The Right Side of History, by Rabbi Joshua Hammerman
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No one on this planet is as universally loved as Nelson Mandela. Mediva, as he’s called, turned 93 when we were in Cape Town and on his birthday, every school child in the nation sang a simultaneous “Happy Birthday” to him. With any other leader, it would be scary how much this man is loved. The Jewish community also loves him and recently hosted an exhibit paying tribute to him at the magnificent Cape Town Jewish museum.
But enough people did stand up to the hatred to relegate Jim Crowe to the dung heap, that place where all the failed “isms” go, all those doomed experiments in human engineering – the Communisms and Social Darwinisms and fascisms, the ones that end up on the wrong side of history.
Let this be, then, a year of engagement for us all.
The We of Me, by Rabbi Joshua Hammerman
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My sermons during these High Holidays are focusing on that basic truth as expressed by God in Genesis 2, “Lo tov heyot ha-adam levado” - “It is not good for man to be alone,” as we strive here at Beth El to become a community of engagement. Today, I want to discuss what that means and why it’s important to be part of such a community – and I’ll also talk about lions.
Gee, you’re thinking. He’s speaking about the importance of belonging to a synagogue on the very day when we’ve opened our High Holidays services to those who are unaffiliated. How convenient!
Welcome, unaffiliated friends! Hey, and I get it. Joining is not for everyone. But give me a few minutes and I’ll explain why it should be. I’ll show you why you gotta BELONG. But first and foremost – let’s start engaging – so please turn to the people around you and wish them a Shana Tova.
You really can’t be Jewish in isolation. To have a complete service, you need to be part of a minyan, a quorum of ten. It all begins with that. The rabbis said that God is present wherever there is a minyan. It’s not that God can’t be experienced on your own, but the communal setting is the ideal setting. That’s why we don’t have Jewish monasteries, out in the middle of nowhere. Could you imagine a Jewish vow of silence? That one would go over well!
It’s not enough to simply drop in, and the rabbis understood that. Next week on Yom Kippur we’ll re-imagine that dramatic moment when the High Priest went into the Holy of Holies to pray for his people. According to the Talmud, what did he pray? What do you think? We know he probably didn’t pray for the Red Sox. He said, "God, may you not heed the prayer of the wayfarers.”
Sounds strange, almost vindictive. AND BY THE WAY, I AM NOT ENDORSING IT! I CAN JUST SEE THE HEADLINE NOW. “RABBI WELCOMES UNAFFILIATED GUESTS BY PRAYING THAT GOD WON’T HEAR THEIR PRAYERS.”
So why does the Talmud say this? Well, what do tourists pray for? Nice bargains. A good restaurant. And most of all – good weather.
There’s the rub. When the high priest went into the Holy of Holies – he was praying for a year of sustenance for his people. In other words, he was praying for RAIN. In Israel at this time of year the ground is parched. It’s still hot. They need rain desperately. And it’s important to note that the priests was fearful that the tourist’s prayer would be effective. So any tourists out there, know that the Talmud considers your prayers to be as valid as anyone else’s. It’s just that the priest then said, “God, don’t listen to them. WE NEED RAIN.”
So what’s the message here? A tourist who is just passing through has no real stake in the serious issues that face a community. When people travel, anywhere, we often express the wish that there be no incidents, while we are there. That’s pretty selfish, when you think about it. We should care for those who live there all the time. We should recognize that our destinies are thoroughly intertwined.
A tourist won’t pray for that infant who were delivered prematurely to the woman in row five. And a tourist won’t sit up all night with a fellow congregant awaiting heart surgery, sitting over there. A tourist won’t know that the person sitting next to him is weeping because his daughter survived a horrible auto accident, or that the person on the other side was just laid off.
It’s one thing not to know. None of us knows all the intimate details of every congregant’s life. The difference is this: The tourist doesn’t care. The tourist walks in and walks out without leaving so much as a footprint in the sand.
The Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai described it in his poem, “Tourists.”
I said to myself: redemption will come only if their guide tells them, "You see that arch from the Roman period? It's not important: but next to it, left and down a bit, there sits a man who's bought fruit and vegetables for his family."
This is the place for authentic, sacred relationships that can sustain us at key moments of our lives. But only if you engage.
We ask that you engage. And in return we grant you the greatest gift we can bestow – the gift of sharing one’s few precious years on this earth with a loving, like-minded community of seekers and strivers, all trying to figure it out, all trying to make a difference, all together.
People join synagogues for lots of reasons. But primarily it’s about social ties. You may have heard that old line about the guy who comes to services every Shabbat and someone asks him why, and he says, “I don’t believe in God. Finkelstein over there, he comes to talk to God. I come to talk to Finkelstein.”
For Jews it’s less a matter of believing in God than EXPERIENCING God. So the guy who comes to talk to Finkelstein – he’s talking to God and not knowing it. That IS God – the coming together, forming bonds of trust in a sacred communal quest. And making a minyan for someone else to say Kaddish and feel a little less lonely. The joining of hands – that is God.
It’s like the classic Hasidic story of two people who meet in the middle of a dark forest, and each one is lost. But they say to each other, “Maybe together, we can find the right way.”
We’re all lost. We’re all groping for answers. But together, we can search. And together, we will never be lonely. As Ecclesiastes states, “Two are better than one; if one falls, the other will lift him up."
David Brooks wrote a book this year called “The Social Animal.” He says that “We're social animals, not rational animals.” Our relationships determine who we are. He shows research that a baby who has formed close bonds at 18 months is 77% more likely to graduate high school than one who hasn’t.
It all begins with relationship – and it begins with the simple math – of two becoming one. We crave that Oneness. Down deep, we know that’s what matters. When we come together in community, it is a fusion of souls.
South Africans are guided by the Zulu saying, "Umuntu, ngumuntu, negamantu,” meaning, “I exist only through others – I am because we are.” The word “ubuntu” means “the We of Me.” The Talmud states precisely the same thing. “Kol Yisrael Arevim ze ba-zeh,” “All Israel is responsible for one other.”
Classical Hebrew has no expression for independence. But there are a host of terms for inter-dependence. In a congregation, it is all about the WE of ME.
Another reason to be part of a congregation: It helps us to navigate our pathway through life’s luminous events, the sacred moments of the lifecycle. I know how privileged I am to have accompanied so many families through so many transitions. Just this month I was speaking with a bat mitzvah girl about her parents’ wedding, which took place right here, and then I showed her a photo of her grandmother – and the photo was taken at my son’s bris. How could this young girl not feel firmly rooted, with so many lives intertwined in this one place?
Lifecycle is very much on my mind right now, because we’ve just entered a new phase: the empty nest. Last month we sent Dan off to college.
Over the years I’ve shared so many special moments with you, reflecting about my kids as they grew. I’ve shared so much about them that I practically invented the concept of “too much information.” But now, I’m an empty nester. I have nothing more to write about!
And, as an empty nester, I am a high risk member of this synagogue. As the kids move away, we are often tempted to drop affiliations the way we might clean out the kid’s cluttered bedroom – to downsize, to shed some ballast. To loosen those ties.
But empty nesters need community more than ever. For we’ve now entered the age of wisdom. We have stories and important lessons to share. All we need to do is connect: we’re still social animals.
So middle aged adults are, surprise, surprise, the fastest growing group on Facebook. Much to the dismay of our kids! We’re not severing relationships…we’re intensifying them. And now with social media, everyone has become a rabbi; everyone’s telling those annoying stories about their lives that up until recently you only heard from me. I go online and I know who is at the movies right now. On some level, I care. I connect to each stage of the life cycle without having to officiate at it. Who’s learning how to ride a bike, whose pet just died, who is visiting their kid in college, who just took their first exam, who is having coffee at Starbucks with the cantor, who just got back from Israel and who just went to the beach, who is sick, who is recovering, mi yichyeh, mi yamut, who by fire and who by water, who is truly alive and who is depressed, who is content and who is lonely. It’s all out there. For empty nesters, and for everyone else. This is the stuff of community, the Face-book of Life. Judaism was always about engagement – but now everything is about those webs that we weave together.
We do all this online, but we still need a place to engage face to face. And when I say that we are a community of engagement, I really mean it. In August the cantor and I performed a wedding for a couple who got engaged after meeting right here, last year, on Yom Kippur! In the afternoon! First row in the social hall. I kid you not. I’m telling you, unaffiliateds, join here and who knows what will happen! (But if you’re married, hopefully not THAT!)
We engage at each key moment in life. We’re now providing meals not only for people who have just suffered a death, but also for families who have just experienced a birth, a time when new parents might just be a little too tired to cook. Our new Director of Community Engagement has recruited a group of young parents who have volunteered to prepare those meals. We’ve developed a vibrant young professionals group where singles and couples can meet. Most weekday mornings now, our building is bursting with a hundred learning retirees upstairs and our Shorashim class of two year olds downstairs. And it all comes together, right here.
Belonging to a congregation like ours gives us the chance to bring joy, love and laughter to the weekly pace of our lives, to live by a Jewish rhythm punctuated by Shabbat. And every Shabbat has become a moment to celebrate here, to sing, laugh and cry together, particularly on Friday nights.
Also, belonging to a religious community helps us become one not only with those alive, but with those who came before us. They are part of our minyan too. They are with us right now. When I was in South Africa last summer, I was impressed at the enduring power of ritual and tradition among the people. In Soweto, I noticed that there are an extraordinary number of funeral homes. I learned that funerals are a major part of the local culture, because their dead ancestors are very much alive to them, a vivid presence in their lives, so vivid that our Safari guide’s name was actually “Remember.” It’s similar for us. Keeping alive the dreams of our ancestors is a powerful reason to be part of a religious community. And it’s not just their dreams that remain with us.
In his book, David Brooks writes of a a scientist named Douglas Hofstadter at the University of Indiana, who was married to a woman named Carol, and they had a wonderful relationship. Then Carol had a brain tumor and died suddenly when the kids were very young. In a book he subsequently wrote, Hofstadter describes a moment when he came across Carol’s picture on the mantel.
"I looked at her face, and I looked so deeply that I felt I was behind her eyes. And all at once I found myself saying as tears flowed, 'That's me. That's me.' And those simple words brought back many thoughts that I had had before, about the fusion of our souls into one higher level entity, about the fact that at the core of both our souls lay our identical hopes and dreams for our children, about the notion that those hopes were not separate or distinct hopes, but were just one hope, one clear thing that defined us both, that welded us into a unit -- the kind of unit I had but dimly imagined before being married and having children. I realized that, though Carol had died, that core piece of her had not died at all…."
When we sit here in prayer, say Kaddish at a yahrzeit or simply reflect, we sense that same fusion of souls. We join a congregation because it makes us one with all who came before. The simple math – we are where two become one. The We of Me.
So I’ve given you a number of reasons to be part of a synagogue community - and notice that I haven’t once brought up High Holiday tickets. The High Holidays are the dessert. You need to come for the meal.
This summer in Africa I learned many things that can help us in our quest to be a community of engagement. I’d like to share some reflections with you.
We are social animals. And like all animals, we crave a natural order of things, a simple sense of who were are and, as Tevya liked to say, what God expects us to do. That simple sense of understanding our place in the grand scheme. That’s what I look for in my community – and that’s what I found in Africa.
Safari means “long journey” in Swahili, and indeed I felt very far from home. But strangely, while there I felt equally AT home. Not like a tourist at all, but a small part of vast, orderly ecosystem. I became part of that world – as it became a part of me. A world without cages or walls. I would look off my porch and an elephant would be munching away at branches down below. No boundaries. For me it lent a whole new meaning to the expression, “the elephant in the room.”
In our world, the only sure things are death and taxes. But there, the only sure thing is death. And death is ever present. But because of that, death is strangely beautiful there. And because of that, every moment of life is enhanced and sharpened. The reds of the sunset are redder. The blue waters are bluer. The lion’s roar is louder. And the stars are unbelievably bright.
The animals we saw were free and content - except for those unfortunate moments when they were being eaten. When you’ve seen these animals, you can never go back to a zoo. Have you ever seen, in the zoo, a baby elephant running through the brush from one parent to another, back and forth, (I’m with mommy – I’m with daddy) skipping and smiling like a school kid? Once you’ve been out there, life develops its own natural rhythm, and it is very hard to leave it. The outside world just seems a dreamlike memory, something not real. This was real. This little savannah in the northeast corner of South Africa was like our Anatevka. Every creature knew her place, all of them living in complete, uncomplicated relationship with one another.
No wonder the book of Job states, “God teaches us from the animals of the land, and from the birds of the heavens makes us wise.” To be out there takes your breath away.
But you need patience. On our first day on safari, for about an hour all we saw were groups of impala and some sand squirrels.
Deer and squirrels, I thought. And for this I came 8,000 miles!
And then we saw the lions.
Karen Blixen wrote, “You know you are truly alive when you’re living among lions.” And by the end of this trip, I knew what she meant. There is such pathos to their story. So powerful. Yet so fragile. With lions, the problem of infant mortality is particularly acute. Three out of four cubs do not make it to adulthood. So the lion population has become dangerously small. It was shocking to learn that lion males eat the cubs of other sires so that their gene pool may dominate. They willingly will destroy all the other kids in order to promote the fortunes of their own.
Back here we call that the college admissions process.
In Zimbabwe, Mara and I spent an afternoon with a group that protects cubs during infancy, and then, when they are grown, slowly weans them back into the wild. You may have seen those photos of us walking with the lions. Those were real lions, not stuffed animals. We never felt like we were in any danger. They were wild, but used to humans, and we were part of their gradual reintroduction to their natural environment.
No wonder lions have become a prime symbol of the Jewish people and Jerusalem. Noble yet so vulnerable. Fiercely loyal and fiercely protective. In Jewish art, lions are always guarding something; they are the epitome of earthly courage. No wonder Leon Uris chose the name Ari – lion – for his quintessential Israeli hero in “Exodus” and Israel often uses lion synonyms like Kfir and Lavie in naming their jet fighters. The lion and the Jew share nobility - and loneliness.
Adult males wander vast distances and always appear forlorn or threatened. One night we heard a lion’s wail, all night long, that sounded almost like the piercing sound of the shofar, only weighed down by perpetual sadness. We met a real-life version of Scar, from the Lion King – a male known as a ruthless killer, with much of his ragged main torn and his face gaunt, with visible scars on his face.
One morning our guide heard about a kill that had occurred a few miles away, and we rushed across the bush to locate it. We came upon two lions, who were panting, exhausted from having spent the night devouring a giraffe. As our jeep slowed down for a peak at the predators and their prey, I felt like a rubbernecker on the Merritt. But we had to see this. Even this long-time vegetarian was transfixed at this most carnivorous sight. It somehow reaffirmed my faith in the order of things. This was a meaningful death, meant to perpetuate the grand plan. That giraffe had been born, in part, for the purpose of being eaten by that lion, and on some level the giraffe knew it. In the words of the poet Marcia Falk, “To celebrate life is…ultimately to embrace death….all death leads to life again. From peelings to mulch to new potatoes, the world is ever renewing, ever renewed.”
That evening, we heard the news about the horrible mass murder that took place at a summer camp in Norway. The contrast could not be more stark. On the one hand, senseless murder in a world gone mad. But here on the savannah, death reaffirming a grander plan and sustaining nature’s precious balance. I caught myself wishing that we wouldn’t have to go back to so-called civilization. I somehow felt safer on the savannah, even with elephants in the room.
Incidentally, did you know that giraffes are kosher? I don’t think that lion cared, but they are. But you won’t find much giraffe meat at Fairway. There are, shall we say, logistical problems. Imagine this little old rabbi with a knife walking up to a giraffe, pulling out a step ladder and trying to find the right spot to kill it painlessly.
I fell in love with giraffes – they are clearly the most Jewish animal that we saw. They’re basically pacifist, but they have a good swift kick to fend off predators. Like Jews, they hang out in family groups and protect each other. They are a little goofy and awkward and try to keep out of everyone else’s way. And they are ruminants. That, along with the split hoof, is what makes them kosher.
It’s great to be a ruminant. Giraffes are able to enjoy life. They nosh a little, and then they just hang while they regurgitate their food and eat it again with their second stomach. Elephants, in contrast, have only one stomach, so they have to keep eating. And they are gluttonous, eating the equivalent of the weight of three people in leaves and branches in a single day. All they do is eat. They never get to reflect. An elephants may never forget, but memory alone is not enough. You need to make sense of those memories. Giraffes and other ruminants get to, well, ruminate. Like Jews. That’s why they’re kosher. You are what you eat – and Jews eat animals that are peace-loving ruminators.
One time our guide alerted us to a pair of giraffes that looked like they were about to, well, you know. (I keep hearing a voice saying, "Pumbaa, not in front of the kids" - but this is G-rated) The male’s chin was in an unusual upright position and the female was indicating assent. We watched for a couple of minutes. The male kept on chewing and chewing. Ruminating. Finally the female walked away. The moment was missed. God knows what this male was thinking. Was he worried what his mother would say? If giraffes are the most Jewish of animals, we had just met the Woody Allen of giraffes.
Rhinos are fascinating. Whenever I saw one I felt like we were in Jurassic Park. I asked our guide who is the rhino’s most feared predator and he said, “You.” Sure enough, rhino poaching has reached epidemic proportions in southern Africa. I also learned that rhino males pile their dung in huge heaps, to leave as sort of calling card to their territory, so their families can find them. Our guide compared it to posting on someone's Facebook wall. The rhino dung is actually cleaner than some of what I’ve seen posted on Facebook walls.
In the bush you lose the outside world. They had Internet in the camp library, but service was sporadic and we stayed off for several days. One guy from the Upper East Side was with us on a game drive. He brought his blackberry. “It’s for emergencies,” he said. So there we were, gaping at a hyena nursing her cubs, and he was checking his email.
The animals routinely made eye contact with us. Their eyes invited us into their world. They often interacted with us. I was lying on a lounge chair at one camp and a baboon came over and grabbed my glass of diet coke. We came across a group of zebras and rather than running away, they seemed to pose for our photos. But a stallion then gracefully stepped in front of his pregnant mate so that we would come no closer – to her. Chivalry lives.
It was fascinating to see how the different species interact. Many of the more vulnerable ones would hang out near each other to have strength in numbers, to ward off lions and leopards. Exactly a half hour after sunset, we saw hundreds of guinea fowl fly up into the same tree, right next to a pond – we had never see them even spread their wings before. There they would sleep safely, handing from the branches together.
We saw battles, like a high noon standoff between a heron and an eagle, and two bull rhinos locked in a struggle that left both of them bloodied. I wondered whether there was any rhyme or reason to all of this beyond a Darwinian survival of the fittest. I knew it had to be something grander than the reasons humans fight. I knew that there had to be something more to it than that rhino A refused to pick up the check.
Despite these spasms of violence, most of what we saw was like a grand Garden of Eden. Lots of moms and babies cuddling. Lots of kids growing up and leaving the nest. I could relate to that one. But the parents there seemed to be having a much easier time than I am. Lots of eating, drinking and sleeping. The miracle of the ordinary. On Shabbat afternoon we were lying on our porch overlooking the water hole. I looked down and saw a small antelope called a steenbok, gently picking at branches and drinking. I thought of Psalm 42, which the cantor often sings on Friday night. “As a deer thirsts for water, so, O Lord, do I thirst for You” – The world around me seemed so at peace and complete, tapped in to the great source of all connection, and Oneness. It was much bigger than me. But in part because of that, it was of great comfort to me.
Because I realized that long after I am gone, this will still be here, and to the degree that I am tapped into it, so will I.
I look around this room right now and I feel the same way.
It was hard to leave this blissful place. As our jeep drove out, heading on the bumpy road toward the airport, a rhino stood by the road staring at us as if saluting us and saying goodbye. They had so invited us into their world that we became a part of it. I had become the accidental non-tourist. I had tapped into the We of Me.
I thought of what Karen Blixen wrote:
We rambled through the neighboring villages and I knew that there is really no permanent place for me there – no “Rabbis' Peace Corps” program that I could join, where I could teach the locals how to burn their hametz and lay tefillin. No, my natural place is back here. But strangely, having fit in so easily into that little jungle of Anatevka, where every creature knows his place and what God expects him to do, it became easier to transfer those feelings back to what I do here.
Blixen also wrote, “We must leave our mark on life while we have it in our power.”
And we know a song of Jewish destiny – and that destiny has a place for us, right here.
And that is why we belong to a congregation. We are social animals. We are animals, and like all of God’s creatures, we exist solely through relationship, with one another, with other species, and with our Source, our Creator – with all of life. Like the lion, we come here to protect and defend, like the rhino, we seek out our loved ones, and like the giraffe, we ruminate. But as long as we are here, we never lose our bearings and even when we are gone, we will remain here. For when we die, and the “me” disappears, the “we” will remain.
So stay with us. Find the “we” in “me.” Shed your thick tourist skin. Become one with your synagogue community. Lo Tov Heyot Adam Levado - It is not good for man to be alone.
It’s a jungle out there.
Click below for photos from the Africa trip