Posted tagged ‘Martin Buber’

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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Love: Jewish Style

February 15, 2014

“How lovely are your feet in sandals,

O daughter of nobles!

Your rounded thighs are like jewels,

The work of a master’s hand.

Your navel is like a round goblet –

Let mixed wine not be lacking! –

Your belly like a heap of wheat

Hedged about with lilies.

Your breasts are like two fawns,

Twins of a gazelle.

Your neck is like a tower of ivory,

Your eyes like pools in Heshbon

By the gate of Bath-rabbim,

Your nose like the Lebanon tower

That faces toward Damascus.

The head upon you is like crimson wool,

The locks of your head are like purple –

A king is held captive in the tresses.

How fair you are, how beautiful!

O Love, with all its rapture!

Your stately form is like the palm,

Your breasts are like clusters.

I say: Let me climb the palm,

Let me take hold of its branches;

Let your breasts be like clusters of grapes,

Your breath like the fragrance of apples,

And your mouth like choicest wine.

‘Let it flow to my beloved as new wine

Gliding over the lips of sleepers.’”[1]

Now some of you may be wondering if just because it is Valentine’s Day, does that give the rabbi license to stand on the bimah on Shabbat and recite to the congregation erotic love poetry, with thighs and navels and breasts and lips and rapture?  A valid question, especially considering that not only is Valentine’s Day not a Jewish holiday but in its earlier incarnation it was St. Valentine’s Day; a Roman Catholic Saint’s Day.

Well, if you have not already figured it out, this is not just any erotic poetry.  This text is from SHIR HASHIRIM, the SONG OF SONGS, sometimes called the SONG OF SOLOMON.  This text comes from our own Hebrew Scriptures.  Not only that but SONG OF SONGS is one of the Five Megillot – the Five Scrolls – each of which is assigned by our tradition to be read on a particular holiday.  And not only that!  Of the Five Megillot, there is only one scroll which is assigned to read on two holidays, and guess which scroll it is.  SONG OF SONGS, the scroll which is read on Passover and also on Shabbat, by husbands to their wives.

Now some may ponder how strange it is to find erotica in our Scriptures.  What were the ancient rabbis thinking, back in the 2nd century before the common era, when they decided to include this book, with all its blatant sexual imagery, in the collection of our sacred writings?  Were they just a bunch of dirty old men and this was their version of pornography?

Actually, they weren’t a bunch of dirty old men.  Quite the contrary.  Rather they were profoundly pious, deeply spiritual, remarkably open minded, wonderfully realistic, positive, God loving men of faith.  They did not see this book as “dirty” but rather as inspiring.  That was because they did not look at human love, in any of its manifestations, as being something dirty.  Quite the contrary.  They looked at the pleasure we receive from love, in all of its aspects, including its physical aspect, as being a gift from God, and therefore sacred.  They asked themselves the simple and obvious question: Why would God create us with the capacity to derive so much pleasure if God did not intend for us to enjoy it?  The very fact that God made this so pleasurable clearly indicates that this is something God encourages us to do.

They also recognized that even the best of things in our lives can become the worst of things.  It is all about use and abuse.  When given such gifts, how do we use them properly and employ them for the good, and how do we avoid misusing and abusing them, turning them into something bad?  Of course, when it came to the physical pleasures of love, for the Rabbis, the answer was simple.  Marriage.  Physical love and sexual pleasure was never intended to be an end in and of itself.  That is not the human way.  That is the way it is among the lower species.  For us humans, it was given as way to enhance and intensify the love relationship which exists between two people who are so attracted to each other that they yearn to share the totality of their lives together.

This is a good thing, not a bad thing.  Since God created us with the capacity to love another, it becomes our sacred responsibility to maximize that love in all of its manifestations.  Like any other gift we receive from any other source, one of the truest ways to demonstrate our gratitude for that gift is to make the most of that gift.  If someone were to give you a sweater, and you really liked that sweater, and therefore you wore it often, every time the person who gave you that sweater sees you wearing that sweater, they know how very much you have valued their gift.  It is the same here.  In fact, that is why our tradition teaches us that lovemaking between a husband and wife, on Shabbat, is counted as a double mitzvah.

Why was human love so important to the rabbis – silly question! – and more importantly, why did they feel that it was important to God?  Because the rabbis saw the love between human beings as not something separate from God but rather as the model of human love for God.  Do not get me wrong!  It is not that they ever considered the idea that humans could engage in physical love with God but rather that we should aspire, in our love of God, to reaching the intensity of connectedness between us and God that, in much the same manner, exists in a full and healthy love relationship between husband and wife; a relationship which has the power to take two separate individuals and transform them into one whole and completed being.  How often a husband will say to a wife, or a wife to a husband, “You fulfill me!” and mean it.  That was the rabbi’s ideal, and remains our Jewish ideal, for what should be our relationship with God.  God should fulfill us, and if God fulfills us, believe it or not, we fulfill God.

In a truly intimate human love relationship, each one can often anticipate the other.  We know what they are thinking.  We know what they are feeling without having to ask.  We know because it is important to us; they are important to us, and more often than not, more important to us than ourselves.  Our pleasure is to be found in giving them pleasure.  Their very presence in our lives is our primary source of joy.  This is the type of intimacy to which Judaism encourages us to aspire in our relationship with God.

The Jewish philosopher-theologian Martin Buber understood this very well.  In his famous work, I & THOU, he tells us that in the realm of relationships, there are two major categories – I-It relationships and I-Thou or I-You relationships.

I-It relationships are one directional.  They are all about how the other party can meet our needs.  They have little if anything to do with how we can meet the needs of the other.  Of course we have I-It relationships with objects like chairs.  We are concerned with how the chair meets our needs but we never give a thought to whether or not the chair has needs which we can meet.  But we also can have I-It relationships with people.  Just think about how you often relate to servers in a restaurant or cashiers in a supermarket.

I-Thou relationships are, to one degree or another, two directional.  They are about mutually meeting each other’s needs.  Of course they vary in degree.  An I-Thou relationship with an acquaintance is not nearly as giving as an I-Thou relationship with a friend.  The more intense the relationship, the more connected we feel to the other and the more priority we give to the meeting of their needs.

For Buber, the most intense human experience of an I-Thou relationship is the relationship which exists between loving spouses.  It is this relationship which Buber points to as a model for his third category of relationships – I-Eternal Thou; the desired relationship between the individual and God.  What a statement that makes!  If we could only love God as much as we love each other!  If we could only love God as much as we love the person we love the most!

This all brings us back to SONG OF SONGS.  When the Rabbi’s hotly debated whether or not to include this book in the Hebrew Scriptures, it was no less a personage than Rabbi Akiva who absolutely insisted upon its inclusion.  He was reported as saying, “for all the ages are not worth the day that SONG OF SONGS was given to Israel; for all the Ketuvim (all the Writings) are holy, but the SONG OF SONGS is the Holy of Holies.”[2]  Why did he claim this?  Because Akiva did not just see this book as the description of a deep love between a man and a woman, but more importantly, he saw it as a beautiful testimony to the love which should exist between God and Israel.  That is why we read it on Passover, when God showed us unbounded love through the act of our liberation from Egyptian slavery.  That is why we read it on Shabbat, when we show God our unending love by observing this day as God’s day, week after week after week.

It is Shabbat and it is Valentine’s Day.  As we celebrate the love that we share with each other, let us likewise celebrate the love that we share with God.


[1] SONG OF SONGS 7:2-10.

[2] MISHNAH YADAIM 3.5.