Saturday, September 27, 2014

Rosh Hashanah Sermons 5775 - 2014



Rosh Hashanah Day 1 – What Are We? - Mah Anachnu?

I begin this sermon with a question. Because Jews love questions. We often answer questions with questions.  So here’s my question: At what age do we stop asking questions?  In 2010 Newsweek ran a cover story, “The Creativity Crisis,” which asserted that preschool aged kids ask their parents 100 questions a day.  Welcome to all our parents of preschoolers!  But by middle school, that’s basically over.  Curiosity plummets. 

But in Judaism it never stops.  And perhaps the High Holidays are meant to be a time when we remind ourselves how essential it is to ask questions – and not just any questions, but the big questions.  

There are lots of questions in the liturgy – like “Who shall live and who shall die?” which we just asked a few minutes ago.   And the tone is set very early in the service.  We began this morning at 9.  At 9:02 we read a stunning piece of liturgy.   For those few of you who weren’t here yet, I’ll repeat the passage now.  But not to worry, because you can hear it again 9:02 tomorrow and again on Yom Kippur morning, and again at the very end of Ne’ilah on Yom Kippur.  This passage is so important that it actually frames the High Holiday liturgy.  Right at the beginning and right at the end.

And OK, so let’s say you don’t get here at 9 AND you can’t be here at the end of Yom Kippur because you are setting up your break the fast (boy are we getting ahead of ourselves!) that’s OK.  Why?  Because this passage is recited every single morning.

Every single day we are jarred into a full awareness of the BIG questions that we face in our lives – the questions that go way beyond, “cappuccino or latte?

And they pour forth in rapid fire:

Mah Anachnu?  Mah Hayyenu?  Mah Hasdenu?  Mah Tzidkenu?  Mah Yishenu? Mah Kochenu?  Mah Gvurotaynu?

 What are we?  What is our life story?  What good is our kindness?  What good our righteousness?  Our attainment?  Our power?  Our might?  What does it all mean?  What is our purpose?

So this year – in a very structured way – I’m going to devote my four major sermons to the big questions.  Ultimately, these questions lead us to the biggest question of all, which is how do we lead lives of purpose and contentment, fulfillment and happiness?  It’s a tall order for four sermons.  But why else are we here?  Certainly not to talk about baseball!

So let’s dig right in, shall we?  Today, the first question: Mah Anachnu – (which at the end of Ne’ila is shortened to Mah Anu)

 What are we?

How do we define ourselves in relation to the categories out there?  Which boxes to we check off?   Some of you might be asking, why are we beginning with “what are we?”  Why not “who are we?”  Why isn’t who on the first day and what’s on second?  Forgot – no baseball.

Partly, that’s because the Hebrew word “mah” means a lot more than “what.”  Mah Nishtanah halaila hazeh” doesn’t just mean, “What’s the difference between this night and all other nights?”  It’s an exclamation – it’s not a “what,” it’s a “Whoa!” An OMG. “Why am I eating this cracker instead of bread, Mom?”  “Mah” carries with it a childlike wonder and excitement.  

The question “What are we?” also connotes humility – we realize how small we are on these Days of Awe.  We just chanted something similar at the end of Unetane Tokef: We are like fragile earthenware: the grass that withers, the flower that fades, the fleeting shadow and the passing cloud, the wind that blows away and the floating dust – we are a dream that vanishes.

We are dust in the wind.  We are nothing.

You know that old joke where the cantor, rabbi and president are all standing together, bowing at the Alenu. 
Rabbi kneels and puts his forehead to the floor and says,
"Before you oh Lord, I am nothing."

The Cantor looks at him, thinks it couldn't hurt, and kneels, puts her forehead to the floor, and says, "Before you oh Lord, I am nothing."

Ben Shapiro, the President, is watching this and thinking that it’s a pretty good idea, so he goes in the middle of the isle, kneels and puts his forehead to the floor and says, "Before you O Lord, I am nothing."

The Rabbi nudges the Cantor. "Look who thinks he's a nothing!"

In Hebrew numerology, the word mah has the same numerical value as the word adam (human).   So the question “What are we?” has embedded in it the keys to the answer:  We are human. 

What else are we?  What else defines us?

In social media, it’s the “whats” that matter most – and the “whats” are all about our connections, our relationships…  Our significant others, our ex-es and ex-exes, our children, our parents, our friends and our real friends (the ones we actually know) … our communities… our high schools and colleges…  our “likes.”  These relationships that define us – these are our “whats.”  

So now that I’ve framed the question, let’s come right out and address it head on: What are our “whats?” What relationships, what likes, what affiliations, what descriptions, best define us?   WHAT ARE WE?  Mah Anu?

So let’s make this interactive.  Turn to the person or people next to you and take exactly one minute to answer the question, “What am I?”  Rattle off your laundry list of what defines you.  Check off the boxes, your likes, your relationships.  Your basic bio: Go.

Now, for the next minute, turn to that same person and answer the question, “What do I pretend to be?”

Now, did the word “Jew” come up in either answer?  Remember, if you are not Jewish - and there are a number here who might define themselves as such - you could still say, “in relationship,” with the Jewish people.  Why?  Because you’re here!  Either you’re in relationship with the Jewish people or you spend your life parking at Roxbury School or St. Leos every day and looking for shuttle buses. 

That prayer, the one that we began the service with at 9:02 today, gives us what it means to define yourself as a Jew.  It says – “We aren’t nothing, our lives aren’t meaningless, because we are -- Your people.  We are partners to Your covenant.”  That’s what it says.  So what are we?  In Facebook terms, what is a Jew: someone who is in relationship with God.

For most of us it’s a rocky relationship.  But it’s a relationship.  For Jews it is BY DEFINITION rocky.  The very word “Israel” - YISRAEL - MEANS  “in a rocky relationship with God.”  Because it literally means that we wrestle with God.  Yisra-El.  That we struggle with God.  That we struggle with certainty.  That we ask a lot of questions.  We are in relationship with ultimate truth.  We seek it – we don’t usually find it.  Like Moses, we tend to beat around the bush.  But we wake up every day, open that prayer book and that ultimate “Mah Anachnu?” stares back forcing us to grapple with the ultimate in order to find meaning in our lives.

 And not only are Jews “in relationship” with God, but we are in relationship with the Jewish people.  And, using both the traditional and modern word for the Jewish people – YISRAEL - we are in relationship with Israel.  The people of Israel.  The state of Israel too.

These relationships too have been rocky.  There have been moments of tremendous pride.  Never have I been more honored to say, “I’m a Jew” than I was right after the Six Day War.  I was in the youngest age group at Camp Ramah and, with many Israeli staff on site, we spent the entire summer in a state of ecstatic delirium, singing “Jerusalem of Gold” with tears in our eyes…. There have been moments of sadness, like when we gathered here after the murder of Yitzchak Rabin.  Or steadfastness, as occurred last July, when hundreds rallied for Israel at the JCC.  

What am I? I’m a Jew – But sometimes that comes with baggage.  Even shame.

Does identification as a Jew mean I have to accept Bernie Madoff as my brother?  Do I need to take responsibility for Mayer Lansky or Baruch Goldstein?  Do I have to take pride at every Adam Sandler movie?  Am I allowed to cringe every time Donald Sterling speaks – on or off the record?

 On the other hand, can I proudly though posthumously welcome to the tribe Cardinal O’Connor, who it turns out was the grandson of a rabbi and, since his mother was born Jewish, a case can be made for his having been Jewish his entire life without ever knowing it.  Was the Cardinal Jewish?  Is the Pope Catholic?  I’m so confused!

Does identification as a Jew allow me to take special pride in heroes like  Rachel Frankel, the mother of the kidnapped and murdered Israeli teen Naftali, who despite her unfathomable pain, expressed outrage after the revenge killing of Muhammad Abu Khder in Jerusalem.  She said, “The shedding of innocent blood is against morality, is against the Torah and Judaism, and is against the foundation of the lives of our boys and of all of us in this country.” 

We are all Rachel Frankel.

American Jews who lived through Israel’s formative years, the miracles of the Six Day War and Entebbe, the peril of the Yom Kippur War, the ecstatic hope of Camp David, the release of Sharansky and a million Russian Jews – we were overflowing with that kind of pride.  Gen X and the Millennials have not had such miraculous events to bolster their identities.  They’ve had the Adam Sandler movies – and a whole lot of bad press out of the Middle East.

But this summer, we were “in relationship” with Max Steinberg, the American Jew killed in action during the first days of the ground war in Gaza. He grew up in Los Angeles and fell in love with Israel on a Birthright trip.  It led one snide columnist to suggest that Birthright killed him.  No, it birthed him.  He came through that encounter the way so many hundreds of thousands of young Jews have on Birthright, and the way I did on my first visit to Israel, a teen tour way back when I was 16.  I got off the plane and went through customs at Logan airport and heard the customs official say to me, in the first Boston accent I’d heard in two months, “Where ya been?” and I looked at him and replied, so proudly, “Israel.” I felt such pride.  Like Max Steinberg probably felt when he returned to LA.  Standing tall. 

And the way Melissa Miles, our college student felt this summer, when she wrote from her bomb shelter:

It's strange, feeling your life in constant danger. Fortunately, not a feeling many of us are familiar with in the US....But somehow by all of us bonding together we weren't alone and it wasn't so scary. Funny how missiles falling from the sky can bring people so close to one another. No wonder all Israelis love each other. 

I cried when I read that.  If I accomplish nothing else in the rabbinate – the fact that I was able to bring Melissa on her first trip to Israel with her family ten years ago – Dayenu!

Max Steinberg was what they call a Lone Soldier – an immigrant with no immediate family in the country.  So a call went out, and another and another.  And when he was laid to rest on Mount Herzl, his funeral was attended by 30,000 people.  And no, he hadn’t been duped into some cult, some alien freakish ideology – he was given exposure to something far deeper, something that has stood the test of time. 

Birthright didn’t kill him - it helped give Max a purpose for living that was larger than himself.  Living In this world of self-indulgence, in this era of the selfie, it seems downright ludicrous that someone was actually willing to lay his life on the line for an idea?  For a purpose?  Of course, other brave Americans do that for our country all the time.   That is the power of a “what.”  We all need that “what.” 

But that purpose isn’t just any purpose. This isn’t just any other “like.” The love for the Jewish state is the love of a state that espouses the love of life – it values the preservation of innocence – THAT is the message of Israel.  THAT is the essential Jewish message – THAT is what Max Steinberg devoted his life to, and that is what he died for.  And he gave us back – our pride.

A few weeks ago I found myself at, of all places, the battlefield of Gettysburg.  We stopped there on a whim after driving Dan to school in DC.  151 years ago, that field is where the bloodiest battle of the Civil War took place. In three days of fierce fighting, 51,000 soldiers were killed, injured, captured or missing.  President Lincoln framed that sacrifice in religious terms – and I thought of his immortal address and truly understood that I was standing on sacred, consecrated ground. 

And at that moment, as I got out of my car and grabbed my iPhone to take a picture, the phone vibrated…as it vibrated so, so many times this summer.  You see, I had downloaded the “red alert” app back in June – which notified me every time a rocket was being shot from Gaza, aimed toward innocent children, women and men living all over Israel. And at that moment when I stood at Gettysburg, it sounded. 

Oh, it sounded at a lot of moments this summer, often waking me at night.  I heard it all over Europe.  I heard it in the library upstairs here at the very moment our Israel group was deliberating whether to go.  But this time, I was standing on Cemetery Hill, visualizing Pickett’s Charge, and the thousands who gave their lives shielding the northern states from this desperate attack, and the millions whose lives depended on them, and simultaneously, a Hamas rocket flying toward Ashkelon was being intercepted by Iron Dome.

And I looked out, thinking of Lincoln and how he asked, in his own way, “Mah Anachnu?” resolving that these dead shall not have died in vain.  And I said a silent prayer that the innocent people of Israel and Gaza might also not have died in vain.  That all the good things that both America and Israel represent will not bend in the face of totalitarian forces that sometimes wear the mask of religion, groups like Hamas and ISIS, and peculiar institutions like slavery, all of which degrade the human spirit and treat as vermin those created in God’s image.  

And I asked myself, Mah Anachnu?  What does it mean to be an American and a Jew?   To be absorbing Pickett’s Charge, to be manning Iron Dome.  And to be risking one’s life in order to save lives.

A parent wrote to me last summer, during the Gaza incursion, that her college age daughter had come home one day asking why there needed to be a Jewish state…. Hadn’t Israel caused more trouble than it’s worth?  Couldn’t they all just get along in one big bi-national state?  This from a parent who is very, very involved in Jewish life and a daughter who has been as well. 

This is not an idle question, my friends.  Our adult children are asking that question.  And at campuses or workplaces every day, they are being forced to answer it as well.

Ari Shavit, in his best seller “My Jewish State,” which he discussed right here last week, gave an honest assessment of Israel’s character flaws – and the impossible choices it has faced because two peoples call the same land home.  No, Israel is not perfect, but it is the grandest experiment ever attempted by a people known, always known, for aiming high.  Since Mt Sinai, we’ve never aimed higher than this.  That’s what Max Steinberg saw when he went there on Birthright.  That’s what I saw when I went at age 16.  That’s what he yearned for. That’s what he died for.  That’s what I live for.

Golda Meir used to say that we will have peace with the Arabs when they love their children more than they hate us."  How prophetic she was.  We saw that first hand this past summer in Gaza, when Hamas willingly hid behind the innocent children of Gaza while targeting the innocent children of Israel.  It is only because of Iron Dome that they didn’t succeed on a mass scale.  Iron Dome was so effective it made the shooting of thousands of lethal rockets by Hamas at Israeli kindergartens look like a form of non-violent resistance.  Of course it was quite violent.  Over four thousand projectiles fired at Israel this year.   That’s more than the 3900 bombs dropped on Dresden in 1945.  But the fact that more Jews weren’t dying posed an enormous PR dilemma for Israel.  Yes, there are things Israel could have done differently, and yes, on the other hand the media coverage is terribly unfair and the diplomatic deck is terribly stacked against it.

But my bottom line message today is for all the potential Max Steinbergs out there – I implore you not to give up on the dream that is Israel.  Not to give up on the dream that is the Jewish people. We’re supposed to struggle with it – that’s why it’s called Yisra-El.  So check off Israel in that “likes” column.  Defend from the withering coordinated attacks, whether online or on campus, in the workplace or anywhere.  Write that letter to the editor.  Sign that petition.  And darn it – go there.   Mah anachnu?  Yisrael!

OK, so what else, does it mean to be a Jew?  

Maybe we can figure out what we are by better understanding what Jews are not.  Earlier this year, my friend Gary Rosenblatt, editor of the Jewish Week, uncovered a treasure trove of Gentile jokes.  Here’s a classic.

A man calls his mother and says, "Mother, I know you're expecting me for dinner this evening, but something important has come up and I can't make it."
His mother says: "OK."

OK, so that’s what we are not.

In a story related by Zalman Schachter-Shalomi of blessed memory, who died a few months ago, a young Jew who came to Howard Thurman, dean of theology at Boston University and said he wanted to convert.  He had heard Thurman preach and was touched by his Christian message. 

“You’re a Jew,” Thurman said to him.  “You first have to be a Jew before you can become a Christian.”

He gave him a prayer book and said, “Instead of coming to my services, use that time to study this.” Years later, Thurman showed Zalman a letter - this young man now conducts a Passover Seder for his family and has became a practicing Jew.

Hey.  I know that there are Jews who reject Judaism after struggling with it for years.  They just get turned off.  Maybe it’s the cholesterol.  Maybe it’s the cost of affiliation and involvement.  Maybe it’s from not being welcomed properly and loved enough.  If that’s true, it’s on us.  It’s our bad.  But many more Jews never have that struggle.  They just let it slide away, like this student almost did.  Sometimes over a generation. Sometimes two.

In the end, that may happen to some people here too.  That is your prerogative.  I’m not here to apply the Jewish guilt.  Sometimes things are meant to be – Cardinal O’Connor was meant to be a Cardinal and not a pickle vendor on Delancey Street. 

But all too many Jews leave the fold simply because they don’t really understand what the “what” is all about.  Their first question, “Mah Nishtanah Halaila hazeh?” is all too often, tragically, their last. 

My job is also to help you understand what Judaism is, so, like that student of Howard Thurman, you too can make an educated decision.  I’m from the Sy Sims rabbinical school.  An educated consumer is Judaism’s best customer.  I truly believe that if you know us, you’re gonna like us! 

So, over the past month I’ve been sending out “Judaism’s Top 40,” a countdown of what I consider to be 40 of the most important Jewish concepts that any educated Jew should know – dedicated in memory of the late, great Casey Kasem, who died on June 15.  You can find the entire countdown on my website – but for now here’s my personal Top 10 countdown.

10) To be a Jew is to ask questions, to struggle with God – Yisrael - and we’ve got the philosophers, novelists, journalists and scientists to prove it.

9)     To be a Jew is to be on a journey – the word Hebrew – IVRI- MEANS one who crosses over:

8) To be a Jew is to be filled with gratitude: The word Jew – YEHUDI - means “one who is filled with appreciation.”

7)     To be a Jew is to be in partnership with God, to perfect and heal the world, through mitzvot and Tikkun Olam:

6)     To be a Jew is to uncover truth through story and study – we call that process Torah.

5)     To be a Jew is also to be open to the deepest, inexplicable mysteries of life. We call that Kabbala.

4)     To be a Jew is to strive for peace, in the world at large and in our personal relationships – that is the meaning of the word Shalom

3)     To be a Jew is to pursue justice – Tzedek – We deeply believe in law and we have the lawyers to prove it!

2)     To be a Jew is to belong to embrace kindness and love – hesed and ahava. 

1)     And finally, a Jew is one who respects the ultimate sanctity of life.  Hayyim.  We don’t just pray to be inscribed into the book of life. We are that book’s prime authors.  The Talmud says, “Save a single life and you save the world.”

Think of it.  Our prime religious principle that states that every other principle itself takes a back seat to saving human lives.  What an incredible idea.  People over principle.  Human life and dignity is the ultimate value. 

And that’s the “what” that matters most.

This past summer, I was in Berlin, standing on the site of Hitler’s bunker.  I learned there that Goebbels not only committed suicide, like his boss, but he also killed his wife and six children because, in his warped ideology, a world without National Socialism would not be a world worthy of them.  For the Nazis, people who were not like them became lower life forms.  Jews, gays, Slavs, the mentally ill.   So of course, Goebbels had to kill his own kids.  And not only did Hitler kill himself and his wife, but he also slipped cyanide into the mouth - of his dog.  I supposed he felt that his beloved shepherd Bella should not have to bear to live in world dominated by collies, yorkies and beagles.

                  In contrast, to be a Jew is to treat all human beings - and all of God’s creatures - with dignity. 
And there is one more aspect of Judaism that needs to be included in any list.

                  Berlin is beautiful, friendly, and haunting. There is a memorial in Bebelplatz on the Unter den Linden, on the spot of the first book burning –incredibly, just across from a university.  In that memorial, you look deep underground and see empty shelves.  But you also see your own reflection.  Which makes us pause to ask, what would we have done? 

The entire city is a museum to the power of individuals when they dare to act – as happened at the Berlin Wall, and the catastrophic consequences when people don’t act, whether out of fear or apathy, as happened between 1933-1945.

Right nearby, we stopped at the grand plaza in front of the Altes Museum, a place I recognized from those grainy films of those early mass rallies of the Nazi era.  I recalled a classic photo taken there, where millions of people are saluting him in that way – a salute that is now illegal in Germany. But in that photo, conspicuously, one man keeps his arms by his side.  The story goes that he was later tracked down by the authorities and asked what he was doing.  His response.  “Nothing.”  He was doing nothing.  The police officer replied that it is no longer acceptable to do nothing. 

In a perverse way, that Nazi officer was right. 

In the face of evil, it is no longer acceptable to do nothing. 

For the Jew, it never was acceptable and it never is.   That is why we’ve been the enemy of all those who deny the dignity of human beings and the sanctity of life.  Hamas and ISIS are only the most recent examples of those who understand our unique role – who get us – and therefore despise us.  We need to understand that role too.  It is no longer acceptable to do nothing.  What is a Jew?   A defender of innocence everywhere, a champion of the weak, a pursuer of justice, a nurturer of love and above all, one who chooses life.

What Ari Shavit wrote about Israel at the end of his book applies to the entire Jewish people:  “If Vesuvius were to erupt tonight and end our Pompeii, this it what it would petrify: a living people.  People that have come from death and were surrounded by death but who nevertheless put up a spectacular spectacle of life. People who danced the dance of life to the very end.”

That, my friends, is our “what,” and the final answer to our first question, “Mah Anachnu?”  What are we?  THAT IS WHAT WE ARE.

So if you want to know my “whats,” check out my home page.  I am a poodle lover, Red Sox fan, husband, father, vegetarian, Cantor’s son – oh yes, a rabbi, and a Jew.  I hope at least one of those things will be on your own home page too over the coming year.  The last one.  With pride.

                  I pray that, for all of us, for the Jewish people, for Israel, for the United States and for the world, this be a year when all our questions – and our prayers, will be answered. For peace.  For goodness.  And for life.


Rosh Hashanah Day 2 – Where Are We? - Ayeka

                  Last May, just a month before the situation in Israel began to unravel, there was a profound moment of hope, as Pope Francis visited Jerusalem.  During that visit he made a stop at Yad Vashem, and there he gave a powerful homily about the Holocaust.  It went widely unnoticed and unreported, and then the noise of subsequent months completely drowned it out – but it’s worth revisiting. He began by quoting the first question ever asked of a human being, biblically speaking, from Genesis.

“Adam, where are you? What have you come to? In this place, this memorial of the Shoah, we hear God’s question echo once more: “Adam, where are you?” Here, before the boundless tragedy of the Holocaust, That cry – “Where are you?” – echoes like a faint voice in an unfathomable abyss…

                  One might take issue with the Pope’s presupposition here, that God is totally innocent of the Crimes of Auschwitz.

                  But the depiction of humanity as being lost – that’s something that really rings true.  And if God is not asking the question, it is one we might easily ask ourselves.  AYEKA is the first question asked in the entire Torah.  The first question might well be the most profound: 

Where are you?

                  It is a question we still need to ask ourselves today.  Where are we? Humanity is listless.  Humanity is directionless.  Humanity is lost.  Humanity is homeless.  We need to stabilize the ship and gain our bearings once again.
On the most basic level, this year, many Jews had good reason to wonder whether the places they had considered home for generations might not be for much longer, whether they might be best off wandering elsewhere.  Aliyah to Israel from France is up considerably and this summer anti Semitism was felt all across Europe.  I saw anti Israel fervor in places not known for being welcoming to Jews.  Like Tromso, Norway, above the Arctic Circle a place so far north that even Shabbat is hardly welcome between May and August. 

The recent ADL anti-Semitism survey of 102 countries indicated that 26 percent of all people harbor anti-Semitic attitudes. About a billion people - many of whom have never met a Jew.  It’s hard to find a home in such a world.

So the Jews of Europe might well be asking themselves this question on these High Holidays:  Ayeka?  Where are we?  And where can we go?

                  But Jews have not been the only ones to feel uprooted in 2014. Three million Syrians are now refugees. And counting.  An estimated 4 million Iraqis are now refugees. In our world right now, 16.7 million human beings are considered refugees.  32,000 more are uprooted each day.   And there are many, many millions more who have not been forced from their homes, but have chosen to leave them, for economic, political or lifestyle reasons, whether they be central Americans trying to enter Arizona or recent UConn grads seeking employment in San Francisco.  Everyone is on the move.  Everyone is uprooted.

                  In an essay in The London Review of Books, called “On Not Going Home,” James Wood relates how he asked Christopher Hitchens, long before Hitchens was terminally ill, where he would go if he had only a few weeks to live. Would he stay in America? “No,” he said, “I’d go to Dartmoor, in southern England, without a doubt.”  It was the landscape of his childhood.

Roger Cohen of the New York Times, reflecting on this response, commented, “It was the landscape of unfiltered experience, of things felt rather than thought through, of the world in its beauty absorbed before it is understood, of patterns and sounds that lodge themselves in some indelible place in the psyche and call out across the years.” 

Where would you go if you knew you only had a few weeks to live?

I guess that might be what we call “home,” and the question “where are you” invariably dissolves into the question, “where is your home?”  Or, in the vernacular of a current beer commercial, “Where is your beach?”

Wood’s essay explores a certain form of contemporary homelessness — lives lived without the finality of exile, but also without the familiarity of home.         A sort of limbo, or what Cohen calls “displacement anguish.” 
We’re always coming or we’re going.  We’re never THERE.

                  So where is home? Is it a geographical location?  Or is it, as Robert Frost put it, the place where, “when you have to go there, they have to take you in.” 
I thought about this several months back, when I brought my mother down to the Jewish Home in Fairfield.  It was just getting impossible to visit her as often as I would like.  But in taking her out of the Boston area, where she had lived for her entire life, I was not only displacing her, but displacing a little of myself too.  When I visited her up there, it was a schlep, but it was MY schlep.  I felt a sense of peace and familiarity as I drove on that turnpike from Sturbridge to Boston.  I’ve very little family left up there, and haven’t actually lived there since the governor was Michael Dukakis.  But it’s still home.

Just as my mother left her lifelong residence, Ethan came back home, temporarily, getting himself established after graduation. Lots of adult kids are doing it.  In July a Pew survey – love those guys at Pew - demonstrated that adults from 25-34 are fueling a rise in multi generational households.  Almost one in four young adults in that age group lives in households with several generations under one roof.

The Washington Post adds that “57 million Americans — 18 percent of the population — lived in multi-generational families in 2012, double the number in 1980. There are almost as many young adults 25 to 34 living in these families as there are people under 18.”

This has been the year of coming home.
Even Labron James saw the need to regain his bearings by returning to Ohio. Now there a lot of nice things that can be said about Cleveland, but for the best basketball player on the planet, the most important thing was that it was home.  He wrote in Sports Illustrated:

Before anyone ever cared where I would play basketball, I was a kid from Northeast Ohio. It’s where I walked. It’s where I ran. It’s where I cried. It’s where I bled. It holds a special place in my heart. People there have seen me grow up. I sometimes feel like I’m their son. Their passion can be overwhelming. But it drives me. I want to give them hope when I can. I want to inspire them when I can. My relationship with Northeast Ohio is bigger than basketball. I didn’t realize that four years ago. I do now.

The weekend he made his announcement, the singer Skylar Grey rewrote the lyrics to her version of the hit song “Coming Home, which was subsequently downloaded 350,000 times.  Her prior version, written last February saluting soldiers returning from Afghanistan, has been viewed nearly 4.5 million times this year. 
I'm coming home
I'm coming home
Tell the world I'm coming home
Let the rain wash away, all the pain of yesterday
I know my kingdom awaits and they've forgiven my mistakes
I'm coming home

You know, if that song had been written a thousand years earlier it would have been in the Machzor!  There’s something about coming home that gets right to the core of what it means to be human – it’s the essence of teshuvah – a return that also brings about reconciliation and forgiveness.  Home is the place where they have to let you in.

                  How fitting that during this “year of home” we marked the fiftieth anniversary of the Broadway premier of “Fiddler on the Roof.”  A show celebrating the fact that the wandering Jew at last has found a home in America.  That’s what Fiddler was about in 1964.  Acceptance.  We were all Tevya, and even more, that Fiddler, the green violinist that Marc Chagall painted in forty years earlier, in 1924,” from which the show’s title and logo were based.  Chagall had just left his Russian shtetl for Paris and he yearned for it, though given its new Soviet landlords, he knew neither he nor it could ever return to what was. 

But there was the violinist, his face green, the color of the earth, the color of life, one foot on the roof of a house, the other on the roof of a synagogue, trying to straddle the two without breaking his neck.  And he is able do so, ecstatically and assuredly.  How?  Not through Tradition as “Fiddler’s” Tevya would later proclaim.  But through the music itself – and the dance.  For Chagall, it is the fiddler’s dance that keeps him from falling off the roof.  It is the dance that keeps him grounded even while taking flight as only a Chagall figure can fly – a Chagall figure and Labron James.  It is the music and the dance that enables him to gain his bearings, to remain anchored – and homeward bound.
The message of Chagall and Labron is clear as well for Jews.  Sometimes, it is not necessary to find home.  Sometimes home finds us.
The real voyage of discovery, as Marcel Proust said, consists not in seeing new sights, but in looking with new eyes.  That happened for me this summer in Iceland.  I figured this was a place where I could get away from the tensions of being a wandering Jew for a few days.  In fact, there are basically no Jews there.  Not a single synagogue. Barely a bagel.  Lots of lox though.  So here was my chance to settle back in a nice, quiet country – ranked the 6th most peaceful in the world, (Denmark and Norway, which we also visited, are numbers 1 and 2) a place where everyone gets along, no wars, no rockets, no hassle in line at the airport – just a nice laid back place.   The horses lie on their sides.  They don’t have any predators.   A place of beauty with northern lights and little crime - it must be the greatest home in the world!

No sooner did we land but I heard rumblings that this that this laid-back place isn’t quite the oasis it’s cracked up to be.  I didn’t just hear rumblings.  I felt them. For underneath the surface of Iceland, and not very far beneath at that, the earth is churning and bubbling.  A thousand earthquakes the day I arrived.  I stood at the place where the North American and European tectonic plates collide.  You can actually see the earth’s crust protruding.  Volcanoes.  Geothermal activity everywhere.  There were serious alerts when I was there.  And no wonder.   Iceland’s the home of that infamous ash cloud that stopped air traffic in 2010.  This is the place that invented the word geyser.   This is a country that could literally explode at any time.  Can that really be a home?  Or is it perhaps the best kind of home – the kind that reminds us that no home lasts forever.

Israel reminds us of that all the time.  We can never take its existence for granted.  Aside from all the geopolitical craziness, Israel is also, like Iceland, home to a continental fissure, the Syrian – African Rift complete with a major fault line.   They are due for a big earthquake – as if they don’t have enough problems – although it has all the end-time prophets giddy.  Beneath the surface, peaceful Iceland and tzuris filled Israel – and our beloved, parched California, they’re all the same.   Wherever you go, everyone’s bags need to stay packed.  
In Iceland, we were lowered into a dormant volcano.  If it were active, there is no Iron Dome in creation that could have saved us from the power of that volcano.
And yet, on another level, being in that volcano, 120 meters beneath its small opening, barely wide enough for us to fit – I felt very much like I had descended into something primal, instinctive.  Womblike.  In a strange way, this beautiful, colorful belly of a volcano... it felt like home. I felt like Jonah, who said in the belly of the whale:
I went down to the moorings of the mountains; the earth with its bars closed behind me forever; Yet You have brought up my life from the pit, O Lord, my God.”
Here’s an interesting sidelight. In Jonah chapter 2 verse 1, the fish is called a dag – a male.  In the next verse it is called a daga – in the feminine.  So the midrash speculates that Jonah that there were actually two whales. Jonah had made himself too comfortable in the belly of the larger fish – he had redecorated.  Maybe he was hoping to flip it for something bigger.  So God moved him to a smaller female fish.  A studio.  Finally, he was uncomfortable enough to do teshuvah, to yearn for a return.
What is the lesson here?  Any place can be home. Even the belly of a whale.  Even the belly of a volcano. 
The great symbol of the flexibility of home in Jewish tradition is a Sukkah.  Exhibit A – right out here.  Now you can build a sukkah just about anywhere.  The rabbis had a field day with that one.
You can build it very small
You can build it very tall
You can build it very large
You can build it on a barge
You can build it on a ship 
Or on a roof but please don’t slip
You can build it in an alley
You shouldn’t build it in a valley
You can build it on a wagon
You can build it on a dragon
(with apologies to Dr, Seuss).
I do not eat green eggs and lox. Whatever.  But yes, even on a camel.  Even on a wagon.  It’s in the Talmud.
So I learned this summer that home can be anywhere. And not just in that volcano.
Even Berlin.  Of all places.
The renaissance of Jewish life in Berlin has become one of the most astounding stories of the post Holocaust generation.   No one could have imagined that just seventy five years after Kristallnacht marked the beginning of the last chapter for German Jewry, a new chapter would yet be written.  Over a hundred thousand Jews now live in Germany. It would have been unfathomable even a few years ago that Berlin would become the European city most welcoming to Jews.

The ultimate irony is the thousands of Israelis, who have left a state designed to protect them from the very evil that was meticulously planned by people living in their new hometown.  I mean, wherever you go, there are memorials, reminders, and there are signs for places like Wannsee, the resort where the planned the Final Solution, the systematic murder of 6 Million Jews.  And this place is home?
Yes it is.  And the return to Berlin is not a negation of Zionism; it is an affirmation of the Jewish revival that Zionism has engendered.  It is the ultimate celebration of the Jewish spirit that simply refuses to die.   Anywhere.   And it proves that Judaism is indeed portable, as it was meant to be and that Judaism can thrive – anywhere.  If Berlin can be home, anywhere can be home. And when anti-Semitism began to rear its ugly head all over Europe this summer, including in Germany, the Chancellor herself staged a massive counter-rally and declared, "I do not accept any kind of anti-Semitic message or attacks at all, not least the ones that (are) disguised as alleged criticism of the policy of the state of Israel."
In yesterday’s Torah reading, Ishmael and his mother, Hagar, were about to die of thirst in the desert. In a midrash, the angels argued to God that Ishmael's descendants would cause untold suffering to the Jewish people and therefore he should be allowed to die.
God replied - that God would judge Ishmael "B'asher hu sham" ("Where he is – right now"). And the boy lived.  What matters is not where we were or where we are headed. Or where our descendants are headed.  But where we are right now.  Ayeka?  Where are you?   Heneni!  Right here. Right now.
It’s the here and now that matters.  Because whatever place that we think belongs to us – it doesn’t.  Even the Land of Israel is on loan from God.  We affirm that this year – the Sabbatical or Shmitta year. Every seventh year the land lies fallow – it’s a reminder that we don’t own it.  God does.  It’s sacred.  It’s our homeland.  But it is home only inasmuch as we care for it and for all the people living there.  And the Earth itself is our home only inasmuch as we care for it.
That has always been the Jewish condition. We live in a state of exile.   We should never feel too settled in this unsettling world.   While Israel is our homeland, the world – ha-olam - is our home – just as it is God’s dwelling place.  Elohaynu melech haolam!   We are displaced.  But displacement is a good thing.   We must always keep our existential bags packed.  Not just Jews.  Everyone.  Jews need to teach others how to do that.  Otherwise we become insular.  
“Perhaps this is our strange and haunting paradox in America,” wrote Thomas Wolfe in his novel “You Can’t Go Home Again,” “that we are fixed and certain only when we are in movement.”
Another name for God is “hamakom,” literally, the place. When we comfort mourners we say “May Hamakom grant you comfort among the mourners of Zion.  May you sense that comfort wherever this journey of grief and healing may take you.”  May God be with you, everywhere.
Wherever we are, we need to keep moving.  When we stay put for too long it is all too easy to get stuck.  But while we keep moving forward, we remain grounded by taking home with us, within us.
I have a homeland.  Israel. I have a home county: the US.  I have a home state – Connecticut and I have a home team and I have an ancestral home- and here is the key to the house I grew up in, which was sold 35 years ago.  I take it with me everywhere.
But where is my home? 

Ba’asher who sham.  Wherever I happen to be right now.

Pico Iyer has been called the greatest living travel writer.  In TED talk, entitled “Where do you come from?” he suggested that when people ask him where he comes from, they expect him to say India, because his ancestry is from India. Except, he’s never lived one day of his life there and can’t speak even one word of its more than 22,000 dialects.  He was born and raised in England, but left there after college, and never looked like classic English heroes represented in the textbooks.  He pays his taxes in the US and has lived here for 48 years.  And Japan is the places that touches him most deeply, where he tries to go as often as possible.”

Then he adds:

“And I say all this just to stress how very old-fashioned and straightforward my background is, because when I go to Hong Kong or Sydney or Vancouver, most of the kids I meet are much more international and multi-cultured than I am.  And they have one home associated with their parents, but another associated with their partners, a third connected maybe with the place where they happen to be, a fourth connected with the place they dream of being, and many more besides. And their whole life will be spent taking pieces of many different places and putting them together into a stained glass whole. Home for them is really a work in progress. It's like a project on which they're constantly adding upgrades and improvements and corrections.

And for more and more of us, home has really less to do with a piece of soil than, you could say, with a piece of soul.” 

Some years ago, Iyer’s parents’ house in California was destroyed by a fire and when he woke up the next morning he was sleeping on a friend's floor - the only thing he had in the world was a toothbrush he had just bought from an all-night supermarket.  If anybody asked him then, "Where is your home?" he literally couldn't point to any physical construction. “My home,” he said, would have to be whatever he carried around inside him.

Home was literally, ba’asher hu sham.

 “And in so many ways, “he adds, “I think this is a terrific liberation. Because when our grandparents were born, they pretty much had their sense of home, their sense of community, even their sense of enmity, assigned to them at birth, and didn't have much chance of stepping outside of that. And nowadays, at least some of us can choose our sense of home, create our sense of community, fashion our sense of self, and in so doing maybe step a little beyond some of the black and white divisions of our grandparents' age.”

Did you know that the number of people living in countries not their own now comes to 220 million? And that number has increased by 64 million just in the last 12 years.  Already that population is equivalent to the fifth-largest nation on Earth. 

 So where is home for the typical person Iyer meets, which as he puts it, is a half-Korean, half-German young woman living in Paris. “And as soon as she meets a half-Thai, half-Canadian young guy from Edinburgh, she recognizes him as kin. She realizes that she probably has much more in common with him than with anybody entirely of Korea or entirely of Germany. So they become friends. They fall in love. And they move to New York City.”  Or Stamford, I may add – which I love in part because of this multicultural energy, this diversity that none of our surrounding communities has.
“And the little girl who arises out of their union will of course be not Korean or German or French or Thai or Scotch or Canadian or even American, but a wonderful and constantly evolving mix of all those places.  And potentially, everything about the way that young woman dreams about the world, writes about the world, thinks about the world, could be something different, because it comes out of this almost unprecedented blend of cultures.”
And here’s the amazing thing.  What Pico Iyer is describing as this incredible global postmodern experience is, in truth, the Jewish experience of the past 3500 years.  Jews have been everywhere and possess strands of DNA from every place we’ve been.  We are that unprecedented blend.  We are the people of the book the book is our home.  We long ago learned the lesson Iyer is now learning, that, “home, we know, is not just the place where you happened to be born. It's the place where you become yourself.”  

Judaism has become all the more relevant in that Jews need to teach others how to do that, how to maintain our balance as the world becomes increasingly dizzying, mobile and blended - and how, despite it all, to keep dancing.  How to stay grounded while twirling in mid air, like Chagall’s violinist, like Labron James.

For if we can do that, we will not succumb to cynicism and alienation.  We will not detach ourselves from community and our task of healing the world.  Unlike the generation that perpetrated the crimes of Auschwitz, we will not fall victim to the snake oil salesmen peddling cheap salvation, or to the snake himself hiding in the Garden.  And when God comes calling, Ayeka? “Adam, where are you?” we will not need to hide in our shame.  Our feet firmly on solid ground, we will be able to say “Heneni.”  “I am here, God.  I know exactly where I am.

As Iyer puts it, home, in the end, is not just the place where you sleep.  It’s the place where you stand. 

Throughout last year’s stunning film “Gravity,” Sandra Bullock is the embodiment of free floating anxiety, tethered to her lifeline in outer space, yearning for the safety of home.  At the end of the movie – spoiler alert – she lives – she splashes down.  Her capsule is submerged, but she is close enough to shore to be able to gasp for air, find her way to the surface, and then swim to a muddy, barren beach.

And, when she finally ends up safely on a shore that could be just about anywhere, she grabs a handful of mud and murmurs, “Thank you.” She has found her beach.

Americans, Jews, perpetual wanderers, everyone of us.  But wherever are we – we are home.   Let us make this place, God’s place – ha makom.  Let us cultivate life there, to nurture and grow the seeds of a compassionate, loving community.  And while our fields may lie fallow at times, let us never lose our soul to the fear of displacement.  Let us never forget that wherever we go, home is there – and in here.

Yesterday, mah anachnu?  What are we?  Today, Ayeka?  Where are we?  And so, we emerge from this holy day knowing what we are and where we are.

And wherever we are, and wherever we are headed, we’ll need to be able to maintain our balance – like… like…  

Like a fiddler on the roof!

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