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! My apologies for any typos. Jack Moline
Rosh HaShanah 1, 5774/2013 - Change is Gonna Come - ©Rabbi Jack Moline
I had the privilege to participate in a program called Rabbis Without Borders during the year before last, and as happens to me more and more, it has took close to a year to sort out a lot of what I heard. One of the rabbis in the group was a guy named Robert Barr. Bob is about my age and he is based in Cincinnati, and he lays claim that his synagogue, Beth Adam, is one of the largest congregations in the world. If you never heard of him or his synagogue you shouldn't be surprised. Bob is a humanist rabbi, that is, he presents a Judaism without reliance on a God concept. And his congregation includes not only his local members in Ohio, but a huge web-based congregation around the world.
Some of you are horrified and some of you are mystified and some of you would like to know the address of the web site. But if you have an interest in humanist Judaism, you are on your own, because that's not the subject of this sermon. Rather, it is something Bob taught me during our long sessions that has intrigued me over the year.
Here is what he said: for almost everyone alive today - certainly almost everyone in our American and Jewish communities - we no longer understand the meaning of "goodbye." Indeed, the first time we have any sense of taking leave of a family member, friend or acquaintance is when that person dies.
Think about it for a moment and you will understand his point. Not so many years ago, before mechanical transportation, before long-distance communication, before the culture of globalization in its incipient forms, when someone set out for a distant place and said goodbye, it was possible that there would be no meaningful contact, or perhaps no contact at all ever again. A daughter is married into a family in another city. A business opportunity presents itself in a different town. A new world is opened because of expulsion or because of a golden land across the sea. A friend, a student, a child departs, and goodbye is a permanent state of being.
Think of the goodbyes in "Fiddler on the Roof." One daughter goes into exile with her socialist husband. One daughter is absorbed into the gentile culture of her husband. And the whole town of Anatevka packs up and says goodbye to tumbledown, workaday Anatevka. There is a sense of disconnecting permanently. Who imagines they will see photographs of the old homestead? Who thinks that they will find an address to write a letter? Who can even conceive that they will be able to call directory assistance, or do an on-line search, or poke someone on Facebook? Goodbye is goodbye.
It gives you a different perspective on this morning's Torah reading. We enter the saga of Abraham in the middle, but he has already left his land, his home, his father's house. He said goodbye and it was goodbye. When Sarah tells him to banish Hagar and Ishmael, it is the end of their contact, notwithstanding the Qur'an's retelling of the story. Abraham knows loss in a deeper place than we can imagine from his experience with life, not only from his experience with death.
Today, we use that word so casually that it has all but lost its meaning. When we say goodbye, we mean l'hitra'ot, a bientot, see you later alligator. It is a comma, not a period. And as we eliminate the distances between times and places and simultaneously push back the boundaries of death, we also eliminate our capacity to understand what goodbye really means. Just because we don't understand it doesn't mean it isn't a reality. But because we don't understand it, we invent new ways to define it.
Let me offer you some more examples, if you don't mind. Anti-semitism is another one of those terms that we don't understand any more. We understand it as a concept, of course, but as a visceral experience there is barely a person in this room who understands what anti-semitism means.
Almost twenty years ago, someone drew a swatiska in pen on our building. Lynne Sandler was the president of the shul at the time, and she called me at Camp Ramah to ask how we should respond. Our community was more than disquieted. We were certainly counted in the annual audits of anti-semitic acts produced by various defense and community relations organizations.
Maybe twenty years before that I was selling some furniture before moving out of an apartment. The young woman who came to buy it asked me the price, and when I told her she asked me if she could Jew me down. I certainly felt a sense of personal attack, and got the satisfaction of introducing myself as a new rabbinical student and my two friends in the room as the former international president of USY and the son of a prominent Cleveland rabbi.
But I have to tell you that those incidents were to anti-semitism what a touch of food poisoning is to the effects of chemotherapy. They are unpleasant, disconcerting and resonant of what we have learned, but to claim them as examples of the toxic bigotry that is anti-semitism is to make us dilettantes.
There is anti-semitism in this world. European Jews can tell you about it, even though most every European country has laws against it. Jews living in predominantly Arab countries can tell you about it - even Jews who are there as foreign diplomats for the United States or Israel. And if you want to see it institutionalized, you need only look to Iran. The greatest protection Iran has from its Muslim neighbors - its Muslim neighbors, mind you - is to claim that its military program, including its missile and nuclear weapon programs, is the result of the Jewish presence in Israel. Whether or not the sophisticated leaders of some unsophisticated countries believe Iran or not, the inculcated hatred of Jews among the masses makes Iran just heroic enough that other Muslim leaders cannot risk challenging the Supreme Leader and his government.
We, however, feel an obligation to find anti-semitism closer to home. We feel a need to make it accessible, so we redefine it. Right now our community is busy debating whether Franklin Delano Roosevelt was an anti-semite. What nonsense. The man is dead for sixty years, and the group of Jews who voted for him in 1944 is unlikely to be determining the course of American Jewish history in too many more elections. But some folks see the functional value of anti-semitism and therefore seek to associate it with an American icon. By doing so, we can feel like we haven't become too smug, or insufficiently vigilant, or maybe undeservedly secure.
Allow me yet another example. In a few moments, after each of you has had the chance for private prayer, our Hazzan will lead us in the repetition of the Amidah, and we will hear the powerful imagery in un'taneh tokef. The images are powerful - the words affirm from the first that we feel the power of the day because it is nora v'ayom, profound and awe-inspiring. The great shofar will sound. The still small voice will be heard. The angels themselves will be alarmed, seized with fear and trembling. One by one we will pass before God as the determination is made by our own actions who shall live and who shall die.
Allow me to ask you, and please answer privately, not by show of hands, how many of you have felt yir'at shamayim, the fear of heaven, since the last time we gathered to recite those words? I am willing to bet that the power of the words themselves, especially when framed by the passion of the voice that represents us in prayer, provokes within many of you an image of God's profound and awe-inspiring power, an image, an idea in your imagination.
But is there a person in this room who feels, unprovoked by the power of suggestion, the alarm, the fear and trembling that seize those angels? Do you know on a personal level the fear of God?
Ann and I had the chance to see "The Book of Mormon" this summer. I'm not a Mormon, in case you didn't notice, and I find the story of Mormonism to be patently absurd, probably because it didn't happen thousands of years ago and half-way around the world. The show is incredibly profane. If it were entitled "The Torah" or "The Gospels" or "The Qur'an" and presented with such burlesque and lampoon, half a dozen Jewish defense organizations would make their annual budget on appeals to fund their protests, the Vatican would dispatch every bishop in the country to pronounce imprecations and the playwrights would hire Salman Rushdie as a consultant on personal security. Mormons are just incredibly accommodating people. But - spoiler alert - the point of the play is that we make it all up, often as we go along. The fear of God is deconstructed as the side effect of authoritarian manipulation. The curtain is then pulled away to reveal the Great and Powerful Oz as a carnival barker.
Yet we have a sense of obligation to smash through the ceiling we have placed on our belief in a transcendent God. So we have redefined what it means to be in relationship with the God of the universe. We are not subjects, but equals in every meaningful sense. God is the repository of mystery, but not power. We can name God. We can limit God. We can deny God but still lay claim to what we traditionally attribute to God.
We find God in a sunset, in service to others, in the notes of a symphony. God is present in the touch of a child's hand, in the words of comfort to the bereaved, in the profundity of a wise observation. But fear of God? It is a term we bandy about in our liturgy and perhaps as a literary term as if it holds personal meaning for us. We poo-poo it in others. The fear of God, the fear of sin, the fear of heaven - these are things that our ancestors knew in their bones, but that we are forced to redefine because we have no direct experience of them anymore.
And then there is the theme of the newest pillar to be dedicated in our sanctuary. Thanks to Joel and Sally Freed, who honored us and their children and grandchildren in the Freed and Townsend families, we have a constant reminder of Receiving Torah on display. Perhaps appropriately, it is the pillar nearest the window in the room, but rather than crane your necks, if you just look at the back cover of our reflections booklet you will find the papercut by Tamar Fishman reproduced.
There in the middle is Mount Sinai, the place where Torah itself tells us of its own revelation. Above the mountain are inscribed the words from Psalm 8: mah adir shimkha b'khol ha'aretz, "How majestic is Your name in all the earth." At various places in the papercut are other verses, "The mountain was aflame," "the sound of the shofar," "all the people saw the sounds," "I have given you good teaching."
These are the stories we tell ourselves about the experience, because, in spite of the midrash that affirms we were each present at that moment that heaven spilled into earth, not a person alive in our lifetimes, in our parent's lifetimes, in our great-great-great-great-grandparents' lifetimes can bear eyewitness to receiving Torah. What does it mean that the mountain was aflame? You have a picture in your head, even as I say the words, but it is a guess. What does it mean that we saw the sounds? We have no point of reference except the extreme anachronism of a digital representation of soundwaves - the most important divine-human contact since Creation reduced to the screen on your smart phone when you do a voice search for the nearest Starbucks.
And never mind the experience of receiving Torah - what about the content itself? "I have given you good teaching," says God. Ki lekach tov natati lahem, torati a ta'azovu - it is My Torah, do not abandon it." If even our ancestors who literally stood at the foot of that mountain and received Torah and proclaimed, as the Torah and this artistic representation remind us, na'aseh vinishma, "We will do and we will understand," if even they managed to abandon Torah in the freshness of memory, then how are we to even understand those words?
Tucked away at the bottom of the pillar, beneath the gathered Israelites and the mountain and the verse of Torah, is a row of small letters. Kol ham'lameid et ben b'no Torah.k'ilu kiblah mehar Sinai. It is a saying of Rabbi Joshua ben Levi (Kiddushin 30a), a rabbi you know well. It is his most famous story that we tell often - the one about him asking Elijah when the Messiah will come, and then challenging the answer, "Today!" Rabbi Joshua ben Levi was a scholar in the third-century, a man deeply devoted to Torah. He studied at the feet of the sages during his youth. He became a deeply respected arbiter of the law in his middle age, and often represented the concerns of the Jews of the Land of Israel to the courts and governmental officials of Rome. He lived to see his son marry into the family of Rabbi Judah the Prince. And this wise man, this respected scholar, this community leader found himself living in a time in which people had already long forgotten what it meant to receive Torah. They read about it. They talked about it. But other than accepting the orthodoxies and fantasies of their times, they didn't know about it.
Rabbi Joshua ben Levi reinvented the experience. Just as we have reinvented "goodbye," just as we have reimagined "anti-semitism," just as we have dismissed and then redefined yir'at shamayim, "fear of God," Rabbi Joshua reclaimed the experience of receiving Torah. Did he do so in a way that missed the power of the original, as with our contemporary use of "goodbye?" Did he do so as a poseur, as with our contemporary obsession with "anti-semitism?" Did he do so in self-serving terms, as we so often do with "yir'at shamayim?"
Here's what he said, what I suspect most appealed to Joel and Sally about their generous dedication: kol ham'lameid et ben b'no Torah.k'ilu kiblah mehar Sinai, "whoever teaches a grandchild Torah, it is as if receiving it from Sinai." Rabbi Joshua ben Levi proposed that when a person teaches Torah not to his daughter, not to her son, but to children's children, it is as if Torah has flowed from that mountain peak to the generation that will enter the Promised Land. The person who teaches Torah to his or her grandchildren invests in a future that is likely beyond reach - a world shaped by the accomplishments of those grandchildren become adults.
The proof texts of Rabbi Joshua ben Levi's teachings are adjacent verses in Deuteronomy, chapter 4 - the end of verse 9 and the beginning of verse 10. You can look them up. But the proof story behind the teaching is who was on that mountain. It was Moses. He was 80 years old, and the Torah he delivered, which was the Torah he received, was going to be lived not by the so-called Children of Israel who left Egypt with him, but with the Children of the Children of Israel who were going to settle the Land.
Rabbi Joshua ben Levi took the notion of receiving Torah and understood its purpose rather than attempting to resurrect its form.
So please permit me one more example before I sit down. And that example is where we are right now: the synagogue. I think we no longer understand the meaning of the word. "Synagogue" is from the Greek rather than Hebrew. It means either a place of gathering or a place to learn. In Hebrew we use beit Knesset, a house of assembly. In Yiddish, we use shul, which means "school." But here we are, sitting in these holy precincts, with a thousand different understandings of what this institution is meant to be.
Each of you hears the word and a different notion pops into your mind. It may be the upstairs of some commercial building with a stage and wooden floors for the benches that get set up each Friday. It may be a simple house retrofitted to accommodate a modest-sized community. It may be an architectural marvel with theater-style seats and a raised bima in front. It may be this very room. And by the way, all of those descriptions were, at one time, Agudas Achim.
Each of you thinks of the institution and a different activity pops into your mind. The thrill of learning the Hebrew letters. An overnight with your friends. A hundred guests at Shabbat dinner. A remarkable scholar. The first time you held a Torah scroll. Committing dollars to support Israel or rescue endangered Jewish communities. A daughter named. A son come of age. A love sanctified. A beloved laid to rest. A voice like the angels or maybe one much closer to earth. The brilliant erudition of a top-notch rabbi (ahem). Those are all Agudas Achim.
You grew up here or you arrived. You soaked in your sense of Jewishness as child here or you embraced it as an adult. You prayed or you learned or you danced or you performed or you ate. I'm sorry - AND you ate. For a hundred years each person to enter our community, for a day or for a lifetime, brought his or her own understanding of what synagogue is. They are all correct. And they are all over.
The notions of what a synagogue must be in the next 100 years of our vitality will be as different from what they are today as "goodbye" is, as "anti-semitism" is, as "yir'at shamayim" is. What we have received from our grandparents and what we transmit to our grandchildren occupy the same space, but diverge in both form and substance. As long as we presume to need a place to pray and learn, there will be synagogues. But just as the Torah received by Joshua ben Levi was not the same Torah received by Moshe Rabbeinu, the Agudas Achim we received will not be the Agudas Achim we deliver to the children of Molly Shichman and Ari Halperin and Didi Quigley and Micah Hausman and those delicious babies we welcomed today.
Change is going to come and we aren't going to like it. Or more correctly, we aren't going to like it at first. The folks who took down the mechitza so that families could sit together destroyed this congregation. When we counted women in a minyan, our Judaism came to an end. Allowing a non-Jew to stand on the bimah expelled the divine presence from the sanctuary. And a hundred other things we've done that we used to do a different way, well, they sent us to hell in a handbasket. You are sitting in that handbasket right now, and depending on how much longer I talk, you may reach your destination.
Holding onto familiar concepts is very human. We yearn for consistency and security, and yet we yearn for innovation. When we redefine our fears and our aspirations we want them to sound familiar. In the end, the sound is the only thing that is familiar. Think: A port. A mouse. A file. A search. A tweet.
I have no portal to the future to know what synagogues in general or our synagogue in particular will look like for the next generation. I don't know where the money will come from to fund them. I don't know if rabbis and cantors and educators and directors will be the staff we need, if we need any staff at all. I don't know if the people who gather will turn pages or tap touch-screens or just blink at their eyeglasses to join in worship, learning or song.
But we will call it a synagogue. It will be the place that grandparents will come to transmit their Torah to the children of their children, and fret about whether another generation will exist to receive it. It will be the place that we come to reassure ourselves that there is something larger than us in this universe, something to both fear and embrace. It will be the place that we will gather to reassure ourselves that in spite of the attempts across the millennia to destroy us in part or in whole the People Israel lives. It will be the place we come to take leave with the confidence that our presence will be remembered.
I took a circuitous route to get here, but I have finally arrived. Happy Anniversary to us. One hundred years later we are presented with the opportunity to be purposeful about what is inevitable, to reinvent what is familiar, to choose our change, to ground our tomorrow in the rich soil of yesterday and today. As long as we presume to need a place to pray and learn, there will be synagogues. As long as we teach Torah to our grandchildren there will be Agudas Achim Congregation of Northern Virginia. What better day to begin that process than five-thousand-seven-hundred-seventy-fourth anniversary of the day the world was born.