On Twenty Years
It is taught that the capacity to deliver jarring or shocking news in a soothing fashion is an admired quality. Supposedly a mythical figure named Serach bat Asher was rewarded with a very long life in part because she was able to let our patriarch Jacob know that his son Joseph was still alive in Egypt, news which if delivered without a soft touch might have overwhelmed him. So I’ll share this shocking news as gently as I can. These are our 20th High Holy Days at B’nai Torah. Which means you are now almost 20 years older than you were the first time I was given the opportunity and great privilege of helping to implement these important services. Whether you have been here for all twenty iterations or these are your first ones, I am still grateful and inspired to be with you in this sacred space, to try to propel these observances forward, and to ask you to partner in continuing to make that happen. We are, as we have always been, truly in this together.
So approaching this milestone of sorts, I decided to go back and read every sermon I have written and delivered from this bima. If I permit myself to be just a smidge, just a tiny bit self-congratulatory, I think I have had some success in finding what seemed in the moment to be creative and imaginative ways to do what sermons are supposed to do. And that is to teach an aspect of our 3000-year-old Jewish tradition and to ask you to consider a thought or idea from it in a way that directs you toward decisions and actions that are consistent with it. And maybe, just maybe, one or two ideas, images, metaphors, or stories will stick with you the day after a holiday or even longer. Once in a while, someone will even say “you know I still remember when you said…” and that is always meaningful. Especially when the memory is not of one of the jokes.
So today I want to take a few moments to re-visit some of the ideas we have learned together in this space, emphasizing some of what I’ve tried to teach, because maybe you haven’t been here for twenty years or let’s face it, maybe there are one or at most two sermons you don’t remember. Interspersed are some takeaway questions for you to talk about today at lunch or any other time you may be intrigued or inspired to do so.
The first theme, simply stated, is that we are each a bridge between the past and the future. This is the burden, responsibility, and opportunity of living a committed Jewish life, of building a Jewish identity. And that includes but goes beyond the rituals that some in this room do on a daily and weekly basis and others for whom Jewish ritual observance is only a sometimes thing. I have always emphasized, preached, and feel deeply in my heart, that all are welcome, all are valued, and all have a voice in the evolving Jewish conversation.
On my tenth High Holy Days, I talked about the number 10 in a way that affirms Jewish commitment as “a bridge between the past and the future” and to live with this awareness as often as we can. There was a book out at the time that encouraged us to organize our time through a 10-10-10 principle, which I adapted to teach my own idea of 10-10-10, accounting for the good or bad we could do in just ten seconds, the kind of impact or growth we might experience in 10 years, and the Jewish time perspective of thinking in terms of a millennia, and then another and another after that. Question one: How do we take responsibility for keeping alive the memory of and learning from the Jewish past, and how are we choosing to express our commitment to being at least somewhat responsible for the Jewish future?
As for predicting that future, I’m with Chancellor Eisen who has said right in this space that to envision the Jewish future more than twenty years out is a fool’s errand. And he agrees with an even greater philosopher – Yogi Berra – who said: “It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future.” Fourteen years ago I did manage to say something that looking back on it seemed at least a little prescient which was to ask us all to “Focus on what is important and factual and to try to separate fact from fiction.” In an era of alternative facts, even when they are not facts, and the recurring refrain of Fake News even when it is not fake, we have this ongoing responsibility to read beyond the headlines and to be knowledgeable and informed Jews and citizens alike, and to act on our commitments accordingly.
I have had the chance to visit topics that did not become recurring themes, like the Jewish view on gambling, Judaism and science, what I find special about Conservative Judaism, the notion that you do not often know when it is the last time you will do something, for example changing a diaper, what to remember and what to try to forget, Hebrew language charter schools, and the Jewish lessons taught by boy wizard Harry Potter – though I did not mention him again, I keep the magic wand I used as a prop on my desk. As I considered and adopted a vegetarian diet to which I am still committed I spoke about Jewish food consciousness, including but extending beyond the rules of keeping kosher. And some topics did recur, important ones whose discussion has no end – parenting and grand parenting, Jewish identity and commitment in public and in private, mourning and living with loss including right after 9/11, and the sacrifices others make for us and that we are asked to make for them. Question two: the list of Jewish concerns is almost endless – which one, or two, or ten would you like to know more about, and how do you plan to gain and deepen that knowledge?
Jewish ideas are endless and perhaps not as long but just as difficult to master are the qualities and commitments of character that will always be regarded as irreplaceable components of a striving Jewish life. Some that were touched on included patience, humility, lashon Hara, which is to say hurtful speech shared both in person and via email and social media, doing Chesed or immediate kindness that is helpful to someone in need and performing tzedek or acts that change reality for the better for many. I invented the acronym PJM or Permanent Jewish Mindset which includes keeping in and on our minds all of these traits and more, as well as touching repeatedly on the importance of optimism in both good and more challenging times. A few very short examples:
In suggesting some Jewish rules for sharing our views via a keyboard and screen here is one to consider: Isn’t it interesting that most computers are set to ask you if you are sure you want to delete something but you can send whatever you want with just one click? Sometimes I think the peace quotient in the world would go up if everyone had to double-click to send.
On optimism: It is our task to absorb a modern take on the story of David and Goliath: The Israelite soldiers facing Goliath said, “He’s gigantic! There’s no way we can kill him.” David, facing Goliath, said, “He’s gigantic! There’s no way I can miss him.”
Almost but not quite like the reboots of Will and Grace, Murphy Brown, and Magnum P.I., together we have been witness to a rebooting in our part of the Jewish world of sources, inspiration, and compelling ideas from the musar tradition, which insists that character development is an ongoing project over a lifetime of careful thought and action. A musar definition of humility is “limiting oneself to an appropriate space while leaving room for others.” I still think of this example quoted from a book on Musar by Alan Morinis and I wonder if you will too: “[Humility in Judaism] is like the traffic cop who bravely stands in a busy intersection and controls the flow of cars with her authoritative [command] of the situation. She occupies a large space to do that effectively. When that same officer goes to her kid’s parent-teacher conference, she has to occupy a smaller space in order to behave appropriately.”
We might have to-do lists at work or at home – I’m a big fan of them – and bucket lists for destinations to visit, sports events to attend, books to read, fitness goals to achieve, even golf courses we want to play. Most of us could answer a question on what is on those lists pretty quickly. But we need to be able to answer the question, which will now be on our list as question three: “What am I still working on to improve as a human being, and as a Jew?” There is no age at which complacency is a Jewish virtue.
Together we have traveled many times to Israel, to Poland, to Guatemala, to Charlottesville, and even, in the year we said a very rare blessing, to the moon. I spoke about the TV show Survivor well before we had a son who is obsessed with it. And the movie Inside Out came in handy one year as well.
And then there was the TV sermon. If there is a talk from the past 20 years that people still mention to me more than any other it is this one. In case you don’t recall, I bought a 42-inch television and as the store closed a 47-inch television was rolled out and put in my car. And as I said then: If you are a golfer you will relate to this. “If you hit a drive aiming for the middle of the fairway and you miss the middle of the fairway by five inches you aren’t going to care, in fact, it is unlikely you will even notice. But if you line up an important putt and you miss the center of the cup by five inches, you are going to care a whole lot. Having done my shopping, I can tell you that a five-inch difference in television size is a putt, not a drive.” I gave back the TV. And in a postscript: for this and many other reasons I am sure, you can no longer shop at H.H. Gregg on 441.
Ethical decision making can be developed and ingrained over time, but is often made in an instant. I still wonder if I would have been able to enjoy having that bigger TV.
These traits were exemplified by some of the role models we have had the chance to talk about, some from Jewish history, some who had passed away since the prior holidays, and some still very much alive. Some you probably did not expect to hear about in a High Holy Day sermon, and if they were asked, they probably would have said that they did not expect to be spoken about at B’nai Torah either.
Among others we spent time with newsman Tim Russert, Randy Pausch, the professor known for his last lecture, Irena Sendler, who saved 2500 children from the Warsaw Ghetto, Holocaust Survivor Viktor Frankl, the very good friend of very good friends Matt Fenster who died of leukemia but not before teaching us all about the power of kind speech, my classmate Matt Eisenfeld who was killed in a terrorist bombing in Jerusalem but not before he taught all of us about the power and effectiveness of setting goals for our learning, the Strauss brothers, one of whom died on the Titatnic and the other who founded the city of Netanya in his memory, Howard Stern, Mariano Rivera, hero doctor in Africa Rick Hodes, Rabbi Harold Schulweis, IDF casualty Shlomo Aumann who was both incredibly special in his own right and also the son of a Nobel Prize recipient, Israel’s first astronaut Ilan Ramon, its biggest dreamer Shimon Peres, and even my neighbor who locked herself out of her house as a hurricane approached which led in a roundabout way to my learning that her father was an unwilling Nazi and her grandmother a righteous Gentile who saved at least one Jewish family from death. The takeaway: we have something to learn from just about everyone, inspiration is not hard to come by if we are open to being inspired, and we should not wait until it is too late to recognize those who by their actions and attitudes, whether in a moment or over a lifetime, lift us all.
Two years ago, on the High Holy Days after Elie Wiesel died, I quoted from his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, delivered in 1986, and his words speak powerfully to the last theme I have tried to emphasize. The speech is constructed around a conversation between him and his younger self, with the child within him asking him what he did with his life following his ordeal. That speech ends, “As long as one dissident is in prison, our freedom will not be true. As long as one child is hungry, our life will be filled with anguish and shame. What all these victims need above all is to know that they are not alone; that we are not forgetting them, that when their voices are stifled, we shall lend them ours, that while their freedom depends on ours, the quality of our freedom depends on theirs. This is what I say to the young Jewish boy wondering what I have done with his years. It is in his name that I speak to you and that I express to you my deepest gratitude as one who has emerged from the Kingdom of Night. We know that every moment is a moment of grace, every hour an offering…Our lives no longer belong to us alone; they belong to all those who need us desperately.” On reading 20 years of sermons, I have found that compassion for those who live with undeserved suffering anywhere in the world has been and will remain a commitment and a message that I will continue to share.
Over two decades at B’nai Torah I have tried to explore with you the challenges and opportunities I consider to be at the core of the Jewish experience in our time, and to open a window onto the expansive areas of concern that our Jewish tradition calls us to pay attention to. I have tried to not be too boring, and I have sometimes tried to make you laugh. As I often say – if they are laughing they are not sleeping. I have kept in mind that no one comes here to leave more depressed than when they arrived – so I aim to be uplifting whenever I can. I have tried to express what is both real and what is possible, for myself in my personal and rabbinic growth and for you in your busy, complicated, imperfect, and in so many ways blessed lives, and to encourage us all to share of our strengths and blessings with those who would benefit from that generosity whether nearby, in Israel, or far across the world.
To sum it up: We are asked, and we are ultimately judged on whether we were able to strive to inhabit two specific and very Jewish traits, not limited to the ritually observant or to the truly heroic among us. They are the common denominators of the Jewish experience, irreplaceable commitments of the Jewish soul.
First, we strive for faith. Faith in an Eternal God for Whom 20 years is less than the slightest beginning of the blink of a Divine eye – we cannot fail to be humble in the face of the unlimited. But faith goes further than that. We need to be among those with faith in the future despite present-day difficulties and absurdities, faith in our capacity to make a positive difference, faith in human potential, faith that every waking hour of our lives represents an opportunity to learn, to grow, to help, and sometimes just to persevere.
Second, we ask for and strive for resilience – to stand up straight even when the strongest winds blow, to get up even if we have been knocked over, to seek help if we need it and to know we are not alone in our struggles.
To sum it up in fewer words: The truest joys of our lives will be found in our connection to those we like and especially those we love, those we respect and admire, our participation in causes, projects, and synagogues that comfort the afflicted and encourage us to put our values into action. The perspective gained by connecting to that which is eternal will soften the hard edges of life and help to cushion even the harshest blows.
To sum it up in even fewer words: As Jews, we are grounded in the past while trying to live today in a way that might lead to a better and even stronger future.
I invite you to look back over your last 20 or 50 or 70 or 90 years with honesty, with permission for a bit of nostalgia, and with some satisfaction that you have at times done your very best to act on the unique potential that defines you at your core. And then look ahead with hope and with love. As always it is the greatest of honors to be with you on these Holy Days and beyond. May God bless you and your families with a meaningful and deeply inspired new year.