Rosh Hashanah Day 1 5766
Teardrops by the River
by Rabbi Joshua Hammerman
When I returned from
in late August and was perusing the newspapers for all the things I missed…and
there it was, a little box in the corner of page two usually reserved for the
latest on Jennifer, Angelina and Brad, a minor wire service story.
Grand Rapids, MN:
“A pair of ruby slippers worn by Judy Garland in "The Wizard of Oz"
and insured for $1 million is missing from a Grand Rapids museum. Police Chief Leigh
Serfling said the slippers were stolen late Saturday or early Sunday. Someone
entered the museum through a window and broke into the small display case
holding the slippers.
That’s it. The Ruby Slippers are gone. After all those slippers have been through, what with houses falling on them, witches melting, that whole Yellow Brick Road thing, and of course, those clicks with the heels…and now they are swiped from a little Minnesota museum. I wonder if witnesses saw any winged monkeys in the area that night.
Given what I had just witnessed in
the story intrigued me. Night after
night, on Israeli TV, on the streets of Jerusalem, at the Kotel, and even on
our tour bus, the constant refrain of the Gaza settlers was, “There’s no place
like home.” As we were leaving Israel,
thousands of people had been uprooted from their homes, children from their
swings and see saws, Jews from their synagogues, farmers from their
greenhouses, and people from houses where they had lived for more than a
generation. This was a national trauma
the likes of which Israel
has rarely seen, no matter where you stand on the political divide. It also highlighted for everyone how, for
Israelis and Palestinians alike, all the politics, all the fighting, all the
turmoil, it all comes back to one simple wish – to return home, wherever home
may be…whether it be for a Jew in Gaza or an Arab from one of the villages
abandoned in 1948, where the former residents to this day carry keys to front
doors long ago torn down.
One can plausibly argue that the desire to return home is the strongest human impulse, an instinctive one, which like the sex drive can be seen as a manifestation of that biological and spiritual desire to return to the womb.
A pilgrimage to
is a return to the womb of western faith and of our people. Jews have prayed 2,000
years, “Ul’yruyshalyim ircha b’rachamim
tashuv,” “To Your city return us in mercy”- The word for mercy, rachamim, comes from rechem,
which means womb. On this rare moment when Rosh Hashanah and the first day of
Ramadan coincide, we should note that the same word is also a synonym for God
in both Hebrew and Arabic. Har Habayit, stands at the epicenter of our eternal ruby
slipper heel clicking. Medieval maps
depicted this spot as the navel of the universe, from where we drink in
holiness as if through an umbilical cord. And the rock on Jerusalem
where Abraham brought Isaac is called even shetiyyah, the foundation stone, or literally, the
rock of drinking. It would later become
the Holy of Holies – our home of homes, our womb of wombs. Mount Moriah
A few days after Tisha B’Av, at 3 in the morning, following the settlers stand last stand in Gaza, tens of thousands of their orange-clad supporters congregated spontaneously at the Western Wall plaza as the buses arrived and spilled out their cargo of new refugees from places that no longer exist, Neve Dekalim, Netzarim, Morag and Kfar Darom. As their homes began to sink back into the merciless desert sand, these refugees gathered at the Kotel, praying for the speedy rebuilding of the Beit Ha-Mikdash, the Holy House, and a return of God to their midst, they eager to drink from the life-giving waters of Moriah. They were coming home to
Jerusalem and they cried
It wasn’t just because of
Gaza that the ruby slippers story intrigued
me. This year in Southern
Asia, the massive earthquake and subsequent tsunami killed nearly
200,000, though we may never really know, and displaced, by best estimate, about
a million and a half human beings, from their homes.
And what about
Darfur, where the incomprehensibly
cruel Sudanese government and their surrogates the Janjaweed have pursued a
policy of ethnic cleansing? More than
1.8 million have been displaced from their homes. In Colombia,
more than two million have been dislodged by the internal armed conflict, and
in Nepal upwards of 2
million Nepalese have flooded into India as a result of the decade
long conflict between the Government and Maoist insurgents. I’ve seen estimates that there are as many as
20 million refugees in the world right now, many who are stateless within their
Even those living in voluntary exile have had it rough. Sixteen years ago, the Israeli folk-rocker Chava Alberstein went platinum with a searing song of despair about the unbearable uncertainty of life in
Israel and the yearning to move
someplace else where life could be simpler and safer. It was called " London." "Goodbye, I'm going," she sang.
"Not that I have illusions about London.
I'll be lonely there, too. But at least I can despair in comfort."
The Forward writes about how Anat Rosenberg was one of the Israelis that Alberstein was singing about. She had moved to London two years earlier, at age 21, partly to pursue a career in art and partly — mostly, her friends suggest — to get away from the violence that had erupted with the outbreak of the first intifada. Over the years since then, she had taken to visiting her parents in
Jerusalem with decreasing
frequency and growing unease, avoiding Israeli bars and never riding buses. In London she felt safer, her
British boyfriend told reporters. The last time he spoke to her, in a
cell-phone call on July 7, she was trying to take the Underground to work. Finding
her station curiously closed, she hopped onto a double-decker bus. The last
thing he heard from her was a scream. She was 39.
Ah, so far from home. So I thought this was, indeed, a propitious time for the ruby slippers to disappear. The plight of the stateless was front page news this year – there was even a feature film on the subject, “The Constant Gardner,” honoring the life and death of a passionate activist on behalf of refugees. And then came Katrina.
The city of
MN is named for the local rapids of the Mississippi river. In the late 1880s, the fathest north a steamboat
could go on the Mississippi was . That majestic river meanders for about 2,300
miles from Grand Rapids Grand Rapids to , from top to bottom. It takes about 90 days for a raindrop to make
that trip. Or a tear drop. But it took only a week for the loss of the
ruby slippers to be felt so acutely at the other end, for millions of people to
become the orphan named Dorothy, thrust into a eworld of strangeness by
incomprehensible winds. New Orleans
What happened in
shook us for
a number of reasons. New Orleans
It exposed our utter unpreparedness for a true national emergency. I, along with several other local rabbis, met with Chris Shays a couple of weeks ago, following his return from the south. His congressional committee investigating the disaster is in the process of uncovering a tale of corruption, croneyism and mismanagement that rivals anything this country has ever seen, on the federal, state and local levels, of an adminstration where loyalty is valued over competence, where a category five warning that was loud and clear went unheeded, where the president was uninformed of the severity of it all until days AFTER the event because, it seems, literally the entire government was on vacation. Shays was very reluctant to use the term that we thought we would never hear in this country – refugees. When the story is fully told it will be a tale of how the government broke its contract to protect the poorest and weakest among us, a sin compounded in
when we see how
got it right. There the poor were
evacuated and many lives saved. As Jews,
with our history, what happened in Mississippi must trouble us profoundly. New
Katrina also exposed the fault lines of race and poverty that have been relatively hidden these past few years since 9/11. These fault lines were ripped away like the roof of the Superdome, exposed for all to see.
It exposed our vulnerability to environmental disaster and the impact of global warming, factors that are becoming more and more evident all the time, for those who choose to see them.
But more even than all of these, what shook us was a sense of uprootedness. Although most of us were safe in our homes, part of us became homeless with those refugees. Even more than after 9/11, we felt their insecurity. God willing
New Orleans will rise again,
but for now the New Orleans that America loved has gone the way of ancient Babylon and ,
Neve Dekalim and Banda Aceh. And for millions in the south, home is gone. Pompeii
In Saint Bernard Parish, one of the worst-hit areas, a Nightline reporter spoke of a woman he had seen in a rescue center; she was speaking to her insurance agent on a borrowed phone. Blonde, middle age, middle class, could be any of us. She reaches the agent. She says, “Yes, M’am, I’ve lost everything, I’d like to start the paper work.” A pause. “No, Ma’am, I don’t have the forms. They are in my house. I’ve lost it.” Another pause. “You want to mail me the forms? I don’t have an address. I’ve lost it.” Another pause. “A post office box? My post office is under water.” Another pause. “You want to fax them to me?” She got off the phone and stared into space. “Nobody gets it,” She said. Nobody really gets it.”
And she’s right.
There is no way that most of us can get it, those not touched directly by it. And our hearts go out to the people in this room who were. We can’t begin to understand it all. We’ve become so dependent on the things we have, the cell phones and computers. To have all forms of communication cut off. To not know if your home is still there, much less salvageable. To lose it all – the old family photo albums, the love letters from before you were married, the tiny sweater the baby wore home from the hospital. To not know if your neighborhood is there, or your entire city. To not know where your husband is, or your child. To not know if you will ever get back there. To not know if life will ever return to the way it was…before.
That’s the only goal – to get back to “before,” to “renew our days as of old.”
I could never completely get it either – I’ve never had the experience of having my home destroyed. I didn’t even move while growing up. I was very lucky – especially for the child of clergy, who tend to move around a lot. I stayed in the same house in
from the time of my birth until I went to college. My parents sold the house during my first
semester in rabbinical school, and in fact closed on it just two days before my
father’s death. I haven’t been back to
that house since, but part of me never left. I’ve now lived in Brookline Stamford
exactly as long as I lived in
before heading for college. But home is
still there. I still carry the key
around with me, like other refugees. And
I carry the memories. Literally. I’m not the kind of guy who likes to throw
things away. I’ve got lots of junk and I
carry it around with me wherever I go. In
my basement I've got decades of Newsweeks and Sports Illustrateds, my fourth
grade math homework, my old harmonica, some Hebrew notebooks with all the
original psychedelic alef-bet doodles, and letters; loads of letters. Brookline
Every Pesach I dutifully perform the ritual of spring cleaning, but with each Seder comes another albumful of snapshots, accompanying the escalating collection of clippings for the files, books for the shelves, videos for the cabinet, CDs to replace the cassettes to replace the LPs to replace the 45s to replace the 78s, to put next to the Pentium 4 that replaced the Pentium 2 that replaced the 486 that replaced the 386 that replaced the PC Junior that replaced the slide rule.
I’ve accumulated quite a few memories, and lots of junk to go with them.
One thing I saved that now seems particularly relevant is a small envelope containing postcards exchanged between myself and my parents during my first summer at overnight camp when I was ten. Whenever I look at them it gives me a good feeling because I realize how well adjusted my kids have turned out. I mean, we’ve never gotten letters from them like the ones I sent home. Nor even Auntir Em got letters like these:
I went to the infirmary today. I didn’t feel good. I’m taking pills and I can’t go swimming. Everyone is reading my comics. Not only does my throat hurt, but I’m getting dizzy spells. Please send safety pins. Love, Josh.”
I’m still coughing a lot. I’m homesick. I’m crying a lot. I don’t feel good. I don’t sleep so good. I’m not eating good. I’m taking pills. I wish you could send a bagel. I’m learning to speak fast Hebrew. Love, Josh.”
I REALLY am sad now. I need more food because I haven’t had anything to eat. My swimming teacher is making me jump into the water but I don’t want to. I’m scared of putting my clothes into the laundry because I’ll lose them and they’ll come back different colors. Send ear plugs.”
“I’m having more fun. I can’t sleep. I cried during the night. I’m not feeling good but I’m not telling anyone.”
(Darn) you! (I didn’t really say “darn”) Why did you do this to me! I’ve always wanted to go places, now you send me here an YOU go to
I hear Shea Stadium and Yankee Stadium
are beautiful. You make things worse
when you send ear plugs instead of nose plugs!
You’re taking advantage of me.
Can’t wait to see you next week. Can’t wait for our trip to
Thank you for everything. I’m
having a great time. Love, Josh”
As you can see, I was very well adjusted. No, I’ve never been through the kind of shattering displacement that they are experiencing now down south, but I think all of us know intuitively what it means to have lost contact with home, with no
Yellow Brick Road to follow.
If only I had had in camp what I have now – the perfect remedy for feeling lost and abandoned. All of us are constantly homing in on home, now more than ever. Hansel and Gretel had bread crumbs. I have my GPS. She’s my best friend. We hang together, whenever I’m in the car. She always gets me home.
What’s funny is that I actually loved camp. Even that first year. Because I discovered there what children have been discovering about summer camp for decades, and what Jews have known for millennia. When you leave home, you can get rid of all the baggage and reinvent yourself. As Eric Simonoff writes in his new book about the American summer camp experience, “Sleepaway,” camp was the place, "where I knew I wouldn't be that weird, bookish kid who always had his hand up in class—where, instead, I would be the popular kid, the lifelong camper who knew all the counselors, all the camp songs." Ever since the Garden of Eden, abrupt displacement has been a pre-requisite for growth. Dorothy would agree. So would Ulysses. But most of all, so would we Jews.
Thousands of years ago, the Jewish exiles from
Jerusalem sat by the rivers
wept for the home that was no more.
Their weeping is recorded in Psalm 137…. Babylon
This psalm was one of ten that Reb Nachman of Bratzlav considered to have special healing powers. He called them “Tikkun Haklali,” “The Complete Remedy.” When disciples would come to him feeling alienated from God, lonely, or even physically sick, he would tell them, “Take ten psalms and call me in the morning.”
The book of Psalms is a remarkable collection of poems encompassing the complete range of human emotion, the full spectrum of life experience. During these High Holidays, we’ll be mining those 150 masterpieces of world literature for wisdom and inspiration, as we attempt to find our own way back home.
So we look at this one, Psalm 137, and wonder what can be so healing about it.
1. By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, we also wept, when we remembered
2. We hung our lyres on the willows in its midst. 3. For there those who
carried us away captive required of us a song; and those who tormented us
required of us mirth, saying, Sing us one of the songs of Zion . 4. How shall we sing the Lord's song in
a foreign land? 5. If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her
cunning. 6. If I do not remember you, let my tongue cleave to the roof of my
mouth; if I do not set Zion
above my highest joy. 7. Remember, O Lord, against the Edomites, the day of
Jerusalem; who said, Raze it, raze it, to its foundation. 8. O daughter of
Babylon, you are to be destroyed! Happy shall he be, who repays you for what
you have done to us! 9. Happy shall he be, who takes your little ones and
dashes them against the rock! Jerusalem
its hanging gardens and spectacular ziggurats was a metropolitan marvel. Herodotus, a historian in 450 BCE
wrote, " Babylon
surpasses in splendor any city in the known world." But for the Jews,
brought there after the destruction of the first temple in 586 BCE, this was
their first dispersion, the first Exile.
King Nebuchadnezzar’s Army Corps of Engineers had constructed a massive
network of canals and aqueducts feeding from the Euphrates. These were the “Rivers of Babylon,” where the
Jews sat and wept for Zion. This system of canals, ironically, ultimately
proved the city’s undoing when the army of the Persian King Cyrus was able to
fifty years later. Because the massive
rivers had been drained in order to create these canals, the Persians were able
to wade in the waste deep waters and enter the city.
The Psalmist probably knew that when Psalm 137 was written. For this Psalm takes the Jews on a journey from Exile to restoration, from powerless and homelessness to the promise of return. It begins by those rivers, where the tormentors forced the Jews to sing songs of their home. But singing those songs was just what they needed. For in doing so, they learned how to sing the songs of Adonai on alien soil. It’s not easy to do that. But they did it. They set up entirely new institutions so that they would not forget
They called them synagogues. They
set up Hebrew Schools. They wrote down
from memory all the stories and laws that had sustained them back home, all
those things they took for granted all those centuries. They painted verbal pictures of what life was
like back there in Jerusalem,
so their children would not forget. They
collected all these stories and laws and customs into a single scroll, which
they called the Torah. And these people
came to be known by an entirely new name.
They were called Jews. And that
Torah they wrote would begin with the letter bet, the letter that means (and
looks like) “home.”
All this happened by the rivers of
Babylon. In the face of utter homelessness, they faced
held it up above their chiefest joy. Disregarding their sorry lot and defying
their tormentors, they forged a new destiny. And then, and then, the enemy was
destroyed and redemption was at hand.
Psalm 137 is truly a snapshot of a single moment of triumph in Jewish
history. The triumph of memory. This psalm marks the moment when the home
team learned how to win on the road.
It is a triumph we have repeated time and time again and through the experience of homelessness we have transformed Judaism itself into a stronger and more dynamic faith. The Torah was a product of exile, so was the Talmud and later, the Kabbala. It’s been like this from the very start, from Abraham and Sarah, who were known as Ivri’im, Hebrews, from the word meaning “to cross over,” and they were the ones who crossed over those same rivers, leaving behind the very Mesopotamian soil where their descendants would later weep, choosing homelessness in order to found a new faith.
But in choosing it for his special collection of healing psalms, Nachman of Bratzlav chose to look at Psalm 137 not historically but as a metaphor for the struggles that go on in the soul – in every individual soul, and certainly in his own tormented one. In verses 1-4 the poet stands in a deep personal state of exile. Nothing is normal. Nothing looks familiar. “I’m feeling so lost. I’m the
refugee, the Gazan settler, the
commuter – the freshman in college or the ten year old at camp. Or I’ve just broken up with my girlfriend of
two years, or my husband of 20. Or I’ve
just discovered that my body has been invaded by leukemia; or my father has
just died. Wherever I am, I am sitting
by those rivers, where even the willows weep. How can I possibly sing my old
songs? I play my stereo, but the songs
don’t help.” London
The come verses 5 and 6 and suddenly, things change. Something is working. I’ve discovered something. I’ve discovered resolve. I’ve discovered that memory and will are a powerful combination. I DO remember
. I DO remember joy. And I do remember that if I DON’T remember,
no one else will help me. Only I can
overcome this – and I… can. My right
hand (or, to be PC for we lefties, my left hand) so limp for so long, slowly,
slowly…forms a fist. , Jerusalem
I’m using that hand again. I’m writing again! I’m pumping airon – I’m getting back into shape – and my tongue – I’m talking again – verbalizing the pain – letting it out.
Then come the last three verses. “I am strong. I have lifted myself up from the river bank and I see that, indeed, I am NOT alone. God is there!” --What we mean by “God” here, by the way, is simply that I am not alone. I am connected. The forces around me and within me are being marshaled to defeat the enemy – the cancer, the loneliness, the rootlessness, the alienation, the cynicism, the anger, the exhaustion, the hatred. And we’re not only going to defeat that enemy, we’re going to obliterate it at its roots – even it’s potential recurrence, its “children,” will be crushed against the rock. The hopelessness ITSELF will be drained of hope. The rootlessness ITSELF will be uprooted.
That is how Psalm 137 can speak to us – and how it can heal us...how they all can.
As we look at our world today, those ruby slippers are nowhere to be found. Millions of people are still wandering – in the Bayou, in
Sri Lanka and the Sudan,
Liberia and the Ivory Coast. And Jews in many places of the world, in Argentina and France,
in Russia, Ethiopia and the Balkans, facing an
uncertain future, keep their bags forever packed. Always wandering – eternally seeking home.
But as we sit by the great rivers, the Euphrates and the
there we sit, by the broken levees, shedding tears next to the willows and
magnolias, singing blues and jazz, the songs of Jerusalem, and remembering what was, we can gain
faith from our own historical experience that all the homeless will someday, at
last, return and rebuild. The location may
or may not be the same one. It may be
some place farther down river, a teardrop’s journey of two or three days. But wherever it is, with or without those
ruby slippers - it will be home and there will be no place like it.
May that day soon come to pass when the homeless and hopeless shall weep by the river no more.
Rosh Hashanah Day Two 5766
Is it Odd or is it God?
On the last Sunday of August, while Hurricane Katrina was battering the southern coast, Mara and I set out from Westchester airport on a flight to Chicago for the wedding of a close friend, which I would have the double pleasure of attending and performing. The plane pulled out to the runway about 15 minutes late. No problem. We waited there another 15 minutes or so. That seemed a little strange, considering no other planes were landing or taking off. Finally the pilot got on the speaker and let us know that there had been some alarm lights blinking; it was probably a false alarm, he had seen this a few times before, and they needed to get a mechanic on board just to make sure.
An hour later, with passengers beginning to get restless, the pilot came on again. He told us it looked bad – that he was going to have to set the wheels in motion to have the flight cancelled. Mass hysteria followed as the cellphones came out and people frantically began making alternative arrangements. Mara and I just sat there. We felt terribly about the wedding but knew we were powerless to do anything about it.. My friend is a rabbi – I wondered if
law would allow him to perform his
own wedding. But there was something in
me that just wouldn’t let me panic, something reassuring me that things would
turn out all right in the end. Illinois
A few minutes later, the pilot came on again. “Someone must really want you to get to
. The problem has been solved and we’ll be
departing in just a few minutes.” Chicago
Now I faced another dilemma – do I really want to take off for
in this plane? Again, I was calmed by an
inner sense that things would be OK. We
took off over two hours late and made it to the wedding just in time. Chicago
As we were flying, I was talking about it with the woman in the row behind me. We talked about the pilot’s line that someone wanted us to get to
and how surreal the whole experience had been. Was it all just coincidence or
part of some master plan? Did someone
really want me to be at that wedding? Or
was there another person on that plane with an even more important task,
perhaps a task that that person was not even aware of? “It seems so odd.” I said. The woman looked at me and replied, “You know the old saying, ‘Is it odd or is
it God?” Chicago
I did not reveal my secred identity. But I thought about the simplicity of the catchphrase – one that has been popularized by 12 step groups – and how it leaves so little room for a middle ground. And although I’m usually a bonified shades-of-grey kind of guy, when I thought about it, she was right. Either everything is completely random, or it’s all part of some divine scheme.
You might recall one sermon I gave five years ago called “Arrivals.” That sermon also began with my plane being stuck on the runway, but that time it was a plane coming back from
Chicago, from a wedding. In fact, it was a wedding of the same friend,
precisely on the same date. (The first marriage
didn’t work out – but it’s not often that you get married on your fifth
anniversary). That plane had been late
arriving in Chicago
because of a big storm in the Gulf, and then late in departing because of
thunderstorms back here.
I thought about that sermon while flying home this time around, and I reflected on the symmetry of it all. Same friend, same date, same destination and, again, a big storm in the Gulf. I had a surreal sense of order, like I had been here before. I felt that, like the plane itself, my life was continually circling, completing round trips in perfect order, day after day, year after year. Some of the names change – the names of the hurricanes; my friend’s wives, some names have changed in the seats around you here today, but we’ve competed another circle here too, and we start again. Another perfect circle.
Psalm 19 is one of the most awe inspiring of the entire book:
הַשָּׁמַיִם, מְסַפְּרִים כְּבוֹד-אֵל; וּמַעֲשֵׂה יָדָיו, מַגִּיד הָרָקִיעַ.
“The heavens proclaim the Glory of God; the work of God’s hands is told by the firmament.”
The Psalm then goes on to detail the magnificent harmony of the natural world. The sun is compared to a bridegroom coming out of his tent, rejoicing as a hero who runs his course across the sky, that circular path from horizon to horizon, from dawn to dusk and back again, every day bursting forth from the marriage chamber, returning each night – (presumably to the same bride).
There are few things more beautiful than a satellite loop of a category four or five hurricane. From space it is a perfect spiral, with its circular eye. It is awesome. Yet on earth, nothing creates more chaos. And so, as we gaze upon Katrina’s destructive wake, we ask, “Is it Odd or is it God?” In this year of the Asian tsunami, we ask the same question.
We wonder what is God’s role in all this, and in everything else.
These are troubling theological questions, which have for the most part been set aside. As Adam Kushner, who hails from
wrote in The New Republic, the city "met its demise by an act of man, not
an act of God."
And that is true. Everything that broke down was man made: The antiquated levees, built to withstand a far weaker hurricane, never were strengthened. (The levee lobby just never made past the tax cut lobby in the halls of congress.) The systems of food distribution, electricity, transportation and law enforcement all proved inadequate. The human leadership on local and state levels were overwhelmed and the federal government failed to step in soon enough. And was it God who created the greenhouse gases that have increased the temperature of the Atlantic by 9/10 of a degree over the last 30 years, according to the journal “Nature,”a time during which the destructive power of
North Atlantic storms has
doubled? Did God do that? It is predicted that the temperature of the Gulf of Mexico could rise up to three degrees over the
next century, at which point we might look nostalgically on those days when the
worst we got was Category Five.
One could make the argument in fact that the only system that operated as expected was the hurricane itself. The perfect storm was met with an imperfect human response.
But, it was God who created us so imperfectly. God must have known that so many would suffer due to our imperfection. If we are faced with the choice of “God or odd,” and we are electing to go with God, we need a way of understanding the kind of God who would let this happen.
Enter Ovadia Yosef, the former Sephardic Chief Rabbi of
Israel. He looked at the curious timing of the
hurricane, which hit just after the completion of the Gaza
disengagement, and linked the worst natural disaster in US history to America’s support for this
withdrawal. This thought was echoed by
Rabbi Joseph Gerlitzky, the leader of the Lubavitch sect’s center in Tel Aviv,
and other rabbinic leaders chimed in agreement.
These aren’t just fringe personalities but mainstream Orthodox leaders
in Israel. A few weeks ago, our Hoffman lecturer David
Horovitz, editor of the Jerusalem Post, commented on the crisis of faith among
many Orthodox in Israel
following the disengagement. As one who was there, I can attest that it is
absolutely true – as it is amazing – that many of the Gaza settlers and their supporters believed
to the very last minute that God would intervene on their behalf. And again I’m not talking about the
fringe. So when God didn’t intervene, or
at least not in the way they expected, they were sent groping for explanations.
And Jews weren’t the only ones who
groped badly. Louis Farrakhan of the
Nation of Islam called Katrina judgment for the Iraq war. The Christian Civic Group
of Maine noted that the hurricane struck just
as New Orleans
was planning a huge gay-rights festival. A Kuwaiti official said, "The
Terrorist Katrina is One of the Soldiers of Allah." When the hurricane hit, a genuine act of
God, it was too tempting for some to resist making these simplistic connections. Simplistic – and stupid. I challenge Ovadia Yosef to look at photos of
drenched, ruined Torah scrolls being rescued from flooded New Orleans synagogues and still hold to his
explanation. No, if we’re going to try
to figure out God’s role in all this, we have to go in another direction.
Rabbi Steve Greenberg, whom we hosted a few years ago, wrote of sitting in the Carlebach Shul in Manhattan on an ordinary Friday evening several years ago, mouthing the words of the Kabbalat Shabbat service, “without a trace of presence,” when he was struck by an ordinary verse that he had glossed over hundreds of times before, a verse from Psalm 29, (a psalm we also chant when we return the Torah to the Ark on Shabbat). It’s toward the end… “Adonai Lamabul Yashav, vayeshev Adonai Melech l’olam,” “God sat through the flood; God will sit enthroned as Sovereign forever.”
God sat through the flood…???
I don’t know about you, but that’s a very disturbing verse. I’m imgining God looking down at Bandeh Aceh and
and saying, “I’m gonna sit this one out. The Sox and Yanks are playing over on ESPN.
Let’s see how I can torture their fans.”
click. The Lord is my Couch
Potato. New Orleans
But that’s not what Greenberg imagined. He envisioned God looking down on the flood of Noah’s generation, a deluge God had brought about, and Greenberg imagined the frustration, the disappointment and even rage God must have felt. The psalmist asks us to imagine God watching everything that She had created being washed away, obliterated. “This is not some Platonic prime mover, but the Jewish God, who releases the forces of chaos and then sits with His head in His hands, listening to the gasps and cries and contempating the meaning of Her own terrible power.”
God during the flood was learning how to suffer.
The psalmist intuitively understood that until God suffered through the flood, He was not really King. A King must truly be able to feel the pain of His subjects. And, sure enough, it is only after having experiences pain for the first time that God swore never again to destroy all life. That insight filled Steve Greenberg with “an inexplicable joy.”
He writes, “It was at this moment that I became overwhelmed by my own need for connection, for reinvestment in the world, in people, in my community, in myself. I began to weep and sing those few words in Hebrew over and over again, turning them into a fervent prayer of their own. And then as the awareness of the discovery struck home, I turned from my psalmic fantasy to the congregation. The joyous energy of the music and the movement pulled me in and I remembered why I had come to shul in the first place. Lecha Dodi had just begun and I was ready to welcome the Shabbat.”
So is it odd or is it God? That’s the question we all must answer. But it’s not a question we want our government to answer for us – or our public schools or our Supreme Court. There has been a mighty fight lately over a new concept into the study of the origins of life and of the universe. It is called, “Intelligent Design,” and it has been positioned as a more sophisticated alternative to the old Creationism, which simply took Genesis literally, in taking on
’s Natural Selection. Proponents of Intelligent Design are careful
to couch the argument in secular terms and do not suggest the identity of the
designer. I got one e-mail, in fact,
suggesting that the designer was discovered to be “Flying Spaghetti Monster.” Darwin
One could consider this new theory a sneaky attempt by evengelicals to introduce religion into the evolution debate, and that’s true; but at least it is a big step forward from Creationism. No longer does the Catholic church take Psalm 19 literally, as it did when Galileo was brought to trial for challenging the notion of the sun racing across the skies like a bridegroom. “Intelligent Design” theory is telling us that at least some religious leaders are going beyond the literal and looking for deeper more poetic truths in the Bible. But it is noteworthy that in recent polls 50 percent of American Christians still say that the first chapter of Genesis should be taken literally. And, while most Jews have always championed evolution, a huge debate on this subject is shaking the Orthodox world, and one popular young rabbi, Nosson Slifkin, has had his books banned for his support of
But the whole controversy begs an important question. What if evolution itself IS the intelligent design? What if the dinosaurs were divinely inspired? What if it was God’s desire that hurricanes and earthquakes and tsunamis happen in a random manner? If God chooses that at least some things will appear random, the answer can actually be that my flight to
was both odd AND God. What if God chooses Odd - sometimes? Chicago
When you met your spouse, if you have a spouse, was it odd or was it God? (Is it still?) I should say, was it odd – or was it your mother in law? And I can’t tell you how many people I marry met because of a conversation that occurred at a shiva. Life is funny that way. It so often seems pre-ordained. Things always seeem to come full circle.
Some things that appear random happen because they are meant to be. We Jews have an expression for that: Beshert, based on a German word meaning “given.” We speak about meeting our life partner as meeting our “beshert” – a special gift from God, the one intended for us alone. In Genesis, Abraham’s servant Eliezer meets Rebecca at the well and when she offers to feed his camels, he determines that this is a sign that she is Isaac’s intended. The Talmud (Moed Katan 18b; Sotah 2a) goes on to say that God spends most of Her time arranging matches for people. (That was before God invented J-date. Lots of people I marry are finding mates there).
You can choose odd or God, in case after case, but the key is that, the only way you can come down on the side of atheism is if everything is and has forever been totally and completely random. Anything else, and the coin turns up “God,” even if it’s a caprecious God, an inconsistent God, a playful God, a God who favors randomness, but one who cries at destructive floods because of the rules He set up. If even one event in your life, or in world history, seems to have had a deeper purpose behind it, than there is a God.
Which brings me to the Red Sox. Two years ago, when they lost the most excuciating seventh game ever played, how was I to know that this pain would in the end make victory all the sweeter one year later. If ever I was looking for proof of God’s existence, that was it. The perfect losers turned into perfect winners, with the perfect comeback against the perfect opponent, culminating in the ultimate victory over the other perfect opponent, during the first luner eclipse ever to take place during a World Series game, on the very night Yasser Arafat was flown out of Israel for the last time, flown to a Paris hospital where he would die..
Many of you know by now the true reason why they won. On the morning after the disastrous third game against the Yankees, with the Sox all but dead, Ethan informed me that he had prayed that morning and had informed God that if the Red Sox didn’t win it all this time, he would become an atheist. And it worked.
But God sometimes steps back – hence this year. And we sit back and scratch our heads and obsess about what we did to deserve such torture, when we might all be better off if we simply count our blessings and enjoy the ride and realize how, in the long run, there are more important things in life.
In Judaism, we can accept some randomness, despite our obsessive need for order. As the latest iPod ad campaign puts it, "Life is random." (show iPod) I've stored more than 2,200 selections on mine, a veritable musical autobiography; songs from the pacifist anthems of my college days to the ones that pacified my kids on their high chairs.
By the way, you can look at the prayers of the Machzor as sort of a Jewish playlist, jumping from Torah to psalms to medieval poetry; it all seems so random; but some rabbi must have had a great time piecing it together in his ancient iTunes.
In my iPod, David Broza lies with "The Lion King," Cat Stevens makes way for the Palmach anthem and Kol Nidre shares some disk space with Gregorian chants. I've even downloaded the audio broadcast of last year’s ALCS Game 7. Anyone want to hear it? And when I put it all in "shuffle" mode, these memories flow past me indiscriminately, the boundaries separating decades and continents dissolve and my whole life flashes before my ears. There are those who claim that the "shuffle" is not so random after all. I must admit, it does seem strange that certain songs containing the word “Apple” are repeated more often than others, while all the songs that have the word “Gates” mysteriously disappear.
"It's part of the magic of shuffle," Greg Joswiak, Apple's vice president for iPod products, told Newsweek, assuring us that the algorithm that does the shuffling has been thoroughly tested. "Random is random." Technology writer David Bennahum said, "Life is random is a really great way of shrugging your shoulders in a Buddhist way of nonattachment."
With all due respect to Buddhism, for Jews it’s all about attachment. While a Buddhist might look at the suffering going on and say that we have to get beyond it, a Jew rolls up his sleeves and does something about it. Heck, even our God is suffering, watching flood victims look for missing loved ones.
But nonattachment is indeed a danger of our iPod culture. We’ve gone from a society where people were connected, where synagogue and church bowling leagues were the focus of community living, to one where people are bowling alone, to one where, now, we are bowling alone – with headphones on. It used to be when your walked down the street in
only the crazy people were talking to
themselves. Now everyone is, talking on
the cell, singing with the iPod. It is
too easy to lose contact as we descend into the abyss of non-attachment. New York
But the iPod does precisely the opposite for me. As I listen to all the songs of my life, shuffled, they bring back emotions, snapshots of the past, and remind me of how much I care, or need to care. Each song triggers a memory, each song is itself a prayer. In fact, I have lots of prayers on my pod - 20 versions of Lecha Dodi – but they are mixed together with memories, with journeys to far off places, with teenage afternoons at the beach, with loves found, lost and rediscovered, and most of all with Israel. My iPod, like my computer, is an instrument of connection. In fact, if I didn’t know better, I might think that my iPod came in the shape of a ruby slipper –because when I am shuffling, I am Homeward bound. The randomness works.
One of our most loved prayers is Psalm 145, better known as the Ashrei. Kids love it so much (don’t you!), so did the sages, who determined that anyone who recites this ode to joy three times daily will have a place in the world to come. The rabbis liked the fact that it’s an acrostic and easy to remember – with the key verse being “Potayach et Yadecha U’masbia lechol chai ratzon.” You open Your hand to all life, that every living creature be satisfied.” When I say this, I often open my hand as well, signaling that I am prepared to be God’s hands on earth, repairing the world.
(The first verse, the one that includes the word “Ashrei,” “Happy are those who dwell in Your house,” actually was imported from Psalm 84. A nice cut/paste job by the rabbis, who saw the synagogue as God’s house and liked the idea of beginning services with a verse saying how wonderful it feels to be here. They were excellent at marketing.)
But it’s the final verse that most intrigues us this morning. Join me by heart. “Tehilat Adonai Yedaber pi v’yevarech kol basar shem kadsho l’olam va-ed.” Literally, “Let my mouth speak the praise of God and let all flesh bless the holy Name for ever.” But there’s another way to read it. “Tehillot Adonai yedaber pi,” “Let the songs of God be on my lips.” It is reminiscent of that verse recited silently before the Amida, “Adonai sfatai tiftach u’fi yagid tehilatecha.” “Adonai, open my lips that my mouth might sing your praise.’ That verse was taken from Psalm 51. So God opens our lips, puts the songs in, then we open our mouths and the praise emerges. There is a seamless connection between us and these songs of God.
I was thinking about this and then the religious significance of the iPod became clear. I had a Steve Greenberg moment…We are God’s playlist. We aren’t just God’s hands. We are God’s songs. Our individual existences are all part of this sacred song of Life. It all seems so random.
My playlist is so different from yours, as is my life. (point) You have a little more U2; you might have Alicia Keys; you might be the Stones and you the Beatles, and you Birkat ha-Mazon. You might have gone to
Orleans and you might have given to Darfur. You might have worn orange in Gaza and you might wear
blue and white. You might be suffering
from a terrible disease and you have been scarred from domestic violence. You
might bring a brilliance in science to the table, and you might be a poet. But we’re all singing part of God’s song, a
hit from God’s playlist. And while we
seem to be doing it in a random order, there is some internal logic to it all,
somehow it all makes sense; The intelligent designer may be hard at work
refining Jdate or weeping over a stray St Bernard scrounging for food in St.
Bernard’s Parish, but we are all
We’re all God’s Playlist, and we are connected, even through the headphones. No, nonattachment is not the way of the Jewish God nor of the Jewish people. Attachment is. Nonattachment is “odd.” Attachment is “God.” As soon as we realize that, as soon as we begin to care – to truly care – we can begin to locate those ruby slippers, and find our way back home.
A hurricane looks so beautiful from space. From a God’s eye view, it is gorgeous and filled with symmetry. But that same divine eye is filled with tears at the destruction and the randomness of it all. It is the randomness that God has chosen which yields the serendipity that we embrace.
We embrace it all:
The devastation and the miracles
The bombings and the Beshert
The dinosaurs and the flights to
The good and the bad, you and me
We embrace it all and we embrace one another.
Kol Nidre 5766
This evening, our journey home picks up at a place in
that I’ve spoken of often from this pulpit – the Absorption
Center at Kibbutz Merhavya, which is
located right near our sister city of Afula. Whenever I bring a group, we always go there
and it has never failed to disappoint.
This year the center has been particularly busy, taking in many of the
thousands of Falash Mura, non-Jewish refugees from Ethiopia with Jewish ancestry. During their months at Merhavya, the children
receive an intensive immersion into Hebrew language and modern Israeli
culture. Judging from this year’s visit,
these kids will adjust quite well, thank you.
The kids in our group bonded with them immediately, even playing an
impromptu soccer game. It is from visits
such as ours that these children also gain their first exposure to many Western
ideas that we take for granted – and when I say “exposure,” I mean it
literally, because these children have a particular affinity for taking
Almost instinctively, they began clustering in front of us, begging to be photographed. “Titzalem Oti, Titzalem Oti” they cried, “Photograph me!” I’ve now been there four times over the past four years, while few of the immigrants stay at the center for more than a year or so. Yet every time I’ve been there the same thing has happened. It’s like there is some hidden secret passed down from group to group; as one group leaves, it whispers to the next, “When the Americans come, ask to be photographed. They love it.” Of course part of the reason the kids love it is they get to see themselves. Yes, these are children of the digital age, so as soon as the photo is taken, they ask you to turn the camera around so they can see the digital image. My own camera is ancient – I use real film – so when I took their picture and told them there was nothing to see on the back, they walked away. These are kids who had never seen a car for most of their lives, who likely walked for weeks in dangerous territory to reach their pick up point in
But when it comes to cameras, only digital will do!
Our morning at Merhavya was profoundly moving, but in all honesty, every single moment in
Israel is moving, so by the time we
reached the final day of the trip, I wasn’t really thinking much about the
Ethiopian children. Until we got to Yad
Yad L’Kashish is one of Israel’s greatest miracles, an artist colony of elderly and infirmed; “Lifeline for the Old” it’s called, but it’s really a lifeline for the rest of us, reminding us how beautiful life can be when people are able to live in dignity in their senior years, reminding us of the light that can shine from human face, no matter what the age – and even without Botox – when that person is able to live productively.
Under the sign for Yad L’Kashish there is a Hebrew quote, from Psalm 71,
אַל-תַּשְׁלִיכֵנִי, לְעֵת זִקְנָה; כִּכְלוֹת כֹּחִי, אַל-תַּעַזְבֵנִי. Al tashlicheni le'et zikna Kichlot
al ta'azveni.” kochi
“Do not cast me off in my old age; forsake me not when my strength falters.”
We hear this verse echoed in the first person plural in the Sh’ma Kolenu prayer on Yom Kippur.
After a brief introduction, the guide escorted us into one of the workshops. There an elderly woman sat right by the door. She looked like she was knitting, or cutting pieces of felt for of those wall hangings that they sell in their gift shop, (which is, by the way, the best place to buy Judaica in all of
was speaking a very basic Hebrew, since, like many of the people there, she was
a recent immigrant from the former Soviet Union. But that made it easier to talk. She was demonstrating some of the secrets of
her craft to Mara when I walked up, having snapped a few photos of the room,
when suddenly she turned to me, gestured to my camera and said:
I took her picture, which is amazing, because I was in a state of utter shock. Whose voice was I hearing? Was it the old Russian woman or the tiny Ethiopian child? The kid, the kid – I could understand why the child wanted to be photographed, because it’s exciting to see yourself in this magic technological mirror, because it’s cool. But why this woman, who, at the other end of the lifecycle, would seemingly have had little use to be photographed by a stranger. But she said it again…
“Titzalem oti.” Remember me. Let my life be meaningful; my years of enslavement to the communists, my long journey of exodus, the miracle of my return, to a faith I never knew, to a land I’d never seen, and to a people who never forgot me.
My entire trip to
Israel had been
framed now, at the beginning and at its end, with the lingering mantra, at
first playful and now haunting: “Titzalem
And what was going on in
Gaza all that time? “Titzalem
oti.” For all the real emotion that
was on display there, the real sadness, the real love as well, for the way the
Israeli army treated the settlers with patience and respect in what many called
its finest hour, much of what went on in Gaza
was a grand photo op. Titzalem oti.
When the press made it in to New Orleans, there was one constant refrain from the Katrina survivors, one that has been echoed again and again, in Baton Rouge and Houston and San Antonio and everywhere where there are the missing and missed.
“Take my picture. Please!” Pictures of the missing suddenly turned up on the news shows, as well as websites. And since most of the evacuated had to leave their pets behind, suddenly hundreds of photos of lost animals began to appear as well on sites such as Pertfinder.com. It was similar to the way the photos were posted downtown in
after 9/11, or at DP camps following the Holocaust.
This year Yad Vashem opened up a new museum and a massive online database. The museum is a visual masterpiece, with the historical narrative coming alive through multi media displays. At the end of the historical wing lies the Hall of Names, where the visitor stands suspended between two cones, one extending ten meters skywards, and the other cone excavated into the natural underground rock, its base filled with water. Visitors enter the Hall in the circular space between the two cones onto an elevated ring-shaped platform. From here they are able to view the upper cone, where a display features some 600 photographs of Holocaust victims; and their faces are reflected in the waters below. It is most moving to go from there right to the brightest and most photogenic sight in all the world, a vista of the bustling hills of modern
Jerusalem. The city itself appears to be crying out, “Titzalem Oti…”
Three million names are now on the Yad Vashem online database, many of them with pictures. You can get lost in this site, name after name, photo after photo. On the home page there is a quote from a young man named David Berger, who was shot in Vilna in July 1941 at the age of 19. Two years earlier his friend Elsa had made her way safely to
Palestine. Berger corresponded with her, and in his last
card he wrote, “I should like someone to
remember that there once lived a person named David Berger.”
It reminded me of the beautiful elegy we heard chanted by Danny Maseng here a couple of years ago, written by the Celtic songwriter Loreena McKinnitt:
Cast your eyes on the ocean
Cast your soul to the sea
When the dark night seems endless
Please remember me…Please remember me.
Cast your soul to the sea
When the dark night seems endless
Please remember me…Please remember me.
Want to spend a depressing evening at home? Go online to one of the many confessional websites out there and read what people are confessing to, sites like notproud.com and grouphug.us. It’s a non-stop High Holidays, 24/7, and it is so, so sad. Most of the confessions can’t be read here. This one, however, went beyond disturbing:
“I am contemplating suicide, yet I can't think of anything depressing in my life. Every time there is a knife around me, I imagine stabbing myself with it. Sometimes I even pick it up and begin the stabbing motion at my chest, but then I hesitate. I feel that if I die, it will be no big deal. Nothing in the world will change, because my life is insignificant and meaningless. I don't know why thoughts of suicide keep coming into my head...”
This depressed person is screaming out for attention, for help, for love. And for more. That Russian woman indeed has left many samples of her creativity in the Yad L’Kashish giftshop. But it goes beyond that. We all want to be remembered. In the end, it’s not merely about the name or the photo or that footprint in the sand. We want our lives to have purpose, to leave a mark, to transcend the dust from which we came and to which we shall return.
The word to photograph, l’tzalem, contains within it the Hebrew word for image, “tzelem.” And the first chapter of Genesis informs us that all human beings are created b’tzelem elohim, in God’s image. So when we are asking “Titzalem oti,” we’re not merely asking to be photographed. We’re saying, “Imbue me with tzelem.” See my face for what it really is – a reflection of the divine image. See what is eternal in me. See in my face – and in my life – the dignity, the courage, the beauty, and the blessing, that all human beings deserve. “Titzalem oti. Love me, with a Godlike love.”
If I am depressed. Lift me up.
If I am young, help me to grow.
If I am old, don’t leave me behind.
If I am lost, take me home.
For in that camera’s lens is what we have been seeking all along. The hidden face of God.
We read in Psalm 13:
עַד-אָנָה יְהוָה, תִּשְׁכָּחֵנִי נֶצַח; עַד-אָנָה, תַּסְתִּיר אֶת-פָּנֶיךָ מִמֶּנִּי.
How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I bear pain in my soul and have sorrow in my heart all day long?
We often fall into the same trap as the Psalmist, who if he lived today, would undoubtedly have logged on to Grouphug.us. We become detached and self centered, leading to the depression of disconnect. But in the Ashrei, Psalm 145, we find the answer: “Karov Adonia l’chol Korav.” God is near to all who call out, who reach out, who recognize the divine in the Other.
The word tzelem appears in the Psalms only in one place, Psalm 73, and it exposes us to the negative, literally, of this tzelem photo op. You’re likely unfamiliar with this Psalm, because, unlike the Ashrei, it isn’t found in the prayer book. But the psalms left out of the siddur – which so often deal with personal pain – are often the ones we can connect with most easily.
Psalm 73 begins with an astounding confession.
אַךְ טוֹב, לְיִשְׂרָאֵל אֱלֹהִים-- לבָרֵי לֵבָב.
ב וַאֲנִי--כִּמְעַט, נטוי (נָטָיוּ) רַגְלָי; כְּאַיִן, שפכה (שֻׁפְּכוּ) אֲשֻׁרָי.
Surely God is good to
even to such as are pure in heart. Israel
But as for me, my feet were almost gone; my steps had nearly slipped.
For I was envious at the arrogant, when I saw the prosperity of the wicked.
Their eyes stand out with fatness: they have more than a heart could wish.
Behold, these [are] the ungodly, who prosper in the world; they increase [in] riches.”
This is one troubled guy; plagued with insane jealousy, and admitting it, jealous at the apparent lack of divine justice in a world where bad people prosper. But in the second half of the psalm the poet turns to himself and recognizes his own human weakness and wishes to restore his faith that close connection to God.
The turning point comes when he visits God’s sanctuary and suddenly recognizes that those who seem to be living so high off the hog are in fact suffering even more than he is. It is stated in a curious way in verse 20.
כַּחֲלוֹם מֵהָקִיץ-- אֲדֹנָי, בָּעִיר צַלְמָם תִּבְזֶה.
When You wake up, O Lord, You will despise their form (their tzelem) –
It’s not that God will suddenly hate those fat cats. Not at all; rather, God will despise their tzelem, their image, and from the word for despise, tivzeh, we get bizbooz - waste. What God despises is the wasted tzelem, the missed opportunity to use one’s godliness and God-given wealth for good. “Tzelem” cones from the word “tzel,” “shadow,” and these are people whose lives have amounted to being are a shadow of what they could be.
And we’re not really talking just about God here, because we are the ones taking the picture. It’s the psalmist himself, recognizing finally that he is created in the divine image, who looks around in the sanctuary, at all the people he had been so jealous of, and recognizes, at long last, that they are just like him, human beings with the same frailties and fears, and the same opportunities for godlike goodness, and that if he doesn’t stop obsessing about them and get off his own godlike butt and make his own life meaningful, he’ll have wasted his own tzelem as well – no he hadn’t seen this at all – he hadn’t gotten the full picture at all, for he had been looking merely at the negative.
The big question that we all face: Have we wasted our tzelem elohim?
The great philosopher Martin Buber also loved this Psalm and even read it at the funeral of his philosopher friend Franz Rosenzweig. Buber spoke often about the “eclipse of God,” how we feel when all seems lost, hopeless and out of control. Psalm 73 brings us back from the brink. The author returns with a purity of heart, a cleansed soul, and, in the end, an amazing image;
וַאֲנִי תָמִיד עִמָּךְ; אָחַזְתָּ, בְּיַד-יְמִינִי.
Nevertheless I am always with You, God as You hold my right hand.
Imagine the poet, feeling God is literally holding his hand; like mommy or daddyat the bus stop on the first day of school.
Close your eyes right now, and imagine your parent holding your hand. So safe. So protected. So valued. So cared for. THIS is the hand of God.
Howard Nemerov, the poet, wrote:
My child and I hold hands on the way to school,
And when I leave him at the first-grade door
He cries a little but is brave; he does
Let go. My selfish tears remind me how
I cried before that door a life ago.
I may have had a hard time letting go.
I don’t know about you, but whenever my kids leave for the first day at a new school, I take their picture.
And they don’t even have to say, “Titzalem Oti.”
God is sending us to a new school today. We look around us and realize, as the Psalmist did, that all those petty jealousies are only holding us back, keeping us from true contentment and honest love. In the end, our neighbors are no different from us: the same worries, the same guilt, the same fears, the same mortality, but also the same tzelem, the same spark of immortality.
At Yad Vashem there is a huge sculpture of a man embracing a group of children who were waiting not for a school bus, but for the train to Treblinka. The figure of Janus Korczak is considerably bigger than the figures of the children. Only his face and hands are visible, uniting the group with their embrace. The children are tall and skinny, their hands long and lifeless and their heads drooping. Before the Holocaust, Korczac was a famous educator in
known for methods that could unlock the door to children’s souls. Although a very assimilated Jew at first, he
certainly could see the image of God behind the face of the child.
During the war, he protected Jewish children in an orphanage. When the Nazis came to deport the children to Treblinka on August 5, 1942, Gentile friends arranged for Korczak to escape because of his fame. But he chose to go and die with the children. He said, “You do not leave sick children in the night," he said. "And you do not leave them in a time like this."
Michal Wroblewski, a teacher, was the last to see Korczak alive. He had been working on the other side of the ghetto wall--at a job Korczak had managed to find for him-- and returned to the ghetto orphanage late that afternoon to find everyone gone.
Misha later said: "You know, everyone makes so much of Korczak's last decision to go with the children to the train. But his whole life was made up of moral decisions. The decision to become a children's doctor. The decision to give up medicine and his writing career to take care of poor orphans. The decision to go with the Jewish orphans into the ghetto. As for that last decision to go with the children to Treblinka, it was part of his nature. It was who he was. He wouldn't understand why we are making so much of it today. "
We do not know what he said to reassure the children as they lined up, clutching their little flasks of water, their favorite books, their diaries and toys. He always said that one should never spring surprises on a child. Some have speculated that he told them they were going to their summer camp, Little Rose, but it seems probable that Korczak would not have lied to his children. Perhaps he suggested that the place where they were going might have pine and birch trees like the ones in their camp; and, surely, if there were trees, there would be birds and rabbits and squirrels. He then led the children on a long march through the streets of
Warsaw, lined up in rows of four, holding
hands, singing marching songs. There
were many witnesses to Korczak’s march of the children. Yehoshua Perle later wrote an eyewitness
account in his book, “The Destruction of the Warsaw Ghetto”: “…A miracle occurred, two hundred pure souls, condemned to death, did
not weep. Not one of them ran away. None tried to hide. Like stricken swallows
they clung to their teacher and mentor, to their father and brother, Janusz
Korczak.” Like Hagar in last week’s Torah reading, whom God instructs,
“Hahziki at yadech bo,” “Hold the child’s hand to strengthen his in yours,” his
was the hand of God.”
The children walked quietly to the station in clean and meticulously cared for clothes. There were 194 children at the roll call, and Korczak held the hand of a child of five.
“I am always with You, God, as You hold my right hand.”
This was a man whose tzelem Elohim was not wasted, holding the child’s hand, being Godlike to the end.
We read in Psalm 118 – מִן-הַמֵּצַר, קָרָאתִי יָּהּ; עָנָנִי בַמֶּרְחָב יָהּ.
“Min hametzar karati yah, anani ba’merchavya, “From the narrow straits I called upon you, and you answered me with expansiveness.”
In the early 1900s, a Kibbutz, in all its idealism, took the word “expansiveness” from this Psalm as adopted it as its name. That Kibbutz was Golda Meir’s first home when she emigrated from
America. And it is now the first home of those
Ethiopian chidren: Merhavya.
Min hametzar karati yah, anani ba’merchavya
Take our narrowness, O God, our narrow minds, our constricted souls, choking for air, and expand us, fill us with purpose; answer us – in Merhavya!
The answer came in Merhavya. From a little child of the Falash Mura in Merhavya; and from an elderly Russian woman in
Jerusalem; and from a settler and soldier bridging the
divide and embracing in . And from the homeless and hopeless of Gaza ; and from
David Berger and Janus Korczak and the rest of the six million. And from the Psalmist. Baton Rouge
“Anani B’Merhavya.” The answer came to me in Merhavya:
Listen closely and you will hear it. You will hear it in the sound of the shofar and you will hear it in the sound of the breeze. You will hear it in the sound of Korczac muffling a child’s cry and you will hear it in the age-old chant of the Torah. You will hear God saying, “Titzalem Oti.”
Be like me.
Just as I welcomed Adam and Eve into the Garden, welcome all strangers in your midst. Just as I dressed them before they set off on their way, you clothe the needy as well, with clothing drives and donations. Just as I visited Abraham following his bris, you visit the sick, wherever they may be. Just as I found a bride for Isaac, you provide sustenance to young couples – and give them a break with synagogue dues too! Just as I comforted Isaac when his mother died, you comfort the mourners, not just during shiva, but all the time, every morning at minyan when you help them to say kaddish. Just I lifted up Joseph from the pit, you lift up the downtrodden and depressed, by lending a hand, or simply by greeting everyone with a smile. Just as I rescued
from Egypt, you redeem
captives; just as I fed
by giving them mannah in the wilderness, you feed the hungry with the bags you
brought tonight, but much more is needed.
Just as I healed Miriam’s leprosy, you heal the sick with walkathons,
with donations and with affordable medical care. Just as I held your hand when you were in
first grade, and just as Korczak held the hand of those children, you hold the
hands of the young and innocentl. And
just as I created you in the divine image, you must see my reflection in every
creature on earth, in all humanity, wither reflected in the waters of Yad
Vashem’s Hall of Names or in the mirror of your own bathroom. Israel
Titzalem Oti – take MY picture! And let that picture be burned into your consciousness, into the consciousness of the world. Titzalem oti!
A story is told of a young child who is busy with pencils, pens and crayons, working endlessly on a drawing. His father comes up behind him and asks, “Son, what are you drawing?”
“I’m drawing a picture of God, Dad,” the child replied.
“Son, don’t you know that no one knows what God looks like?”
“Well,” he replies. “They will when I’m finished.”
Yes, but will they when we’re finished? When we’re finished inscribing ourselves into the scrapbook of life, affixing our likenesses into the photo album of purpose, will God’s image be there?
May God’s tzelem be there, for if it is, then, most certainly, ours will be too.
Yom Kippur Day 5766
15 Step Program for Jewish Living
Please turn in your sourcebooks to p. 142. There is a custom at this time of year to recite Psalms 120 through 134 on Shabbat afternoons – these are the Songs of the
– called that because they all begin with the phrase “Shir ha-Ma’alot.” Temple Stairs
According to the Mishna (Sukkah 5:4), these 15 Psalms correspond to the 15 semi-circular steps that led from the courtyard of the
Temple where pilgrims
gathered, up to the area of the Sanctuary and altar itself. The Levites would enter the courtyard where
people waited their turn to enter into the Temple. On each one of these steps the
Levites would sing one of these psalms of ascent until they reached the
platform between the outer courtyard and the Temple sanctuary. Then they would station
themselves on the border between these two areas and provide the musical
accompaniment to the service.
One question that has perplexed scholars is why the steps are arranged in a semi-circle (much like the steps leading up to our own pulpit) when everything else about the architecture of the
building and its courtyard was rectangular. Rabbi Judith Abrams points out that there are
many parallels between the Temple
and, of all things, Noah’s ark. Both
construction projects are described in intricate detail in the Bible, and they
are intimately connected both in purpose (salvation)
and form (they were multi-leveled, and the details of the construction were
specifically commanded by God). What
made the inner Temple
courtyard stand out from the outer, less sacred courtyard were those beautiful circular
steps, because they represented the one part of the Noah’s ark story that was
constructed by God alone – the one part that wasn’t even on the ark: The rainbow.
In Hebrew, the rainbow is called “Keshet” and it has come to symbolize many things: multi-culturalism, tolerance, the end of the storm, anti-nuclear activism, gay rights, and, in the Noah story, the promise God made never again to destroy all flesh by flood. The Keshet is also an archer’s bow, an instrument of war, but just as the warrior lowers his bow to signal peaceful intentions, so does the appearance of the rainbow signal an era of peace and understanding ordained from heaven. The rainbow always reminds me of Hanukkah, a holiday that begins with war but ends in a fabulous array of colored candles, light and harmony. Interestingly, the constellation for the month of Hanukkah, Kislev, is Sagittarius, the Keshet. And Hanukkah, the rainbow holiday, celebrates the rededication of … The Temple – the building with the rainbow staircase, the building that could not be constructed using the instruments of war, the building built by Solomon, the man whose name means peace.
The Noah story has become especially relevant to us this year. In
the tsunami, 80 foot waves wiped out entire villages. Everything was swept away; no infrastructure
left, not a sign that life had once existed. There was no there there. The water marks
were not on the sides of houses, as in New
Orleans, but on the sides of mountains surrounding these villages. Genesis 7:20, states, in
describing the flood of Noah’s time:
חֲמֵשׁ עֶשְׂרֵה אַמָּה מִלְמַעְלָה, גָּבְרוּ הַמָּיִם; וַיְכֻסּוּ, הֶהָרִים
Fifteen cubits upward did the waters prevail; and the mountains were covered. All in whose nostrils was the breath of the spirit of life, whatsoever was in the dry land, died.
While the rainbow reminds us of Hanukkah, Noah removed the covering of ark on Rosh Hashanah, and the Noah story appears in the Rosh Hashanah liturgy, in the Zichronot section.
So think of those 15 arching steps as the rainbow, the place where heaven and earth meet, and think of those 15 psalms as the musical means to lift us up there to that place of greatest holiness. Today I want to propose a 15 step program to bring us all home to Judaism. That’s what these 15 Shir Ha-ma’alot psalms were intended to do. That’s what this season of Teshuvah is intended to do.
Rav Kook, the first chief rabbi of
and a giant of his generation on this topic, speaks of different ways people
decide to make that journey home to Judaism.
Some do it because a physical crisis is thrust upon them, like the workaholic
executive who wakes up in his mid 50s with a heart attack and suddenly
realizes, only because of that crisis, that a major change of lifestyle is
necessary. But we all know that we need to begin the process of return long
before that point. Then there are those
who decide to do teshuvah because a
voice down deep tells us that we are on the wrong path. Kook calls it “the reprimand of conscience,”
and this internal spiritual crisis tells the billionaire hedge fund manager
that its time to leave the fast track and go study in Jerusalem, or to focus on charitable
endeavors. But for Kook the highest form
of teshuvah is that which is born not
out of spiritual malaise or physical necessity, but out of a comprehensive,
reasoned outlook on life. This phase of
penitence, he writes, transforms all the past sins into spiritual assets. For every error it derives noble lessons and
from every fall it derives the inspiration for the climb to splendid heights.
This is the kind of teshuvah that I aspire for all of us today. Yes it is a difficult climb, but one that will enrich us beyond measure. If we acknowledge that our past errors are actually necessary stages in growth, then there is no embarrassment as we make this ascent together.
And we’ll do it with Psalms. There are stories of how, as a boy, Reb Nachman of Bratzlav would escape to a small loft in his father’s house that was set aside as a storehouse for hay and feed. All day, he would hide himself and chant psalms. Nachman said that the key is to be able to find yourself in every psalm. Many of the psalms are about enemies and war. Nachman would see these as being equivalent to the war we are fighting within our own souls.
Look at these psalms of ascent – they begin with a sense of despair “from the depths I call upon God,” and then they direct our eyes upward. Shir ha-ma’a lot, esah einai el he-harim. The journey up the stairs takes us to a point of greater confidence and renewed faith, and the psalms reflect that. The ride is not without its bumps, but by the time we reach the top of the stairs, we are at Psalm 135, the first of the series of exultant songs of uninhibited praise, the Halleluyah psalms. The book of Psalms ends 15 psalms later, with the most rowdy, ecstatic psalm of all, the 150th. As we begin our journey, we’ll draw inspiration from psalms throughout the book.
So now, here it is, my 15 Step Program for Personal Re-Jew-venation:
Step number one – Sing your way up, like the Levites. If you meander on over to page 146, you’ll find Psalm 105, which is part of the collection of healing Psalms prescribed by Reb Nachman, the Tikkun Klali.” The psalmist fires off ten staccato charges in five sentences. “Stop feeling sorry for yourself and treating yourself like a victim. Here’s what you need to do to get out off the mat: Be thankful, call to God, sing, give praise, seek, remember, speak of the Sacred and search for the divine presence.” Where illness or depression makes us passive, this Psalm activates us. Singing is on a higher spiritual level than mere speaking. It’s what the Levites did on those steps. The word for song, shir, also derives from shur, meaning insight. So the first and perhaps most important of our fifteen steps is to start singing, something that we’ll periodically do on this journey today. When King David was depressed, he sang. My suggestion whenever you need it, is to find a song that makes you happy and sing it. Even if all you can say is “Oy Vey, turn “Oy Vey” into a song! (do it) that’s what we call a niggun. (Sing: “Why did he die?”)
But we’re just beginning.
Step number two – We need to count our days: Look at Psalm 90, the one just above psalm 105. Verse 12 – let’s read it together: “So teach us to number our days so that we may gain a heart of wisdom.” I think about that every day. On the wall in my office is a paper cut with the verse on it. Our Sages said (Avot 2:10), ‘Repent one day before you die.’ The Meiri writes, “A person should really examine his deeds every day.” For we can never know when that last day will be.
Whenever I go to the JCC I can’t help but notice the big clock that’s been installed at the entrance counting down the days to next summer’s Maccabi games. We’re all looking forward to the games, which will be a great way to bring our Jewish community together, but I must admit, when I look up at that clock, I’m terrified. Those seconds are speeding by so fast. I was thinking of asking whether we could borrow it for today and have a running count to the end of the fast. But when I see that clock, I imagine that it is running down to the end of my life. When you see that clock the next time you go into the JCC, do me a favor. First, look up at it and say to yourself, “Can’t wait for those Maccabi games.” Then, imagine it is your personal biological clock, counting down your time here on earth. Do something to show that that that realization has changed your life. Write in a journal. Eliminate a destructive habit. Change a relationship.
Someone in this congregation did something astounding last week – she reconciled with an estranged family member after over 30 years. She called it a miracle. She wrote to me, “I can't possibly share all the beauty and healing in this short little e-mail, but I wanted to share with you this happy story. A story of pain and forgiveness, of fear and growth, and so much more. Anyway, the bottom line is that I feel an inner peace now, prepared for whatever tomorrow brings. I thank God for helping me to let go of all the anger and hurt and for the strength to take a risk. One cannot know of possibilities unless one steps outside the comfort zone and takes a chance. “
We need to live in the moment but also take the long view. We need to ask ourselves, as role models to children, what will matter more to them thirty years from now, that trip to
Hawaii or that
trip to Israel? Last Saturday’s rained out soccer game or the
Hebrew School Shabbaton? Plastic or
paper? Native Americans, when they make a key decision, ponder what the impact
will be on the 7th generation.
We need to take the long view as well, to make each day count.
Step three. Laugh. Psalm 126 is perhaps the most familiar of the Psalms of the Steps, it’s from the Birkat Ha-mazon, the grace after meals on Shabbat and festivals” “When the Lord restores the fortunes of Zion-we see it as in a dream-our mouths shall be filled with laughter, our tongues, with songs of joy.” “Shir ha-maalot beshuv adonai et shivat tzion hayyinu k’cholmim – az yemaleh tzhok pinu ulshonenu rina.”
If you go to Google and type in “Jewish jokes” you’ll get 1,980,000 hits. So then I typed in “Presbyterian jokes” … 27 (not really: 250,000). We Jews know how to laugh, and we know that laughter often has a deeper purpose. As George Will wrote, "Every laugh is a tiny revolution." Laughter is subversive. We’ve known all the benefits of laughter, right from the start. The very first Jewish kid was named “Laughter.” Isaac. And if there ever was a guy who could have used laughter, it was Isaac. By the way, it’s a good thing he was male, because if he had been a girl, Sarah had picked out the name “
Laughter leads to joy and joy to acceptance, all important character traits to continue our climb.
Step four. Break Destructive Habits. We’ve got to recognize what we are enslaved to, and through that confession, begin the process of liberation. It is noteworthy that there are 15 steps in the Seder, our annual journey from slavery to freedom. In Psalm 118 (quoted last night) – “Min ha-Metzar Karati Yah.” “From out of the straits I called upon the Lord.” The plural for metzar, metzarim, found often in the Bible, is equated to
. So when we call to the Lord from out of the
straits, we are calling from slavery -- the slavery of addiction.
Teshuvah is all about this recognition.
Last August a
Westchester rabbi was
caught driving under the influence, with marijuana found in his car. The shock to his congregation has been
profound. I am praying that the right
kind of teshuvah will happen, one that enable that rabbi to confront his own
problem and reconcile with his congregants while laying out a clear message to
the children of his congregation about the dangers of drugs, especially
marijuana. Our children are being
targeted by a multi billion dollar drug industry that preys on them at school
and everywhere else. The marijuana that is
now being peddled is far more potent and addictive than it was in the 60s. But people still don’t take it seriously,
often until it is too late.
We continue our climb, one step at a time.
Step five: Be a mensch.
Maimonides, in his Hilchot De’ot of the Mishhah Torah, listed eleven “middot” he called them the eleven temperaments that we all must maintain.
1) To make one's ways similar to those of God
2) To mix with those who know these ways.
3) To love one's fellow.
4) To love converts.
5) Not to hate one's fellow.
6) To rebuke.
7) Not to cause embarrassment to someone else.
8) Not to cause pain to the miserable.
9) Not to act slanderously.
10) Not to take revenge.
11) Not to bear a grudge.
3) To love one's fellow.
4) To love converts.
5) Not to hate one's fellow.
6) To rebuke.
7) Not to cause embarrassment to someone else.
8) Not to cause pain to the miserable.
9) Not to act slanderously.
10) Not to take revenge.
11) Not to bear a grudge.
Each of these middot, these ethical qualities, will make us a nicer person, less anxious, less consumed by the fires of anger and resentment. My personal favorites are the prohibitions against gossip and slander. You might recall that we made it a congregational project one year to avoid gossip during the ten days. The guidelines are reprinted on the last two pages of your sourcebooks. I would add to the list other important ethical values like honesty in business, kindness to animals, having a cheerful demeanor, being truthful and being slow to anger. By following all of these middot, we can prove that it is indeed possible to be both “Jewish and Gentle.”
Step six: Moderation.
With all the faith-based craziness that has pervaded public discourse lately, highlighted by the Terri Schaivo tug-o-war that has made a mockery of serious ethical discussion; it’s been hard to see religion as a force for dialogue and social healing.
Maimonides was big on moderation, and so am I. And that is why I am proud to be a Conservative Jew. It’s not easy to be a centrist these days in any faith, and certainly in ours.
The strength of Conservative Judaism lies in the creative tension that is at the core of its ideology. Given the choice, some people might prefer the “moral clarity” so in vogue, but like most of us, Conservative Judaism lives in a real world of tough questions. It thrives on the unresolved conflicts that force us to confront imperfection: Judaism’s, society’s and our own. This muddle in the middle is an uncomfortable place to reside, but it is equally a dynamic one. While other movements may offer easy responses, Conservatives look for the kind of moderation that has been central to rabbinic Judaism since Talmudic times.
But the Conservative movement is in trouble. Many prominent, large congregations are shrinking, while some of the most dynamic startup synagogues in this nation, like Kehilat Hadar in New York, with a mailing list of over 2,000, primarily from the prized 20s and 30s demographic, shuls that are in every sense Conservative, are shunning the Conservative label. We need to learn from this troubling trend. Rabbi Sharon Brous recently started a non-denominational congregation in
Los Angeles, one that is thriving with young,
previously unaffiliated Jews. It is succeeding because it reaches out beyond
itself, taking seriously its role in the global drama. As she puts it, “The movement professionals
ask, “How can we hold onto our population?
We’re losing ground!” I think a
better question is, “How can we share a Judaism that is compelling enough that
people will want to identify with it.
The real question is not are you Conservative or Reform, but are you
feeding the hungry? Does your davening
help make manifest God’s presence in this world? Does your community’s Shabbos reinforce the
belief that it is possible for the world to look different than it does.”
Our movement’s leadership too often finds itself preoccupied with self preservation and suppressing controversy rather than fanning these passionate flames that are its very soul. For any synagogue to grow, for ours to grow, we also have to look beyond ourselves and be active participants in the global drama. We have to become passionate centrists, embracing all the contradictions and inconsistencies that come with living in a nuanced world where everything isn’t in black and white, a Keshet world of rainbow colors, including all shades of grey.
This year the Chancellor of JTS, Ismar Schorsch is stepping down. A few months ago I received a personal letter asking me if I had any suggestions for the search committee – and even whether I wanted to nominate myself. I went online to Ravnet the next day and found to my chagrin that I think every Conservative rabbi got the same letter.
One of my colleagues replied to the Seminary’s offer with this anecdote:
In answer to an advertisement for tough outdoorsy types, for a mountaineering trip, a frail, little old man appears.
The advertiser asks him, "Well, how old are you?"
The elderly fellow says, "Ninety-two, I think."
The advertiser hesitates, decides to be polite and go along. So he asks, "And are you in good health?"
The old man says, "I have such pain from my arthritis, and bursitis, and phlebitis, you wouldn't believe it."
"And have you much mountaineering experience?"
"Ach, no! I'm scared to death of heights! Such vertigo I have."
"Have you any outdoors experience at all?"
"I get outside for five minutes, and I start sneezing my head off with my allergies."
The advertiser finally begins to lose patience with the charade and bursts out, "Look, sir, I advertised for experienced mountaineers. You're quite elderly, in a lot of discomfort, you tell me you're terrified of heights, and have allergies. WHY DID YOU COME HERE?"
The little old man leans close to the other fellow, and says, confidingly, "I came to tell you, on me you shouldn't count."
The choice of the new chancellor will go far in determining whether Conservative Judaism will move forward, or continue to stagnate as the muddle in the middle. It will require a person of extraordinary vision, someone capable of being all things to all people, with fiery passion and unlimited patience, wisdom and wit, youth and experience. In short – your average pulpit rabbi. But on me they shouldn’t count.
Related to this is Step seven – Inclusiveness. A small group of rabbis and educators on the west coast published a pamphlet this year called “
A Place in the Tent.” This book posits a bold, more inclusive
approach toward intermarried families, placing the subject squarely on the
table to stimulate grassroots discussion. The Conservative movement is moving in the
direction of greater inclusiveness of dual faith families. But the issue that is now really threatening
to tear the movement apart is that of inclusiveness of Gay and Lesbian Jews,
particularly as regarding rabbinic ordination and marriage. The process of change is excruciatingly slow
in our movement, a product of that tension between tradition and change. Consensus building takes a long time. Here again, the catalyst of change is coming
from the outside, from a group of Conservative rabbis called, fittingly, Keshet
Rabbis – the rabbis of the rainbow. As
of last week, 199 rabbis from all over the world have signed on to the mission
statement proclaiming a belief that Gay and Lesbian Jews should be embraced as full, open
members of all our congregations and institutions, and may fully participate in
community life and achieve positions of professional and lay leadership. I am proud to be one of the signatories, the
only one thus far in Lower Fairfield. At a time when the state of Connecticut has just begun legalizing same
sex civil unions, you can be sure that my presence on that list will not go
unnoticed. If you want to get a greater
understanding of the debate now going on in the Conservative movement, as well
as my own stance, come to the first session of this year’s Hot Button Halacha
series, this coming Sunday morning at 11.
Step eight: Shalom Bayit, peace in the home. The commentator Kli Yakar points it out one reason for there being 15 steps at the
Temple and those 15 psalms of ascent. To get the number 15, you add 10 and 5, which
are equivalent to the Hebrew letters Yod
and Hay; the letters of God’s name.
The letters Yod and Hay also represent the masculine and
feminine. If you take the word for man –
Ish – and the word for woman – Isha – the two are essentially the same,
except for two letters: the yod of
Ish and the hay of Isha.
What links Ish and Isha, then, is that Yod and that Hay, is God,
is that spirit of sanctity and commitment. And what linked the women’s court of
the Temple to
the sacred inner sanctum were these 15 steps. It is that spirit sanctity that brings peace
between husband and wife, and peace to the home. And there’s more – if you take God’s name out of that relationship, if you take
the Yod away from Ish and the Hay away from Isha, what
are you left with? Esh. Fire.
Now fire can be a good thing, like the flames of the menorah. But it can also be destructive, and without God in a relationship, particularly that between husband and wife, we can easily be consumed by the flames of jealousy and anger. That mezuzah on the door should remind us, each time we pass it, of the need to restrain the fires that consume us and to leave our frustrations in the office. But if there are problems with domestic violence in your home, please, please, seek help.
Step nine. Unity and Community: Shalom Bayit must extend beyond our homes as well, into this home and this community. That’s why we have developed a community strategic plan, which you have heard about. For community to work, everyone must be willing to make difficult sacrifices. I’m proud that Beth El has always been willing to do that. When the less affiliated see a community that works together and avoids sniping, they are much more likely to come aboard. Psalm 133 is one we all know. “A Song of Ascents; of David. Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity!”
מַה-טּוֹב, וּמַה-נָּעִים-- שֶׁבֶת אַחִים גַּם-יָחַד הִנֵּה
Step ten: Make Judaism Personal: Psalm 81 is one that we hear often on Rosh Hashanah: תִּקְעוּ בַחֹדֶשׁ שׁוֹפָר; בַּכֵּסֶה, לְיוֹם חַגֵּנוּ.
Sound the shofar at the new moon, at the time appointed for our festival day.
The word “Bakeseh” translated here as “appointed,” has been interpreted by some Hasidic commentators to mean “hidden” or “concealed.” Rabbi Jan Urbach comments that, amidst all the celebration and public proclaiming, there is an element of hiddenness to the High Holidays. There is something very private, very personal an internal process that is ignited by the sound of the shofar, one that can change our lives. When we complete this process of Heshbon Ha-Nefesh, this soul searching, that’s all that will matter. If all you’ve gotten out of these holidays is a chance to meet old friends and gab in the lobby, shame on all of us. For each of us, there must a moment, a realization, that hits us right in the kishkes.
The best way to take ownership of Judaism is not merely through prayer and meditation, but through learning and doing. When Hillel proclaimed that the essence of Judaism could be recounted while standing on one foot, stating his version of the Golden Rule, he added an important disclaimer, “Tze U’lemad,” “Now go and learn.” And when the Israelites received the Torah at
they responded, “Na’aseh v’Nishma,” “We
will do and we will understand.” It is
only through learning and through experiencing the beautiful rituals and
celebrations of our tradition that we can truly come to appreciate them.
Step eleven: Joy: I’m not sure where the joy was drained out of Judaism, but somewhere it happened, and we’ve got to get it back. Next week we will do that on Sukkot, the festival also known by the name “Z’man Simhateynu,” the time of our happiness. Those for whom the Jewish experience ends on Yom Kippur and doesn’t include Sukkot are like Red Sox fans who left the country a year ago and came back last week. Psalm 150 takes the shofar, that instrument of introspection in step 10 and turns it into an instrument of celebration in step 11. “Hallelu b’tayka shofar,” “Celebrate Life with the blowing of the horn.” Yes, not only is it possible to be Jewish and Gentle, but you can also be Jewish and Joy-ish.”
Step Twelve. Find meaning in your work. If we don’t take Judaism out of this room and into our daily lives, we’ve gained nothing here. Whenever Rabbi Herschel Matt felt down about his rabbinate, that people just aren’t getting it, he would go visit a friend who happened to sell blinds and curtains for a living. He would say, “Sam, I think it’s time for me to get out. I’m tired of the constant struggle that is the rabbinate.” Sam would turn to him and say, “Herschel, I sell window dressings for a living. I never touch a person’s soul. Every day you have the opportunity to touch a person’s soul and to connect that soul to God. I would give anything to have your job.” That’s all he would need to hear, and Rabbi Matt would go back to work energized and committed to his people.
In truth, even the window dresser doesn’t deal in mere window dressing. In truth, all of us have meaningful work and meaningful lives, if we would only take the time to recognize it. In truth, the temple worship was called “avoda,” the very same word we use for “work.” Our work is our worship. Those 15 steps were the final stop of the priestly commute, and sometimes there was heavy traffic, bumper to bumper at Robinson’s Arch and in the Cardo. What we do in here is utterly and completely meaningless unless it inspires us to live holy lives out there.
Step thirteen: Courage. Psalm 147 says, “The Lord gives courage to the lowly.” Many psalms speak of overcoming fear, the 23rd being the most obvious, but the most relevant to this season is the penitential psalm, the 27th. It’s on page 143 of the sourcebooks. The poet asks only one thing, “Ahat Shalti ma’et adonai,” that he may dwell in the house of the Lord all his days. And the psalm concludes with a message to all of us at this precarious time – Be strong, take courage and hope in Adonai.”
The late Pope John Paul II – a great friend of the Jews, began his first greeting after being chosen Pope with the words, “Have courage.” And he did. He had the courage to reverse hundreds of years of church history; the courage to be the first pope to step into a synagogue; the courage to recognize
Israel and the
courage to ask forgiveness at the Western Wall.
From the courage of faith we gain the courage of conviction, the courage to overcome our flaws, and the courage to do what is right, to give tzedakkah and help repair the world.
. As you know, for me this needs to be near the
very top of the staircase. Whenever I am
in Israel Israel,
I recite Psalm 122: “I rejoiced when
they said to me, ‘let us go unto the House of the Lord.’ Our feet are standing
within your gates, O Jerusalem.” But Psalm
128 puts it best: יְבָרֶכְךָ יְהוָה, מִצִּיּוֹן:
יְרוּשָׁלִָם--כֹּל, יְמֵי חַיֶּיךָ וּרְאֵה-בָנִים לְבָנֶיךָ: שָׁלוֹם, עַל-יִשְׂרָאֵל
“The LORD bless you out of
Zion; and you’ll see the good of Jerusalem all the days of thy life; and you will see your
children’s children; peace unto ” Israel
Only through our intensified link to
will we be blessed, and only by connecting to Israel will we be assured of seeing
There are two conflicting trends right now among American Jews. On the one hand, surveys are showing a continuing trend of disengagement from Israeli life and Jewish collective responsibility. This is a major, major concern. On the other hand, tourism is up this year, because things have been relatively quiet. This winter, Birthright
Israel hopes to
welcome its 100,000th participant to the ten day free trip for
qualified Jews ages 18-26. Incidentally,
registration for the winter trips, I understand, ends at 9 AM tomorrow. The birthright experience has been a
phenomenal success and has led to greater Jewish engagement among participants
when they get home. We’ve seen it with a
growing number of our own kids.
Our Beth El trips have also shown promising growth. While we’ve taken scores of people over the years, during the Intifada that began five years ago last week, it was all but impossible to convince people to go. We went five years between Beth El trips, and only a few from this congregation went on the community solidarity trips that departed during that difficult time. For me that was excruciating, to be joined by so few from my congregation on these missions. I feared that this congregation just didn’t “get it” regarding
But now we’ve had strong groups for two
years running. This summer we filled a
bus with 40, and so many more connected to the trip through the e-mails and
photos we sent back, and as soon as I got home, people began asking about next
year. I put out feelers among the
upcoming bar mitzvah class and lo and behold, we’ve got about 30 people who are
seriously interested, more than we’ve had the past two years at this stage. I’ve learned that when people say they are
ready to go to Israel,
you don’t say “wait a year,” you go now.
Hamas may not wait a year (nor will Israel, in dealing with Hamas). So I’m happy to announce that we are planning
our third annual TBE Israel Adventure at the end of next July, returning in
time for the Maccabi games; ably assisted by the touring company called, naturally,
Keshet. More information will be
forthcoming, but reservations will be taken on a first-come, first served
basis, it will again be for all ages, and I’ve little doubt that we again will fill
a bus. Almost overnight, we’ve developed
the reputation of being a congregation that leads the way in providing amazing Israel
experiences, and I am very appreciative that so many here now do understand
that the most important thing we can do as a congregation is to connect more Jews
There are other ways to travel to
Israel, of course,
and many of you do, and there are other ways to connect from back here. One of them is to vote in the upcoming Zionist
elections, supporting those parties that will promote a more pluralistic and
just Israeli society, including Mercaz.
Finally, and at long last, we reach the top, step 15. Psalm 128 states: “When you eat the labor of your hands, happy you will be, and life will be good.”
In these psalms of ascent certain words repeat themselves over and over, like the word simcha, and especially the word tov – good. The main message of these steps, this rainbow coalition of psalms, is simply this. (reveal shirt) “Life is Good.” Of course is life is very good when you create a trademark for a line of clothing that has gone from being sold from the back of a van into a projected 55 million in sales this year. “Do what you like; like what you do,” say Bert and John Jacobs, the creators of the “Life is Good” line, and they definitely like what they do. They are spreading optimism world wide, and there is nothing more Jewish than that.
Mi ha’ish hechafetz Hayyim” we read in Psalm 34,” ohav yamim lirot tov. Who is the person who desires life, the one who loves each and every day and sees that it is good.”
There. We’ve done it. We’ve reached the top of the
staircase. Those Levites are singing and playing all
around us. I hear the lute – and ah – a
harp. I hear...their voices too…I think…
yes, it’s the 150th. Of
course… it’s their favorite.
And from the top of the steps, I can see it, ahead of us in the distance…the High Priest is preparing to what he does just once all year, and all alone, with God’s ineffable name on his lips, that only he can pronounce… I see it… the entrance to the Holy of Holies, the home of homes.
Remember last week? Remember what we’ve been looking for these past ten days? Those missing ruby slippers from
. The ones that disappeared in the time it
takes a human tear to make its way down the Grand
Rapids Minnesota Mississippi
from Grand Rapids to New Orleans.
In the days of the temple the psalms
of the steps brought Jews home by lifting them up, as it were, to the other
side of that Keshet, by taking them symbolically and quite literally, over the
rainbow. That’s where we are right now.
Back home. And that is where the journey of these sermons ends – but where our
personal journeys into the New Year commence.
If we can begin to follow this 15-step program, we can also return home to life of greater meaning and purpose. Your 15 steps might be different from mine, and I’d love to hear about yours. But either way, we can only do it one step at a time. Which step will you begin with – tomorrow?