Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Rosh Hashanah Sermons 2009

Rosh Hashanah Sermons by Rabbi Joshua Hammerman

Rosh Hashanah Day 1 5770

“A Signature Mitzvah”

OK – set your watches. I’ve got a tough job – I’ve got four sermons over the next ten days – a couple of hours to recharge your Jewish batteries for another year, to convince you that it matters to be a Jew, to live by Jewish values and to raise Jewish families; to believe that Judaism gives us something that can touch us profoundly, that speaks to that which is most human about each of us and to help us believe that change is possible.

All of that.  Four sermons. 

Without boring you, even for a minute.

Without your taking out your cell phones and texting and Twittering. Without a single yawn.  And today, without benefit of a single shofar blast.  You in the 17th row!  I saw that yawn!

All of that – and this year, I’m ratcheting up this challenge even more: I’m going to try to get you to see the Jewish path in a new way.

I want to bring mitzvah back!  - I want to be the Justin Timberlake of rabbis.

I want to make mitzvah sexy. 

It won’t be easy.  For one thing, as we’ve been told over and over again, this is not a good year for bold initiatives.  People are not feeling very hopeful.  Hope was last year’s poster.  Right now we are in a state of crisis.

The economy fell off a cliff right around last Rosh Hashanah, and only now are there some glimmering signs of an eventual recovery, though it would be hard to convince those who have lost jobs of that, or people who face foreclosure, or those who can’t afford school or can’t get loans for a small business.

As if that weren’t bad enough, our faith has been shattered by scandals involving lots of money.  Politicians?  Just about every major politician in Israel is under suspicion of something, and meanwhile back here we’ve have rabbis arrested for selling kidneys and handbags on the black market.  Most sickening of course was the Madoff affair, which caused tremendous suffering for people of all backgrounds, but had a particularly devastating impact on Jews and philanthropy.   I’ll have more to say about that on Yom Kippur.

Let’s see…what else.  Speaking of sickening, how about a pandemic?  An unkosher one at that?  How about Iran getting perilously close to the bomb and imploding internally. And how about a war in Gaza that made it a little safer to go outside in Sderot but brought Israel no closer to peace and security. 

Everything is a crisis: the economy, health care, the climate; and for Jews, we’re in the midst of an identity crisis.  We’ve got parenting crises.  We’ve got midlife crises, which has led perfectly normal governors to do crazy things like run off to Argentina.  Tell me about midlife crisis!  I just sent my first kid off to college two weeks ago.  Ethan’s reading Torah there today. 

It just occurred to me. 

He’s not here!   What do I do now?

Everything is in crisis: And to top it all, Paula Abdul is leaving “American Idol.” 

So as I dive into these sermons, the degree of difficulty is very high. 

Pray for me.


So every ten years the monks in this monastery are allowed to break their silence to speak two words.  Ten years go by and it’s one monk’s first chance.  He thinks for several seconds before saying, “Food bad.”

Ten years later, he says “Bed hard.”

It’s the big day, a decade later. He gives the head monk a long stare and says, “I quit.”

“I’m not surprised,” the head monk says, “You’ve been complaining ever since you got here.”

Why this was voted the best joke in America by Reader’s Digest I’ll never know – but if it had to win, this was the year for it to win.  For if ever there was a time to complain, this year is it!

I recently read that the Chinese character for Crisis does not mean opportunity (as has been claimed by every motivational speaker this side of Confucius).  However, if you rearrange the letters of the Hebrew root word for crisis, tzara: tzadi – resh – hey, the plural of which is tzarot, or the more familiar Yiddish tzuris, you get the word tzohar, which means threshold or radiance.  And the word “tzarei,” which means balm.  B-A-L-M.  So from tzuris, we Jews get healing, we get radiance, we get to cross the threshold of new possibility. 

And we get this without the help of the Chinese

And how do we get to that state of radiance and Confucian calm?  A little minor surgery to the word Tzara will do the trick.  The middle letter, a resh, is all hunched over, like a guy whose just been punched in the gut, who can’t bear to see what’s up ahead, bearing the burden of life’s hard knocks. 

Well it’s time to straighten up, to hold your head up high, to spit in the face of despair, to look at crisis right in the eye and to overcome it. 

And if you straighten out that resh, what you are left with is the straightest of all Hebrew letters, the vav, stretching to the sky.

And that leaves us with the root word Tziva – from which we get… MITZVAH.

So our task today?  Let’s move beyond the mentality of crisis. Tzara, to a mentality of Mitzvah.

Do I believe that that could save the world?

Well, at the very least, it can set us out in the right direction.

Kurt Andersen, bestselling author and radio host, suggested that the international nature of our current economic meltdown has its upside – and presents us with a chance for us to, as he put it, “reset.”  He calls this “A spectacular moment of global consciousness, this generation’s version of the Apollo astronauts’ 1968 photograph of the earth from the moon, an unforgettable reminder that all 6.7 billion of us, from Reykjavik to Sacramento, Vladivostok to Athens, Wall Street to Tiananmen, are together, deeply and inextricably interdependent.”

And perhaps that is true.  We’re all united because we’re all broke!

Maybe out of the cauldron of the current crises we will emerge a kinder, more helpful society, one more aware of our interdependence. 

The jury is still out on that one – as people in extremis can go either way.  Some will choose to withdraw and close themselves off.  No doubt that the combination of a tough economy and Swine Flu scare kept some people at home today.  But you are all here.  And we are all more aware than ever of that which binds all God’s creatures together.

By the way, did you know that Swine Flu is mentioned in the Talmud?  I kid you not.

The Talmud tells us that when Rav Yehudah was informed of a deadly plague affecting the pigs, he decreed a fast.  Now Yehudah didn’t think that the disease would harm kosher farm animals.  Pigs are different from cows and other kosher animals, he said, because their digestive tracts are similar to those of humans (Ta’anit 21b).

He didn’t know what he was talking about but… Think about it.  At that point, there was no sure sign that the disease would impact the human population.  He was fasting for the pigs! 

He also saw their connection to people.  He understood that, in the end, we are all one.  Even with pigs!

And that’s what we celebrate today.  A unity that transcends all crises.  We’ve even put the shofars away today to lay bare those things peculiar to Shabbat – a day where all of us come together.  People, all people – even servants are included in the 4th commandment – and animals too.  Even pigs.  The Shabbat is for everyone. 

Kurt Andersen feels we are entering a new cycle of community mindedness, aided by the rapid pace of globalization, the technological revolution and the worldwide concern for climate change.  In his book “Reset,” he traces 15 such cycles in US history, as the pendulum continually swings from “an unfettered zeal for the individual to a rediscovery of the common good.”

And indeed, we have seen a swing back in the direction of altruism.   “Teach for America,” a program that sends college grads into America’s poorest school districts for two years, received 35,000 applications this year, up 42% from 2008, including one out every nine Ivy League seniors!  True, it’s a reflection of the lack of jobs, but these kids are looking to give back.  We haven’t seen anything like this since the early days of the Peace Corps.

“History doesn’t repeat itself,” Mark Twain said, “But it rhymes.”  And it is rhyming now.  But not back to the ‘60s as Andersen claims.    For today, on this Rosh Hashanah, we have just entered – the ‘70s.  The 5770s.   For as we now reset social priorities, we have a wonderful chance as well, to reset our clocks – to Jewish time and Jewish values (without, God willing, bringing back disco).

If ever there was a chance for us to look again at our lives and where all things Jewish might fit in, this is it.  If there were ever a chance to re-explore the meaning of mitzvah, this is it. 

If ever there was a chance to take Torah out of that closet where we have been storing it, and open it up to speak to our lives and the life of our community, THIS IS IT.

So what’s a mitzvah?  A good deed?  A commandment?  

Yes and yes, but it’s more.  Much more. 

If we are going to push the reset button and reboot our Jewish souls, we need to rediscover this primal Jewish concept as if for the first time.  And for many of us, it will be the first time.  

To be a Jew is to reside in the world of mitzvah.  That’s what bar mitzvah means.  A Jew at age 13 is to be called one who has mastered the art of world repair – that’s why our 13 year olds are always out there doing so many incredible things to change the world. 

A mitzvah is a very human act, but with a cosmic result, one that reverberates throughout the entire universe.  But while mitzvot are ordained from on high, many perform them for reasons that are most mundane. 

Some light candles because their parents did. 

Some go to services because they get to schmooze with their best friends.

Some send clothes to Goodwill because their closet is so stuffed that the door won’t close.  

There are many shadings to mitzvah, and we’ll be covering a few of them on these high holidays.  And then, as part of JTS Chancellor Arnold Eisen’s mitzvah initiative, we, along with several dozen other Conservative congregations, will be conducting a 14-session seminar that will bring us together to learn and discuss, in a non judgmental atmosphere, with openness and honesty.  This seminar is a very exciting venture.  It will help us to redefine what it means to be a Jew in this age.  And it will help us to reset and redefine the concept of mitzvah for ourselves, our congregation, our movement and the world.

Mitzvot are, above all, opportunities to open ourselves up to a life of greater meaning and purpose.  To make the most of our God given talents.  But not in isolation.     For the path of mitzvah is the path of bonding.

Some derive the word mitzvah from the Hebrew expression “tzavta,” which means connection.  Through simple acts, we bond together what is divine with what is so utterly human and we connect to people everywhere.

Mitzvot are the mountain peaks where heaven and earth meet, where the mundane becomes sacred, where the religiously blind become spiritually aware. 

In this green era, the mitzvah is a cheap source of renewable Jewish energy.  And how do we energize?  By taking on more.  By stockpiling our mitzvot.  But each of us must also specialize.

The Ishbitzer Rebbe looked at the Sh’ma and asked what does it mean to “love the Lord your God with all you heart, with all your soul and with all your might?”  Everyone has a particular mitzvah, he proclaimed. By fulfilling it, that person achieves the world to come – this mitzvah and its fulfillment become the essence of that person’s whole existence.

So what’s your mitzvah?  Everyone has a signature mitzvah, a mitzvah that defines us. 

I teach children – therefore I am.

I feed the hungry, therefore I am. 

I take people to Israel, therefore I am. 

That mitzvah becomes our immortality.  Our legacy.  Our footprint in the sand.  It is, to quote one of  this summer’s celebrated heroes, Julia Child, when talking about cooking, “what I dooo.”

There is a midrash that when a person is asked in the world to come, “What was your work?” and they answer, “I fed the hungry,” that person will be told, “This is the gate of the Lord, enter into it, you who have fed the hungry….  The same goes for those who reply that they raised orphans, performed acts of tzedakkah, clothed the naked and embraced acts of lovingkindness (Midrash Psalms 118:17).”

So what will you say when you reach paradise?  What will your descendants be saying about you?  What do you dooo?”

Once you discover your signature mitzvah, the key is to take that mitzvah, to live it with all your soul and all your might – and to share it. 

Think about it: There are, according to Maimonides’ count, 613 mitzvot in the Torah and we have nearly three times that many people here today.  By my calculations, then, if each of us were to take on one mitzvah on behalf of the community, then all together, we would make up three complete Jews! 

Well, in fact some of the 613 mitzvot are no longer in play and others are only meant to be observed in Israel – but the main thing is that most of us actually might want to do MORE than one.  We do many mitzvot, after all, and often without knowing it.

But let’s each of us begin with one.  Everyone start with one. 

And if we bring that one to this community it will bind us as one.

And if we project our mitzvah out from this sanctuary out into the world, its positive impact will have all of us behind it.  They say that what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas… but what happens here impacts the world. 

So what will your mitzvah be?

 To attend morning minyan? To make Beth El greener?  To read Torah or to tutor?  Or maybe to coordinate letter writing for Israel or to help with our Sukkah or Purim carnival.  Maybe it’s to run a support group for those who struggle with addiction. 

This year, Beth El has responded so supportively to the needs of those out of work that job networking has become our collective signature mitzvah.  Michael Arons has been moving mountains to make this happen, but our neighbors have been thanking us simply because we belong to Beth El. 

Call it Mitzvah by association.  

There are a number of mitzvah heroes here.  This one is helping with job networking, and that one is helping with the food drive.  This one is paying anonymously for a famous scholar to teach a series on prayer, and that one visits people in the hospital.  We’ve got Beth El mitzvah-makers all over the world.  This one is teaching Adon Olam to a bunch of schoolchildren in India that one is serving up vitamins to Ethiopian kids in Netanya.  And we’ve had congregants volunteer countless hours to realize the dream of the renewed social hall and lobby we are enjoying today. 

The UJC has created a Mitzvah Heroes website and has been asking people to vote among a number of nominees, for people like Anne Heyman who is responsible for a youth village in Rwanda that cares for orphans.   And Sadie Mintz, a Hollywood resident since 1929, who has risen at 4 AM once a week to prepare for her early-morning volunteer shift in at the cancer ward of Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. 

Think about it – if every person here took upon him or herself one mitzvah – one way to bring a little more love and holiness to our community and to the world and just did that, imagine what an impact that would make.

So what is your signature mitzvah?  What others can you bring into your life?  I asked board members that question and their responses are on our website.

As a rabbi, I consider myself somewhat of a general practitioner, but I’ve also got more than a few signature mitzvot.

One that I embrace is the one listed as #16 on Maimonides’ list of 613; it is a mitzvah for everyone to write a Torah for himself.  I see my own writing in that light, as an attempt to bring the Torah to life through the prism of my own experiences.  I also like #28, not to harm anyone in speech, though it’s hard and I often fall short.  And there’s #39, to care for animals, and the 150’s, which all deal with aspects of Kashrut.  And then there’s the 170’s, which all deal in business ethics.  I care about those. 

And I can’t forget #114, the mitzvah of making pilgrimage on festivals to the sacred soil of Israel.  I’ve come to see that as truly my signature mitzvah.   As you know, we are planning our next TBE trip, and we decided to postpone it from this December to next July in order to give more people this chance to go to Israel with our congregation family.  We’ve cut costs to the bone while still providing a five-star trip.  I implore you to talk about this over lunch today and consider this amazing opportunity. 

And one more signature mitzvah: #53.  Love the stranger.  The Torah repeatedly commands us to love the stranger, because we were strangers in Egypt.  Often, this refers to the Ger Tzedek – the convert.  And indeed, we make it our business here to welcome converts and to make the process of becoming a Jew by Choice one of tremendous spiritual growth.  But there is another type of stranger found in our sources – the Ger Toshav – the person who, while not taking on Judaism as a faith, has elected for whatever reason to reside in our midst, and who, often with a Jewish spouse, has chosen to participate in this grand experiment called Jewish destiny.  Maimonides could not imagine a world like ours, but the sentiment expressed in that mitzvah – to love the stranger – has made # 53 it one of Beth El’s signature mitzvot.

For those who are here today who are not Jewish, I embrace you warmly and unconditionally and invite you to share in this crucial work of world repair.  No strings attached.  We need all the help we can get!

So this is going to be our year of the mitzvah. 

And to start it off, I’d like to ask everyone here to do a mitzvah this week, between now and Yom Kippur, one that you have never done before.  And make it a challenging one. No cupcakes!  Anyone can put a few coins in a tzedakkah box.  How about lighting candles this Friday night?  If you do that already, how about separating milk and meat – for a day?  For a meal?  For a course?  I’d be happy to help explain it to you.    

OK, and if you can’t do that because you are blogging your way through Julia Child’s cookbook, how about taking an hour away from all that butter to study the Torah portion?   Or maybe visit a local hospital or nursing home and see people you don’t know.  Or, hey, I don’t know, if you’ve never come to shul on the second day of Rosh Hashanah – come here tomorrow to participate in the mitzvah of hearing the shofar – that’s number 132! 

Come to minyan and maybe try on tefillin – that’s #20.  If you’ve never built a sukkah, it’s not too late.  We’ll help! Or simply have a meal in our temple Sukkah; that’s mitzvah # 142.  And even easier, buy a lulav set – # 141. We’re really pushing this one this year, because it’s so much fun and we’ll have a huge lulav parade here on the second day of Sukkot, which falls on a Sunday.

If you return a lost item, you’re doing a mitzvah – # 276.  So if someone lent you something years ago and you just came across it, but you weren’t really sure what to do – return it!  If you have one of my books, for instance, I’m declaring an amnesty period until Yom Kippur.  No questions asked.

If you care for an animal, you’re doing a mitzvah.  So adopt a dog and name it mitzvah.  Throw a yarmulke on it and have a bark mitzvah….  If you’ve been carrying a grudge, end it. #32.   If you’ve been gossiping, stop it (28); if you are known for angry outbursts (and who isn’t these days!), cool it – #30.  If you’ve given tzedakkah, give more – #52.  If you’ve never performed a bris… …maybe hold off on that one… but it’s #17.   

Find a mitzvah, do it and do it on behalf of all of us.

Many of the 613 mitzvot are obscure, some have become obsolete, and others are downright objectionable.  But the act of struggling with mitzvah in itself connects us to our roots and to one another.  Maimonides wasn’t the last word on Torah, which is fortunately a living document. The mitzvah map is changing all the time. There are plenty to choose from, though.  So find one that means something to you.

Then just do it. This week. 

I know of one rabbi who asked his entire adult ed class to go home and light candles that Friday night.  The response was amazing. – sort of like the response we had last year when several congregants hosted others for Shabbat @ Home, something we’re planning to do again in a few months.

One student came back and said “My family laughed at me.”

Another said he went upstairs and lit them in the closet.  (I don’t recommend that).

And a third told the teacher, “I went home and lit candles last Friday night – and my husband cried.”

You know, it’s interesting that we always use the expression that we practice mitzvot.  We’re always practicing.  We never get it right! 

In Judaism, Practice never makes perfect.  But practice makes something much more important. 

Practice makes affect.  Practice makes purpose. Practice makes holiness.  Practice brings hope.  Practice brings bonding.  Practice brings people together.  Practice brings communities together.

Practice brings heaven and earth together.  So just do it!

But don’t do it for any reward, or mitzvah points, as we used to call them.  Think of Rabbi Mordechai Kaplan, who said, “Expecting the world to treat you fairly because you are a good person is like expecting the bull not to charge at you because you are a vegetarian.”  Kaplan had a decidedly secular term for mitzvot.  He called them folkways, but they were no less important to him, even without the notion of a personal God.  Whatever your beliefs about God, Kaplan understood that without ritual, there is no Jewish civilization

Do it out of love, love for a parent or grandparent, love for our children, love for the Jewish people, love for a Torah that has filled the world with holiness; to bring the world from tzarot to mitzvot, from pain to perfection; do it out of the conviction that there is something bigger than us, a power of love in the universe that we can tap into – and a Jewish message that is timeless and wonderful.

Do it to atone.  We now know from his just published memoirs that Senator Ted Kennedy was haunted by the death of Mary Jo Kopechne to his dying days.  He spent the last half of his life atoning for the first half of his life.  40 years of wandering in that personal wilderness. But he spent those last 40 years making the world better for all of us, and especially for the poor, the homeless and the sick. “Our sins don’t define the whole picture of who we are,” Kennedy said.  And that is true. 

But our mitzvot do. 

Kennedy’s father said it to him early on.  “You can have a serious life or a non-serious life, Teddy. I’ll still love you whichever choice you make. But if you decide to have a non-serious life, I won’t have much time for you.”

Teddy made the right choice.  And he wasn’t afraid to declare it to the world.  JTS Chancellor Arnold Eisen says that the question of mitzvah here is not about theology, it is about our desire to be different, to stand out, to make the case that change is possible and to declare it to the world.

Don’t be afraid to declare it to the world! Kennedy was an unabashed liberal.  We should be unabashed Jews.

Because what we do matters.

Think of Robert Lappin.  This is the guy from Boston whose foundation funded a number of educational ventures, including the trips to Israel taken by our teens a few years ago.  His fund was totally wiped out by Madoff.  Completely.  It ceased to exist. 

So what did Robert Lappin do?  He reopened his foundation, and is using his own money to restore the retirement savings that his employees lost in the fraud.  Lappin is the anti-Madoff, the antidote to a civilization-gone-mad, the one who turned crisis into opportunity, into a threshold of radiance and balm.

Whenever we hear the world saying that Jews are crooks, think of Lappin, and think of all the mitzvah heroes you know.  Look around you.  In fact, all you’ll have to do is look in the mirror.  Think of a tradition that is our precious legacy, and a heritage of goodness that can take your breath away.  Think of mitzvot.  The ties that bond.

And think of how it’s possible to awaken to the rhythms of life and love, on this first day of the new decade, the 5770s, without benefit of a single shofar blast.  We have done it, and we can do it.

The recovery begins today, as we embark on this path of connection, the path of bonding. The path of tikkun olam. 

The Mitzvot are our stimulus package for the world.

Together, let us bring Mitzvah back.  

And together, we’ll continue this journey tomorrow.



Rosh Hashanah Day 2 5770

“The Mitzvah of Obligation”

By Rabbi Joshua Hammerman

Not long ago, I came across this moving story in an online magazine.

In the fall of 1943, after being captured by the Nazis in the Ukraine, my grandfather was sent to Auschwitz. At first, he was just one of many Soviet POWs held at the camp, but it was later discovered that he was Jewish, so he was removed from the Soviet soldiers and placed with the other European Jews. My grandfather never knew why he survived while others perished, but there was never a day that passed after liberation in 1945 that he thanked God for that gift of life.

My grandfather was able to get to England and then on to America to restart his life. He raised 5 children and later cherished his 22 grandchildren. He loved to work in his garden, even on the hottest of days. As a child, I always wondered why he wore long shirts even on those August days when it would easily be 100 degrees (even in the shade). When I was 9, I caught my grandfather shaving in the bathroom and that is when I saw it: His Camp Number – 58877241.

Not knowing any better, I asked him why he got such a “stupid tattoo”. He told me that he really didn’t want to get it and quickly tried to cover it with a towel. I followed him asking him, “Why don’t you get it removed then?” He stopped dead in the hallway and without turning around said “So I don’t forget.” We never discussed it again.

When he died last summer, I told myself that he was finally at peace. As I stood over his coffin with my wife, I reached down and took his arm in mine. I unbuttoned his sleeve and rolled it up. I looked at the number again – 58877241. My wife looked at me and asked “Why are you doing that?” All I could say was “So I don’t forget.” Right then I made my promise to him – Never again.

Now when I see the hate and bigotry, I know that this is how it began seven decades ago in Europe. It was too late, when people finally woke up, millions had been carted away in cattle cars to their deaths.

I don’t want to see that here or anywhere else. I do not want there to be cattle cars filled with people that these hate mongers scream out against.  This summer, my family and I will be traveling to Auschwitz, so my children understand what their grandfather went through. I want my daughter to know why I see him in her eyes. And then every time I look in her eyes I will see hope and love and not 58877241.

This coming April I’ll be making that same trip for the first time, visiting Auschwitz on the March of the Living, traveling with scores of teens and adults from our region and thousands from around the world.  It’s hard to call it a pilgrimage to a place of such darkness, but that’s exactly what it will be.  For while the commanding voice from Sinai binds us in love, it is the commanding voice of Auschwitz that compels us to remember, that compels the world to remember, in the face Ahmadinejad and his ilk.

Yesterday I noted how one way to define the term mitzvah is as “connection.”  Mitzvot help to create the ties that bond.  Today we need to go one step further.  Today we explore the very difficult topic of obligation.

A mitzvah is a commandment, after all, although we joke these days that what Moses brought down from Sinai were the “Ten Suggestions.”

But we aren’t really doing justice to the concept of mitzvah unless we at least struggle with the notion of obligation.  And that’s pretty hard to do these days, when many of our public figures have made a spectacle of shirking their obligations to the ones they love the most.  They’ve been caught up in so many sordid scandals that it makes us long for the simpler days of Watergate.  In the wake of the affairs involving Elliot Spitzer, John Edwards, Mark Sanford, John Ensign, Larry Craig, Mark Foley, Jim McGreevey and others, we can speculate that a reason we can’t put the Ten Commandments in political office buildings is that the posting of “Thou shalt not commit adultery” would constitute for politicians a hostile working environment.  It should be noted that I’m not in favor of placing the Ten Commandments in any public building, but I wouldn’t mind if people exercised a little more self control.

And then there is this summer’s #1 story this side of Michael Jackson, the saga of Jon and Kate.  Now I must confess that when I first heard about the show “Jon and Kate Plus 8” I thought it was about two Jewish kids celebrating the last night of Hanukkah.  But alas, Jon and Kate have gone their separate ways and their very public breakup has been a ratings bonanza for their show.  And who wouldn’t want to watch this train wreck where a bunch of five year old sextuplets and their sibling twins act with greater maturity than their parents.  When the show marked its 100th episode last June, Kate was in awe of the accomplishment of holding the show together for so many years.  Holding a marriage together did not seem to matter nearly as much.  

Yes, infidelity seems to have become this year’s most fashionable pandemic.  One might say it’s just another strain of swine flu.  But it’s gotten bad enough that this past July, Time Magazine ran a cover story entitled, “Is There Hope for the American Marriage?” 

In that article, sociologist Andrew J. Cherlin claims that the face of the American family has changed dramatically over the past 40 years, with an dramatic increase in the pace of coupling and uncoupling, of marriage and divorce, creating “a great turbulence in American family life, a family flux, a coming and going of partners on a scale seen nowhere else.”

The essay states that this increasingly fragile construct depends less and less on notions of sacrifice and obligation than on the ephemera of romance and happiness… “The intact, two-parent family remains our cultural ideal, but it exists under constant assault. It is buffeted by affairs and ennui, subject to the eternal American hope for greater happiness, for changing the hand you dealt yourself.”

And the essay concludes, “There is no other single force causing as much measurable hardship and human misery in this country as the collapse of marriage.  It hurts children, it reduces mothers’ financial security, and it has landed with particular devastation on those who can bear it least: the nation’s underclass.”

I want to make it clear that Judaism does not object to divorce.  In some cases it is absolutely necessary.  What I’m speaking about here is not about specific cases, but general trends.  And the trend is away from commitment in relationships and toward what the kids call “hooking up.”  The kids may call it that, but they aren’t the only ones doing it. 

Commitment has become a dirty word. 

Whatever happened to obligation?

The culture of hooking up has become so prevalent today, all the way down to middle schools, that even the kids are beginning to say, “enough.”  A backlash is developing.  Recently at Duke, a group of 250 students, mostly women, were asked whether they would like to bring back good old fashioned dating.  Four out of five raised their hands.  It seems that people are beginning to yearn for intimacy again, to be seen by the other not as an object but as a human being in the image of God. 

And we need to begin to discuss this plainly with our kids.   Yes, we all got so worked up last spring about the placement of that scandalous Advocate front page article about the Bat Mitzvah party gone wild in Norwalk.  And we had a right to.  It should not have been front page news.  But that’s precisely the problem.  It’s not news.  Everything described in that article is happening around us all the time, including the vandalism, and the hooking up in the bathroom.

I said then and I repeat now that we happen to have some amazing kids and teens here.  It’s not about that.  We have some amazing adults too.  But there is something corrosive and rotten about our culture that we need to help change, and that something rotten is the abandonment of obligation.

Caitlin Flanigan, who wrote the Time essay, told of her parents’ 50th wedding anniversary, when she turned to her father at the dinner table and said, “It’s amazing, Dad — 50 years, and you never once had an affair. How do you account for that?”

He replied simply, “I can’t drive.”

Does it really come down to that?  The only thing that keeps people from betraying the ones they love is a lack of opportunity?  The only thing that comes between a person’s deepest commitments and falling off the cliff is simply not having the means to do it?

If that’s the case, I recommend that everyone here become a rabbi. 

No, seriously.   Yes I know, there is plenty of opportunity for clergy to abuse power in their relationships with parishioners, and God knows many have.  Or, I should say, some have.

But I would venture to say that most have not.  Part of the reason for that is that most people of the cloth are good, moral folk.  But another part of the reason is the cloth itself, whether it is worn on the collar or on top of one’s head.  I know that I am far from perfect, but as soon as I put on the yarmulke in the morning, I am reminded of my obligation to set an example, not of perfection, but of integrity.  And that means striving to be worthy of my title, my Torah, my God, and your trust – to be a living embodiment of menschlichlite.  Again, I fall way short of my own expectations; but my expectations are pretty high, and being a rabbi is part of the reason why.

So yes, unlike the writer’s father, I do drive, but my sense of responsibility keeps me from driving myself and my family off a cliff.  God willing it will continue to.  I also happen to love my family.  But I suspect many philanderers do too.  They just have the opportunity – things happen, they lose control, they forget a commandment or two, they take a business trip to Argentina and they blow it.

So being a rabbi has no doubt helped make me a better person.  I often ask myself, would I be as ethical if I didn’t know that the eyes of the entire community are on me?  Would I even come to shul every week?  Would I pray at our minyan nearly every morning?  Would I keep kosher?  Would I give as much to tzedakkah if it were not my job to set that example?  Would I study as much Torah?

And the answer?  To quote Tevya, “I’ll tell you. I don’t know.” 

I’d like to think I’d do all those things, but that’s partly because I’ve been doing all these things for so many years and have come to appreciate how they have enriched my life.  Morning minyan gives me a chance to collect myself before I start my day, to reorient myself to the task at hand, to separate the essential from the tangential.  Kashrut sensitizes me to what goes into my body and how I care for all of God’s creatures, great and small.  Tzedakkah and study help me to connect to the world around me and the wisdom of the generations. 

Had I never become a rabbi, it’s likely that I would sleep-in more on Saturdays, and maybe I would even have discovered what a weekend is.  I’d probably take the opportunity to check out Shabbat services in different places.  But I think I would crave the kind of friendship and warmth that exists here every Shabbat.

I know for sure that I would not be as loving, not as giving – and in the end not as happy

Of course, rabbis are no better than anyone else, in theory.  All of us are equally bound to the mitzvot.  And we all need a little external push sometimes to be better people.  For some it’s their title that motivates them, for others it might be the donor lists that appear in newsletters.  Sure it’s better to give anonymously, but the mitzvah is to give tzedakkah, in any form, and if public recognition motivates us to follow through on that commitment, well, I can think of far worse forms of peer pressure.

Let’s take a closer look at obligation.  When we think about it, it’s not really such a dirty word to us – we welcome obligation in much of our lives.  Our days are filled with commandments that we willingly embrace:

- Thou shalt put the cap back on the toothpaste tube.

- Thou shalt put the seat down.

- Thou shalt not accept a dinner invitation without checking with your spouse.

- Thou shalt let in the dog and take out the trash.

I bet you can think of dozens of these.  It would be a good exercise over lunch today.

In addition, we all have our rituals that we stick to, for lack of a better term, religiously.  These rituals guide the way we dress, the way we set the table and eat our food, the way we play or watch sports.  Did you know that when I turn down the sound on the TV, the Patriots almost always recover a fumble on the kickoff?  It’s a proven fact!

And we are always answering to the commands of others.  Maybe we light candles because our mothers told us too.  Maybe it was a father’s dying wish that we give to a certain charity.  When a baby cries in the middle of the night, that’s thunder from Sinai.  CARE FOR ME!  And we hop-to.  So obligation should not seen as such a dirty word. 

But if I were to stand up here and say, “Every member of Beth El is henceforth obligated to come to morning minyan once this month,” I suspect I’d have a few messages in my inbox tomorrow. 

As we explore the concept of mitzvah this year, we are obligated to ask ourselves what obligates us.    Ultimately, God may be part of the answer – certainly that is what tradition tells us – blessings include the phrase “Asher Kidshanu b’mitzvotavv’tzivanu” “who has made us holy through the commandments and has commanded us,” but “God” is the answer that is both easiest to give and most difficult to grasp. 

We are in fact commanded by a lot of things, including our own sense of right and wrong, including the roaring thunder from Sinai and the muffled cries from Auschwitz.   

Some feel obligated by the number 613 – and others by 58877241.

To be obligated is to be needed. In a very profound sense, it is to be loved. 

Just as the Holocaust survivor reached out to his grandchild. God reaches out to us, imploring us, “Love me.”  “V’ahavta.”  The mitzvot could only be given out of love.

 Our obligations to others are typically reciprocal, and they inspire others to feel a responsibility toward us.  I’d venture to guess that that’s why so many of us come back here, year after year.  So many other options exist, some a lot less costly, some online, but the one thing you can’t duplicate is the flesh and blood commitment of being one with a community – of seeing your neighbors that you’ve seen over the years, of seeing the kids growing up – and seeing them go off and then come home from college….

While three days of free services might be great entertainment, and may even provide a profound spiritual moment or two, you can’t shul-hop your way to a community, where people feel obligated toward one another.  That’s what brings us back together, year after year.  Obligation.  But a good obligation.  We are mutually invested in one another.  It matters who is next to us.  It matters that this place looks spiffy.  We take pride in this building as we fill it with activity.  That social hall, so lovingly restored, is where we’ll lift our kids and grandchildren or friends up on chairs and dance in circles together.  It’s where we’ll gather at sad times as well.  It’s where we’ll reinforce those bonds of community that make life worth living, that make being a Jew so rich in meaning that all our theological hang ups just disappear. 

It all makes sense when there is commitment. 

By the way, the obligation is not synonymous with obedience.  In Judaism it is just as often our obligation to disobey. The psychoanalyst Erich Fromm reminds us that human history began with an act of disobedience and will likely be terminated by an act of obedience.  Sure enough, the Garden of Eden propelled us all into this marvelous experiment called humanity, which could well end with someone giving someone an order somewhere to push a button. 

Rabbi Harold Shulweis, in his new book on conscience, notes that the Hebrew word for compass is matzpen and the word for conscience is matzpun – both words come from the word tzafun, which as we might recall from the Passover Seder, means hidden.  But we’re talking about something even more significant than the afikoman here.  Shulweis says, “Homiletically, conscience may be understood as the hidden inner compass that guides our lives and must be searched for and recovered repeatedly.  At no time more than our own is this need to retrieve the shards of broken conscience more urgent.”

The Iranian people have proven that this year.

So again, we confront obligation, even if when that obligation requires that we disobey, to hear the higher call of conscience.

In today’s Torah reading, Abraham and Isaac may have shirked their obligation to disobey.  But what is clear from the story, no matter how you read it, was that were willing to give all for the sake of what they perceived as the divine imperative.  The symbol of the shofar comes from that story specifically in order to remind us of the need to respond to our life’s summons, to be willing to give up everything, even life itself, in order to fulfill our obligations.

How many of us would do that?

So what are our Jewish obligations? 

When Deuteronomy cries out, “Justice, justice you shall pursue,” the word justice (tzedek) is repeated twice to teach us that the obligation rests both on the individual and on society.  One may not say, “Let the courts worry about justice while I remain silent.”  The obligation is on us all.

The Talmud (Kiddushin 29a) states that every parent is obligated to teach a child three things: Torah, a trade and, some add, how to swim. 

I love the way one educator put it to me recently.  What goes on at home is education, what happens at school is schooling.  School gives the reading, writing and ‘rythmatic – or in the case of Jewish studies, the three “rs” are, I suppose, Rituals, Rosh Hashanah and Rugelach.  But what are we obligated to teach at home?  Values.  Faith. Commitment.  Unconditional love.  And basic survival skills. 

Teach your child a trade, the Talmud tells us.  And if that fails, make sure your congregation provides career networking services, and that your government provides unemployment insurance.  It’s a partnership.

Health care is as well.  Maimonides made a list of the ten most important services that a city needs to offer its residents (Mishna Torah Hilchot De’ot 4:23).  Health care was number 1 – and that was nine centuries ago; it is most definitely number 1 today.  Our tradition teaches that human life is of infinite value and we affirm the dignity of each human being.  When up to 46 million in this country have no health insurance, that is an intolerable statistic for a society steeped in these values.

There are lots of obligations here.  Doctors have an obligation to heal and we have an obligation to pay them.  We have an obligation to comfort the sick and visit them.  We also have an obligation to prevent illness where possible.

We have an obligation to help the poor:

Rabbi Naftali of Ropchitz was known for his persistence.

One day, he remained in the synagogue an entire morning, praying that the rich would give more of their money to the poor.

When he returned home, his wife asked him, “Were you successful with your prayer?”

Rabbi Naftali answered with a smile, “I am half-way there!”

His wife looked puzzled.

“Oh, yes” he assured her. “The poor have agreed to accept!”

Maimonides tells us that we must give to the poor all that he is lacking…clothing, food, a horse on which to ride.   One thing is suspiciously missing in his list: what about a roof over his head, a house?  Housing was not considered in these halachic sources as an aspect of poverty relief.   Why?  Because the assumption Maimonides made was that everyone already HAS housing.  Imagine!  Even the poor had a place to live.  It was inconceivable that they wouldn’t.  And not just the Jewish poor.

The Talmud teaches (Gittin 61a) “We sustain the non-Jewish poor with the Jewish poor, visit the non-Jewish sick with the Jewish sick, and bury the non-Jewish dead with the Jewish dead, for the sake of peace.

These are the mitzvot of obligation.

This past summer, much was made of the term “empathy.”  Our new Supreme Court justice, Sonia Sotomayor was accused of allowing empathy to cloud judgment.

But Abraham Joshua Heschel argued that the power of the great prophets came from their ability to empathize – and not merely with firefighters in New Haven, but with God.  As Heschel saw it, when human beings suffer, God suffers.  He wrote:

“Perhaps it is in sympathy, that the ultimate meaning, worth, and dignity of religion may be found.”

As Rabbi Jill Jacobs wrote recently,”  “For (the prophets)…, the commandments are not simply demands for ritual behavior that will please God….they are useless unless they sharpen our awareness of the condition of the world, increase access to the divine pathos and engage us in working toward the biblical vision of a redeemed world.”

The Torah calls for a system of justice where rich and poor are treated with equal degrees of empathy, yet we also are taught not to stand idly by the blood of our neighbor and to love our neighbor as ourselves, to love the stranger and to care for the orphan and the widow.  These are not mere feelings, these are obligations.  These are mitzvot. 

Is a mitzvah to love.  The liberal – conservative divide tends to focus on the role of government; but all agree that it is society’s role to care for the needy, to provide housing, food, health care and clothing.  That we need to take care of our earth and protect the basic rights of human beings.  And in order to do that – we need two things: we need to care… and we need to feel obligated, even when we don’t care. 

A.M. Rosenthal was no liberal – but the Times columnist got it spot on when he wrote back in 1964 about a night in Queens when a woman was murdered and 38 bystanders ignored her screams.

Are the people who turned away that one night in Queens, each in a separate decision, any more immoral or indecent or cowardly because there happened to be thirty eight, than if there were just one of them? Does God judge by the individual or by head count?

And what if we hear the scream but cannot see the screamer?

Suppose the screamer is not downstairs but around the corner. Surely somebody else is closer, so we don’t have to run out, do we?  What is the accepted distance for hearing but not moving — two flights down, five, one block, two blocks, three?

How far away do you have to be to forgive yourself for not doing whatever is in your power to do: stop doing business with the torturer, or just speak up for them, write a letter, join a human rights group, go to church and pray for the rescue of the persecuted and the damnation of the persecutors, give money, do something. Three stories up, a thousand miles, ten thousand miles, from here to Austin Street, or from here to the gulags or the dungeons for political and religious prisoners anywhere? How far is silence from a place of safety acceptable without detesting yourself as we detest the 38?

How far indeed?  The boundaries of obligation are infinite, even as our human limitations make us so inadequate to the task.  We’ll never succeed.  If this is the day of judgment, and it is, then we, like Abraham before us, have failed miserably.  We deserve whatever fate awaits those who fail. 

But instead, our tradition offers another path.  The possibility of change, of return, of another chance, a new beginning.  The possibility of forgiveness.  That is the reason that these High Holidays give us to not fear seeing ourselves as covenanted beings.  Not to fear commitment to a grander scheme.  We know that we will fail.  We always do.  But then, we always get to try again.  We may not fulfill all 613 this coming year.  But it will not be for lack of trying.

It is time to reverse the erosion of obligation.  It is time to return the phrase “I must” to our vocabulary.  It is time to take stock of our commitments.  It is time for our word to matter, for a promise to be a promise.  It is time to be covenanted again, to hear the still small voice of “thou shalt and thou shalt not,” to get beyond the hedonism and moral relativism of this screwed up hook-up world.

I’m OK and You’re OK?  Well, God’s OK too.  Doing good is OK.  Not hurting others is OK.  Attachment is OK.  Humility is OK.  Empathy is OK.  Love is OK. 

Mitzvah is OK.  Asher Kidshanu b’Mitzvotav V’tzivanu is OK.  Commitment is OK.

When we come up to this ark we are signing on to our side of the deal.  When we raise the Kiddush cup we are bearing witness to the compact.  When we say AMEN, we are saying Amen to a promise.  When we become bar and bat mitzvah we are recognizing that we are not merely adult human beings, we are human beings who have taken on obligations.  When we marry under a huppah we are joining with a partner in a covenantal quest, sealed by a ring.  When we have a baby boy, we literally cut a deal with God, and figuratively with a girl.  And when we die, we bequeath that precious legacy to our descendents, we hand them the message and the number, whether it be 613 or 58877241 – and the quest continues.

So now I send you out into the world with the shofar’s blast – and let this blast be a call to commitment.  We have painted the term mitzvah with shadings of connection and obligation.  Go out now and discover your signature mitzvot. 

There is so much work to do.

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