G’mar chatimah tovah, may you already have been sealed for good in the Book of Life! I am honored to be standing before you this evening as your rabbi on this most solemn day of the year. There are arguments to be made that Shabbat is a holier day than Yom Kippur, but on a day in which we combine the two, there is no question. Rosh Hashanah is solemn as well, but Rosh Hashanah in many ways is about creation, about beginnings. In some ways, Yom Kippur is about endings. It is about our last chance.
On Yom Kippur we turn our backs on life, in a sense. We do not do any of the things that usually sustain us. We do not eat, bathe, or enjoy marital relations. You see your clergy before you dressed in white, not like angels, but like a body laid out in a shroud. All of us have done both good and bad, but on this day when we beg for atonement, we think only of our guilt. We consider ourselves unworthy of this life we have been given, this wonderful opportunity. We pray that we will be able to do t’shuvah, to turn to our better selves.
If we were truly to be judged by the strictest interpretation of the law, who among us would be found righteous? Today we ask to be judged leniently, with mercy and forbearance. Although we do not deserve these wonderful lives we have been given, we beg for another chance to do better. Confronting the possibility of being written out of the Book, we beg for our lives to be restored to us. As it is written in our prayerbook, anything that seems trivial when one confronts death is then truly trivial. Today we abandon everything that is trivial and consider only that which is most important.
This is a day of last chances, of endings. We deserve death, but pray for life. If our prayer is not granted then truly it is the end. We have been given ten days, the Ten Days of Repentance between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur to pay off our debts, to rid ourselves of our bad habits, to utterly reject our sins and flaws, and to restore our relationship with the Holy One, blessed be Gd. The setting of the sun this evening began the last day of our time to finish these tasks.
If we do t’shuvah next week, is that not also acceptable? Will the gates of repentance close if we do not finish our attempt to make ourselves better people by the setting of the sun tomorrow night?
As our prayerbook tells us, the gates of repentance are always open. But how tempting it is to say perhaps the day after tomorrow I will make things right with Gd. Next week I will apologize to my wife, I will call my estranged friend, I will make peace with my brother. And the day after tomorrow becomes the day after that, and then the day after that. And someday there will be no tomorrow. And it will be too late.
No. Today is the day we must finish our task. As if tomorrow it would be too late. As if we had no longer than sundown tomorrow. As if the gates would truly close, and leave us on the other side. As if tomorrow would not only be the end of our Holy Day, but the end of our lives.
Someday, we know, that day will come. Then there will be no more opportunity to accomplish our tasks. We will have no more chance to make peace with our families, to tell people we love them, to turn to Gd. And then there will be a funeral, and people will come to our funeral and speak about us.
On Yom Kippur, we weigh our hearts to see if we have lived well or poorly. This is done also at our funeral. The chesbon nefesh, the summing up of our soul that we should be doing today will be done for us when we die, whether we are ready or not. Our lives will be judged, perhaps by Gd and His angels, and perhaps not. But surely judged by those who attend our funerals, and surely summed up by those who will give our eulogy.
It is not possible to truly sum up a life in a few words, or even in many words. The person we are is comprised of everything we have ever done, every thought we have ever had. Nonetheless, the goal of a eulogy is to give a sense of the person who is gone, so it will strike a chord of recognition with those who knew the person well.
In my job, I attend a lot of funerals. I hear a lot of eulogies, and I give a lot of eulogies. The word ‘eulogy’ comes from the Greek, meaning ‘good words.’ There is a tradition that one should not speak ill of the dead. We should only hear good words about those who have passed on. My job as a eulogist is to say good things about the person who has passed on, and still have the person I describe be recognizable to the people at the funeral. Usually that is an easy task. Not always. As a rabbi preparing to officiate at a funeral, I sometimes hear words that are less than good.
I sometimes hear of parents who never fully accepted sons-in-law or daughters-in-law. I hear about people who cheated on spouses, who were not there for children, who were emotionally distant, or worse, abusive. But a eulogy should consist of good words, and so I look for those words, because, of course, no one is all bad.
There is a story of a rabbi who has to lead a funeral on his very first day at a new synagogue. When he comes to the part of the ritual where one would expect a eulogy, the rabbi says “Friends, as you know, I am very new to this community, and I never met Mr. Kline. So instead of giving a eulogy, I thought I would ask some of his friends in the congregation to stand and say something good about him.”
There is an uncomfortable shifting in seats, but no one rises. The rabbi says “Just a good memory about him, or something about him that you liked.” People look at each other awkwardly. Desperate, the rabbi spots Mr. Rosenberg, who he knows because he was on the search committee. “Mr. Rosenberg,” says the rabbi, “please stand up and say something nice about the late Mr. Kline.” Rosenberg unwillingly gets to his feet and looks around the room helplessly. “Well,” he finally says, “his brother was worse.”
What would you like people to say at your funeral? For what would you like to be remembered? It is up to you. Whenever your funeral will be, and I hope it will be many many years in the future, you can decide right now to live your life in such a way that there would be no end of the good things people could say about you. So that if you were the Mr. Kline of the story, the rabbi would be overwhelmed with people standing up to say good words about you.
I love it when I am able to say in a eulogy ‘I spoke to him before he died, and he was content and ready to go. He told me that he had accomplished everything he wanted to accomplish.’ I love it when I am able to say ‘She spent every day with her children and grandchildren.’ But these are things that are difficult to control. Many people live far from family and friends. Sometimes there are family rifts that cannot be easily mended. Sometimes people die too young, and it is hard for them to say they are content to go.
But there are many things that we can control. I also love to say about people that they were kind to others. I love to say about people that they were always generous. I love to say that they loved life, and enjoyed it as much as they could. I love to say about people that they were always curious and never stopped learning. I love to say about people that they quickly turned strangers into friends.
I was able to tell a story at a funeral of a man, connected to this synagogue, who was so pleased to hear he was going to get a grandson that he skipped down the street. I was able, at a different funeral, to tell the story of a man who stopped to chat with a homeless man when walking with his family one cold winter’s night. When he returned to his family, his daughter asked him, “Dad, where are your gloves?” “That guy needed them more than I did,” her father replied.
These are the stories I love to tell. These people truly deserve the good words of a eulogy. But more, they should inspire us to live lives of greater kindness, greater generosity, and greater joy. Take advantage of the opportunities you were given, to live as you want to be remembered.
The question ‘What would you like people to say at your funeral,’ or ‘How would you like to be remembered,’ is really the same as the question: What do you find most important in life? Where do you find meaning and value? Do you want your eulogist to say ‘He had an awful lot of money?’ Do you want people to say ‘She created value for shareholders?’ Do you want them to say ‘He never let anyone put one over on him, and never forgave anyone who treated him poorly?’
Or would you prefer that people say ‘She was generous with her time and money to anyone who needed help?’ Would you rather people say ‘He loved his friends and family, and they loved him?’ The eulogy is your final grade in life, and their are no make-ups that we know about.
Except for a very few people like Tom Sawyer, we don’t get to attend our own funerals. If we want to have any influence over them, we have to begin right now. We have to live so that we will get the kind of funeral that we want.
Funerals are not about death. Funerals are about life. The funeral is a reflection of how a person has lived. Yom Kippur is also about life. What kind of life have you been living, and how does that compare with the kind of life you should live? What do you think is important in life, and what can you do to make what is important more a part of your life? What will people remember about you in years to come?
Yom Kippur, like a funeral, is a time to reflect on how you live your life. The advantage of Yom Kippur is that the day after you continue living. At your funeral it will be too late to make changes, to live a better life. It is not too late now.
Some people approach Yom Kippur fearfully. There are many changes to make, and the difficulty of doing tshuvah weighs heavily. Those who live their lives well fear Yom Kippur less. Everyone can improve, but those who are already trying hard to be the best people they can be are not overwhelmed by all the changes this day calls upon them to make. Those who live their lives well fear death less. They know what will be said at their funeral.
A good eulogy is easy to give for someone who has lived his life right. Yom Kippur reminds us that we have the opportunity now to decide to live that kind of life. Yom Kippur is our reminder that the time is coming when someone will stand before a crowd of our friends and relatives and tell them about our lives. What do you want them to say?
Before the gates close, before the sun sets tomorrow night, before it is too late, commit to the kind of life that you want your eulogist to speak about. No one can make these changes but you. You have no other time than now. None of us will hear our own eulogy. We must live our lives so that we will be confident that what will be said about us will be words that would make us, our families, and even Gd proud.
Shanah tovah to everyone, may 5778 be a year of happiness and good fortune for you. The days before the High Holidays are a time of tension and stress for many people. The Cantor and I do a lot of planning, Rachel and all of our volunteers do a lot of arranging, the tickets have to go out to the right people, and all in all there is a great deal to do to make sure the holidays go smoothly.
I know that everyone has their own preparations to make. Some people have to arrange to get off from work (I don’t have that problem), and then there are often family dinners and get togethers to arrange. And this is apart from all the spiritual preparation that everyone does.
Nonetheless, I do love the holidays. I love the music, the traditional prayers, and especially the opportunity to grapple with some of the big questions to which we may pay less attention during the year. The Torah we just read on this first day of Rosh Hashanah is the Akedah, the Binding of Isaac. This portion alone brings up many of those great questions.
We may ask ourselves what Gd asked of Abraham, and by extension, what Gd asks of us. We ask what kind of test this was, whether Abraham passed or failed, Isaac’s rôle, and so on. But are these academic questions, or is this a matter of life and death for us? Most of us probably do not feel very connected to this story. We are not afraid of what will happen to Isaac, we know how it turns out. And the story does not fill us with fear and trembling because we know it will never happen to us.
It is not only that we do not believe that Gd will not tell us to sacrifice our children. For many of us, this story is not frightening because we do not believe in a Gd who asks for anything.
As Reform Jews, we doubt the existence of a Gd who cares whether we eat pork or not. We doubt that Gd is angry if we drive on Shabbat, if we don’t cover our heads, if we eat a cheeseburger.
And this is not just a Reform problem. All thinking Jews must wonder about the nature of a Gd who rescued the slaves in Egypt but not the slaves in the United States, who parted the sea to rescue the Jews of ancient times but wouldn’t part a fence to rescue the Jews of the Holocaust. Who wouldn’t shift a plane 50 feet to the side to save thousands of lives on September 11th, 2001.
But many of us are not angry with Gd for failing to save those people. We don’t expect Gd to do things for us because we doubt the very existence of that kind of Gd. We doubt the existence of a supernatural Gd.
When we say ‘supernatural,’ we mean outside the physical existence of the universe. Without a doubt, the Jewish Gd is a supernatural Gd. Judaism says that Gd created the universe, which means that Gd was around before the universe. Before there was time, before there was space. If you can have a ‘before’ without there being time. We can’t, but Gd is supernatural, and therefore logic does not apply. When we create, we reshape materials that ex
, something out of . . .. . ist, or combine materials to make new things. When Gd creates, it is .
nothing. Where did the materials come from? Where did the energy to create come from? If logic is a system in which we state “If x, then y,” Gd is the very opposite of logic. We get the “y” without the “x.”
T. Gardner -9/21/17- . Gd’s creation defies logic. It defies the laws of the universe, and that is the point. Gd created the universe, and is not bound by its laws. But this is difficult for many of us to accept. Many of us do not believe in a Gd who is outside of the laws of nature, or the laws of logic. Many of us cannot accept a supernatural Gd.
We have grown up in an era in which we all learn about the scientific method. You form a hypothesis, and you test it. Based on the results of the test, you may conclude that you were right, or you may need to change your hypothesis. Things that we cannot prove scientifically we say are false. The value of science is that it separates the true from the fictitious, reality from fantasy.
Before the modern era, there were many people who believed in the supernatural. Some of it was fraud–fortunetelling, phrenology. Some of it was remnants of primative religions-ghosts, witches, faeries, trolls… People believed in good and bad luck, in the evil eye, in magic. We don’t believe in that stuff any more. We have science now! We don’t believe in anything supernatural–except that we are asked to believe in Gd. A Gd who is outside of nature, Who is greater than heaven and earth, Who is not bound by the laws of nature or science or logic. And that is not so easy.
My father did not believe in a supernatural Gd. He did not approve of organized religion. He did not like going to synagogue. But he would always say that he was a good Jew, and he was. He was generous, he was kind, and he worked all of his life to make this world a better place. But how can you be a good Jew if you do not believe in Gd?
We are Reform Jews, and many of us operate pretty well as people who keep some of the Jewish commandments, are connected to the history and culture of the Jewish people, and dont think too much about what kind of a Gd we believe in. We value Judaism for its many fine points. But what is the value of Judaism without a supernatural deity?
Judaism has a lot to say about ethics, about good and bad behavior. Judaism has a lot to say about meaning, about the purpose of existence. But if it is all based on a presumption that many of us doubt–that is, that the Torah is an accurate record of humanity’s interaction with a supernatural being–then where does that leave us? If Gd spoke to Moses on Mount Sinai
But if Gd did not speak to Moses on Mount Sinai, what then? Why is murder wrong?
There is always the golden rule, as given by Hillel–“What is hateful to yourself, do not do to others.”1 But so what? A man said it. Another man might say ‘What is hateful to you do to others so that they cannot do it to you.’ If it doesn’t come from Gd, how do we know we are not allowed to commit murder?
In the story of the Binding of Isaac that we just read, we are told that we should not sacrifice our children. If there is one Gd in Heaven and Earth who said ‘Do not sacrifice your children,’ then that is a rule that applies to the entire world. But if that was written by a human being, then people who choose to follow it may do so, and people who choose not to follow it may do so as well.
Without Gd, the Torah has no authority. And without the authority of the Torah, there is no ultimate right or wrong. There are civil laws, but who is to say if the laws are better in
1. BT Shabbat 31a –Donotmurder,”thenweshouldnotmurder.. We owe Gd our obedience, and said “ . ……
.. ! . …. . as our creator. As our Gd!
New York or New Jersey, in the United States or in North Korea? Without a belief in the supernatural, we are left without good and evil, without meaning. Without Gd.
In the 21st century we know not to be superstitious. We know not to believe in the supernatural. We New Yorkers are harder to convince than anyone. New York is full of people trying to take advantage. There are con men and gamblers, sharps of every variety. We don’t leave our doors unlocked. We know not to play three card monte on the street. So why should we believe in the supernatural stories we see in our Torah? Why should we believe in Gd? Why should we follow any of the commandments of the Torah?
If you have a difficult time believing in the supernatural, I have good news for you: You don’t have to. You don’t have to believe in angels, you don’t have to believe in creation from nothing. Because Judaism doesn’t really care what you believe.
You can be superstitious, you can believe in astrology. You can believe in string theory, you can believe in a Gd sitting on a throne in the clouds. Or you can believe in none of them. What our tradition cares about is what you do.
We care if you put a stumbling block before the blind. We care if you honor your father and your mother. We care if you are honest in business, if you give charity with an open heart. Judaism not only cares, Judaism demands that you follow the commandments of the Torah. And not only the commandments that say ‘Do not murder,’ and ‘Do not steal.’ Judaism demands that you also keep Shabbat. That you celebrate Rosh Hashanah. Judaism demands that you keep all the commandments in the Torah, whether you believe in Gd or not.
I am not saying that you should keep the commandments the way the Orthodox do. Keep the commandments in whatever way you, as a Reform Jew, see fit. But not a single commandment should be ignored.
How can this be? If we have doubts about the existence of a supernatural Gd, how can the Torah have any authority for us? According to the rabbis, we have permission not to believe in a supernatural Gd. And where do we get that permission? From Gd Himself!
In the book of Jeremiah, Gd complains about His treatment at the hands of the Is
.. . .” “They have forsaken Me and have not kept My Torah.”2 . … … ….. .. . . raelites. “ ..
The early rabbis interpreted this radically. Why did Gd complain both ‘They have forsaken Me” and also complain “and [they] have not kept My Torah?’ Because Gd was saying ‘I don’t care if they forsake Me, as long as they keep My Torah!’3
Gd says “Don’t believe in Me, if you find that difficult. But keep the Torah. I don’t care what you believe. But keep the Torah.” Do you have a hard time believing in a supernatural Gd? Fine, but keep the Torah! Do you doubt that the Torah was handed to Moses on Mount Sinai? It doesn’t matter. Keep the Torah!
Love your neighbor as yourself! You may not offer your children up as a sacrifice! Be kind to the stranger, for you were a stranger in the land of Egypt! Keep the Torah.
Judaism really doesn’t care what you believe. Judaism cares what you do. If you don’t believe in a Gd not subject to the laws of logic, that’s your business. But if you don’t keep the Torah, you are not fulfilling your obligations as a Jew.
Give to charity, hear the shofar on Rosh Hashanah. Attend a seder on Passover, remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy, rejoice in your festivals. On what basis? On no basis.
2. Jeremiah 16:11
3. Pesika de Rav Kahana 15
But these are the things that Jews do. My father did them, and he was a good Jew. We keep the Torah, no matter what our opinion of the supernatural might be.
Keep the Torah and be fully a Jew, a real Jew, a practicing Jew, whether or not you believe in a trancendant Gd. Whatever it may mean to be a practicing Jew. You have permission to be a good Jew without Gd. You have permission to disbelieve in the supernatural. And your permission comes from the very highest source.
Gd spoke to Abraham and said to him “Abraham!” And Abraham said “Here I am.” Abraham’s relationship with Gd was his business. And your relationship with Gd is your business. But never say you are not a good Jew because of your belief or lack of belief in Gd.
Today is the first day of the Jewish year 5778. Let us enter that year with a renewed determination to be good Jews, to keep the Torah, and to thereby make the world a better place, and fill our lives with meaning. Shanah Tovah.
When I was a student at the Bronx High School of Science, there was a guy in my class who said he was a Nazi. I assumed he was just saying it to try to upset me, so I ignored him.
When I was a student at the Bronx High School of Science, there was a guy in my class who said he was a Nazi. I assumed he was just saying it to try to upset me, so I ignored him.
I figured he was just saying it to annoy me, because why else would he tell me? Wouldn’t he be embarassed to be a Nazi, and keep it a secret? I also thought he was saying it just to bother me because why would anyone be a Nazi? Why would anyone join the bad guys, especially since they had lost the war, and since they were considered the personification of evil?
But it turns out that there are people today who are Nazis, and who are not ashamed to tell people. We saw some of them last week in Charlottesville, Virginia. They were walking along beside White Nationalists and other racists.
Earlier this week I was speaking to Morgan Greene about right and wrong, and the Holocaust came up. Morgan said that although the Holocaust was terrible, at least we got the State of Israel out of it. I disagreed with her. People had been working to establish the State of Israel since the 1880’s, and I think it would have happened without the Holocaust. But there is one good thing that I think came out of the Holocaust. It gave racism a bad name.
There were a lot of racists and anti-semites in America and around the world before World War Two. They didn’t vanish after the war, they may not have changed, but they learned to keep their mouths shut. Because even if you think that your people are genetically better than other people, you might not want to be associated with a man who viciously murdered millions of innocent people, men, women, and children.
And there is no doubt that racism in this country is different in degree from the racism of the Nazis, but not in kind. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. compared the situation of Black people in America with the situation of the Jews in Nazi Germany, and said that the tragedy of racism was that “its ultimate logic is genocide. If one says that I am not good enough to live next door to him, if one says that I am not good enough to eat at a lunch counter, or to have a good, decent job, or to go to school with him merely because of my race, he is saying consciously or unconsciously that I do not deserve to exist.”
Where I lived, in Louisiana, I didn’t notice many Confederate statues. But I knew they were around. And I saw plenty of Confederate flags. I saw bumper stickers that were meant to be funny that said “Don’t blame me, I voted for Jefferson Davis.” I am sure that if I asked people who approved of those statues, who waved those flags and posted those bumper stickers if they hated Black people, or if they wished that Black people were still slaves, they would have said “Of course not!”
They would no doubt tell me that they were for states rights, that they were proud to be Southerners and didn’t want Northerners to push them around, and so on. So imagine that you, as a Jew, see a statue of Adolf Hitler, ימך שמו. Or a Nazi flag, or a person wearing an SS uniform. And when you confront him, he says, “I’m not in favor of murdering Jews, but I celebrate Hitler because I am proud to be German, or European, or White. I celebrate him because he was strong and decisive and he made the trains run on time.”
Well, I’m sorry. I cannot separate the Nazis from the murder of Jews, which seems to me their most prominent characteristic. And so I do not ask Black people to separate the Confederacy from the Confederate support of slavery, which is surely the Confederacy’s most prominent characteristic. It is time for those statues to go. I don’t care how pretty they are. I don’t care that they are a part of our history. I am sure there were many lovely people in the Old South, but those who fought for the Confederacy chose to define themselves through the struggle to continue to subjugate other human beings for economic gain. And I will not honor them for that.
Our Torah portion, Re’eh, tells us that we must not follow the gods of other people, who burn their sons and daughters in the fire. There is a right and there is a wrong. That we can choose to make this world a blessing or a curse. I call upon all members of this congregation to utterly reject all forms of racism and bigotry. To reject White supremacy and all bigotry based on race, religion, gender, sexual preference, or skin color.
Maybe that student at Bronx Science was really a Nazi. I should have told him then that he was wrong. I am telling him now. As our haftarah this week says, “Establish yourself through righteousness and distance yourself from oppression.” The time to choose blessing is right now.
Rosh Hashanah Sermon 5777
Encounters with Gd Part I
Shanah Tovah, a good year to everyone. I am glad to see so many people here on this awesome and holy day. Our tradition tells us that on this day, the gates of repentance are open, that everyone is judged for good or for ill, that this is the day when we are most able to restore our connection with Gd and with each other. While modern Jews tend to view those ideas as more metaphorical than actual, it is still one of the few days that we devote almost completely to religion, to prayer and self-reflection.
Hopefully we are here because this service helps us in some way. Hopefully we are here because we find some meaning in our religion. But what is it that religion is supposed to do for us?
Some say that the purpose of religion is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. What does that mean? Perhaps it means this: Religion supports the afflicted, those who are poor, unhappy, or ill, and criticizes the comfortable, those who are rich and happy. And why does religion criticize them? Because they are so happy. They are not made uncomfortable by the misery of others. If they were, they would work harder to end the poverty of others. If the rich were good people, they would be miserable because of all of the suffering in the world.
Now, if that were were really the meaning of that saying, it would mean that according to religion, everyone should be miserable. Not a very encouraging attitude, and not likely to bring the crowds in.
In fact, that is not what that quote means at all. Religion is not something that condemns the rich and neither is it something that helps the poor. Yes, most religions encourage charity, and in other ways help the poor. Those are, in a sense, side affects of a religious worldview. But those are not really the problems with which religion deals.
The problems that religion sets out to solve are more along the lines of: “Who are we? Who should we be? How do we become something more than we are? Why do we exist? What should we think about death? Is there meaning to existence, or are our lives ultimately meaningless? And if there is meaning, what is it? What kind of lives should we be living?
Religion comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable. People who are comfortable are people who ignore these vital questions, who are able to pretend to themselves that the important thing is being promoted, or making money, or looking fabulous, or being famous or powerful. Those people should be afflicted. Afflicted by being reminded of the important questions. They should be reminded what matters in life. That is what it means to afflict the comfortable. And to comfort the afflicted means to provide answers to those questions.
I am not criticizing people who work hard, who buy nice clothes, or play games. No one can constantly focus on the big questions. There is work to be done. There are dinners to cook, floors to sweep, bills to pay. And we deserve to take a little time off, to enjoy ourselves, watch a little TV. But we cannot always look away either. There are times when we are forced to confront these great questions of meaning and existence.
When a baby is born, when you realize your child is almost an adult, when you are struck by the almost unbearable beauty of the world. When two people decide to commit to one another forever. When someone you love is seriously ill, or close to death. These are the times when we cannot ignore the big questions. These are the times when we need to know what it all means. These are the times when our hearts are sorely afflicted. It is not a coincidence that these are the times we connect to our religion.
Because religion has an answer to all of those questions. That’s right. Religion will answer all of the questions of your inmost soul. That’s the good news. The bad news is, the answer is even more difficult than the questions. Here is the answer:
The answer is Gd. Not an old man sitting on a throne in the clouds. Not a superman who grants wishes. But the Answer. The Giver of meaning. The Way to fulfillment. What that word ‘Gd’ means, I can’t tell you because each person must understand Gd personally, his or her own self, or not at all. Gd is not a thing, not a part of the world. To even partially understand Gd means to have an encounter with Gd, and once you do, there are no more words.
Religion is here to afflict the comfortable. To remind you of those questions. Why are we here? What does it mean? How do we create meaningful lives? The modern answer, the scientific answer, the atheistic answer is that it doesn’t mean anything. There is no fulfillment, the atheist might say, except for basic biological needs.
But that answer doesn’t feel right. It doesn’t pass the smell test. I feel deep within myself that there is more to life than eating and sleeping, that there is, somewhere, meaning. And so have the vast majority of human beings since there were human beings. And so do you. Which is why you are here, hoping that religion will give you the meaning of existence.
It will. Religion will comfort the afflicted. Religion will give you the answer to all the questions of meaning. The purpose of religion is to reveal Gd to you, and for you to reveal your heart to Gd. Religion will not do it for you. It will train you to do it yourself.
Coming to synagogue and saying prayers is not having an encounter with Gd. It is an exercise that will prepare you for your encounter with Gd. The Torah is your map of the way. It guides you with hints and signs. It will give you directions, but they are not easy to understand. They are hidden in stories and in commandments. We listen to our stories again and again. Sometimes the Torah is like a lens for your eyes, and the path suddenly opens before you.
There is a story we tell every year at this time. It is one of a million clues to the answer. The Binding of Isaac. Gd tells a man, Abraham, to take his son, his only son, the son that he loves, to a place that will be revealed, and offer him up there as a sacrifice. The man proceeds with alacrity. He wakes up early and starts off with his son and two servants.
Already we have more questions. Why does he go? Why doesn’t he protest? Why does he go quickly? How does he know where to go? What kind of relationship does he have with Gd, that this story can make any kind of sense?
We know that Gd has already, in almost exactly the same words, told him to leave his home. And he left his home. Did this make him rich or famous? Did it give him land or treasure? No. Abraham is only moderately successful. The only thing he has gotten out of it is that very son he is now told to sacrifice.
Promises were made. And yes, a miracle happened. The man and his wife had a child, although they were too old to have children. Gd made promises that were to be fulfilled through this boy. Kings will come from you. Your descendants will be as the sand of the sea, as the stars of the sky. This beautiful land will belong to your offspring. People will bless themselves in your name. All of that will come through his son.
And then Gd tells Abraham to sacrifice this son, and Abraham takes Isaac to a mountain and binds him there to the altar. Why does he do it? What does Abraham know about Gd? Having encountered Gd before.
Abraham knows this: He knows that Gd may demand that you leave your home, and your family. Gd may demand that you find your own way. Abraham also knows that Gd is just. He knows that Gd has the power to create and to destroy. And that Gd is the giver of meaning. Gd has promised him that it will all make sense in the end, even if that end will come long after Abraham is dead. Abraham believes it, because he has encountered Gd before.
So he takes his son and travels to the mountain. To find the answer. To find meaning. When Gd told him to leave his home in parasha Lech L’cha, Abraham didn’t know where he was going. Somehow he ended up in the right place. Here too, Gd will not tell him where he is going. Gd doesn’t tell him because you cannot know until you are there, but as soon as you are there, you know it.
And what does Gd ask Abraham to give up? His future. His love. His son. Except that is not what Gd asks him to give up. We know that, at the end of the story, Gd will not ask Abraham to give up his son, because fulfillment, meaning, peace, joy, none of that can come from such an action.
Abraham is afflicted, and Gd will give him the answer to all his questions. Gd answers by manifesting Himself on that mountain. Gd is the angel and Gd is the altar. Gd is the knife. Abraham has his final and most intense encounter with Gd there on the mountain, and it will last the rest of his life.
Every person who encounters Gd changes, and never returns to the person she was before. Abraham never goes back to Avram, Sarah never returns to Sarai. The two of them will never go back to Ur. Once Gd tells you to leave your home, you have a new home.
What Gd asks Abraham to give up on Mt. Moriah is his self, the self that he thought he was. The self he was before the encounter with Gd. The self that was afflicted with questions and doubts. Abraham binds his whole life on the altar, and he gives it up to Gd. The knowledge you thought you had, the person you thought you were, prepare to abandon it completely in the encounter with the Divine.
Abraham offers it up, and Gd says now I know that you are completely willing to abandon everything for an encounter with Me. To encounter Gd is to change, and Abraham is changed. What do we make of the ram, discovered in the bushes? The rabbis did not believe that it was an ordinary ram, that just happened to be caught in the bushes. They said it was created directly by Gd for this purpose, in the last moments of creation.
The difference between the two sacrifices, Isaac and the ram, is critical. To sacrifice Isaac is to sacrifice yourself, to give up the essence of your being. Sacrificing the ram is giving up what is external, what comes and goes. Sometimes we mistake the two. In Victor Frankl’s book Man in Search of Meaning he deals with the question of what can be taken from a person. What is internal and what is external? What is the self, and what is other? Frankl’s possessions, his profession, his home, his name– everything that he thought was an essential part of him was taken away. And it all turned out to be external.
Abraham does sacrifice Isaac on the altar. He sacrifices himself. He sacrifices that self that is separate from Gd, the self that does not know. Because an encounter with Gd forces you to deal with the part that is internal. What is really you. Your love, your hate, your goodness, your true face. Offer it up on the altar. Give it to Gd. Let Gd wake you up.
When we see the world in this way, suddenly a lot of Judaism begins to make sense. Take the book of Job. Job looses everything external. He looses his flocks, his wealth, even his health. He looses his children, and he cries out to Gd, what did I do that you are punishing me in this way? His friends come and tell him that he must have sinned to be suffering this way.
This is a childish view of religion. You are a good person, so you will be rich, you’ll be lucky, you’ll be happy. Bad things will never happen to you. Job is one of those comfortable people who needs to be afflicted. He is happy, he is kind, he is rich. He is content to think that things will continue along like this forever. He is content not to face the bigger questions of life. He is ripe for affliction. And affliction is what he gets.
When his friends tell him to confess his sin and Gd will reward him again, they are wrong. At the end of the book, Job gets his true reward for his goodness. He has an encounter with Gd. It changes him. It changes him completely. He no longer expects to be wealthy because he is a good person. He no longer expects to be healthy because he is kind. He no longer thinks that his behavior will keep tragedy from his door. He knows Gd. And that is his reward.
All of Torah is about the radical change that comes when human beings encounter Gd. Our story, the Binding of Isaac, is only one example of this ancient text giving us this message. Abraham encounters Gd, and Gd says to him “Now I know that you are ירא אלקים אתה,” now I know that you are a Gd-fearing person, a person who is able to open himself up to Gd, “because you have not withheld your son”– meaning yourself, your inmost self–, your love, “from Me.”
Abraham names that place ײַ יִרְאֶה, which means Gd will see, or perhaps, Gd will realize, because, the Torah tells us, on the Mountain of the Eternal, Gd will be seen. So to see Gd and to be seen by Gd are the same thing. All actual life, as Martin Buber said, is encounter. To find true meaning, to answer the crucial questions, to live our real lives, we must encounter the ultimate Truth of the universe.
Abraham is the father of the Jews because he got an answer to those important questions. Who am I? Why do I exist? Why does anything exist? What should I do? What does it mean? Abraham was afflicted, and Gd comforted him.
If you are asking yourself those big questions, that’s good. One of the reasons we have the Days of Awe is because people don’t ask those questions enough. If they keep you up at night, that’s good. You are afflicted, and religion will comfort you.
But if you never ask those questions, you are a little too comfortable. I want to remind you to ask them. I want to afflict you. The answer to those questions is Gd. If you open your heart to Gd, Gd will see you. If you do not withhold your inmost self, if you are willing to look beyond everything external– yes, Gd will see you. And that encounter is the answer to all your questions.
Religion is a way of dealing with the big questions of life. There is an answer. There is meaning. Follow the map. The map of Torah. Climb the mountain. Build the altar. Offer yourself up. The Answer is waiting for you.
May you be sealed in the book of life, the book of questions, and also the book of answers. Shanah Tovah tikoteivu.
The Judaism of Right Now
Shanah tovah tikoteivu, may you all be blessed with a wonderful year! 5777. It sounds lucky, doesn’t it? This past year has really been a year with ups and downs. It has been a year of growing and a year of learning, but a year also of loss and sorrow. For some of us who suffered losses in the Jewish year 5776, we wish we could turn the clock back to Rosh Hashanah last year.
I miss Mother’s. They had the best babka. When I visited my great aunt and uncle in Riverdale, they would always take me to Mother’s for a black and white.
But there are other people who miss, not Mother’s the bakery, but their actual mothers, who may have been alive this time last year, who may have shared wishes for a good year, who may have shared a Rosh Hashanah meal. And since big wishes are no more expensive than small ones, while we’re at it, we might wish that we could turn the clock back further, when people who passed away 10, 20, 30, 40, 50 years ago were still with us. I would love to be saving seats tonight for my grandparents and for my great aunt and uncle.
There are other reasons to reach back in time a bit. I would love to be standing here on this bimah in the days when we had 900 members. I have been told that the seats were full on the High Holidays and people had to sit on the third floor and look out into the ballroom. Many times people have told me they wish they could turn back the clock to when Riverdale Temple was bursting with congregants. I would love to have an assistant rabbi. I would love to have a big confirmation class and Junior Congregation meeting in the library.
And it was not just Riverdale Temple that was different in those days. The Bronx was full of Jews not long ago. In 1940, there were around 2000 kosher delis in New York City, many of them in the Bronx. Jerome Avenue, Grand Concourse– These were Jewish neighborhoods. People spoke Yiddish, and shopped in Jewish stores. Department stores, jewelry stores, kosher butchers, place where they knew your name. Everyone had a synagogue to belong to, and at least one other that they would never set foot in.
Of course, people loved the Jewish baseball players and basketball players in those days, but the real stars were the Chazanim– the great cantors, who were more famous than movie stars and commanded huge salaries. In the summer people would go to the Catskills and rent a bungalow, or stay in one of the great resort hotels there. Grossinger’s, the Concord, Kutcher’s… places to meet other Jews from New York, places to hear people like Myron Cohen, Burns and Allen, Eddie Cantor, and Al Jolson, and places to eat until you could eat no more.
In those days there were fewer questions about Judaism. Almost everyone belonged to a synagogue, which is why this synagogue had so many members. Even the apikorsim, the unbelievers, grudgingly went to synagogue with their parents, and sent their kids to religious school. Those were the golden days of Jewish New York. The golden days of the Jewish Bronx.
Wouldn’t it be wonderful to go back in time to those days? When Jews were Jews? To meet your grandparents when they were young and drink a glass of tea in the coffee shop? Listen to “The Goldbergs” on the radio, catch Jack Benny’s vaudeville act?
We may think of the old days, but physically it is not possible to go back in time. But why is today so different from those days? What happened to those golden days of Yiddishkeit? Where did all those Jews go? Is there some way we could bring those days back, and live in Jewish neighborhoods and share Jewish food and Jewish entertainment with our Jewish friends?
When we think of a ‘Golden Age’ of Judaism, we think of a thriving Jewish culture. We often think of great Jews, many of them our own ancestors. What feels strongly Jewish to me is the thought of my grandfather’s great love of Judaism. My grandmother playing mah-jong and gin rummy with ‘the girls,’ and the wonderful food she would cook for us when we all went over to their place on Mosholu Parkway. I want to have that total Jewish experience again. But if I could go back in time to a Passover Seder at my great aunt and uncle’s house on Fieldston road, would I fit in?
In our Lunch and Learn series last year we read stories from the Talmud. One of those stories was about Honi haMagel, Honi the circle-drawer. In the story, he falls asleep for seventy years. When he wakes up, he goes looking for his son, but finds that his son is dead. In search of his grandson, he goes to the synagogue, only to overhear someone saying “In the days of Honi the circle maker, there was never a piece of Torah that we didn’t understand, for Honi would explain it to us.” Honi goes over to them and tells them that he is Honi the Circle-drawer, but they don’t believe him. They don’t listen to his explanations of Torah, and they show him no honor. Honi leaves the synagogue, and prays for death, and he dies. He wants to die because he realizes that he does not belong in that time period. He does not fit in.
The people in that synagogue saw the days of Honi as a golden age, when there were no difficulties with Torah. Honi sees his ‘time travel’ as an opportunity to bring his Torah knowledge to a new generation. But they both find they are wrong. Honi’s day may or may not have been a golden age. But in either case, Honi’s knowledge and Judaism was for Honi’s time, and it was meaningless in any other time.
Was New York in the 20’s, 30’s, 40’s, and 50’s really a golden age for Jews? Remember that the big hotels like Grossingers and the Concord were successful because Jews were not allowed to stay in other hotels. Remember that the Jews stuck together because no one else would have them. Many Jews worked with my grandfather in the shmatta business because it wasn’t so easy for a Jew to become a lawyer or a doctor, or to get a job in a non-Jewish business.
Remember that there were lots of kosher restaurants because we didn’t go to the non-kosher restaurants, or if we did, we had to do it on the sly, when we hoped no one would see us. We went to Goldstein’s Deli, but we didn’t go to Delmonico’s, or the Plaza.
Remember too that Jews pulled together to shelter from the cold winds of anti-semitism both at home and in Europe, winds that would turn into a storm that would sweep away two-thirds of Europe’s Jews. And we had no power, in those days, to shelter those Jews.
There was no Jewish country, no Jewish army to fight the murderers. There was no movement here strong enough to demand that the United States take more Jews as refugees, or even take as many as were allowed in. many of the Jews here in the 30’s, 40’s and 50’s were refugees, people who had lost their families, people who had lost their homes. Of course they spent all their time with other Jews.
If we were to go back in time, would we fit in to the Jewish world? Would we laugh at the radio shows, or really wish for a TV, or the internet? We would wonder where our black friends were, our gay friends. We would wonder where the female rabbis were. I would guess that if we went back in time and came to Riverdale Temple, many of us would feel that we didn’t belong.
The style of service was different then. Clothes were different. Rabbis spoke in a grand way that might seem a little too stylized for us. We wouldn’t know the people. We wouldn’t belong.
Since the time of Honi, Judaism has always been a religion of its own time and place. We experience Judaism through its culture, which is local, and specific to that time. For us, Judaism may be connected to eating nova and reading the New York Times. For my grandfather, it may have been belly lox and the Forverts. Times change. We can’t go back. I would love to see my grandparents again. But I wouldn’t trade my existence in the present for an existence in the past. I wouldn’t trade my daughter for for my grandparents, much as I love them.
So we give up the idealized vision of the Judaism of the past. We give up outdated ideas about what it means to be Jewish, So the question before us is this: What kind of Judaism are we going to have now? What kind of Judaism will there be in the year 5777? It won’t be too different from the Judaism of 5776, but it will be different. It is fun to look back. But if we want to go someplace we have to look forward.
We should think about what kind of Judaism there will be fifty years from now. What will the Bronx look like? What will Riverdale Temple look like? But while looking at the future may help us make changes now, we don’t want to live in the future any more than we want to live in the past. We need the Judaism of right now, and we have to make it, because it will not happen by itself. So what does the Judaism of right now look like?
The first thing I can tell you about it is that I can’t tell you everything about it. Because the Judaism of right now does not come from the rabbi. The rabbi is a resource, the rabbi is a connection to the Torah and tradition, but the Judaism of right now must come from each and every one of you. Today we define ourselves, we do not need to fit into categories. The same will be true of your Judaism.
The second thing I can tell you is that the synagogue will not be the only place you practice Judaism. We love the synagogue, we want to support the synagogue, but the Judaism of right now will overflow its walls. It must. Synagogues are wonderful places, this synagogue is an important center of our community, but if this is the only place that you get your Judaism, there will be no Judaism of the future.
Find your Judaism, and live it fully. Bring your Judaism with you, online, to your home, to your work or school. Invite friends from the synagogue home, invite them to a concert, invite people from work to your synagogue. Whether they are Jewish or not. And then talk to them about what they liked and didn’t like about it.
Talk to your family about what Judaism means, about what life means, about what Gd means. Talk to your friends about it. Don’t be ashamed to say you are religious. Don’t be afraid to say you are not religious. Don’t be ashamed to say you are not sure what it means to be religious.
Each person here should ask herself what her Judaism is. And when you find that part of yourself, live it. Strengthen it. Build it up. If Judaism means to you being a good person, then be a better person. Get involved with some of the things we do here, food donation, mitzvah day. Bring more social action and social justice to the synagogue. We are hungry for it. If Judaism means to support world Judaism, there are many ways you can do that. If it means supporting Israel, do that. If it means working for a more ideal Israel, then that is what you should be doing. If it means honoring your parents or grandparents by taking on a traditional Jewish practice, or giving up a traditional Jewish practice, do that. Live your Judaism through study, through social action, through prayer, through art or through community, but live it now.
And if Judaism means something to you that I have not mentioned– and it may very well– do not hesitate to pursue it. Do not fail to bring it to the synagogue. because we need the Judaism that is appropriate for today. We need the Judaism that works in 2016, in 5777. We cannot survive on the Judaism of the past. We don’t need the Judaism of the future. We need the Judaism of right now.
Walt Whitman said “The strongest and sweetest songs are yet to be sung.” He should have said “The strongest and sweetest songs are now being sung.” Because they are the songs we are singing right now. We can’t hear the songs of the future. They are yet to be sung. We can’t hear the songs of the past. Those songs were for their own time, and now they are done. This is our Judaism. The Judaism of right now.
To my progressive friends who are upset about the election:
The Democrats have lost elections before, although never to a person like Donald Trump. I have friends who feel physically ill when they think of what might happen to our country and the world. I have friends who have been crying and friends who are depressed. This is a message for those people.
First, let me say that as upset as you are about the prospect of the next administration, there were people on the other side of the political spectrum who were as upset about the election of Barack Obama. Literally as upset, and as certain that he would lead our country to destruction. Many of them believe that he has brought this country to the brink of destruction, despite the good statistics.
I am not saying that Trump and Obama are about the same, only that the viewpoint of a politician can be terribly extreme, and it is rarely deserved. The president of the United States, powerful though he (or she) might be, can only do so much. The country can be nudged in a direction, but huge sweeping changes are unlikely.
When we think about the future, we may think about Trump randomly doing things on the spur of the moment, like his late night tweets. There will be people surrounding him who, I believe, will prevent him from acting off the cuff. Because of his lack of experience in government and lack of connection to the levers of power, these people will have much more than the usual influence over him.
These people, notably Newt Gingrich, Chris Christie, Mike Pence, and Rudy Giuliani, are not the people we would have chosen to be in power. But they are not likely to start a war over a personal insult or try to change the laws to throw journalists in jail. Are they worse than people who have been in power before, like Dick Cheney, Paul Wolfowitz, and Donald Rumsfeld? We can’t say just yet.
As for Trump himself, he is a mixture. He was, until he took on a new persona for the election, a fairly liberal person. He hired women for high positions when most people did not, he has said good things about Planned Parenthood, he has said that Transgendered people should use whatever bathroom they feel most comfortable using. His daughter converted to Judaism and he has a Jewish grandchild.
Is Trump racist, misogynist, and xenophobic? He is, but no more than many people in this country. This is not a Trump problem as much as it is an America problem. Neil Degrasse Tyson has said that our four year mission should be to make America smarter, so we do not elect people who are unqualified again. I think our mission should be to rid America of sexism, racism, homophobia and xenophobia. It will take longer than four years, and it will involve talking to people who do not think the same as you.
There are serious issues that may arise from the new administration. Will the United States withdraw from the Paris agreement? What will happen to health care? Who will be appointed to the Supreme Court? This are real issues, but let us deal with them as they come. In the meantime, it does not cost extra to hope for the best.
The most important thing is not to let a childish and crude attitude in the White House cause us to also be childish and crude. We have a lot of work to do, and we must steel ourselves to do it, but in an intelligent and respectful way. May Gd watch over and protect this country, and the world.
There was an interesting article in the May 20th edition of the Forward, by Talya Zax. The article was about Rabbi Everett Gendler, and Zax quoted him as saying “I think a persistent pain is the terrible discrepancy between the ideal and the actual, the sense that we are really divinely commanded to live with consideration for others and the avoidance of injury to others, at the same time we are commanded to live full lives and enjoy. Sometimes it’s so difficult to reconcile those.”
While I agree that there is a discrepancy between the ideal and the actual, I see no problem in reconciling the idea that we should live full lives and that we should act out of concern for others. It would be more difficult to enjoy my life knowing that I was hurting others. No doubt Rabbi Gendler is a better person than I am, and his concern for others interferes with his ability to enjoy his life, while mine does not.
I hope I am following a middle path. I do try to live in such a way that I help others, or at least do as little harm as possible. What I do for others helps me feel fulfilled. What helps you feel fulfilled?