Rosh Hashanah Day One
Monday, April 29, 2013
High Holidays Sermons 5762: Getting to "Yes"
Getting to "Yes"
by Rabbi Joshua Hammerman
Today is the birthday of the world - it is also the end of shiva. September 11 plus 7. We now have a new calendar, I seems, counting from the days of the disaster. I feel as if we are just now rising from shiva, that every ark opening has brought with it a small ray of sunlight peeking through the clouds. We've spent the better part of the last seven days in front of our televisions, in disbelief. For me, as for you, the past week has been gut-wrenching. Completely rewriting these sermons and reediting them several times has perhaps been the easiest part of this week for me. Not that it's been easy to find the words to say right now. Coping with the enormity of the disaster has been hard for all of us - I can't claim to be any closer to it than anyone else. Dealing with people at the various prayer vigils held around town, and the kids, especially at Hebrew School last Tuesday, the couple I married last Sunday, who weren't sure whether to go ahead. Hearing the F-16 outside the window has been a painful reminder of the world we are entering. These have been hard.
But the most difficult activity of all for me has been the most passive. Answering the phone. For days, every time the phone would ring, I said to myself, "Here it is. This is the one." Thus far, thank God, that call has not come from anyone in this congregation. Thus far, aside from missed plane fights and other inconveniences of being a nation at war, everyone who was supposed to be here, is here. It gives a whole new meaning to the Shehechianu prayer that I talked about last year, but I think we should say it now.
We are all survivors now. We are all here, as if for a purpose. Let there be no doubt in anyone's mind: our nation is entering a period that will involve extreme hardship and supreme sacrifice. It is like nothing I've experienced in my lifetime. There is no joy in this task, only a grim determination. But it is one we must prepare for. Today is the end of shiva. Today we must begin to lift ourselves up off the ash heap. Today we must demonstrate our determination with a moment of affirmation. We need to get to "yes."
Nearly 20 years ago, two men wrote a book about successful negotiations that has now become a classic in the business world, called "Getting to Yes." While primarily intended for business bargaining, their formula has been adapted to fit many other scenarios, from difficult marriages to peace in Kosovo.
It's not easy to get to yes, whether at a bargaining table or a prayer service. Abba Eban was speaking about Jews when he called us the people who can never take "Yes" for an answer. But it applies to everyone, not just Jews. As we enter the year 5762, getting to "yes" seems an all but impossible task. We are all simply devastated. Last week we confronted one of the darkest moments of this nation's history, marking the end of our national naivete and isolation and, in the words of the Boston Globe, "the beginning of a period of incomprehensible domestic fear and vulnerability." As George Will put it last Wednesday, "The acrid and inexpugnable odor of terrorism, which has hung over Israel for many years, is now a fact of American life. Yesterday morning Americans were drawn into the world that Israelis live in every day."
Meanwhile in Israel, the dream of peace has been replaced by dark visions of perpetual conflict and danger. As of last week, according the IDF, 172 Israelis have been killed since the this newest Terror War began last Rosh Hashanah, and 1710 wounded as a result of 7,588 terror incidents that read like a modern-day Unetaneh Tokef: "Who by drive by shootings, who by suicide bombings, car bombings, failed bombings, mortar attacks, fire bombs, stabbings, anti-tank missiles, grenades, who in Israel proper and who in the territories, who by Hamas, who by the Tanzim and who by a bloodthirsty mob in Ramallah?
But the Israeli casualty numbers have been dwarfed by the terrible human cost of what took place in New York and Washington. It's likely that more people died due to terrorism on one floor of the World Trade Center than in all of Israel this past year. It was strange, I must admit, to get a call last Tuesday night, and I picked up the phone and was relieved that it was my sister who is living in a settlement on the West Bank, asking if I was all right. Or to hear the story of an American Jew in Israel on a Solidarity mission in Jerusalem, who, ironically, normally worked on the 70th floor of tower two as a lawyer for Morgan Stanley. Had he not been in Israel and had he gotten to work at his usual time of 8:30, he would have been killed. "It just goes to show," she said, "you shouldn't be afraid to come here." But afraid indeed we are. Here, there, everywhere.
We're terrified at the terrorism, and at the virulent racism that seems once again to be breeding a special form of hate reserved just for us. The Durban conference was the height of hypocrisy. Elie Wiesel, who saw where the conference was headed and backed away from it, said, eloquently as always, "Hatred is like a cancer. It spreads from cell to cell, from organ to organ, from person to person, from group to group. We saw it in action in Durban."
Golda Meir once said: "Pessimism is a luxury a Jew cannot allow himself." Especially at times like these. We need, so desperately, to get to "yes" over these Days of Awe. And with a great deal of patience and God's help, we will. That's my goal. Only it will not be easy to get there. It will take some time. For the "yes" I'm looking for is not a simple acquiescence. That "yes" in Hebrew is "ken." That's the yes we give when we are asked by our spouse to take out the garbage or when the dentist asks if we've been flossing regularly. I'm not looking for acquiescence, but affirmation -- the kind of "yes to life" that comes from deep within the soul, one that can overcome all the little things that get in the way, and the big things too, a "yes" embedded in profound faith. In Hebrew faith is "emuna." And the "yes" I'm looking for is a derivative of that word: "AMEN." We'll be returning to Emuna and other related terms during these next ten days, but we begin with "Amen."
It's probably the expression most often encountered in any Jewish prayer service, except possibly for "what page are we on?" Of course it's not just Jewish. Amen is the universal prayerful response, whether it's pronounced "Amen," Ay-men," or "om." Prayer releases an inner power that heals and strengthens. It is powerful act of honesty and imagination. It is the reaching out, the daring to dream, and all of it is encapsulated in the affirmation of Amen.
But we don't think of it that way. We repeat the term so often in our prayers that it loses its emotional impact. Amen's literal meaning is "so be it," or "that's the truth," with its close connection the word "emet," but it's impact should be more like, "right on!" But "yes" works best. It's like a Marv Albert "yes," with Michael Jordan shooting, confident enough to beat the crowd by a microsecond; or like Shawn green's decision to miss a key Dodgers game because of Yom Kippur, defiant enough to risk all to stand up publicly for what you believe. To say Amen is to shout it above the crowd, to be willing to sing it out alone.
The word "Amen" appears 30 times in the Bible, mostly in formulaic endorsements of blessings, curses and oaths. In our liturgy, the word almost always comes as a response to hearing a blessing recited. The custom of responding with "Amen" developed centuries before Gutenberg, when only the prayer leader had the written words in front of him, so the rest of the congregation had one chance and one chance only to state, unequivocally, that it endorsed every word spoken. That was accomplished by saying "Amen." In the great synagogue of Alexandria, Egypt, two thousand years ago, the hall was so spacious that the people in the back couldn't hear the prayers being recited. So when a blessing was finished, the Hazzan would wave a huge flag and the people in the cheap seats would know that it was time to say, "Amen." It's like the applause sign in a TV studio, but with much more serious implications. Jewish legend stresses the great religious value of responding Amen, saying that prolongs life and promotes forgiveness from sin. Even God nods "amen" to the blessings offered up by mortals. "Whoever says Amen with all his strength," said the rabbis, "to that person the Gates of Paradise will be opened." That's where I want us to get to - an Amen that forces open the Gates of Paradise.
The Jews of Alexandria couldn't hear all the words, but they knew what they were signing on to. So when they heard the Kiddush on Shabbat, they knew that this prayer is a testimony, that the Shabbat itself is a testimony to Creation and to a miraculous liberation from a place called Mitzrayim. When we say "Amen" to the Kiddush, we are affirming that there is a direction to history, a foundation for morality and a purpose for Jewish peoplehood. When we say "Amen" to the Shabbat Kiddush, we are saying that miracles do happen if we work in partnership with God. We are signing on to all those things, we are sealing the deal, and we're even toasting the agreement; we are getting to Yes. By saying "Amen" we are suspending some of our doubts and laying our cynicism and fatalism aside in order to be full participants in the cosmic experiment known as the Jewish people. We are taking a leap of faith. Every "Amen" is one more "yes" to life that can counteract all the negativity that we hear out there. It's a yes to being human, a yes to cherishing every moment, every encounter, every morsel that we eat; it is a yes to seeing all of life as a blessing. When we adopt this "Amen" mentality, we can begin to turn away from all that holds us down and really enjoy our few, fleeting days of life.
Last winter's sleeper film hit was a simple morality tale called "Chocolat." Many mistakenly called it anti-religion. Nothing can be further from the truth. True, the supposed bad guys in the film were the religious establishment, but they weren't bad so much as misguided. They thought religion was supposed to be all about rigidity and fossilized tradition and they forgot about the "yes." It took a little chocolate magic to help them remember. This problem cuts across the religious spectrum. Religion is here to help us feel fully alive, to be fully present in all that we experience, to climb that mountain together and scream from the top. And to scream from the top, "Amen!"
And for a Jew, it's not enough to grasp life and be thankful for it, for we have other divine work to accomplish. As a Jew, I dare to hope that in my life, I might, in some way, tilt the entire world just a little more in the direction of holiness, of getting history, in effect, to "yes." And that is why the current situation in Israel is so crucial, especially in light of last week's bombings in this country. It is a true test of faith, of our ability not to succumb to despair; it is a true test of will, as to our ability to stand up for what is right and to defend innocent life. It is the greatest test the Jewish people and all Americans have faced since the 1940s. And we shall not fail.
The cry of our generation, our most sacred obligation of the moment, is for each of us, each of us, to stand up unabashedly and say "Yes" in solidarity with Israel and against terror. We owe it to America. We owe it to Israel. We owe it to the world. We owe it to ourselves and our children. We must stand up to it.
Why? Because for millennia, since the day Moses stood in Pharaoh's presence, the prime responsibility of the Jew in the world has been to identify and defeat those who crush innocence and do not value God's gift of human life and dignity. We have been the thorn in the side of every despot from Antiochus to Brezhnev, from Haman to Hitler. And that's why they've tried to destroy us. We were the only ones who refused to bow down, the only ones who said "yes" to a higher authority. They knew how dangerous we were, and they crushed us but could not destroy us. And it was through our steadfast faith and determination, our refusal to succumb to despair, that we ultimately triumphed. And because we did, so did the world.
Now we face this generation's Haman, its face now fully exposed in the scenes of bloody terror at the Dolphinariaum in Tel Aviv and Sbarros in Jerusalem, at the World rade Center and Pentagon and in hundreds of other attacks on innocent people. The virulent combination of extremist Islam and militant Palestinian nationalism does a disservice both to Islam and to the Palestinian people, but so few have been willing to stand up to it. When the world tries to formulate a moral equivalence between the person who blows up an innocent child intentionally and the soldier who, exercising maximum restraint in defense of his people, kills a murderer bent on further destruction, or accidentally kills an unfortunate victim placed directly in the line of fire for the purpose of being killed, then the world has lost its own moral bearings. There is no moral equivalence between the arsonist and the fireman.
That leaves us. We Jews and we Americans are the only ones in the world who are standing up to this evil. We are the only ones saying to the world that it is unequivocally wrong to blow up innocent people. Even if the victim weren't Israel, this battle would be our Jewish obligation. It was our obligation when it was Kosovo and Bosnia too, and all the more so, it is our obligation now, because Israel stands alone. Suzanne Singer wrote in last month's Moment, "Israel is clearly the battlefield today, but those who hate Jews and the American Satan recognize no borders. American Jews should not believe they are isolated from Israel's fate. The security and confidence of even the most secular, assimilated non-Zionist Jew is linked to the strength, courage, confidence, and compassion Israel projects to the world."
This coming Sunday, there will be no Solidarity Rally in New York, so we'll have to seek other ways to make that positive statement. One way is to visit Israel. On November 4, I will be joined by over 20 others from our community on our week-long Solidarity pilgrimage. Please give this pilgrimage some more consideration. I know there are risks, but last week's events showed us how little we actually control in our lives and that lawyer from Morgan Stanley is certainly very glad she chose to bask in the safety of Jerusalem.
I know there is fear. We're all afraid. I'm afraid. Israelis live in constant fear. But we have to go there to stand with them in this their darkest hour. I want to be able to tell my grandchildren someday that I did just that.
The commentator Dennis Prager was asked why he could consider allowing his son to go to Israel for a semester abroad at this time. He wrote, "Because… I believe there is more to life than living in safety. For life to be worth living, one has to take risks for the preservation of one's most cherished values." Many thousands of American soldiers are about to do just that. Compared to that, a simple six-day journey to Israel hardly qualifies as risky.
But for us to take such courageous action of any sort, first we must confront our fears head-on.
In August my family spent a week in the forests of the Great Northwest. Before we went out for a hike in the shadow of Mount Rainier, we were given some advice by a park ranger on what to do in the off chance that we encountered a bear or mountain lion. The advice was this: never run. Grab the children, put them on your shoulders, stand tall and wave your arms wildly. If it attacks, wrestle with it. Never run or the animal will catch you and kill you.
That's easy for Mr. Ranger to say. But I'm smarter than the average bear. But the same lesson holds true for this adversary. It's important to confront our fears directly so that maybe we'll be better able to wrestle this bear to the ground. The Talmud helps us do that in a fascinating discussion in tractate Shabbat, page 77b. "Our rabbis taught, there are five instances where the weak can cast fear over the strong: the fear of the gnat over the lion, the fear of the mosquito upon the elephant, the fear of the spider uopn the scorpion, the fear of the swallow upon the eagle; and the fear of a small fish called the Kilbith over the mythical Leviathan. In a recent satellite tele-conference from Jerusalem, Rabbi Michael Marmur interpreted this in light of how he and his fellow Israelis are confronting five different types of fear. His comments are now directly relevant to our own experience.
Why is the lion afraid of the gnat? Rashi looked at the Hebrew word mafgia and said it doesn't mean gnat at all. It is simply a small animal with a big voice. Its bark is worse than its bite. Another commentator, Otzar Ha'geonim says that the mafgia is fear itself, anticipating FDR by a millennium or two. The first fear then is purely psychological - it exists solely in our minds. Travelling to Israel fits neatly into this category; at this point, so does travel to New York, and travel on airplanes. There is a degree of danger, I don't deny that, but the odds are so minute as to render the bark far greater than the bite.
The mosquito terrifies the elephant not because he can do the elephant any real harm, but because he has the capacity of driving him completely crazy. Terrorism fits in here. It can't physically destroy Israel or America, but it can drive us crazy, and drive us to destroy ourselves with fear.
The spider is capable of doing some real damage to the scorpion. This fear is a real, existential, life and death fear. For Israel this is equivalent to the Iranian nuclear threat, the Iraqi chemical threat, and the real danger if the US were to abandon her.
The swallow scares the eagle because with it on board, the eagle might not be able to gain the necessary altitude to truly soar. One might call this a moral fear. There are always things that drag us down and keep us from soaring. Israel would much prefer not to have to choose a policy of targeting terrorists as it has been doing. Israel is in a tough neighborhood. But there is a real fear that Israel could easily lose her moral bearings and treat especially her Arab citizens with fairness. We too need to maintain our deep sense of right and wrong. It woudl be terrible indeed for Americans to commit hate crimes against any fellow Americans of Middle Eastern decent, for example. I fear that midness flag waving could lead to that.
The fish and the Leviathian. The fish is a symbol of the messianic future. So the fear being expressed here is the fear of losing hope that such a future might ever arrive. This is the fear that we are facing now - that the world faces now. This is the one we most need to overcome if ever we are going to get to "yes." Of we lose hope, then the terrorists will truly have won.
I think we can overcome it, and I think Israel can too. But it will not be easy. We can't let any of these fears get the best of us, but especially not the fifth. If we lose hope, then the terrorists will truly have won.
If we can get to "yes" on Israel, then perhaps it will lead to our reaching "Amen" in other areas of our lives: In our business dealings, with our families, our community, with prayer, with ritual and with God. It is the intensity of an authentic "Amen" that we seek, one that approaches each task with all our heart all our soul and all our might, so that we might lift ourselves out of these doldrums and propel open the gates of Paradise.
And if you truly feel that love, and if you truly understand the obligation of the moment, and if you truly know that what we do now will make a real difference in the world, and if you truly believe that because of our efforts, we shall prevail, than let us all say, in resounding chorus:
If you believe in the future of humankind - let us say, AMEN
If you believe in the universal message of peace that is Judaism and the promise of the State of Israel - then let us say, AMEN
If you believe in the inherent goodness of our Constitution and the inherent kindness of the American people - then let us say, AMEN
We will defend Israel and we will defend America, with all our strength and courage and do all that we can so that all children everywhere might sleep soundly at night - and let us all say, AMEN.
We believe that all human beings are created in God's image and that all innocence must be protected-and let us all say, AMEN.
We will do all of this with determination and courage, never losing our humanity and never, ever losing hope, no matter how dark things seem. For although we are tired and shaken, although we are fearful, we are unwavering. And in the end there will be no more fear, no more terror, and we shall dwell as nations at peace. And a new world will be born. Today that world IS born - Amen.
Truth and Trust
There is no doubt that we are now a nation at war. It is a war we have long needed to fight and one that our civilization depends upon. But when we are at war, often the first casualty is truth. We've already seen this past week how wall to wall coverage can lead to false rumors, misinformation, and panic. And with this war soon to be taken to foreign lands, less accessible to the media, the truth will be even more difficult to ascertain. We saw that in the Gulf War, where lots of truths were covered up by the military, including the failure of the Patriot missiles and our near total ineffectiveness in locating and destroying Saddam Hussein's Scud missiles. We learned it in Vietnam of course, the first war fought on the television screens of America's living rooms, and we certainly have learned it in the Mideast, where Israeli naively allows unhindered access to the media, while the Palestinian Authority has relied on manipulation and intimidation to get their message across. Just last week, an AP videographer was threatened with death if anyone broadcast a video he had taken of large numbers of Palestinians celebrating the World Trade Center attack. The intimidation worked, although in this case the truth still came out. Arafat sounded rather sheepish with his Claude Rains imitation when he said he was "shocked, shocked," that there was terrorism going on in America. And then when he denied that any anti American demonstration had taken place, just "a few kids in East Jerusalem and they were punished," that stretched all bounds of credulity.
It is clear that we will all have to be skeptical about truth during the bitter fight ahead, as we have been over the past year with media coverage of Israel. For me the deeper question is one of trust. Even if the facts aren't always right, whom can we choose to trust?
That's a key question in so many respects. Last week, when the first attack took place, those working in the other tower were told by people in a position to know that they should stay put, that they were safe. Some said, "the hell with it, I am outta here." They were the lucky ones. But this unfortunate instruction might have cost hundreds if not thousands of lives. It was a tragically wrong decision with horrific implications. But there is really no one to blame for it. Who could have known that the second tower would have been hit? So people trusted the authorities. Now I understand why the Psalmist said in Psalm 146, "Al tivtechu bindivim, b'ven adam sh'ein lo teshua." Place your trust not in experts, in human beings who cannot save you." We need to place our trust in a "higher authority." But when a Jew says he answers to a higher authority, we are also saying that we have to trust our own God-given faculties to think for ourselves. In the end we can't relinquish that responsibility. A little skepticism, which thank God we Jews are really good at, combined with our God-given capacity for independent reasoning, can save lives and indeed did last week. "Al tivtechu bindivim." "Do not trust the experts." But even that guarantees nothing. There is so little that is in our control.
We've also learned that we can never find true security in anything created by human hands. The unbreakable World Trade Center has taken its place alongside the unsinkable Titanic. We'd have been safer in a flimsy Sukkah. There seems to be nothing that we can count on, not our experts, not our buildings, not our cars - five times this year my directional signals have gone on the blink, so to speak - not even our computers!
Last summer I got a virus. We'll not me, actually, but my computer at home. It was the worm known as Sircam that's been going around, and I caught it because of trust. I received an email from my publisher that said "read this," with an attached file that had a plausible title and I opened it. Dummy. Nothing happened until the next day, when my machine suddenly was sending out hundreds of emails left and right, to everyone I had ever sent e-mail to from home, which, fortunately, does not include the temple's e-mail lists, carefully protected here in the office. It was scary and I couldn't stop it. I felt like the sorcerer's apprentice. What bothered me most of all was that some were going to be infected because they trust me. Then, to compound the problem, I ran over to the temple to send out a warning to our entire list, and low and behold, that was the day that our server here decided to go on the blink.
I've since upgraded my anti-virus software significantly, and the temple's system is quite good, so you can be absolutely confident in our system. How many rabbis in history have gotten up in front of their congregations on the High Holidays and made the solemn promise: I will never infect you again!
But I did infect a few of your computers, and a trust was betrayed. And some of the e-mails I got from people, especially those I don't know, were quite humbling. Things like, "Who are you, Joshua, and why are you sending me things I'm unable to open?" Another: "I have no idea what this is about." And another, "You're sending out infected files, idiot!" And another, "Thank you for sharing your stories and thoughts with us here at Napster. The support we receive from the Napster community is invaluable, and we can't thank you enough for everything you do for us." I even got replies from the NeoPets team and Kari, who had just had a narrow escape in the Digi-world.
And to think, I sent infected e-mail to them all, all these innocent unsuspecting people, major corporations and cartoon characters. I had betrayed them all.
If you can't trust your rabbi, whom can you trust? Can we even trust the Torah? I have shocking news for you. The things that you're libel to read in the bible, they 'aint necessarily so.
My colleague David Wolpe made a big splash last spring out in Los Angeles when he told his congregation that the Exodus as described in the Bible likely never really happened. People were shocked that he said this, but it came as no surprise to any student of history or archaeology. Nor did it for most liberal rabbis. We long ago learned not to get hung up on the facts of the story, knowing that the Exodus contains far deeper truths that have changed the course of history, inspiring humanity for thousands of years.
The problem, again, isn't one of truth, but of trust. We know we can't trust CNN or N.P.R. to get it straight on Israel. But we can trust the Torah to impart deep truths even when it reads questionably as a history book. Even if the Creation didn't literally take place in 6 days, we can still trust that the Torah's account has timeless lessons to impart.
The Hebrew word for truth is Emet. Alef-mem-tav. Amazingly, it is comprised of the first, middle and last letters of the Hebrew alphabet. In contrast, the letters for the word sheker, which means "lie," shin, kuf, resh, are huddled together in a corner at the end of the alphabet. Emet, like "Amen," is derived from the root letters meaning "firm." Truth is tangible and real and all-encompassing. It expands our minds rather than confining us to narrow perspectives. "Emet" calls upon us to seek out truth to the outermost reaches of the universe and the innermost depths of our soul. The word "Emet" is found often in our daily payers; it is repeated seven times, almost mantra-like just in the two pages between the morning Sh'ma and the Amida.
The word for "trust" is from the same family as Emet and Amen. It is "Emunah." In the evening service, the prayer just after the She'ma begins with those two words, interlocked, Emet V'Emunah," truth and trust. They go hand in hand. In the morning service only the word Emet" appears. The Talmud explains why the word Emunah is added for the evening service, referring to Psalm 92, which states, "It is good to give thanks unto God and to declare your trustworthiness at night (emunatecha balaylot)." Why do we affirm that trust at night? Because it's dark! When things are dark and murky, the truth is much more difficult to discern. When things are not black and white, we have to rely on trust.
The story of Abraham is filled with murkiness. He seems to have had this habit of passing his wife Sarah off as his sister whenever he got into trouble, and in today's Akeda episode, he lied both with his words and with his silence, to his wife, his son Isaac, and to himself. I mean Isaac asks him directly, silent Isaac builds up the guts to ask his father, "Where is the lamb for the offering?" Abraham's answer is evasive, in effect, a lie. He says, in effect, "It depends what the meaning of lamb is." But the knife didn't lie. Isaac would soon enough learn his fate.
As a result, when the episode was over, all trust had broken down - and Abraham's life was in a shambles. Hagar? Banished. Ishmael? Gone with her. Isaac? Numbed in silence, barely ever to be heard from again. And then Abraham returned home to find that Sarah had died. According to the midrash, she died of grief at what her husband had nearly done to Isaac.
As it was with Abraham, trust has been so shattered in almost every area of our lives. Let's look at recent polls. USA Today: Forty percent of Americans don't trust the FBI after they botched up the McVeigh case so badly. USA Today: 77% of Americans don't trust their tires, thanks to the Firestone calamity. Gallup poll: Washington Post: Shoppers don't trust AOL. Business Week: 57% of Americans fear invasion of privacy by the government, especially via the Internet. Quinnipiac college poll: trust in Police has declined. Vegetarians no longer trust McDonalds for secretly adding beef flavoring to its French fries. In the marketplace, the embodiment of trust is a product with a brand name. Well guess what? Since 1975 the percent of people who "try to stick" to well-known brand names has fallen 10% to 20% across all age groups. Trust in politicians has declined markedly -- especially in Modesto, California. And a corollary to the Condit case: It has now become universally accepted that all men are untrustworthy, despicable creeps. In one recent column by Maureen Dowd, one expert went on to say, "Men are the gender that I would trust second. If scientists stumble across a third gender, there's definitely a chance of slippage." We can't trust men, and we can't even trust little boys to get their age right when signing up for Little League. The motto in America these days would seem to be modeled after the X-Files and Survivor: "Trust no one."
But it goes even farther. Basic trust in government has broken down. It's one thing that Israelis learned that they can never trust Yasser Arafat, but the tragic collapse of the Versailles wedding hall taught them a much more bitter lesson - that their own government has become incapable of enforcing the most basic rules for public safety in construction. And they knew long ago that almost every nation in the world would abandon them in their time of need, but how were Israelis to believe that their own government couldn't find a way to preserve the country's precious water supply that is dwindling so alarmingly fast?
And we need to be able to trust in some essential things if we are to survive in this crazy world: like that the sun will come up, the rain will fall, you will be able to go to work in the morning and return to your family in the evening, alive, that your children won't be blown to bits when they step into town for a pizza, and that your mother won't kill you and your four young siblings when you step into the bathtub. This shouldn't happen. When these things break down, there is nothing left but to climb under a rock. We need to be able to count on something and someone, and everyone seems to be letting us down.
Even our closest friends. This societal breakdown of trust has infiltrated our most personal relationships. We're all playacting now. Nothing is real. We are constantly lying to the ones we love. We feel lousy and we say we feel great. We have to feel great; we live in Fairfield County after all, therefore, by definition, we feel great. So we lie. If you call your friend and your friend has caller ID, your friend pretends that he didn't know it was you calling and you pretend that you don't know that your friend has caller ID. We've lost faith, and the reason we don't trust anything or anyone anymore is simple: we've been burned. We've been burned by those we love and those we pay to help us. We've been burned by those we vote for and those we give birth to. We've been burned by the things we buy and the things we build. We've been burned by ourselves.
So how can we rebuild trust in times like these? It has to begin at home.
We may never be able to fully trust our computers or CNN. But like charity and just about everything else, trust begins in the home, and it begins with honesty and forgiveness. It may be too late to save the household of Andrea Gates, but it is not too late to save our own. We can begin as Abraham did, with a simple word, "Hineni." He uses the word several times in the story, most notably in response to Isaac's call as they ascended the mountain. Abraham wasn't let ready to tell his son the truth, but wished to be completely present with his child. So he said Hineni, here I am. All of me. Open to you. As open as I can be. And while Abraham's gesture might have been too little too late, the contrition he displayed lead to his sincere and remorse-filled grieving over Sarah's death and an eventual reconciliation between his two sons, Isaac and Ishmael, who met together in Hebron over the grave of their father. Maybe there is yet hope that bridges of trust might someday be rebuilt between the children of Isaac and the children of Ishmael in that same place. This model for teshuvah, this roadmap for rebuilding shattered relationships, is one of the deepest truths of the Abraham story - whether or not it ever really happened.
In our shattered world, we need to begin rebuilding those bridges too, and it needs to begin with each of us. And so I want us all to do one thing before I conclude. Close your eyes. Imagine in your mind the people closest to you. It might be the people sitting right next to you, but don't look at them. Imagine them, and imagine saying to them, "Hineini, I am here. All of me is here." Imagine that person looking back at you, with eyes wide and accepting enough to indicate a Hineini in return. And now, with eyes still closed, but in your mind's eye you are looking at your loved one, say to yourself word for word with me this most beautiful verse from the prophet Hosea, which we recite when wrapping the tefillin strap like a wedding ring around our finger each weekday morning: "V'erastich li l'olam," "I am bound to you forever," 'V'erastich li b'tzedek umishpat u'vehesed v'rachamim," I am bound to you in justice and righteousness, in kindness and mercy," and now, finally, "Verastich li b'emunah, v'yadaat et Adonai," I am bound to you in trust, and through that trust, together our lives are imbued with holiness."
Now with eyes still closed, ask yourself, "Am I worthy of that trust?" "Am I worthy of that trust that my loved ones place in me? Have I earned it? Have I fallen short? Am I worthy of that trust? If you think you are, say it, to yourself: "I am worthy of your trust. Whatever I have done, and we all falter somewhere along the line, I am worthy of your trust. I will try to be even more deserving of it. And for those times when I have not been, I ask for your forgiveness."
How many times over the past week, have we heard how important it is to hug those we love and never to miss a chance to strengthen those bonds? Last Thursday, I was due to be at the community prayer vigil at 6:30, and Hebrew School got out at 6. In the meantime I had to change, prepare and drive downtown. Yet somehow I found the time to sit at dinner with my family for ten minutes, even if it meant being a little late for the vigil. Why? Because I had told them I'd be at dinner. I'd given my word.
The commentator Roger Rosenblatt has said that Maerica lost its sense of irony last week. We no longer are seeking to tear down and mock. We are seeking to build up and trust. We are returning to simpler values of sacrifice and selflessness - and faith.
The word Emunah, the one that means trust…well it also means faith in God. I contend that faith in God begins with the faith that we have in ourselves and our loved ones, in the people around us and the world we live in. It begins with basic trust, Emunah, which leads ultimately to affirmation, that resounding yes, the "amen" I spoke of yesterday. And when you add it all together, fallibility, vulnerability, openness, trust and forgiveness, we bring our world closer to Emet, truth. Not abstract truth from some history book or stat sheet. Not Joe Friday's just-the-facts. But a real truth, a deeper truth. The kind of truth that we can only know when it comes from a foundation of love. The Shma, after all, begins with love, v'ahavta, and ends with emet, truth.
It all begins with love, and it begins right here, with us. They told us we were safe, and they were wrong. They told us it couldn't happen here, and we allowed ourselves to be fooled. The experts said to stay in tower two and everything would be fine. The experts betrayed us. There is much repairing to do. The only way to do it is the way those heroes are doing it downtown as we speak. We must clear away the debris and rebuild trust from the ground up, floor by floor, beginning with the ones closest to us. Your husband; your wife, your parent; your child; your lover, your friend. "And so I have come to doubt all that I once held was true," Paul Simon wrote 30 years ago. "I stand alone without beliefs, the only truth I know - is you."
It begins with you - it ends with God, and a trust and goodness that encompasses the entire universe, from Alief to Tav, Emet and Emunah, hand in hand. Amen.
Creating a Masterpiece
A couple of months ago, a suspicious package arrived in the mail, reminding me of that which unites all of our tragedies, ancient and modern, and all of us. It was crudely wrapped in cardboard, about the size of a book. There was no return address, a very faint postmark, and the address label appeared to have been typed on a very old, pre-electric typewriter. My suspicions were aroused even more by the fact that the book was addressed to no particular person in the office, just to "Temple Beth El."
With little hesitation, our office staff and I decided to call the police; they in turn summoned the bomb squad. For the next two hours, the hallway of this synagogue became yet another emblem of our eternally tragic Jewish experience, like any street corner in Afula, bus stop in Tel Aviv, tunnel near Efrat, pizzeria in Jerusalem. All have been marked by the scent of destruction; all bear the smell of fear, the imprint of the bomb squad, the ineradicable mark of the madness that is and always has been the Jewish condition.
The specialists cordoned off the area, then carefully x-rayed the package. It turned out to be - you'll never guess - a book. It was a library book, an old, yellowing novel written 35 years ago. Most likely, a congregant cleaning out the basement discovered it, and not wanting to risk embarrassment, returned it to the synagogue as anonymously as possible, by mail. If you are sitting here, thanks…you gave me a sermon.
The book is entitled, "Night Falls on the City," by Sarah Gainham. Set in Vienna during the War, it tells of a world crashing down around the protagonist, a Jew living at the center of Europe's "ancient crucible of an ordered and cultured society." "With incredible vividness of detail," says a blurb on the cover, the author "manages to create an atmosphere of hate, vengeance and fear," demonstrating "profound insight into…the weakness, heroism, and capacity for self-deception of all human beings."
Sarah Gainham is one talented author. Not only did she create such an atmosphere in her book, but before we even had a chance to open it, she was able to stir up the same fear in our office too!
Fear, but not self-deception. Unlike so many living in pre-war Vienna, we see the dangers and do not underestimate them. We now understand the evil that surrounds Israel, because it surrounds us here in America as well. There are no more illusions for us. While some might think that we overreacted with the book package, no one questions the reality of the danger and the foundation for the fear.
One could easily argue that if ever a nation has earned the right to be afraid of its shadow, it's us. People really do want to hurt Jews. Our temple in Jerusalem was destroyed - twice; we were evicted from almost every country in Europe and butchered in the ones that let us stay. One third of our people were indeed destroyed a generation ago. Our extended hand of peace has been rejected emphatically by human bombs. Everything has been turned on its head. Our movement of national liberation, the one that was built to save us from the racists and to shine a light unto the nations, has been condemned as racist. The UN conference that was supposed to bring the world together to fight for human rights, became just another excuse to gang up on the Jews. Just one year after the first Jewish vice presidential nominee came just a few dimpled chads away from the White House, it appears that the world is crashing down around us. Even beyond our Jewish tzuris and the terrorism that now threatens America, we live in a dark and horrible world, where we can't walk in the woods for fear of dear ticks, or sit on our porches for fear of mosquitoes. Everything we eat, in fact, seems to cause some kind of cancer, or maybe heart disease. The economy is down the tubes. The weather is most definitely getting more severe as global warming heats up, and did you hear about all those shark attacks over the summer? And if we don't die prematurely from illness, accident or bombs, we'll be doomed to live out long, meaningless, agony-filled lives, and our children will never call us.
Have a nice day!
It gives new meaning to the cartoon featuring Adam and Eve leaving the Garden of Eden and Adam says to Eve, "Honey we are living in an age of transition."
Last week, you recall, I spoke about the need to say "yes" to life, and to find it within us to trust and be trusted by others. The words for affirmation and trust, Amen and Emunah, are nearly identical, and from the same family as the word for truth, Emet. Tonight I add another word to the mix, as we move from trusting others to trusting ourselves. The word is "Uman." It's a Hebrew word spelled, like Amen, with the root letters, alef, mem, nun, but with slightly different vowels. In Hebrew, an Uman is an artist, a master craftsman.
The Kol Nidre service contains an extraordinary poem about art and the artist; we'll be reading it soon. "Ki hinay ka'homer b'yad ha'yotzer." "Just like a lump of clay held in the sculptor's hands; at will the sculptor stretches it, at will, the sculptor makes it small. And so are we in your hands. Let love preserve; look to your covenant, and do not let your anger serve." God is portrayed as the artist here, and we are the clay. This image is problematic for many of us. We're not being molded, passively, after all. But any sculptor will tell you that you can't do much unless the raw material is of the best quality. There is a partnership, then, between God and each of us; we work with God to make of our lives a thing of beauty. We have to help shape that clay, cut that stone, melt that glass and embroider that curtain. We inscribe ourselves, as it were, into the Book of Life. And we are free, absolutely free, to make of that life anything we wish.
This poem contains a play on words. "Yotzer" is "creator," and "yetzer" is anger. Creative hands can either fashion or destroy, and there is such a fine line separating one from the other. The Talmud has it that God actually created many universes before this one, always destroying it to try again from scratch. We are just one in a long line of experiments. We pray for God to go a little longer with this one, for God to have faith in us, and for God's powers of creativity, the yotzer, to overcome those of destruction and negativity, God's yetzer.
An entire segment of the morning service is called the "Yotzer" section, occurring just after the call to prayer and before the Sh'ma. In that segment we find one of my favorite verses of the entire Siddur. We are thankful to God, "ha-m'chadesh b'tuvo b'chol yom ma'aseh berisheet." "who renews each day Creation's work." Every day, the creator begins afresh. Every day a new day. Every day a new chance. For God and for us.
So how do we confront the madness? By creating a masterpiece.
We don't fight the hell that is life on earth by denying it or escaping it. Not by delusion, but by creation. Not by fantasy, but by vision. Not by escaping the pathetic present, but by transcending it; by seeing through time and embracing eternity.
That's how our ancestors did it in the shtetl. What would you call a frail old couple who wears nothing but rags, suffers from chronic illness, lives in a hovel, and faces constant peril and poverty? On Friday night in the old country, you could call them royalty, because, dressed in their finest, the entire weeks' savings spent on a scrumptious meal, the house spotless, that is how they felt. Some might call that couple mad. I call them Jews.
A Jew, almost by definition, is one who can transcend the madness through the power of the Uman, the artist. The Jew is constantly creating new realities, building castles in the mind. The Holocaust is replete with examples of Jews who somehow were able to rise above the madness. Anne Frank is a good example. Much of the power of her diary stems from the fact that, although she was quite aware of the dangers lurking just outside her door, the focus remains on the world she has constructed in the annex, and in her mind. Her little problems, the little dilemmas of a teenage girl, all matter. In a maelstrom of chaos, she has created order. That book, that life, is one of consummate artistry.
Cervantes, in speaking of Don Quixote, said, "Perhaps to be too practical is madness. To surrender dreams -- this may be madness. To seek treasure where there is only trash. Too much sanity may be madness. And maddest of all, to see life as it is and not as it should be." Because of our experiences, Jews have become very good at seeing both.
The Don Quixote theme has become increasingly powerful and popular in recent years. A cult classic of my youth was the film "King of Hearts," where the patients at in insane asylum meet World War One. It is difficult to see where the insanity truly resides.
This year we lost a great Uman of the spirit, the actor Anthony Quinn, who played Zorba the Greek on stage and screen. Even offstage, Quinn loved to do that Zorba dance, of which he said, "It's not in the feet--it's in what you're expressing. It came from a boy asking, 'Teach me how to approach life.' I told him, 'You must have a little madness in you.'" And this year, the newest addition to the Quixote genre is the film "Nurse Betty." Renee Zellweger plays an obsessed soap opera fan, jarred into madness by post-traumatic shock, who, through the power of her vision, brings everyone around her into her dream. In the words of one reviewer, "Perhaps the most affecting observation in the film is the way that fantasy and desire intertwine to save us, to drive us forward."
It's getting to the point where it seems that the only way to be noble and good is to take a step back from reality. Joining Nurse Betty in this quixotic zeitgeist is a book I read this summer, Nick Hornby's novel "How to Be Good." Katie Carr is a good person, in the manner that many of us try to be good. She is a GP at a clinic in a low-income neighborhood of London, and she cares about third world debt and homelessness; she is married to the world's most cynical man and wishes that he would change, if only a little. Well he does, in a Don Quixote, Nurse Betty kind of way, following a traumatic revelation. An abrupt transformation ensues, and suddenly he is giving everything away and taking in street people to live in their home. "I'm a liberal's worst nightmare," he tells his wife. "I think everything you think. But I'm going to walk it like I talk it." That he does, although only with limited success.
Trauma tests us; sometimes it breaks us. But these fictional characters seem to have trouble grasping what is, while chasing their dreams of what ought to be. Too often, delusion overcomes transcendence. Nurse Betty, Don Quixote, and David Carr need to blind themselves to reality in order to become good. In order to reach the heights of humanity, they must sink to the depths of illusion. Our impoverished Shabbat celebrators in the shtetl didn't do that. We can't afford to do that. Our goal is to take off the blinders, stare straight into the eye of life with all its bloody horrors, and take up the artist's brush.
Which brings me to Gilo. Life in this serene neighborhood in southern Jerusalem has been hell since Palestinians began firing on it from Beit Jala many months ago. The Masorti rabbi from Gilo, Connecticut born Shlomo Zacharow, visited us here in Beth El in June, and we are going to return the favor by visiting him this November. (Last chance: PLEASE join us!) Try to imagine dozens of tanks parked down at Ridgeway, Westhill or Bull's Head, and that is how life in Gilo has been turned upside down.
There is now a large, hastily erected cement barricade that stretches across the valley and separates Gilo from Bait Jala, denying the residents a view of the beautiful biblical hillside below. Worse, the barricade created among the children an aura of imprisonment. So the residents of Gilo have done something remarkable. They've painted on he barricade a mural of the scenry of the landscape below.
"Ki Henay cha'even b'yad ha'mastayt," "As is the slab of stone in the mason's hands." The residents of Gilo have taken that stone and created from it scenery of stunning pastoral beauty! In the midst of hell, the children of Gilo are tasting heaven. Like the protagonist in the film "Life is Beautiful," the adults are protecting their children, not by hiding the danger or running from it, but by taking it and creating beauty. It is staggering. That wall is a holy wall. It reminds me of the inscription placed on the Kotel itself, by a Jewish worker during the 4th century reign of Emperor Julian, a very brief 2-year period when the Romans seemed ready to allow the Jews to rebuild the Temple. This amazing site was discovered during the excavations that followed the Six Day War. The chiseled inscription is from Isaiah 66:14, and it says, "You shall see and your heart shall rejoice, your limbs shall flourish like grass." Inscribed on a stone that itself was already a symbol of destruction, we find an ancient message of hope.
Up in Afula, we see the artistry of the healer. Afula is our sister city in the southern Galilee region, and we'll be visiting there too. I hear from Jan Gaines who is organizing the trip that they really need to see us, that morale is very low. She also related to me the story of a doctor working in the pediatric unit of Afula Hospital. Afula is not far from the Israeli Arab town of Nazereth and other Arab population centers in the north. Incidentally, it is noteworthy that since the tragic killing of about 20 Israeli Arab demonstrators in the very first days of this violence last October, there have been almost no incidents and no casualties involving Israeli Arabs. That is very good news. It is not unusual that this doctor would be treating a number of Arabs, then, on any given day, including, it so happened, on August 9, the day of the Sbarros bombing in Jerusalem. When word of the attack came over the radio into the waiting room of that hospital, the Arabs there did what a decent person might believe to be unthinkable, but in the madness that is our world right now, it was predictable. They cheered.
They cheered a massacre. They cheered the children being made orphans, the mothers made childless, the ruptured lives, the smashed dreams, the shattered innocence.
And despite this, this Jewish doctor continued to treat her patients, saving lives even as those she saved were celebrating the loss of children equally innocent, equally precious.
I must add that there are examples of this same counterintuitive behavior on the Arab side of this as well, including that of the man near Jerusalem who allowed his dead son's organs to be used to save Jewish lives. Such heroic acts only highlight the madness of real life right now, and the relative sanity of those with just a little bit of vision.
It says in Pirke Avot, in the Mishnah, "bamakom she-ain anashim, hishtadel lihyot ish." "In a place where there is no humanity, try to be human.
And how do we do that? We don our smock, we pick up the brush, and we begin to paint a picture of such beauty and goodness that no one, no one would dare destroy it. Even if we succumb to the evil around us, as Anne Frank did, the art remains, rising above even the smoke of her body burning at Buchenwald. The art remains and becomes the affirmation, the "yes." The Uman becomes the Amen.
There are numerous such stories of transcendent artistry just now emerging from our recent catastrophe. We've seen how the goodness exponentially outweighs the evil, restoring an ecological balance in the moral universe where life triumphs over death. On the night of Sept. 11, columnist Susan Josephs sat with a friend at an Upper West Side bar, figuring that would be as good a place as any to watch CNN until collapsing from sheer exhaustion. As they were watching from the bar she couldn't help but notice two couples in the corner, laughing hysterically, engaged in the age-old American ritual known as flirting. She couldn't believe it. On that, of all nights. How could those people be so oblivious when the world was literally crashing down around them, when thousands of people were missing and feared dead, including almost certainly the proverbial friend of a friend for each of the flirters? How could they just tune it out? It led Josephs to reflect on that famous selection from Ecclesiastes: to everything there is a season: a time to be born, a time to die, a time to weep and a time, she figured, to attractively present oneself to the opposite sex and flirt. She pondered whether what she had just witnessed was self-absorbed escapism or in fact a most-timely affirmation of life.
It was sort of like a modern day story of Ruth playing itself out in a bar on the Upper West Side. Ruth, fresh off a multiple tragedy that took from her her husband, brother in law and father in law, having just uprooted herself from her homeland, and what does she do? She flirts with a guy named Boaz and ends up marrying him.
Susan Josephs decided in the end to be forgiving of her laughing couples. On a night like that, any sign of life at all had to be labeled a miracle. And she recalled a dance teacher she once had, who one day in the middle of class stopped to tell them that she had almost cancelled the class because someone close to her had been murdered the previous day in Manhattan. "But then I thought," she continued, "you never know when it's your last day to dance. So here I am."
Zorba could not have put it better.
Nor could the great Isaac Stern, z'l who died this week. During the 1991 Gulf War, a concert in Jerusalem was interrupted by a siren warning of an Iraqi Scud missile attack. After the audience put on gas masks, Stern returned to the stage and played a selection from Bach. Stern refused to wear a gas mask, in effect daring Saddam Hussein to silence the music.
But of all the artistic responses to catastrophe, none can match what I saw just a month ago in Washington state. The canvas was Mount St. Helens and the artist - the artist was God. On May 18th, 1980 the eruption of Mt. St. Helens in southwest Washington changed more than 200 square miles of rich forest into a gray, lifeless landscape. The devastation of the blast is almost unfathomable. The lateral blast swept out of the north side at 300 miles per hour creating a 230 square mile fan shaped area of devastation reaching a distance of 17 miles from the crater. With temperatures as high as 660 degrees and the power of 24 megatons of thermal energy, it snapped 100-year-old trees like toothpicks and stripped them of their bark. The largest landslide in recorded history swept down the mountain at speeds of 70 to 150 miles per hour and buried the North Fork of the Toutle River under an average of 150 feet of debris. The massive ash cloud grew to 80,000 feet in 15 minutes and reached the East Coast in 3 days, circling the earth in 15 days. 7,000 big game animals, 12 million salmon, millions of birds and small mammals and 57 humans died in the eruption. Before the blast the mountain stood 9,677 tall. It now stands at 8,363 feet. A thousand feet of mountain is no more. Talk about destruction!
So when we went there last month, I expected to find an eerie moonscape. But I saw something absolutely amazing instead. The land around the mountain is slowly healing. There is new growth everywhere, trees and moss and animal life. In fact, life returned to Mount St. Helens even before the search for the dead had ended. National Guard rescue crews looking for human casualties during the week after the 1980 eruption found that flies and yellow jackets had arrived before them. Curious deer and elk trotted into the blast zone just days after the dust settled. Helicopter pilots who landed inside the crater that first summer reported being dive-bombed by hummingbirds, which mistook their orange jumpsuits for something to eat. A whole new ecosystem is emerging before our eyes. Peter Frenzen, the chief scientist at Mount St. Helens, put it best, "Volcanoes do not destroy;" he said, "they create."
Now I know how we Jews developed our proclivity for confronting madness with artistry. We inherited it from God, the One who renews Creation each day. Never was that more evident to me than at Mount Saint Helens.
And never was that quality needed more than right now in lower Manhattan. Night has fallen on the city. There's quite a bit of ash there, too, and raw clay to be molded by the sculptor. But while the elk won't be so quick to return there, the school children already are. And the stockbrokers and the students and the joggers and the falafel vendors and the theater owners. Slowly the animals are returning to their habitats, at Battery Park City and Tribeca. And while we can make few comparisons between the madness of nature and the madness of human evil, we can make plenty of comparisons about how we confront it. In each case, death is confronted by the unquenchable urge to live. Beyond all else to live. To paint, to sing, to write, to sculpt, to chisel, to plant, and to dance. Because you never know when it's your last day to dance.
There is a time to die and a time to be born -- and this is our time to be reborn.
The Shoebox Sukkah
I spoke on Rosh Hashanah about affirmation amidst the despair of destruction, saying "amen" to life, and about trusting our loved ones and aiming for truth in our relationships. Last night, I spoke of the courage we need to go on, to become true artists crafting our own book of life. Amen, Uman, Emet, Emunah. Today, Emunah again, but in a vastly expanded form - today we map out the path beyond the wreckage to a life of deeper faith; today, we follow the Yellow Brick Road to "yes." And it is all about living with passion.
With all the grand themes that we have been discussing this week, with all that is going on in the world, our prayers have been filling the room with an intensity derived in large part from fear and uncertainty to be sure - and one other thing: love. We all have been extra mindful of the poignant letter the Hazzan sent out before the holidays informing us his upcoming elevation to the status of Hazzan Emeritus. Knowing this has added a decibel or two of urgency to our davening, turning even some the less central piyyutim into tearful rounds of Auld Lang Syne. And we know that this old acquaintance will never be forgot, and that, wherever Hazzan Rabinowitz is on the High Holidays, part of us will always be with him and part of him will always reside right here.
So this year's High Holidays have been different: love and fearful uncertainty have combined to lend each syllable more weight, each note more meaning. Love and fear, in Hebrew Ahava and Yirah, are really two sides of the same coin. The Torah speaks of both almost interchangeably regarding God. People wonder what it means when the Torah says that we must fear God. And the answer is quite clear when we see it on human terms. When we hug someone, we are trying to get as close as possible to that person - but we're also, in a sense, holding that person captive. We don't want to let go, because we are afraid of losing that person. The greater the love, the greater the fear of loss. The greater the uncertainly, the more we want to express our love. And when both fear and love reach their peak, the result is real, focused prayer. When we feel completely alive and human, we are praying. When we are doing it with a community and connecting ourselves to traditions that span the centuries, it is truly a special feeling. In Hebrew that is known as Kavvanah. It means "directed" or "focused." It means to be totally aware.
But all too often we allow prayer to get stuck in neutral. Not long ago, a Jewish educator innocently asked a young student, "What is a sukkah?" The child burst out, "A cardboard shoe box with twigs on the top."
That's what we do to Judaism so often, and it is especially what we do to prayer. Rather than pouring ourselves into it, we settle for the Readers Digest version of Judaism. We pencil it in somewhere between picking up the dry cleaning and Jimmy's gymnastics. And on those rare occasions when we actually make it to services, we get hung up on things. It's not accessible. We don't know the tunes. I feel uncomfortable. I don't know what page we're on. We formulate negative opinions and refuse to open ourselves up to new possibilities. It's like the story of two European shtetl Jews who had a falling out over a long-overdue debt. One day, the debtor suddenly declared to his creditor, "Yankel, good news! I'm leaving for America next week. My relatives in Chicago are wiring me money for the journey. At last, I can repay you." Yankel responds, "Ach, Yossel-forget about it! For that amount of money, it's not worth changing my opinion of you."
For many, it is a given that services are going to be boring and meaningless. Therefore they are. And it's too convenient an excuse to open oneself up to the possibility of change.
Sometimes we cheat you by providing you something less than the real deal. We give you the model, the shoe-box sukkah, a prayer sampler, rather than real prayer. We all need to be open to greater passion. We've got to try to bottle both the love and the fear that we feel right now and bring that intensity to all that we do. For this is the idea: if we can pray with Kavvanah, real, authentic passion, then we will live with Kavvanah. If we take off the masks here, we'll take off the masks and be real out there as well.
This idea is discussed in a wonderful novel that I read this summer, called "Bee Season," by Myla Goldberg. Ostensibly it's about a remarkable little girl in a very dysfunctional family, who suddenly shakes everything up by winning a series of spelling bees. Beneath the surface, what the book is really about is how we seek to know God. And what that's really about is how we are all seeking to love and be loved. Eliza, the main character, is a daughter of a cantor and student of Kabbalah. As a cantor's child myself, I could relate to Eliza and her brother's escapades at services when their dad was on the pulpit. At one point they devise a game called "sheep." During the silent Amida, they would play with the minds of the other congregants, especially when there was a Bar Mitzvah and lots of lost guests. After a few minutes of silence, Eliza and her brother Aaron would make little scraping noises with their chairs to make it seem like one or two people were actually sitting down. Once she was able to time it so that around three fourths of the congregation followed her into their chairs like an elaborate chain of dominoes. Even Aaron had been forced to admit that she'd set a new record.
Although not the main thrust of the book, "Bee Season" presents a stinging indictment of the liberal Jewish prayer experience. The transliterated Hebrew prayer book only confuses people, making it, in the words of the narrator, "painfully apparent who is reading the Hebrew and who is not. Misbegotten syllables collide midair with their proper cousins, making the service more closely resemble a speech therapy class than a religious gathering."
As a result of this stultifying experience, Aaron, the cantor's son, joins the Hari Krishna and Eliza falls head over heals into Kabbalah, finding there the intensity that was so lacking in her dad's service, finding God's very countenance in the revelation of letters taking shape, letters coming together in her mind. As she listens to the congregation sing, glossing over Adonai as though it is any other word, she can't believe she used to be one of them, blind to the word's potential. And as she prays God's name each Friday night, the letters Yod Hey Vav Hey leap up from the pages of her Siddur.
Leonard Fein has said that the principle enemy of Jewish continuity in this country is not assimilation or anti-Semitism, but boredom. How can we bring greater intensity to our prayer, and thereby to our lives? We've done a lot of soul searching here this past year, about prayer. It might not seem that way based on the High Holiday services, which we've tried to keep relatively unchanged, but we've done an astounding amount of experimentation, to the point where it is now very much a part of our culture. Our entire board read a book about synagogues that have successfully pushed the envelope with prayer. We've visited other services and tried new formats here, like the very enjoyable Friday Night Live that the Hazzan created, and our successful outdoor services. Next month we'll have the chance to hear from and pray with a well-known expert in Kabbalah, our scholar-in-residence Rabbi Andrea Cohen Keiner, and in January we'll again share the powerful communal impact of another fantastic congregational Shabbaton, featuring our guest, Rabbi Steven Greenberg. For the past several months on Shabbat mornings, the clergy have spent very little time on the bima, with the goal of creating the atmosphere of intimacy and participation that so many seek. What's interesting is that, while not everyone has liked every change, virtually no one has questioned the need for experimentation.
We have seen the same problem that Myla Goldberg describes, and we are groping for proper solutions. We know that we must expose ourselves and our children to real faith, real passion, not shoe-box sukkahs, not models, not corner cutting, but authenticity and intensity. And we know that, with some sadness, our congregation is going to make a very important decision over the next eight months, one that will to a great extent determine what it will feel like to pray here over the coming decades. Knowing that no one person will ever fully replace Hazzan Rabinowitz or diminish what he has meant to us, we must fearlessly look ahead and decide together what we want to be. It is so important that everyone in the congregation feel invested in this process, and that we go into it with one goal superceding all others, that at all our services, for all of us, the letters Yod Hey Vav and Hey will be leaping up from the pages of the Siddur.
So how do we get those letters to leap off the page? With beautiful melodies to be sure, but also through repetition. The paradox is that things both lose and gain meaning through repetition. When we do something each day, like the Pledge of Allegiance at the beginning of school, it could easily lose its powerful impact and the words lose their meaning. For years, I couldn't for the life of me figure out why we were handing over the republic to some guy called Richard Stans. Yes, but on the other hand, the Pledge is now a part of me. Just as the Sh'ma is a part of me, because as a child I recited it every night when going to bed, and after my Bar Mitzvah I recited it every morning with my tefillin on. Usually in a hurry. Often rambling through. But every weekday. And because the Sh'ma became second nature to me, I can now understand it on a whole different level. That's where I wish all Jews could be. I want all of us, and especially all of our children, to know prayer well enough to be able to feel not only a comfort level in any synagogue on any Shabbat morning - that's a given. But to be able to express their love and their fears with an authentic Jewish passion that fills their lives. Not the shoebox Sukkah, but the real deal. Not just here for an hour or two a week, but to feel Jewish everywhere, all the time, and to love it.
And if our children don't receive that while they are here, to the point that they are so enriched by it that they will be unable to imagine being anything but Jewish - then we have failed. That is my yardstick for success, for children and adults. The bar is being set very high, to be sure. But we must accept nothing less than excellence. And to achieve that, ritual and passion must feed off of each other to the point where those letters are leaping off of the page.
The Torah tells us that when Isaac was wandering in the fields one afternoon, he looked up and was overwhelmed by the beauty of the hills before him, and thus, according to the rabbis, was born the afternoon or mincha prayer service. It was the feeling that came first, leading to the ritual, which is aimed at helping us get back the feeling. So the United Synagogue recently printed a small, pocket-size pamphlet with the entire mincha service in Hebrew on the inside and a photo of a beautiful rolling landscape on the outside, with an abridged English prayer. We have a number of copies on our information table outside. The goal is that we take a few moments in the middle of the day, remind ourselves to embrace every moment of life and be grateful for it -- and then move on with our day. You are invited to take one and use it as you will - whether that means reading every Hebrew word or simply using the photo as a meditative device. Whatever works in generating Kavvanah.
What generates this passion, in the end, is the recognition of our mortality. Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote, "Religion is an answer to ultimate questions. The moment we become oblivious to ultimate questions, religion becomes irrelevant, and its crisis sets in." Religion isn't about bake sales and committee meetings - it's about life and death. It's about life in the face of death.
In the third act of Thronton Wilder's classic play, "Our Town," the dead are gathering in the cemetery on this hill just outside of town. Into the midst of the dead is led a young mother. Emily and her second baby have just died in childbirth. She timidly approaches the assemblage, glancing wistfully back toward the life she has just departed. Gradually recognizing the spirits before her, Emily suddenly realizes that none of these people truly understood or appreciated the greatness of being alive. There had been no appreciation of life's little, fleeting moments; no ability to stop and absorb life's essence; no comprehension of the deep human value of the moment. Emily is given the choice to return to earth and relive a day in her life. The dead - including her mother-in-law, Mrs. Gibbs, try to discourage her, warning her that returning to earth will be too painful. Nonetheless, Emily elects to re-experience one of the happiest days of her life - her twelfth birthday.
As the day unfolds, however, Emily's excitement turns to disillusionment. She feels no joy in watching herself with her father and mother and her little brother Wally; the day is wasted with trivial preoccupations. She cries to her mother: "Just for a moment we're happy. Let's look at one another. . . " Then, pangs of remorse fill her - her life, just like the lives of her family members and Grover's Corners neighbors, was never fully savored either. It was lived in self-centeredness and petty preoccupations, then swiftly departed - all quite meaningless. The suicidal Simon Stimson appears and offers a poignant yet bitter comment: "Life is a time of supreme ignorance, folly and blindness."
Not so for those who cast aside the shoebox sukkah, for those who exclaim like the psalmist, "Halleli nafshi et Adonai - my soul sings out to God." "Ahallelah Adonai b'hayai azamra laylohai b'odi." Every fiber of my being, of my life, sings to God."
This year, of all years, it has been easy to pray with this passion. Never has the expression "Days of Awe" been more appropriate. This year, the prayers of the Machzor are taking on terrifying overtones of realism. "Who shall live and who shall die?" is no longer a rhetorical question, but one that haunts us all, just has it has haunted every Israeli on a daily basis, while deciding whether to head to the market for milk or waiting for the school bus to carry a child safely home. Every decision has life and death connotations, even whether to go downtown for a haircut or a slice of pizza. There is nothing trivial there. There is nothing trivial anywhere!
Binny Friedman walked into Sbarros in Jerusalem last month and decided on Ziti for lunch. Had he waited at the counter for a slice of pizza, he'd now be dead. He ordered Ziti and it was cold. So he asked the woman behind the counter if she'd mind warming it up. "Ein Ba'ayah", no problem, she said with a smile. Binny will always wonder if that was her last smile on earth. He was invited to go sit and they would bring it to him, another trivial decision that saved his life. A couple of moments later, a fellow from behind the counter came to the back with his baked Ziti. Then he started to speak to someone at one of the tables. That baked Ziti saved his life. At least three lives altered forever over a plate of baked Ziti.
At about 2PM, day turned into night. And then the screaming began. An awful, heartrending sound; the sound of people coming to terms with a whole new reality, of people not wanting to comprehend that life has changed forever. Binny and all those who were sitting in the back, and I have a photo of my family sitting at exactly that table, were spared.
A woman was lying near the steps to the back. Her eyes were staring straight at Binny, following him. So full of pain and longing, sadness and despair. He dropped down beside her trying to elicit a response to see if she could speak. And then he watched the life just drain out of her. He tried to get a pulse, to no avail. She died there, on the steps in front of him. She was lying by the table Binny had decided not to sit at.
Why does it take this kind of experience to get us to hug our kids? Why do so many have to die before we get it? Why do we spend so much energy avoiding the ultimate questions, when by embracing them our lives would be incredibly enriched; we would then recognize, in Heschel's words, the "holy dimension of all existence."
The postscript to the Sbarros story is that it reopened, one month later, ironically on September 12. Binny's father, Rabbi Paul Friedman, was there, as Rav Lau, Israeli Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi, affixed the mezuzah on the door. The security man carefully examined each person who entered. He lined up, ordered ziti and salad, and sat down at the back as close as we could get to where Binny had sat on that terrible day.
We are now two weeks removed from September 11. And we can begin to sense deep cultural changes occurring in our country. It's as if we all have discovered Kavvanah. The New York Times put it this way in describing the return of daily life to Lower Manhattan: "In light of what occurred" the afternoon strolls, ice cream cones and bicycle rides, "the mundane prose of ordinary life - now seemed poetic, signs of survival and hope." Suddenly all the "I love New York" bumper stickers are back, but they now say, "I love New York -- more than ever!" Emily from "Our Town" would be amazed at all the hugging that is going on. And while the restaurants and movie theaters have been empty, synagogues and churches have never been busier.
We must not see this as a silver lining of the events of two weeks ago. There is no silver lining. But it does present us with a real opportunity to reject escapism and embrace the ultimate questions that Heschel wrote of, to bypass the glitz and return to simpler values. And such return is what Teshuvah is all about.
The Yellow Brick Road to "yes" is paved with prayers and rituals, with shacharit, mincha and ma'ariv, with Friday night and Shabbat morning, with kashrut, the mezuzah and the full-sized Sukkah; but the fuel that gets us there is Kavvanah. And the "there" we are getting to is Emunah. Deep faith. Not optimism. But faith that it will be all right, that our lives will have meaning, and that no a single moment of our lives, not a single breath, will have been wasted.
I believe with a perfect faith that it will happen, despite Bin Laden, despite Durban, despite all the terrorists, despite the odds, despite even our own lack of faith, we will prevail. Israel will prevail, strengthened by its own faith, strengthened by these very prayers that are also strengthening us. Israel will prevail. America will prevail, despite the stock market, despite, the uncertainty. Ani Ma'amin that truth will prevail. Ani Ma'amin that trust will prevail between us and our loved ones. That we will see the goodness in the other. Ani Ma'amin that we will, each of us, inscribe ourselves into the book of life, with deeds of great moral courage and faith, and creative vision of the master craftsman, the Uman. I believe that when all is said and done, and we leave this building tonight, exhausted yet renewed, we will be ready, at long last, to say "yes," to life. And in fact that will be our final word, just as it is the final word of almost any service. And you can see it, the last word of the Machzor on p.499.
And let us say: