Change In Our World, Change in Ourselves
Rabbi Evan Moffic
Rosh Hashanah Day, 5770
For all of us, this has been a year of tremendous change. Some of us have children going off to college. Others have parents transitioning into assisted living. Some of us have become new grandparents. Others have lost a parent. Some of us have lost jobs. Others have had retirement delayed. Personally, it's been a year of tremendous change. I've become the rabbi of a new congregation. I've become the father of a baby boy. I'm living in a new home and neighborhood. Yet, while change can come in greater and lesser degrees, it is always constant. Man plans, the yiddish proverb says, and God laughs. Aside from death and taxes, change is the only constant in life.
Whether change is good or bad depends on our situation and perspective. Often, it is a mix of the two. And sometimes what seems like good change evokes anger and frustration. Recall the Exodus story. Moses leads the Israelites from slavery in Egypt to freedom in the Sinai desert. Immediately after they escape pharaoh's army and cross the red sea, what do they do? They complain. Where is the delicious food we ate in Egypt? Where is the stability we knew there? Even though we were slaves, at least our lives were predictable. Now we don't know what to do.
In his classic book, Escape from Freedom, the great psychologist as well as refugee from Nazi Germany, Erich Fromm, tried to explain this phenomenon. What is predictable, he said, is comforting. Even when we want change, we react negatively to it. To use a more prosaic example, think of those who win the lottery. While some build happy lives, many later regret it. For many, a rush of winnings leads to overspending, broken families and ultimately bankruptcy.
Part of what makes change in our world so difficult is its speed. At least the Israelites had forty years to get used to their change. For us, change often happens overnight. We see this in our personal lives. An illness or a car accident upends us quickly and dramatically. We see this in our offices. We see this in our economy. “Change,” writes British management guru Charles Handy, "isn't what it used to be."
What resources sustain us in such a world? How do we manage endless change? First and foremost, we look to the people around us. When we go through life with others--when we appreciate that what matters most is not the inevitable twists and turns of our path but the people with whom we are traveling--when we do this, we see change through a different perspective.
Rabbi Harold Kushner illustrated this in a beautiful story. "I was sitting on a beach one summer day, he writes, "watching two children, a boy and a girl, playing in the sand. They were hard at work building an elaborate sandcastle by the water's edge, with gates and towers and moats and internal passages. Just when they had nearly finished their project, a big wave came along and knocked it down, reducing it to a heap of wet sand.
I expected the children to burst into tears, devastated by what had happened to all their hard work. But they surprised me. Instead, they ran up the shore away from the water, laughing and holding hands, and sat down to build another castle.
I realized that they had taught me an important lesson. All the things in our lives, all the complicated structures we spend so much time and energy creating, are built on sand. Only our relationships to other people endure. Sooner or later, the wave will come along and knock down what we have worked so hard to build up. When that happens, only the person who has somebody's hand to hold will be able to laugh." How beautiful, and how true!
All of us have experienced losses like the children. We can't change that. The issue, rather, is how we respond. Part of responding is understanding that change is a form of loss. The losses are tangible and intangible. When the economy deterioriates, we lose that vision of a long and care-free retirement. When a relationship breaks up, we lose that vision of a perfect life and family. When a friendship breaks up, we lose a sense of trust and connection. Adapting to such a change can be tremendously difficult.
What can guide us, I think, are our core values and purpose. When we know what is important to us, change becomes part of the journey. When we travel, for example, we bring a map. The map helps us stay focused on where we are going. If we get lost, if we veer off course, we can take another path to the same place. Knowing where we are going helps us get through the bumps in the journeys.
It can also keep us focused on the present. Indeed, resistence to change is often accompanied by nostalgia for the past. We yearn for the good old days. There is a beautiful story in the Talmud that illustrates this. It was written near the end first century, when Jewish life was changing dramatically and the Romans had destroyed Jerusalem. Many of the great rabbis had been lost. We can almost feel the despair of the the surviving sages who wrote, "When Rabbbi Meir died, there were no more storytellers. When Rabbi Hanina died, there were no more men of action. When Rabbi Yochanan died, there was no more wisdom. When Rabbi Judah died, it was the end of humility. One by one, all the important qualities of the world seemed to pass away." Then, however, one of the surviving rabbis, Rabbi Joseph stood up and said, "Do not teach that humility has ceased with the death of Rabbi Judah; for I am here." (I thank Rabbi David Wolpe for alerting me to this text.)
At first, we might think this sounds arrogant. Rabbi Joseph is proclaiming his humility. Yet, he is saying something deeper and more courageous. Humility and virtue, he is saying, do not belong just in the past or only to others. They belong to us. They endure through us. We dare not allow the beauty of the past to detract from our own place and purpose and vision in the present. Rather than simply seek solace in the past, we can remember and build on it for our future.
This past year, we heard a beautiful illustration of this truth. It concerned Senator Teddy Kennedy. Now his death was a profound event for country. Yet, I want to talk about it not in a political way. Rather, we can look at one of the most moving tributes to his life. It is a story about surviving change told by his son Edward Kennedy, Jr. "When I was 12 years old," Kennedy Jr., recounted in his eulogy, "I was diagnosed with bone cancer. And a few months after I lost my leg, there was a heavy snowfall over my childhood home outside of Washington D.C. And my father went to the garage to get the old Flexible Flyer, and asked me if I wanted to go sledding down the steep driveway.
And I was trying to get used to my new artificial leg. And the hill was covered with ice and snow. And it wasn’t easy for me to walk. And the hill was very slick. And as I struggled to walk, I slipped and I fell on the ice. And I started to cry and I said, I can’t do this. I said, I’ll never be able to climb up that hill.
And he lifted me up in his strong, gentle arms and said something I will never forget, he said, I know you can do it. We’re going to climb that hill together, even if it takes us all day.
Sure enough, he held me around my waist and we slowly made it to the top. And you know, at age 12 losing your leg pretty much seems like the end of the world. But as I climbed on to his back and we flew down the hill that day, I knew he was right. I knew I was going to be OK.
You see, my father taught me that even our most profound losses are survivable, and that is — it is what we do with that loss, our ability to transform it into a positive event, that is one of my father’s greatest lessons."
Part of the beauty of this story lies in the confidence his father's faith gave Teddy, Jr. Sometimes another person's faith in us can help us through profound change. It can help us grow in understanding and in spirit. Indeed, as Ernest Hemingway once observed, "The world breaks everyone, and afterward many are strong in the broken places." How do we become strong in broken places?
Well, Edward Kennedy was a man nurtured by his commitment to his faith. And, as a rabbi, no surprise, I believe that it is faith that ultimately guides us through all the vicissitudes of life. We don't often speak openly about it in the synagogue. We tend to believe that Judaism is more about deed than creed, more about what we do than we believe. This is generally true. Yet, each of us has a sense of faith, even if we find it hard to describe. If we didn't, we wouldn't take risks in life. We wouldn't marry, build families, do good things for others, or be here this evening. We wouldn't have the strength to face change.
Perhaps, as Maimonides suggested, the best way to illustrate the meaning of faith in Judaism is through metaphor. This summer my daughter Hannah taught me a good one. In June we started swim lessons. The first few classes were quite difficult. The kids struggled to adjust to a new environment. They did not take kindly to going underwater. In fact, the end of the first class was a sight to be seen. While singing if you're happy and you know it, all the kids were kicking and screaming and holding on to their parents for dear life.
Over time, however, Hannah learned the right moves. She learned to kick, to move her arms, to be comfortable in the water. What took her the greatest time and effort, however, was learning how to float. This may seem strange to us. For most of us, floating takes little effort. Swimming takes all energy. To float, however, we have to let go. We have to trust the water. We have to take a risk and give up control over our direction and pace. In other words, floating, as Rabbi David Wolpe put it, takes faith.
More than a story of my child, it seems that this swim lesson captured a profound truth. We spend most of our lives learning to swim. We learn the skills for working and succeeding. We put great effort into building families, doing the best we can do for our children, our parents, ourselves. Sometimes we feel underwater. Other times we move forcefully and rapidly. Our skills improve and change, and we learn new strokes. Yet, at times--often at times of difficulty, of loss, of unexpected change-- we need to remind ourselves how to float. How to feel at home in the water, and ride through its ebbs and flows. Floating is not giving in. It feeling a unity with the flow of life that gathers around each of us. When we float, we experience change as a part of life. When we float, we can look upward and feel at peace.
Others can teach us how to swim. Only we can teach ourselves to float. Faith, and change, ultimately begin and end within ourselves. As we begin this new year of change--change in our lives, our synagogue, our economy, our world--let us keep this truth in mind. For each of us, this new year is an opportunity. An opportunity to affirm the relationships that nurture us, the purpose that guides us, and the faith that uplifts us. An opportunity to act on the core values of our congregation--our love of learning, creativity, social justice, leadership, and participation. And, perhaps most importantly, an opportunity to recognize, even as the world around us changes, that we have much change to do within ourselves.
Rabbi Israel Salanter, one of the leading rabbis of the nineteenth century wrote: “When I was young, I wanted to change the world. I tried, but the world did not change. So I tried to change my town, but my town did not change. Then I turned to my family, but my family did not change. Then I realized: first I must change myself: and I am still trying.” So are we all.
The Most Important Part
Rabbi Evan Moffic
Rosh Hashanah Eve, 5770
Who in this sanctuary has heard of the word besheret? It is an idea from Yiddish folk tradition. It teaches that the world is the way it's supposed to be. Things happen for a reason. Our partner, our spouse, is besheret. A job, an accomplishment, a position we achieve--it's besheret, it's meant to be. Besheret rests on the idea of fate. In some way, we have a destiny we are meant to fulfill. Our life is like a puzzle where we gradually fill in the pieces.
The idea of besheret is attractive in its simplicity. Yet, this view of life does not reflect Jewish tradition, or the reality of our experiences. While it can be comforting to feel that things are the way they were always meant to be, each of us knows that our choices matter. We know, in fact, that much of our life is contingent. The way our lives turn out depends on the circumstances we inherit, the decisions we make, the people with whom we live. Much is within our control. Yet, the contingency of life also means that much of what happens to us is unpredictable. Life can change in a moment. It can be difficult to live in such a world.
Our rabbinic sages recognized this truth thousands of years ago. They taught it in a commentary on the story we will read tomorrow morning, the akedah, the binding of Isaac. It is the story, we recall, of God commanding Abraham to offer his son Isaac at the top of Mount Moriah as a sacrifice. The sages note that the death of Isaac's mother, Sarah, occurs immediately after Abraham and Isaac come down from the mountain. They imagined that Sarah heard Isaac's cry from afar. And even though he lived, she despaired at the thought that simply one second--one second that it would have taken Abraham to lower his knife--stood between the life and death of her son. She dies from a sense of radical vulnerability and contingency. Indeed, one contemporary commentator, Aviva Zornberg, suggests that Sarah dies of the "unbearable lightness of being." She could not live in a world of where, as Jean Paul Sartre put it, "a hair's breath separates life from death." The fact that Isaac lived, as Zornberg puts it, "in no way palliates the horror of what might well have been." (127)
Each of us, I think, knows the reality of Sarah's feeling. If we have rushed to the hospital with a friend or relative--if we have ever driven by a car accident--if we have ever experienced a sudden health problem, we know that precariousness.
I had a terrific friend in college who taught me this lesson. We met sophomore year and were suitemates junior year. He was phenomenally bright, a great athlete, and a warm thoughtful friend. He was also intensely curious, having grown up in different parts of Asia with a father who was a diplomat and a mother who was a journalist. He persuaded me to take a memorable course in the history and culture of ancient Egypt. One evening we were out on the deck of our dorm with friends. It was late. I went to sleep. Others stayed up. The next morning at 7:00 am someone rushed into my room. Mike had been found with blood on his face below the deck. He had fallen. We rushed him to the hospital. I called his parents in Cambodia. He was in a coma for months, and eventually suffered brain image. Had he lain on the ground for another hour, the doctors said, he would have died. It remains unclear how he fell. Yet, the damage to this incredible friend with so much to give to the world helped me realize how fragile each of our moments are.
How, then, do we respond to this fragility? Do we give into that constant temptation of despair--that feeling which Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav called the greatest sin? It is easy to do so. Yet, rather than paralyze us, realizing our fragility can make life more sacred. It can teach us not to take life for granted. Rather, we can look at ourselves and our world with a sense of gratitude, wonder and recognition.
This recognition is much harder than it sounds. The late writer David Foster Wallace pointed this out in a beautiful prable he told in a commencement address. The address was actually published posthumously in book form. It is called This is Water. The parable begins with two young fish swimming in the water. They happen to meet an older fish swimming the opposite way. The older fish nods at them and says, "Morning boys, how's the water." The young fish swim off. A few minutes later, one of them turns to the other and says, "What in the world is water?"
The point of the story, as Wallace goes on to say, is that the most important realities are often the most difficult to see. What is most familiar is often what's least noticed. Growing as a human being, Wallace writes, is an ongoing tutorial in learning what is most important. In figuring out what to notice and where to place our attention. It is not easy. In the age of blackberries and 50-inch televisions, we have thousands of things competing for our attention--possessions, entertainment, frivolity. Yet, when we pray, when we study, when we listen to the wisdom of those who preceded us, we learn how to better focus it. Indeed, Wallace may have unknowingly defined the purpose of these Days of Awe when he said that true learning seeks "an awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us.”
One of the reasons we come to Solel on these Days of Awe is to remind ourselves of what is hidden in plain sight all around us. To express gratitude for our everyday blessings-for our friends, our spouse, our children, our parents, our home, our work, our skills. To remind ourselves of where we come from and the larger Jewish story of which we are a part. With this reminder, we gain strength in responding to the fragility and contingency of life. The whole world, taught Rabbi Nachman once again, "is a narrow bridge. And the most important part is not be afraid."
I would humbly amend Rabbi Nachman one bit. Sometimes, we are afraid. The most important part is not to let that fear paralyze us. Rather, it is to let it broaden and strengthen us. Indeed, it is only after Isaac comes down from the mountain that his life truly begins. Until that point, he was referred to as boy and son. Afterward, he leaves his family home, marries and builds his own life. That is not to say the experience on the mountain was in some way good for Isaac. Rather, it is to say that we can learn from how he responded. When we experience moments of profound difficulty and fear, we can respond in a variety of ways. We can resign ourselves to cynicism. We can simply let it be. Or we can persevere and let those experiences broaden us an and make us into different and, perhaps, more thoughtful people.
The author and physician Richard Selzer illustrates this truth in a profound story. A woman has just been wheeled out of surgery. Her husband is waiting in the corridor. He is terribly nervous. The surgeon goes to speak with him. We removed the tumor, he said, the surgery went well. Something in the surgeon's eyes suggests that it did not. He continues, "We had to severe a facial nerve to get the growth. The nerve controls the muscles of the mouth.” There is a pause. A realization sets in. The husband then asks, "But otherwise she'll be okay?
“Oh yes,” the surgeon says. “Other than that, she’ll be fine.” The husband’s eyes light up with joy. “Thank God!” he cries. “I was afraid she….Thank God!” Later the nurses wheels her into the room. She is awake. Her husband gazes down at her. He sees that her mouth is twisted into a palsy. She leans forward and asks him “Will my mouth always be like this?” He leans toward her and says very gently, “To remove the tumor in your cheek, they had to cut the nerve.”
She nods and is silent. Tears well up in her eyes. But then he leans down and kisses her, twisting his own lips to accomodate hers. He smiles and gently tells her that their kiss still works.
No one would wish this experience on another, and it was probably not what this man and woman imagined when they first married. Yet, an extraordinary experience transformed and, perhaps, deepened their love for another. I've seen similar examples of this love by a parent when a child suffers debilitating illness. We might say this is simply biology. Yet, examples of the opposite reaction abound. We have profound resources inside of us. Sometimes we use them. Other times we don't. The choice is ours.
But our Jewish tradition can, I believe, give us strength in choosing. We are part of something larger than ourselves. We are part of a people that has experienced suffering, uprootedness and persecution. Yet, we have continued to seek to live by an ethical code and commitment to learning and passing on our traditions from generation to generation. Times of crisis were our times of greatest creativity We are like Abraham, forced to make tough choices, and, like Isaac, trying to grow from the painful experiences. Part of our task on these Days of Awe is look inside of ourselves--to find our own Jewish story--that can give us strength through the journey of life.
There is a marvelous short story by the Yiddish writer Shalom Asch. It was shared with me by a rabbinic colleague, Edward Feinstein (whom I quote with his permission). It is about an elderly Jewish couple in Russia forced by the government to billet a soldier. This was not uncommon. In the 19th and early 20th century, teenage boys were taken from homes and forced into the army for 20 years of service. As Rabbi Feinstein recounts, "This eldery couple move out of their bedroom, and the young man, all gruffness and glares, moves in with his pack and rifle and bedroll. It's Friday night, and the couple prepares to sit down for Shabbat dinner. The soldier takes his place at the table. Only now is it apparent just how young he is. He sits and stares with wide eyes as the old woman kindles the Shabbas candles. And he listens as the old man chants the kiddush and motzee. He quickly devours the hunk of challah placed before him, and speaking for the first time, he asks for more.
His face is a picture of bewilderment. Something about this scene -- the candles, the chant, the taste of the challah. It touches him in some mysterious way. He rises from his seat at the table, and beckons the old man to follow him, back into the bedroom. He pulls his heavy pack from the floor onto the bed, and begins to pull things out. Uniforms, equipment, ammunition. Until finally, at the very bottom, he pulls out a small velvet bag, tied with a drawstring. ‘Can you tell me, perhaps, what this is?’ he asks the old man, with eyes suddenly gentle and imploring.
The old man, takes the bag in trembling fingers and opens the string. Inside is a child's tallis, a tiny set of t'fillin, and small book of Hebrew prayers. ‘Where did you get this?’ he asks the soldier. ‘I have always had it...I don't remember when...’ The old man opens the prayer book, and reads the flyleaf, his eyes filling with tears: To our son, Yossel, taken from us as a boy, should you ever see your Bar Mitzvah, know that your mama and tata always love you.
We carry with us a pack, filled with life's painful truth -- the lonely truth of death, of vulnerability, of finitude -- and all our fears. Year after year, as we get older, the pack gets heavier and more clumsy."
Often we don't want to look inside the pack. It can be too difficult or painful. We may want to just dump it out in cynicism or let it weigh us down in resignation. Yet, inside that pack, inside our hearts, is a gift. It is the gift of faith, of love, of hope. It is the gift of our ancestors.
As this New Year begins, let us unpack it. Let us pull it out, and wrap it around our arms and hearts. With it, we can say, kol halom, kulo, gesher tzar ma-od...the whole world is a very narrow bridge, and the most important is not to let fear stand in our way."
Rabbi Evan Moffic
Highland Park, Illinois
Kol Nidre, 2009
One of the most popular features of contemporary automobiles is GPS--global positioning system. Many of us here probably have one in our car. They make getting to unfamiliar places very easy. You type in the address, start driving, and follow the directions. In 200 feet, turn right. At the stop sign, turn left. Now what happens when you don't follow the directions? What happens when you miss the turn? In most systems, the machine pauses and then a very soothing voice says..."recalculating." The GPS then figures out a new route to your destination. How brilliant and wonderful! We get lost...we miss a turn...we can recalculate.
Tonight, Kol Nidre, is a time for recalculating. It is a time for us to look at ourselves. To see whether we are on the right route. The challenge here is that we are both the driver and the machine. We have to drive and recalculate at the same time. Perhaps that is one of the reasons we fast. The task of recalculating is so important that we have to focus our bodies and minds on it.
When we are driving, we usually have a concrete destination. We have an address. For our personal GPS, we don't have such a concrete address. What we do have is Torah. We have a vision of our best selves. We have the accumulated wisdom and teachings of our Jewish tradition. The Torah is many things. It is wisdom, it is laws, it is history, it is ethics. I think, however, that above all, it is a blue print for creating a life of meaning and purpose. Winston Churchill once wrote that "We make a living what we get. We make a life by what we give." The Torah teaches us how to give of ourselves in order to make a life.
Now for much of this year, we probably thought more about making a living. From Bernie Madoff to home values to job security to fractured nest eggs, this year was one of disruptive and disorienting uncertainty. Even though, perhaps, things are not as alarming and uncertain at this moment as they were last year, we are still living through challenging times. At these times--at times of uncertainty and difficulty--at times when making a living seem to be all we can think about--it is even more critical to step back and focus on making a life.
What does Torah teach us about making a life? How do we give of ourselves? Part of it, I think, is cultivating our capacity for wonder. Abraham Joshua Heschel, the prophetic rabbi and theologian, wrote that "our world will perish not for lack of knowledge but for lack of wonder." What is so important about wonder? Wonder cultivates awe and humility. We stand in wonder at the love we feel for our children or grandchildren, at the way a musical melody touches us, or the way we feel after solving a complex problem. Wonder can imbue us with a sense of responsibility. If the the mountains and seas didn't inspire wonder in us, we wouldn't be concerned about their maintenance and our environment. Wonder, love, appreciation, awe, and responsibility are interconnected. They weave a pattern of emotions that imbues life with meaning and purpose.
Now children have an endless capacity for wonder. Over time, however, as we grow and have to face the real world, we can lose it. This truth was conveyed to me in a story I came across recently. It concerns a young man in a Washington DC metro station. He wore a jeans, a long sleeved T-shirt and a Washington Nationals baseball cap. It was Friday morning He held a violin in his hand. An case lay open at his feet. A few coins and dollar bills lay in the case as seed money to stimulate contributions. At 7:50 am, he began playing. He continued for 43 minutes. Over the course of that time, he played through six classical pieces, including the stunning Bach Partita in D minor. His playing resonated through the entire metro arcade.
Over those forty three minutes, about a thousand people passed by. The vast majority walked straight ahead, up or down the stairs. A few dozen turned their eyes and momentarily waited. Seven people stopped to listen for more than one minute. He collected a total of thirty two dollars and seventeen cents.
The violinist playing in the Metro was Joshua Bell. As many of us probably know, he is one of the great musical virtuosos of our time. He sells out concert halls. He plays to a capacity audience here at Ravinia. There he was, in the Washington Metro, playing an 18th century Stradivarius violin, and 7 people listened for more than one minute. Interestingly, the Washington Post, who had concocted this experiment, noted that every single time a child walked by the performance, he or she tried to stop and listen. And each time, a parent swooped them up and kept walking.
What can we make of this experiment? If we were in the Metro that morning, what would we have done? Would we have stopped and listened? Would we have put down our cell phones or ipods? It's difficult to say. What we can say, however, is that we often fail to appreciate the beauty that surrounds us. Part of the function of these days of awe is to cultivate that spiritual sensitivity, to see, as poet William Blake put it, "the world in a grain of sand, eternity in an hour." What prevents us from doing so? Often it is the business of making a living. Our work never ends. While blackberries and cell phones were meant to save time and improve efficiency, they often mean we are tethered to our office every hour of the day. The pressures of the economic recession make our need to work harder even more acute.
This trend is not unique to our age. One of the great hasidic rebbes looked out of his window one afternoon. He saw crowds of people rushing as they went about their business. He leaned out and asked one of them, "Why are you rushing?" The man replied, "I'm running to work to make a living." “Are you sure,” asked the rabbi, “that your living is running away from you and you have to rush to catch it. Perhaps it's running toward you, and all you have to do is stand still and let it catch up to you."
Many of us are running, running, running. I confess that I am all the time. It's hard to stop and let our life catch up to us. Part of the reason is that we often think that satisfaction or happiness is just around the corner. If we only get this job or this car, we will be content. The wisdom of those who came before us can help from fallling into this endless pattern. We can listen to the wisdom of parents and grandparents who lived through the Depression--and developed values that sustain them.
My grandfather was an extraordinary doctor. He spent his entire career as a general practioner in Milwaukee in the same office with the same hospital. I was fortunate to grow up just a few blocks from him, and whenever we went out to dinner, it seemed he knew or even delivered as babies half the people in the restaurant. He had many favorite sayings, some of which were original. Most were not. We called them nuggets of wisdom. One of them was that “the grass is always greener on the other side.” I didn't understand this idea for a while, and when I did so, I saw the way he exemplified it in his life. He had opportunities to be a professor at the medical school; he had chances to go to another clinic and set up a more profitable practice. He could have opened more offices or charged more than $5.00 for housecalls. Yet, he loved spending time with patients. He loved making housecalls and staying for a steak or beer. He loved being the urban equivalent of a country doctor. He never confused wealth or status with happiness.
That is not to say that we should not be ambitious, that we should not work hard, or that we should not achieve the highest station in life we can attain. Far from it. Rather, it is to know how to distinguish between what is important and what is secondary. To understand what brings us true satisfaction--to find it, and treasure it.
My grandfather actually told me a story about this lesson. It is about a rabbi named Isaac. He lived in Crakow in a small home with a wife and four children. He made little money. One night he had a dream. In it he travels to the great city of Prague. In Prague he comes to a bridge, and under that bridge is buried a great treasure. The dream persists. Finally, he decides he has to go. He leaves his home and travels to Prague. Soon he finds the bridge from his dream. It is guarded by a group of soldiers. He waits and waits yet, the guards do not leave. Finally, the captain of the guards goes up to Isaac and asks him what he is doing there. Isaac tells him his dream.
The captain laughs. Then he saus, "Foolish man...We can't follow all of our dreams. If I had followed mine, I would have traveled to Cracow. I dreamt that in Cracow, there lived a poor man named Isaac, and under his stove was buried a great treasure." Isaac immediately understood. He returned home, and indeed, he finds a great treasure.
The treasure we seek is not in a faraway city. It is not just around the next corner. It is within us and around us. It is in our homes, our hearts, ourselves. We can only find it, however, when we look closely. That is the challenge of these Days of Awe. It is sharpening our vision so that we can find and nurture the treasures we have. To do so, we have to look at and inside ourselves.
This is difficult. The anthropologist Claude Levi Strauss once pointed out that astronomy developed as the first science among human beings because stars are far away. Anthropology and psychology—the study of human thought and culture--came much later. To study what is distant is easy. To explore what is close takes time and effort. (see David Wolpe, Making Loss Matter, p. 90)
Yet, the time and effort is worth it. When we fail to do so, we sell ourselves short. We lose sight of the possibilities inside of us. F. Scott Fitzgerald, one of the most talented yet depressed writers of his time, conveyed this in a beautiful story. He wrote it 79 years ago, and titled it Babylon Revisited. It was actually adapted into a movie called The Last Time I Saw Paris.
It's about a man named Charlie Wales. He had lost his family and fallen a gambling addiction and other pursuits during the boom years of the 1920s. In the unforgettable closing scene, he is sitting at a bar in Paris. It is now the early 1930s. The bartender said to him: “I heard you lost a lot in the crash.” “I did”, Charlie said, and he added grimly, “but I lost everything I wanted in the boom.” “Selling short?” the bartender asked. Charlie replied, “Something like that.”
Charlie did not loss money selling short stocks. For Charlie, it was selling short the values that give meaning and purpose to our lives. It is much more devastating to sell them short, and he was experiencing a very different type of bankruptcy.
Here in this sanctuary, we can defend ourselves from such a bankruptcy. We are surrounded by the people we love and by the ancient traditions and teachings that imbue our lives with value. Yet, we cannot sell them short. Rather, we can let the lilting melody of the kol nidre--and the clarion call of the shofar--serve as our spiritual GPS, a reminder of what we lose when we do so.
On this Yom Kippur, this day of turning, we turn toward ourselves and toward one another. We turn with wonder and with eyes focused on the treasures within us and within the walls of this synagogue. That is never a wrong turn, and it will lead us to the place we are meant to be.
Rabbi Evan Moffic
Highland Park, Illinois
Yom Kippur Morning, 2009
A good friend recently told me the following story. It comes from his days at the University of Michigan. At Michigan--and now I quote, "it was not uncommon to take a class with two, three or sometimes four hundred people in a lecture hall. While I was there, an incident occurred during a final exam in one such class. Time had run out, the professor called for the exams and the students finished up, tossing the blue book exams on the professor’s lectern upon leaving the room.
A few minutes passed, the last few students desperately scribbled their final comments and left the auditorium, leaving only the professor and the stack of hundreds of blue books at the lectern in the front of the room. One student kept writing. Five, ten, fifteen minutes passed and the professor stood there shocked at this student’s chutzpah. Finally, the student walked up to the professor, blue book in hand, ready to hand it in. The professor said: “Young man, if you think I am going to accept that exam, now twenty minutes late, you are mistaken.” At which point the student replied: “Professor, do you have any idea who I am?!” The professor answered indignantly: “No, I have no idea, and to be quite candid, it matters not a whit to me who you are!” The student went on: “So, you’re telling me that you have no idea who I am.” The professor said: “No. None, whatsoever!” At which point the student took his blue book, shoved it in the middle of the big pile of identical blue books, said “And you never will either!” and walked out of the room never to be seen again. (Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove)
I love this story not only because it's funny and may even be true, but because it points to a core issue on these Days of Awe. We are both individuals, and we are part of something larger. Usually, we are happy when people know our name. We are gratified when others perceive our uniqueness. Yet, there are times when we want to feel part of something larger than ourselves. Yom Kippur is a day when we live those tensions. We reflect on our individual lives and destinies. Yet, we also identify as part of the Jewish community, as part of this synagogue. Mordecai Kaplan, the 20th century Jewish thinker, pointed out that in Judaism, belonging is more important than believing. We express our faith by identifying with the community.
As your rabbi, part of my job is to get to know and understand our community. To get a feel for its culture, to internalize its values, to get to know the history that has shaped and guided it. Another part of my work is to dream about our future. To shape and further the values and norms that have guided us to where we are now, and to imagine what we can become in the days and years ahead.
It is also my job to get to know our congregants as individuals. This seems like a challenging task as I look our on our community today. Yet, it is a critical one. In fact, the ancient rabbis had a blessing they would say when seeing a large crowd. “Baruch atah adonai eloyanu melech ha-olam, chacham ha'razim, Blessed are You, Eternal God, Knower of Secrets." What is the connection between a large crowd and a knower of secrets? Well I think the blessing is meant to remind us that a large crowd is full of distinct individuals. Each of us has stories, memories--secrets, if you will-- that we bring here today. Each of has hopes and dreams. We ask ourselves this day, "How do we become the individuals and the community we are meant to be?"
The key is the beautiful phrase at the center of our Torah reading--I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse, choose life--what does it mean to choose life? How do we choose life as a community, as a synagogue in the 21st century? Once again, our Torah reading gives us guidance.
The first responsibility is to define our community broadly. In our Torah reading Moses speaks not only to the Israelite people but to all those who are in your midst. From the krov machonecha, from the one who is part of your home, to choteiv maamecha, to the one who works in your community. The Jewish community is not just Jews--it is everyone who has a connection and link to the Jewish people. If that was true in Moses' time, how much more true it is today. I think in particular of interfaith couples and families. Our community is enormously enriched when we follow Moses' example and define our community broadly and inclusively. While this approach is not shared by many others within the Jewish community, it is one that I believe not only reflects our highest Jewish values, but that is essential to creating a living, thriving community in the 21st century. This community will not be the same as the one that preceded it. Our synagogue will not be the same as it was in the 50s, 60s or even 90s. Yet, we will, I believe, feel more strongly the spiritual depth of our Jewish values. We may even feel more acutely why Judaism is a gift in our lives.
This lesson has been driven home to me not only in my own work with interfaith couples, but also in a wonderful book by the renowned Protestant theologian Harvey Cox. He is a Professor at Harvard Divinity School who happens to be married to a Jewish woman, and they are a raising a Jewish child. A few years ago he wrote a book entitled Common Prayers. In it he reflects on his feelings and experience, synthesizing it with his scholarly knowledge, writing,
“In keeping with the vision of the prophets, the builders of the ancient Temple in Jerusalem designed it to be a house of prayer for all people....Throughout the ancient world, many gentiles worshiped with Jews. The Temple welcomed them... and their presence... reflected the age-old Jewish hope that one day all nations and peoples, including "strangers and sojourners," would join in praise of the One [God] who created them all...
I sometimes think of myself as one of those "sojourners" mentioned by the Jewish prophets. For a decade and a half... I have also lived and prayed with Jews.... As the husband of a Jewish woman I have learned a lot, maybe even more than I originally bargained for, about her tradition. I have now imbibed fifteen years of Jewish holidays, Sabbaths, rituals, Torah studies, klezmer music, prayers, family gatherings, jokes, gossip, and gefilte fish. After several embarrassing faux pas, I now know the difference between mishugonah and mishpochah, and between kvetching and kvelling. More seriously, I have fasted on Yom Kippur, shivered at the blast of the shofar, sat shivah when relatives have died, drunk the Sabbath wine on Friday evenings, and prayed at the Wall in Jerusalem.
I remain, of course, a sojourner... My perspective is not that of a full-fledged landsman. It never will be. But neither is it that of a coldly objective analyst. The prayers I pray when I am among Jews are Jewish prayers, but I have learned how to make them my own as well.”
What a beautiful perspective. We have many Harvey Coxes in our own midst, and I believe we are and will be stronger as a synagogue because of it.
One of the most attractive parts of Judaism for Jews and non-Jews alike is our sense of joy. Our people has seen its share of tragedy and persecution. Yet, lamarot hakol, despite it all, we remain a people not of oy, but of joy. Just picture a typical Jewish wedding. While remembering that life also contains sorrow, as represented by the broken glass, the dominant mood is absolute joy. The dancing, the singing, the eating--all imbue us with a sense that our future will be one of happiness. The Israeli national anthem is hatikvah, the hope--hope in a brighter future.
My hope is that a sense of joy and warmth pervades our synagogue. That we are a place where Jewish life is celebrated, and where our machers, our bigshots, are our children. My daughter Hannah provided me with the best vision of what our synagogue can be. Last year we took her to a family Chanukkah service at my previous synagogue. Of course we sang dreidel, dreidel. At home, a few days later, we played a CD by the children's singer Rafi. One of the songs was dreidel, dreidel. Hannah said, "Dada sings that at temple." She's a little young for the words “synagogue” or “congregation.”
All is well and good. About a week later, I was heading off to the synagogue. I told Hannah that I was going to temple. Then she said, "Oh yeah...to sing songs." Now, everytime I or anyone else asks her what dada does at temple, she says "sing songs." To be honest, that is what we strive to do here. To sing the song of the Jewish people; to bring others into that song, to inspire others with its melody, and to ensure that the song is taught to the next generation.
One place where we need to sing our Jewish song now is Israel. It has been a tumultuous year for Israel. For many of us, Israel does not play a major role in our day to day lives. And I know that our congregation is home to a variety of political leanings. Yet, one thing I also know is that we share a love of the Jewish state. And we appreciate the incredible role it plays in assuring the survival and prospering of Jewish life.
Like all other Reform rabbis, I spent my first year of rabbinical school in Israel. It was the second half of 2001 and first half of 2002. It was the height of the second intafidah. Every week there was a bombing. A man exploded himself at the hotel next door to the rabbinical school. And a bomb was set up at the coffee house across the street from where I lived. We were told not to ride the buses, and we saw some of our teachers called up for military service. In spite of this environment--or perhaps, because of it--my classmates and I developed a deep bond and love of Israel. We saw the way its citizens calmly and bravely went on with their lives in the midst of terror. Like most Jewish communities, we were not all of one opinion, and there were great disagreements, as there are today, on settlements and appropriate borders for a future Palestinian state. Yet, we saw the way that terrorism and hatred strikes innocent Israelis, and can threaten the lives of those who seek to live in peace. I don't know when we will see peace, but I have faith that someday we will. In the meantime, it is our obligation--truly, it is our privilege--to support those fighting to protect our ancient ideals and ensure the survival of that land that is a refuge for so many who have been persecuted. Solel has always been a place where we have done so. Indeed, as I learned from one of our past presidents, in 1967, the congregation took out a mortgage on the building to provide funds for the state while it was in the midst of the Six-Day war. Then, and now, our leaders understood that we are part of one people, tied together in a single garment of destiny.
Indeed, it is our destiny--as individuals and as a community--that we contemplate on this day. Part of the beauty of these Days of Awe here at Solel is that we pray as one community. At our best, we feel what Martin Buber called a sense of "genuine We-ness," a sense that would restore us the "meaning of every word... the intention of the human glance." A sense that we part of something larger than ourselves. Our community is defined by the values we embrace--the values of inclusion, joy and peoplehood. Yet, above all, we are defined by our people. We are defined by the moments we share and the relationships we share. We are defined by the acts of justice and kindness we perform.
The Jewish mystics tell a story about one of the great Hassidic leaders, Rabbi Dov Baer Schneersohn. One night he was so immersed in his study of religious texts that he failed to notice that his son had woken and was crying. His father, Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Lyady, heard the noise, went up to the bedroom, soothed the baby and sang it to sleep. Then he went in to his son, still bent over his books, and said: "My son, whatever you are doing, it is not the service of God if it makes you deaf to the cry of a child."
As we look at ourselves on this holiest day of the year, let us seek to become a community of tzadikim, of righteosuness, a community of that hears the voice of the crying child. Let us become a community that sings the song of the Jewish centuries. When we sing it in tune, it is a song of joy, kindness, justice and peace.