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Rosh Hashanah 5777

07/02/17 11:26:24 AM


On a cold fall day in 1925, Erev Yom Kippur, worshippers gathered in front of Mordechai Kaplan's new synagogue, the Society for the Advancement of Judaism on the Upper West side of Manhattan.  The synagogue, founded only a few years before in 1922, was in many ways a great experiment.  According to Kaplan, this was the place where North American Jews could gather and try to reconcile the core of Jewish tradition with the realities of living in the contemporary Jewish world.  Here this new and diverse group of Jews, some only barely removed from the tight knit community of the shtetl, could make sense of Jewish tradition and learn to hold on to their identity amid the challenges of a very different kind of daily life.   A few years before, the first Bat Mitzvah, of Kaplan’s own daughter, was celebrated at SAJ, and Kaplan and the community leaders were always willing to do whatever was necessary to make Judaism more meaningful and stronger.

As was the case every year, the congregation was looking forward to hearing the cantor recite the Kol Nidre prayer, and for many this was the highlight of the entire experience of the High Holidays.  But Kaplan, always opinionated, and above all believing that he and those in his community should never be hypocritical in their words or actions, had his own opinions about the prayer, and saw the prayer as “unspiritual”.  He liked the melody, but was bothered by the focus on the annulment of vows, the focus on contracts, not kedusha or holiness.  He knew that the prayers were about vows between God and people, not between people, but worried that his congregants might use it as an excuse not to keep vows with one another.  Some of the businessmen in his congregation even told him this directly.   

Yet, even more problematic for Kaplan was that he felt that these Jews were overly sentimental about Kol Nidrei, that they just liked it without really understanding what it meant.  Or in Kaplan’s own words: “The reason Kol Nidre is permitted to occupy so important a place is that the people have no idea of what it is about. The pious emotions that it evokes, if it does that at all, have nothing to do with its contents.”

So what did Kaplan do?  He decided to get rid of Kol Nidre.  Let’s just say his congregants were not happy.  In 1927, Kaplan came up with a compromise--the melody would stay the same, but the words would be replaced with the much less controversial words of Psalm 130.  And if anyone wanted to say the original words of the prayer, they could do so silently, after the chanting of the Psalm was completed.  

It took a few more years, before Kol Nidre was brought back into the service in its original form.  Kaplan's attempt, at least in this case, to make Judaism meaningful for his community failed in part because with Kol Nidre, he was not able to see exactly what his new vision of Judaism was proposing--that everyone connects with Judaism in their own way--that Jewish practice and belief allow us to access them on many different levels--intellectual, mystical, musical.  We never know how each of these levels of connection will interact, and we can’t give up on the traditions of the past, simply because they don’t make sense.  And we also know that sometimes Jewish tradition, Jewish identity is something that is far more mysterious than a connection to meaning or melody.  Kaplan wanted people to connect to Judaism, and as he eventually realized, if this happened through one of the most challenging pieces of our High Holiday Liturgy, so be it.  

But Kaplan’s mother knew what he was doing, and she did not hold back her thoughts as she wrote in a letter to her son--and this is really what she said:   “You are destroying Judaism. Do you understand what you are doing to yourself? I will not tell you what you are doing to me and maybe to your father in his grave…. I am too weak now I cannot write more. Be well and happy with your family. Your mother.”

We are living in a very different world than Mordechai Kaplan was, and today, our Jewish community is far more diverse and also more segmented than even a few decades ago.  For much of Jewish history, being Jewish was not a choice--you were born Jewish, lived in a community with other Jews, married Jews and raised Jewish children.  Choices about which synagogue to join or which school to send your kids were not the questions as much as the simple understanding that Judaism was an inherent part of the journey of life.  

 If we could ask our great grandparents, and those who came before us why they were Jewish what would they say?  Would they say it was because they were inspired by prayer or religious services?  Would they say it was their belief, or their non-belief in God?  Would they say it was because a connection to the Holy Land?  I have a feeling they would say above all that being Jewish is simply who they are; it is a way of being, a way of existing in the world, and a way of bringing meaning into their lives.  And they knew they could not leave it to others to keep Judaism strong.  

On this Rosh Hashanah, on this new year, the time of transition in our community, we all are called on to explore how we are grow and change as a community and as individuals.  What is the role of change in Jewish life but more specifically the delicate interplay of our individual identities and choices as they confront the seemly stable and ancient walls of Jewish life?  What are our motivations as individuals to stay involved in Jewish community, and what is the role of that community in the greater world?  Don’t worry- I promise that Kol Nidre will stay when you come to services next week, but this is the time for a new conversation.

As we start on this exploration, we have to first look at what makes our generation, all of us sitting here today different than generations past.  

More than enough essays have been written on the “I generation”, the generation of young people who have been raised as proud members of the community of the internet, whose friendships are organized on their phone and whose identity is both much more splintered and in many ways much more nuanced than in previous generations.  For this generation, and really for anyone who has access to Google, to kindles or digital TV, some would say the mysteries of life, the questions are more easily answered.  As my colleagues and I often joke, who needs a rabbi when the Googler rebbe is always ready with an answer!  

We can learn about anything we want, we can read the news and updates from Facebook friends around the block, or watch lives videos from events taking place on the other side of the world.  And this is not all junk--if we just stick to the wonderful Jewish news sites and online magazines, even I find myself relaxing in a pool of scholarly joy, filling myself with the learning I crave yet overwhelmed at the same time.  When there is too much to learn too much to pay attention to we need something that gives that us the blessed opportunity to step away and instead of taking meaning from media, sit and make meaning for ourselves, learning and growing along with others.  This of course has always been the role of a spiritual community, and we need it now more than ever.  

The sense of being overwhelmed by information and needing to step back is not new.  We know that we have so much to learn.  We know we want to grow more spiritually, but the distractions of life are sometimes just too much.  Some might not want to come to the synagogue because they believe strongly that they are atheists, others might live too far away, or there are simply too many other people and activities pulling them in too many directions. With too much information, too many choices, we sometimes can give up before we have even started.  We want information to help us make sense of our ideas, and to bring us into connection with other people.  But it is not always so easy.

There is a midrash that says this well:


They tell the sloth, “your teacher is in nearby city.  Go and learn Torah from him.”

He responds, “I fear a lion is on the highway.”

“Your teacher is in your own city.”

“I fear a lion in the streets.”

“You teacher is in your home.”

“I am afraid a lion is inside.”

“Your teacher is in a room inside your home.”

“I am afraid that if I rise from bed, the door will be locked.”

“But the door is open.”

And what does this searcher finally decide?

“I need a little more sleep.”


On this New Year we are asked to look at everything with fresh eyes, to transform the mundane into the spiritual, to begin to fix what is broken in our lives, and to turn back to the core of our spiritual selves.  This Teshuva, this turning involves a necessary action, a movement, and involvement and exploration of our identity, our place in the world and our relationships with others.  In a very important way, it also means gaining a openness to explore and step back from the business of our lives and to try to regain a sense of awe, and to use this to make change where it is needed.  No you don’t need to come to a Shabbat service every week, but you need to give yourself permission to open yourselves to holy moments and at least reach towards the sparks which can connect us to each other and to ourselves.

As Adin Steinsaltz is quoted in the beginning of our Machzor:  “The main thrust of Teshuva is indeed to show the definite intention of changing the scheme of things” (pg. 2).  And change involves first the ability to keep our eyes and our hearts open to see where this change is needed.

Our tradition tells us that Abraham and Sarah, whom we met in the Torah reading today were not simply given Judaism by God, they discovered Judaism because they were intensely curious and open people.  Abraham was a person who was a ponderer, was always daydreaming and asking questions.  Maimonides points out how important it was that Abraham “discovered” monotheism--that he was not simply given this truth by God but found it on his own by looking up at the stars and planets and simply being in awe of the miraculous nature of their existence, by asking questions, and by exploring on his own the joys of living an ethical life and literally opening his tent to others.  

Or there is the Midrash of Moses who only encountered God, after being attentive enough to see the burning bush that everyone walked past.  Or Miriam who with unbridled joy and song, gave life to the Israelites through their wanderings through the desert.  Or much later, Rebbe Nachman or Bretzlov who would sit in his Cheder, his school, and look out the window and daydream, and who saw music, beauty and Torah in the trees and flowers surrounding his village.  

We can’t be afraid of finding God, finding the deepest of Jewish connections, finding spirit in the wilderness or those places that we already see as holy.

These are descriptions of holy people, Jewish people whose identity was formed first by an innate sense of awe at the mysteries they encountered, and people who gained meaning by their own experiences and the adventures of life.  Using contemporary terms, we would definitely call all of these people deeply “spiritual”, but I am not sure what they make of the formality of contemporary synagogue life.  For a people who grew up in wandering, we all need to remember the soul, the spark of Jewish life exists in these experiences of wonder and awe--in a life filled by exploration, by the mysteries inherent in nature, and by endless questions.  

But this is not to say in any way that synagogue life, synagogue community is not a key part of living Jewishly.  The space, this kehillah, this place of gathering, is where we give ourselves that blessed opportunity to encounter others and to share and explore the spiritual life together.  This is where we learn from each others own wanderings, even it is just one of the spaces where we can make this spiritual home.

And this of course, is one of the reasons why we gather in community in the first place.  For those who choose, we step beyond our individual spaces, we leave our homes, and make our way to sit in this communal space with others.  I assume many of you feel what I am feeling right now--what a profound blessing it is to simply be with so many others who are gathered together to reflect and grow!

Jewish community, synagogues, give us a regular opportunity to see others.  And part of the blessing of gathering together is the simple joy in seeing others whose stories have in some way crossed ours.  Some choose to regularly attend services, and others are see each other a few times a year.  But we are told that even being together for a moment, seeing a friend sharing an experience that one hasn't had in awhile deserves a bracha.  The Talmud reminds  us of this with a dose of sarcasm:

Rabbi Joshua ben Levi said: One who sees a friend after a lapse of 30 days says: “ Blessed is God who has kept us alive and preserved us and brought us to this season.”  If after a lapse of 12 months, he says “Blessed is God who revives the dead”.  (Berachot 58b)

The simple act of encountering each other again after time apart is a miracle in itself, deserving of a blessing as much as seeing a rainbow, or meeting a king or queen.  This is just simply how important how holy encounter and relationship really are.  Being in community, even with all of its many imperfections allows us to remember that we have many people supporting us on our life's journey, even if they are with us only part of the time.

Yet, sitting in community doesn’t fully fix the challenge of finding meaning a world that is both so broken and so in need of a place of relief.  Confronting people, being with people, means that we will also be stuck between the need to have our own needs met and having to care for and respect other people's decisions and choices.  

When we all sit in shul and sing a song together that is all fine and well, but put yourself on a shul committee and you will encounter another facet of community life, the challenge and joy of disagreement.  This too is part of community.  In fact, it is said that in the shtetls of East Europe, it was common for people in the community who had a concern or a problem with someone else to be given permission to step into a synagogue during prayers and interrupt so state their issue--making sure their voice was heard was so important that they were even allowed to interrupt the torah reading on Shabbat !

So Judaism has always left space for two important sides of community life-supporting  both our need for deepening our individual spiritual growth and for supporting and strengthening the needs of the community.  The support goes both ways.

We learn from each other, and we challenge each other, and we grow as we learn how to be with and to often make compromises in relationship with each other.  Community, especially today, provides an island from the business of a busy world.  But the challenge is, that this blessing of community, also forces us to be on a constant search for how to hold on to our individuality--that special spark that makes us unique, when we are always comparing ourselves to others.  We cannot have our identity only determined by others.  The Kotzker rebbe spoke about the importance of individuality and the challenge of holding onto it in community in one of the most linguistically wonderful few lines I have ever heard.

If I am because I am I, and you are you because you are you, then I am I and you are you.  However, if I am I because you are you, and you are you because I am I, then I am not I and you are not you. (Elkins, Hasidic Wisdom 73)

The Kotzker reminds us that community may give us meaning, but we can’t have and don't want to have our identity, our sense of self determined only by others.  To put it simply, we need community, but we also need our space.  I think what so many of us want from community life is to get support but also have the freedom to continue to be ourselves.  To survive in community, we need to give and be with others, but also give ourselves the holy space to keep our own needs and identity strong.

This constant interplay of individual and the communal needs is also found in the liturgy of the High Holidays.  As it is often pointed out, the liturgy we encounter during the Yamim Noraim is regularly said in the plural: A chet shechtanu lefanecha--for the sin we have committed before you.  Zochreinu l’chayyim--remember us for life.  We gather together reflecting on our own individual journey, sitting with our our joys and our own pains, but together we pray together.  This constant push and pull of the individual and the communal is found most succinctly in the Unetaneh Tokef prayer which say on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

In this prayer, one of the most powerful, and for some the most problematic prayers of our liturgy we are told that on Rosh Hashanah it is written and Yom Kippur it is sealed: ”how many pass on, how many shall thrive, who shall live and who shall die, who by the sword, who by the beast, who in peace who is uprooted.”  These words are often profoundly difficult to hear.  Is this how we see our lives that the good but especially the bad are simply predetermined by God?  Especially for those who have lost a loved one, these words don’t just not make sense, they simply seem like a stab in the heart.  We know that there is sometimes simply not an answer for tragedy and death, and sometimes we can’t receive comfort by being told it was “meant to be.” or that the suffering is determined by someone or something outside ourselves.

Yet, if there is a spark of redeeming the meaning of this prayer, it comes from the reminder that it offers, and it does this better than possibly better than any other piece of our liturgy—in the most clear and powerful way–it says that even with our own stories, our own brokenness and pain we are all in this together.   Our fates as individuals and as a community, all the pain and suffering we may experience in our lives, is bound up with the fates of all people---our individual selves, our community of Jews, and all people in our world.

Some may have entered this room tonight in the midst of a happy stage in life, and others may be hiding in the valleys of pain.  Our individual pain is real, our story is unique and this year some may be in a deeper place of sorrow than others.  But we by acknowledging the unexplainable tragedies that we can experience in life, we recognize that the best solution, possibly the only solution is to be together and support each other.  When we ask the tough questions or even get angry at what the world has thrown at us, we know that others will be there to cry along with us.  And when we climb out of these valleys or reach the mountain tops of joy, we will have our community with which to dance.  This, plain and simple, is the meaning of living a spiritual life.

When we gather at this time of year to do the deepest of soul searching, those true acts of teshuvah, of returning, this is when we sit BOTH as individuals on a unique journey and a members of a community of disparate and needy souls.  We are not all the same, but everyone suffers, everyone lives.  This is exactly what we read in the liturgy: “All of humanity is founded on dust, of dust they are made, and dust they shall return;

And today, we have to simply accept some truths about what it means to be Jewish, and what we need to do to build and strengthen ourselves and our Jewish community.  We accept that Jews have many identities, that being Jewish may be only one of many layers of who we are.  We accept and celebrate the diversity of our Jewish family, interfaith families, people with different gender identities, political views, cultural backgrounds and histories.  And this acceptance should bring us to a place of great joy as we gain strength and pride from the wealth of learning and spirit that takes place when we share our unique stories.  

We have to then build communities that give Jews what they need to make Judaism alive, meaningful and connected to all of our different identities which we have the freedom to hold in the contemporary world.  We have to see Judaism as a true civilization, as Mordechai Kaplan would have it, where our Jewish selves can be quenched from the deepest wells of Jewish life and culture.  We have to continue to strengthen our space of prayer, and make this a religious and spiritual home, but also a place to be together, to socialize and learn and to build relationships.  

We can make more opportunities to gather outside of Shabbat, a strong and active youth group for kids, retreats, classes, ideas to explore for both kids and adults, profound and real challenges in the classroom and on the trail.  We are a strong community, and our doors have always been wide open to all, and we are indebted to the legacy of Rabbi Ron and everyone who helped build and participated in this community since its creation.  And on this New Year, I hope we can open our doors even wider.  We need to make sure that this continues to be a place of connection, a place of spirit rooted in tradition, but also a place that accepts people's life choices and welcomes all who are searching.

This is above all a task of creation, an artistic endeavor which invites us to bring together the wisdom of all generations--those who grew up bathed in the comfort of Yiddishkeit and the connection with the Jewish past to those who might feel lost or constantly searching.  We start with the books with the texts and the prayers, but can bring them forward to a new generation that needs much more than words and scrolls.  We can use the power of technology, the internet and social networking to spread the wisdom and make it more accessible to all, but also head back into the simple spiritual cores of our tradition, the meditation and the song, the reflective learning ,to remind ourselves why it all matters in the first place.

In the worlds of a certain generation, we need to rock it.  We need to bring our Judaism outside, and bring the stories and traditions of our people into our hearts.  Shiru ladonai shir hadash, we need to sing new songs, play with new programs and make ourselves more visible to a community that is in need of just what we have to offer. What might seem to be doing things new, to be experimental or making changes, is really just bringing back the traditions of the our constantly evolving Jewish civilization.  

Rabbi Niles Elliot Goldstein puts it well:  

Judaism when presented in its best and most authentic light doesn't coddle--it confronts.  I wouldn’t have it any other way.  Who want to be part of a religion that treats us with kid gloves?  By challenging us to see the world and ourselves in new ways, by taking us out of our comfort zones and placing us squarely into contexts that are sometimes unfamiliar and unsettling--that is how we evolve and mature.  With self awareness comes self affirmation, and a stronger and deeper appreciation of life. (40)

The profoundly uncomfortable worlds of Unetaneh Tokef, the unbridled joy of Purim, the deeply serious and often loud  arguments that fill both the Talmud and many of our  Shabbos tables, the tears that flow freely when we sit in shiva and mourn the loss of a loved one.  No one said that Judaism was meant to be easy.  But we also can’t expect Judaism to work for us unless we take the steps to make it our own.  If you don’t like something, if you don’t connect, then get up and try to figure out why.  Tell your rabbi, tell me, teach each other, and don’t give up on making Judaism meaningful-- we can learn together how we can reclaim the power, the primal strength of Jewish tradition and find a pathway for it to reach our souls.

There is a Hasidic idea, Hitlahavut, an inner burning fire, a passion which has its roots in prayer but can arise in anything we encounter in life.  This is the spark which you feel when you are involved in a project that gives you a sense of purpose and meaning, or when you hear a talk that hits you with its simple power and truth, or a relationship or conversation that it is so easy and honest.  We have all had these moments.  These are the moments where life seems to make sense, where there is an excitement and a sacredness that shines through.

And isn't this what we want?  Isn’t this what we are searching for?  We want to have the sparks of passion grow, be inspired and continue to have moments filled with wonder.

What this process of teshuvah that we work towards on this holy day asks us to do, is to turn back, looking beyond ourselves, our own beliefs, practices, fears, and challenges of how we are Jewish, to our ancestors and to the deepest source of our cultural heritage and traditions.  We need each other to create the sparks of holiness in our lives.  

Judaism is changing, but it always has been.  I hope that during this season of Teshuva we can hold on to the strength of what has held us together for so long, but also move beyond what has held us back--as individuals and as a Jewish community.    I hope that we can return to a Jewish self that fills us with pride and with a knowledge that Judaism, Jewish people, each and every one of us are worth the thousands of years of history that came before us today.   May this be our task, and our blessing in the new year.

Tue, June 2 2020 10 Sivan 5780