Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Rosh Hashanah Sermons 5773

Audio Links
Rosh Hashanah Day 1 - here
Rosh Hashanah Day 2 - here

Rosh Hashanah Day 1 5773 – The God Particle

By Rabbi Joshua Hammerman

I savor this opportunity to wish you all a Shanah Tova - because this may be the final time we’re all together to do that....at least if the Mayan calendar is to be believed.

According to an ancient Mayan prophecy, there will be no more new years.  Forget about next Rosh Hashanah…. We won't even reach January 1.  The world will come to an end, the prophecy states, on December 21 of this year.  So we will have Hanukkah.  All eight days.  But no Christmas.    Just saying...

I'm a pretty skeptical guy, and I was skeptical of this prophecy that we won't make it to the next New Year, until I heard the stunning news this past April that Dick Clark had died.  Coincidence?  New Years Eve somehow survived the passing of Guy Lombardo.  But Dick Clark?  I'm not so sure.

So as I speak to you this morning, there is a great uncertainty, one that transcends all the economic and political turmoil, one that exceeds even the great angst we feel about Iran, and do we ever -  and about Syria and Egypt and Libya - and about Israel herself.

Will any of that matter six months from now? Will we all be here?  The liturgy does little to comfort us, what with the Unetane Tokef prayer that we just chanted, asking the very same question, and crying out "Who shall live and who shall die?” Mi Yichye um Yamut?

“Who by Fire and Who by Water?” “Mi Ba-eshu mi ba-mayim?” 

This past summer, I traveled to Colorado for a family bat mitzvah, and the smoky stench of Rocky Mountain wildfires asphyxiated downtown Denver. In that thin air, it was hard to breathe.  A few weeks later, I performed a wedding in Barbados (Yes, it’s a tough job… but give me a break.  Most of my business trips are to cemeteries in Queens). Twelve hours after we left the island, it was hit by a tropical storm.  Within the course of a few precious weeks this summer, then, I literally lived this prayer – Mi Ba-eshu mi ba-mayim?”  

“Who by fire and who by water?” That was nearly me – both times.

Mi B’Kitzo – umi lo B’kitzo?” “Who will die at his natural time, and whose life will be cut short abruptly?”  

On our way from Denver airport, we drove through Aurora, having no idea that just days after our departure, it would become yet another metaphor for the madness is overcoming our society.

Mi Lo B’Kitzo?

In Israel with our group last month, we visited Yad Vashem, along with the site of Prime Minister Rabin's murder in Tel Aviv.  And then we went to Mount Herzl and saw too many graves of soldiers who died way before their time. And then, we brought gifts and support to Israeli soldiers up on the Lebanese border.  And I greeted these amazing soldiers, youth and promise personified, kids who should be dressing for the prom, and instead are weighed down with weapons and gear and the uncertainties of the world on their shoulders - knowing that at any time, the battle of their lives could begin.  And I wondered, quietly, through my smiles, who among this group of half dozen, in one year’s time, might be resting on Mount Herzl?

Mi B’Kitzo, umi Lo B’kitzo?

Maybe the Mayans are onto something.  Maybe Unetane Tokef is too.  In Israel, go into a supermarket and you'll see a version of this prayer everywhere.  Not exactly Unetane Tokef; but Pag Tokef.   A pag tokef is an expiration date.  This prayer reminds us that we all have one. We sit there on the shelf, waiting to be summoned to the task at hand, not wanting to spoil or go stale.

Most of us don't know when our pag tokef is.  Steve Jobs knew. Jobs died this past year after a long bout with pancreatic cancer.  But as early as 2005, he could tell a goup of students at Stanford, “Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything, all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure, these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important.”

Now, thanks to the Mayans, and to Unetane Tokef, we all wander in the valley of the shadow of death, as we approach December 21, 2012.

Steve Job’s expiration date was much too soon.  So was my father’s, and with each passing year I get closer to the age when he passed. While I'm not a believer that biology is destiny, the approach of that date makes me even more keenly aware of the impact of everything I do. I see that pag tokef in front of me.  

Each of us is one day closer to that expiration date than we were when we woke up yesterday, one hour closer than when we began musaf.  The High Holidays, more than anything else, are designed to remind us of that simple, clear fact.  Rabbi Eliezer stated that we should repent one day before our death.  “Does then one know on what day he will die?" his students asked.  "All the more reason he should repent today, lest he die tomorrow" (Shabbat 153a). 

We should examine our deeds every single day – because every day could be our pag tokef, our expiration date.  

We must take what seems like a predetermined destiny and read it instead as a moral call to arms.  It’s not that we will die because our time has come.  It’s that we assert through the sheer force of human will that can reverse that evil decree.  We will not submit to any ancient prophecy or the dictates of our DNA.  We will live – And not just today and tomorrow – but on December 22nd too.  We will prove the Mayans wrong! Our time has not yet come.

When my father died, it was not that his time had come.  It is because his rheumatic heart gave out and heart transplantation had not yet advanced to where it is today. 
When 12 precious souls died in Aurora, it was not because it was their destiny.  It was because a single crazy person got a hold of enough ammo to terrorize a hundred movie theaters, and he did the unthinkable.

When 7 died at the Sikh temple in Oak Creek Wisconsin, or the four Americans in Libya last week, it was not because God willed it, but because bigotry and hatred reigned in the heart of the shooters.

They all died “lo b’kitzo,” not in their time.

Unetane Tokef is a call to arms against the determinism of the Mayan calendar.  It is a call to live with dignity and compassion for however many days we have left.  It is a call not to be preoccupied by the precise date of our death, but always to have awareness that it could be any day. 

But really, should I be blaming the Mayans here?  I did some exhaustive research on the Mayan Apocalypse – OK, I Googled it – and I discovered something very interesting.  The whole thing might just be a misunderstanding of the ancient Mayans’ intent.   According to Guatamalan author Carlos Barrios, the famous date of December 21, 2012 marks not the end of time as Hollywood would imagine it, but the beginning of a change in consciousness, when “a new socioeconomic order will arise in harmony with Mother Earth.”  There are a number of beliefs in regard to this December; all revolving around the winter solstice coinciding with the Earth’s being located at a point of particular balance, midway through the Milky Way.  

Other traditions also see this as a time of spiritual transformation for the world.  In India, over 15 million Hindus consider Guru Kalki Bhagavan to be the incarnation of the god Vishnu and believe that 2012 marks the end of the Kali Yuga, or degenerate age.

What we have with the Mayans, then, at least in some people’s estimation, are cycles of creation and destruction, but leading not to an ultimate apocalypse, but rather a time of eternal peace and bliss – a better time, not an end time at all.  It all sounds very, well, Jewish.  

Midrash Genesis Rabbah cites Rabbi Avahu’s claim that God created numerous universes prior to the creation of this one. Each time God created a universe, something went wrong and the experiment was discarded.  But when this one was created, God looked around and saw that it was Tov Me’od, very good.  This one was a keeper.  This one God could work with.

What a great midrash.  It teaches that that, for the rabbis, not even God could determine in advance whether a given world would work out.  It was not a given that any world would survive or be destroyed.  There were apocalypses aplenty.  But this one, the world we inhabit, has not been destroyed.  Why?  Because people have demonstrated a capacity to grow and change.  A will that can overcome even the dictates of one’s own biological or social predispositions.   Because teshuvah has entered the world.  Because we’ve learned how to press on.

Don’t get me wrong.  I’m not claiming that this is the dawning of the Age of Aquarius, just that I feel I can say with a  degree of confidence that we will wake upon December 22 and the world will still be here.

They discovered the God particle this summer.  And it was a big deal.  I tried to get my arms around the concept.  I Googled it.  Evidently, in my layman’s understanding, this particle somehow takes mass and propels it into energy.  It propels everything forward, and in doing so, it enables existence to happen. Maybe this little particle, writ large, is that thing that pushes us to get up when we’ve fallen, like that panic button seniors wear – you know, “I’ve fallen and I can’t get up.” 

But we can!  We can get up. Even if we are physically unable to rise from the floor, there is something pushing us to live on. We’ve got the God particle.  And we’ve learned this summer that not only is it in our DNA, it’s in every atom.  BECAUSE WE ALWAYS HAVE TO GET UP.  WE HAVE TO FIGHT THOSE FORCES THAT KEEP PUSHING US DOWN.  WE ALWAYS HAVE TO KEEP MOVING FORWARD. We always have to change. Past does not need to be prologue.  There can always be a brighter future.  But only if we push that button and get up. 

That button – that sound - TEKIYAH – wake up!  I’ve fallen but I can’t get up!  SHEVARIM!  I’m broken and I can’t get up!   Teruah! I’m crying – I’m sobbing and I can’t get up.  And yet we do get up. 

And yet we do get up.

When we say Kaddish, we activate that God particle within us.  Yitgadal V’Yitkadash Shmay Rabbah.  We say it again and again and it lifts us, as we try to reestablish the reign of sanctity and order, to overcome the chaos of death.  We say it in the Amida – God is what lifts us – Somech noflim, and heals us – rofeh cholim – and releases us “matir asurim.”  As Judaic scholar Eitan Fishbane describes it, “God is the space within the inextricable threads of life.  God is the mystery that pulsates at the core of our living and our dying.” 

The God particle is within us.  It propels us to rise, but we only can rise as an act of will.  Author Sam Harris wrote in his book called “Free Will” - “Free will is an illusion.  Thoughts and intentions emerge from background causes of which we are unaware and over which we exert no conscious control.”

The instinct to live does go beyond free will.  We recognize that when we try to hold our breath.  But to rise, when you’ve fallen and can’t get up, THAT does take an act of will. 
We never stop moving forward.  We never stop changing.  We never stop growing.

Last May, I had the unique experience of moving both my son and my mother to new homes - on the same day.  And I moved the other son, Dan, a week earlier from his dorm so that he could help me move Ethan and my Mom.  What an incredible experience.  My mother had decided it was time to leave an apartment she had called home for over 30 years.  It was time.   So she moved back from Newton to Brookline, into a wonderful senior housing facility right near my brother’s group home and just around the block from the shul where I grew up, where my father was the cantor.  It was hard for her to downsize, to shed the belongings of a long life well lived, souvenirs of her past and mine.  

But, now that it’s all behind us, and her condo was sold, she has not been happier in years.  She may have fallen, but she has gotten up. 

Just before Dan and I left her on that moving day, I looked up and saw something that shook me to the core.  Dan was making her bed.  He made her bed, just as his parents had done for him when we left him at college; just as so many of us have done for our kids on the first day of camp – and just as my mother had done for me.  With hospital corners.  She always insisted on hospital corners.  It was like we were leaving her at camp. 

Such a simple, mundane thing, but such an intimate, loving gesture. It’s all about creating order out of the chaos of life, preparing the way for the next stage of the journey.

It occurred to me that life comes down to a series of beds made, beds messed up and beds made again.  Our parents keep making our beds, and we make our children’s and then they make ours.  And finally, we make our parents’ beds. 

Until that day we shovel earth into that final bed, tucking a loved one in one last time.
All the soldiers’ graves on Mount Herzl look like neatly made beds.

And while my mother adjusts to her new life in her old age, and my sons adjust to their dorms and try to chart their futures, here I am.  The bed-maker in chief.  The only one not actually moving, but who still must always be changing.  Judaism is an anchor too.  It gives the illusion of stability while shifting just as radically as everything else. 

Psalm 19 speaks of the circuitous journey of the sun across the skies, like a bridegroom bursting forth from his wedding chamber to take on the dizzying rat race.  But, the Psalmist then adds,

 תּוֹרַת יְהוָה תְּמִימָה, מְשִׁיבַת נָפֶשׁGod’s Torah is complete, giving stability to life. 

The God particle keeps us moving forward, but the Torah provides us with the ballast to gain firm footing as we move onward…

And upward.

It occurs to me that there just may be an upward slope to history.  Not something God determined, but God propelled.  A world of peace and harmony is hardly a given.  But this God particle.  This thing that drives us forward.  There is something to it.  There is something magical about the human capacity for goodness and I daresay that it is winning out – perhaps just as the Mayans predicted.  Perhaps there is a new era at hand – though I doubt it will begin with a fanfare on December 21.

Martin Luther King Jr proclaimed famously that the “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” I see some truth to that.  We’ve made great advances in equal rights, for instance.  But in Jewish tradition, justice is only half the battle.  For Jews, the arc of the moral universe must bend, at least as much, toward love.

And that is what is happening as we approach the end of 2012.  There are some small signs that all is not lost.

This year, Jerusalem climber Nadav ben Yehuda was set to become, at 24, the youngest Israeli ever to conquer Mount Everest, and only the 5th of all time.  But he prepared for his final ascent; he saw a few feet away, a Turkish climber named Aydin Irmak who lay there, dying.  He had fallen and he couldn’t get up.  He chose to forgo the climb and took the Turk on his back, tying the nearly lifeless body to his harness and then dragging him down to the mountain base camp eight hours away.  Israel and Turkey have been having tough times lately, but Nadav explained his heroic deed very simply to the Jerusalem Report.  “Aydin Irmak was my friend.”

The arc is bending toward love.

Over here, when we read about Israel, it’s usually in the context of tension and strife.  And there is certainly enough to go around.  We are all desperately worried about Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons and what the world will do about it.  On every border, Israel feels the tension, and the Palestinian Authority is also showing signs of fraying, even as it continues to incite hatred against Jews.  

Internally there is tension too.  I was at the Kotel last month when four members of the Women of the Wall were arrested for the horrible crime of wearing a tallit.  This, in a Jewish state?  And that same week, a 17 year old Arab Jamal Julani, was attacked by a mob of Jewish youth and an Arab taxi driver and six members of the Palestinian Ghayada family were severely burned by a Molotov cocktail tossed at them in Gush Etzion.   A week later, Jews defaced a Trappist monastery in Latrun, and then a mosque in Hebron.  There is tension.

But the Israel I saw and the one our group saw was something very different from all this.  Arabs and Jews were mixing everywhere.  With minimal security detectable.  The beach in Tel Aviv – the world’s first all Jewish city – was filled with Palestinians from the West Bank, many of whom had never seen the seashore before.  Many of whom had never seen a bikini.  We drove up north and the traffic was impossible.  I’ve never seen Tiberias so busy.  Again, Jews and Arabs together. 

In honor of the Muslim holiday of Id al-Fitr, ending Ramadan, Israel had issued 130,000 entrance permits to residents of the territories.  This wasn’t exactly the lion dwelling with the lamb, but it was very encouraging.  And it was shocking, how normal it felt. No fear, very little police presence visible.  This must be what peace feels like, I thought.  And maybe a sign, a small sign that the God particle is propelling us forward.  Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin, in an act worthy of the High Holidays, visited one of the victims of the Zion Square mob attack in the hospital and told him, “We are sorry… What happened is the responsibility of every leader and member of Knesset.” And even on the pluralism front, there is progress.  Some non orthodox rabbis are being paid by the state, at long last, Israelis are engaged as never before in a serious conversation about women’s rights and the role of haredim in the military.

And in Gush Etzion, Efrat resident Yitzchak Sokoloff, who some of us know, reports that following the firebombing of the Palestinian taxi, “Local rabbis and other writers published articles and gave sermons condemning the attack. Several local schools have made the attack a central topic for discussion and condemnation. A good number of local residents, myself among them, took it upon themselves to visit the Ghayada family at Hadassah Hospital and there is an active car pool in place of Jewish volunteers ferrying members of the extended family back and forth to the hospital.”

“For all of my discomfort,” Yitzchak adds, “I was heartened by my visit to Hadassah Hospital.  I sat with Bassam  , the driver of the taxi, who was himself severely burned.  He welcomed me with tears in his eyes and spoke with equal sadness about the violence perpetrated by Jews and by Arabs.”

We’ve seen too many examples of anti-Semitism this year, most especially the terror attacks on a Jewish school in Toulouse, France and Israeli tourists in Bulgaria.  But two weeks ago, 1,000 Berliners gathered in the city’s Schöneberg district to demonstrate against anti-Semitism, following an attack on a rabbi. A thousand Berliners.  Many of them wore yarmulkes to demonstrate their support.  The city’s largest daily proclaimed, “Berlin wears a Kippah.”

Maybe the tide is turning.

We held an Interfaith Seder here last March.   Over a 120 people, all faiths and ethnicities.  That all grew out of our September 11 service last fall, which led to our interfaith Comparative Religions class and, as we’ve seen, to our choir this morning.  How meaningful it is to be able to pray with our neighbors alongside us.  And I say to them, “Welcome.” Welcome!  Let us work together to bend that arc of the moral universe toward love.  

The conventional wisdom is that religion has radicalized in the post modern world. There are those who seek to use religion as a lever to divide us rather than as a banner to unite us.  I know that the temptation among many people is to see the damage that has been done in God’s name and to flee all faith.  Even easier during this past week.

But religion has a role to play – a very important role – in a world of upheaval.  It can help bring people together.  As Andrew Sullivan wrote recently in Newsweek, “The thirst for God is still there. How could it not be, when the profoundest human questions—Why does the universe exist rather than nothing? How did humanity come to be on this remote blue speck of a planet? What happens to us after death?—remain as pressing and mysterious as they’ve always been?”

I plead with all of you – do not lose faith…in faith.  We are not sliding toward apocalypse.

The capacity for kindness is there.  The capacity for inclusiveness is there.  The capacity for love is there.  It is embedded in every strand of our DNA – in every atom of existence.  It is the God particle, and it is in us all.  When love and courage win out, we can ask the old question, is it odd or is it God?  I don’t know, but I do believe, to cite a popular phrase from this year, that the odds are increasingly in our favor.

We can’t let hatred and despair win.

This past July, thousands gathered in Columbus Park for “Alive at Five” to hear Matisyahu the very popular Jewish reggae singer – what a great thing - let me just reiterate that - what an amazing city we live in, where all different kinds of people can work together.  If I’m going to die on Dec. 21, I couldn’t pick a better place to spend my final days.
 At the concert, the throngs of young fans were whipped into a frenzy, totally focused on the performer (though I wasn’t thrilled at some of the liquid refreshment being shared and traces of smoke that did not appear to be of the medicinal variety).  And they were singing about, well, Jewish things, like the part of the Jewish calendar that we had just entered, the Three Weeks marking the destruction of the temples.

Jerusalem, if I forget you,
let my right hand forget what it’s supposed to do

That’s what he sang.  Put yourself in my shoes.  Any rabbi would absolutely sell his soul to be among thousands of people, literally thousands, primarily 20 and 30-somethings, Jews and non Jews, swaying, hugging and singing about Tisha B’Av – and Jerusalem. 

And he had us all dreaming of a better world with his rousing finale, “One Day,” a song made famous at the Vancouver Olympics, a song that echoes the optimism that Jews have carried through centuries of darkness.

Sometimes in my tears I drown
But I never let it get me down
So when negativity surrounds
I know someday it'll all turn around because

All my life I been waiting for
I been prayin for
For the people to say
That we don't want to fight no more
They'll be no more wars
And our children will play

One day, One day, One day…
One day….

He kept singing it over and over.  One day.  One day.  Over and over.  One day…Hayom…Hayom…

And I’m standing there in the middle of the crowd singing with the guy next to me who must be wondering who this old guy is – and he’s singing and everyone is singing.

And it makes me think of those beautiful Israeli soldiers on the Lebanese border, and those Sikhs in Wisconsin and those kids in Aurora and those Americans in Libya, and that Arab taxi driver and those Israeli and Turkish mountain climbers – and the people who are still out of work and the people who are sick and the people who’ve been bullied and the people who have fallen and they keep getting up! 

And I think of my son, making his grandmother’s bed.  And God, reinventing the world, making our bed.  

The Arc of American history may bend toward justice. And the arc of Mayan history may bend toward apocalypse.  But the arc of Jewish History bends toward love – and it bends toward hope.  

It will get better. It will change – the word shanah means change - It will get better.  
Today.  Tomorrow.  V’im lo machar az machartayim…. If not tomorrow, then the day after…   If not Tishei 1, then December 21…   Eventually, inevitably, the God particle will propel us forward.  The fallen will rise

One day.


Rosh Hashanah Day 2 5773 – Many Paths, No Shortcuts

By Rabbi Joshua Hammerman

When last we met, I ended yesterday’s sermon with a reference to last summer’s “Alive at Five” concert here in Stamford featuring Matisyahu.  So let’s pick up the tale from there.  If you were at the concert, you might have been surprised at how the singer looked.  Where there had once been a long scraggly beard and black frock of a Hasidic disciple, now Matisyahu has forsaken the messianic for the messy and shed his 18th century Polish garb and the Brooklyn beard for the windblown blonde coif of a newly minted Californian.

 “No more Chassidic reggae superstar,” Matisyahu wrote on his Web site. “Sorry folks, all you get is me … no alias.”

One commenter on his Web site wrote, “As a huge fan of your music and your personal voyage, I’m pretty confused right now.” Another said, “I am so sad that you did this. ... I can’t even breathe.”

Matisyahu, with or without the beard, is one of the best ambassadors to the younger generation that we Jews have, and he takes his role seriously. But without the beard, he is something different.

The Beardless One still observes Shabbat and eats kosher.  He sends his kids to Jewish schools.  He honors his parents.  And he prays.

But the Beardless One does things that the Ba’al Teshuvah could not do.  His transformation communicates a passionate desire to continually grow and never to fall into stale patterns.  He won’t allow his physical appearance to BECOME him. He has forsaken dogmatic certainty and halachic purity for a pinch of doubt and a dose of theological humility, and these have brought him to a deeper, more spiritual and more authentic Jewish place – more authentic for himself and for his children.

As he stated in a recent interview:

“When you are raised in a religious family, you learn that there is no alternative,  (that there is only) one ultimate truth.  I’ve had to talk to my kids and explain that maybe that’s not so. Basically what I tell them is that no one can ever be sure of anything — and in this life, your teachers, parents, yourself — you can have your own ideas, your own opinions, intuitions feelings, etc., whatever it is.  But never to be too sure of yourself and never to be too sure of anyone because, at the end of the day, we don’t know.”

No doubt the facial hair will return, as he himself as promised.  But that’s OK.  He’s already shown us that the beard and black frock are not necessarily the journey’s end for any Ba’al Teshuvah, and that the process of Teshuvah in fact never ends.  It involves an eternal struggle with a tradition that is itself constantly evolving and with an elusive God who persistently refuses to be painted in anything other than infinite shades of gray.

You thought there were only fifty shades of gray!  According to our sources, every letter of the Torah is painted in at least seventy shades.

I love this Matisyahu.  He is the rabbi of the real.  He is the professor of perplexity, the discourser of doubt.

As today’s Torah reading commences, Abraham and Isaac’s journey is a nice guide on how NOT to do religious education.  The pattern is clearly set: Abraham demonstrates, Isaac acquiesces and the two move forward together. Sounds like Hebrew School of the 1950s.
Va’Vayelchu Shnayhem Yachdav – that’s the key phrase, repeated in verses six and eight.  In verse 6, Abraham takes the wood, the firestone and the knife, and the two walk off together.  In verse 7, Isaac asks a question.  It’s the only time Isaac speaks in the whole Akeda episode. He says, “I see the firestone and the wood, but where’s the sacrifice, Daddy?”

He asks the right question.  Although I might have asked, “Daddy, the last time you used that knife, I was 8 days old and it didn’t feel very good.  Are you planning to do THAT again? (You know in New York you have to sign a consent form!)” 
In verse 8, Abraham gives him the worst possible reply:

אֱלֹהִים יִרְאֶה-לּוֹ הַשֶּׂה לְעֹלָה, בְּנִי
 “God will provide!”  “God will take care of the sheep.” 

And then that phrase repeats…. “Vayelchu shnayhem yachdav.”  The two walked on together.  And there are no more questions by Isaac.  Nothing.   The two never speak together in the Torah text again. 

Rashi speculates that the phrase is repeated twice because by the time it was mentioned for the second time, Isaac was in complete lockstep with his dad.  The two had become one.

Wishful thinking. It may have worked in Hebrew Schools of the 1950s, but not today.  Abraham wouldn’t have lasted a week with our upper grades.

His response to Isaac’s challenging question was atrocious.  It was the equivalent of what we do when our kids ask a question we don’t want to answer.  We say, “We’ll see.” Or “Because I said so.”  But in adding God to the equation, Abraham knew that Isaac would not be able to follow up, because a follow-up question would be a challenge either to his father’s faith or to God’s ability to provide.  Basically he cut off discussion.  Isaac was stuck.  “God will provide.” His instinct to ask deep, probing religious questions was snuffed out.  One could make the claim that Isaac was sacrificed then and there.  His religious growth was snipped off like that foreskin at eight days.  His individuality had been sacrificed at the altar of conformity.  The two protagonists in fact did walk off as one, because one of them was no longer there.  Isaac was already gone.

And indeed, as we saunter through the next several chapters, Isaac is portrayed as a caretaker, physically and spiritually blind, incapable of doing the one thing that he was asked to do – choose his own heir.  Lacking a base of spiritual questioning and mature doubt, he picks the shallow Esau over the questioner, Jacob.  He picks the wrong one.
If only Isaac had run from Abraham instead of walking in lockstep.  If only he had scampered onto the synagogue roof like the troubled Hebrew School student in Philip Roth’s classic short story, “The Conversion of the Jews.”  Ozzie runs to the roof and threatens to jump until he gets his rabbi to promise never again to hit anyone about God.  That short story was central to my religious development.  I long ago made that very same pledge.  And I’ve kept it.

What is mature religious growth?  The path Matisyahu is on, to be sure.  He still happens to be observant, but perhaps not as consistent.  He wears no kipah.  He keeps kosher to a slightly modified degree and he does not perform on Shabbat.  He’s on a journey and so are we all.  We are all on different paths. 

So I have two messages today.  Message number one:  We should never hit anyone about God, because there are many kinds of Jews and many ways to be Jewish.  Many legitimate ways. I might not agree with all of them, but that does not make them less legitimate.  The current denominational labels don’t even come close to defining them. There are infinite shades of Jewishness and an infinite variety of Jews.

There are certain minimal standards that I adhere to, and that my movement adheres to.  Certain expectations or aspirations in areas of ritual and interpersonal and social ethics.   They are important, and they’ve been nicely defined in the movement’s new guide to religious practice, “The Observant Life,” a great book that I’ll be teaching this coming fall in one of our adult education series.

But not all Jews fit into that neat package. 

As I mentioned yesterday, I recently performed a wedding in Barbados. The wedding was held at the oldest synagogue in the western hemisphere, called Nidhe Yisrael, which tellingly means “scattered of Israel.”  It is a Jewish community with an amazing story.  The name “Barbados” means “Bearded Ones,” referring to the plentiful fig trees, and so it was fitting that the bearded people came to the place of the bearded tree in 1654, to escape from the Portuguese Inquisition, which had made it to their prior refuge of Recife, Brazil. 

I was surprised to read in the museum adjacent to the shul that all the Jews who arrived were Conversos, also called Marranos and Crypto Jews.   In other words, Jews of Barbados were descendants of those who had publically professed Christianity but privately followed Jewish practice, only then to face the wrath of the Inquisition, first in Spain, then in Portugal, then in Brazil.  I double checked this with my friend, historian Jonathan Sarna, and he confirmed that it was likely that most if not all of the Jews of Barbados had "converso backgrounds." Expelled, tortured and ridiculed, they found freedom on this island, and only then, after a century of wandering, could they return to an open expression of their Jewish heritage. 

The floors of most Caribbean synagogues are made of sand.  Why?  Not so they can come in right off the beach. They are made of sand to muffle the noise.  Not to draw attention to themselves. 

Ever the outsiders, Conversos were the Jew’s Jews.  They couldn’t even be insiders among the group of outcasts known as the Jewish people.  Later, this group fled Barbados and moved up the Atlantic to found new synagogues in far off places like Newport, Rhode Island and New Amsterdam.

Yes, the first Jews to come to our American shores were not really Jews at all.  But they were!   And they are a lot like us.

Listen to this quote from French writer and historian Jacques Attali, describing the Conversos, a quote fond at the museum on Barbados. “Raised in a climate of doubt, torn between two religions, ever vigilant, seeking novelty in the empty shells left by others’ certainties, …capable of appreciating, accepting, believing in contradictory things, they invented the scientific mind and become the most emancipated minds of our time.” 

Jon Entine, author of Abraham’s Children: Race, Identity, and the DNA of The Chosen People, claims that these original Conversos did not just disappear. No.  He cites DNA research suggesting that there may be as many as 10 million Brazilians who are descended from Jews.

Rabbi Barbara Aiello has been doing DNA research in the Italian region of Calabria, a hilly region on the toe of Italy’s boot where Sephardic Jews fled, only to encounter a renewed Inquisition there.  Aiello organizes Shabbat retreats and revives traditions such as Hamishi seder, a crypto-Jewish Passover gathering that was celebrated on the fifth night, rather than first, when it was less likely to be noticed. “We’re all bnei anusim [children of forced conversion] and we had our roots stolen from us,” she says. “There are Jews like me across Italy, and it’s my goal to re-sew them into the tapestry of the Jewish people.” 

There are many ways to be Jewish, many types of Jews and – many paths to Jewish destiny.  We’re all bnei anusim.

Everywhere you turn these days, there are remarkable stories of lost Jews finding their way back – generations later.  This is not a purely Sephardic phenomenon.

A Catholic woman in Poland died not long ago, survived by her husband and granddaughter. The family opened the will and there, at the very end, is the revelation that the woman had been Jewish all along.  She wanted her granddaughter to know.
This news sends the granddaughter and grandfather into a real hysteria.  This can't be.  The granddaughter gets control of herself and tries to console her grandfather.  "There there, grandpa.  It'll be okay."   He then exclaims," No, you don't understand.  I'm Jewish, too!"

This story was related by the granddaughter herself to her guide on a Birthright Israel trip a few years ago.  Her guide told our guide who told the story to our group last month at Yad Vashem.  And now I’m telling you.

Approximately 4,000 registered Jews currently live in Poland, but community leaders suspect that tens of thousands of Poles may not have identified as Jewish. In August, 25 people traveled to Israel on a trip for Poles with newly discovered Jewish roots.  They are called “The Hidden Jews of Poland.” The trip’s organizer said, "There can be no sweeter revenge for what was done to us seven decades ago in Poland than to reconnect as many of these young Polish Jews as possible with Israel and the Jewish people.”

And speaking of Birthright Israel, this year Birthright brought its 300,000th young Jew to our homeland - Jews from Poland and Greece and France, from Argentina and Mexico and Brazil, and from Stamford and Norwalk and Greenwich - many, if not most of them, rediscovering their Jewish roots and reconnecting with Jewish destiny.

New York Times writer Doreen Carvajal recently wrote a memoir called “The Forgetting River,” about discovering her own Jewish past in Spain. She had been brought up Catholic and only late in life did start collecting the “nagging clues of a very clandestine identity.”  

She quotes a phrase from T. S. Eliot:

“And the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started, and know the place for the first time.”

It sounds like a Jewish journey.  Like the kind we are all on, no matter what our observance level.   

Laurel Snyder author of the children’s book “Baxter, the Pig Who Wanted to Be Kosher,” wrote recently on the CNN Belief blog, that she was having trouble figuring out the role of kashrut in her family’s life.   

She wrote: There’s something about having kids that makes me want to be a better version of my Jewish self. I want something special to pass on to them. Something more than “You’re Jewish because I’m Jewish.”

(But) in truth, I do not keep kosher and I don’t really want to. My husband is not Jewish, though we’re raising our family to be. So, yeah, we eat tacos for Shabbat dinner most weeks and usually skip Friday night services.

This is the truth and I have to own it. I can only shift my life around so much without feeling inauthentic.Lying to my kids about my religious life is no way to model the value of faith.

The purpose of faith, as I understand it, is to infuse life with greater meaning. To make it more real.  Not to dress it up. Not to pretend.

My kids and I are on a journey together. We’re setting out for parts unknown.

And while we may find ourselves changing as we trek along, there is a sacred quality in simply being who we are today. Of stopping on the trail and taking a deep breath. It’s enough, I think, to be exactly who we are, kosher or not.

So, I bet THAT’S not something you expected to hear me preach about.  In truth, I don’t entirely agree with Laurel Snyder, but perhaps surprisingly, we’re not that far apart.  I too advocate trekking along.  But I’d like that trek to be just a little bit uphill. 

Which brings me to my second point.  There are many ways to be Jewish and many types of Jews. That was point number one.  Of that I absolutely agree.  But… and here’s number two: there are no shortcuts.  The climb needs to be constant, the search relentless.  We need to transform what is into what ought to be.  Where we end up, who knows?  Some may keep strictly kosher, others less so.  For some it may suffice to travel to the ends of the earth to explore their genealogy.  But whatever we do should not be lip service.  It should be all consuming.  There is no easy way.

As we read in “The Hobbit,” “Short cuts make for long delays.”

That point is brought home to me every time I try to send an email on my iPhone, and the autocorrect demonstrates that it never went to Hebrew School.  Whenever I type in a Jewish word, this supposed time saver jumps the gun and makes me sound very dumb.

Autocorrect was intended as a remedy to having to constantly backtrack when texting on mobile phones, where our enormous thumbs often wreak havoc on those minuscule keypads. Using algorithms, it anticipates what you are trying to say and completes the word for you.  But time and time again, I find myself wishing I had just turned off the shortcut and done things the long way. Shortcuts are bad!

Some examples:

I write the word Seder, and my ipad jumps the gun gives me – sedation (“I need to pour the four cups of wine for the second sedation Thursday night.”)

Yontiff - Pontiff

Kipa – lips   (“Joey, here is a clip for your lips.”)

Minyan – minivan (“We need a tenth for our minivan”)

Kotel becomes Kotex – not going there – and motel.  (“The tearful Israeli soldiers had made it!  They grasped the stones of the motel.”)

Glila – glitz 

Musaf – missed (I’m sure it was) 

Tefillin – refilling (actually rather profound)

Hol Hamoed – Call Hemorrhoids (“The middle days of Pesach, Call Hemorrhoids, are a nice break after the Sedation”)

And to give some equal time to Sukkot, someone on Facebook posted the other day that autocorrect had turned lulav and Etrog into “Lilac and estrogen.”

Tevila – revival – not so far off / born again.

Huppah – humph (a sad commentary on marriage)

And here’s my all time favorite.  Chosenness - chose mess.

Yes, if we’ve chosen to be Jewish, we’ve chosen a mess.  An enormous mishmash of history, ritual, ethics and imagination, worlds created and destroyed, identities lost and recovered.  There is no short cut to exploring it – or explaining it.  Being Jewish is a life-long vocation.  And it is – or it should be – a lifelong labor of love.

God chose the long way in the Wilderness – not the coastal route, in order for us to experience the many tests of those forty years of wandering, a claim Moses himself makes in Deuteronomy chapter 8.  Rabbi Rami Shapiro writes, “The hardships of life are vehicles for growth.  Each time we confront the suffering life presents we grow stronger, more able to keep our purpose…

There are no shortcuts to a full Jewish life.
Ten days of Birthright Israel cannot be enough.  The ten days of Repentance can never be enough.  This week can only be a springboard to a deeper commitment.  The era of the three day a year Jew is over.  

There are many paths to Jewish identity – but all of them are long, and all of them are uphill. It is not easy to be a Jew.

Returning to that striking midrash from yesterday, where God kept on destroying universe after universe, creating new ones, and the crumpling them up again…. God was simply modeling for us how to live our lives.  We can never be totally satisfied with where we are.  We always need to be creating new worlds, always embarking on new projects.  Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik posits that the obligation to imitate God isn’t purely about moral action, like feeding the hungry, but that it extends to God's capacity to create, as well.  We, like God, are compelled to be creative, to be God-like, always to be inventing new worlds.

In essence we inherit the vast body of Jewish tradition from our ancestors – and then we reinvent it.  Judaism is renewed within each of us, and by each of us.  We don’t just pass it down unopened.  Judaism can’t be regifted.  Each of us is a living Torah.  And if what we reinvent is radically different from the Judaism of our ancestors, so was theirs very different from their ancestors’.

There are common threads that link Laurel Snyder, Matisyahu and Moses, you and me.  But it comes down not to any particular ritual practice or theology.  Certainly there is monotheism, but that meant something very different to Moses than it does to us.  There are ethical common denominators – like an abhorrence of child sacrifice, which we learned in today’s Torah reading. There are cultural threads, like the embrace of questioning, the engagement with the land and people of Israel, and the striving for a perfected world.  And, perhaps most of all, there is the centrality of humanity – the eternal lessons of loving the stranger and loving our neighbor as ourselves.  As we’ve been tossed from empire to empire, from Mesopotamia to Egypt to Rome to Arabia to Europe to America, we’ve never given up on people. We’ve taken the best from each culture and given back to that culture. We’ve never withdrawn, never stopped engaging, even when we’ve had to daven on floors made of sand.

Speaking of sand, there’s lots of sand in Moab.  This summer, I had the rare opportunity to gaze upon the Mountains of Moab on two different continents.  First, in Arches and Canyonlands National Parks in Moab, Utah, and then, on the top of Masada, staring out at the original Moab range, across the Dead Sea in Jordan.  In both places the natural beauty is stark and striking.  Both have forbidding landscapes.  In Utah we literally drove for hours without seeing a single human habitation.  Israel has the natural beauty too, but what makes it special is that every inch of that land is a place where hundreds of generations of human beings have laughed and cried and striven.  Layers upon layers of civilizations.  While all people grapple with the predicament of being human, no group of people has done it better and longer and more intensively, and under more challenging conditions, than the Jews.

And when I was at the Dead Sea, we passed the ancient community of Qumran, where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found.  If you saw the Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit last winter in Manhattan, you learned about how they came from a world of clashing visions of Judaism.  Pharasees, Saducess, Essenes, all with very different perspectives as to what it means to be a Jew.  There was no Judaism back then, but many Judaisms.  Just as today.

But you also may have discovered something else.  The excavations that yielded the scrolls yielded other treasures in the Judean WIlderness.  They yielded 30 pairs of tefillin - phlacteries.  In the box that we wear on our heads, there are four separate compartments, each containing a different text from the Torah.  In the box that we wear on our arms, there is only one compartment, containing all four texts.  On the head, we celebrate our rich diversity, while on the arm, we celebrate our unity, or ability to come together.  Whenever we’ve had to, the Jewish people have come together, setting differences aside. 

There are many ways to be Jewish.  Many Judaisms.  But only one Jewish people.
And there are no shortcuts to living a full Jewish life.

No matter what path you take – being Jewish is not merely a path, but a destiny, and it is a destiny that is shared … 

…By Matisyahu the bearded and shaven, by the Converso narrowly escaping death at the hands of the Inquisition, by the Holocaust survivor who hides her identity.  By Abraham and Isaac.  By you and by me. We’re all bnei anusim.  We are all Conversos.  And we were all slaves as well.

No shortcuts – Many paths – One People.


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