Please note that this material is under my copyright. You have my permission to forward it in its entirety, but not excerpted, as long as you include this disclaimer. I am sorry for these conditions, but they save me a lot of explaining on the other end! Jack Moline
Rosh HaShanah 1, 5767/2006 Shabbat ©Rabbi Jack Moline
I know that these past years, and this year in particular, have been difficult and exhausting years. On the global stage, on the national front, on the local scene and, for far too many of you, on the personal level, it seems like there is no end to the stream of bad news, tragedy and seemingly insurmountable challenge. The result has been an undercurrent of futility in our lives that has sapped all but the most enthusiastic or sheltered among us of any of the boundless optimism we remember from a decade ago. I would recite a list for you, but it would be for me too difficult and too exhausting. It was hard enough to crank out these sermons.
Let me say right up front that I have no solution to this situation. We live in hard times, and no amount of personal prosperity or satisfaction can change that fact. On the contrary, your impulse, like mine, is probably to cocoon – surround yourself with the people and things you love and try to protect yourself from the hand basket that the rest of the world seems to be riding to a very undesirable destination.
Don't. Please don't. As tired as you are, as discouraged as you are, as frustrated as you are, you have as heritage and birthright a contribution to make to turning this world around. You are Jews.
My friend and teacher Rabbi Shamai Kanter is enjoying a well-deserved retirement. He has been watching the annual chest-pounding on RAVNET by colleagues of ours who have been presenting the must-use message of the High Holy Days. With typical insight he wrote, "If I were speaking this year, I would present two messages: `Be proud to be a Jew' is one, and the other is `Fear not, for God is with you.'" And if you are looking to find a theme in what I want to discuss for you during these four extended monologues, that's it. You will hear the two messages at the beginning and the end of each sermon, and if you choose to doze in between, I ask you to be certain only that your cell phone or Blackberry is off and that you instruct the person next to you to rouse you if you snore.
I have before turned for inspiration to Rabbi Shai Held, an exceptional young scholar and terrific human being. In a paper he wrote on a pressing social matter not relevant to this discussion, he laid out a concise philosophy in just a few paragraphs. I hope I do not damage them by condensing them further.
He posits the obvious foundation of Jewish belief: we are created in God's image, and therefore each of us is uniquely beloved of God. But the evidence in the constant assault on human dignity seems otherwise – in literal and figurative ways we suffer from hunger, poverty, oppression, illness and loneliness. Rabbi Held writes: "in the yawning chasm between the [two]...the covenant between God and Israel is born."
"By creating human beings, God has taken an enormous risk – the risk that God will be painfully and repeatedly disappointed. In an infinite act of love, God has chosen to need us. Judaism rises and falls with the insistence that God has entered into a relationship with the Jewish people[, a covenant,] in which we are called upon to help narrow the enormous gap between the ideal and the real; evil must be combated and suffering must be dramatically mitigated so that the earth can be filled 'with the knowledge of the Lord.' God's dream is of a world in which human dignity is real and the presence of God is manifest. To be a covenantal Jew is to dare to dream with God."
That's my challenge to you this year as we stare into that chasm that separates the ideal of God's image from the real of the human condition. My challenge to you is to dare to dream with God. You and I and the entire Jewish people have a continuing mission to build a bridge across that chasm. Maybe other people do as well – if so, may God bless the work of their hands. But however you got to this room today – by birthright, by choice, by marriage or by accident – if you take your Jewishness with any degree of seriousness, then you must contribute to that structure. And I have four suggestions about the gifts we are Jews have to give the rest of the world, and especially the United States, where we are privileged to live, that are the fruits of our covenant. I have four reasons why you should be proud to be a Jew, even when it is not easy or convenient.
The first is illustrated on the back cover of the reflections booklet – I pause as everyone reaches for it – that we distributed this year. It is a copy of the papercut by artist Tamar Fishman that graces the pillar in the corner of the bima to your left. That pillar was dedicated by Dottie Bennett's generosity and represents a value that is already central in her life: Shabbat.
Please do not roll your eyes at me like a teenager who is about to be grounded. Let me tell you that there are two kinds of Jews when it comes to Shabbat, and I have been both of them, including recently. There are those who see Shabbat as an incredible imposition. We live in a busy world filled with wonderful opportunities, and the idea of foregoing them on a weekly basis for 25 uninterrupted hours sounds like anything other than dreaming with God. Whether the world of commerce and creation comes to a halt every Friday afternoon for you or whether the last time you observed anything of Shabbat was two years ago, the last time one of the High Holy Days landed on a Saturday, if you encounter Shabbat as a prison in time, you will mark off the minutes with little mental "x's" until you are released.
As I said, I have been that kind of Jew. In the months of summer when daylight lazes in the sky until 8:00, 8:30, 9:15 my heart has sometimes stood in solidarity with those of you who have looked out the window at the busy world and then at your Jewish calendar and said, "Obviously, Moses never had tickets to see the Red Sox play the Yankees."
Please set aside that approach to Shabbat for a few minutes and, instead, visit a different world with me. Be the other kind of Jew for a little while.
Some of you grew up in New York or some other rarefied place where being Jewish was assumed for you. I have spoken with you about the difference in living here and living there. There, you want Jewish food; you go to any grocery store or restaurant on any corner. Here, you drive to Maryland or to Wegman's, out in the Jerusalem called Loudon County. There, you want to learn Jewish expressions, you talk to the people in the streets. Here, you suffer through carpools and Hebrew school. There, you want to pray with other Jews, you find a minyan of old men in a storefront. Here, you pay an exorbitant amount of money and get the third degree if you left a piece of green cardboard on your kitchen table.
There, Jewish was a part of who you are. Here, it stands in line with all the other opportunities clamoring for your commitment.
Some of you were in shul last week and heard me talk about visiting the Pentagon on September 11. Ann had wanted to see the display of 184 beacons of light in memory of the victims of the terrorist attack. By our good fortune, we happened on a group of people about to be escorted to the place of impact. There, a single charred block of stone engraved with the date "September 11, 2001" sits as a cornerstone in the reconstructed wall. As I walked up to it, tentatively, and reached out my hand to touch it, I was in another place at the same time. I was at the Kotel, the Western Wall of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, reaching out to touch a place of sacred memory, of sacred destruction, of sacred renewal. Perhaps alone among the crowd of Americans at that solemn location, two Jews stood with an integrated sense of how a simple wall becomes holy.
I arrived at the Pentagon from the old neighborhood. Whatever lesson America learned on that infamous day in 2001, it learned fresh. Then, and again five years later to the day, something integrated into the Jewish soul had a contribution to make to the yawning chasm between the image of God and our battered human dignity. We brought with us a vocabulary of tragedy from the streets of our neighborhoods, not the Protestant decorum of our suburban synagogues. As Jews, we knew because we live our lives waiting for the other shoe to drop, in spite of our efforts to affirm that they have both hit the ground.
Some legacy. Some contribution. Yisgadal v'yiskadash shmei rabbo.
But we know it because we live it, we continue to live it. But we do not live only the suffering. At least, we do not have to live only the suffering.
Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote: "Everyone will admit that the Grand Canyon is more awe-inspiring than a trench. Everyone knows the difference between a worm and an eagle. But how many of us have a similar sense of discretion for the diversity of time?"
The other kind of Jew, the kind that isn't rolling his or her eyes at the notion of Shabbat, is the one who understands that Shabbat is the old neighborhood. It is the place, if you live there, that the food and the language and the prayer and the values and the music and the outlook on life enters your very being and allows you to encounter the world that assaults the dignity of God's creations and refuse to allow that assault to become default. It is where you learn to be a Jew.
We like to think that Shabbat is a Jewish holiday. The fact is that Shabbat was given to the entire world. Only we were given instructions to dream with God about what it represents. Our Shabbat, like our neighborhoods, like our shtetls, our Shabbat does not exist independent of the rest of the world. It is a place in and of the human habitat, and it exists to make a contribution to a world troubled by the disconnect between potential and actuality. And the contribution it seeks to make is this: Shabbat is the world as it was meant to be, even when that world is not perfect.
Think back to the description of the first Shabbat – the heaven and the earth and all that was in them were finished. God had created human beings, taken a look at everything and said, "Indeed, this is very good." But God did not say, "Indeed, this is perfect." When God rested on that seventh day, it was in a world that the human being was going to inherit to shape and shepherd and steward. But before that happened, God stopped and modeled an extraordinary value. God set aside an entire day, a day to represent every day, an hour to represent every hour, a minute to represent every minute specifically to stop creating, to stop modifying, to stop competing. For that period of time, God did nothing but live in the world just created – partly as reward and partly to see what it was like.
It was then that God dreamed a dream. It was then that God looked back on what had been tohu va'vohu, chaos and confusion, and said, "Here is where my children can live. And here is where they will learn what to become."
Let me ask about where you live, where you keep your stuff, where you sleep. When you arrive home at the end of a day, do you walk in the door, look around and say, "Ah, somewhere to rest and hide for a few minutes so I can go back out to where I belong"? Or do you walk in that door and react to the familiar sights and sounds, the chair you sit in, the bed you sleep on, the socks you left on the bedroom floor and say, "Thank God, I am home"?
God meant Shabbat as home for humanity. But we have been, since creation, so terrified that a missed day of plowing the fields, a missed day of herding sheep, a missed day of sailing a ship, a missed day of retail sales, a missed day of web activity would increase the hunger, poverty, oppression, illness and loneliness that separates us from human dignity that we never imagine we can take time to say, "Thank God, I am home." We can never take time to say, "Thank God." We can never take time to say, "I am home."
And what has been the result? On the individual level, we live frantic lives. On the collective level we need to make an industry out of relaxation because we have forgotten how to relax. And this world we were given to perfect? We never take the time to notice that we are polluting it with toxins, draining its reserves of limited resources, changing its delicate beauty, poisoning our own home. How would this world be a different place if we took a day to represent every day, an hour to represent every hour, a minute to represent every minute to see if we had spent the last cycle of minutes and hours and days making something that was very good on the first day closer to perfect on the sixth day?
For that reason were we called into covenant – to bear witness and be role models. To dream with God about a better world, a place where we can live right now and where our children and grandchildren can live even better tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow. The pillar is engraved with the instruction we recite each Shabbat: V'shamru v'nei yisrael et hashabbat, "The children of Israel shall observe Shabbat, to do Shabbat as God dreamed it throughout the generations. It is the sign forever beini uvein b'nai yisrael, that I, God, and the children of Israel are in this together. For in six days, God created the heavens and the earth, and on the seventh day, God sat still took a breath." And so should we.
Mostly people look at Shabbat as a day of "thou shalt nots." And I have never found convincing the pedagogic technique of trying to make lemons into lemonade by saying, "Oh but look, you can read! You can go for a walk! You can take a nap!" (Not that I am knocking the nap, believe me.)
Instead, I ask you to look at Shabbat not as a collection of personal restrictions or benefits, but as the building block of what we as Jews have to offer this sad and suffering society in which we live. It is a day of noticing – of noticing the expressions on the faces of friends and family and the condition of the neighborhood. It is a day of appreciating – of appreciating clean air and good food and a decent place to live. It is a day of enabling – of enabling communication and connection and community. My friends, these are all the things we need to begin to cure what ails us: a sense of the condition of the world we live in and how we can improve it.
Back in those neighborhoods, in Brooklyn or Squirrel Hill or Pikesville or Skokie, you could have Shabbat just by showing up. Perhaps more accurately, you could have Shabbes by just showing up. Some of you remember going to Bubbe's apartment after school, the smell of chicken soup redolent in the kitchen, the newspapers on the scrubbed linoleum, the candlesticks gleaming on the breakfront. Or maybe you went to shul on Saturday and wound up wandering from house to house, a little nosh here, a little singing there, a little Frisbee in the park. Or maybe you arrived home to find the dining room table set with the best china, the aroma of fresh-baked challah pervading the house and your family uncharacteristically in the same place with nowhere to go.
It is a gift we have been given to give in return. Mental health experts and sociologists are noticing that families that eat at least one meal together a week are healthier and better-adjusted – the news just came out that teenagers in such situations are 70% less likely to use drugs and alcohol. That's Shabbat. Physicians are emphasizing that taking time to step away from high levels of stress will prolong your life. That's Shabbat. Song and laughter and conversation and prayer and intellectual stimulation have been shown to heal the wounded and preserve the mind. That's Shabbat. Shabbat can heal the world.
But Bubbe's apartment doesn't exist anymore. Your family lives in four different cities. Everyone works full time and so no one has time to bake challah. Or you've only been a Jew for a couple of years and your childhood memory of what was sizzling on the griddle doesn't translate well to Shabbat.
And that's why we have each other. That's why we have a community like Agudas Achim, one of many such communities all over the United States. It is to preserve and even reinvent where necessary a sense of communal and individual investment in Shabbat.
It does not come easy, no indeed. When you want something like this so badly, when you believe in its indispensability to our very foundation, it can be very lonely to stick to your values. My children can tell you about it and about how hard it was learning these lessons. You can talk to people who live alone about how hard it is, too. They can tell you that the echo of their own voice making Kiddush or the lack of response to "Shabbat shalom" can take the joy right out of the day. You can talk to family members who live like conversos in their own homes, secretly saying their prayers or making excuses not to go to the movies because they would rather make shabbes but receive no support.
So I encourage you to be proud to be a Jew. I invite you show each other and this aching world that there is a place of respite and renewal, a day during the week that has the grandeur of the Grand Canyon or the eagle, a time to stop and notice what is very good and what next week will be even better.
Earlier this year, at the beginning of the summer, we took a step for you. Friday evening services now begin each week at 6:30. It is a
little too early in July and a little too late in December, but mostly it's about right – just as the sun goes down and certainly time enough to knock off of work. The service itself is just gorgeous. Elisheva tells me it is one of her favorite services, and it shows in her voice. It takes an hour. Children are welcome – give them something to eat at 5:30 or 6:00 and they'll be fine until you get home.
And have guests to dinner. Maybe you will reach out to one of those single-adult households that make up 20% of this congregation. Or maybe, if you are in one of those households, you will form a Shabbat family for yourself with others just like you – rotate among your homes and invite a couple and their children every now and then. Set an extra plate – sometimes people come to shul from out of town, or they just haven't made the preparations for themselves, but they are inspired by the beauty of the service. Be willing to have guests and enrich your life and theirs. You don't have to live near the synagogue to do it.
Come to shul on Shabbat morning and spend time with friends inside and outside the sanctuary. You have your neighborhoods – the b'nai mitzvah, the babies, the seniors, the 20- and 30-somethings, the Republicans.
And in the afternoon, just gather. Spend some time together. I know that some people are doing so already, some in homes, some in local commercial establishments – listen, not the traditional answer, but very much in the spirit of the day. As the hours of daylight get fewer and earlier, let Shabbat ease out with reluctance and havdalah.
Remember, my friends, at the moment we are not rolling our eyes. We are not plotting our escape from prison. We are talking about daring to dream with God.
We can only make this contribution to the world if we live Shabbat. We cannot make the contribution if we only promote it. And it only works if we live Shabbat when Shabbat arrives, not if we live Shabbat only when we feel like it. And why?
For the same reason that my visit to the Pentagon two weeks ago resonated in my soul differently than the people around me – not any less as an American or a citizen of the world, but with that additional resonance that comes from a deeply rooted and deeply integrated Jewish world view.
When Shabbat is an essential part of your life, the weekdays become a different experience. It doesn't matter, frankly, whether you call Monday "Yom Sheini, Day Two" or you call Yom Sheini "Monday." But there is a difference between calling the last day of the week "Saturday" and calling it "Shabbat." Saturday is that time you rest up for the week ahead, the motel room you stay on when you are on a business trip, the vacation destination before you return to the real world. Saturday is part of a weekend, when cell phone calls are free and the repair guy can give you a manageable three-hour window and the highways have less traffic on the way to shopping.
Shabbat is home. Shabbat was God's purpose in creating the world – the day after the certificate of occupancy was issued. Shabbat is the place to live. Shabbat is what enters your heart and your very being and allows you to be at one with a world that is no longer your opponent.
When Shabbat is integrated into your being, you cannot see this planet abused and not have your heart broken. When Shabbat is integrated into your being, you cannot see workers exploited and not feel outrage. When Shabbat is integrated into your being, you cannot see children shuttled frantically from activity to activity and not understand that they have been abandoned by their parents. When Shabbat is integrated into your being, you dare to dream that this world can be a better place without consuming more than what is required to make it that way.
The midrash says that when the world was created, God paired the days with each other – day one with day two, day three with day four, day five with day six. Shabbat complained that it had no partner, and God replied, "For your partner, I give you the people Israel." Without us, Shabbat is lonely and atrophies.
So when the days of the week become not your raison d'etre, but a countdown to Shabbat, it is accurate to remark, as Ann and I do frequently to each other, "How in the world do people live with Shabbes?"
The world is in need of Shabbat, but the world will not embrace it. That falls to this small and endangered people – to us, to the Jews – to preserve and model. It falls to us to bring a vocabulary of Sabbath, of Sabbatical, of Sacred Rest to an aching and exhausted humanity. It falls to us to ask the question, "What condition is the world in?" And the question, "What condition is your soul in?" And the question, "What condition are your children in?"
Is it convenient? Rarely. Does it make us different, even put us at a certain disadvantage? Yes. Will it serve to separate us from some discretionary activities that we would enjoy doing? Unquestionably. But if we return to embrace it as a community, we can give again this gift to the world that bridges the gap between the image in which we were created, God's image, and the trampled and suffering dignity of a weary humanity. Be proud to be a Jew with that mission in the world.
Dare to dream. Dare to live the dream. You cannot fail, even when you fall short, so you needn't be afraid. After all, you should fear not, for God is with you all the way.