Rosh Hashanah Day I – 5777
Shanah Tovah…many of you, if not all of you know that I am here just a few days after the passing of my mother. She died Wednesday and we buried her next to my Dad in Connecticut on Thursday.
I had a very short shivah.
It ended yesterday afternoon…I decided to allow the halachah to be my guide.
And so I am here with you.
You know that shivah ends when a holiday comes.
There is a reason for this. And the reason is that our Jewish lives are lived in community. And as important as our personal experiences are, we keep alive our traditions and our most fundamental religious identity through community.
So…I am here. Bereft, sad, but accepting what I need to accept. I join you in hoping it’s a good year. And we will not only mourn together but hopefully share many celebrations together.
I don’t want to bring you all into my mourning…I want to join our celebration. But I also need to be true to my emotional state.
Good morning, good Yom Tov. Welcome back. It is so nice to be in this newly refurbished sanctuary. Special thanks to…Elissa Schosheim and her committee, Dan and Selma Weiss, Nancy and Ambassador Mark Gilbert, Ethel Sommer and David z”l, and Beverly Raphael Altman and all her crew including Robyn Raphael Dynan and Mark Polani.
As I prepared for this day and this sermon I was in another type of preparation. Because my mother was under hospice care and I was told “it won’t be long now”…I was living with a lot of uncertainty. Truthfully, it was hard to focus. I was preparing for the eventuality that my mother was going to die and the possibility that I wouldn’t be with you. So that was my life last week filled with so much unknown.
There is so much which is unpredictable. And I, who see so much life and death and am so often present as people die, couldn’t use that experience to control my family’s situation. Yet, I knew that it was in this situation that I felt my humanity, its vulnerability and realized how we are connected.
This holy day of Rosh Hashanah is about a few of different things…It’s about the birthday of the world and creation. It’s about the shofar and repentance. It carries major themes about God and Memory and Hope…And, these holy days are also about nothing less than life and death…This is where we are.
But Rosh Hashanah is also about relationships between parents and children; mothers and sons.
Our reading began with Sarah and Yitzchak…Sarah waited a long time to conceive. In fact, she and her husband Abraham were so old that once she did and gave birth she named her son Yitzchak…it means laughter. My mom had the Hebrew name Sarah. Somehow, I imagine she laughed when I was born. She wanted a son badly.
In addition to Sarah, there is another mother; her name is Hagar. Hagar, the name, comes from the Hebrew: HaGeir…the stranger. She was the Egyptian slave woman who was given to Abraham when it looked like he would have no heirs. Hagar gave birth to Ishmael. Ishmael, was Abraham’s first born son. Hagar undoubtedly loved him as much as life itself.
Something happened to Hagar and Ishmael. After playing with Isaac, and we don’t know the full meaning of that…They were sent into the desert, they were banished. There, in the dessert, Hagar thought her young son was going to die of thirst…and she placed him down, she couldn’t bear to see her child’s agony…but we see God opened her eyes and she found water and Ishmael was saved.
And there is the other mother, Hannah, who gave birth to Samuel…and whose love carried Samuel through their lives and, yes, as so many of you know…even after her death.
I want us to think these mothers and their sons and their commitments. Not in relation to me and my mother, but in relation to a feature of our Jewish lives, our communal lives, and our human lives. First of all there is nothing like the birth of a child…having a son must have made old Sarah and old Abraham feel young. They were over ninety when he was born. Impossible you say? But there something in this to learn. Sarah was probably so attached to her Isaac, this gift of joy, and the hope and renewal that he gave her…that she would have preferred the half-brother, the first born son of her husband, die in the wilderness rather than have her Isaac experience pain. There are moments when we are so protective of our children.
She had another concern…Isaac was also, the one and only one she wanted to inherit her husband. And so she says to her husband: Get rid of them…and he does. She wants to save her family and she wants to preserve her tribe.
Can we consider the meaning of this? And, can we admit that it is troublesome.
But first I want to think about something more contemporary. Something about us…I want to move forward now. Far into the future of this story. I want you to come to B’nai Torah on a Shabbat morning. And there you will see our wonderful community, a great group of people. One of the features of this group worshipping is that they tend to be in their seventies, eighties and nineties…a few hundred year olds now and then. Rest assured, I am pretty certain that none of them are pregnant.
And what we see here is representative of liberal synagogues around this country. They are being sustained primarily by the elderly. Younger adults are not in synagogue. And we learn they are removed from communal activities and they are not affiliating with organizations…Now, I am speaking with a broad stroke, a generality. Here we know that young people fill our educational programs and they are here with their kids for special events and there are many in communal activities. But, beyond the Orthodox community, the vast majority have moved away from traditional expressions of belonging and certainly advocacy for Israel…
Things have changed and are changing dramatically on every front. This absence is seen in all major religious denominations in America. It’s a challenge with other cultural expressions too, things like the symphony, ballet and the opera. But today, they are not my concern, but they reflect the fact that young people are looking elsewhere for fulfillment and entertainment. Additionally, we are fully aware of the impact of technology and the creation of virtual communities and the rapid transfer of information in the way we communicate. No…here things are paced very differently, the language is so far removed and the concerns are different.
You may be aware that the latest Pew study showed that the intermarriage rate amongst non-orthodox resides around 70%. So things are changing. And we have to take note. And we know it is not about planning how we go back to the way things were…that never happens. It’s about looking ahead. And, I know we have the insight and the resources to do this.
Yet, I want to share something really important in the study. And that is, that amongst those who don’t step foot in a synagogue on Shabbat, and those who will not support Israel and the 70% who are intermarried 92% of them say they identify as Jews and are proud to be Jewish. That is something to look at.
This morning I don’t want to chastise them…I’d like to do something else…I’d like to see if there is something that we can learn from them. What makes them identify and what makes them proud to be Jewish.
And we each can learn something from each other.
So what do we learn from this next generation? That’s what I want to uncover.
I found a hint of it in this old story of Abraham and Sarah and Hagar and Ishmael…from the Torah and how the rabbis brought a values conversation to the story because they also want a values conversation.
A little background:
Let me begin with the lessons my mother taught me. As many of you know she and her family were refugees from The Nazis. But my mother never allowed that experience to define her or us. We certainly learned about it and learned its lessons, but we were taught to appreciate our freedoms in America, learn what America provided for us that was different, appreciate our strengths and the success of the American Jewish community and also know that Israel truly represented so much strength and hope.
What I have seen around me, particularly from much of organizational life in Judaism was one thing different.
As a Jewish community we have defined ourselves through the lens of the holocaust and the post Holocaust generation. So much of communal decision making is based on threats that have been experienced and survived. The wars in 1967 and 1973 in Israel were seen as existential threats that not only to the existence of Israel but world Jewry.
Israel and its survival have played a central role in our expression and in our focus.
And, you know, our organizations live on that…Let there be a single incident on a campus and we are flooded by emails…let there be an act of violence and every organization has your number. I’m not down playing the importance of the acts against Jews or the importance of our organizations. But I am saying there is something more.
And into the twenty-first century we have brought a mentality that came with thousands of years of exile and persecution which defined “others” as suspicious and enemies. We live with the traumas from our past.
For two thousand years we were homeless. Yet our identity was kept alive through something else…our communities and a Torah and learning, and through a connection to values.
So what’s happened to the next generation?
After the war, the Second World War in America, the Jewish community began to flourish, successful, confident and strong, wealthy, influential and powerful. That’s the Jewish world our kids grew up in and that’s what we wanted. A world where we were free and accepted. We embraced America and all of its promise of freedom and opportunity. And we got it. We are part of that melting pot of opportunity.
And Israel? Although faced with great challenge and struggle…Israel is our people’s success story. Economically, a giant, militarily it is powerful…
So what happens to the narrative of being weak and in danger?
For many it remains the dominant story to tell, but for most of the young generation, reality gets in the way. But for our kids, it’s not real.
Their story is a story of life in a country where every opportunity is open. They are at great universities and live with and study with and work with socialize with kids of every color and ethnic group and religion.
You and I know they’re accepted, integrated and strong and by and large happy. They apply to jobs where, if qualified they are welcome. And the popular media is filled with Jews…Jews with others; just like themselves. Isn’t this what the older generation hoped for? In this land of Freedom, opportunity…and isn’t that what we wanted.
And at the same time they, like us are seeing the devastating results of old tribalism, of hatred and racism in our world.
So, when all people are together, kids of every race and religious interaction is a very powerful force comes into play. It’s a force of human connection. I say this without being blind to old hatreds and the knowledge of the existence of anti-Semitism. Because I see that it is very different to respond to the world and even your enemies when you are strong. And my vantage point is a place of Jewish strength. And so an intermarriage rate of 70% should not be a surprise.
They want to live in a world that has hope, hope for the betterment of humanity and greater acceptance. And we understand how they value building bridges as opposed to creating walls. And they hear the forces of fear that evoke hatred and racism. They understand a much more nuanced conversation then what you hear amongst those who remain a part, and separate…And they witness fear turning into more hatred. And they don’t want that, in the world or for themselves.
And the truth is that Judaism can survive in that world, because it reflects our values. We are both a particular people, but our Torah and prophets have a universal message.
Our challenge is how do we respond?
There are some who go back…and remove themselves in one way or another from modernity. They enter communities where walls are high and identity is preserved. But most of our kids won’t.
They want a Jewish life that is open…to others, to new ideas and does so with our most important human values.
I hear that call.
And in that call I believe that we have the capacity to bring essential Jewish teachings to reinvigorate Judaism and the Jewish people in an open world to live our values. Not only that, we have a message that, the world needs to hear. We are the only great religion that brings to the world a foundation of pluralism. We aren’t called upon to convert others. We value difference. But we are open to others.
The threats in the world are real, and they push us back. But the powerful aspirations of our best thinkers be they from the Torah and prophets or our enlightened philosophers and rabbis or our American founding fathers will allow us to survive.
What are the values…the equality of all people, the meaning that all people have inherit rights to be free, it’s about caring desperately for children, being our brothers keepers, it’s about not turning our backs on those in need of shelter and, it’s about not oppress or enslave, it’s the message of social justice, and not to stand idly by when your neighbor is in need…is about being God’s partner in the created world, physical environment, to provide education for all…and in contemporary terms to see to the health of all people. And so we see, it is played out in the way we live and the politics of our community.
Why does it say more than any other commandment in the Torah, remember that you were slaves, remember that you were strangers, remember that you were oppressed, you were hungry…
It was not so that we could become like others once we have power. It’s that WE could change the dynamic once we had influence and strength and power…
Let’s get back to the story of our mother Sarah. She banished Hagar and her son. She wanted Hagar to always be HaGeir…the stranger. And for generations we bought the story. Because we believed it was necessary to define our beginnings. But the story is a troubling story. It is a harsh story and it may be the basis for ongoing enmity.
So we look at the rabbis interpretation of the story, and what we see is that the banishment created great remorse in Abraham. Time and again he went to visit Hagar and Ishmael. He reached his hand in love he brought them gifts, saying you too are my son.
In fact the rabbis went further, create a midrash where they stated after Sarah died he married Keturah….Who was Keturah? Keturah, they say, was Hagar. And so we have to ask…what if the father had built a bridge between Ishmael and Isaac…What IF?
I know there are so many who say…it was impossible. And indemnity between two people would always exist. And yet today, we see Israel with diplomatic relations with Morocco and Saudi Arabia, and Egypt and Jordan…and I ask Really? I see a world where there are those who wish to build higher and stronger walls and I ask…really?
I hear the voices of the young generation. They want a Judaism that lives its values.
Bridge building takes much more intelligence, much greater know how, much more engineering then building a wall. But it changes the landscape. And that’s why we, as a community, need to be in the forefront of the expression of these values.
That’s why, in spite of the fact that young adults aren’t here on Shabbat worshipping, they are here for our projects…feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless, tutoring those in need and serving the needy.
This world needs more bridge builders…Yes…in our communities we need them, in our nation we need them in the world we need them. Too often the voices looking to deepen connections, working for the projects that bring people together are ostracized and doubted…because of fear…fear of the new, fear of change, fear of the other…
We need to be bridge builders. And we don’t need to look far. The story of the banishment of Hagar and Ishmael is a family story. There is where we can begin. The walls with brothers and sisters and mothers in law and sons in law and cousins and wives and husbands can be pierced. The walls you see in your families only lead to more resentments…You have to open hands and hearts where you can…
Do you know the most basic, essential religious inclination? I think it’s connection – connecting to spirit and soul, to God and the world and connecting to people.
Today is a day where we can look at those walls and see how we might serve as agents of change and begin to build some bridges. They start with us…and you know some of these projects and will hear of more.
And…to those young who aren’t coming…I say there is something we have here that may be necessary for this world.
One has to do with a shared learning of the sources and history that has not only kept us alive, but kept these very values alive. And a world in need of real communities where people touch each other support each other, mourn with each other, heal each other and celebrate together.
And in the world which is so materialistic and so technological we have a world that can reach the transcendent. The synagogue is a people where the wonder of creation and the mystery of life and death is treasured and given attention. The world needs a sense of the divine to help create meaning that is beyond this moment. It may be that ritual must develop and meet the needs of a call and a different generation.
We have much to learn. I know I do. And I affirm that rather than being swallowed by the mood of fear and despair, I want to be enlightened by hope and aspiration. Rather than being guided by hatred and fear, I want to be guided by the values which are defined up by Torah and the prophets and our learning together.
I ask that you join us in our work here and join us as we reach out to be part of a bigger community program bringing other people: Christians, Jews and Muslims together…here in Boca…this place of blessing and opportunity.
The interfaith leadership of Boca Raton has started a program bringing Christians and Muslims and Jews together. What will that say to the next generation seeing what is happening and done in the world? By the way, it begins Thursday night, at St. Gregory’s…you know, the communal program, Family Promise where we have a significant place as Jews helping all the homeless in our midst, and we need you. We have the capacity to be a community that works for immigrants, and supports the most impoverished workers, right here in Florida. There is more to be done…and we can do it.
Together we can help make it a good year. We are the builders of bridges for the future.
Our tradition gives voice to that.
And finally, I want to share with you that I feel my mom’s presence in the synagogue and will always…and I know that there will be comfort in this place and context…our tradition serves as a guide, our community that extends love and warmth and through this ongoing people, a sense of the eternity of the soul and the spirit.
My mother came from Nazi Germany. She taught me that there is good in almost all people. She was open to everyone as long as they were sincere…all people. Coming from a very rigid and traditional background she looked for a shul and a Jewish life that was open, willing to change and spoke to the challenges of her day. I inherited that, I believe it’s the essence of what we must do. I will honor that forever.
My friends…I wish you a good year. I hope it’s a year where we listen to each other, not just us in this room, but throughout the world.
Let’s make this synagogue which has grown as a center for learning and creative programs and Jewish music known for serving others as well as ourselves.
Let’s make this synagogue a place where we worship and prayer and deeds pursue peace…where fear is turned into conversation and understanding and bridges are built.
Let’s be bold…and move ahead, confident in who we are and what we have achieved.
And, that is the case when we listen to the vales described by the voices of the past.
Thanks for listening to me…May our prayers join together so we see families be blessed with health and peace, and strength…a healthy year! A good year.