Rosh Hashanah Day One
(Sermon delivered with large cards as visual aids for key words.)
Our journey begins at the International House of Pancakes - earlier this year, up near Boston. I’m sitting at a table near the register, having breakfast with my brother, Mark. Belgian Waffles. He’s having scrambled eggs and a diet coke, which he downs right away. My mind is wandering. I looked at the IHop logo and shook my head at the amazing good fortune of this chain, that they had the prefix “I” long before it became cool. Long before iTunes and iPods and iBooks and iHome and iVillage and iSafe and iParty and iThis and iThat, and this summer’s sensation, the iPhones, there was iHop. Suddenly IHop, the most uncool place on earth, this side of Howard Johnsons, is reaping the benefits of its first letter.
We’ve gone from the “me” generation of the ‘70s to what now has become the “I” generation. One could easily make the claim that these have become, in fact, the iHolydays. We focus so much on our personal experience – and what God has done for ME lately. God and the temple. It’s all about me! Someone recently suggested that we repackage Shabbat as iPause.
So when, I wondered, will be begin the age of We?? I was looking for a sign.
And then my lucky day arrived. It was mid spring when my shipment came in. I stopped by EBX at Ridgeway on a whim and they just happened to have gotten it in, literally only minutes before. The box was not even open – but there it was - the Wii videogame system that my kids had been begging for since Hanukkah.
Was this a sign, I wondered? Are we finally beginning to go from “i” to “we?”
So I’m thinking about all these things and then the waitress at iHop does something that takes my breath away. She returns to the table with a smile, bearing an unsolicited refill of diet Coke for Mark. I didn’t ask for it. She just brought it. Just like that. A new cup. Filled to the top. Now my brother will often attract sympathetic attention because of his disabilities. But never, never before had anyone ever brought him a drink refill without first asking if he wanted it. Of course he wanted it, but that was beside the point. Do they always do this, I wondered – or was this waitress just being nice because of my brother? There was something that simply overwhelmed me at that moment – it nearly brought me to tears. I didn’t know this waitress from Adam, but I sat there wondering what drove her to an act of such pristine goodness. I tried to imagine her life. Five mouths to feed back in Southie… Dad at the VA hospital in Chelsea… The IHop gig is her first steady job in years. Got up at 4 AM to beat the traffic to Watertown before her shift begins.
But what drove her to show that little bit of extra kindness for my brother? Does her brother have Fragile X as well? Is it company policy? Was it for the tip? OK – I gave a nice tip. Or was being nice simply a marketing tool adopted by IHop in an age where we are all so desperate for a little human kindness, where all we want is for someone, somewhere, to take us from I to We.
This summer, a couple of weeks ago, it happened again. At a pizza place in St. Louis. And again. Free refills are not what I was looking for. They are a dime a dozen. Burger King now offers free refills. There’s even a website – a national movement for free refills. It’s free unsolicited refills that I sought. I know some people find it annoying to have waiters hovering over them, and parents certainly have a right to regulate what is offered to their children. But it is precisely that simple act of kindness that by its sheer simplicity helps to reverse the trend, and helps to get us from I to We.
Then the athletic director of Virginia Tech did just that. Before the team’s emotional home opener against Eastern Carolina, the campus’ first game since that unimaginably horrible day last April when 32 were mercilessly killed by a disturbed individual, Athletic Director Jim Weaver requested that all fans refrain from booing the opponents, because of the extraordinary support and kindness they had shown the university. Maybe we are turning the corner at last.
It’s hard to say. For this was not a good year for civility.
Let’s see…we’ve gone from Ihop to iPhone to I-MUS. This was the year when Imus crossed the line by calling the women’s basketball team of Rutgers something that I wouldn’t even call my poodles. He was called on the carpet and ultimately dismissed. One of his victims became his chief accuser – Gwen I-fil, the PBS reporter, who wrote in the Times that such brutish comments are no longer acceptable.
I grew up in a more genteel age. I tell my kids that there was a time when at the gas station they used to check the oil and wash the windshield. In the newspaper they used to have a section called “Lost and Found.” Now when something is lost, we just assume it’s never coming back. People used to look after each other. Now, no one even looks AT each other. Perhaps people would if eye contact were spelled “iContact.”
I took Dan to Madame Toussaud’s Wax Museum in Times Square last spring and performed an experiment of lining myself to look directly into the eyes of some of the figures. I looked for someone my height – that left me with Napoleon and Shakira. Bob Costas is not yet there. It was uncanny. It was like they were looking directly at me and yet right through me. There is something about eye contact that goes beyond the physiological. Two souls touching. Though not so much with wax.
A few weeks later I was back in midtown Manhattan and tried it out on some real people. I looked into the eyes of everyone coming at me, just to see if souls could touch. And amazingly, every set of eyes looked right through me, just like Napoleon. They were looking at me – but not. It reminded me of how dehumanizing the city can be. I looked for any sign of acknowledgement. Finally, I ducked into a Judaica store – and even there, no one greeted me. No one looked at me. And I was wearing a yarmulke! At Virgin Records someone asked me the time. But that doesn’t count. Back out in the street, eye after eye, no one said hello, no one smiled. Finally, I saw someone coming at me, seeming to acknowledge, in some small way, that I exist. “Sir,” she said. Yes, she was going to speak!
“Sir…you dropped your umbrella.”
Indeed I had. It had fallen from my backpack. I smiled, thanked her and went on.
Eye contact is not merely an act of recognition; it is an act of giving. It is the sharing of one’s humanness. In the animal kingdom it may be seen as a threat, in some Asian and Middle Eastern societies as impolite. But people the world over have rituals expressing a desire for simple human connection. It reorients us - gets us from I to We.
In Africa, the ritual of a handshake is far more elaborate than anything we do. One Peace Corps blogger counted up to 28 mini handshakes in one encounter he witnessed in Gambia. And, with hands holding the other person’s wrist, the response to each of a series of questions is always, “in peace.”
"Peace be with you""Peace be with you""How is work?""In peace""How is the family?""In peace""How is the wife?""In peace""How is your brother?""In peace"
It’s interesting that Jews do something quite similar with our greeting, Shalom, which means peace. But it also gets both hello and goodbye over in one shot. And it reminds us that every hello has a little goodbye in it, and vice versa. It is wonderfully nuanced greeting.
I just love visiting day in camp. You get three hours of hello followed by three hours of goodbye. Somewhere in the middle is an hour of a a perfectly balanced “Shalom.” It’s really a paradigm for all of life. We spend the first half of it saying hello and the second half immersed in a long, endless goodbye. Until it ends – with Shalom, which we say as the coffin is being lowered into the grave. In any relationship, we never stop saying “Shalom,” so that we never completely give up the excitement of that first hello, even when we are saying goodbye.
The Talmud says of Yochanan ben Zakkai, the greatest rabbi of his era, that “no one greeted him first, even the Gentile in the marketplace.” He could have rested on his laurels and waited for people to come to him. He lived at a time when Jews were fighting Romans for survival – and, as always, Jews were fighting other Jews too. But it didn’t matter to him. Yochanan saw that every other human being is created in God’s image and he made it his business to greet them – and to
do it FIRST.
So maybe we’ve turned a corner, but the true test of that is what happens when we literally turn the corner – when we’re walking on the street and see people. In his masterful new book on Jewish Ethics, Joseph Telushkin cites Rabbi Chaim Ozer Grodzensky, who told a young student who had moved to Vilna, “When I lived in a small town before I came to Vilna, I was very scrupulous to cheerfully greet every person I met on the street. But since I came to Vilna, I stopped this practice, because in the big city, it is impossible to greet everyone. Still it is appropriate to greet those whose eye we catch, and all of those whom we know, if only slightly.
Do we do this? Are we always smiling? On the subway? Do we look up? Do we acknowledge the basic humanity and godliness even of total strangers? New York is the ultimate test. If basic kindness can make it there, it can make it anywhere. This past year, we lost some long time, dear congregants, Joseph and Dottie Pullman. Joe had come to this area from a small town in Nova Scotia where his was the only Jewish family. When I was chatting with him a few years ago, he couldn’t wait to tell me the story of how, seventy years ago, he found himself in New York, the big city. He went into a Horn and Hardardt automat for lunch. There was a table for four and three seats were taken, by people – all total strangers to one another and one by one he asked them all, “Do you mind if I sit with you?” The people looked at him as if he were an alien from another planet. That was his first taste of New York, but that was also New York’s first taste of Joe Pullman. And he never lost that small town warmth, the politeness of the consummate gentleman. When I sat with his children to discuss Joe’s eulogy, they repeated the story, as if they were the students of Rabbi Yochanan.
Greeting is important. Educator Ron Wolfson speaks of the need to go from being synagogues of programs to synagogues of relationships. In his new book on the Spirituality of Welcoming, he talks of rabbis complaining to him, “Ron, my shul has 2,000 members but it always feels empty.”
He tells of Disneyworld, where you are greeted by an average of seven people from the Disney company before you ever get to the first ride. How many greeted you on your way in today? How many have greeted you since you took your seat? How many that you don’t know?
We all have to be greater greeters! Corporations understand that.
Nordstrom is great at this. Marriott puts an ironing board in your room before you ask for it. Ihop brings you that second coca cola. Triple A gives you those Trip-tiks that break a long journey into small steps – a great metaphor for what we do here. Go to Borders and ask them where a book is, they won’t just say, “Go to the third floor take a left at the 23rd book case and look at the bottom of the 17th shelf.” They’ll take you there! The same thing recently happened to me at the Ferguson library – which gives me a chance to mention Harry Bennett of blessed memory, whom we miss dearly right now, who lived that same philosophy and for whom, so appropriately, one of our libraries is named.
Rick Warren, the megachurch mega author, says that the key to growing a congregation is not to get two thousand people to know one another, but rather to get every member to get to know, really well, five other people. Community building, like customer service, is all about making real connections.
It is said that when Rabbi Joshua ben Levi saw a friend he hadn’t seen in at least 30 days, he would recite the Shehechianu blessing. Is there someone in this room whom you cherish that you haven’t seen in more than 30 days? This can be a great tool for Jewish guilt. Like the mother whose son calls and she says she hasn’t eaten in three days and he says, “Mom? Why?” and she says, “So that if you should call my mouth wouldn’t be full.” So this is a potent tool, this Shehechianu custom of Rabbi Joshua ben Levi. When done in the right spirit, if you really mean, “Thank God I am seeing you again,” rather than “I haven’t eaten in three days,” it can be incredibly powerful. So let’s look at someone we haven’t seen in a long time, someone we are so happy to see, and recite the Shehechianu now:
So – we can ask, if we haven’t seen someone in a while, does a birthday card count? A phone call? An e-mail? In a way, yes. Whenever we somehow acknowledge the existence of someone, whenever we say, “You are alive and are noticed, we are saying, implicitly – therefore you are loved.” It all counts.
Rabbi Shammai was one of the most ornery people in all of Jewish history. He was famous for always being in a bad mood, often chasing people away when he was annoyed by their questions. So it is noteworthy that of all people, HE is the one who says in Pirke Avot, “Receive every person with a cheerful expression.”
And to that I will add the corollary – EVEN IF YOU DON’T MEAN IT! We all have our moods and that’s OK. But when you pass a person just at the moment you are thinking about last night’s horrifying 9th inning, and you make a face, that person will think you are upset with her.
As a rabbi I have become especially attuned to how people try to read my body language. But this is really for everyone. People who are naturally shy or just depressed may not realize that that scowl appears to others as standoffish and angry. We’re not very good at reading faces – we’re even worse at reading faceless letters and e-mails. When you can’t look into the eyes, you can’t really see into the soul.
The medieval Talmudist Rabbi Menachem ha-Me’iri said that even when we resent a visitor’s intrusion we should STILL act as if we are happy to see him.
Rabbi Israel Salanter, the 19th century founder of the Mussar movement, saw a scholar with a forlorn look on his face during the days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. The scholar said he was worried because these are the days when God is judging us. To which Salanter replied, “But other people won’t realize that that’s what’s bothering you. They might think that you are upset with them.”
Moodiness affects everyone around us. Parents take work worries out on their children or spouse. Children are often less sophisticated at reading our faces, especially if there are conflicts in the home or a divorce situation. Kids will often blame themselves, when that is the last thing the parent really wants. Jewish sources are telling us loud and clear that our moods do not really belong to us. We do not have the right to say to the world, “Mind your own business,” because our business is their business too…as we journey from I to We.
Even God understands this. Jewish law permits us to interrupt prayer in order to return a greeting. Why? Because that person who greeted you is also a manifestation of the divine image. Either way, we are still talking to God.
Never ignore a greeting, the Talmud instructs us, for to do so would be akin to robbery – to have stolen from the other the pleasure of being greeted! This ethical quality of cheerfulness is considered one of the middot, a prime Jewish virtue.
So what can we do to bring this virtue into our lives over the next ten days? Six quick suggestions:
1) Become like Yochanan ben Zakkai. Make it a game – be the one to greet first. I can imagine a student pulling a prank on him, standing behind a pillar, jumping out and shouting, “Shalom, Rabbi! HA!” You don’t have to hide behind a big Greek column or jump out from behind the bananas at Stop and Shop. But don’t go the other way! We don’t have to be so dramatic, but let’s try to be as enthusiastic. Don’t wait to be greeted. Be the first.
2) And do it enthusiastically. Smile. The Talmud states, “The person who shows his teeth in a smile is better than the one who gives milk to drink.” From which the rabbis developed their “Got teeth?” marketing campaign and the ubiquitous Jewish smiley face.
3) When you shake hands, mean it. A Hasidic master named Reb Arye, when greeting another, used to take that person’s hands in his own and hold them in a loving, caressing way that his students said was “electric with holiness,” sending God’s energy directly into the other person’s heart. There should be a degree of Kavvanah, feeling, in every greeting, whether a big bear hug, a simple wave or a high five. We need to recall always that greeting someone cheerfully is a holy act. It’s a prayer! Every handshake is a prayer!
4) And every greeting should be a “Shalom.” As we shake or hug and as we lock eyes, the clasped hand is both pulling in and sending off. There is the excitement of greeting and the real concern about letting go, all in that word, all in that simple gesture.
5) Make no exceptions. Halacha is clear that we especially should be greeting cheerfully those who are the weakest. When the queen of England comes by, by all means greet her – a high five is not recommended (in last year’s beautiful film “The Queen,” the most moving scene was when Elizabeth finally went public to share the grief of her people after Diana’s death and took some flowers from a little girl and offered to place them on the pile outside the palace – and the girl said, “No – they’re for you.” Even a queen could use a little warmth from time to time. But we must also greet the poor, the downcast, the needy. Anyone here who has been to the homeless shelters when we’ve served dinner there knows exactly how powerful such a greeting can be.
6) We must understand that doing these things takes us one big step toward being our happier people, a more Sacred community and a repaired world. It is the first and most difficult step on the journey from I to We.
I recently was speaking with Gary Rosenblatt, editor of the Jewish Week, who told me about something interesting he had seen on the Upper West Side recently. Outside the Orthodox Lincoln Square synagogue was a big banner supporting the three Israeli soldiers being held hostage. And right nearby, at the Reconstructionist West End Synagogue, there was a large banner, “Save Darfur.” So what, I wondered out loud, would the banner at the Conservative shul say? “Big Kiddush This Shabbat?”
Here at Beth El, we have room for lots of banners. One banner most certainly should speak of our unbending support for Israel and its soldiers, and we’ll be having a trip there this January during this, Israel’s 60th year. One banner absolutely should cry out to all of us to support those who face genocidal hatred in Africa, flood damage in New Orleans and terrorism in the Mideast, as well as hunger and homelessness here at home. But the Conservative movement, which has now turned a corner, needs to become the “Mussar” movement, with its prime focus on social interaction, along with social action. As I’ll develop over the next ten days, we need to show that Conservative congregations, including ours, are congregations of inclusiveness, outreach and love – of mitzvah, in the most profound sense. And that begins with big Kiddushes and greeting lots of people. And that begins with the simplest gesture of welcoming our neighbor and acknowledging that that pain in the butt sitting three seats over was also created in God’s image.
It means getting the world from I to We. So I propose this banner:
And I propose that we experiment during the next ten day by greeting everyone we see, in the office, on the street, at red lights or in study halls, at the supermarket, on the playground or the parking lot. Everywhere – and try to be the first one, the initiator of the human contact. Try it for ten days – and let us know then how it has changed your life – and the world. I’ll be posting my six suggestions on or website this weekend.
And when we are here, it is up to each and everyone of us to be the greeter. Ask not what other congregants can do for you, but what you can do for them. When someone comes to your row, say Shana Tova or Shabbat Shalom, or whatever is appropriate. If the person looks lost, don’t just show her the page – give him your book, opened to the page. If they can’t find the kindergarten room or the bathroom, take them there. If he is biting your leg, smile and say, “What a lively youngster. Would you like me to help you find our children’s services?”
It starts with that…with the simplest of gestures. With the simple handshake or glance. It starts with no booing at Virginia Tech – and unsolicited free refills at your neighborhood IHOP. But it really begins right here. That’s where we go from “I” to “we” …and then that embrace can radiate outward…to Pacific House and Darfur, to New Orleans and to Israel.
We are going back to basics, so that we – and the world – can get beyond the lack of civility that is so pervasive, and the selfishness that has so paralyzed us, and rendered this the age of “I.”
We declare to the world that “We Care.”
WE CARE – about each other, the Jewish people and all humanity.
WE CARE – about our planet.
WE CARE – about all creatures, great and small.
WE CARE – about those who are left behind.
WE CARE – about preserving innocence.
It all begins with a simple greeting. And a smile. So simple.
With that simple smile, and one word, “Shalom,” our greeting becomes a prayer, and we can change the world.
It caused me to do a lot of thinking about the yarmulke, some of which I’ve shared here and in print. The wearing of a yarmulke has absolutely no foundation in Jewish law, is never mentioned in the Torah (unlike the tallit) and, according to Leo Rosten, the Yiddish word, which means “skullcap,” has Tartar antecedents. It’s long been the butt of jokes, partly because the word itself sounds more like a Japanese motorcycle. Our ambivalence regarding this strange garment mirrors our ambivalence about Jewish identity– and our apprehension of acknowledging it publicly.
As easy as it is to poke fun at it, these days it is hard to find an object that defines Jewish identity more than the kippah. There is a yarmulke for every ideology and every hairline. Choices are not limited to styles but also to the location where it is worn on the head. Yeshiva “bochers” tend to like it to flop on the side, while many middle aged men put it directly over the bald spot. Some choose clips, others, like me, go for the more subtle bobby pins, others even use Velcro. What makes this object a perfect ritual object for post moderns is this infinite variety and the manifold possibilities for self expression. One size truly doesn’t fit all, and, although they are often mass produced, each Yarmulke tells a unique story. Tell me of another ritual item that resides in the glove compartment of every American Jew. Whenever I go to a home to lead a shiva service, there’s always a basketful of yarmulkes, collected like pre-pesach breadcrumbs from every cranny of the house. While we say Kaddish for Grandpa Joe, we might be wearing the kippah from his wedding, or from his granddaughter’s bat mitzvah. The Jewish heritage of a family literally unfolds before us as placed these crumpled cloths on our heads. A yarmulke museum could easily be constructed within every Jewish home.
The yarmulke tells us so much about who we are – it helps us to define that and proclaim it publicly. But the beauty of the yarmulke is that it also is a symbol of the sharp boundary that Jews draw between what we proclaim to the world - and what we keep private. Some say the word stems from the Hebrew expression “Yiray Malka,” “fear of the king,” denoting the kind of respectful humility that this garb is meant to stimulate.
Jews express humility by covering up.
The yarmulke is perfect in that way, it tells people a lot about us, but it also says, loud and clear, that there are places that no one should see. There is always a need for private space. We might have reason to complain about the excesses that have driven ultra Orthodox communities to insist on women covering up from head to toe – but what seems sexist to many is something that we need to react to less emotionally. Tzniut, as the practice of modest dress is called, should apply equally to men and less radically to both sexes. It is based on a verse from Micah calling upon us – all of us- to act justly, love kindness and walk humbly with God. Throwing rocks at someone with uncovered shoulders hardly fulfills the “love kindness” part. On the other hand, we’ve seen some things worn on this bima that call into question a person’s respect for basic Jewish standards of humility.
There has got to be a middle ground between the burka and Britney.
When we are engaged in sacred activity, there is always some part of us that is covered up – and not just any part – but the head, the part that is closest to heaven. That is the beauty of the yarmulke – for men and for women, I must add. It reminds us of the steadfast Jewish belief in that need to draw boundaries between what is private and what is public.
And never before have those boundaries been in greater danger of erosion.
More even than that sacred line separating church from state, we are seeing – before our eyes – the obliteration of that sacred line between what is public and what is none of your business.
A Wall Street Journal poll conducted in the Fall of 1999 asked Americans what they feared the most in the new millennium. Privacy loss came out on top (29%), substantially higher than terrorism, global warming, and overpopulation (none higher than 23%).
And back then we could barely imagine the world we now live in. New York Magazine recently ran a story on how, as younger people reveal their private lives on the Internet, the older generation is looking on with alarm and misapprehension not seen since the early days of rock and roll. As journalist Emily Nussbaum wrote, “Even 9-year-olds have their own site, Club Penguin, to play games and plan parties. The change has rippled through pretty much every act of growing up. Go through your first big breakup and you may need to change your status on Facebook from “In a relationship” to “Single.” Everyone will see it on your “feed,” including your ex, and that’s part of the point.”
With my kids now in High School, we’ve let them sign on to Facebook. Periodically, I check the sites and have found out entirely too much information about some kids I thought I had known very well – including a few in this room (and you know who you are!!!) I noticed one young person was listed as “married.” How sweet! I discovered that Facebook marriages are somewhat less complicated than real ones.
Facebook profiles will let you know right away what your high-schooler is “looking for” and “interested in.” Rarely are the answers “good grades” and “chess club.” I was less than amused to discover, for example, that one recent bar/bat mitzvah student here is looking for “whatever I can get.” I suggest you check out what your kids are saying about themselves online – right down to how old they say that they are.
OK, so maybe I don’t get it – this whole youth culture of “hooking up,” but I take a look at the symbol of the yarmulke and it tells me that perhaps things that used to be private should remain so.
Of course, the kids are just imitating the adults.
We have become a society of exhibitionists. A guy in San Francisco, Justin Kan, wears a micro camera on his head wherever he goes. It is always on. You can view his entire life at justin.tv. I checked it out and now evidently Justin has hooked up with someone named Justine.
At Houston’s Minute Maid Park on August 20, a man paid upwards of $300 for a chance to appear on the stadium’s “Kiss Cam” and propose to his girlfriend in front of 30,000 people. He got down on a knee and produced a ring. According to the Houston Chronicle, the woman looked shocked, then upset as she got up and left the stadium – after depositing her popcorn on his head. He did not get a refund from the Astros.
A typical episode of Oprah begins: "Hello everybody. We are talking today about daughters who get pregnant by their fathers and have the babies. We're going to hear one story of a family where three sisters had 13 children between them. The father of all 13 of the children is their father." Oprah observes at the end of her program, "It's been a very difficult thing to talk about, especially before 20 million people."
Entirely too much information!
Celebrities have certainly seen that everything they do and every word they utter will likely appear on YouTube within a day. And you don’t have to be a celebrity. We now know everything about everyone, and whatever you do will stay with you forever.
To be is to be Googled.
Dov Seidman, founder and C.E.O. of LRN, a business ethics company, wrote a book called “How.” “In the information age,” he writes, “life has no chapters or closets; you can leave nothing behind, and you have nowhere to hide your skeletons. Your past is your present.” Each of us now has what Thomas Friedman has called a digital fingerprint. When you apply for a job, your resume is the last thing people will look at. “Love at first sight” is a thing of the past. Now, you meet someone on J-date, find out everything that has happened in that person’s life and then, maybe, following a thorough Googling, we’re ready to explore the mysteries of compatibility.
Not to mention the mysteries of mortality. The Internet is now filled with terrorist sites featuring grotesque invasions of privacy, we are reminded that privacy and dignity are intrinsically interconnected, especially when it comes to death. I can recall several years back when I was showing a new staff member around town and we stopped in at Gallegher’s funeral home. No one was at the front desk at that moment, so I took the liberty of showing her the various chapels they had there. Well, I opened the door to one of them and it turned out there was someone in the room -- a dashing older gentleman lying in an open casket. He looked quite content, but I quickly closed the door and told the staff member that the room was “in use.”
Jews have a hard time with open caskets. We just do. And we never have them at our funerals. And it’s all about preserving the privacy and dignity of the deceased. People of other faiths are constantly telling me how much they admire our respect for the privacy of the dead. In Jerusalem, where they don’t use caskets, the body is wrapped from head to toe in a shroud. No one is given the opportunity to gawk at the face of death. We don’t dress up our dead in finery like some Barbie doll. We don’t broadcast grotesque images of carnage, even when it could help us score propaganda points. And as the media now is becoming more and more bold in its display of these gruesome images, we have to ask whether, even as a means to a noble end, these intrusions on the privacy of grieving families are justified.
The rabbis wondered what was it that moved the Moabite prophet Bilaam to praise Israel in the book of Numbers, when his intent all along had been to curse them. They concluded that when he saw all the tents of Israel laid out, he was amazed that they were set up in such a way that no one could look into another person’s dwelling place. This breathtaking sight inspired him to bless them with the words that have come down to us as the Mah Tovu prayer…”Mah Tovu Ohalecha Ya’kov, mishkanotecha yisrael,” “How goodly are your tents, o Jacob, your dwelling places, o Israel.”
If you’ve ever lived in close quarters with other families i.e., if you have ever lived in Manhattan you know how hard it is to protect the privacy of your neighbors. In Jewish law, the domains are carefully delineated; one may not carry, for example, within a public domain or from private to public on Shabbat unless what is called an eruv has been constructed. This boundary allows an observant Jew to carry within a specified area on Shabbat. Sometimes it is marked by a natural barrier, like a body of water, and other times by some other marking, like telephone wire.
Liberal Jews would do well to reexamine the concept of eruv. But we need to reapply it – in light of contemporary needs, much as feminists have done for ritual immersion. Our need right now is to restore that crumbling line of separation. If Robert Frost were a rabbi, he might have said, “Good eruvs make good neighbors.”
The novelist Tova Mirviss wrote in a recent issue of Sh’ma, of how the lines of privacy are blurred in the city. “The act of walking in Manhattan always offers a spectacle. It’s a visual feast of strangers; there is no need to seek out the scenic route. There’s little foliage, little nature, but always on display in bright vibrant colors, are the people. On city streets, life is lived in public. People talk, argue, stop, stare. Even if we abide by the city’s safety rule, don’t make eye contact, there’s always the possibility of interaction, whether blatant or furtive. Perhaps,” she adds, “there is no such thing as private space…we encounter people ...we hear their creaks and groans even when we are in our private zones. …the city’s crush of people creates an epicenter of anonymity…our individual small lives add only a small dot to this already congested canvas. We convince ourselves that no one can see us, no one is watching. And even if they are, the intimacy is only from across the way, and therefore no intimacy at all. At eye level, we’re still strangers.”
But of course, people can see us. When I was in rabbinical school, I shared a suite with three other rabbinical students, and our kitchen window looked right into the kitchen of our neighbor, literally just ten feet away. For some reason, her budget was too tight to include shades or blinds, so in an age before webcams and reality TV, we were invited into the daily serial of her life. My suitemates and I never actually met her or spoke with her – we weren’t even sure which building she lived in – and I must say, at times we assumed that she was planted there by the rabbinical school’s administration as part of some warped test. She didn’t seem to care what we saw – fortunately, even on a students’ budget we could pitch in for a window shade in our kitchen. Well she taught us a lot about the importance of carving out private space in the midst of the city.
Privacy is so important. Based largely on the Mah Tovu verse, the Talmud came up with some important guidelines:
1) That a person should knock before opening a closed door, even in our own home. How many of us do that? By extension, a creditor is not allowed to enter the home of a debtor – he must remain outside and the person brings his pledge out to him.
2) That we may not put a window in the wall of our house if it looks in on someone else’s house. (Thank God we have screening here.)
3) And much later, in the 10th century, a sage named Rabbenu Gershom ruled that it is against halacha for us to open someone else’s mail. This was punished by excommunication – a very serious crime indeed. (Someone must have opened HIS mail!) And from this ruling is derived the general principle that we are not allowed to search out the secrets of our fellow. We can’t pick through someone’s garbage, we can’t do undercover work to discover trade secrets. What’s private must be respected.
Think for a moment about how much that one is violated. Not only with regular mail, but especially with e-mail. How often are we forwarded e-mail notes that were sent by a third party, without the permission of that third party? Our culture has just about obliterated the walls of privacy completely.
That’s why privacy’s significance in Jewish law is so timely. Even God deserves some personal space. The Mishnah declares that one who probes God‘s essence beyond what God has chosen to reveal to us should not have been born, for, as the Jerusalem Talmud explains, to know more about God than the Holy One chooses to reveal to us is an affront to God‘s dignity. As God keeps God’s own confidences, then, we too must preserve both our own privacy and that of others to enable us to be God-like.
Do you think God watches Big Brother? Do you think God has a GPS? I was thinking about that last week in the tunnel on the Wilber Cross up by New Haven. Even when I was under that mountain, the satellite knew exactly where I was. It was comforting on the one hand, and terrifying on the other. There is nowhere that we can go, it seems and be truly alone! I imagined Jonah in the midst of the whale, with his GPS still working. And that annoying voice telling him to take a U-turn, if possible. And if you are really afraid of losing track of someone, now you can put a homing device in their cell phone. Or better yet – implant a microchip under their skin. Big brother is always lurking.
Israeli law, by the way, follows the Jewish value system along these lines. On paper, Israeli law shows an inordinate respect for privacy, although many Israeli government officials, from the president on down, have had a problem keeping their hands to themselves. At least in theory, though, Israel gets it right. One may not enter someone’s house unless the homeowner invites you in. There is a whole body of doctrine generated by the concept of hezzek re’iyah, injury caused by seeing, limiting the use of surveillance devices and eavesdropping from a distance, even outside one’s home. This is going to be a very important issue over the coming years as computers allow for more and more intrusion into our private affairs. It comes as no surprise to hear from a recent survey that as much as 59 per cent of internet use at the office is estimated as not work-related. How much right do bosses have to monitor the private e-mails of workers? This is a key subject now of extensive halachic discussion.
The only thing that can stop Big Brother, it seems, is a Jewish Mother.
And speaking of mothers, it is peculiarly fitting that the basis for Roe v. Wade, the original Supreme Court decision advocating a woman’s right to choose was based on the principle of privacy. As Justice Louis D. Brandeis once wrote, "Privacy is the most comprehensive of rights and the right most valued by civilized men." We now can begin to see why that is the case, and why the erosion of the wall between private and public is every bit as alarming as the crumbling of that other, more venerated wall of separation, between church and state.
It all comes back to the question of dignity. Whether dead or alive, every person has the right to determine what the world knows about us, and what the world sees and ultimately what happens within our bodies.
When Bilaam saw the people of Israel, he called them, “Am Levadad Yishkon,” ”a People that dwells apart.” That has been our blessing and our curse throughout the ages. Perhaps what has set us apart from other peoples most of all has been our willingness to set ourselves apart from one another as individuals, to give each person the space that we all need to grow, and the protective cover in which to nurture that growth. To respect privacy is to protect dignity. That is true for our neighbor… and that is true for ourselves.
So every time you put on a kippah, think of it as a fence. Holiness comes from making such a separation. The kippah tells us much about who we are – but it also reminds us that there is always a small part of each of us that must remain a mystery.
For Israel, the swearing in of a new president has rarely taken on such symbolic significance as that of Shimon Peres this summer. But in the wake of the scandals that have rocked Israelis’ trust in their own leaders, and in particular the disgraceful behavior of the prior president, the ascent of Peres was taken as a significant step in the direction of civility.
Peres’ speech was inspiring – it was the speech he had waited an entire career to make: It had its share of politics, but what made it stand out was the emphasis on simple kindess – derech eretz – as we call it – the way of the land.
“Know that the President is not a governor, is not a judge, is not a lawmaker, but he is permitted to dream. To set values, to lead with honesty and with compassion, with courage and with kindness. There is nothing prohibiting the President from performing good deeds. He is entitled, and even obligated, to serve his nation, that is his people, to nurture love of the people, of the state, of all creatures. To draw closer those who are far away. To look to the faraway distance. To help the weak. To comfort the bereaved. To bring people together. To increase equality. To bridge differences.
And at his inauguration, a children’s choir sang some immortal verses from Psalm 34. As we conclude the Rosh Hashanah portion of our journey, one that began at an IHop near Boston and ends at the Knesset in Jerusalem – my two ancestral homes, let these words remain with us – for today, for this week, and forever:
יג מִי-הָאִישׁ, הֶחָפֵץ חַיִּים; אֹהֵב יָמִים, לִרְאוֹת טוֹב. Who is the one that desireth life, and loveth days, that he may see good therein?
יד נְצֹר לְשׁוֹנְךָ מֵרָע; וּשְׂפָתֶיךָ, מִדַּבֵּר מִרְמָה. Keep thy tongue from evil, and thy lips from speaking guile.
טו סוּר מֵרָע, וַעֲשֵׂה-טוֹב; בַּקֵּשׁ שָׁלוֹם וְרָדְפֵהוּ. Depart from evil, and do good; seek peace, and pursue it.
Simple words. Simple acts of kindness. A simple smile. A simple greeting. Simple respect for the dignity and privacy of all creatures.
May it come to be – for all of us, for each of us, for our world, speedily and in our day.
"Rules for the Road"
Tonight we embark on a 25 hour spiritual journey, to the Wilderness, where we’ll rediscover the God of Small Things and learn some Rules for the Road. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Let’s start with a premise: Religion is in trouble. It hasn’t been a great year for religion. CNN ran a series recently called God’s Warriors, exposing the religious fanaticism that so frightens us all. I consider myself a different kind of religious person, by the way – I’m one of God’s Worriers! I worry that too many fanatics of all faiths are abusing God’s name to further their own extremist ends. If I felt that their version of religion were all there is, I’d probably join the growing legion of Americans who call themselves agnostic or atheist. This week, a state senator from Nebraska actually sued God. Ernie Chambers said in his lawsuit that God has inspired fear and caused “widespread death, destruction and terrorization of millions upon millions of the Earth’s inhabitants.”
Author Christopher Hitchens has had an especially enjoyable few months. Not only did he reap the profits from his best seller, “God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything,” but then in a Newsweek essay, he got to rip into Mother Theresa. It’s not every day that you get to trash a prospective saint. So Mother Theresa, in her newly released letters, admitted to having “dark nights of the soul,” as she called her severe bouts with depression and doubt. And it may not be so far off the mark for Hitchens to state that “the things that made Mother Teresa famous—the endless hard toil, the bitter austerity, the ostentatious religious orthodoxy—were only part of an effort to still the misery within.”
If anything, I believe that Mother Theresa has become an even greater religious role model from these posthumous confessions. The woman best known for loving untouchables in squalid cities, has now reminded us of the need to uproot ourselves from our own comfy chairs – to acknowledge doubt – EMBRACE it, and then to seek truth through life’s journeys. Our spiritual compass must ultimately push us all toward… the Wilderness.
Rabbi Lawrence Kushner writes, “The Wilderness is not just a desert through which we wandered for forty years. It is a way of being. A place that demands being open to the flow of life around you. A place that demands being honest with yourself without regard to the cost in personal anxiety. A place that demands being present with all of yourself. In the Wilderness your possessions cannot surround you. Your preconceptions cannot protect you. You are left alone each day with an immediacy that astonishes, chastens and exults. You see the world as if for the first time.”
In the ancient Yom Kippur rite, the high priest would place his hands on the head of the goat and send it out into the Wilderness, symbolically carrying off into the unknown the sins of Israel. That was how atonement was achieved. “To make atonement over him, to send him away to Azazel into the wilderness.” לְכַפֵּר עָלָיו--לְשַׁלַּח אֹתוֹ לַעֲזָאזֵל, הַמִּדְבָּרָה
No one really knows the location of this place called Azazel. Commentators speculate that it was a mountain near Sinai, or a steep cliff. It was a medieval English Bible that first translated Azazel as Ez ozel – or scapegoat – the one that escaped. Azazel later garnered satanic associations, and in modern Hebrew it has become synonymous with Hell.
But in the Torah it is simply a mysterious place where the goat goes, the place in the Wilderness where we become cleansed of sin.
Like that goat, and like Abraham and Sarah, Moses, Miriam, Elijah, and all the Children of Israel, the Wilderness is where we need to head to become cleansed. This is a journey we can begin together – but ultimately, we must conclude it alone. So let’s head there...but first, before I send you off, I need to give you some provisions for the way, some advice for the road.
I’ve had lots of practice at sending off lately.
These past few months have been marked by several rites of passage for my family. Last summer Ethan went on an Israel teen tour, something that both Mara and I did as teenagers – so as he covered the country from top to bottom, from back here we followed every inch of his journey. Then, later in the summer we did our first real tour of college campuses. And last but not least, Dan just entered high school two weeks ago. With each new adventure I felt that same queasy feeling of letting go. Dropping Dan off on the first day of high school, I flashed back to his first day of Kindergarten, nine years ago. The feeling was strangely similar. My child – heading into the complete unknown, stepping out, closing the door, I drive off and he’s gone.
All these rites of passage. All this letting go. All at once. We send them off, like little goats, into the Wilderness.
Last winter, on various Shabbat mornings I shared with the congregation the running saga of Ethan’s turning 16 and getting his learners permit. Letting go is not easy for me, but teaching a child how to drive is by far the most difficult letting go of all. It’s an extension of the feeling one has letting go of a bicycle, counting the seconds until that first inevitable skinned knee. Many of you have read Wendy Mogol’s book extolling the virtues of the skinned knee; the blessings, as she calls them. She writes, “We treat our children's lives like we're cruise ship directors who must get them to their destination – adulthood - smoothly, without their feeling even the slightest bump or wave."
The first time out with Ethan in the car, I realized that my cruise ship directing days were over. The idea of a sknned knee suddenly seemed quaint. We decided to drive around the temple parking lot. (Things got a bit hairy at the front sign area. That’s the day that we nearly became “Temple Beth.”)
So we’ve sent him to driving school but I knew that ultimately it is my responsibility to teach him to drive. The Talmud instructs us that a parent is responsible for teaching a child how to swim. Swimming is a survival skill. The rabbis didn’t know from driving a car, but if they did they would certainly have included it, along with other survival skills that one should teach a child in this day and age – like how to say no to drugs and alcohol and how to balance a checkbook.
It is so scary to see your child behind the wheel. Some believe that 16 is too young, that a teen’s brain hasn’t developed fully yet, that the typical teenage demeanor is too combustible and too confident, too unaware of mortality, too oblivious to danger. In a series of recent ads, Allstate makes the case that 16 IS too young. In the decade between 1994 and 2003, over 57,000 teens died in motor vehicle accidents. No other kind of hazard comes close to claiming so many teenage lives.
It’s not just teenagers of course. The incivility that pervades our offices and homes has found a home on the roads, to the point where earlier this year the Vatican weighed in on the subject, issuing a “driver’s Ten Commandments,” including such pointers as: “On the road, protect the more vulnerable party; Don’t let cars become an expression of power and domination; Convince the young and not so young not to drive when they are not in a fitting condition to do so.”
With these commandments, I think we’ve found some common ground among the faiths. What a better world it would be if people followed them.
So I thought, in order to fulfill my Talmudic obligations, maybe what I need to be doing is writing a set of guidelines for my kids, and for you, as we embark on our Wilderness journeys.
Jewish law is filled with timeless advice for any driver: For instance, in Leviticus 10, God commands Aaron not to drink any intoxicant, “you or your children,” it says. “when entering the tent of meeting, that you may not die.” This commandment was given just a few verses after Aaron lost two sons to such a tragedy. And that tragedy in fact is recalled at the very beginning of the Yom Kippur Torah reading. It forms the backdrop to the goat’s journey. What was called the tent of meeting back then we might call the Merritt Parkway.
Here are some more of the Torah’s rules for the road. Deuteronomy 22:8 instructs us to build a guard rail on the roof of any new house, in order to relieve us of the responsibility of accidental death. I take this verse as a commandment to make sure everyone in my car is wearing a seat belt before I turn the key.
In Exodus we are instructed that when we see our enemy’s donkey lying under its burden, we have to help our enemy lift the animal. Similarly, when you see an accident, help out, even if only by calling 911 to make sure the police know about it.
We also read in Exodus, “You shall not oppress a stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” We know what it is like to be lost, to be afraid, to be vulnerable. If ever there needed to be a biblical rationale to drive carefully and defensively, this is it.
There is so much advice I want to give before turning over the wheel, and these just scratch the surface… I hope my kids are listening. Here are some more rules for the road from your old man!
Speed Kills – What’s true in cars is also true in the rest of life. Whatever is worth doing is worth doing slowly.
Aim High – It’s something I recall hearing all the time at driver’s ed. The proper way to keep your vehicle going straight is to lift your eyes to that curve many yards away. If you continually aim high, your turns become more fluid –as you become one with the road.
The same is true off the road. When you set the bar high, whatever the pursuit, and you keep your eyes on the prize, the big picture, you’re much more likely to succeed.
Let the road take you – Trust your instincts as you become one with the road. All the car commercials play on our wanderlust, as we set out on roads through gorgeous mountain passes in the Rockies or Alps. As you go on your journey, let the road tell you its story. Let us listen closely for the bleating of that goat.
Be completely aware - In the Wilderness, there is a special kind of quiet. Everyone is completely aware of his surroundings. The bear is aware. The wolf is aware. We have to be aware.
And finally, the most important advice of all: Let the Wilderness change you.
When we set out on the journey, there is no way to know in advance where it will end.The Wilderness exposes us, clarifies our lives and our failings in the sharpest light. That is the essence of teshuvah.
Lawrence Kushner writes: “If you think you know what you will find, then you will find nothing. If you expect nothing, then you will always be surprised. So it is with setting out on the path of liberation, leaving everything.”
A midrash relates that Abraham was journeying from place to place when he came across a castle lit aflame, a birah doleket, which is where he encountered God for the first time. We don’t know what it was exactly that Abraham saw. Was it a castle radiating brilliant light? Or was it burning, completely enveloped in flames. One can interpret the word “doleket” either way. Rabbi Roly Matalon comments that these two very different impressions result from two very different ways of looking at the world, one emphasizing the world’s beauty and the other highlighting the potential for destruction.
Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote, “One may look upon the world with enthusiasm and absorb its wonder and radiant glory; one my also see and be shocked by its ugliness and evil.”
Heschel calls upon us to look at the world in both ways as we travel on our journeys – to see the beauty along with the violence, the joy as well as the degradation.
I saw a birah doleket this summer. Mara and I celebrated a recent big anniversary by taking a cruise to Alaska. Now it’s hard to speak of anything as an authentic Wilderness experience when the most excruciating existential choices we had to make each day took place in the buffet line. But never before have I seen such examples of God’s grandeur and human folly. We spent an inordinate amount of time watching glaciers calving. As each enormous chunk of ice broke off and hit the water, the sound of a muffled explosion reached our ears a few seconds later. There is no sight on earth so magnificent – and so alarming – as these burning, radiant castles of ice – each glacier a birah doleket. Alaska is gorgeous – and it is melting away before our eyes.
My children, as you find yourselves out there amidst the glories of God’s world, take with you this bit of advice for the road: maintain both an eternal gratitude for that beauty and a steadfast determination to repair those things that are broken.
Why was the Torah given in the wilderness? Why does so much of the Torah take place there? In his book, “Will and Spirit,” Gerald May distinguishes between two different perspectives on life: Willingness and Willfulness. Willfulness is the notion that we are completely in control of our lives. Willingness suggests an acceptance of surprise and an openness to wonder. Our society tends to prefer the former. We delude ourselves into thinking we have things under control. But the spiritual life demands the latter, as we are guided by the mystery of it all. The Hasidic master known as the Sfat Emet notes that in the book of Numbers, one of the stops noted in the wilderness is called “Mattanah,” or gift. And he also notes that the word 'midbar' (wilderness) comes from a root meaning 'to rule.' The 'midbar' is one who submits to that rule, the person who negates his own self, realizing that he has no power to act without the life-flow of God, that all of life is a gift.
Rabbi Amy Eilberg comments, “The Torah invites us, again and again, to contemplate the nature of the Wilderness. We are asked to picture ourselves there -- in a place where we are lost and powerless and frightened. Into that core place in our lives comes the Torah, bringing divine truth and wisdom and perspective.”
The Torah was given in the Wilderness because it had to be. Mount Sinai belonged to no one nation, therefore it, and the Torah received there, was for everyone. But there is a more important reason: The Wilderness experience is precisely the model for a life of mitzvot. The new chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, Arnold Eisen, has challenged us to get to the heart of what a mitzvah is and for rabbis to begin that dialogue on these high holidays.
Sometimes we mistakenly translate a mitzvah as a good deed. More accurately, it is a commandment, but that really doesn’t get to the heart of it. A mitzvah is an encounter with the God of Small Things. In his recent book, “A Wild Faith,” Rabbi Mike Cousins writes that it is in the Wilderness that we meet this God, the one that puts together all the tiny pieces of this magnificent puzzle, the God that is never spoken of in the CNN documentary or in Christopher Hitchins’ book.
Listen to this poem by one of our great contemporary spiritual poets, Mary Oliver, “The Summer Day.”
Who made the world?
The commanding voice of Sinai is really the still small voice of your backyard on a Summer Day, asking us what we plan to do with our one wild and precious life. She is the God of those thousands of salmon I saw swimming against all odds upstream and then, at journey’s end, literally jumping out of the water into the paws of a waiting bear. I muttered to my guide something about the futility of it all – all that effort only to end in death. He said to me, “Why do you think the salmon swam up here?” To die! And then I realized. They had already spawned down below. Their race had been run. It was their mitzvah to go down in glory in the gullet of a grizzly. It was their most noble destiny. It gave ultimate meaning to their existence. It was nature’s perfect circle. It was amazing.
It all seemed so right. You know, the word halacha is so often mistranslated as “Jewish Law.” It comes from the word “lech” – to walk. To journey. Halacha is our pathway. Halacha is in fact our journey upstream. It is what we do naturally. Fish gotta swim. Birds gotta fly. And Jews gotta honor parents, feed the hungry, clothe the needy, celebrate Shabbat and shun gossip and cheeseburgers. It began with Abraham and Sarah and the call to lech. Follow the way! And tonight their journey continues with us.
When we saw the glaciers calving – and walked on them as it happened before our eyes, I wasn’t thinking of Al Gore. I was thinking of God. I was thinking of the precious fragile world we have been given and the mitzvah of preserving it. In fact this year we’ve just entered is a special year to remind us of those responsibilities – a “Shmita” year – the seventh year, when the sacred land of Israel is to lie fallow. And as we recall our obligations to protect the land, we see the connection between that mitzvah and the other mitzvot of the seventh year, calling upon us to relieve the poor of their debts and to release indentured servants. They are all connected.
Every day as we navigate the wilderness of choice – at each fork in the road – we can choose an encounter with God – or not. Do we give this beggar a dollar or not? Do we stay at work that extra hour or catch the early train home to see the kids for dinner? Do we smile as that person approaches – or do we duck behind that tree? Every action is a spiritual fork in the road. This God of Small Things doesn’t really command or even suggest. This God writes the map, which contains the Rules of the Road. God sets out the way and hands us the wheel. We can choose to follow that path and be one with the road, or go off road and share the fate of that goat on the cliffs of Azazel. We can disregard the consequences of our actions or we can choose to aim high. We can speed past all the warning signs or we can slow down and enjoy the view.
And here in the Wilderness we can learn how to listen deeply to the Still Small Voice of the God of Small Things, and develop our own voice of conscience. For the word for Wilderness, Midbar, comes from the word Daber, to speak. When all the other voices are stilled, all that remains are the piercing stars, the cold breeze and the words we speak. Our prayers.
And so we return, to Beth El, Kol Nidre Night, 5768. How fitting that a movie is premiering in theaters called “To the Wild.” For right here, in the grandest theater of all, the one called life, we too are setting out.
By the time we return from the Wilderness tomorrow evening, all the other voices will have been stilled. The map will be in our minds, the rules are in our hearts. The commanding voice of Sinai will have become the still, small voice of our own conscience. And then, we’ll prepare to set out again, in our journey upstream.
May these words rest easily on us as we set forth from this spot and into the dazzling array of choices that await us on the other side of this river in time, from now until sundown tomorrow, and then beyond, as we head out into the vast reaches and limitless possibilities of the New Year.
"A God of Love"
In a small town, a man once opened a grocery store directly across the street from another grocery. As soon as the old grocer saw the sign in the window announcing the opening, he went across the street and met the new merchant. He shook hands and welcomed him warmly, then sat down and taught him all the tricks of the trade: where to buy, how to buy and get the best value. When he was asked why he was being so hospitable to a future competitor, the grocer responded with a Talmudic quotation, “All the sustenance of a person is determined from one Rosh Hashanah to the next. Only God can take it away.”
For so many of us, the goal of life is to achieve, to win. For others, the goal is merely to survive. But the parable I just read teaches us the Jewish perspective: What matters is not to win - but to love. All that we possess is really God’s, not ours. And our neighbor is, like us, created in God’s image. To love our neighbor, truly, is to love God.
I believe in a God of love.
Rosh Hashanah is called Yom Ha-Din “Judgment Day,” but Yom Kippur is not – it is called instead “Yom Ha-Kippurim,” the day of cleansing. The day of getting things right. Atonement is at-one-ment, after all. We recite the divine attributes of mercy over and over, all day long, a passage that is 32 words long – and 32 is the numerical value of the word “Lev,” heart. We began these ten days with “din,” judgment, but in the end, mercy, “chesed” in Hebrew, gets the last laugh. It also gets lots of play. The word “hesed” appears a whopping 245 times in the Bible, and two thirds of the time, the text is describing God.
I believe in a God of love.
For far too long, the God of the Jews has been stereotyped as the “Old Testament God,” a vengeful, inflexible figure, always infatuated with chucking fire and brimstone. No doubt there are lots of stories in the Bible where God acts in that way. But there are many others that are quite different, and this vengeful God is not the Jewish God.
If you get a little restless in any service, whenever, weekdays or Shabbat, count how many times the word “love” appears in the siddur. It’s a lot. If you throw in “joy” and “light” and “happiness” and “salvation” and “hope” – we’ve come quite a distance from “the Old Testament God.”
Just as last week I spoke about welcoming. Today is about going beyond acceptance and tolerance. Last week was about respecting boundaries of privacy, today is about dissolving boundaries of exclusion. Last night was about caring enough to let go, this morning is about loving enough to bring someone in.
I’d like to tell you the story of a twenty two year-old Israeli named Yair. Yair and his father had made aliyah from Russia during the great immigration wave of the 90s. When he arrived in the Israel his greatest desire was to become Israeli. So he changed his name, which had been Sasha, learned Hebrew and gave up everything from his old life, from Tolstoy to the piano, He enrolled in a yeshiva, became observant and worked as a youth leader for B’nai Akiva, where he met and fell in love with a real shayna maidel named Dafna and the two became engaged.
But then something happened. Yair received a package from his aunt in the Ukraine, his late mother’s jewelry box – and his world turned upside down. For in it he found a gold pendant in the shape of a cross. Suddenly he was faced with the prospect that for his whole life he had been living a lie. He rushed to his father, who assured him that the pendant did not belong to his mother. No, it belonged to his grandmother. This was no comfort to Yair – because if his mother’s mother was not Jewish, it meant that he was not either. His bris had been done by the chief rabbi of Moscow, but still it didn’t matter. Halachically he was not a Jew.
He went to the rabbinical authorities who informed him that converting would be relatively simple. But it was not so simple for Yair. For a few weeks he got a glimpse of what it was to be held outside of the community he had so longed to be a part of. Not only was he exempt from performing mitzvot, some were forbidden to him, including Shabbat. In one of the more questionable halachic judgments in all of Jewish history, Maimonides ruled nine centuries ago that it forbidden for a non Jew to take on full observance of Shabbat. So the rabbi instructed Yair to light up a cigarette on Friday night, and turn on the lights. Dafna’s family treated him differently. He felt ostracized. He couldn’t concentrate on his studies or pray – especially that prayer thanking God for having not making him a Gentile (a blessing that has was changed long ago in Conservative prayer books).
Fed up and confused, Yair returned to his secular Russian friends and the nightclub scene of Tel Aviv – he returned to being Sasha.
Yair and Dafna are not real. They are characters in a film that was produced for Israeli television two years ago and has made the rounds of international film festivals, winning accolades and awards. You’ll be happy to know that in the film, “Green Chariot,” Yair and Dafna do get back together in the end, and he immerses himself in the warm Mediterranean Sea to officially convert, a nice Hollywood ending. But in reality, there are hundreds of thousands of Jews in Israel whose identity remains halachically questionable to some authorities, whether from the former Soviet Union, Ethiopia, India or Stamford Connecticut.
Jewish identity has become like the shifting sand. Boundaries have become almost impossible to determine. Just a few weeks ago I had a conversation with someone whose wife had long since converted – by a Conservative rabbi in the proper halachic manner – but still he wondered if his as yet unborn children would also need to be converted in order to be considered Jewish by Orthodox relatives. The God of love calls out to us: Embrace them! Bring them in!
I believe in a God of love.
A recent article in the New York Times Magazine that has caused quite a stir in the Jewish world, highlighted one man’s agony at having had his picture airbrushed out of a class reunion photo at his Boston area day school, the Maimonides School, simply because he attended the event with a non Jewish girlfriend. It matters not that Noah Feldman is a famous and brilliant professor at Harvard. What matters is that his old school had a chance to embrace someone veering toward the fringes of Jewish life and instead chose to show him the door.
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, who was Feldman’s rabbi when he was at Oxford, chastised the day school for their actions, writing a few days later in the Jerusalem Post, “My thinking was that Noah was far too precious to me and to the Jewish people to lose. If he was dating a woman whom he wished to marry, then it was our duty to try and expose her to the friendliness of the Jewish community with a view toward her exploring whether a serious commitment to our tradition was something that would suit her… Of course I had wanted Noah to marry Jewish, and I took pride in the fact that I had helped to sustain his observance during his two years at Oxford. But the choice of whom he would marry was not mine to make.”
I’ve never been a great fan of Shmuley Boteach, but how can one disagree with someone who has introduced millions of Americans to Shalom in the Home. And Feldman is not faultless here: His article was unfair to modern Orthodoxy. Aside from Senator Lieberman, the only two modern Orthodox role models he chose to focus on were Yigal Amir and Baruch Goldstein, two cold blooded killers who in no way represent Orthodoxy or Judaism as a whole. In chastising his old school as he did, he also sounded every bit as self righteous in and narrow minded as his teachers did in blotting him out. And it is not just Orthodoxy that struggles with the dilemmas of shifting boundaries and interfaith households. Every branch of Judaism does. All across the board.
But the God of love is calling out to us – Love them! Bring them in!
1.7 million non-Jews now are living in American Jewish households — to put it another way, about 23 percent of those living in Jewish households are not Jewish. And that doesn’t even take into consideration patrilineal descent. There are indications that a growing number of non-Jewish spouses have become increasingly supportive of raising their children as Jews and possibly even converting. This is happening especially in communities, like Boston, where outreach has been ingrained into the culture. But the Maimonides School failed to get the memo, choosing to shun. They should have listened to their medieval namesake, the great sage Maimonides himself who said, “Just as God is called compassionate, so should you be compassionate.” If someone had reached out, perhaps this article would not have been written.
While I can’t perform an interfaith marriage, when I hear about one in the congregation family, I make it my business to reach out to the couple and let them know that they are wanted and loved here. While synagogue membership might not be affordable to many young singles and couples, many who grew up here, we try to send out the message, loud and clear, that we want them here. We’ve offered special incentives this year for the first time, trying to get that message across all the more urgently. We are also appealing to everyone who has the means to help us more this year so that we can begin to restructure the way we do business, as all synagogues must do, to be less reliant on dues.
Business as usual simply won’t do. The percentage of Jews among the American populace is now at its lowest point since 1890. We are, as Jonathan Sarna puts it, an endangered religion. If we are concerned about the spotted owl and the finback whale, then we should also be concerned about Jews. Try to imagine how impoverished the world would be with far fewer Jews. What can each of us do to ensure a vibrant Jewish future? We can promote families with a strong sense of Jewishness inside the home – and focus on growing self assured, proud Jewish children. For all our families, singe faith, dual faith, dual parent, single parent, three parents, two parents and a grandparent, traditional or non, we must send out a strong message about the urgency of having raising Jewish families. Some have taken up the banner of having more children as well. As one observant couple recently said, “four is the new three.”
A rabbi in San Francisco related the story of a couple sitting before him – he was Catholic and she was Protestant. He asked, why did you come to me to marry you?’ To which the young man replied, “We want to offend each side of the family equally.”
We need to get beyond all the family control issues that so often get in the way.
We must continue to draw those circles of inclusion that draw people in.
I believe in a God of love.
And so do so many others: Jews are disproportionally involved in causes that have noting to do with us, like combating the genocide in Darfur – which of course has everything to do with us - to the point where Darfurian refugees this summer began flocking to the borders of a little country we all know and love – to the point where Israel did not know what to do with them. These refugees had to literally retrace the steps of Moses to get there – trudging through the Sinai on foot. One of our bat mitzvah students this year raised money on her own personal website to save Darfur. She was inspired by the film “Paper Clips,” which she saw in our 7th grade, and by one haunting line from the movie “Hotel Rwanda,” “If people see this footage [of killing], they’ll say it’s horrible … and go on eating their dinner.”
Today we are giving up dinner, breakfast and lunch – today we rekindle our partnership with the God of love.
Antoine de Saint Exupery wrote, “Life has taught us that love does not consist in gazing at each other, but in looking outward together in the same direction.”
It says in the Talmud (Brachot 34b) that a person may only pray in a room with windows. This is based on biblical quotes indicating that King Solomon built the first temple with latticed, recessed windows opening out to the heavens. Rabbi Melanie Aron writes, “When you pray you are not meant to be thinking only of yourself. Windows allow, even require that we look out. They insist that we take note of the community within which we live.”
Isn’t it wonderful to pray in a home – here – with windows? During the day we look out and see the exquisite beauty of nature. At night, we see human faces reflecting back at us. We see our community.
Targum Yonatan, the 7th century Aramaic translation of the Prophets, explains that the Temple windows were broad on the inside and narrow on the outside. This particular design was thought to provide the maximum amount of light from the outside while providing for the maximum protection inside. In contrast, Rabbi Levi said (in Leviticus Rabbah 31:7): that they were built narrow on the inside and wide on the outside, so that the light from inside would spread out into the world.
Our windows are wide on both sides. There is an openness on both sides. God’s light streams in - and we reciprocate by shining ours right back at ya’- in eternal openness and love.
And so we are in an age of transformation, where for Jews, as for the world at large, boundaries are shifting so dramatically and so constantly, that our religion must go from being one based on setting boundaries to one based on transcending them.
We’ve got to get away from drawing lines in the sand that will be washed away with the next tide. We must look toward finding that common ground between ocean and shore. It is time to stop building fences and to begin climbing down from them.
When I work with a student for conversion, I follow the traditional rabbinic practice of trying to talk the person out of it. But in some sense that is merely a formality. I tell them how hard it is to be a Jew, that at the moment they step from the mikvah, suddenly a billion people around the world will want them dead. And then I throw in the irony that a billion fanatics will want them dead, but an Ultra Orthodox rabbi down the street might not accept them as Jewish! But I also tell them that, most of all, that they will be accepted completely and lovingly here, and by most of the Jewish world – and by God…the God of love… the God who loved even the evil non Jewish city of Nineveh once they chose to repent. The God of Chesed.
The Jewish God.
This year, we along with all Conservative synagogues, have had to make choices, earth shattering choices, regarding inclusiveness and sexual orientation. The discussions that took place here and on a movement wide level have been widely documented and discussed. This is not the place to rehash them, but I encourage you to contact me with any questions or concerns. What’s most important to note is how the position we took was consistent with the overriding culture that we have nurtured here at Beth El, one of inclusion, embrace and love. And that means that those who disagree with it also have a place here. We draw no lines in the sand. We build no fences. We just climb down from them.
For me it could have been no other way. It was what I was taught by my mother and father. It was what I learned from my best teachers and camp counselors. It is ultimately what I learned from the Torah itself. For I have always believed in a God of love.
Maybe one reason for this is that I was born on Valentine’s Day. Or perhaps it has to do with a man who died many years before I was born. Let me tell you a bit about him.
Several years back I was riding shotgun in a hearse on my way to a burial, traversing Old Montefiore Cemetery in Queens and its densely packed, soaring monuments - a mini Manhattan for the dead. The hearse turned a corner and there, in the front row, staring me down, was my name – the person for whom I was named – chiseled in eternity. I had never seen my great grandfather’s grave before. Talk about your life flashing before your eyes – at that moment I felt a rush of recognition, as if a past life was flashing before mine. So I decided to learn more about him.
Joshua J. Kastan, a saintly and strictly observant Hasid, fell in love with a woman named Mollie; but family lore has it that when they were about to be married, Mollie refused to shave her head. One can only imagine the hubbub provoked by this breach of traditional practice. Yet Joshua was no fence sitter – he stood by her and they were married, hair and all. He continued to love her through years of barrenness (attributed by detractors to her brazenness), and resisted the advice to leave her. Finally, miraculously, they had a daughter, my grandmother, Rebecca. To add one more romantic twist, Joshua and Mollie died on the same date (three years apart), August 19.
Rebecca married Samuel Hammerman and they had seven children, one dying very young. Their home was filled with music and laughter. They scraped by on Samuel’s income as a tailor. My uncle Zel has described their home as “wall to wall newspaper,” but filled with love. To help earn money, my father, who had a lovely tenor voice, began to sing professionally. Eventually, he and his two brothers became cantors. Their fondest childhood memories included spending Shabbat afternoon together with all the cousins, gathered in their Zeyda Joshua’s home. Rebecca and Sam had 16 grandchildren, and fully a quarter of them were named for Joshua Kastan, including me, my cousins Jan and Jules - and my older cousin Jeffrey.
Jeff, an aspiring actor and poet, was serious, soft spoken and strikingly handsome. When I came to New York for rabbinical school in the late ‘70s, I got to know him quite well. Jeff provided me a keyhole glimpse into some of the diversity of New York culture and, when he became HIV positive in the mid ‘80s, an insider’s view of AIDS’ devastation as well. At about the same time that I moved to Stamford, coincidently so did Jeff, with his partner.
In late 1993, Jeff, who hadn’t set foot in a synagogue since his Bar Mitzvah, shared his story from this pulpit. It was the kind of sermon our great grandfather Joshua would have admired.
He said, “The God that I learned about in my home was a God of love, understanding, mercy and reason. That God has given me real strength…His love for us is not measured by the absence of hardships. His love for us is the life he’s given us.”
Six years later, when I last saw Jeff in Hospice, curled up in a fetal position and barely breathing, I understood that no God of mine could have afflicted him so mercilessly. Rather, I sensed the sanctity in every heroic gasp of air, in each moment of survival. I reached back for every bit of Hesed I could summon and held his hand.
What I had grasped before intellectually, now was imprinted on every fiber of my being: This is horrible. This is desperately unfair. But this is no punishment. This is not what God wants. What God wants is for us to love all the more.
At his funeral, which took place here, I read a poem Jeff had written decades earlier, when he was a teenager, called “Valentine to Man.”
“I listened to the music –And it sounded so sweet that I shoutedup to heaven: “Let me love.”
I reflected on all these life lessons this year as the movement and our congregation grappled with such sensitive issues, and it was, in a way, for me, my final exam, as a rabbi, a believing Jew and as a human being.
Some come out of the closet. Others come off the fence.
Either one is a leap of faith an act of great courage. It is also an act of return, or teshuvah – for it is a return to your true values, to your deepest held beliefs, to who you were all along. And that leap of faith can only be made into the arms of a God of love.
Just after Passover, I brought Dan to Old Montefiore Cemetery for a family history project, and when we looked closely at my great grandfather Joshua’s stone, I noticed something I’d never seen before – something that shook me to the core. The Hebrew date of his passing was the 15th of the month of Av – also known as Tu B’Av – the Jewish Valentine’s Day.
In the strangest of ways, his yahrzeit became my birthday.
I close with more poetry from my cousin Jeff. As we approach his tenth yahrzeit, may his memory always be an inspiration for blessing on this bima, from which he once spoke:
We inhabit our lives
Seeking, as we do –Each in our own way –Some greater speck,
Of all the acts seeking extension,
This is the true road to immortality,You have taken – and shared it.
There are 32 words in the Attributes of Mercy – the God of Love has a human heart – a heart that can transport us from I to We.