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How Good and Pleasant It Is...To Sit Together
Rosh HaShanah 2, 5769/2008
© Rabbi Jack Moline

Thank you for your interest in my High Holy Day sermon. I hope you enjoy reading it. 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

Over the summer and now again during this season of Holy Days, our Hazzan has introduced seven versions of music for a verse from Psalm 133. The Psalm is short – only three verses – and though the first verse is a universal sentiment in spite of its enigmatic meaning, the other two verses are so completely obscure that we tend to ignore them completely. So in spite of the fact that two-thirds of this Psalm praises oil running through Aaron's beard and dew forming on Mt. Hermon and Mt. Zion, we tend to lift up and celebrate only these familiar words:

Hinei mah tov umah na'im shevet achim gam yachad.

How good and how pleasant it is for brothers to sit together.

Now, the sentiment in those words strikes us as admirable until we begin to think about what it means. "Good" and "pleasant" are not particularly strong words. Our other values come with action words; we pursue peace and justice, we flee from evil, we love our God, our neighbor and ourselves. We sanctify time, we choose life, we break the bonds of servitude. But when brothers sit together, it is good and pleasant.

I know, this is beginning to sound like a George Carlin routine.

The word "achim" of course means "brothers." It is part of this synagogue's name, chosen at a time when the inclusion of women in synagogue life was achieved solely through their involvement in Sisterhood. Brothers here on the bimah, sisters there in the kitchen. (At least we got the sisters up on the bimah.) "Brother" is one of those words that used to pass for inclusive, but now begs us to add "sister" or to change to the decidedly unsatisfying "sibling." Is it good and pleasant when sisters join the sit-in?

I know, this is beginning to sound like the whole Sarah Palin – Hillary Clinton thing.

And the inclusion of "gam" in the verse is another source of confusion. The word mostly means "also" in Hebrew. What can it possibly mean when it is squeezed into an unfamiliar place? This little word with a variety of nuances turns up all over the Bible and is debated among some of the rabbis of the Talmud as either superfluous or necessary. It adds to an already difficult syntax for our Western minds. A literal translation of the words of the verse would, "Here, what good and what pleasant sitting brothers also together."

I know, this is beginning to sound like the instructions for your off-brand computer set-up.

But I offer you this meditation on this particular verse because the ethos of it seems to speak to what our hearts need at this time of year and what we need at this moment in history. For all the talk of a global community and for all the proximity that planes, trains and automobiles allow, we live in a world that has never been more fragmented. It doesn't matter where you look – within Israeli society or at Israel's geographic borders, within the Jewish people or at the nations among whom we live, within American politics or among our global neighbors, within our families or at the people across the fence or across the world – the pieces don't seem to fit.

There is no question that we have gone through some rough patches in this country over the past number of years. The quantum shift of national outlook from optimism to suspicion took its toll. The deterioration of the infrastructure of peace in the Middle East has resulted in wars and walls, and turned the act of mass murder by suicide from a horrifying aberration to an every-day statistic. The very sky seems to betray us, washing away modern cities and turning hundreds of thousands into homeless refugees. Television, once decried as a vast wasteland of mindless fiction, has become a showcase for real-life avarice, irresponsibility and immorality that pollutes our free press, our entertainment and our family lives. Comedy has gone from funny and frothy to crude and cruel. We are unembarrassed to give credence to rumors and innuendos about our government's leadership and their age, nationality, religion, sexual practices and personal integrity.

Even families without dysfunction are viewed with suspicion – they must be hiding something, because NOBODY can be that well-adjusted.

Joy has been replaced with schadenfreude, the sense of internal gloating at someone else's suffering. In a world without genuine pleasures, it is the only source of satisfaction.

It is enough to want to make you crawl into bed and pull the covers over your head. And in fact, that is exactly what many of us do, metaphorically speaking. We are without hope that better times are possible. Our carefree days – the fifties, the sixties, the seventies, eighties or nineties – are distant memories, desperately naοve in retrospect and just as desperately desired.

Would I stand here and presume to quote song lyrics from the Great Depression to cheer you up? Life is just a bowl of cherries? Happy days are here again? Just around the corner there's a rainbow in the sky, so let's have another cup of coffee, and let's have another piece of pie? As Eddie Cantor sang back then: "Nertz."

No, those are not the songs we should be singing, songs of denial and distraction. The words and music we should turn to for inspiration should not obscure our problems. They should not put them into a longer perspective, as if the despair of the moment was of no consequence. The words we should sing, the language of our inspiration, ought to connect us to a reservoir of hope that cannot be drained.

After all these years, it should come as no surprise to you that I am about to commend to you our rich and rewarding tradition. Back in the day, when the Temple stood for the first time and the range of human experience was embraced by the poets of our past, someone chose to immortalize these enigmatic words:

Hinei mah tov umah na'im shevet achim gam yachad.

The melody with which the Levites serenaded the Temple worshippers is long lost, and so we have been forced to reinvent it in our own idiom, many more times over than seven. But its meaning, as syntactically and phraseologically challenging as it may be, can give us something to believe in again.

Not quite a year ago, many of you here and many others not here gathered to celebrate with me my 20+ years in this pulpit. It was a lovely week of celebration – the sing-a-long karaoke, which we will repeat this winter, the scholar-in-residence, an annual treat, and a gala dinner. Your generosity of words and funds were overwhelming. I set out to write personal thank you notes for about 700 contributors, and a year later find myself struggling to reach half that number. I am not a big fan of surprises, and so the organizers shared every detail with me except one. My three kids delivered words of Torah in my honor, speaking about my favorite verse in the Bible, which is not, by the way, hinei mah tov. I was overwhelmed by those words. If I have known a deeper satisfaction in my life, I would be hard-pressed to name it. I said to Ann, "However long I live, I can die a happy man." I return to those divrei torah with some regularity, though not with great frequency, because I do not want to diminish the power they have to stir the memories of my emotions that night.

Max spoke of the reassuring nature of God's love. Jennie spoke of the special spark in each soul. Julia began with a teaching from the Argentine writer I mentioned last year at this time, Jorge Luis Borges: to know something is to become a part of it; moreover, to know everything is to lose oneself completely. I have reflected on those observations a great deal this past year, particularly as it relates to the conclusion she reached about God: God knows everything, and therefore God is everything.

I have struggled with the implications of that conclusion. If to know everything is not just to be a part of everything, but to lose oneself completely, then is God lost? The answer is yes – God is lost in a world of God's own making, in a world in which God knows all. But we are not God. We human beings, mortal creatures with dreams and aspirations that exceed our limitations, we only know what we know. Everything else is a mystery.

We are created in the image of God, surrogates for individuality, avatars of particularity. By loving, by suffering, by learning, by remembering, by giving and taking, by our very living, we give God the opportunity to be reflected in this world of God's creation. We enable our lost God to be found. When we search for God, we do so not just for our own spiritual satisfaction, but for God's. When we experience God's presence and God's absence, we do so not just for our own sakes, but for God's sake as well.

And here is the most important part of all. This "everything" that God knows, this every thing that God knows is capable of knowing its own inherent godliness. The mountains, the skies, the lions, the mosquitoes, the trees, the wires that carry my voice to the speakers that broadcast it – every thing is capable of knowing its own inherent godliness. Only we human beings have been blessed with God's capability to see the part of God that is in others, that is in other things, that is in every thing.

To be sure, it is sometimes very difficult indeed. Finding God in the destructive force of a hurricane, in the greed and foolishness of financial irresponsibility, in the explosion of a human bomb, in the exchange of insults that replaces the exchange of ideas – those are very difficult tasks. And when the difficult tasks proliferate, it is understandable to lose hope. It is understandable to say, "God, lost in Your knowledge, You have lost me, too, and I am lost, I am without hope of being found!"

What can restore that hope? What can help us return to the nurturing and bottomless reservoir of hope that makes the One God one with us, that makes us one with the One God? What will soothe our souls and renew our faith?

Gam yachad, still one, still together, still whole.
The reassurance that we are still part of the One, part of the togetherness, part of the whole.

Gam yachad, yet one, yet together, yet whole.
The reassurance that not one of us and not all of us have broken away from the unifying holiness of the world we inhabit.

Gam yachad, also one, also together, also whole.
The reassurance that in spite of our many differences we are not just atomized, compartmentalized and divided.

Mah tov umah na'im.
It requires no pursuit, no flight, no choices. It is good and pleasant – a fact of life, not a task of life. We need not break our backs or our hearts or our bondage. It is ours by definition, by heritage. It is our very nature.

Shevet achim.
The assemblage of humanity, the great family of homo sapiens, the common bond of common parentage. Even those who seek to deny it are imbued with the image of God and exist by the grace of a spark of divinity.

Our cohort of creation alone among the multitudes can recognize the pervasive presence of God in every work of creation. All of us, each of us, has been graced with the ability to see beyond our joy and beyond our misery to find a higher calling even in our most reluctant brothers and sisters.

Listen, we are rightly suspicious of simplistic responses to complicated situations. Our great intellectual tradition urges us to preserve and conserve, to deconstruct and reconstruct, to form and reform. But in a world in which buildings fall from the sky, cities drown, every stranger is a suspect and our savings fail to save us, there is a message simple, pure and clear that can give us hope. It is not dependent on a particular kind of faith or even on any faith at all. It is quintessentially Jewish and entirely universal. It is sacred by virtue of its Biblical roots and secular by virtue of its human authorship. It reminds us that redemptive hope comes not from competition for higher office – no candidate for any position will single-handedly restore what we have collectively lost – but instead from the truth we so admire that we teach it to our smallest children and still find unblemished promise in its idealistic affirmation:

hinei mah tov umah na'im shevet achim gam yachad,
"how good and pleasant it is for brothers [and sisters] to sit together, to dwell together, to live together."

You'll notice that the Psalmist does not place conditions on "good and pleasant." You'll notice that there is no modifier on shevet achim gam yachad – to live together in peace, to live together in one nation under God, to live together in secure and defensible borders, to live together in a worker's paradise. The brother with whom I sit may be my twin or as different from me as the stars are from the sea. My sister may hold it in her heart to embrace me as I am or to demand that I reimagine myself entirely. It is not about all of us being the same. It is not about judging others and it is not about not judging each other. It is not about loving each other and it is not about hating each other.

Instead, it is about how good and how pleasant it is just to be together. And I beg you to put aside the cynicism that this troubled world has heaped upon you and take hold of that message of hope that is inherent in the world-view of the Jew.

There is something sacred wherever you turn. There is something holy, even in the grimiest corner of this world. There is some evidence of our everywhere-and-nowhere lost God wherever you turn, whether you turn inward as every thing can, or whether you turn outward as only we can. You can find hope and you can give hope. And in the process, you can live a life that attests to the source of all hope.

Hinei mah tov umah na'im shevet achim gam yachad.
Behold how good and pleasant it is that all of us are in this together.

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