Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Why?  To Belong, To Do What We Do & To Be Community
Yom Kippur 5779

Imagine for a moment that you were not here, not sitting in this sacred space, in those seats, next to these people, on this Yom Kippur day, the holiest day in our Jewish calendar.  Where would you be?  What would you be thinking… watching… doing?  Now, considering these fresh ideas and thought experiment in your mind, and ask yourself why you are here?  Why have you chosen to be here?  In this place?  At this moment?  Ponder the motivations, the inspiration and the drive for being here, in this sacred space, at this exact moment during the Jewish calendar. 

When was the last time you shared that with someone?  When, if ever, have you explored with others, Jews and non-Jews, the why of your Jewish identity and participation? 

In asking this question, the why, we are searching for reason and purpose.  The spiritual drive to plan our Fall Season with these Yamim Noraim - Days of Awe - as the anchor is for some a function of not being able to imagine being anywhere else.  For others it is the realization that our heritage, our identity calls to us from deep within to be Here…Now.  Maybe it is about striving to learn something new, about ourselves, about our world….about Judaism.

Earlier this month, Jack Wertheimer, a professor at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, wrote a piece published in the Wall Street Journal.  It was titled:  Why Go to Synagogue Once a Year?  The tag line of the title:  Some Jews only show up for the High Holy Days.  They’re still getting a lot out of it.  He shares varied responses about people’s motivations.  Like, “A nagging sense of obligation…”, or “…they renew their ties to family,” he reported.  He was clear to point out the motivations of different age groups writing that, “Millennials who normally value their independence seem to relish the opportunity to sit in the same row of the synagogue with their parents like they did as children.  For older Jews whose parents may no longer be alive, the familiar melodies of the High Holy Day liturgy and the unique rituals of the services may evoke memories of childhood.”  Wertheimer shares a number of perceived benefits felt by many attending these Holy Day services.  Yet, it is something in the comments that truly caught my attention.  One respondent shared the following: 

When I was a little girl I went to services with my dad every Shabbos. We belonged to a Conservative shul and he was their sole Torah reader. One Rosh Hashanah I noticed a larger crowd than we normally see and tugged on my dad’s Tallis. I asked,  “Dad who are all these people?”

We all join in this ritual of these special days for our own reasons, for our own purposes.   Some come to connect with an ancient tradition, seeking a space in time to reflect and consider.  Others are here to be with you, to be with each other - our Temple family.  Still others seek to carry on and perpetuate this ancient gift of our Jewish heritage.  And some even are here because that God idea of a Divinity sitting in judgment on this day, however far off from our daily understanding of the world it may be, urges us to be present and live out this ritual.   

So, I have to wonder what this respondent’s father said in return.  Did he engage in a conversation about “why” we come to this place, these synagogues?  Or perhaps this father took his daughter around to meet those she did not recognize, encouraging her to learn from them about their motivations, their ‘why’s. 

I remember vividly my first high holy days away from home.  In college, in Madison, WI, we had an amazing resource in our Hillel House.  Yet, after that first Rosh Hashanah away from what I knew, I immediately booked a bus ticket to Chicago for the following week.  I went to join my grandparents, may their memories be for a blessing, to be with them on Yom Kippur.  That following week, I found myself not in the familiar confines of my home congregation, but rather seated in the second row, on the rabbi’s side - because that’s where we sat since the building was built - with my grandparents and my aunt.  The magnetic pull to this place, not the physical structure of the Temple, but to being with family, in the familiar embrace of loved ones, was strong.

For many of us, the sense of community is the answer to ‘why’ we are here.  We are drawn by the familiar embrace.  It is the community, the prayers themselves, the words of Torah we will hear that pulls us at this time of year.  It is a search for meaning, a spiritual connection to what these holy days offer us that brings us to this moment.  It is the connection to the person on your left, to the person on your right - take a moment now, acknowledge those share this moment with them. 

When we speak about community we recognize it as a noun.  It is a ‘thing’, it is a collection of individuals with shard values, purpose, perhaps even mission.  Yet, in Hebrew we can use the word for community - קהילה - as a verb too.  In the Book of Exodus, as Moses is shepherding us out of Egypt, Torah teaches us that - ויקהל משה - that Moses communitied the community.  When we ask the question as to ‘why’ we are here, what draws us not just at this time, but throughout the year to connect with our Jewish identity, it is a verb - it is active - we are doing community. 

Engaging in this exercise of these High Holy Days is not only about reciting these ancient words and living out the rituals; it is not only about the reflection and introspection demanded of us at this time of year; it is not only about seeking meaning, spirituality and connection.  This is also about our sense of belonging, about a passion we have for being a part of this people.  In my mother’s words, we are in search of a self-identifiable sense of belonging.  Mom, I asked, what does that mean?  It is, she said, the drive within us to self identify as a Jew by experiencing, by experimenting with rituals, with values and with the relationships that bind us to this people.

Sure, we can explore this on our own.  Many of us do.  There are many here who frequent this space and engage in Jewish life, learning and practice on a regular basis.  There are others who spend most of their time in other communities, like our own, engaged in our treasured Judaism.  And, there are still others, who are like those flocks of people that Wertheimer is referring to in his article who come once, or a few times a year.  This is not at all a condemnation of our individual choices.  Let me be clear, and let me say this positively.  I am honored, I am delighted, better - we are honored and delighted that each and every one of you is here, in this moment.  And, I hope we’re all asking ourselves this question about why we are here, now.     

When we ask this question of ‘why’, when each and every one of us asks this question we sensitize ourselves to the reality of community, to our longing for belonging.  Dr. Kenneth Pelletier of the Stanford Center for Research and Disease Prevention writes,  “A sense of belonging appears to be a basic human need - as basic as food and shelter.  In fact, social support may be one of the critical elements distinguishing those who remain healthy from those who become ill.”  The response to the why for many of us just might be this sense of belonging.  We are here to be connected, to embrace and be embraced by those around us because it feels good to know we belong.  We all know the entirely cliche idea of being a member of the tribe.  Yet, this kind of tribe, so long as it does not breed isolation, builds us up with confidence in who each of us is as an individual, as part of a people and as part of humanity. 

At the risk of breaking out in song, “Sometimes you want to go, Where everybody knows your name.”  This time of year, this space, draws us to belong, to check in so that the knots holding us together are checked, tightened and re-tied.  When we stand for the Kol Nidre, we do so as a community.  We know that our individual moments of misdeed and wrongdoing are before us to remedy, yet we are built up even strengthened by navigating this reality with those around us, a community, a people to whom we belong.  During the Vidui, our liturgical confession, we utter words in the first person plural - V’al Chet She’Chatanu - for the sin WE have committed.  This is a communal, people-hood action.  The exercise of these days is done in the circles of community to which we belong.  Perhaps, the why for our presence here and now is because we belong.

Often, and perhaps this is many of us here now, we as Jews express our reason, our purpose for being here, engaged in this ancient, even archaic series of rituals is because it is what we Jews do.  We cannot imagine being anywhere else on this Day of Atonement.  This is born out of the shared history of our people and the heritage of our faith.  Even more, it is the memory that is collectively ours that stirs our neshama - Jewish soul - during this extended moment of the High Holy Days.

There is a concept in our Judaism of the shalshelet hakabbalah - the chain of tradition.  When we return at this time of year, when we celebrate Jewishly the cycles of life, when we study Torah, when the Jewish calendar is lived through and by us, we are solidifying our link in that chain.  In his recent book, A Passion for a People, Avraham Infeld, a renowned Jewish Educator, author and thinker shares a story about this link and what binds us together through our shared story.  He writes about his arrival on the campus of Hebrew University in Jerusalem to begin his studies in Physics:

On the first day of school, I was walking towards the physics department, and all of a sudden I saw an extremely beautiful young lady walking toward the history department…. so I decided to major in Jewish history instead… and today, she is the great-grandmother of my great grandchildren!  I just had to explain the change of plan to my father.  I sent him a letter and, in those pre-digital days, I got a telex back, greatly annoyed.  Not with me, but with the Hebrew University.  “What??” he wrote, “the Hebrew University has a department of Jewish history!  Are they crazy!  There is no such thing as Jewish history!  Jews don’t have history.  We Jews have memory!”

Infeld went on writing:  Today I know that my father was 100% correct.  Memory and history are related but not the same, and memory is the base of Jewish identity…A Jew is a person who remembers what happened to the Jewish People in the past; a Jew is a person who is strictly forbidden from suffering long-term memory loss!    

What Infeld teaches with this insight, is that we are not able to unlink that chain.  While many stray from the rituals, the rites and even the visible testaments to our place in that chain, we are part of it.  When we ask the question of reason and purpose, the why about our engagement in this treasured heritage, for some, the answer is:  Because we remember it is our shared memory, our shared past and honor it by ensuring our link is strong. 

Whether it is belonging or the simplistic response of because we are supposed to be here that draws us in and embraces us, there is more.  Judaism represents for us, also, the possibility of learning, growing and becoming through our presence.  Not only on these High Holy Days, but by plugging into Jewish life.  This tradition of ours provides us an array of tools, of practices and even beliefs that when engaged with, can enhance our quality of life.    

When we are open, and willing to explore the sense of community, the feeling of belonging, the collective memory we answer this question of why.  We can eat challah and light the Hannukiyah, we can ask the Four Questions and donate to Jewish organizations.  And these are crucial to this Jewish people’s existence.  Yet, when we learn and engage, when we create and evolve our Judaism through our own learning we expand that answer too.  We cannot only light those lights and recite those words because we belong to a people who does this and does that.  We must not only taste the foods that bring a sense of nostalgia and support Jewish causes because it makes us feel we belong.  We must also ask the why during those moments too.  In this way, in the exploration of why, we have the potential for Judaism to not only survive but also thrive. 

Simon Sinek, the personality behind the third most watched Ted Talk, provides us a paradigm shift.  He explores the idea of asking this crucial question of:  Why.  He teaches that every organization, each person perhaps, operates on three levels:  What we do, How we do it and why we do it.  We are really good at knowing the what and the how, he says.  What do we do?  We celebrate Jewish holidays, prepare our children for B’nai Mitzvah, support one another and celebrate together.  How do we do it?  We have rituals and cultural foods, we use the Hebrew language to prepare our young people and we mark time and lives with celebration and support in times of grief and mourning. 

Because we belong?  Because its what Jews do?  Yes…and there is more.  If we can learn, if we can explore and if we can respond to this question on ever deeper levels, we can discover greater meaning in our Judaism.

On Rosh Hashanah, Rabbi Alan Rabishaw reminded his congregation:  That call to Abraham to go forth was a challenge of faith that inspired him to pursue a faith we now call Judaism—a faith in which God actually needs human beings to create a world where elevating others is at the heart of life’s purpose.  Torah, God, sacred journey must lead us to love each other, or it leads nowhere at all.

When Torah teaches us that Abraham and Sarah, and those inspired by their message will be a blessing, we discover part of our Why.  We learn that we are to be blessings in what we do and how we do it.  Using and engaging with Judaism and Jewish life enables us to realize our ‘why’ of being blessing.  Rabbi Jonathan Blake wrote in a D’var Torah about the meaning of Synagogue:  God migrates to and from the world of human affairs in accordance with our ethical attentiveness or inattentiveness. Behavior matters more than a building. Indeed, the fulfillment of mitzvot on behalf of others, compassionate action for people in pain, and tzedakah for people in need can all make God's Presence more noticeable in the world. And the synagogue is the primary Jewish engine for organizing people into communities of caring. 

This place, the physical space we felt compelled to enter on this Holy Day is the “engine for organizing” us, the Jewish people, so that we can care…so that we can study and learn, live and celebrate, share and teach our Judaism.  When we ask the question of “Why” we enable ourselves to be open to all of our possible responses.  In asking others about their “Why”, we can discover what drives us forward as community, as a people.  When belonging is expressed and felt, when we do Jewish because it is just what we do we are beginning to own our reason and purpose as members of this collective memory some call Jewish history. 

When our ranks swell at this time of year, we recognize there are many answers to this question of “why” and something about this time of year, this particular ritual of the High Holy Days illicit such a response.  Maybe it is belonging.  Perhaps it is just what we do.  May we allow this space, the literal space of the synagogue and the spiritual space of community and peoplehood, stir us to answer this question of why.  May we respond by learning more an more to be blessing and elevate others.  May we answer that call to be communitied as a community of caring.  May whatever led us here, today, continue to lead us to cherish this treasured heritage to continue the journey of being the Jewish people.

G’mar Chatimah Tovah - May We all be Sealed for a Good Year
Good Yontif and Shanah Tovah

Monday, September 10, 2018

The Share in our Human Story Because of our Fundamental Dignities: 
Overcoming ‘Other-ness’  — Rosh Hashanah 5779
Rabbi Evon J. Yakar

While some of this may be apocryphal, the gist of the story remains.  That is the story of how the United States Information Agency decided to send a theater production to other nations in the late 1960s choosing a show that most represented American values and beliefs.  One piece, it is told, debuted in Russia, was show cased in Germany, Austria and its tour concluded in Japan.  This production, this musical, was none other than Fiddler on the Roof.  Following the debut, a Tokyo theater critic wrote, “Still not quite sure why this would be so popular in America.”  Following this, he continued to write, “Because the story is so Japanese!”

Stories often have a life of their own.  From one perspective, the tale of Fiddler is one of old and new country, it is a tale of minority and majority.  Yet, it is also a tale of family, a family drama that is, apparently, ubiquitous across cultural divides and one that bridges over language barriers.  Story telling is, while not uniquely so, a fundamental Jewish activity.  It is through stories, those from our Torah to those of our lives, that we embrace important values and are embraced by their plot.  We are embraced because when we hear them, and perhaps when we tell them too, we feel a part of the story, we envision ourselves as part of them, as one of the roles, perhaps more than one of the roles throughout our lives, over our life span. 

Since last December, a youth opera program wrote and ran multiple showings of “Moses.”  An opera based on “The Story of Moses.”  It is the story we know well of slavery and freedom, of oppressor and oppressed of refugee and the search for home.  This national epic of ours holds various perspectives and engages its readers, in this case the audiences, in recognizing that these perspectives can be viewed as our own OR belonging to others.  Yet, without the whole story, without each role following its script, the story fails, it comes apart at the seams.  Without Pharaoh as head taskmaster and without God hardening his heart a stitch comes loose.  Without Moses demanding a shift of paradigm, of power and of control the threads come further undone.  Without a promised destination of a better tomorrow, yet another stitch comes loose.  The story of Moses works precisely because it can be told from all of these perspectives.  The sense of “other-ness” is a reality in the tale and yet only once that other-ness fades, and each player recognizes each other player as human, as valuable, as honorable, as unique can that promised destination of a better tomorrow come into view. 

I read about this opera last month in the New York Times.  While it may come as a surprise, it is from the Bavarian State Opera’s youth program in Munich.  It is a production embracing the stories of born and raised Bavarians as well as the Kurdish, Greek, French and Arabic speaking refugees and immigrants.  These youth actors embrace this production and the roles they play in the story because, as they say in their own words, “We tell the story of Moses because it is actually our story.”  And others chimed in:  “The story of Moses is also my story,” echoing in their various mother tongues. 

For some of us when we heard about what we may view as the co-opting of our Moses, our Exodus, our national origin story, we may distance ourselves, we may create division and other-ness.  In Germany, of all places, where we, the Jews, were distinguished as so much of an ‘other’ this opera was written, produced and show-cased.  Even more, the realities of the embattled international debate surrounding refugees, immigration and residents around the globe being exposed through our story may make it even harder to embrace.  Yet, this is just the purpose of such an exercise, of art imitating life.  It is in the sharing of the story, the stories we hold and the stories our lives create that other-ness can be supplanted by same-ness.  We can share the story by telling our own and listening to others’.  Yet we can go even further in sharing of the stories themselves; sharing especially the human story, a story that belongs to each and every one of us.  Regardless of race, religion or ethnicity, of gender, nationality or value perspective we are all part of the creation we celebrate on this Rosh Hashanah, we are all included when our ancient rabbis command us Kavod HaBriot  - to Honor all Creations.  We are all included when we say that humans are B’Tzelem Elohim - created in the image of God.  And from these Rabbi Yitz Greenberg points out the way our Jewish tradition argues that every human being is endowed with the same three fundamental dignities of infinite value, equal value and infinite uniqueness.

Uniqueness, however, does not mean separate.  When we separate ourselves with walls rather than link with bridges, when we focus on us and them and when we fail in sharing our stories we remain as eternally other rather than knowing that we are empowered by what ties us together.  On this Rosh Hashanah, we must use the words our tradition provides us and the texts before us to honor all others, to treasure the divine spark in each other and to notice these fundamental dignities. 

In the beginning of our story, in the stories of Abraham we know well the model of hospitality our ancestor creates for us.  At the moment of his vulnerability, after his own brit milah, Abraham runs out from his tent to greet three seeming wanderers in the desert.  From this our tradition codifies a blueprint for how we ought to engage with others.  Abraham and Sarah are consummate hosts as they wash their guests’ feet, feed them and provide a place to rest.  Yet, these wanderers share in this story because we can understand the tale as guests too.  Our recent guest Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the president of the Union for Reform Judaism, points out in his time on the podcast Judaism Unbound that Abraham in that moment didn’t even realize they were bringing something to him.  From his perspective, he was bringing warmth and welcome, yet as it turns out, as the story unfolds they were coming to change his life.  In this story of hospitality we can recognize overcoming that sense of ‘other-ness’ and embracing all others as valued creations; we discover it is a two way process.  Jacobs illustrates for us the Reform Jewish principle of Audacious Hospitality with this Torah story.  He goes on to teach us that when we embrace others and share in the experience, as Abraham did, we also welcome their ideas, even their agitation, their insights and their love.  This is sharing in the story of being alive - the human story.  This sharing is a way of honoring both our part and that of others in our world.  This is what our rabbis strove for with this principle of Kavod HaBriot - Honoring all Creations.  This ideal is borne out of our deeply held belief that we are all B’tzelem Elohim - created in the image of the Divine. 

We each hold within that divine spark and for that reason alone each and every person is more than ‘other’, we are in a way, the same.  The unfolding story of human life and experience must include the ways we share in the inheritance of being in God’s image.  It cannot stop at that wall, that barrier of being ‘other’. 

Rabbi Arnold Eisen, Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City, recently wrote an important piece charging us to overcome this inclination of ‘other-ness’.  In the context of opining our obligations to others - to strangers, refugees, neighbors, to the world he wrote:

The tradition teaches that Jews bear special responsibilities to those nearest to us—family, community, and the “stranger within your gates”—and have obligations as well to all human beings, every one of whom is created in the image of God. Identity in this vision of the self is not a zero-sum game: me versus you or the group, our group versus all others. The human heart has many chambers. Our minds are enriched from multiple sources. So too our souls.

The complexity of being Jewish demands of us an allegiance to our peoplehood, and we surely treasure this connection.  Rabbi Eisen also argued that we are part of larger wholes:  Our city, our country, humanity, our world.  He puts before us the balance we must discover between our identity as part of the Jewish people and our identities connecting us to the wider community and beyond.  This balance is one way we honor all creations.  We fail when we act cruelly, when we degrade the other.  Not only is this a diminishment of the divinity of our neighbors, it is a degradation of our own selves too.  It diminishes our humanity as the opposite of the example Abraham and Sarah provide us.  In not acting to honor all others and recognize this spark we lose the opportunity to gain their ideas, their agitation, their insights and their love. 

In our own time, this is even more consequential.  In our charged reality of division, of walls and tribal-like identities, we are quick to distinguish and point out ‘other-ness’ in place of the possibility of connection.  Our obligations to all human beings begins with Kavod - honor, it grows from recognizing the reality of B’Tzelem Elohim -  being created in the image of God, and demands of us a different strategy than this label of other.  Even in argument and debate, we have something to gain by striving for sameness, for connection rather than ‘other-ness’.  When we focus on what divides it is difficult, if not impossible, to discern positive and healthy ways forward.  Yet, in the sharing of our human experience, our shared story, we can gain more and more clarity of that promised destination of a better tomorrow.  Our Jewish tradition teaches us with the instruction that the angel of victory and the angel of learning cannot be in the same room at the same time.  Our rabbis are cautioning us to strive towards learning, to leave behind the drive to win, to be right.  When we engage with our neighbors, our fellow human beings for the sake of understanding, for truth, for learning we all gain.  As the sage Rabbenu Yona teaches:  If I argue for the sake of truth, then if I win, I win.  But if I lose, I also win, because being defeated by the truth is the only defeat that is also a victory.  I am enlarged.  I learn something I did not know before.  When we acknowledge and embrace the possibility that we share with others and overcome that sense of ‘other-ness’ we engage in that two way process Rabbi Jacobs teaches, and as Eisen writes, we are enriched from multiple sources, and so too our souls. 

This is difficult, and often seems impossible.  We are challenged when our neighbors, those we often see as ‘other’, come with different perspectives, alternative views and values.  Yet, as Jews, we are moored to first principles that guide our decision making, and our approach to how we honor creations, how we recognize the divinity within all human beings.  Rabbi Yitz Greenberg is a modern authored rabbi whose storied career includes bridging the divide between Judaism and Christianity.  Much of his teachings rest on the concept that every human being, every soul has three fundamental dignities.  Drawing on our sacred Torah and ancient texts, Rabbi Yitz Greenberg contends that Judaism endows each soul with three fundamental dignities. We are all of infinite value.  We are all of equal value.  We are all infinitely unique. 

From this premise, it must be recognized that bridges are better than walls; that same-ness overcomes ‘other-ness’ and it must be that we have a share in the same story.  It is not far off from the insight offered to us from the late Senator John McCain when he wrote:  We weaken our greatness when we confuse our patriotism with tribal rivalries that have sown resentment and hatred and violence in all the corners of the globe.  We weaken it when we hide behind walls, rather than tear them down; when we doubt the power of our ideals, rather than trust them to be the great force for change they have always been.  

This is certainly no easy charge.  That of Senator McCain, nor the demand of our Jewish tradition as Rabbi Greenberg elucidates to see past the ‘other-ness’ and recognize the infinite and equal value as well as uniqueness of all.  When confronted with human beings that cause us to raise our guard against the other, we must find, or better we must create the way around that divide.  It is not only the responsibility of our neighbors to come towards us as the desert wanderers in the Abrahamic story, but also upon us to, like Abraham, rush out to meet them.  When contention enters our sphere of life, we must use the many chambers of our human heart that Rabbi Eisen reminds us reside within.  It is upon each and every one of us to mine within ourselves our innate ability to uphold these fundamental dignities, to see the divine in all and to honor. 

On Rosh Hashanah and during these Days of Awe we are given this gift of renewal, of re-adjustment and a time to focus inward so that we may rise to build those bridges and honor those connections we share in our human story.  If we leave this place unchanged, or unready for it, or if we come back next year at this time unchanged, unable to overcome, just a little bit, our anxieties of ‘other’ then this, not my words, but this work of these High Holy Days, has not worked.  We must work for that promised destination of a better tomorrow. 

We do this when we hold fast to our values, our beliefs and stand up for them, while opening our hearts to learning from all - even others.  For that is the path to overcoming that ‘other-ness’.  This challenging task is possible when we know that our story of Moses, our people’s origin story is one holding many perspectives that ought be recognized and treasured and shared.  Our sages ask the question in the Mishnah of ‘Who is wise?’  And to this they respond, ‘הלומד מכל אדם’ - the one who learns from everyone - not just from every Jew, not just from every one with whom we agree, but every one.  It is so, because of the infinite and equal value of all and the uniqueness of all.  So, as we turn the page in the Book of Life into this new year of 5779, it is upon us to respond, not with apathy, with disconnection nor with ‘other-ness’; but rather with connection, with an extension of heart to share our story, the story of being human so that we may recognize what is possible, that another’s ideas are gifts that enrich.  May we overcome the sense of ‘other-ness’ that divides so that we may all be strengthened and so too our world.  May we return to this place next year changed because we have learned from those who were once other.

Shanah Tovah U’Mitukah