approaches to Judaism, whether it be in the realm of theology, philosophy, or practice.  So, for example, praying exclusively in English is most certainly acceptable within the framework of Reform Judaism, but so is praying exclusively in Hebrew.

Today’s Reform Judaism is not monolithic but represents a wide spectrum of beliefs and practices.  While individuals within our congregation can stand anywhere they choose along that spectrum, there needs to come a point when the congregation itself figures out where we, as a congregation, stand along that spectrum.  Though we wish it could be otherwise, we cannot be all things to all people.  Rather, we must establish a concrete Reform Jewish identity for ourselves as a group, and that identity must, as accurately as possible, reflect the perspectives of as many of our congregants as possible.

Our Board has decided, and rightfully so, that we need to determine for ourselves what is the Jewish identity of Temple Emanuel.  We call the process “Defining Our Congregation’s Approach to Reform Judaism,” and we have a task force assigned to lead us through this process.  For this, we most certainly will need the cooperation and participation of our congregants.  Throughout the course of the year, we will be attempting to engage them in this process through surveys and discussions forums, and in whatever way we can so that they can share with us your perspectives on what makes our congregation a Reform congregation, and on how they would like to see our congregation exemplify our approach to Reform Judaism.

We gather on the High Holy Days because, for one reason or another, we have each of us felt the need to affirm that we are Jews and that our Jewish identity is in one way or another important to us.  Even though this heightened sense of being Jewish may only last us for the moment and may fade back into the background of our lives with the setting sun on Yom Kippur, let us grasp this opportunity to take advantage of our present heightened Jewish awareness so that it feeds our desire to grow our Jewish identity into something that we can more fully understand and appreciate.  Perhaps, just perhaps, it may even come to play a little bit of a larger role in our lives.  May our inside world grow even while our outside world thrives, and may they come to nurture each other.