Thursday, October 17, 2019

Rabbi Gerry Ginsburg Sermon for First Night of Rosh Hashanah

It is so good to be back at my home, Temple Beth El, and as a rabbi, and speaking here again at Rosh HaShannah services.  It’s been a long journey, seven years since I started rabbinical school, including the last four years when I was a student rabbi in Port Chester, NY, Milford, CT and Glens Falls, NY.

It is good to be home.

I went to rabbinical school a little bit later in life than some, but all of the lessons I learned in my business and  personal life prior to the academy only helped, hopefully, to make me a better rabbi now. 

There were several very special events in my life this past year, you might call them super events. First, in February, I was at the Super Bowl in Atlanta, with my New England Patriots playing the Los Angeles Rams.  You probably know the result of the game, but that is not the reason I am mentioning it.

 I mention it because it was really a super weekend with my son, Sam, who is now 33 years old.  We spent four full days together talking, getting to know each other even better, taking in Atlanta, eating and, yes, seeing a football game.  For those wondering if I also take my daughter, Ruth, to football games, the answer is yes.  We have gone to Gillette Stadium in Foxboro, together, on many occasions.

For those of you who have never spent a long weekend with your adult child, I would encourage you to do it.  Sam and I  had the wonderful city of Atlanta as our backdrop and were able to spend some very super, quality time together.

The second event is one which I truthfully only remember in bits and pieces. I was present, but it was really hard to concentrate on the event. It was such an incredible day, one that I could not plan for, but rather just had to experience.  

That was my rabbinical ordination from the Academy for Jewish Religion,  which many friends and relatives attended, including many from Temple Beth El, and a post-ceremony party.  That ceremony capped those long years of studying everything from Genesis to the philosophy of Abraham Joshua Heschel, from the book of Job to the mystical book Sefer HaYitzera, from Biblical and Modern Hebrew to Pastoral Counseling.  I almost cannot remember the ordination as it was a very deep and mystical experience for me. I am very fortunate to have a video, so I can clearly re-live it.
That day was certainly not the end to my path of Jewish study, far from it, but it was a very significant point along the path.

Certainly after such stress, I needed vacation, and spent two weeks this summer in the Berkshires, which is a very special place for my wife, Fran, and me.  We get to relax, spread out in our summer place, while packing our schedules with too many concerts at Tanglewood and plays in Pittsfield and Williamstown. We see more and do more in those two weeks, I think, than we do the remainder of the year. 

I don’t think I’m unusual in that most everything I see, I see through a special lens, for me a rabbinic lens. Our experiences form our opinions and views.   This is true for everyone, teachers, lawyers, doctors and … rabbis.  So as I go to plays I view a lot of what happens on stage through my Jewish experience.

One of the plays we saw was Thornton Wilder’s The Skin of Our Teeth. While I suppose someone could watch  that and prepare a sermon on the beginning of the world, I  will not even try.  The play combines the story of creation with the end of the world, so I will let you see that on your own, and create your own talk.

But two plays made profound impressions on me, impressions which resound with me as we start the Yammim Noraim, these High Holydays. 

Both are plays we saw at The Williamstown Theater Festival. They are the classic Ibsen play, Ghosts, and a new American play, Before the Meeting.

Some  may claim that there are supernatural characters on the stage during Ghosts, such as Caspar the Ghost of the old cartoon series, or the bloody head warning Macbeth of the return of Macduff.  But I don’t see that.

I see the ghosts as allegories, explanations on  how lives were lived.  In Ghosts, the wife, Mrs. Alving, the  matriarch, specifically kept her son, Oswald, away from the details of her late husband’s life.  She sent him to boarding school at the age of seven so he would not learn of his father’s errant ways.  Now, with her adult son’s return home from living apart for many years, she still tries her best to keep all of the details from him, until it is impossible not to tell him.

She is far from the only blemished fruit in this play.  Her son Oswald falls in love with the young woman who is the maid at his mother’s house, only to shockingly discover that she is his sister. And this play is Danish, not Greek. The maid, Regina, flees that house in a huff, never to see Oswald again. 

One of the central characters with his own checkered past is a  priest, Pastor Mendes, from a nearby town.  He was in love with Mrs. Alving many years ago, and I think some of that feeling is still within him.  He’s in charge of the local orphanage which is scheduled to receive a large donation from the Alving family.

Before the Meeting, by Adam Bock,  is a new play which describes what occurs before the daily Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. Every day, Gail and the regular members of her early morning group set up for their meeting in the exact same way: Nicole makes the coffee, Gail arranges the chairs, and Ron complains. And I don’t think he is even Jewish!

As they forge a path toward sobriety and well-being, they come to rely on the routine and on each other. But when Gail’s estranged granddaughter reopens old family wounds, Gail knows it will take more than coffee, chairs, and companionship to keep her life from falling apart. Each one of the characters hides things from their past from their close friends. 

Gail is, if you will, the crew chief.  She has a long soliloquy in which she shares the mistakes in her life, her mistakes on raising her daughter, and the very serious error in planning to get  together with her granddaughter, without the mother knowing. 

While this is not real life, it is real life imagined as a play.  The characters in Ghosts are of Danish stock and live in Denmark.  Before the Meeting is set somewhere in the United States and its cast of characters are all middle or lower middle class, who have never been to Denmark.
But what these people all share, regardless of where they live, their upbringing, place in society, or family status is that they have all made mistakes in their lives.  Serious mistakes, ordinary mistakes, mistakes which they did not know were mistakes at first.  Let me say this in a slightly different way – they missed the mark.  And, many of them, to their credit, tried to atone for their sins. 

For this is the way of the world.  This is the human experience. People sin, people make mistakes, people sometimes do not care about the feelings of their friends and relatives. 
It’s up to the theater critics to review the play and understand the playwright’s resolution of their sins. Do they veer off the path repeatedly? Do they atone at all, are they sorry for what they have done, do they learn from their mistakes? 
 Jews are taught that one can atone for one’s sins up until one’s last day on earth. It’s never too late to start.

My constant companion in the month of Elul was the book, This is Real and You are Completely Unprepared, The Days of Awe as a Journey of Transformation, by Rabbi Alan Lew, z”l.  He asks, “Will we let in the truth we have been walling out all year long and let this truth help us to stop making the same mistakes again and again?  Will we let this moment of consciousness help us break the unconscious momentum of our lives?  Will we move from a state of siege to a state of openness, to a state of truthfulness, especially with ourselves?”

Every day we open our prayers with the words:
אֱלהַי. נְשָׁמָה שֶׁנָּתַתָּ בִּי טְהורָה הִיא

The soul that you have given me, Adonai, is pure.  We start with that pureness, that almost angelic sense of being, and life happens.  There is always the yetzer harah and yetzer hatov around us; the evil inclination and the good inclination.  We could not exist without both, for things like creativity come from a mixture of evil and good, and creativity is vitally important in our lives.

But it’s all about balance, it’s all about keeping everything in check.  It is possible for us to be too good, I suppose, but it is very easy to be too bad, to let that evilness take over the balance.

And it’s not that we mean to live our lives outside of purity, outside of balance.  But things happen.  Sometimes willingly but often times unwillingly or unconsciously.  The next few days will be spent with the Al Chet prayers; for the sin we have sinned against You knowingly or unknowingly.

Atone.  It is a word which was used first in English in the late 16th century, meaning to "be in harmony, agree, be in accordance,". Think of the word atone  as a combination of the words at and one.  At One. The meaning to  "make up for errors or deficiencies" and that of "make reparations" are from the 17th century. If you are at one, your are at peace with yourself and your life.

But that is the English.  In Hebrew the concept has been taught since the time of the Bible, Shuva … return.  The opening line from this Shabbat’s Haftarah from Hosea hits the nail on the head: 
שׁ֚וּבָה יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל עַ֖ד השם אֱלֹהֶ֑יךָ כִּ֥י כָשַׁ֖לְתָּ בַּעֲוֺנֶֽךָ׃

Return, O Israel, to the LORD your God, For you have fallen because of your sin.
For the act of returning is the act of atonement.
And the act of returning is, indeed, a good thing. 

Sin and repentance are part of this human condition. 

“The Torah stresses the essential duality of human nature: we’re usually ruled by nature and submit to its imperatives, but we also can shape our own futures through acts of will and intelligence,” wrote Jewish demographer Gary Rubin. “From its very beginning, the Torah sets forth both possibilities. How we turn out is largely up to each of us.”

In a play, it is possible to develop characters who do not sin or sin continuously.  For us, life is somewhere in between. 

Consider this:

The movie Casualties of War  by David Rabe tells the story of a squad of soldiers which fought in the Vietnam War. It is based  on a true story.  While there the soldiers both saw and participated in some terrible crimes. One of their crimes was to abduct and rape a young Vietnamese girl. The lead role in the film is played by Michael J. Fox. He takes on the character of Private Erikson, a soldier who is part of the squad but did not join in the abduction and rape.

As he struggles with what happened, he says to the other men in his squad, “Just because each of us might at any second be blown away, we’re acting like we can do anything we want, as though it doesn’t matter what we do. I’m thinking it’s just the opposite. Because we might be dead in the next split second, maybe we have to be extra careful what we do. Because maybe it matters more. Maybe it matters more than we ever know.”

As his character said: Maybe it matters more than we ever know.

It matters more than we ever know because life is so complex, so inter-related.  What we do affects us, but also others, and impacts their lives and relationships.  We need to be honest and upfront and always do our best.

Do we have time to help those less fortunate by giving and serving meals to the needy?  By donating to our Kol Nidre food drive? By helping tutor those who do not speak English? By picking up trash we find at the curbside? Can we volunteer our time in any one of thousands of ways in Stamford and in our region? Our answer has to be yes. We are citizens of this earth and must help to make it a better place.  This is tikkun olam.

We need to work at our jobs and in our households to nourish and protect our families.  But we also know that we are not alone on earth, that we are part of a large global family.  That includes Ibsen’s Danish characters and those people at the AA meeting working their way out of alcoholism and other family problems.

One of my favorite Chasidic rebbes is Nachman of Bretzlav, who lived in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.  In his short life he wrote many volumes of philosophy.  On repentence he said:

“The greatest revelation of God’s glory comes when those who are furthest of all from Him draw closer; then His Name is exalted and honored above and below. It is a duty for everyone to make efforts to draw people closer to God. And no one should say, “How can I come closer to God seeing that I am so removed from Him because of my wrongdoing?” On the contrary, the further away a person is, the more God’s glory is exalted through Him when he makes an effort to return and draw close.”

This is the lesson of the High Holydays, these ten days of Repentance.  No matter who we are, no matter how far we have strayed, we can return.  And, many of us, I believe, have not strayed that far.  We are in need of fine tuning, in need of getting our lives closer to that bullseye and hitting that mark.

This holiday is also a time to be with family and friends, in addition to prayer. Be with them.  Talk with them. Enjoy them.  Draw closer to them. Let this Rosh HaShannah be your best ever. 

On behalf of me and my family, my wife Fran, and my children Ruth and Sam, and their partners Kim and Rae, I want to wish you Shannah Tovah u’Metukah, a very happy and very sweet New Year, filled with much love and peace.

Keyn Yehi Ratzon.


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