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Rosh Hashanah Day One
A New Light On Zion
A few months ago, on a Friday afternoon, yet another murderous homicidal-suicide bombing occurred on the streets of Jerusalem. Rabbi Levi Weiman-Kelman of Jerusalem’s congregation Kol Haneshama was walking in that neighborhood when the bombing occurred, and he witnessed, as so many have, the all-too familiar scene. The shrieks, the horror, the blood, the cries to the heavens, the unbelievable pain. It is a scene that has been repeated over 50 times since last Rosh Hashanah. Instinctively, Rabbi Kelman returned to his synagogue, fearing the inevitable, expecting it, dreading it. He arrived, and at the door of his building he saw a 17-year-old boy that he knew, devastated, crying uncontrollably. His heart sunk.
“What is the matter,” he asked the teen, knowing full well what the matter must be. And the boy looked up, hesitant at first, and then he began to speak.
“You see, there’s this girl…and I like her a lot, but my friend also likes her and she seems to like him. What do I do?”
Levi Kelman could not suppress his smile. It was one of those broad, life-affirming smiles that just happens, contorting the face to twice its normal size. You can’t stop one of those smiles, even when a seventeen-year-old boy is suffering, bawling and dead serious about his problems, and he’s right in front of you. The rabbi apologized, as well he should, because we all know how painful it can be when your friend gets the girl.
And how wonderful.
Who could imagine that we would take such pleasure in hearing of such pain? That’s how low we’ve sunk. That’s how much we’ve all suffered. That’s how much Israelis have suffered. 610 killed in terror attacks since Rosh Hashanah two years ago, 427 of them civilians, 4,500 wounded – and we forget about the wounded. When I walked the streets of Israel during my two visits this past year I could see them. For Israelis, those who are wheelchair bound, missing limbs or eyes, or unable to speak because of nails laced with rat poison embedded in their brains, these are the daily reminders of the pain that just will not go away. And that’s for those who will walk the streets at all – and I admit, my own sojourns were brief and uneasy. The depression is palpable. Although the days are as dazzling and the colors as brilliant as ever, a darkness hangs over the country, a depression that has been internalized, even by the children.
Especially the children. Since Rosh Hashanah two years ago, when the fighting broke out, over 80 Israeli children have been killed. Hundreds of others have been injured and maimed. Children have suffered on the other side too, of course, and that too is tragic, though only the Israeli side has tried to protect the children of both sides, keeping them out of the line of fire, with only a few tragic exceptions. Every child is precious for Israel.
We grieve for the children, like Shani Avitzedek, 15, a popular, promising 10th grader, who studied dance and was set to travel to Berlin this summer on an exchange program. She boarded an Egged 32A bus from her Gilo home on June 19 to head to her high school’s final day, a designated “day of fun.” She was blown to bits, along with 17 other people, before she got there.
Or Hadash Al Tziyon Ta’ir. We pray every morning, “O cause a new light to shine upon Zion.” Never has that prayer carried more urgency than now. We look and all we see is despair. In an article in the New Republic, Yossi Klein Halevy says that their position on the front lines of the war against global terrorism has forced the Jews of Israel right back to the very place they thought they had left for good: back into the ghetto. That great fence now being constructed roughly along the Green Line is a symptom of this ghettoization. But the siege is far more constricting than that. Israelis have lost their freedom to roam freely in their own cities, to engage in the near-sensual ritual of possessing the land. Babysitters will no longer take children to the park. Some don’t leave their homes except for groceries and to go to work. And even within the home, there is fear. “We are in danger,” Klein Halevi writes, “of becoming a nation of agoraphobes.” Israeli journalist Ari Shavit writes, “We are in the grip of an experiment testing how long a society can endure under relentless terrorism before it begins to disintegrate.” And it is true. When people can’t gather at the local café – when every cup of coffee becomes an existential challenge – when they can’t grab a falafel, when they can’t go to a Bat Mitzvah celebration or a disco, or step onto a bus, when they can’t even discuss ideas in a University cafeteria, how can this society not unravel? When thousands upon thousands of reservists miss work again and again to grimly fight a war they never wanted to fight, how long can this society stand?
Forever. And that’s why the teen with the girl problems made Levi Kelman smile. It reminded him, just when he needed it most, that the battle has not been lost after all. In Israel, it is a battle that will be won or lost over whether, somehow, they can preserve the innocence of their children. If 17 year olds are still falling in love, than we have won.
Or chadash al tziyon ta’ir, v’nizkeh chulanu m’hayra l’oro. “Shine a new light on Zion that we might all soon bask in its brilliance.”
This verse forms the tag line to the prayer following the Borchu in the morning service, called the Yotzer prayer. Yotzer means “Creation,” and the use of the symbolism of light is meant to remind us of God’s creative powers. The theme of light is turned into a petition, and the theme of creation is channeled into a request for redemption. The parallel is drawn between the light of Creation on the one hand, and the light at the end of then tunnel of history, on the other. It is, in its original intent, a plea for messianic salvation, with the return to Zion a central tenet of the messianic idea. One of the great originators of the prayer book, Saadia Gaon, actually banned this petition in the 9th century, saying that a plea for deliverance was out of place in a prayer thanking God for creation. Sefardim follow Saadia. Sherira Gaon however, who lived about a half century later, ruled in favor of this ending, and Ashkenazim follow him, in large part because they were in far greater need of redemption at that time, with the Crusades looming on the horizon. In the 19th century, the early leadership of the Reform movement in Germany also had problems with this verse, both because of its messianic as well as its Zionist overtones. Some prayer books removed it altogether. But for us it remains, and it is for me one of the most inspiring selections of the entire service. And that Yotzer prayer will be my point of departure for the journeys we’ll be taking throughout these Yamim Nora’im.
The beauty of Jewish prayer is that whenever we encounter it, whenever we truly allow it to speak to us in its own voice, we hear something slightly different. And over the last several months, I’ve come to see this phrase not as a hope, but as a command, not directed to God by me, but by God to me.
Or chadash al tziyion ta’ir! We must illumine that beam of hope over Zion! Ignite that flame of peace and possibility. Together, let us seek to preserve the innocence of that love-smitten 17 year old in Jerusalem. Ironically, the best way to do that is for us to begin to enlist our own children in this quest. As protective as we wish to be, we need them now. For the children of America, on last September 11 the great shofar was sounded; that the wake up call. For Jewish children, especially, they need to know that this is the war for their future. Regrettably, but necessarily, this is the end of their innocence. We must kindle that match of commitment to the future, to the Jewish future, to the free world’s future, in our children.
And so this morning let us think of ways that we can again bring the flame of light to Zion. Our obligation, I believe, begins at home, with our own kids.
When we think of Israel, the picture that comes to mind invariably includes courageous young people. Foremost among them was Hannah Senesh, of course, that heroic young poet who parachuted into Hungary in 1944 in order to prepare Jews to escape the inferno of Europe, and later killed by the Nazis. She did not go in to blow herself up. She was a Jewish martyr – she went there to save lives, not destroy them. And she wrote the most memorable poetry of the period. Hiding in the Yugoslavian forests with the partisans, she earned their respect and admiration. She was always enthusiastic and warm, radiating youthful energy in the face of death. During this time she wrote one of her famous poems:
Blessed is the match consumed in kindling flame. Blessed is the flame that burns in the secret fastness of the heart. Blessed is the heart with strength to stop its beating for honor's sake. Blessed is the match consumed in kindling flame.
When we think of Israel, what is burned into our minds are those pictures of the young people like Hannah Senesh. And those innocent survivors aboard the Exodus in 1947… those teenagers dancing around the campfire on the early Kibbutzim; the wide-eyed Yemenite kids with the cute ear locks coming off the planes during Operation Magic Carpet in the ‘50s… that young Israeli soldier with his helmet removed at the Western Wall in June 1967… the girl bloodied, carried off by a saving soldier after the attack on Ma’alot in 1974… the Israeli athletes killed in Munich at the Olympics 30 years ago, when the youth of the world united in horror and shock…the pictures of youth – It was always about the youth…the youth groups and summer camps that were the backbone of American Zionism in the 40s and 50s, back at a time when the major consideration for Jews sending their kids to camp was not whether or not the camp had videogames or water skiing or whether it was “too Jewish,”; but whether our kids would come home with that flame burning in the secret fastness of the heart. Blessed is that match, from which arises the flame that will illumine Zion!
This by the way, is why the previous generation used to send its kids not just to camps, but to Jewish youth groups as well, to USY of course, and to all the religious youth groups, but also to Young Judea, Hashomer Hatzair, B’nai Akiva, Beitar and others. We wanted to ignite that flame in our children, the love of Zion, the love of Torah, the love of the Jewish people, the love of humanity, the love of commitment, the love of one’s neighbor as oneself.
Now, if we send our kids to Jewish youth groups at all, our primary concern seems to be not the ideas that they learn to love, but the socioeconomic profile of the person that they’ll fall in love with. We don’t care that our kids have passionate ideas anymore. Admit it: the most popular Jewish youth group leader in our community today is Stanley Kaplan.
Milan Kundera asked in the Unbearable Lightness of Being,” “What shall we choose, weight or lightness?” From time immemorial, the Jewish people have cast their lot with meaning over comfort. Israelis live a life saturated with significance, where every trip to the corner market becomes an affirmation of faith. For them we wish some lightness, a little lightness, a simple spat with a girlfriend or a flawless dance recital. God, just a trip to the mall! But over here, in our understandable desire to shield our children from all the horrors, we have mistakenly not enlisted them fully into the battle that will determine their future. This is no video game! This is REAL! – a melee without Pikachus: a melee in which they must ultimately pick and choose. And if we fail to guide them, a precious opportunity to uplift them into the world of idealism will have been forfeited.
We need your children and grandchildren to cast their lot fully with our congregation’s USY and Kadima youth groups and our community Hebrew High School programs. And for that to happen they need to see OUR Jewish flame burning. Many of our Bar/Bat Mitzvah students have done incredible things this year, corresponding with Israeli kids and supporting victims’ families. A number have been touched by the Israeli emissaries who have come here, most notably Ilan Mirkov, whose tragic death moved us all, almost as much as his love for Israel ignited us. But not enough of this is happening.
I know it is hard to send kids to Israel these days and I myself am torn about it at times. A few of our young adults were there this past year, and I did not discourage them, and I lived through it knowing that if anything God forbid happened to them, I would never have been able to live that down. But I am so proud of them.
I can only imagine what it must be like to be the rabbi of Marla Bennett of San Diego, that young soul who was murdered in the terror bombing at Hebrew University. It could have been one of our kids. It could have been me – I was in Israel twice this year and while I avoided downtown Jerusalem, I didn’t think twice about being on Mount Scopus. In fact, I was there.
A thousand people were at Marla Bennett’s funeral and they undoubtedly heard her words written in an article last spring, words later reprinted even in a full-page ad in the New York Times: The full text is in your supplements – here is some of it:
“I’ve been living in Israel for over a year and a half now, and my favorite thing to do here is go to the grocery store. I know, not the most exciting response from someone living in Jerusalem these days. But going grocery shopping here—deciphering the Hebrew labels and delighting in all of the kosher products—as well as picking up my dry cleaning, standing in long lines at the bank, and waiting in the hungry mob at the bakery—means that I live here. I am not a tourist; I deal with Israel and all of its complexities, confusion, joy and pain every single day. And I love it. “
“Life here is magical,” she wrote. “Stimulation abounds in Jerusalem,” she said, “And there is no other place where I would rather be right now.” And I know what she is saying, because I felt the same way when I was there last May and with our community trip last November. You can’t explain it…. but when you are there right now, you are either crying or laughing the entire time – I never felt so alive as when I was in Israel this year. Even when you cry you feel good – because you are doing something important.”
Dana Rone Saroken, a native New Yorker, did something important. A rabbinical student at JTS’s Jerusalem campus, she chose not to come home; instead, following the devastating Passover massacre, she stayed up all night the next night, like those ancient sages contemplating the meaning of the Exodus in the Hagaddah, and she e-mailed 300 of her friends asking them to put their hands to work in support of Israel. What resulted was a campaign entitled “Dear Israel,” and within weeks, 13,000 cards of support, written by children, were sent to her. They went up all over Jerusalem during July.
Sarah Shapiro, an American in Jerusalem, picks up the story from there in the Jewish Week:
“About noon today, too depressed to lift my eyes from the sidewalk as I walked through sunny downtown Jerusalem along Rechov King George, I wondered why I was so incredibly down… I couldn’t tell. The personal had been merging lately with the communal; the petty with the significant; selfish and unselfish concerns were intersecting. This is the first time in my life that the grief of my brethren has entered my bloodstream like a virus; the first time I can’t tell the difference between other people’s losses and my own fear of such losses.
On King George, I had just passed a newsstand and was passing one empty storefront after another. The stores were going out of business; tourists are few and very far between. I didn’t feel like lifting my eyes, but then for some reason, something made me look up, at something written in English in a child’s hand.
”EVERYTHING WILL BE FINE. YOUR FRIEND, JARED, Swampsett, Ma.”
Next to it was another page taped to the glass. “ISRAEL will survive ALWAYS, from Rebecca,
A fellow Jew.”
All of a sudden, my eyes sort of opened and I looked to the left, right, and up and down. The whole big store window — this must be where the bustling, ever-crowded Ritchie’s Pizza used to be — was plastered with children’s letters and drawings.
”Yo I’m sorry about what is happening their! STAND STRONG!” Simi Valley Ca
I became aware of a woman to my right, also reading.
”Dear People in ISRAEL Shalom! We wanted to say we are praying for you.” Ben, age 10
”Stay Beautiful Powerful and Free.” Toronto, Canada
”Israel, I KNOW YOU WILL WIN!” Julie, grade 3
”We Support You. We Are Jewish Too. Shalom,” Arielle.
I peeked over at the woman, who felt my glance and returned it. She looked like an Israeli, in her 60s. Had she lost someone in this intifada? In one of the wars?
“Dear people of Israel We are supporting you Always!!!! I wish I could help out but I can’t so I can only pray!!!” Harrison Brennan
A young couple, also reading, had appeared over to my left.
“Dear People of Israel. We are praying for the bombing to stop!” Sincerely, Eric Demmark
”ISRAEL ROCKS. SMILE AMERICA LOVES YOU. Have a good day. Why the frown? When things are blue, smile!!! made by, Devon Gold. Good Luck in the War!!!! “
Both the Israeli woman and I happened to turn, just then, to continue walking. Our eyes, meeting for an instant, smiled faintly.
Our smile will not be lost. No matter what else happens, for a few minutes we had been there with each other, and all the children, on King George, at this particular moment in Jewish history, before going our separate ways.
“Dear Israel,” wrote 8-year-old Jared from New York, “I watch the news every day. I pray for Israel when I walk from my house to my school and sometimes I cry. I wish I could come to help, but I’m only a kid.”
Only a kid….
Only a kid could have touched the secret fastness of the heart of Israel in that way. Only a kid. One little kid can change the world. One little kid. Chad Gadya. One little kid nearly destroyed the whole world in that song– maybe one little kid can stay the hand of the angel of death today. Don’t shield your kids from this war, my friends. Enlist them! Comfort them by giving them the chance to help as only they can! Let their innocence restore a little of the world’s. Let their tears show us the way!
Or chadash al tziyon tair.
It is a commandment to us. For a Jew it is no longer an option to remain on the sidelines. And we don’t need to. Because I have good news for you. The things we’ve been doing for Israel this past year – they are making a difference. Last April 15 a few hundred from our community marched on the Capitol in a huge rally that drew almost 200,000 fellow lovers of Zion. The entire spectrum of American Jewry was there. The left and the right were represented in Washington that day, and there were many, many young people. Those teens may not have been able to hear all the speakers, and it was hot and a very tiring day, but they will never forget it. Those who attended our communal rally the following week will never forget it. We made a difference! Those who have sent e-mailed messages of support to the storeowners of Jerusalem, they will never forget it. We made a difference! The Bar and Bat Mitzvah students here who sent letters of support to Israeli teen pen pals, they will never forget it. They made a difference. All of these things made a difference. From the moment that Washington rally took place; American policy toward Israel began to shift dramatically in a more sympathetic direction. We made a difference. The moment we bombarded CNN, the New York Times and other organizations about the abomination of their bias against Israel, peaking after the so-called Jenin “massacre,” in which almost no non combatant Palestinians actually died, which was a testimony to Israel’s concern for life, not its alleged disdain. We made a difference.
On that bus ride down to Washington I knew it would be so. And that is why we prayed on that very bus – Or hadash Al tziyon ta’ir. This was our generation’s moment to make a difference, and we did not blow it – and that moment is not over yet. Blessed is the flame that burns in the secret fastness of the heart!
And so what can we now do to ignite that flame for Israel and keep it burning brightly in our children, and in all of us? We must return, my friends. Return here, to our synagogue, and by our very presence to teach our children with our every word, our every step, to love God and to love Israel. Give us your best selves; give us your children and grandchildren. Give them a life of purpose and commitment in an age that is crying out for just that. Don’t run away. Don’t wash your hands of this. The commandment is upon all of us, to bring a new light to Zion.
Make the case for Israel – in the office, online, on college campuses, in high schools and in middle schools. One of our seventh graders last year faced a clear case of anti-Israel discrimination in his classroom, and he stood up to the teacher and said this is wrong, even at the risk of his grade. When your teacher says something blatantly wrong about Israel, don’t let it slide. Challenge him! Enlighten her with the facts. Learn the facts and teach them. The tools for doing this are easily available. I send out links every week, but you don’t need the Internet to be up on the situation – you just need the desire – and the commitment. I’ve compiled some basic suggestions on how to help Israel in your supplements. Use them.
The greatest mitzvah of our generation is to make that case for Israel, and then give of your time, your creativity, and your financial resources as well. Adopt a terror victim family. Send a card. Send yourselves. Go to Israel. Learn, teach, and pray.
And above all, never lose hope for peace – for that in the end will be the only “Or chadash” that matters.
At the first moment of possibility, when the war has been won, and it will be won, we must open our hearts to the Palestinian neighbors who have also been suffering because of their horrible leadership. We must reach out to their children and teach them they ways of pleasantness and the paths of peace – and let them teach us as well.
“Beloved 15-year old friend,” says one scrawled note placed at the grave of Shani Avitzedek, the 17 year old dancer from Gilo who took the wrong bus, “They are trying to kill us, a whole generation, to kill hope. But they won’t succeed.”
Shani’s flame has not gone out. Her generation will not die, nor will the hope for peace and reconciliation. A new light will soon shine upon Zion – and we are going to ignite it. Each of us. Each and every one.
Jews never stop praying for peace. At congregation Kol Haneshamah, Rabbi Weiman-Kelman often ends services with song of peace that has become quite popular over the past few years. Hundreds of liberal, skeptical Jews attend services there every Shabbat, so hard has their life become, when they sing this song, invariably all pretense is abandoned and many cry. “Od yavo shalom alyenu v’al kulam,” “Peace will come, unto us, unto everyone.” The song even has an Arabic word in it: Salaam. Shalom. In any language, it remains our prayer, our hope – our responsibility; for us and
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Rosh Hashanah - Day Two
In 1967, as Catholic-Jewish dialogue began to become popular, Rabbi Irving “Yitz” Greenberg noted to a Catholic audience that the one main difference between Jews and Catholics is whether the Messiah is coming for the first or second time. Rabbi Greenberg suggested a way to resolve this hot-button issue: When the Messiah arrives,” he said, “We’ll ask him if this is his first coming or his second -- and finally put the issue to rest.”
But early this year, the Vatican’s top biblical scholars issued a report that for the first time in nearly 2,000 years validates as legitimate the Jewish wait for the Messiah. A 210-page document titled “The Jewish People and the Holy Scriptures in the Christian Bible,” by the Pontifical Biblical Commission, and authorized by the Vatican’s top theologian, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, states that “the Jewish messianic wait is not in vain.” It says Jews and Christians share their wait for the Messiah, although Jews are waiting for the first coming and Christians for the second. The new document also contains an apology to the Jewish people for anti-Semitic passages contained in the New Testament, and stresses the continuing importance of the Torah for Christians.
Gee, maybe the Messiah HAS come!
On second thought, maybe not. And maybe it’s for the best! Imagine the scene that would ensue if one of the major world religions were to be proven, by God, to have been right all along. What do you think would happen? Do you think Sheikh Ahmed Yassin of Hamas would suddenly turn around, slap the chief rabbi of Israel on the back and say, “I’ve got to hand it to you, my good man, you were right on the mark!” What would the Pope do if it turned out that Menachem Mendel Schneerson actually came back and was the Messiah? Forget the Pope, what would I do? That actually would be the perfect compromise: A Jewish messiah AND a second coming. And what would Habad do if the Messiah actually turned out to be…Yitz Greenberg? Or his wife Blu? I think a female messiah would shock a lot of people. It’s good practice for us to have a female cantor. You know, it almost makes us pray that the Messiah never gets here, for the first OR second time. (Of course all of us at Beth El can smirk at all this speculation – because we know that the messiah is really Frank Rosner – who has a very special birthday coming up in just a few weeks. Think about it: have you ever seen the Messiah and Frank in the same room at the same time? Now one would expect that the Messiah would come to minyan at least once in a while. But no – I looked up in Franks little minyan attendance book, Beth El’s version of the “Book of Life,” and not once did I see the name Messiah there).
All this speculation can make one dizzy, which is why I now understand all the more why the rabbis said, “If you are planting a tree and the Messiah comes to the gates of the city, finish planting the tree, then go out to greet him.” It makes sense to finish planting the tree, for two reasons. 1) If the Messiah turns out to be Al Gore you’ll get some real brownie points. And 2), because in rabbinic Judaism, the Messiah’s actual coming is beside the point. For the rabbis, the key to waiting for the Messiah was the waiting itself. They understood how dangerous it is when messianism gets out of hand – that’s why they call it messianism: because things get so messy -- and the Judaism that they created was expressly designed to prevent that from happening. The early rabbis following the destruction of the second temple had seen the dangers of messianism run amok at least twice in their lifetimes, with the rise of early Christianity and with the Bar Kochba rebellion of the year 132, when hundreds of thousands died in the hopes that Bar Kochba, true to the name Rabbi Akiva gave him, would indeed to turn out to be the son of a star. He did not.
But the rabbis didn’t dare eliminate the messianic strain entirely from Jewish tradition. The belief in some sort of end of days, the ultimate goal of a perfect world, a Nirvana -- is essential to all spiritual quests. So while we dare not eliminate speculation about the Messiah, nonetheless, authentic traditional Judaism falls squarely on the side of Apocalypse Later.
This is no mere academic treatise. I wouldn’t be devoting a High Holidays sermon to it if it were. That discussion would best take place in a classroom, where I could write the word “eschatology” on the blackboard. (It means, incidentally, the theological speculation about the end of time – a good word to throw out at cocktail parties). But now the matter is too urgent to ignore. The urge toward bringing about an end of days has taken an apocalyptic turn as it has become front-page news. When a homicide bomber blew himself up earlier this year at the junction of Megiddo in the lower Galilee, the marriage of terrorism and apocalyptic symbolism became crystal clear: Megiddo in the Bible is better known as Armageddon, and the battle taking place right now, there at the crossroads of ancient civilization, and also in Jerusalem, in Kabul, in Southeast Asia, in Kashmir, in Tehran, in Gaza, in Lower Manhattan and soon to be playing on your living room screen direct from Bagdhad – this has been classified as the next Armageddon. It’s being framed in these classic, mythic terms – by both sides – as a battle of pure good versus pure evil, of the sons of darkness versus the sons of light. You can take the Dead Sea Scrolls in translation and it will read like the op ed page of today’s Times. The war that is being fought now is a cataclysm waiting to happen. It’s my God against your God, and the side that stands, their God wins. It’s downright scary, and we, the American and the Jewish people are sucked up right in the vortex of this end-time obsession. And the great irony is that while Armageddon has a Jewish postmark, it’s not the traditional Jewish way to approach things. Yes, we understand it – but that’s why we understand how dangerous it is.
We understand those dangers, but we are not immune to them. When that Seder was bombed in Netanya, it struck a nerve that even the most obscene terror attacks had not. It made even the most dovish of us realize that this is indeed a holy war. For here were peace loving Jews sitting around tables, discussing how God had redeemed us from Egypt and brought us into this promised land, only to see their dy-dayenus die before them. As they read how, in every generation, enemies try to enslave us, the hotel was plunged into a modern plague of darkness. As they dripped wine into the plate to empathize with our Egyptian enemies and scrutinized the shankbone to recall the blood of the paschal lamb, their own blood dripped from the doorposts of the Park Hotel. This was an attack of biblical proportions, intentionally trying to undo the Exodus myth, to drown the Jewish God in a Red Sea of blood.
Did we think of it this way? Perhaps not consciously, but those attuned to religious symbolism did, specifically the Christian right in America – they saw it. They saw Netanya and Megiddo, and certainly the World Trade Center, for what they were meant to be. They heard the President call this a Crusade last fall and they put the pieces together. They are buying up best-selling apocalyptic novels like “The Remnant” in unheard of numbers: nearly three million for the most recent volume of that series thus far. According to a poll in Time Magazine, 59% of Americans believe the prophecies in the book of Revelation will come true. 36% of those polled who support Israel say they do so because they believe in biblical prophecies that Jews must control Israel before Jesus will rise again. In the Bible belt this, and the entire war on terror, is a holy war.
It becomes difficult, I admit, to hold onto Apocalypse Later, when we align ourselves with those who are supporting Israel for precisely for apocalyptic reasons, as we know the Fundamentalist Christians are. This is not a marriage made in heaven. But it is possible to join hands with those who share a mutual love for Israel, and still maintain differences on other issues, including what will become of Israel once the war is won. These are the friends you make when you are in a foxhole together.
Meanwhile, we’ve spent the better part of this year listening to the chilling words of radical Islamic terrorists. We’ve seen the most gruesome murders and mutilations committed in the name of Allah, on innocents like Daniel Perl, and we’ve seen young people blow themselves up in the hopes of achieving paradise, and taking photos of their babies wearing explosive belts. This is madness! This is insanity! This doesn’t glorify God’s name, it cheapens it, it profanes it, it is a hillul Ha-shem. Ladies and gentleman, I don’t mean to scare, you, but if the radical Moslems and the fundamentalist Christians of this world are now fighting an Apocalyptic battle over our little homeland, I think we Jews had best take notice. And by the way, the Jewish Messianists are hopping all over this bandwagon as well. All intent on bringing about a cataclysm in God’s name.
Let’s just come right out and say that this has not been a good year for religion. In the Catholic Church, there has been an utter breakdown of trust between priest and parishioner. For good reason, I may add. Protestant and Jewish religious leaders have not been immune to scandal either. A rabbi on trial for murder in New Jersey; a cantor in Manhattan and a rabbi in New Jersey suspected of an unthinkable abuse of trust in their dealings with children. I must admit that all these well-publicized cases haven’t made my job any easier. One day last spring when I saw our security guard come into the building and, after reading that day’s headlines, I wasn’t sure if he hadn’t been reassigned to patrol indoors. There is absolutely no excuse for the kind of betrayal that has taken place by clergy of all faiths and those who protect and enable them. But even that abomination pales when compared to the fact that the responsibility for World War Three, which began last September 11, appears to lie at root in those sacred texts that the monotheistic world reveres the most, and in the spiritual leaders whose job is to interpret them.
A bad year for religion, an even worse year for God. But a great year if you are looking forward to the end of days.
The rabbis understood the prayer “Or Chadash Al Tziyon Ta’ir” to be a messianic plea. The desire for redemption is presented in a metaphor of light, following the biblical tradition of Isaiah (60:19) and Zechariah (14:7). “Cause a new light to shine upon Zion that we may delight in its splendor, Blessed are You O Lord, creator of lights,” meant to the rabbis, “ Bring redemption to the Jewish people, which will bring us all back to Zion.” The key was that God would bring that redemption, not people. For the rabbis, the purpose of prayer was not to spur us to action so much as to keep us at arms length from doing anything earth-shaking, to remind us of the necessity of leaving some things in God’s hands. Since God was the Creator of all the great lights of the heavens, says this prayer (l’oseh orim gedolim, ki l’olam hasdo”) asking for just this one little additional light of salvation should be no big problem. This is how the rabbis subtly channeled messianic yearning into constructive things like planting trees.
Now just yesterday, I stated clearly that we need to look at the verse “Or Hadash Al Tziyon Ta’ir” as a call to action – that we should take it upon ourselves to change the world by working on behalf of Israel. Today, I’m saying that this prayer is imploring us to leave history in God’s hands, and not attempt to bring about the Messianic age with our own. There is no contradiction in my messages: Support Israel – now (that’s yesterday); but Apocalypse – later (that’s today). We are fighting a war, one for survival, one against an enemy that threatens all that we hold sacred, yes, but is this the mythic war of the Light vs. Darkness? Is this the Big One? Is this the War to End All Wars? My best educated guess: NO. But even if it ends up being just that – let’s leave it to God to let us know.
Among people of all faiths, there seems to be a single black-and-white choice, between an alluring, fervent and fundamentalist messianism that is potentially as catastrophic as it is naïve, and a bland, pareve, neutered passionless faith that no one cares about and doesn’t even care about itself. I believe in a Judaism that lies somewhere in between, the kind where I can yearn whole-heartedly for a Messiah, but one that plants my feet firmly on the ground as I plant the tree first. My life is incredibly enriched by that belief – it is energized by the hopeful vision of an age of peace and harmony, and it is grounded by the knowledge that we alone will be not able to finish the job.
The early Hasidim, like the Talmudic rabbis, were brilliant at taking dangerous ideas and neutralizing the danger without dousing the flame completely.
So let’s look at two different and far less harmful ways that we can understand Jewish messianism based on the Or Chadash prayer. According to the Zohar, when we say “Or Hadash” we’re not talking about any old light, but the light of ultimate awareness. The 18th century Hasidic.master Elimelech of Lizhensk suggested from the language of this prayer that God, in an act of grace, is continually creating light. The righteous, those with a certain spiritual sensitivity, are able to rediscover a bit of this ultimate awareness every day, allowing them to achieve new levels of awareness. The vision of this prayer is not eschatological, then, but rather psychological, deeply personal and interior. The light is something that is continually created with each act of righteousness. In this way, the holy ones in each generation ascend into this hidden light, and this blessing invites us to join them. So, a nice, safe brand of Jewish messianism would yield the slogan: Apocalypse later – Torah study now!
Here’s a second possibility: Elie Wiesel has pointed out that there is no word in ancient Hebrew for “history,” no such concept in the Bible. “For us,” he says, “end of times is not an apocalyptic event, it’s a redemptive event.” And, I might add, when redemption is removed from history, it becomes ever-present. The renewal that we should experience each morning is itself redemptive. And the prayer “Or chadash,” includes a reference to that, praising God as “ha mechadesh bechol yom tamid ma’aseh bereisheet,” the One who renews each day the work of Creation.” Apocalypse later: Plant a tree now. Buy a defibrillator now. Feed the hungry now. Kiss your child now. Smile now. Be filled with wonder and gratitude at the reborn world, now. Jews don’t believe in Apocalypse - nor even necessarily in one grand redemption – but rather in a series of small redemptive events – each and every day. And the way that we can help redeem the world is to make it a little less fanatic. The way we can help bring the messiah, ironically, is to make the world a little less messiah-crazed, to see the kingdom of heaven in the here and now. Right here, right now.
Which brings me to a Hasidic interpretation of today’s torah portion found in the classic collection compiled a century ago in Prague. When God tells Abraham not to touch the boy on the altar, when the angel stays Abraham’s hand, one would think that Abraham would have been relieved. On the contrary, according to this Midrash – Abraham was quite upset. After all, he had been offered the chance of a lifetime, to demonstrate a faith unparalleled in human history, a faith so great that he was willing to make the ultimate sacrifice – to sacrifice his own future, his legacy, his son. And God said no. God said, I don’t want that sacrifice. I want you to sacrifice that urge to make the supreme sacrifice. I want you to sacrifice the sacrifice. I want you to give up any notion of any kind of faith that would call for such a sacrifice, any type of faith that would require such zealotry.
It is so hard to pull back from pure faith. There is a sense of bliss inherent in thinking one is bathing in the light of divine will. “Pull back,” God is saying. “I don’t want your children. I don’t want your purity. I don’t want your suicide bombs and your dreams of heavenly bliss. I want you to get down in the mud and negotiate for something imperfect. Pull back.”
Pull back! I want you to ask questions. I want you to challenge me, Abraham! Don’t submit – emit. Ask questions! For, in the words of Elie Wiesel, “Questions bring people together. Fanatics have no questions; they give you the answer before they hear your question.”
Imagine if all the Imams of the Moslem world understood this. Imagine. And we need to understand it too. This battle going on now is not going to save the world from the ultimate evil – it will just protect us until the next challenge comes. It is not the end of history. History undoubtedly has a long way to go. The Messiah is not coming now, nor will we bring about the Messianic age by winning this war. That is why committed Jews of all denominations shudder at the excessive Mashiach madness that we see in some Jewish circles, with big billboards, songs, and not-so-subtle additions to prayers, “Long live the king messiah.” This Jewish messianism is not as dangerous, to be sure, as the madness of that is occurring in the Moslem world, nor as powerful as Christian fundamentalism, but it’s all part of what threatens to blind us to the humanity of the other and the subtlety of history, and thereby destroy us all. To all of them I say, Apocalypse Later! Finish planting the tree, the Mashiach can wait!
If Abraham could sacrifice his dream of the ultimate sacrifice, so can we. So must we. We need to settle these things unclouded by utopian visions. In Israel, the madness of messianism spans the entire political; spectrum. The Israeli right, inspired by the euphoric conquests of the 6-Day War, established the settler movement known as Gush Emunim in 1968, when Rabbi Moshe Levinger came to Hebron for the purpose of conducting a Seder in the Park Hotel in 1968. After the Seder, he and his friends refused to leave and were relocated by the army to nearby Kiryat Arba. The next year, he used pregnant women and children to defy military opposition, then used Menahem Begin to gain a permanent Jewish presence in the center of Hebron. -- Hebron, the place where Abraham died, the center of both Jewish and Moslem Akeda-ism, the willingness to place one’s own children in the line of fire in the supposed fulfillment of the divine will. It is one of Jewish history’s great ironies that Rabbi Levinger’s dream of Israel’s manifest destiny was born on Passover in the Park Hotel in Hebron and it died on another Passover night, this year, at another Park Hotel, in Netanya.
And it’s not just the right wing that needs to heed this message. In an address delivered at Bar Ilan University on June 10, entitled “He Tarries: Jewish Messianism and the Oslo Peace,” Charles Krauthammer demonstrated how messianic euphoria prompted by the Oslo agreement blinded the Labor party leadership – and most Israelis – to the plain fact that the Palestinians had not changed in the least, continuing to foster their own messianic delusion of destroying Israel. “In the 1990’s,” Krauthammer concludes, “America slept, and Israel dreamt.”
How could we not see that the minds of Arab children were being intoxicated with hate? We did see it, Americans and Israelis saw it. Yet we chose to be blinded by our own messianic rose-colored glasses of Oslo.
It is clear from the right and the left, and certainly from the religious parties as well, that the messianic concept is, in the worlds of Rabbi David Lazar, “a dangerous form of fascism wielding control over Israeli politics.”
As the storm clouds gather and the drums of war echo across the world, while it is natural to fix our gaze heavenward, we must know that it is not exclusively from heaven that salvation will come. Nor will it be salvation at all. The war that will be fought must be fought. But it will not be a war to end all wars. God doesn’t want our martyrdom. God doesn’t want our children on the altar. God, at least the God I can begin to fathom, wants us to do what Abraham had to do; God wants us to sacrifice the sacrifice. We and our children will fight to the finish to win the war – and we will wait for the Messiah in due time.
Ani M’amin be’munah shlayma – I believe with a fullness of faith, that there will be redemption and that it will be sweet – it will just not be now. Rabbi Meir of Premishlan said, “If the Messiah wants to come quietly and politely, then we shall wait for him. If he wants to come in fits and throes, then let him wait and bide his time.”
In your supplements on there is a poem by Yehuda Amichai on how Abraham actually had a third child, aside from Yishmael and Yitzchak. Yishmael, the founder of the Arab nation, means “God will hear” and in the Koran, he is Abraham’s favorite. Yitzchak, meaning “God will laugh,” is the key figure in the Biblical account. But Amichai posits that a third was actually brought up to Mount Moriah: Yivkeh – God will cry. When I think of God right now, that is the image that comes to mind. The God that listens, the God that laughs and the God that cries. God is crying right now, because of all those crazy people running around right now doing obscene things in the name of religion. May God bring a new light to Zion – the light of wisdom and spiritual awareness. The light of understanding. The light of love. The light of hope.
Victory now – apocalypse later.
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Forgiving and Forgetting
I did a lot of thinking about family ties this summer. It was perfectly natural for me to do this – you see this summer, both Ethan and Daniel attended overnight camp – at the same time. And for two weeks, for the first time since Ethan was born 11 ½ years ago, there were no kids in the house. (We did miss them tremendously)… It was Bill Cosby who once commented “Human beings are the only creatures that allow their children to come back home.”
But that’s not entirely true. Because while the kids were away, an amzing thing happened on the beaches of Cape Cod. 55 pilot whales beached themselves off of Dennis, 46 were saved and sent back to sea, only to come ashore again the next day in Eastham, 25 miles north. The experts were at a loss as to why this could have happened. Writing in the New York Times, Oceaonographic scientist Peter Tyack explained that part of the reason was that for pilot whales, family ties are very strong. They stay together no matter what, several generations of them, and if some are sick and end up leading the rest toward the beach, the healthy ones will follow. And when the 46 healthy ones were escorted out to sea in Dennis, they came back to shore looking for the 11 who had died. As Tyack put it, “Mass strandings thus seem to be a tragic consequence of social bonding – which is particularly intense in pilot whales.”
Think about your own family. Look around at them, if they are here. OK, let’s say we’re all pilot whales. Would you have headed back to Dennis for that whale sitting next to you, or would you have gone out to sea? Whales are fairly intelligent animals – I’ve got to think that somewhere in their little brains they understood that there was no way to save those 11 loved ones and that they were just committing mass blubbercide by turning around. But they couldn’t imagine going on living without the stranded 11 – and the family could not survive the drastic environmental change of Cape Cod Bay at low tide. So there were the whales, exemplars of family stick-togetherness, and here I was, Mr. Advanced Species, sending my kids out into the mosquito-infested wilds of New England, into the hands of total strangers, for weeks of incessant bathroom humor, institutional food, 100 degree heat and wedgies.
Compare that to the tale of little Robert Goldstein, the Tampa Bay podiatrist, such a nice Jewish boy, who decided to collect a few explosives and put together a little shopping list of about 50 Islamic places of worship that he wanted to blow up. And who turns him in? His MOTHER. If he were a pilot whale his mother wouldn’t have turned him in. I understand that at least as she picked up the phone to call the police, she told him, “this is going to hurt me more than it hurts you.” (Please note that the tongue-in-cheek tone of this comment should not in any way be construed as taking lightly the horrific deed planned by Dr. Goldstein)
Then, still during our two-week hiatus without kids, Mara and I went to see this summer’s surprise hit, “My Big Fat Greek Wedding.” Lots of weird family dynamics in the movies this summer, and most of it was retro. Scratch every movie’s surface from “Austin Powers” to “Spider Man,” and you get “Leave it to Beaver.” Everyone wants to get back to Daddy and Mommy. But “Greek Wedding” was the most retro of all. Of course we could all recognize people we know in some of the ethnic portrayals – Jews and Greeks are not that different. But what amazed me was how Americans responded so positively to a story where the parents essentially dictate the rules of the game to kids, the kids question almost nothing, and it all ends up happily ever after, with the rebellious daughter, if you can call her that, moving next door to mommy. It was a message of family loyalty above all else, that loyalty rising above even autonomous choice of the individual. Again, as with the whales, in a shifting environment, where all else in life is going crazy, we return to family, even if it kills us.
Speaking of, death, families, dramatically altered environments, and weirdness, a few words about Ted Williams, who is, by the way, hanging in my office -- his picture, that is. OK – first a quick message about the Jewish view on cryonic freezing, in case any of you were thinking about it. It goes against everything we believe in. The body is sacred, a gift from God, and life and death are in the hands of God, and for us to even be thinking of achieving immortality through science smacks of incomprehensible hubris. When we die we return to the earth in the hopes that some day God might send us a deliverance from death – (the Messiah, but that was last week’s sermon), but also in the understanding that each new generation builds on the foundation established by its predecessors. We literally drink from the fruit nurtured by the remains of those whom we have returned to the earth, with the dignity, simplicity and finality that mark Jewish burial practice.
So no, we don’t go for cryonics – but I found it hard to have much sympathy for cremation side of the family. Jay Leno joked that maybe the family should compromise at room temperature. Cremation is something that society generally accepts, but Jewish law decidedly does not. So what’s better? With the smokestacks of Auschwitz still smoldering in our memory, it is beyond me how any Jew might even consider the option of cremation. We respect the sanctity of the body. The Nazis burned bodies. But Ted Williams was not a Jew, and his family has been duking it out over whether to freeze or burn him. But what saddened me most was not the fate of the deceased, but the state of the living -- particularly article three of Ted Williams’ will – the one where he wrote his oldest daughter out of the will, or in the language of the text, deemed her to have predeceased him with no issue surviving. For the purposes of this will, his daughter’s existence is to be considered null and void.
If only Ted Williams had been a pilot whale, none of this would have happened. But he was a human being, and although he was truly a war hero and baseball legend, his family is dysfunctional and so what else is new?
I deal with lots of families, and I deal with lots of funerals and weddings and bar mitzvahs and all those times when families get together with all the relatives they don’t like. And let me tell you, it’s often not a pretty picture. You’ve heard of six degrees of separation? I’ve come to believe that there are “Six Degrees of Disengagement,” in other words: with any extended family that has at least six branches, invariably at least two of them aren’t talking to each other.”
Clarrance Darrow wrote, “The first half of or lives is ruined by our parents, and the second half by our children.” And Matt Groening said, “Families are about love overcoming emotional torture.” It is clear, when it comes to the intensity of hatred, Saddam Hussein comes in a distant second to that second cousin who had the gall not to invite me to her wedding or that uncle who can never stop criticizing me.
In a startlingly revealing new book about synagogues and the life of rabbis, “The New Rabbi,” journalist Stephen Fried takes us immediately to the great battleground of the estranged American Jewish family: the Bar Mitzvah -- In this case, a Bat Mitzvah of the daughter of a distinguished Philadelphia family going through a painful divorce. The girl gets up to deliver her speech, and, straying from her prepared text, she thanks her father for everything he’s done for her, smiles at him and then intentionally leaves out her mother, who then storms out of the room in tears, followed by a clutch of family members. Fortunately, nothing quite so hurtful has been perpetrated by a family member at a rite of passage here, but we’ve come close. The whales don’t do these things!
Now it’s possible that I’m entirely off base here and that the state of the American family is far better than I’ve been led to believe. So I would like a show of hands of all those for whom every extended family member who is alive is on speaking terms with every other member. Now if we include those who have died within the past 20 years…
It’s a problem – believe me, it’s a problem, one built into the human condition from the very beginning. Cain and Abel had a failure to communicate. And why did Cain kill Abel? Not because of jealousy. If you look at the text you’ll see that it was because, when Cain spoke to Abel, presumably about all the pain he was feeling following the rejection of his offering by God, there is no record of Abel having answered. There is reason to believe that Abel didn’t even listen. The sentence where Cain speaks to Abel is abruptly and awkwardly cut off. I’m not saying that we should blame the victim here, for Abel was the victim, I’m only saying that before the murder, there was the silence. Elie Wiesel has said that when language stops, when language dies, than violence becomes another language. Too many families are not talking! And unfortunately, the end result of not talking is al too often violence.
And even when we are talking, think about how so many of the difficulties we have in families have to do with the words we speak and how we say them. How we stereotype our children to the point where they cease to be in our eyes the infinitely complicated and wondrously unpredictable beings that they are. We say, “She’s the slow one,” or “He’s the smart one,” “or worst of all, “He’s just like his father” or, “She takes after your side.” Whenever we stereotype children – or adults for that matter – we take away just a little bit of their humanity.
And we speak in well-word clichés to our children from the moment they awaken in the morning. How many times will it take until we learn that the only way a child will answer the stale question, “what did you do in school today?” is with the single word, “nothin’.”
At last count, about 675 million self help books have been written about how to communicate better with your family members. One of the better ones was penned this year by Deborah Tannen, who, as a linguist at Georgetown, at least has the credentials to speak about the subject of speaking. In her book, “I Only Say This Because I Love You: Talking to your Parents, Partners, Sibs and Kids When You’re all Adults,” she contends that any close relationship is a delicate blend of connection and control, the two of which are often confused. For example, a mother who precedes a statement to her grown daughter with "I only say this because I love you" is getting ready to say something that the daughter will interpret as intrusive and critical, but that the mother will see as an attempt to help. Tannen quotes one women who says that whenever she hears that phrase from her own mother, "I know she's going to tell me I'm fat."
The mother thinks she's expressing love and concern for her daughter's health or well-being, but the daughter hears something more like "There's something wrong with you." The same goes for statements disguised as questions, such as "Do you really need another piece of cake?" or "Did you notice they also have salmon?" -- asked by a wife who claims she's "just watching out for" her husband. Many examples of weighted phrases Tannen points out are so automatic that we probably don't even hear ourselves saying them.
According to Stephen Covey in his book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective Families, when family members yell at each other the message is usually "understand me," "listen to me," "respect me." He suggests that each family member must learn patience and self-control—to listen first and speak later. That’s easy for him to say.
Beginning with Cain and Abel, one can make the claim that all of Biblical history was really the story of one family feud giving way to the next: History as a series of vendettas. Abraham kicks out Ishmael and nearly kills Isaac. But it was out of that mutual pain that the two were able to meet one last time in friendship, over the grave of Abraham their father. We go from Jacob and Esau to the rape of Dinah to Judah and Tamar, to Joseph and his brothers, to Moses and his siblings and Korah’s gang: One blood feud after another. Rashi had an interesting comment about the Korah rebellion: In Numbers 16:27 where it says that the feud resulted in suffering “even for children and little ones,” Rashi asks, “Why were innocent children drawn into a rebellion not of their making? This teaches us the grievousness of strife,” he responds, “that children are forced to suffer for their parents’ sins.”
We need to rediscover the power of words within our families in order to expand this gift to the world – we live in a cliché-infested universe where the words have lost their meaning. We must rediscover the creative and healing power of words, because without them, too many family members end up not speaking to one another.
And the first word to remember is “forgiveness.”
Aside from all the weird movies that came out about families this summer, there were also some significant books. Among them was a book that I’ll be reviewing at the JCC in several weeks, “Revenge: A Story of Hope,” by Laura Blumenfeld. Blumenfeld is a journalist and the daughter of a well-known Conservative rabbi who was shot by a terrorist in while walking through the Arab market in Jerusalem’s Old City in 1986. The book is ostensibly about her quest to locate that terrorist and avenge the attack. But the book is really about her relationship with her father and mother, and her coming to terms with her parents’ divorce. Just as with the book of Genesis, there is a blurring of the lines between family discord and national strife; the personal and the political go hand in hand, especially in Israel. And so for Laura Blumenfeld, in the end, this cloud over her life could only be lifted, not by avenging the attack, nor even merely by forgiving the attacker, but by forgiving the attacker and forgiving her parents as well.
Revenge is overrated. It blinds us to the possibility of renewal. “Hamehcadesh b’tuvoi bchol yom tamid ma’aseh B’reisheet..” That’s the verse from the prayer that has formed the kernel of these High Holy Day sermons. Last week the focus was on the verse following it, “Or chadash Al tziyon ta’ir.” “Shine a new light on Zion.” That light will shine, only if God renews each day the work of creation. ”Hmechadesh b’tuvo,” the one who makes new, in Her goodness, “B’chol yom,” each day, “Ma’aseh b’reisheet,” the act of Creation – the entire creation. An amazing line. My favorite of the entire liturgy.
From a God’s eye view, every morning, when that sun comes up, the entire Creation is starting anew. Everything, beginning with “Let there be light.” Every day. Even Shabbat, the sun still comes up. For God, every day is Groundhog Day. But not an endless cycle of repetition, but rather an endless stream of opportunity – for renewal. Every day.
We need to wake up in the morning, see the new sun and wipe the slate clean. It’s like the joke about the husband who grumbles that his wife “doesn’t get hysterical, she gets historical.” We’ve got to stop getting historical. That’s what happens in Israel too. Palestinians observe so many commemorative anniversaries, says Laura Blumenthal, that a US embassy official complained to her that his calendar was inked over with “likely violence” days. Israelis, meanwhile have a memorial on virtually every street corner, and it has reached the point where even they have recognized the futility of being so weighed down to the past. Peace will finally arrive some day, God willing, when both sides are able, simultaneously, to do what God does – see the sun come up, wipe the slate clean, and just start over.
Each one of us could easily do that in our families. Granted, often the complaints are legitimate, and sometimes the sins are unforgivable. But all too often they are not only forgivable, they are forgettable. In the book “The New Rabbi,” Rabbi Gerald Wolpe, the retiring rabbi, makes an interesting observation about his tolerance level in counseling. “If a women comes in and says she has breast cancer, that’s a very serious problem,” he says. “But if a guy comes in the next day and says his mother in law burned the potatoes at dinner and he’s simply not going back there anymore, I may have to hit him over the head. I’m just not as tolerant with the burnt potato guy anymore.”
Think about the grievances that may exist in your extended family and ask whether any of them go back to an incident as forgettable as the burnt potatoes. The greatest blood feud in American history began in 1879 when Randolph McCoy accused Floyd Hatfield of stealing his hog. Twelve years and twelve murders later, the Hatfields moved away and the feud was over. Do you think anyone remembered the hog?
If only the Hatfields and the McCoys had read the most recent psychological studies that show how beneficial it is to forgive, how good it makes you feel. It is such a release to give up the grudge. It takes so much energy to continually fuel the fires of hatred. Or, as Laura Blumenfeld noted on a sign taped above the desk of an Israeli man whose wife had been murdered by terrorists, “Love your enemies. It really gets on their nerves.”
So the question is, can we be like God? Can we take that one festering relationship in our lives, the one that is ruining everything else, the one that fills our mouths with the taste of bile, the one that sends our blood pressure to a place where it dare not go, and can we let go? Can we wake up tomorrow unburdened with the past, go up to that person, ask forgiveness, or when that person comes up to us, accept that forgiveness gracefully, and just move on? Can we forget those burnt potatoes, if we even remember how it all began, look wistfully together at all the damage that has accrued, agree that so much of it was wasted time, wasted energy, wasted emotion, wasted goodness, wasted innocence, wasted precious years of life – and move on to better things, to new beginnings?
We can! We all can! You can! I can! Even uncle Joe, who smokes too much! Even cousin Sybil, who missed Sally’s birthday… and even Mom, even Dad, who couldn’t give all the love we needed exactly when we needed it! Even Mom, even Dad, who went and died on us when we needed them most. And even God – who went and allowed millions to go up in smoke at Auschwitz, and thousands still to die at the hands of terrorists. Even God. We can forgive even God – as sure as the sun will come up, tomorrow.
The word “zachor” appears in some form in the Bible over 600 times. Remembering is a bgi deal for Jews. But there are three things in particular, that we are called upon to remember: 1) the Shabbat, to make it holy, 2) the mitzvot in general, through the symbol of the tzitzit, and 2) Amalek, that embodiment of evil, to destroy it. But we aren’t merely commanded to destroy Amalek – we are commanded to destroy the memory of Amakek. We aren’t merely commanded to destroy the cause of so much pain, but to destroy the memory of the pain itself. We must remember, in other words, to forget. Selective amnesia might just solve a lot of domestic problems, if all sides agree to do the forgetting, if all sides agree to move on. But forgetting can only start with forgiving. If the transgression is forgivable, then we’ve little choice but to move on, or we’ll all end up like Ted Williams’ daughter: as if we never existed. Unless you are fortunate enough to be a pilot whale, that’s the only way to go.
Ha-mechadesh b’chool yom tamid ma’ashe beresiheet. On Yom Kippur, the slate is wiped clean. “Titharu,” we say again and again: “You are cleansed.” Let us cleanse ourselves of senseless hatred and stale grudges. Let the forgiving and the forgetting begin as the sun comes up on this our most sacred day. Ha-mechadesh b’tuvo bchol yom tamid ma’aseh bereisheet. Let the forgiving begin – today.
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Yom Kippur Day
This has been an extraordinary ten days, on so many levels. Last year, when we reached Rosh Hashanah, it was literally the moment when we were all getting up from the Shiva of September 11. And this year we just marked the first Yahrzeit. We’ve completed our daily recitation of Kaddish, we’ve had the unveiling, as it were and what remains now is to move on. Not in the psycho-babble sense of moving on – but rather there needs to be a renewal, a reaffirmation of life in the face of death. That is what is happening around us, combined with the bittersweet memories of loved ones lost, and, for us, with the renewal taking place in our own community, as felt in these services. All of these, happening simultaneously, have given rise to the themes of this sermon:
A few weeks ago, I was on the Upper West Side of Manhattan and called in to my voice mail for messages. Lo and behold there was a call from an old friend, the greatest Jewish storyteller on the American scene, Peninnah Schram. Peninnah is an old friend for many of us, because when I first came here 15 years ago, before we had scholar in residence weekends or retreats, I brought her here to be our first scholar in residence, at our first in-house Shabbaton. Just listening to her phone message sent a quiver of nostalgia through me. Here I was, standing on Broadway and 88th St., probably within shouting distance of Peninnah’s West End Ave apartment, and I was retrieving a message called into my office here in Stamford. Just as the phone message had come full circle, so had everything else. I thought of that carousel of time. Fifteen years here – how much has changed; how much we’ve all changed. I remember sitting in the social hall back then, late on a Shabbat afternoon, about 30 of us made through all day to Havdalah as I recall, and hearing her spin her magical tales.
So I called her back and Peninnah had an unusual request. Her son Mordechai had just taken his first cantorial position and that day he had performed his first funeral. It was very difficult for him, as one can imagine, and she wanted to lend him some support. She asked if I might mail her a copy of an article called “A Young Rabbi” that I had written shortly after I did my first funeral. Peninnah had shared with many students over the years and hoped it might help Mordechai too. I said sure and quickly copied the article and sent it to her. Now I look at that article often – it’s hanging in my office right next to Ted Williams – but I hardly ever read it. But now, prompted by this call out of the blue from an old friend, I was compelled to re-discover my own words and feelings across a bridge spanning nearly the entire first half of my rabbinic career – and they sounded as if they had been written by someone else.
“My congregants ask themselves: How can this rabbi be mature enough to comfort mourners when he hasn't known a lifetime of personal grief? How can he advise parents about their children, when he hasn't yet reared children of his own? How can he represent us before God when he hasn't been through our suffering, when he hasn't seen what we've seen? These anxieties have eased as the congregation has gotten to know me. But I'm not sure the congregants know that, if anything, I fear the consequence of too much experience. When I perform weddings, I want to sense the exhilaration I felt at my own. When I visit the sick or console the bereaved, I want to approach them, not as a trained professional, but as one who is in some way personally affected by their plight. I prepare for each funeral as if it were my first, for it was at my first that I was best able to share in the sense of raw, unadulterated grief that consumed the family.”
The article continues: “It is sad that so many Jewish communities seem to insist that their rabbis shed their youthful innocence as quickly as possible, not understanding that, once that innocence is lost, the childlike sense of wonder and basic human empathy so essential to the job are also left behind. Once the rabbi loses his exuberance, even the most vibrant of communities becomes threatened with a similar stagnation. Perhaps early career burnout would be less of a problem among rabbis – and other professionals – if they didn’t feel compelled to spend the first half of their careers trying to look older and the second half striving to regain the vitality of lost youth.”
So I sent the article off to Peninnah, who was here at the dawn of my career in Stamford, whose father, like mine, was a cantor; to give to her son, who is at the dawn of his career in New York and who is a cantor, in fact on the Upper West Side, just a stone’s throw from where I happened to be when I was retrieving his mother’s message, and who in fact now occupies the pulpit of the West End Synagogue, the pulpit that happened to have been vacated by our own cantor, Deborah Jacobson, who came up here and is now at the dawn of the Stamford portion of her career. And the funeral he was doing was for a man in his 40s – at the mid point of a brilliant career when he died, a funeral that Cantor Jacobson attended and helped shepherd Mordechai through.
Now when Peninnah called me, she had no way of knowing about the Cantor Jacobson connection. But Peninnah’s call came at just the right time for me to be able to take hold of this experience and turn this whole thing into a Peninnah Schram story.
It is a story that we are all a part of. For we are all experiencing new beginnings, this year, this year of all years, on so many levels. This year, there is a feeling of newness that has intensified our prayer. Although the prayers are essentially the same, it is as if we are discovering some of them for the first time. When we do something the same way for a number of years, we tend to become somewhat jaded and don’t really notice what is there. The repetition is comforting: being here, year after year, week after week, but it dulls the senses so much that we forget to look at what’s really there.
Hamechadesh b’tuvo b’chol yom tamid ma’ase bereisheet. Every day a new beginning. Every experience, as if for the first time. Everything.
In Deuteronomy 26:16, it says, “The Lord your God commands you this day to observe these laws and rules, and to observe them faithfully…” Rashi asks why it says “this day?” Why not every day? The commentator’s response: Every day, every time one fulfills a mitzvah, it should feel as if it is the first.
For all of us this has been an experience of newness. Even with all that has remained the same, and that is quite a bit, the newness is jarring. For me, as well as many others close to the scene, the process of transition has been exhausting. We’ve all had to adapt and adjust. Everything that we’d been doing routinely for years suddenly has become a first, with surprises around every corner and challenges at every turn. The first Bat Mitzvah of this season was different from any that we’ve ever had. For one thing, we had a power outage, did the entire service without lights, without microphones, with only our own voices and intuition. And it was wonderful.
And it made me begin to understand what life must have been like for me back at the dawn of my career, when everything was new. Like the day when I did my first funeral. It was Erev Rosh Hashanah. It was a student pulpit in Beacon N.Y. and I was scared to death. No one to help me, my first high holidays just hours away and the family needed me. To myself I was the little nebbishy student. But to this family, whom I had never met, I was “Rabbi.” And I’ll never forget the look on the widow’s face when, following the burial, we were walking from the cemetery and I said, “I’ll see you at services tonight.” And the look said it before the words, “Do you mean you’re not coming back to the house?”
“Uh, Of course I am,” I responded. It was three o’clock. Services in three hours. So many things to do. So many things to finish up. Of course I was. And I did. And the family was so grateful. And I recognized the huge responsibility of what I do. And I never saw that family again. They were peripheral members of that small congregation. I would have to do exhaustive research into my now overstuffed funeral files even to remember their name. But it doesn’t matter, because for one brief moment, their lives and mine interconnected in a profound way. It is the same connection that should be forged whenever there is a funeral. When it’s not the first, it should be as if it was the first.
Last week, on September 11, a young man came into my office, seeking the opportunity to find some peace and pray in our sanctuary. Despite the seriousness of the moment, inside I was bursting with joy that he felt that in his hour of need, he felt comfortable coming here. Because, you see, he has the unique honor of being my first Bar Mitzvah student here. On the other hand, there are about twenty young people in this congregation who have the special honor of being my first Bar/Bat Mitzvah here. There was the first I when I got here, the first I actually officiated at, rather than just sitting on the bima passively, the first girl, the first boy, the first Shacharit, the first Havdalah, the first yom tov, the first younger sibling; and then the first ones in all those categories once I became senior rabbi a few years later. They’re all firsts, and it’s sort of a running joke, but it shouldn’t matter because they, and all the rest of them, should feel like the first. For all the kids who come up to the Torah, it’s their first; so should it be for me.
It’s the same when I do a second marriage, the couple will often say, “let’s just keep the ceremony low-key.” I question that, for here is the miracle of love born again, as if for the first time. Any attempt to tone it down, any embarrassment felt, is crazy. All love should feel like first love. All weddings should feel like first weddings – except for the cost.
All children should be as first born. The Torah throws this at us again and again, especially in Genesis (come to Borders for my “Learning and Latte” sessions for more). It is always the second child who ends up being favored, which would seem to go against human nature. And that is exactly the point. We have to fight human nature to recognize that the second child should be as if he or she is the first. And the third as well. Once you get to the fourth or fifth child, you’re on your own.
Commuting should never become routine. Rav Nachman of Bratslav described what it was like to return home after a day spent crying out to God in the fields or forest – which was his 9-5 job. He said, “Coming back, everything appeared different to me. The world seemed entirely new.” Peninnah Schram often tells a story with a similar message. It’s in your First Times pamphlet and it’s called “The Artist’s Search.” Here we meet an artist, who searched far and wide for the three most beautiful things in the world: love, peace and faith – only to discover that they were to be found right back in his home, with his family, where his journey had begun.
Returning home should never become routine. Parenting should never become routine. Marriage should never become routine. Friendship and Love should never become routine. Life should never become routine. And Prayer should never become routine.
We pray how we live. People who pray by rote, live by rote. People who pray with kavvanah, live with kavvanah. The purpose of prayer is to make us most fully human, therefore best prepared to fully live each moment of life, to make each experience like the first.
It’s hard to remember first times of most of the things we do. That’s why I asked you to participate in this sermon by sending me some of your significant firsts. As you can see in the pamphlets, I got some incredible ones. But it’s not just the inspiration I’ve gotten on paper lately. Steve Leiterstein, leading High Holidays Shacharit services for the first time, has helped me to remember what it was like many years ago when my Dad taught me how to do that. And recently I visited a congregant who had to recover some of his ability to walk; I was amazed – as was he – at the complexity of the human body. I looked at the chart on the wall and could not believe how many muscles and joints in each leg must move in perfect harmony with the brain, the back, the arms and the hips just to take a step. It’s too bad that most of us are too young at the time when we accomplish most of our “firsts:” our first step, our first word, our smile, the first time we spit up oatmeal on daddy’s clean white shirt. We don’t remember these treasured moments.
I wonder how Sally Ride felt as the first woman in space in 1984? The first Israeli will be going up in space early next year, in the space shuttle, and the big discussion has been on how he’ll observe Jewish rituals up there. He’s not particularly observant, but as a representative of Israel, Col. Ilan Ramon wants to emphasize his Jewish heritage. He’s even bringing with him a drawing that was made by a brilliant 14 year old in Theresienstadt named Petr Ginz, who later was killed in Auschwitz. In his fantasy stories, Petr sailed in a balloon to exotic destinations. The drawing depicts a lunar landscape as Petr imagined it, a place far away from the hell that was his home. Col. Ramon will also keep kosher up there, although he doesn’t normally. The food will include rehydrated chicken and noodles, in self-heating sealed pouches. It will probably remind him of his Bubbe’s, depending on how rehydrated it is – or isn’t. He’ll also pray, and observe Shabbat, to some degree. But when? Following rabbinic opinions relating to Jews lost in the desert who don’t know what day it is, rabbis have advised him that he should observe time-bound Jewish commandments according to the clock in Houston, his home base
But why would Col. Ramon ever have to worry about the proper times to pray when all he has to look out the window of the ship and that’s all he’ll be doing! All he’ll see is the rising and setting sun, the shapes and colors of Creation, the purples and reds, and the deep blues of earth, and swirling clouds, and the words of the Yotzer prayer will echo in his head constantly, “L’oseh orimn gedolim, ki l’olam hasdo.” “The creator of great lights – whose kindness is infinite.”
Commentators note that the verse does not say that God created these lights, but that they are constantly being created, recreated, and infused with new energy, and we take that energy and convert it to kindness. To be a Jew in space is to rediscover all of Judaism again, as of for the first time. Every morning, we wake up and our bodies have been created anew.
Not long ago, a guest came up to me after services and said, “Your sanctuary is beautiful, but I could never pray here.” I was dumbfounded. “Why?” “Because I’d never be able to look at my book. I’d always be looking out the windows.”
So what do you think I do? That is praying! The words on the page are the vehicle to getting us to notice what’s going on, truly going on, out the window! That’s what prayer is about – it is about encountering the world through a child’s eyes but with a fully mature conscience. It is about marveling at the wonder, thereby giving us the strength to tackle the injustice. It is about understanding God’s role in the Creation, so as better to understand our role in thw world’s repair and renewal.
That notion is echoed in Reb Nachman’s hymn: “Dear God,” he writes, ‘Teach me to begin anew – to renew myself, just you renew the entire world -- each day. Show me how I can break free: of the constraints of my habits, the restraints of my insecurities, the shackles of my unwanted fears.”
This is how we must pray, when we look out the windows. Watch a classroom of kindergartners, the exhilaration in their eyes, when the first snow of the season begins to fall. Watch them looking out the windows. Where they are – the rest of us need to go there – when we are here!
The last three pages of your supplements can help us to understand what it means to take a prayer and encounter it with fresh eyes. There you’ll find a commentary on the Yotzer prayer, followed by parallels from other cultures. Then, on the last page, a personal commentary on the Morning Blessings, the Birchot Ha-shachar, by Pamela Cohn-Allen. Pamela, who died last May following a heroic and long battle with cancer, was an inspiration to all who knew her and loved her, here at Beth El and all the places that she touched literally in every corner of the globe. She was a tour guide of the spirit, and the Siddur was her atlas. The last service she ever attended anywhere outside her home was Cantor Jacobson’s tryout here last March. And from the feeling generated at these services, it is as if Pamela handed over the spiritual baton that evening.
Our congregation is going to create a prayer book this year, for Friday nights. We’re going to take each prayer of the Kabbalat Shabbat service, learn about it, discover it’s essence, and then all of us will be invited to do what Pamela did – create a personal commentary, a poem, a passage, a line, a word, a drawing, a song, a tear-stain on paper, whatever you want, whatever feels right, whatever will make this prayer real, whatever will enable us to encounter that prayer, as if for the first time. The Siddur will be called “Tehilat Shabbat,” “A Joyous Song of Shabbat.” Pamela’s Hebrew name was Tehila. Her husband Scott will be guiding and chairing this project, and the work will commence as an adult ed class that is listed in your brochures, “The Prayer-Which Project.”
This Siddur will undoubtedly contain commentaries by rabbis and other scholars and poets, but the most important contributions will come from you. This congregation can sponsor a mean Kiddush. This congregation can put on an incredible dinner dance. It is time for this congregation to write our own prayers. We will sing unto the Lord a new song. In the words of Rav Kook, the old will become new and the new will become holy. We don’t needlessly discard old traditions; no, in some cases we in fact return to ones previously discarded. But what pervades is a spirit of spontaneity and discovery, and surprise – a spirit that can’t come from the top down, but must bubble up from everyone. A spirit that enables us to change things on the fly, and if they don’t work, to change back. A spirit that embraces the new music we are learning and the new ways we are singing. A spirit that allows us to clap and enjoy it, while feeling free not to if we’re so disinclined. A spirit that keeps us guessing what the rabbi is going to say today, what the cantor’s going to sing, and where either of them is going to sit. A spirit of community and new ideas – like a congregational Seder – second night of Passover, next April 17. Book it! A spirit of trying new slants on older ideas, like the congregational Shabbaton, at the Nevele this year, MLK weekend: Special guest, to complete this circle: none other than Peninnah Schram. Book it! A spirit of openness to greater outreach to those at the fringes of Jewish life. At Beth El there are no limits to this boundless spirit, it is the wellspring that brings us to life.
It is this kind of spirit that colors the responses I received to my request for your first times. The key is to make every encounter like the first.
Because, it also may be the last.
In the Talmud, Rabbi Eliezer says that we should repent the day before our death. "Rebbe Eliezer's students asked him: Does a person know the day of his death? Rebbe Eliezer replied: All the more so should he repent today, lest he die tomorrow. The result is that all of his days are spent in the process of repentance."
Therein lies the paradox. What makes it so urgent to do everything as if it is the first time: everything from watching a chicken hatch to saying goodbye to a loved one before heading off to work in the morning, is that each of these first times could well become the last time.
As so many discovered last September 11.
Last Wednesday at our special minyan memorializing the victims, I played portions of a new ceremony created by the Center for Jewish Leadership and Learning, CLAL. It had a very powerful impact, so I’m going to share some of it here. Part of their “Ritual for Beginning to Remember,” involved the recitation of cell phone messages sent by victims of the tragedy to their loved ones, chanted in the haunting mode of the book of Lamentations, which was an equally raw, emotional response to the destruction of the 1st Temple, 2,500 years ago. Suddenly, the most routine words and expressions have become psalms.
Each of these is a prayer. Listen:
“Honey, something terrible is happening. I don’t think I’m going to make it. I love you, take care of the children.”
“Laurie I love you, I’m in the World Trade Center. And the building, was hit by something, I don’t know if I’m going to get out. But I love you very much, I hope I’ll see you later, bye.”
“Mommy, the building’s on fire. There’s smoke coming through the walls. I can’t breathe. I love you Mommy, Goodbye.”
“Hey Jules, it’s Brian. I’m on a plane and it’s hijacked. And it doesn’t look good. I just wanted to let you know that I love you and I hope to see you again. If I don’t, please have fun in life and live your life the best you can, know that I love you, and no matter what, I’ll see you again.”
“Liz, it’s me Dan. My building has been hit. I made it to the 78th floor. I’m OK, but will remain here to help evacuate people, see you soon.”
“Elizabeth, I love you a thousand times, and over and over and over again, please tell Emmy I love her, and take good care of her. Whatever decisions you make in your life, I need you to be happy. And I will respect any decisions that you make. I will always love you.”
Rabbi Irwin Kula of CLAL said on a PBS special last week that he now recites these every day as part of his daily prayers. I might just start to do the same thing. Perhaps we all should. They are what prayer is supposed to be. Perhaps we should include similar messages in the prayer book we create this year. To hear these messages is to understand, at long last, how we need to live every minute of our lives: passionately, courageously and with complete presence in that moment – the way Rabbi Eliezer must have felt when he repented every day as if it was to be his last, and the way God must have felt at the dawn of the first day, which is every day: Ha’mechadesh b’tuvo b’chol yom ma’aseh bereisheet.”
Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav prayed: “Teach me, Dear God, to make a fresh start; to break yesterday’s patterns; to stop telling myself I can’t – when I can; I’m not – when I am; and I’m stuck – when I’m eminently free.”
May this be a year when we all discover that. And may it be a year of comfort for the fallen, hope, healing and peace; a year of new light upon Zion and intensified ties to our families; and most of all, may it be a year of renewal for all of us, when all that is old will become new, and the new will become holy.
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