Thursday, October 2, 2008

High Holidays 5769

Rosh Hashanah Day One
"Power to the Peoplehood"
L’Shanah tova. Today we unveil our new logo. The design was developed by a local artist and refined by a number of our leaders and various impromptu focus groups – including some bar mitzvah students coming through my office. Over these next ten days, I’m going to share the story of this banner, what it is, what it says about who we are and what we wish to be. By the last shofar’s sounding at Neilah, I hope we’ll all be able to understand its symbolism and come closer to living by its vision.
But first, we have to ask the question: Why have a banner at all? Why do we need identity?
Imagine a world without identity, without banners and flags and logos. What a blissful world it would be. Imagine that world… no wars between breakaway republics that we’ve never heard of, threatening to pull the entire world into a giant conflagration. Bosnia and Chechnia and all those obscure places with the weird names, like Southern Ossetia or Ossetia or Fredonia - WHATEVER. Imagine that world. I feel a John Lennon song coming on…
It isn't hard to do 
Nothing to kill or die for 
And no religion too 
Imagine all the people 
Living life in peace. 
Oh, God, no religion. Wouldn’t that be great! I’d be out of a job! But, hey, a small tradeoff for no religious wars. The State Department estimates that 70-80 percent of the world’s conflicts are based on religion. No Bin Laden, no Iranian apocalyptic fantasies, no Hamas, no Hizbullah. No intolerance. No PROBLEM!
John Lennon’s “Imagine” was chosen by Rolling Stone in 2004 as the third greatest song of all time. That great Lennonist, Jimmy Carter, once said, "In many countries around the world… you hear John Lennon's song 'Imagine' used almost equally with national anthems.”
But you didn’t hear it on the victor’s stand at the Olympics.
Imagine no Olympics. No national anthems, no flags, no teary-eyed American gymnast pixies to root for - or teary-eyed Chinese 12 year old pixies. Imagine representing one’s country being such a big thing that it reduces even Kobe Bryant to tears.
On the other hand, Imagine having nothing worth living for, nothing worth dying for – nothing worth praying for. Imagine having no home, no place where you belong, no place to return to when your life has fallen apart, when you’ve gotten a horrible report from the doctor or you’ve lost your job, or your investments are suddenly worthless or a loved one has suddenly died. For many people here today, the unimaginable has become the routine. I turned on CNN yesterday afternoon and saw an ad for a bank that had ceased to exist in the morning! We’re worried – all of us – but we’re here. We’re home. Imagine not having that. Imagine being cast adrift. Imagine a world without identity.
Imagine if this year’s extraordinar0y, election campaign had nothing to do with identity politics, with glass ceilings and racial barriers. Of course we should vote for the best candidate without regard to race, gender or religion, but it matters deeply to us that a major party chose an African American to be its candidate for president and that a woman nearly won that same nomination. And now a woman has been chosen as vice presidential nominee by the other party in no small part because she is a woman. Identity matters.
Incidentally, some have asked me what Jews would have done had Joe Lieberman been selected as Republican VP nominee. I suggested that we would have done what Jews always do when Joe is on the ticket: vote for Pat Buchanan and Ralph Nader.
Identity politics has its limits… and it can get pretty ludicrous at times. There are some who have questioned whether Barack Obama is African American because of his mixed racial background and because his personal ancestors never endured slavery in this country. Stephen Colbert suggested that Obama might want to voluntarily enslave himself for a few days to get beyond that one.
Imagine being a Jew without Israel at the core of our identity. On this Rosh Hashanah, Jews everywhere are praying for Israel. We always pray for Israel. But this year, how can we not look over at that flag without some trepidation. Israel has faced many threats in its brief existence, but none is greater than the prospect of Iran attaining nuclear weapons – a grave danger to the entire world. With all the crucial issues that we face in this election year, and there are many, nothing is more important than preventing a nuclear Iran. Nothing. For Israel, for the world, for the economy, for freedom, for energy policy – you name it. And I am convinced that both presidential candidates understand that.
Imagine not caring for Israel. Imagine there being no Israel on the front lines against extremism. Imagine no Israel to make 200,000 Jewish young adults suddenly go limp at the knees on their Birthright Israel programs, melting at the sudden realization that this place that they’ve never before seen - is home. I see it also on our Beth El Israel trips, the next of which will be God willing next summer. People’s lives are transformed instantly. Imagine what these young adults on Birthright are experiencing, the sudden emergence of identity, going in an instant from being outsiders to insiders, from Jason Bourne to born again.
Imagine having no identity. The world would be a far less beautiful and less interesting place to be. Identity is what gives meaning to our lives; it is what connects us to our past and to our future. It gives us a home base, a warm place that we can always call home, a place that will never reject us.
Now, imagine a world where Jews willingly give up their Jewish identity, preferring to blend in and not be noticed. Remember the Huguenots? At one time there were far more members of this French reformed church in America than Jews. But they failed to maintain their distinctive culture, readily assimilating into the vanilla masses - and now a group with a proud history is no more. Imagine that happening to us. Imagine Jews becoming vanilla – or any flavor other than Rocky Road.
One could make the case that Jews invented identity. We certainly invented the secret identity. It is said that the root of all fear comes from denying who you really are. And we Jews have had lots of reason to be afraid.
This was the summer of the Superhero. There were the exploits of Michael Phelps, of course, but it was felt most at the Multiplex – or as we call it, the Cineplex – where we had the Hulk, Iron Man, Hancock, Batman, and my personal favorite, the Zohan, able to leap tall stacks of hummos in a single bound.
It’s no secret that this entire genre was invented by American Jews, looking for a new type of hero to inspire us during World War 2. But what is most uniquely Jewish about the Superhero is not the deep moral ambivalence of Batman or the Zohan’s wanting to make his parents proud. It’s the secret identity, the overwhelming desire to hide who they truly are.
This summer I traveled to Spain, a place where, for centuries, Jews perfected the art of hiding who they really are. I saw places where hundreds of crypto-Jews, or Marranos – swine – as the Spanish called them, were burned at the stake. I had a wonderful, most civilized spread of tapas at the beautiful Plaza Mayor in Madrid’s historic center - hundreds of tables lining a grand arcaded courtyard – and all I could think about (aside from the gorgeous weather and reminding the waiter, “no ham”) was what took place in that exact spot three centuries before in 1680, on the exact same date that we were there, June 30. The Spanish decided to celebrate the marriage of the young Carlos the Second with Marie Louise d’Orleans and what better way to do that than with an auto-de-fe. Dozens were executed that night. Those who refused to confess their sin of maintaining a secret Jewish identity were burned alive at the stake. The ones who confessed were the lucky ones. They were granted pardon; then, as a special favor they were killed first with a lance through the heart before their bodies were burned at the stake.
And I sat there sipping my sangria (not thinking about the fact that the word sangria means blood) feeling great to be on vacation with my family - but just a little bit uneasy about it all.
Jews have long had secret identities, and the conversos were legendary for holding on to them for generations. There are only 50,000 Jews remaining in Spain. But there are hundreds of thousands of Jewish ghosts. Many Spaniards suspect that they have some Jewish ancestry. It is said that even the word “Iberia,” the original name for Spain, comes from the word Hebrew, Ivri – the one who crosses over. The Jews crossed over to Spain from north Africa, much like Abraham, the first one called Ivri, crossed over to his new world. And then, in 1492, hundreds of thousands reversed that journey following the Expulsion, leaving the Iberian Peninsula for worlds unknown, some even crossing the ocean with Columbus.
I felt a combination of anger, sadness and pride, connecting with those long-lost victims. And I realized that I was not alone. Because I was there, so too, were they.
Jewish identity has made a stunning comeback recently, in large part because Birthright Israel has changed the landscape dramatically. Ten years ago, only about 1,500 young Jewish adults under age 26 visited Israel each year. This year alone that number is going to be 42,000. It has also changed the language of the conversation. When Jews are asked why they remain Jewish, the term peoplehood now keeps coming up. It’s not about religion per se, or ethnicity or nostalgia or guilt or Kabbalah. It’s about a profound connection. It’s about identity.
Natan Sharansky, the great modern hero and former refusenik, recently wrote a book called “Defending Identity.” He was inspired when he attended a mass gathering of Birthright Israel participants in Jerusalem: thousands of young Jews gathered together, arms locked and singing, ironically, “Imagine.” He openly wondered how they could sing of a world where there will be “nothing to kill for, a brotherhood of man.” As he wrote, “But a brotherhood without actual brothers, with no one committed to anyone else or to a way of life, is nothing but empty air.”
According to Sharansky, identity is such a powerful force because it opens a world of meaning larger than physical and material life. He feels that westerners have made the mistake of ignoring identity as we stumble into regional conflicts, including those in Iraq and the former Soviet Union, and that we neglect identity at our own peril. “To the fundamentalists, the West seems shorn of any clear identity, atomized, with each individual living for the day, in pursuit of purely egoistic, materialistic goals.” They see “a society unwilling to make sacrifices for a cause bigger than the self” and they view this as a glaring weakness that can be exploited.
He admits that making the case for identity is much more difficult than making one for democracy and freedom, especially with all the identity-provoked carnage that we see daily on TV. But, he claims, identity is also a crucial force for good. Sharansky asserts that he could never have survived nine years of solitary confinement back in the USSR if he hadn’t been fighting two crusades at the same time: for human rights on the one hand and for Soviet Jewry on the other. For him, freedom and identity went hand in hand. All his friends begged him to choose one, for he could not win both battles. But he clung to both. He never betrayed Sakharov and Solzhenitsyn, yet at the same time, he survived only by clinging to his tattered book of Psalms and dreaming of joining his wife Avital in Jerusalem. Jewish peoplehood saved his life even as the quest for human rights emboldened his soul – and he in turn helped to bring down the Soviet Union through the powerful union of his two great causes.
Yes, identity can lead to extremism, but the suppression of identity becomes the first task of all repressive regimes, as we’ve seen this year from the Chinese, whose brutal repression of the Tibetans only confirms what we learned a quarter century ago in Leningrad and Moscow: even a small, powerless people can threaten an empire, simply by refusing to disappear.
For Sharansky, Jewish identity is inexorably connected to religious ritual. There is a famous story of Napoleon who, when he came to a small Jewish shtetl in Eastern Europe, saw how the people were weeping on Tisha B’Av. When he asked why, he was told that three thousand years before, the temple in Jerusalem had been destroyed on that day. Napoleon was quoted as saying, “A people who still weeps over the destruction of their culture three thousand years ago will endure forever.”
And Sharansky relates the anecdote of the Palestinian terrorist who, when speaking to an Israeli journalist about the time he spent in prison, described the moment when he was convinced that Israel would be destroyed – when he saw an Israeli guard eating bread on Passover. The guard was quoted as saying, “I feel no obligation to events that took place over 2,000 years ago. I have no connection to that.”
The terrorist at that moment became convinced that the nation he was opposing had “no connection to its roots.” Indeed he was proven correct when the government was all too willing to give up Jerusalem in negotiations.
For most of the past four millennia, there was little distinction between Jewish identity and rituals, texts and ethics - what we would call religion. But a change occurred in the 19th century, when peoplehood became a Jewish response to the likes of Darwin and Freud. No longer did being Jewish mean measuring up to practices that many considered passé superstitions. Instead, being Jewish placed one demand only on the Jew: an unconditional and positive attachment to the Jewish people, a deep pride in our history and multifaceted culture. Later, the Holocaust and creation of Israel gave Jews an easy way into Jewish identification and an easy out from having to deal with the troubling religious questions brought about by the murder of the 6 million.
The great early 20th century philosopher Franz Rosenzweig spoke of Judaism having its own version of a trinity: God, Torah and the people Israel. By mid century, with the establishment of a Jewish state, peoplehood had become by far the most important of the three.
In the words spoken by the late Paul Newman (of blessed memory) in his most important Jewish role, the secular Ari Ben Canaan in the film “Exodus,” speaking to his Presbyterian friend Kitty, who felt that all differences between people are made up:
Don't ever believe it.
People are different.
They have a right to be different. They like to be different.
It's no good pretending the differences don't exist, they do. They have to be recognized and respected.
Newman, whose father was Jewish, described himself as Jewish, stating that, "it's more of a challenge." He got that right!
In postwar America, peoplehood was championed by Rabbi Mordechai Kaplan. He went on to found the Reconstructionist Movement, but Kaplan’s ideas came right out of the Conservative movement, which has always focused on peoplehood, and in fact, our movement embraced Zionism long before Orthodoxy and Reform did.
Kaplan felt that the Jewish people are a civilization, favoring that over the notion of Judaism as a religion. “Paradoxical as it may sound,” Kaplan suggested, “the spiritual regeneration of the Jewish people demands that religion cease to be its sole preoccupation.”
I think a lot of people here are nodding.
There’s the story of Goldstein who is running late for an important meeting. It seems like the entire borough of Manhattan is waiting for the same taxi and he could not afford to be late. So he’s standing there, desperate as eve; he’s a secular guy but in his desperation he whispers a prayer: “Dear Lord, if you find me a taxi, I’ll keep kosher, I’ll wear tefillin, I’ll double my gift to the synagogue appeal, and go to shul every shabbos and yontif.” Seconds later, out of nowhere, a bright yellow cab pulls up – right in front him. As he is stepping into it, Goldstein says: “You know what God, forget it. I found a taxi on my own.”
I wish I had a shekel for every time I sit with a family before a funeral and they tell me that the deceased was not religious but fiercely proud to be a Jew. For a long time I asked myself, without religion, how could they hold onto that fierce pride?
It is said that there only two things that will keep a Jew from coming to shul: bad weather… and good weather – but most also have no question as to the fact that they are Jews.
A decade ago, I thought that Jewishness was dead and that only Judaism would remain. I bemoaned how so many clung to nostalgia and ethnicity – “Lox and Bagels Jews,” I called them - while shunning the deepest values of our tradition, the religious values. I predicted that, given the skyrocketing pace of assimilation and the fact that Dunkin Donuts was now making bagels, those Jews who clung only to ethnicity and nostalgia as their reason for being Jewish would soon disappear. I smugly assumed that the death knell had rung for Jewish ethnicity the moment I heard them playing Hava Nagila on the Musak at K-Mart.
Well, I was wrong – sort of. It’s not that we’ve clung to Hava Nagilla and guilt as the foundations of Jewish identity. But it’s not religion either, at least in the traditional sense. We’ve found touchstones for identity in far far-flung places as exotic Jewish communities like the Abayudaya of Uganda, the Cochin and Bene Israel of India, the Igbo of Nigeria - and of course the Ethiopians, none of whom have any idea what a bagel is.
We no longer have a monopoly on bagels anymore, but we do bageling. According to blogger Jessica Levine Kupferberg, “The Bagel Theory stands for the principle that we Jews, regardless of how observant or affiliated we are, have a powerful need to connect with one another. To that end, we find ways to "bagel" each other -- basically, to "out" ourselves to fellow Jews.”
Kupferberg first noticed it in college when a formerly unknown student leaned over during a particularly boring lecture and said, "This class is as boring as my Zayde's seder."
I get bageled all the time, especially as I became more comfortable wearing my kippah in public places. I still don’t wear it everywhere – no I didn’t wear it in Plaza Mayor - but I find that the kippah, which has almost no religious significance, has become seen as a badge of pride, the perfect symbol of peoplehood.
So, as Kupferberg suggests, the next time a sweaty stranger at the gym says to you, "I haven't been this thirsty since Yom Kippur," smile. You've just been bageled -- adding another link in the Jewish circle of connection.
And so, albeit with some concerns, I emphatically acknowledge the power of identity.
It is the power of identity that pulls us here today– even if we don’t pray, even if we’ve forgotten how – it is identity that measures us, that defines us, that shakes us when we hear that madman from Iran deny the Holocaust, that gets us to shell out all those bucks for day school and Jewish camp, for trips to Israel and donations to federation – and to belong to a synagogue – and to take that first step on that ladder that we see before us.
It is identity that enables us to fight that most modern of diseases, anomie, a sense of alienation resulting from the breakdown of group ties and cultural affiliation, which leads to depression, loneliness, criminality and rising suicide rates.
Yes, identity has been proven to give children the deep roots they need to grow and a loving community can be the wind beneath their wings.
Yes, it has been shown that it can reduce dependence on drugs and alcohol, which is why by the way that you will never stop hearing me scream about the need for strong youth groups here. I fully believe that USY has saved the lives of some of our kids – maybe even my own – simply by shielding them from some of the social alternatives that tempt our high school students.
Identity is essential. Identity is powerful - but is identity enough?
Is it enough to have a flag that we are willing to die for - without having ideals that we can live for?
Earlier I spoke about super heroes. I left one of this summer’s epic stories off the list: the NBA Finals. As the Boston Celtics sailed toward the championship, they were buoyed by a Zulu word loosely translated as “I am because we are.” Umbutu.
I am because we are.
But what are we? We’re tribal - but are we merely a tribe? Is all that we have in common a few millennia of suffering and lox and bagels? Do we need to voluntarily enslave ourselves to Egyptians in order to appreciate the Jewish experience? Do we need to wake up every morning saying, “Thank God for making me a Jew, because billions of people around the world want me dead while maniacs like Ahmadinejad are being feted at the UN.”
Being Jewish is something that many are born into, but it must be more than that – it must be something that we willingly embrace, something new and amazing, something that touches the deepest, least accessible fibers of our being.
Peoplehood is one leg of the stool, but it needs the other two legs of God and Torah or it will not stand.
Being Jewish must be more than something we are born into – it must be something that we give birth to – that renews us as we renew it, every year, every moment, every day.
You, who are here today, you have made that choice to cast your lot with the Jewish people. And by the way, I include those who are not themselves Jewish. Because you are here – you’ve cast your lot with us. That’s what matters. You’ve chosen to walk with us on this ladder. You’re in.
We’ve locked the doors.
But for all of us, identification alone is not enough. Identity requires that we have a desire to learn, to engage, to understand just why our civilization has thrived for so long and enriched the world in so many ways.
Don’t just be a SURVIVING Jew. Be a STRIVING Jew!
Be a climber – not a social climber, but a spiritual one. These are hard times for many – and this year will be very, very challenging. Now more than ever, we need to look inward, look deeper, seeking connection, seeking meaning, seeking wisdom, realizing that life is a miracle and that no matter what happens to our 401K, we will persevere - and that we are here for one another, together. THAT’s what it means to be a Jew – and to be one here.
Come to services during the year, not out of guilt or obligation, but because you want to take that little compartment of life that we call Jewish and nurture it into a world view, a vision, a guide for your whole life.
Resolve to learn Hebrew. Jewish identity, to be complete, requires some feel for the Jewish language.
Resolve to learn Jewish history and ethics– take one of the many classes we are offering, including our “Judaism for Everyone” course that is a prerequisite for those who want to enter our next adult bar/bat mitzvah track.
Join our caring committees – take on a new mitzvah, like visiting the sick or feeding the hungry. Take a new look at prayer – struggle with it and find meaning in it. Bring some appreciation for the sanctity of food into your lives by exploring kashrut.
Climb that ladder! What matters is not where you end up, but that you start the climb.
So that, in short, is why we need to have an emblem, an identity, one that points us to a deeper purpose for our coming together, one that celebrates our group-ness, that proclaims that the whole can be greater than the sum of the parts.
THIS whole is greater. This hall is filled with the people on this banner: young, old and everything in between. We need to be proud of who we are – as Jews and as Americans – and as members of this sacred community of Beth El.
And that’s why Sharansky was wrong about “Imagine.” It was perfectly OK for the Birthright Israel participants to sing about a world where differences won’t matter. That is the dream! It’s just that we’ve now learned that the way to get there is a “long and winding road” – and it is one that can only be reached, paradoxically, by highlighting and celebrating those differences.
Yes it is amazing that we have an African American presidential nominee and a woman running for Vice President. Yes, the country will be a different place next January 20, no matter who wins.
An ancient Greek philosopher wrote, “First say to yourself what you would be; and then do what you have to do.” Today, we celebrate who we are. Tomorrow we begin discussing what we must do.
Because only once we celebrate what makes us distinct, can we truly reach out to our neighbor who is different.
Each of us has a different blessing to share. Each family has a different gift to give. Each tribe has a different song to sing. And each nation has a beautiful flag to wave.
As Americans, we need to celebrate the breakthroughs that have made this political year like none other.
And as Jews, we have so much to offer the world – we should celebrate just how special we are.
And then, we need to roll up our sleeves, reach out our hand, find that first rung, and begin to climb the ladder.
Which is exactly what we will do – tomorrow.

"The Shadings of Dawn"
Yesterday I spoke about the importance of identity – in particular, Jewish identity. As we return to our ladder logo, I want to begin to focus in what makes for a Jewish identity, for these are the qualities embodied by our emblem.
Let’s begin with inclusiveness, diversity and pluralism: Looking at the banner, I’m going to demonstrate those qualities in three different ways: through the people, the colors of light and the rungs of the ladder.
First, look at the people up there on the logo, a diverse bunch if there ever was one. Men, women, young, old, some in a tallit, some not. This one is in a wheelchair. This one has walks with a cane. You see this one? From Ethiopia. This one is not Jewish, but chooses to cast his lot with us by raising his children in a Jewish home. This one? He’s a pain in the neck. But he’s climbing too. We are all together.
In truth, it’s hard to see really who these people are. Not only is the artwork somewhat abstract, but it’s also reflective of the time of day when Jacob awoke from his famous dream. And that’s where the colors come in.
We recall that Jacob had this dream while he was on his way out of the country – escaping his very angry brother Esau. Jacob had never been away from home. In fact, his father had never been away from home. For the first time in two generations, someone was going to need a passport.
Jacob was the student headed for college. The soldier headed for a tour of duty. The groom on the night before his wedding. He was scared. He hadn’t had a great family history and he was going out to meet the extended family in a foreign country.
So he put a rock under his head, lay down and had his dream. According to the midrash, some of the angels who made their appearance on the ladder were designated to accompany him on his journey, to protect him. While others would stay in the Land to welcome him back when he returned. He awoke from his dream and was amazed. He said, “My God! This place is awesome – a gateway to heaven… and he called the place Beth El.”
Jacob awoke at dawn, a time of both great promise and great uncertainty. We can see that in the colors of the sun’s rays in the logo. The world looks so beautiful at dawn – in part because we can’t see things too clearly. It is a time of great tenderness and reconnection. Our masks are not yet on. Our voices are a little raspy at dawn… we speak with a softness (at least when we’re not trying to get the kids up on a school day) and we walk a little more gingerly, wobbly.
There is an uncertainty to the lights of dawn that is also true of dusk. It’s interesting that Jewish days begin not at midnight, when it is pitch dark, but at dusk, when things are very fuzzy. The Hebrew word for evening is erev, which comes from the word meaning mixture. And the Hebrew word for morning is boker, which comes from the word meaning to break through – it is the time when the sun’s rays break through the darkness. Both evening and morning are seen as dynamic processes – mixtures, shades, a nexus between past and future, but one that is never static, constantly shifting, a moving target. It’s sort of like the truth.
Yet at those moments of least clarity, astronomically speaking, Jewish tradition seems to be saying that we have greater access to what is really true. We pray not at midnight or noon, but at dawn and dusk. Our days don’t so much begin and end, as dissolve from one to the next. And morning doesn’t begin with a bright blue sky but with a sliver of light breaking through. That’s when Jacob awoke and realized what he had dreamed and when he looked around and was amazed, awestruck – and when he sensed that God was in this place – it was indeed a House of God, a Beit El.
Tradition tells us that we can begin to say the morning prayers when it is just light enough to see the face of the person in front of us.
We can see the faces here on our banner, but, just as at dawn, though not so clearly, as they are bathed in those may beautiful shadings of light. But what we CAN see clearly are those tightly clasped hands – brothers and sisters, ascending together, arm and arm as we climb toward the sky. The destination of this ascent means less than the togetherness found on the way. That love IS the destination. Home is the journey. By the time we get there – where “there” is will not matter. IT’S THE JOURNEY THAT MATTERS – and what matters most is that we help one another to ascend; all that matters is love and kindness.
The Torah really helps us to understand that truth is as richly nuanced as those lights of dawn. Let’s look more closely at Jacob’s family relationships to illustrate that idea, and compare them to Abraham’s family as described in the Torah readings of yesterday and today. This exploration has a contemporary urgency, since these biblical characters, Jacob and Esau, Isaac and Ishmael, have so long been associated with Jews, Moslems and Christians. In drawing these lessons, I’m inspired by the scholarship of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, the trailblazing chief rabbi of the British Commonwealth.
So let’s look at five different ways we can understand these two sibling rivalry stories. Five different shadings that we can explor,e one explanation for each rung of our ladder. And when taken collectively, each will help to crystallize that vision of inclusiveness and pluralism that is our community’s vision.
Level one: Looking at the plain, surface meaning of the text, we’ve got two identical stories, where pairs of sons are born - Ishamel and Isaac to Abraham, and Jacob and Esau to Isaac - and in each case the younger becomes the dominant child and the elder is sent away. The spurned child is portrayed as being less than deserving of the number one spot, at the very least, and downright evil at worst. Simple enough. That’s our bottom rung.
But let’s move up a rung and look at things from a second perspective. Let’s look at each story from the point of view of the father. In both cases, with Abraham and Isaac, the father defends the rights of the eldest child. Abraham did not want Ishmael to be sent away. He loved him – and Isaac favored Esau.
From this perspective, the text is telling us two things: first, that maybe, just maybe, Ishmael and Esau weren’t so evil after all. There is a counter narrative here, running alongside the established truths of the first interpretation.
Second, we learn from this that dads always get it wrong. At least these dads did. Abraham’s parental judgment was less than ideal, but compare him to Isaac! Just about every parental decision that Isaac made was the wrong one. From beginning to end. This is our patriarch? He sets his kids up for failure – he loves Esau best. Why? No, because he hunts and cooks up delicious venison. He can’t even tell his kids apart at the most important moment of their lives. Isaac is blind, literally and figuratively.
But when we consider that Abraham’s primary purpose in life was to be a father, nothing more and nothing less – his very name means “father of nations” – and that Isaac’s most significant role was to bless Jacob, this counter narrative begins to puzzle us and disorient us. What is the Torah doing here?
Maybe the Torah isn’t just giving us a pilot episode of the series “Father Knows Worst.” Maybe father does know best. Just maybe. Maybe Ishmael and Esau were more worthy. Maybe it’s better to hunt like Esau than to be an intellectual like Jacob. Maybe this Ward Cleaver - Red State perspective supersedes the more feminist Blue State Bible of the Rebecca and Sarah supporters. Maybe. Just maybe.
I’ll bet you didn’t know that there is a Blue State Bible and a Red State bible. But the Bible here is a blend, with a healthy dose of each. (Though I still have a problem with the hunting).
Let’s move up to the third rung and look at the world from there: A third perspective shows us that the counter narrative goes beyond the father’s point of view. In fact, in the portion read yesterday, the Torah itself makes it impossible for us NOT to be sympathetic to Hagar and Ishmael. She is chased away, with her child and the lad is near death. The expressions used here are filled with emotion.
“For she said: 'Let me not look upon the death of the child.' And she sat over against him, and lifted up her voice, and wept.”
Hagar weeps. Compare that with today’s selection, the Akeda – just one chapter later. Look for the word “bocheh” there. You won’t find anyone crying. The Akeda reads like an AP report just come over the wire. Dry – no emotions – nothing evocative. No tears. Abraham is told to kill his son and the dialogue sounds like an infomercial. So we have two stories, back to back – one is deeply emotive, and the other not in the least. The Torah is taking us by the hand as if to say, “Have sympathy for that one – for Ishmael – not for Isaac, for Hagar, and not for Abraham.”
Skip ahead a generation and again, the tears come from the least likely source: Esau. He cried to his father, “Have you got one blessing left for me???” The rabbis had to completely rewrite this story in Midrash to cast Esau in a less sympathetic light. So now we are even more puzzled. Why is the Torah sending us such mixed messages?
We move ahead to perspective four, our fourth rung. Let’s look at the final act: How do these stories end? When Abraham dies – and by the way, it was the most serene death ever – he was one happy dude when he died – Six more kids, a slew of grandchildren. Got a new wife, got a new life and the family’s fine. He gave everything to Isaac, great dad that he was, but at least before he kicked everyone else out, which he did, he gave them all presents. But the big picture we see at Abraham’s death is of Isaac and Ishmael standing together at their father’s grave. And one generation later, when all is said and done, the last time we see Jacob and Esau together, they are embracing.
Again, the Torah seems to sending us down a different track. Everything we thought we knew about these relationships is that things ended badly. It’s like finding out that Haman was in fact a great philanthropist, or the Wicked Witch was actually good. We expect the worst, but here all we see in the text is a happy ending. Of course dad has to be gone for that to happen; but it happens. Reconciliation happens.
In each case, beneath the Torah narrative there is a counter narrative running in the exact opposite direction from what we’ve been led to believe. In each case, the conflict that seems to be created by the story is simultaneously being resolved by the same story. No wonder the ladder’s rungs take us on a zigzag path. No wonder the lights of dawn are so murky.
A fifth reading of these stories calls upon us to look at them in the most challenging way imaginable: through the eyes of the Other, from the perspectives of Moslem and Christian commentaries. Galatians calls the Jews the children of Ishmael, not Isaac. Romans calls the Christians the heirs of Jacob, while the Jews are the heirs of Esau. Our Midrash, of course, says just the opposite. For Moslems, Ishmael is the chosen son, Isaac the rejected one. In the Koran, the victim of the Akeda is Ishmael.
Jonathan Sacks calls this disconnect the root of the theological poison that has existed between the three Abrahamic groups for so many centuries.
If only we all could appreciate the brilliance of the Torah in utilizing a literary device almost unbelievable in its subtlety. The texts that we have seen as the root of the problem are – in fact - the key to the solution.
For in the Torah, at the end of the tale, there is reconciliation.
In the Torah, the father loves the rejected child – so the child is not really rejected. No child is left behind.
The Torah allows us to look at life through the eyes of the rejected one – we can hear his cry, feel his tears. The Torah gives us a sampling of what it is like to be…. The Other.
The fundamentalist never gets beyond the first rung. The staunch traditionalist never gets beyond the second. The one who sees things only from the perspective of one faith tradition will never make it to the fifth level, and it’s too bad, because the view there is spectacular. But at Beth El, our ascent is limitless and it is inclusive. We go all the way to the top. That is why we are hosting the seminary presidents of the Orthodox, Conservative and Reform movements in a historic roundtable dialogue, right here in November. And then December’s Synaplex will be devoted to interfaith conversation.
Sacks explains that in Greek philosophy, truth is a system; In the Bible, truth is a story. And that story is continually unfolding, like the world at dawn, as faces come into view and as we move from rung to rung. Things will eventually become clearer, but in the meantime, many layers of truth become known to us, like the many shades of red that turn to yellow and turn to green and turn to blue.
One could say that the climbers of the ladder in our logo aren’t merely the members of this Beth El, but the original one, the Beth El of Jacob. The people who are ascending are in fact those who are the descendants – those who descend from both Jacob AND Esau – and we climb together toward the new dawn, toward a new understanding of what it would be like to coexist in harmony.
Yesterday was about affirming identity. Today is about how we can transcend identity to come together.
First, we affirm, THEN we transcend.
We learn how to love by loving our own. In my home I love one woman, two children, two dogs and one baseball team; therefore I can learn to love all people, all animals… and one baseball team.
The particular leads to the universal.
As Rabbi Brad Hirschfield writes in his new book, “You Don’t Have to be Wrong for Me to Be Right,” “Ultimately we share the same ancestors, the same beginning, and we are all on this journey together.”
Yesterday John Lennon; today, Paul McCartney. Four decades ago, the Israeli government invited and then disinvited the Beatles at the height of their popularity, out of the fear that the British band might corrupt Israeli youth. Those were the days when Israel was insular, unsure of its own cultural roots. They didn’t even introduce television until after the 6 Day War. Who knows, they were so narrow minded they probably thought the Beatles were anti-Semitic for singing songs like “Hey Jew” or adding an 8th day to the week. No matter - last week, Paul McCartney at long last performed a concert in Tel Aviv. Imagine – Imagine an Israel so secure in its own identity that it can encourage its youth to reach out and be part of the world.
It would be nice if I could end this sermon right here, and have us walk off, hand in hand, into the sunrise. But unfortunately, I must tell you the story of a certain Israeli woman who was converted to Judaism 15 years ago by Rabbi Hayim Druckman, a respected Orthodox rabbinic leader. Let’s call her Rebecca. So Rebecca married Boaz and they had two kids. The kids were brought up Jewish and Israeli.
Last year, the couple decided to divorce. Everything went amicably, and they went thought the rabbinic courts, which you have to do in Israel. But during the process one of the judges decided to look into Rebecca’s observance pattern since her conversion. Displeased with what he discovered, he revoked Rebecca’s conversion. It was declared null and void, which automatically meant that her children were not Jewish either. The judge in fact, ruled that ALL the conversions signed by that particular court were null and void because the court was headed by heretics and criminals.
That was last year, and since then, things have spiraled beyond belief. Never before have we seen such a thing where conversions are revoked. It’s unheard of.
And Hayim Druckman is no fly-by-night rabbi. He heads a yeshiva; he’s been in the Knesset. He’s headed the country’s education system. But, horror of horrors, he wears a knitted yarmulke, meaning he is modern Orthodox – too modern for the High Rabbinical Court.
This ruling effectively invalidated thousands of conversions, throwing the Jewish world into a tizzy last spring. At a time when hundreds of thousands of Russian immigrants have questionable Jewish identities and are waiting to convert, we’re going the wrong way!
The dark side of identity politics is when it leads to a xenophobia that not only refuses to shake the hand of our non Jewish neighbor, but also casts aside those who want to be Jewish.
It’s in this atmosphere that my niece Luz tried to get married this summer. I described her plight in my blog dispatches to you this summer, so I won’t go into detail here. Suffice to say that because of a halakhic technicality for which there were lenient options, the Israeli rabbinate refused to perform her marriage. Unfortunately, Luz made made her appeals at the precise time that the same rabbinate was reversing the conversions of Rabbi Druckman. In fact, they even tried to re-open the books on Luz’s conversion in infancy, but were unable to find any grounds to revoke it.
The wedding went on as scheduled, and as I wrote to you, it came off beautifully - and the couple found a Masorti rabbi to perform it. Our movement in Israel is reaping the benefits of the rabbinate’s short sightedness. Because the rabbinate controls matters of personal status, weddings like Luz’s won’t be recognized by the state until the couples have a civil ceremony done in another country. It’s ironic indeed. Luz and Shlomi will be recognized as being legally married in Israel when they get married in Cyprus, Prague or maybe even here in Connecticut.
We are our own worst enemies. Who needs Ahmadinijad?
In Genesis 28, Jacob awoke from his dream and realized that it was a vision of God – God was actually here, AND WHO KNEW? What an awesome place this is! Jacob exclaimed. I thought it was just a hillside with a bunch of rocks, but it is actually a GATEWAY to HEAVEN. And he named the place Beth El, the Home of Holiness, God’s Place…”but the name of the place at first had been called… LUZ.”
So here’s how I can now interpret that verse:
Jacob was himself about to turn his back on the Land of Israel. He was headed into a self imposed Exile. But at the moment of his departure he saw the potential of that place to be an example for good throughout the world, a haven of harmony. Where once Jews victimized fellow Jews, where once there was the predicament of Luz, there could someday be the dream of a universal Beit El.
How can we build our own stairway to heaven? By throwing open our arms here on earth. By being inclusive. Historian Jonathan Sarna estimates that the number of Jews in American that are not recognized by some movements as being Jewish could easily exceed six figures. And then there are many who marry into Jewish families who are not themselves Jewish. And then there are many who have no family connection to the Jewish community but gravitate in our direction because our way of life has so much to offer our post modern world. All are welcome to join us as we climbing our stairway to heaven. There’s plenty of room on the ladder for everyone who wants to be here, whatever their official identity may be.
The world of identity is a very complex one these days. Hey, Michelle Obama’s cousin is a rabbi.
And John McCain’s rabbi is our senator. Who knew!
The book of Ecclesiastes says, “There is a time to cast aside and a time to gather stones together.”
This is a time when we need to be gathering stones and not casting aside. Gathering stones is precisely what Jacob did at his Beth El.
At a time when Israelis and American Jews alike are looking for a Judaism they can believe in, one that accepts rather than rejects, we have to make our impact on the Jewish world.
And at a time when polls show that 44% of Americans do not have a relationship with a single Jew, we need to make our impact on American life.
And at a time when so many in the world would prefer to cast rather than collect stones – and in many cases, cast them at us – we need to make our impact on the world.
So this Rosh Hashanah, it comes down to two things: yesterday’s message: know what team you are on. Today’s message: love the other team too. Albert Einstein called it a matter of “widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.”
You may have heard about that girls’ softball team in Oregon and the home run heard round the world. Last April, Central Washington University played Western Oregon in a key game with an NCAA playoff bid at stake. Here is the rest of the story, as detailed in the sports pages of the Oregonian:
Central desperately needed the game to keep its postseason hopes alive.
Western Oregon's 5-foot-2-inch right fielder came up to bat with two runners on base in the second inning. Sara Tucholsky's game was off to a rough start. A group of about eight guys sitting behind the right field fence had been heckling her.
At the plate, Tucholsky concentrated on ignoring the wise guys. She took strike one. And then the senior did something she had never done before -- even in batting practice. The career .153 hitter smashed the next pitch over the center field fence for an apparent three-run home run.
The exuberant former high school point guard sprinted to first. As she reached the bag, she looked up to watch the ball clear the fence and missed first base. Six feet past the bag, she stopped abruptly to return and touch it. But something gave in her right knee; she collapsed on the base path.
Tucholsky, to the horror of teammates and spectators, crawled through the dirt and the pain back to first.
Western coach Pam Knox rushed onto the field and talked to the umpires near the pitcher's mound. The umpires said Knox could place a substitute runner at first. Tucholsky would be credited with a single and two RBIs, but her home run would be erased.
"The umpires said a player cannot be assisted by their team around the bases," Knox said. "But it is her only home run in four years. She is going to kill me if we sub and take it away. But at same time I was concerned for her. I didn't know what to do. . . .
"That is when Mallory stepped in."
Mallory Holtman is the greatest softball player in Central Washington history. Normally when the conference's all-time home run leader steps up to the plate, Pam Knox and other conference coaches grimace.
But on senior day, the first baseman volunteered a simple, selfless solution to her opponents' dilemma: What if the Central Washington players carried Tucholsky around the bases?
The umpires said nothing in the rule book precluded help from the opposition. Holtman asked her teammate junior shortstop and honors program student Liz Wallace of Florence, Mont., to lend a hand. The teammates walked over and picked up Tucholsky and resumed the home-run walk, pausing at each base to allow Tucholsky to touch the bag with her uninjured leg.
"We started laughing when we touched second base," Holtman said. "I said, 'I wonder what this must look like to other people.' "
Holtman got her answer when they arrived at home plate. She looked up and saw the entire Western Oregon team in tears.
"My whole team was crying," Tucholsky said. "Everybody in the stands was crying. My coach was crying. It touched a lot of people."
Even the hecklers in right field quieted for a half-inning before resuming their tirade at the outfielder who replaced Tucholsky.
Lyrics of an old John Denver song come to mind:
"Writing on the tapestry of all there is to see
So many ways and oh so many things
Rejoicing in the differences, there's no one just like me
Yet as different as we are we're still the same”
May this New Year be a year of love and reconciliation for all peoples - and all people. May we be firm in our identity and love for the Jewish people, and may we be able to reach out to our neighbors from that place of strength and security.
The task ahead is daunting. The work is indispensable. And we can’t outsource it to any other nation, any other people.
It is time for us to begin climbing. Hand in hand. Rung by rung. Together.

"Let Zusya Be Zusya"
An archaeologist was digging in central Israel and came upon a casket containing a mummy. After examining it, he called the curator of the Israel museum in Jerusalem.
"I've just discovered a 3,000 year old mummy of a man who died of heart failure!" the excited scientist exclaimed.
To which the curator replied, "Bring him in. We'll check it out."
A week later, the amazed curator called the archaeologist. "You were right about both the mummy's age and cause of death. How in the world did you know?"
"Easy. There was a piece of paper in his hand that said, '10,000 Shekels on Goliath'."
If only it were always so easy to determine the authenticity of an artifact. If it only it were so easy to determine the authenticity of anything, in fact!
Last week, I spoke about identity and inclusiveness as major themes in our lives these days, themes derived from or new banner – another key buzzword we see is authenticity.
It’s everywhere. We see it in advertising, where “real people” are suddenly being favored to promote products. I noticed a couple of weeks ago that Debbie Phelps is now the spokesperson for Chicos.
The opposite of a real person is a celebrity. We have a bottomless obsession with celebrities. Last Saturday, with the economy falling apart and the bailout bill just having been signed, the Advocate had on the top of its front page an article about Britney Spears going shopping in Greenwich. Of course, Britney Spears, along with Paris Hilton, embodies all that is wrong with the cult of celebrity. Celebrity is considered superficial and fake, and therefore evil. On a good day, Spears and Hilton must violate about half the al chets, and we violate the other half in our obsession with gossiping about them. No wonder the McCain campaign tried to paint Barack Obama with that brush, until their campaign took on a celebrity of its own.
All the candidates are marketing themselves as real people, rather than celebrities. The fact is that all four of the presidential and vice presidential candidates have compelling, poignant and real biographies. But they are also celebrities; that is, they are famous people, someone who is celebrated, which is what the word means. The party that wins will likely be the one that convinces the most people that the other presidential candidate is faking it more – is not showing his or her true stripes, and when they do, watch out! That’s how much we’ve come to value authenticity.
AL CHET SHE’CHATANU L’FANECHA B’GILUI U’V’SATER: “For the sin that we have committed before you by what is revealed and what is hidden.”
We hide so much. One candidate who didn’t pass muster in regard to authenticity is John Edwards. It’s ironic, in that his very downfall was precipitated by his attempt to create a documentary Web video that would enable voters to see him, in his words, “As I really am.” He hired Rielle Hunter to do just that, and, as we discovered, the Hunter soon became the hunted.
As Newsweek described it, Hunter’s crusade was to not only change Edwards’ image, but to refine his soul – she saw in him the potential to be another Gandhi or Martin Luther King – if only he could let go of the ego, tap into his heart more and use his head less – to be infused with the wisdom of spiritual guru Eckhart Tolle and the “Power of Now.”
Well, she was able to get him part way home: He certainly used his head less.
Tolle’s books were a mass marketing phenomenon even before he caught Oprah’s eye and this year hit the stratosphere. His book “The Power of Now” emphasizes the need to live for the moment. We Jews have another name for it: Yom Kippur. The Jewish power of now is, well… right now!
But it is Tolle’s most recent book that is most relevant to this discussion. “A New Earth: Awaking to Your Life’s Purpose,” explores how we can discover our true, authentic selves – to cut through all the layers of falsehood that cover up who we really are. The word “Authentic” after all comes from the Greek autos which means self.
In a confusing world where virtual relationships online can at times be far more real than our so called real ones; where even non celebrities can live very public lives, carefully constructing false images of themselves on Facebook, in the blogosphere and just walking down the street, we hunger for the real as never before – and we vilify that which is not. No wonder Universal is now doing a movie about the Mili Vanili lip synching scandal of the 1990s. We are troubled as never before when we hear that Dr. Phil is not licensed to practice psychology, when it turns out that Hillary Clinton didn’t have to dodge sniper fire on the tarmac in Bosnia, or when the cute little 9 year old at the Opening Ceremonies of the Olympics wasn’t actually the girl who was singing – and she appeared only because the real singer, 7 year old girl, Yang Peiyi was deemed not photogenic enough by the Chinese thought police. It never seemed to bother us when Natalie Wood wasn’t really doing the singing in “West Side Story.” But it bothers us now. And then there’s Amy Bruce, the courageous 7 year old cancer survivor, who wrote a touching and magnificent poem that has circled the Cyber-globe endlessly. Only problem: not only did Amy Bruce not write the poem; Amy Bruce doesn’t exist.
We hate fakers. Don’t even ask me about Roger Clemens. When Jayson Blair plagiarizes and besmirches the name of the New York Times, it bothers us. And it is so easy to plagiarize these days – as simple as cut and paste – so easy that many student papers now have to be vetted by online scanners before their professors will read them. As one high school senior told Westhill’s newspaper “The Westword” last year, “Cheating has become the norm to maintain the status quo. It’s so ingrained in our lives; half the time we don’t even realize the implications of our actions. It doesn’t seem immoral on the surface—you do what you have to.”
According to research from the Society for Human Resource Managers, 53% of people lie on their résumé in some way. And I’m not proud to confess, on Yom Kippur, no less, that I just lifted that entire last sentence from
Millions of Skype users worldwide will soon have access to the newly developed KishKish lie-detector. This free Internet service, developed in Israel, of course, based on voice stress analysis (a technique, commonly used in criminal investigations), will be able to measure just how truthful that person on the other end of the line, really is.
With all of that faking going on, we are literally hungry for what is authentic. Next time you are in the supermarket, take note of how many times you see the words “authentic” and “real,” and you’ll see what I mean. I can recall my high school chemistry teacher once joking about an ad he had seen for Ivory soap, claiming that the product is “99 44/100 percent pure.” He looked at the class and, deadpan, asked, “Pure WHAT?” Ivory has had this trademark since the 19th century – so our obsession with purity is hardly new.
But it’s taken on a new urgency. Last spring, a Time magazine article entitled “Ten ideas that are changing the world,” featured a consulting firm called the Aurora Group, whose leaders, James Gilmore and Joseph Pine are preaching to businesses the gospel of authenticity. "The dominant reason people buy today is their perception of what's real or fake," Gilmore told an Ohio newspaper. "Reality ain't what it used to be."
Gilmore's book, "Authenticity: What Consumers Really Want," has spent a good deal of time at the top of business book sales charts. It speaks of how we are moving from what he calls a “service culture” to an “experience culture.” Customers want to be engaged personally. The only problem is that he is teaching businesses how to LOOK authentic, not necessarily to BE authentic. So what’s authentic about that?
I picked up a cute little spoof at Barnes and Noble a couple of months ago, because its title seemed to fit in with this sermon: it’s called “Faking it: How to Seem Like a Better Person Without Actually Improving Yourself.” “The important thing isn’t who you ARE,” this book reminds us, “it’s who other people THINK you are.”
No wonder we’ve seen the revival this year of the old saying, “Fake it ‘til you make it.”
There is something to be said for faking it ‘til you make it. Twelve step programs utilize that principle, and it also is used by motivators to build self esteem. If you pretend to have self confidence and repeat an activity enough times, that confidence eventually kicks in. It also works with Jewish observance. Our ancestors at Sinai said “Na’ase v’nishma,” meaning we will do and THEN, we will understand. Sometimes we have to suspend disbelief before beginning to observe a new mitzvah, like lighting candles, for example – and eventually that mitzvah will gain meaning for us.
But there are limits to faking it. I can recall once when I was having Shabbat dinner at the home of a family with elementary school aged children. We began with the kids reciting the blessings – the Kiddush, the motzi - flawlessly. As I remarked at how impressed I was with their knowledge of the blessings, the mother said to me, “We’re making memories.” The implication being that the dinner was somewhat staged so that the kids would recall it later on, when they grew up. That’s admirable, but for these memories to indeed be indelible, they have to be of events that are in and of themselves meaningful, and not merely staged for future reference. It’s got to be more than just for the children.
In other words, it’s not about LEAVING your legacy so much as LIVING your legacy.
There’s that joke about a man who is chased into a cave by a bear. He is trapped and so, with his back to the wall, as the bear is closing in, the man closes his eyes and begins to recite the Sh’ma, expecting that this is his final moment. He opens his eyes and sees the bear in front of him also has HIS eyes closed and is praying. The man is overjoyed. He says to himself, “How lucky I am to have been cornered by the world’s only Jewish bear. He prays! He’s OBSERVANT! I’m saved!” But then, he listens a little more closely and hears the bear saying, “Ha-motzi lechem min ha-aretz.”
Now that’s one authentic Jewish bear. That bear wasn’t making memories. He was making dinner. He wasn’t living for the future; he was living for this moment – the Power of Now. And he was to his own self being true.
Those pretending to be what they aren’t have become ironic heroes in this culture. People like the “Wedding Crashers,” who just sort of blend in to every crowd and family. You’ll never guess who is the fourth most trusted journalist in America: John Stewart, who follows only the big three network anchors. We’re finding authenticity, somehow, in fake news delivered by a fake anchor. There’s nothing deceptive in “The Daily Show” – and in some ways it seems more real than the network news, because there the masks are put on so tight that they actually come off. So who is more real? Sarah Palin or Tina Fey?
With so many people passing themselves as something they aren’t, we now can understand why Yom Kip-purim, which literally can be translated as “a day like Purim,” is considered the antidote to that holiday that seems its polar opposite. On Purim we put on masks. On Yom Kippur, we take them off. Tonight’s service begins with a painful admission:
Ah…God? All those vows we took last year – and the ones we’re about to make this coming year – well, God, we didn’t mean it!! Sorry! All the promises we made are not really promises. We simply couldn’t keep them.
In America we have a word for that these days, unfortunately: a mortgage. But it points out, from the very beginning of the Yom Kippur service, that we are putting up with no fakery here. Today the masks come off. Today only complete transparency will do! We know that we’re going to make pledges that we will not be able to keep, like those Jews who pretended to have converted in medieval Europe in order to save their lives. We take our promises seriously – and we acknowledge our imperfections openly.
Classic Hasidic literature places a premium on authenticity. The authentic person is the one who is fully present, fully focused on the present act – much as Tolle would describe the Power of Now. Hasidic authenticity also prizes simplicity over pretense – or what some in our politically charged environment call elitism. The early Hasids were real populists, championing the real people over the intellectual elites of the great rabbinic academies. But simplicity for the Hasidim never meant superficiality or emotional immaturity.
In his new book, “The Quest for Authenticity,” Michael Ross tells the story of Reb Simcha Bunim of Pesischa, who lived died in 1827, one of the great Hasidic leaders of his generation. He was such a real person that when he became a rebbe, he didn’t give up his day job. He was a pharmacist who also refused to forsake western dress even when other Hasidim did. And he could spot a fraud a mile away.
A student once complained to him: "The Talmudic sages say that, 'if a person runs away from greatness, greatness pursues him.' Well, I've been running from greatness all my life, but it has yet to pursue me!" Rabbi Bunim replied: "I've no doubt that greatness is pursuing you, in the manner that the sages promised. The problem is that when you turn around to check if it is running after you, you frighten it away."
His student, the Kotzker rebbe, also had little patience for false piety. He was a champion of authenticity, almost to a fault. At age nine, he is said to have come across a woman in the market who was selling apples, with the ripe ones on top and rotten ones beneath, he turned the barrel over, so people would see what was really there.
In Kotzk, they prayed when they felt like praying, which drew criticism, to which he said, “That’s because in your town they have clocks, in Kotzk they have souls.” And he added, “He who prays today because he prayed yesterday, a scoundrel is he.” On Purim, he once screamed at his disciples, “Your masks wear your faces.” On Pesach he praised Pharaoh, of all people, because at least he stayed true to himself – plague after plague, he didn’t waver. He was wrong, but at least he was honest! And for the first chapter of Genesis, where it says, VaYivra et ha’adam b’tzalmo, betzelem Elohim bara oto,” the Kotzker’s commentary had an unusual twist. “The human being was created in his image,” – “HIS” meaning his own, not God’s. According to this interpretation, everybody is first made in his or her own image. Everyone has an innate character to which we can be true, and then you add the spark of God. And our task in life is to illuminate that which is unique to each of us. This is our true self.
Reb Meshullam Zusya of Anipoli was a descendent of the Kotzk dynasty and he embodied that same approach. His students revered him so much that they compared him to Moses. And in response, his most famous line was that when he gets to the Heavenly Court, they will not ask him, “Why were you not Moses?” but “Why were you not Zusya?” In today’s parlance, we would be saying, “Let Zusya be Zusya.”
e.e. cummings wrote, “It takes courage to grow up and become who you really are.” The world lost one of our most authentic people this past year; Tim Russert.
In learning the importance of being real, Russert sat at the feet of a master, his father, Big Russ – who embodied the Hasidic ideal of simplicity. In writing about his dad, Tim Russert’s quoted a line from a Gail Godwin novel, “He lived his life by the grace of daily obligations.” He is a man who championed the dignity of living by delivering newspapers and driving a garbage truck.
Big Russ never missed a day of work. When it came time to retire, he had to figure out what to do with 200 accrued sick days. “Two hundred? Why didn’t you take them?” Tim asked. Hi dad’s reply: “Because I wasn’t sick!”
Big Russ is a hero, but perhaps the role model of most value to us is Tim himself. He demonstrated that you can be part of the so-called Washington media elite – and no one was more a part of that world than he was, and yet still be a real person. Yes, you can be both an intellectual and real, eastern and real, beltway and real. Being authentic, then, has little to do with where you live or how much you know, or whether you can down a six pack, smoke a cigarette, wear Birkenstocks, shoot hoops, field dress a moose, sip martinis or bowl. Being real doesn’t mean any of that.
What then does it mean? Big Russ knows: Being real means living life by the grace of daily obligations. Nothing more, nothing less.
But if we are trying to be true to ourselves, then some might be asking, to quote the venerable Admiral Stockdale, “Who am I? And why am I here?”
Radio host Ira Glass, who once said his rabbi’s sermons were an inspiration for his program “This American Life,” nonetheless now feels very uncomfortable at synagogue: “I don’t believe in God,” he said, “and so I feel like a fraud (there). I feel like somebody who’s in a theme park of my own childhood. I know all the songs, and it makes me feel really warm and nostalgic, and it’s incredibly comforting. But then I think that I don’t believe anything that’s being said here. And so, I have no business here. This is for somebody else. This is perfectly pleasant, but it seems a little sleazy — to be there, where other people are having a relationship with God, and I’m there because I like the music. That seems like other people are putting on a show for me or something. That’s not right. That’s not what that’s for. It’s nice hanging around with other people, but, you know — I’ve got a wife for that.”
He then confesses, “To this day, I feel very Jewish — I couldn't be anything but a Jew. But when I go to services, it's not clear why I should be there."
The first think Glass should do is read my sermon from the first day of Rosh Hashsnah.
When services don’t feel authentic to us, what do we do? One solution is to “fake it til you make it.” That works for a lot of people, who are able to pray fervently even though they have no idea what it means or they violently disagree. But eventually, the act of praying sort of takes on a meaning of its own.
Another solution is to struggle with the service – challenge the prayers, reinterpret them, tinker with the music, maybe even change some parts that are most objectionable. That too is perfectly legit.
For I have big news for you and Ira: There is no one authentic Judaism. There are many Judaisms, all clinging to some crucial common threads; but Judaism is evolving – and it lives and breathes through each of us. Among those threads are some of the things we’ve been talking about – kindness, inclusiveness, justice, Shabbat, kashrut, prayer – but these are very broad areas with a wide range of meanings that have changed over time.
From time immemorial Jews have incorporated ancient artifacts to feel authentic. We continued to use a Torah scroll long after the world traded in scrolls for books. We use a quill to inscribe it, even though society has leapfrogged beyond the pen to the word processor, to the computer.
But our tradition picks and chooses what outmoded technologies to keep. “Old” does not always equal “authentic.” For example, when the Israelites first crossed over into the Promised Land they were circumcised with flint knives, and this was long after the Iron Age had begun. Why use an outmoded technology like flint? Tradition. Authenticity. Fortunately, we no longer use flint knives for circumcision. Simply using old things doesn’t make us more authentic, whether it is flint knives, Maxwell House Haggadahs, or the furry hats and frock coats once worn by Polish nobility.
But old things often do often gain meaning with age. The best example of that is the Hebrew language – 4,000 years old and it links us to every communications culture that has existed on this planet since hieroglyphics. It is crucial for Jews to learn Hebrew to fully participate in this Jewish adventure. It unifies all of us. And that’s why we included Hebrew in our logo. But the rabbis said that we can pray in our own language too.
Let’s look on our banner and see what else makes for an authentic Jew:
We see books. Now there’s an outmoded technology. But we are the People of the Book, even in the Age of the Notebook. Let’s focus, though, on the people. Everyone on that ladder is authentic in my book, everyone has a story to tell, a history to share. THE AUTHENTICITY STEMS FROM CHOOSING TO BE ON THE LADDER, AND EVEN MORE, FROM OUR CHOOSING TO HOLD HANDS AND HELP THE OTHER TO ASCEND.
Our greatest rabbis said this long ago, that they essence of Judaism is to love our neighbor as ourselves. Everything else is commentary. AN AUTHENTIC JEWISH LIFE CANNOT BE MEASURED IN HOW LONG YOUR TZITZIS ARE OR EVEN WHETHER YOU ARE WEARING A TALLIS (see that only two have them on – one student thought they were wings) OR ON HOW MUCH YOU’VE CHANGED THE WORLD (though each of us should try); but rather IN HOW WE EACH FIND IT WITHIN OURSELVES TO CHANGE A SINGLE LIFE – THE LIFE OF THE ONE WHOM WE ARE HELPING TO CLIMB WITH US.
Everyone on that ladder is authentic! At a recent conference, I asked a noted scholar of liturgy, Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman about authenticity. He called it a useless term. There’s no such thing as an authentic Jew, he said. It’s not like a Rembrandt, where you can ascertain its authenticity. Its only purpose, he added, is argumentative. In other words, the only use for the term “authentic” is so that you can claim to be a better Jew than someone else. And since I would claim that the essence of Judaism is to love our neighbor as ourselves, it therefore is not in the spirit of authentic Judaism to talk about your form of Judaism being more authentic.
Get it?
Can you imagine a Jewish world where no one was claiming to be more authentically Jewish than anyone else? It would be as impossible as having two Jews on a desert island without three synagogues – one they would never set foot in. In my book, if you have two Jews, you shouldn’t need more than one synagogue – one that would accept each person unconditionally. Let Zusya be Zusya.
In my mind, an authentic congregation lives by the vision of this banner: It is one where generations mingle and are not segregated, where we embrace the occasional cry of children disrupting services – and indeed embrace the children – but where children learn to respect all adults, even those whom they don’t know. It’s where we all FEEL related. It’s not a country club or the Triple A. It goes from womb to tomb – people grow up in a congregation – you don’t grow up in the Triple A. The fact that God is in this place means that RELATIONSHIP is in this place – LOVE is in this place. We are part of an immortal band, linked together for generations, for millennia, for eternity.
You don’t get this from many other affiliations. That is why you cast your lot with a synagogue – not simply to drop off and pick up, not simply for the bar mitzvah and see you later – not simply for three days a year – AND NOT SIMPLY FOR A SINGLE LIFETIME – but for multiple generations, for the lifetime of our people, for eternity. That’s why federations have recently rediscovered the power of synagogue affiliation and are funding initiatives to help unaffiliated Jews and synagogue communities find each other. They there is nothing more powerful, no more authentic way to tap into the ageless and ever replenishing Jewish wellspring.
Ira Glass, “C’mon down!”
There’s no fakery going on here, and certainly no superficiality. We are all tapping into to something more powerful than that. And it all begins with our returning to the ideals that sustained us in our days of youth and living life by the grace of our daily obligations.
In a short story by Somerset Maugham called “The Colonel’s Lady,” a stodgy British colonel is confronted with his wife’s sudden fame as a poet. He took little interest in it until one day at a cocktail party, someone came up to him, not knowing that he was the husband and said, “These poems are so passionate, she must have had one unbelievable affair to have written them.” This notion gnaws away at him until finally he asks his wife at breakfast, “Who are these poems written about?” And she says “You don’t want to know.”
Finally she gives in and says, “They’re about you – the way you used to be.”
There’s a message here for all of us. Each of us has a self that has been lost, or simply has just been covered over by all the masks we wear. We now have a gift: 25 hours to get it back, to rediscover who we really are, to set new expectations for ourselves for the coming year, even if we know ahead of time that we won’t be able to keep those vows. We’re already covered for that. We’ve done Kol Nidre.
I’ve long since learned that as a rabbi, father, husband and friend, I will never be able to meet everyone else’s expectations. But if I can understand who I am, always try to improve and refine myself, be honest and open to the ideas of others but never compromise on my integrity, I am what I am and I’ll be what I’ll be. That’s a good way for each of us to live,, and we have a good role model: God. That’s how God choose to be introduced to Moses at the burning bush. “Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh.”
But I don’t need to be God. Nor should I be Moses. Nor, in fact, do I event want to be Zusya or Britney, or Paris or John or Barack or Eckhart or Manny be Manny or even Sammy Davis Junior singing “I’ve Got To Be Me.” Or even Shakespeare, who said, “To thine own self be true, and it must follow, as the night the day, thou canst not then be false to any man.”
I want to live life gracefully and authentically.
And I want to be thy guy who put 10,000 Shekels on David.

"Leaping Souls, Intimate Numbness and Spiritual Audacity"
If you know your book of Genesis, a question may have occurred to you in looking at our banner. In Jacob’s dream, angels are both climbing and descending the ladder to heaven. But the figures in our banner seem only to be going up. There’s one guy on the third rung who is turned around. But he too, seems to be climbing.
I don’t know about you, but given a choice of going up or down, I’d prefer down, thank you very much. Given the choice between scaling Everest and a toboggan ride the other way, I’d choose the toboggan. You can be Sisyphus. I’ll be Jean Claude Killy. You can climb the snake path; I’ll take the cable car. Better yet, I’ll stay in the gift shop down below.
Morris Margolis wrote about Jacob’s ladder in his book, “A Gathering of Angels: Angels in Jewish Life and Literature.” He tells us that “life is two-directional. Its valleys are as normal as its peaks, its defeats as frequent as its triumphs…If you have faith that God is by your side wherever you are, and that even when you hit the bottom rung of the ladder, you are still in the company of angels.”
Margolis clearly wasn’t on Wall Street this week, but his advice is timely for those of us wondering if we will ever hit the bottom rung.
Indeed life is two directional, but our ladder describes not life as it is, but life as it should be: A life of continual ascent. Judaism believes in an upward sweep to history, one that defies gravity, yet so often we get stuck looking down, looking back, like Lot’s wife - turning ourselves into pillars of paralysis.
According to the Kotzker rebbe, God fashions a ladder from heaven to earth and sends people down at the time of birth and the whole idea of life is climb back up that ladder. But what happens is that after we climb down, God pulls the ladder back up and most people give up because they don’t see the ladder. Some of them leap but they become quickly discouraged because it doesn’t come to them instantly. Others keep jumping, knowing that if God sees leaping souls, God will have mercy and will lift them up – Our task in life, then, is to be leaping souls.
We add an emphatic push upward to the kaddish on the High Holidays, an idea that was emblazoned on our source books long before we had this banner. “Ever upward.” L’ayla L’ayla – When we move to Israel, we call it aliyah – going up. When we come to the Torah, we go up as well, and also call that aliyah. It’s always about climbing. And we never stop the climb. The Market appears to have no bottom; well, our ladder has no top. Someone suggested that we call it our “ladder to nowhere” but indeed it is going somewhere – and that somewhere is UP.
“Esah aynay el he-harim may-ayin yavo ezri.” “I lift my eyes up to the mountains, from where will my help come?”
Another way of interpreting that verse from Psalms is that our help will come from the mere act of lifting our eyes! The mountains are a target – to look at mountains you HAVE to look up.
But lifting eyes is not enough. We must be lifting our entire bodies. On the banner, even the person in the wheelchair is ascending. Just as a rising tide lifts all ships, an ascending congregation lifts all spirits.
Leaping, climbing, always looking ahead and gazing skyward; toward the mountains. But it is so hard! Which raises an interesting question:
Why do people climb?
That question was brought home tragically for us this summer, when 11 explorers perished near what has been called the world’s most dangerous mountain, K-2, in the Himalayas, near the Pakistan – Chinese border. What an appropriate place to scale the heights, so close to where the human suffering is so great here on earth.
Why do people do it, why do they risk the avalanches, the cold, the ice, the thin air; why challenge themselves to such a degree, beyond human capacity?
The old answers just don’t cut it – “Because it is there” isn’t enough. One American climber explained it this way: “It’s a selfish act if it ends with you,” said Chris Warner, a seasoned American mountaineer who climbed K2 last year. “But guys go back and are deeply humbled by the experience that they have and they are much more capable of being husbands, brothers, people. There is a part of the whole experience that is ultimately metaphysical. Whenever you push the limits of ability, there is a lesson in there for all of us.”
That is why we climb. That is the reason for this daring desire to ascend, to the mountains, to the moon for that matter, to infinity and beyond. Because having gone there will make us bolder and better back home.
When President Kennedy invited Abraham Joshua Heschel to a meeting of religious leaders to discuss Civil Rights in 1963, Heschel telegraphed his reply: “I look forward to privilege of being present at the meeting tomorrow. I propose that you Mr. President declare state of moral emergency... The hour calls for moral grandeur and spiritual audacity."
Years before anyone with presidential aspirations wrote about the audacity of hope, Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote about the audacity of the spirit. And he claimed that the opposite of love is not hate – but indifference.
Indeed, this hour is one where we must climb, not merely for the sake of climbing, not merely “because it is there,” but to lift our society with us, to reach where we have never reached, for this hour too calls for moral grandeur and spiritual audacity. It calls for leaping souls.
But it is so difficult!
Wouldn’t it be easier to be part of a less demanding faith tradition, one that simply allows us to be happy with things as they are?
A British journalist named Richard Williams was asked why he embarked on a quixotic attempt to complete the British stage of the Tour de France last year. His reply: “there are currently aches in places where I didn’t even know I had places, along with what might be described as an intimate numbness.”
There are in fact, two types of numbness, one that happens when you see or feel too much – the cold is too great, the pain too horrible to bear, the air too thin, the climb too difficult. The other numbness comes while we are sitting in our comfy chairs and, facing an avalanche of appeals for help from all across the globe, our capacity to empathize simply shuts down.
We need to replace that second type of numbness with the first. When the climber’s feet are frostbitten, he is numb, but intimately so – he can feel the pain, still – and the pain of not being able to fully feel it. Too many of us are now tobogganing rather than climbing, and we are descending from numb to number.
There are moments when we feel like we are going to snap. Too many demands! Too much to do! There’s Joey’s soccer game and this or that committee meeting and food shopping for the weekend and on top of that I’ve got to care about the people in Darfur and hungry people for Person to Person and the Iraqis and the Jews of Kazakhstan and – what’s next? The dog has ticks.
There is simply no way to keep climbing in the midst of that numbing headwind. How can we continue to care when we are in such a constant state of overload. Our inbox is full – like Jim Carrey’s, when he got to be God for a day in “Bruce Almighty.” We’re all expected to be God – and we can’t.
Yes, the headwind is as cold and numbing as what they faced on K2. But we can’t stop leaping forward.
I think all of us have had those moments when the pressures became just too great – when we face what seems like the ultimate challenge to our ability to be fully present. I get maybe a half dozen of those every week. On a given Shabbat, I might be feeling under the weather. And I have to remind myself, that for that day’s bar or bat mitzvah, this is IT. There will not be a second take. This is the most important day of his or her life to that point. The same holds true for any lifecycle event, and indeed for any encounter that I have, whether professional or personal. It all matters. Every little act. Every gesture.
There’s a story about a well known rabbi, who was visited by one of his students and his wife. The student felt that he shouldn’t have to take out the trash – that it was beneath his dignity. He was a full time Torah student. But the wife felt that he should take out the trash. Asked is there anything in Jewish law that says that the husband has to take out the trash, the rabbi said no.
The next morning the rabbi came to their door. His student opened the door and said “Oh my God, it’s such a great honor to have you, please come in and have something to eat.” “No, I didn’t come here to eat,” the rabbi said. “I came to take out the trash. It may be beneath YOUR dignity, but it’s not beneath mine.”
(If you look next door, by the way, you’ll see that I took out our trash yesterday).
Every little act has the potential for ultimate meaning.
On the eve of his assassination, Martin Luther King preached in Memphis about his ascent to the mountaintop and how he, like Moses, had seen the Promised Land. In a lesser known section of that same speech, Dr. King read a letter written by a 9th grade girl from White Plains, New York. It was regarding an incident several years before when King had been stabbed in New York City. It later came out that X-rays revealed that the tip of the blade was on the edge of his aorta, and had he even sneezed, he would have died. The girl wrote,
While it should not matter, I would like to mention that I'm a white girl. I read in the paper of your misfortune, and of your suffering. And I read that if you had sneezed, you would have died. And I'm simply writing you to say that I'm so happy that you didn't sneeze.
King then went on to say that he too was glad that he didn’t sneeze. Had he sneezed, he would not have gone on to witness the freedom ride of 1961, the March on Washington and the Civil Rights Bill a couple of years later. But because he had not sneezed, because he had not died back then, his eyes had seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.
Imagine what he would be saying right now!
Each of us has had at least one of those moments that changed our lives forever. A moment where one action, however simple, or maybe one lack of action – like a sneeze – made all the difference.
It can be the simplest thing – a phone call or an email from a long lost friend. It could be something traumatic, like an auto accident or near miss. Something that changes the meaning of all that has been and all that will be. Invariably, this incident, this near sneeze, wakes us from our slumber to a life of service, a life overflowing with meaning, a life of leaping souls, intimate numbness and spiritual audacity.
I had one of those moments this past year, one of those life-changing moments of clarity, when all the climbing, that had seemed for naught, yielded a new level of insight and wisdom.
For years, I’ve spoken about how hard it is in my profession to juggle the needs of the congregation with the needs of my family. Now that the overwhelming majority of professionals also consider themselves to be working 24-7, clergy are no longer alone in this; but there is a big difference in the degree of difficulty – there are many more balls in the air, and each one is a human life - and never was that tested more than one weekend last spring.
We had to bring Ethan down to the emergency room for something that, thank God, didn’t turn out to be serious, but at the time we didn’t know. I’ve visited the ER many times, of course, but he had never seen it – I can only imagine what he was feeling as he waited to be seen and the curtain pulled at his cubicle. As if on cue, at that moment a congregant family was also there, facing the most intense scenario imaginable. I was faced with the ultimate dilemma for a father and a rabbi. I had every excuse to ignore the other family. But I simply couldn’t do that. Nor could I give my own child short shrift. For four nightmarish hours I found myself shuttling from cubicle to cubicle, switching roles from rabbi to dad and back again. I couldn’t be there for just one — I had to be there for all. If we had been in the delivery room it would have been a sitcom. But this took place far from Labor and Delivery.
This was a moment where it is so easy to snap. The only way to survive such raw terror is to avert its direct gaze. I had to help everyone else get through while maintaining my own sanity. To have to be there for everyone in such a helpless situation, one that is not at all about me, but in a sense is all about me…it can push you to the breaking point. It would have been easy to bury myself so deep inside my role as to cease feeling anything at all. There was no easy road out – no alternative in fact, but to feel completely and utterly inadequate, incapable of alleviating a pain that cannot be alleviated.
What kind of parent leaves his child in an emergency room to go to work? What kind of rabbi leaves a family in extreme distress in order to attend to personal matters? Never before, not even at my kids’ Bar Mitzvahs, have the boundaries between work and family become so blurred, and never before had I faced such a rabbinic Sophie’s Choice. My choice that night was either to be a horrible parent, a horrible pastor - or both. And I chose both. Because that choice carried within it the only possibility, however slight, of a fourth choice: neither.
I was intrigued to read about how mega church Pastor Rick Warren juggles so many causes. He said he’s a good time manager. Well, I realized something that night in the ER. Anyone, be it a he or a she, clergy, doctor, lawyer or politician, or anything else – anyone who says that they can have it all – do a 24/7 job and always be there for their family – is lying. I don’t believe it. I’m sure Pastor Rick is a good husband and family man, in his own way, but something has to give.
When Joe Biden choked up for a moment at least week’s debate while talking about his family tragedies, it told me that we’ve come a long way from the time when Ed Muskie cried in New Hampshire and it ruined his presidential run. Not only are men now allowed to show vulnerability, but we can also acknowledge that no one, man or woman, can have it all. Something always has to give. And it’s OK to acknowledge that.
I’ve been an abysmal parent AND an insufficient rabbi, and a pretty lousy husband, son and brother too. There is no denying it. Pretty bad friend as well. After that night in the ER, I realized that there is no avoiding it. At the same time, I’ve also neglected horribly the suffering in Darfur – I should have spent four sermons just on that! And the injustices of China. Israel faces the greatest threat it has ever faced and I had the chance these past ten days to hammer that message home, again and again, so that you would go right home tonight and do something about it. Blew it. If God forbid something happens there this year over there, I’ll never forgive myself. And what about all the suffering at home, from hurricanes and hunger, homelessness and hopelessness. We’ve had kids who have nearly died from drinking and nearly expelled for cheating. What have I done for them? And we have congregants suffering from horrible illnesses, destructive relationships – people who have lost spouses and parents and children – kids who have lost their first pets – a seventh grade this past year that attended almost as many funerals as bar mitzvahs. And where have I been?
But then at that moment, in the emergency room last spring, I was redeemed. I was sitting there with Ethan and the curtain swung open and there was the congregant, who, in the midst of the most chaotic and numbing despair of her life, asked him how he was feeling.
I knew then that I was not alone in my bewilderment. An angel was with me on the bottom rung. A fellow soul was leaping alongside. Somehow it would all be OK.
The wounds are raw. The scars are fresh. The wind is biting cold.
But the soul is still leaping! Like moths drawn to a flame, we are drawn to the lights of dawn shining from the beyond the top of our ladder – upward and upward. These are the rays of promise and hope.
What we all need to do, is take the lethargic numbness that envelopes us when there just seems to be too much pain to bear – and turn it into that intimate numbness – the kind we feel when we’ve biked the tour de France or climbed K-2 – OR COMPLETED YOM KIPPUR. What we’ll feel tonight at the end of Ne’ilah is precisely that numbness. A little back pain, a slight limp – like Jacob’s limp when he fought the angel – a scarred soul, another ring around the trunk, a few more leaves fallen in the October wind. We’ll feel it.
And then we gather ourselves, grab a bagel or two, and immediately look forward and look up toward the mountaintop. It is customary to begin building the Sukkah right after we leave here – tonight. No rest for the weary. The first thing we do, then is to pull out the ladder – and climb.
Each of us has had a moment that has shaken us to the core, be it profound, like a First Response stick turned blue, a devastating CT-Scan or a Dear John e-mail, or simple, like a sneeze that wasn’t. Or maybe this moment, right here, right now. These are the moments that hit us like a shrill Shofar blast, whose purpose, according to Maimonides is to rouse us from our slumber. When it happens, my only advice is this:
Take that intimate numbness, sling it behind your back, take hold of your neighbor’s hand, look up to the tops of the mountains from where your help will come, and climb. Feel the wind against your faces and the pulse beating in the warm hand you are holding. Feel their pain and your own, as best you can, for no one can feel it all, and forgive yourself and others for the times when the wrong form of numbness takes hold. Lovingly embrace the miracle of being alive and be thankful that even on the bottom rung, you are in the company of angels.
And then we can chase the sun. For Judaism believes in an upward sweep to history. Ever upward. Yes, there is plenty that is negative out there. The economy is a shambles, the world seems as unstable as ever. Tom Brady is injured. But with a little bit of faith, we can continue to climb until the clouds clear – and then we can see….
Yes, there is good news out there. Lift up your eyes and by definition, things are already looking up. Despite the news from Wall Street, despite the real dangers that abound in the Middle East, despite all the personal suffering that we have endured, despite global warming, there are reasons to be looking up. In essay in Commentary late last year, Peter Wehner and Yuval Levin wrote, “A strange thing (has)happened on the way to Gomorrah. Just when it seemed as if the storm clouds were about to burst, they began to part. ….In a number of key categories, the amount of ground gained or regained since the early 1990’s is truly stunning. Crime, especially, has plummeted… Teenage drug use, which moved relentlessly upward throughout the 1990’s, declined thereafter by an impressive 23 percent, and for a number of specific drugs it has fallen still lower.” Abortions are down, the teenage birthrate has fallen, divorce rates are down and educational test scores are up. And this upsweep isn’t merely an American phenomenon. We all deplore the Chinese abuses of human rights, but the Olympics showed the world that 1.3 billion Chinese are freer now than in many generations.
Even with their notorious efficiency at putting up firewalls of censorship, Nicholas Kristoff of the New York Times wrote last month,” “China has around 30 million active blogs, and as long as they don’t trigger political problems, the government doesn’t care.”…many Chinese are quite adept at building technological ladders over the Great Firewall of China…. The Chinese are building ladders, and so must we.
Our journey’s last stop is an obituary I saw in early August online. When I first read it I couldn’t believe it, so I checked it out and it is totally legit. It appeared in a newspaper in California. And the paper checked out the story and even asked for the death certificate before printing it, because it is unlike any obituary you have ever seen:
Dolores Aguilar, born in 1929 in New Mexico, left us on August 7, 2008. She will be met in the afterlife by her husband, Raymond, her son, Paul Jr., and daughter, Ruby.
She is survived by her daughters Marietta, Mitzi, Stella, Beatrice, Virginia and Ramona, and son Billy; grandchildren, Donnelle, Joe, Mitzie, Maria, Mario, Marty, Tynette, Tania, Leta, Alexandria, Tommy, Billy, Mathew, Raymond, Kenny, Javier, Lisa, Ashlie and Michael; great-grandchildren, Brendan, Joseph, Karissa, Jacob, Delaney, Shawn, Cienna, Bailey, Christian, Andre Jr., Andrea, Keith, Saeed, Nujaymah, Salma, Merissa, Emily, Jayci, Isabella, Samantha and Emily. I apologize if I missed anyone.
Dolores had no hobbies, made no contribution to society and rarely shared a kind word or deed in her life. I speak for the majority of her family when I say her presence will not be missed by many, very few tears will be shed and there will be no lamenting over her passing.
Her family will remember Dolores and amongst ourselves we will remember her in our own way, which were mostly sad and troubling times throughout the years. We may have some fond memories of her and perhaps we will think of those times too. But I truly believe at the end of the day ALL of us will really only miss what we never had, a good and kind mother, grandmother and great-grandmother. I hope she is finally at peace with herself. As for the rest of us left behind, I hope this is the beginning of a time of healing and learning to be a family again.
There will be no service, no prayers and no closure for the family she spent a lifetime tearing apart. We cannot come together in the end to see to it that her grandchildren and great-grandchildren can say their goodbyes. So I say here for all of us, GOOD BYE, MOM.
All those great grandchildren – such naches!
What was it that took what should have been a blessed, long life and turned it into such a nightmare? What made this disconnect so complete? We can only speculate. Perhaps she never had one of those sneezeless moments that reminded her of what is important and what is not. Perhaps she put her profession over her family – but evidently she had no vocation except for driving her children crazy. Maybe no one in that huge family ever took the moment to pull her over and say, “Grandma. I love you just as you are. We all love you.
Now shut up!”
And then I thought – there is something just too familiar sounding about this scene – although taken to an extreme – that I’ve seen this picture before. A lot.
Could this family possibly be Jewish?
And my mind flashed back to that early summer evening at Plaza Mayor in Old Madrid, where I sipped Sangria in the spot where, centuries ago, crypto Jews were herded to their death by fire, or, if they were lucky, they pretended to be Christian and snuck off with an explorer named Columbus for worlds unknown.
Some of these conversos ended up in what later came to be called the United States; and in particular, a state called New Mexico. I searched more. The name Aguilar was at that time a common Sephardic Jewish name. The name comes from a Latin word meaning ‘haunt of eagles.’
Centuries later, there is Dolores, who apparently knew nothing of her family heritage, no matter what it was – who in fact had no roots, and without roots, her soul never could soar like an eagle’s.
And so, if indeed this is a tale of conversos, they all could have been Jewish: Marietta, Mitzi, Stella, Beatrice, Virginia and Ramona, and son Billy; Donnelle, Joe, Mitzie, Maria, Mario, Marty, Tynette, Tania, Leta, Alexandria, Tommy, Billy, Mathew, Raymond, Kenny, Javier, Lisa, Ashlie and Michael; Brendan, Joseph, Karissa, Jacob, Delaney, Shawn, Cienna, Bailey, Christian (OK, maybe not Christian), Andre Jr., Andrea, Keith, Saeed, Nujaymah, Salma, Merissa, Emily, Jayci, Isabella, Samantha and Emily.
But that begs the point. For the point is, they all could have soared. Without the roots, this family crashed and burned. A 21st century Auto de fe.
Next spring, something is going to happen in the Jewish world that takes place only once every 28 years. On Wednesday, April 9, the day before Passover, we will mark the day where, according to the Talmud, the sun returns to the exact position it was at the moment of Creation. The sage who came up with these calculations was named Shmuel ha-Yarchi – his last name ironically means “of the moon,” but the blessing recited is all about the sun. We’ll be celebrating that moment here on that day, using a special prayer book that is being published just for that event, including poetry, songs, commentary by the Communications Manager of NASA’s International Space Station, a 21st century analysis of rabbinic astronomy and reflections of the relevance of “The Blessing of the Sun” as it relates to solar power and environmental concerns.
All I can say is don’t miss it. Really. You’ll have to wait 28 more years for the next one.
So we’ve come full circle, in effect. The sun has been doing all that climbing and climbing in the the sky, and we’ve been doing all that climbing and climbing on that ladder; but in the end, while the sun will have returned to where it began, we’ll have pursued our relentless and audacious ascent.
But as I conclude this sermonic cycle, we do return now, having come full circle, to our logo and its fourfold message: Identity, inclusivity, authenticity and finally, ascent.
Be leaping souls, continue climbing, always looking ahead and gazing skyward; toward the mountains, toward the rising sun just over those hilltops.
For we have not yet been to the mountaintop. We have not yet seen the Promised Land. But despite it all, despite all the suffering, with each waking, working moment, we are inching ever closer.
Let is ascend and let us do it joyously – in a dance. Let’s climb as high as we can and let’s do it now – for tomorrow may rain, so we’ll follow the sun. Let us do it joyously and lovingly, let us ascend – together and let this become, for all the world, a Beit El, a house of God.

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