Author of "Embracing Auschwitz" and "Mensch•Marks: Life Lessons of a Human Rabbi - Wisdom for Untethered Times." Winner of the Rockower Award, the highest honor in Jewish journalism and 2019 Religion News Association Award for Excellence in Commentary. Musings of a rabbi, journalist, father, husband, poodle-owner, Red Sox fan and self-proclaimed mensch, taken from essays, columns, sermons and thin air. Writes regularly in the New York Jewish Week and Times of Israel.
Wednesday, September 20, 2023
In This Moment: Yom Kippur Plus 50 Years, Yizkor Names
In This Moment
Thank you to Rep. Jim Himes for delivering some of his home-hive grown honey last week, in honor of Rosh Hashanah.
As I prepare to deliver the 137th and 138th - and final - High Holiday sermons of my time at TBE, here are a few lines worth repeating from last weeks' sermons.
A program note: During the break on Yom Kippur after Musaf, I'll be hosting a free-flowing discussion. Topic? Whatever you want. Could be related to the sermons, to the liturgy, or any questions you've just been waiting 37 years to ask.
My pension director tells me that maybe only a dozen Conservative rabbis in this country have remained with their congregations for this length of time. It’s a tiny pool – too small for any survey to accurately measure – and the pool is shrinking. It just doesn’t happen anymore. Once upon a time, such stability was the norm – the gold standard for a congregation. Now, research has shown thatmost pastors vacate a pulpit between the years 3 and 5, if they last that long. But somehow, we bucked those odds. It wasn’t easy. But it is easy to take that remarkable accomplishment for granted. I certainly don’t. I am totally aware that this is not just any old goodbye, and for many of you, it’s as hard for you as it is for me – and for some maybe even harder. So, we are a unicorn. I say “we” because this is as much your accomplishment as mine. In this congregation’s 102-year history, there have been essentially just three senior rabbis, with a few short-term flame-outs mixed in. I understand that for each of you, this transition is something different. I’ve known some of you for thirty years, others for two weeks. But they’ve been two good weeks! And now, each of those clocks is synchronized, as we count down inexorably toward zero.
But here’s a paradox. We are so sidetracked by all the multitasking, we’re so busy being busy, that we’ve lost control of time and we neglect to do those things that have to be done. As life whizzes by faster, we increasingly procrastinate, and put off that phone call to a sick relative; the “I love you” to a partner or child; that letter to an elected official; that volunteer project. There is always something else to do. And just as we’re about to do it, a banner pops up on the screen, interrupting our train of thought. I’m a notorious procrastinator. I wrote this sermon yesterday. Well, not really, but where Hillel said, “If not now, when?” my motto is, “If not now, later!”
From a God’s eye view, the Jewish people will be here in thousands of years because we’ve already proven that we can last thousands of years. For a hundred generations our ancestors prayed to return to Jerusalem three times daily. A hundred generations. If just one generation had stopped facing Jerusalem, we wouldn’t be here. Each person mattered. Each prayer recited by each person – it mattered. I wouldn’t bet against the Jewish people, despite the great challenges we face now, here and in Israel. I wouldn’t bet against us, and not because of God (which I can say from this God’s eye view) but because of each of you. Each of you matters. And I know you’ll come through. Why? Because you are here today! Something mysterious has drawn you back here today.
Today is Shabbat. The very fact that Shabbat supersedes Rosh Hashanah, and we don’t blow the shofar today, is a key sign that, from the Jewish perspective, the relentless march of time needs to pause and take a back seat to this weekly taste of eternity. It’s a lesson we need to learn, even if it means delaying our shofar gratification for one day. And we need to sit back and cherish our remaining time together. Rosh Hashanah is all about our rush to get things done. Shabbat is about the appreciation of what we’ve done already. Rosh Hashanah is the forced rush of a Tekia Gedola, creating waves of sound. Shabbat is a light breeze that ripples across the surface of the water. Hayom Harat Olam – Today the world is born, but we’ll hold our breath one more day before celebrating that birthday tomorrow, with the shofar’s blast.
We are all on different clocks. We walk at different speeds. We learn at different paces. We pray in different rhythms. But in the end, we can’t mark time alone. All our clocks chime differently, but our goal should be to make them chime in harmony. Teach us to count our days – to measure those paces, so that our hearts may be guided by kindness, as we hold out our hand to help our siblings shuffling with a numbing fear through the rain-soaked lot at Panera. And as I held my brother’s hand, drenched in that parking lot, and saw how dependent he was on me and in a strange way vice versa, I realized that however we mark time, our time is meant to be shared.
Judaism can help us in a number of ways, to 1) establish ethical guidelines for programming and implementation of A.I., 2) to warn us of the dangers of playing God and playing with fire; and 3) to drill into our minds the distinction between that which is Melachti – artificial – and Amiti – real. The Hebrew word for real is also the word for truth. What a brilliant concept!
We need ten for a minyan. But when we count a minyan, we say, traditionally, “Not one, not two, not three.” Because even when we need a specific number of people, we never reduce people into becoming specific numbers – we never assign their personhood a value that is less than infinity.
In the Talmud, (Yoma 22b) Rabbi Eleazar says: Whosoever counts Israel, transgresses a [biblical] prohibition, as it is said (Hosea 22:1): ‘Yet the number of the children of Israel shall be as the sand of the sea, which cannot be measured.’” The commentator Rashi explains that “the evil eye has power over numbered things.” So the custom developed to try to avoid spotlighting individuals whenever counting them – even for something as important as a minyan.
Counting standardizes human beings. It creates a sameness, sets boundaries that objectify and limit us. Assigning people numbers dulls the spark of divinity within them.
Just as everything in the past 80 years was tainted by the lurking potential for nuclear annihilation, so everything now is tainted by the growing shadow of artificiality. The digital age, which held such promise, has turned out to be a Trojan horse. We are in a gargantuan struggle to reestablish the preeminence of the real.
Relationships and professional roles cannot be contrived, fabricated, planned, calculated, or programmed. True relationship cannot be “artificial.” Paradoxically the most difficult of all things to achieve, is to be, simply, oneself.
To have known me here for these past 36 years is to know that I have always looked at religion from the prism of the humanities, not as doctrine but as lived experience, not as something supernatural but something very down to earth, a product of the human condition and a contributor toward human flourishing. Lo Bashamayim hee– it says in Deuteronomy. “It’s not in the heavens.” “This thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart.” Religion is right here – in your heart. That’s what’s real – and our sacred wisdom reminds us of precisely that.
Yizkor Books have a special place in Jewish history. The first Yizkor book, or in Yiddish “Memorbuch,” was produced in 1296 in Nuremberg by Isaac ben Samuel of Meiningen, to commemorate the victims of the previous two centuries of persecution since the First Crusade in 1096. The publication of Yizkor books was one of the earliest ways in which the Holocaust was communally commemorated. A memorial book about the Jewish community of Łódź was produced in New York City in 1943. It was the first of more than 900 of this type that were subsequently published. See Wikipedia article, and numerous Yizkor books from the Yiddish Book Center, the Jewish Gen Yizkor Book Center and a list of Yizkor Books at the Library of Congress.
Dateline Zion (Jewish Review of Books) - In September 1941, the students of Poland’s Mir yeshiva found themselves in the Japanese city of Kobe, having fled Hitler’s advancing forces via Siberia. As the Jewish new year approached, they found themselves confronted with an urgent dilemma: on what day should they observe Yom Kippur? Nobody had yet clarified where Jewish law places the international dateline—a question first raised in the 12th century—and it was possible that they were to its east.
"This Is the Yom Kippur of..." (Mosaic) -In the wake of the Yom Kippur War, the words yom kippur shel, “the Yom Kippur of,” have referred in Israeli speech to any debacle that might have been prevented by better judgment.