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A Covenant of Jewish Soul

02/06/2015 08:39:00 AM


A Covenant of Jewish Soul
Yom Kippur 2005 by Rabbi Edward Feinstein

There is a story that haunts me this time of year. 

It is the story of a young Jew who lived in Germany at the beginning of the century -- a brilliant student of philosophy at the University of Berlin. All of his cousins, and all his colleagues and acquaintances had converted to Christianity, as was so common among young Jews at the time. His professors urged him to convert as well to assure himself a position in German academic life. He was finally persuaded to convert by his cousin, a celebrated scholar. 

The young man had a sense of history, and he decided that, were he to become a Christian, it had to be as the first Christians -- he had to do so as a Jew. So for one last time, he would visit a synagogue, and in the morning attend to his baptism. That one last time turned out to be Kol Nidre. 

Something happened to him in that service. He never kept the morning appointment. He wrote to his cousin that he no longer had reason or need to convert. He turned his attention to the study of Judaism, and in time was recognized as the most gifted teacher of his generation. His name was Franz Rosensweig. And in all the many books, monographs, diaries and correspondence he left behind, nowhere does he describe what happened in that synagogue on that Kol Nidre night. 

What happened to him? What did he find there? The mystery haunts me. Because he isn't alone. Today, a whole generation sits in the back of the synagogue asking as he did, Why be Jewish? There is a whole generation searching for a persuasive reason to identify as Jews, to return to the synagogue, to find a spiritual home in Jewish life. They aren't strangers. They are our own children and grandchildren. And they aren't to be dismissed as irresponsible or self-absorbed. They come tonight in a thoughtful search for wisdom and for purpose. 

Were he here tonight, would that young man find a compelling reason to choose a Jewish life? Were she with us tonight, could we offer that young woman a Judaism so inspiring, so deep, so wise, so inviting, she couldn't turn away? And not just tonight. Can we create a synagogue that they would want to join? What kind of community would engage them ­ their energies, their insights, their passion? Tshuva is our task tonight. Tshuva means returning home. How do we bring them home? 

I say to them, "Come, join! Come join the synagogue!" And he chuckles. "Rabbi, do you know how many organizations I already belong to?" And he opens his wallet and shows me: Here, all my memberships: AAA, Kaiser Permanente, Costco, 24-Hour Fitness, Ralph's Club. I don't need another membership." 

Of course, he's right. He doesn't need another membership, not if belonging to the synagogue is like belonging to Costco or AAA. He isn't interested in Emergency Roadside Judaism. He comes to the synagogue tonight for something different. For a different kind of belonging. 

He has grown up in an American culture that has granted him its greatest treasure ­ a freedom beyond the imagination of his immigrant ancestors. They lived their entire lives in a small circle of geography and a smaller circle of culture. They could never begin to conceive of his power to dream and become whatever his heart might desire. His values, his career, his life-style, his politics, his relationships, even his appearance, are all open to his choice. This is America's gift of freedom. 

At the heart of this freedom is a distinctly American idea of the self -- a self that is independent, autonomous, unencumbered, totally sovereign. From the time he was small, he was told to think for himself, stand up for himself, decide for himself, and express and celebrate his individuality. From the time he was small, he was exposed to a set of uniquely American cultural icons, icons of individualism -- the explorer, the pioneer, the rebel, the entrepreneur -- heroes unafraid to strike out on their own, cutting ties that bind them, to follow the road less traveled, and to live by their own rules. 

Like all Americans, he cherishes his freedom to be an individual. But now that he is reaching into adulthood, he begins to experience its shortcomings. 

For the independent, autonomous, sovereign self, life is lonely. He loves his freedom, but he finds it difficult to connect. Building relationships in this culture can be so very awkward. There's lots of casual sex; intimacy, depth, commitment are rare. Deep, intimate relationships come with claims, expectations, and demands. They require a sacrifice of freedom and an acknowledgement of dependence on an other, an other you can't control. The only relationships that come easily in this universe of free, autonomous, sovereign selves are commercial, contractual. The only time the self opens up is as a consumer. Look at the personal ads in the community newspaper, he quips, and notice how much they resemble the sales ads: Everyone is looking for a low mileage, low maintenance, high velocity, sporty new model, with a no baggage and nice trunk. 

If all the synagogue offers him is another commercial, contractual arrangement, he's right to turn away. But he's come tonight because he has an intuition that there's something more here. Somehow, he's felt different in the synagogue. He'll tell me that once he was on a trip in a far off land. He found himself with a free Friday night, and something told him to locate the synagogue. With the help of a friendly hotel concierge and a cooperative cab driver, he made it just as the service was beginning. Funny thing, Rabbi, he tells me. At home, I wouldn't have gone to services on a Friday night. But when I'm away, it's different. I was surrounded by strange faces, strange language, strange place, until the cantor began to sing the Shema. And then, Rabbi, I knew I was home. The faces softened. They invited me for kiddush. And though we couldn't say much more than Good Shabbos, we knew we belonged to one another. 

Lo tov heyot adam levado. Teaches Genesis: "It is not good for man to be alone." We define the self differently. Not sovereign, independent, autonomous, but connected, rooted, attached. Freedom is not living unencumbered, unattached. In Judaism, freedom is the power to form bonds of friendship and intimacy. These bonds place claims upon the self. Judaism believes that the more we are claimed, the more human we are. The more we are needed, the more life feels meaningful and important. "All real life," taught the philosopher Martin Buber, "is in relationship." The I of the I-Thou is infinitely richer then the I of the I-It. That is, the person we become in an intimate relationship, with all its demands, is so much deeper and more real, than the person we are in the impersonal, superficial, functional relationships of commerce and daily routine. 

The book of Leviticus offers the highest challenge to human beings: Kedoshim t'heyu ki kadosh ani, "Be holy," commands God, "as I am holy." What is holiness? What is this characteristic of God that we are commanded to mirror? The word in Hebrew is Kadosh. Look at how the word is used in Jewish life: 

A family, a circle of friends, gathers about the Shabbat or holiday table to share a celebration. A cup of wine is raised. The wine is not sacred. It's only Manischevitz. What is sacred, holy, are the bonds that gather us together to celebrate life. So together we recite a prayer called, Kiddush. 

Two individuals in love and devotion, determined to share a lifetime together. A ring ­ whole and unbroken ­ is slipped onto a finger, signifying a commitment whole and unbroken. And words are spoken. Haray at mikudeshet lee, you are kadosh to me. This rite that bonds two lives together is called Kiddushin. 

A loved one has died. And with tears we rise in the presence of a community at prayer to declare that even the catastrophe of death cannot sever the bond that holds us together. This prayer is called, Kaddish. 

Kiddush, Kiddushin, Kaddish, Kadosh, Kedusha, all mean holiness, and all mean opening the self to embrace another, bonding with another, holding the other close, never letting go, making the other part of the self. We form around ourselves a circle, a circle of our intimate concern ­ the people we care for, the ones we define as ours. For some, the circumference of that circle is so narrow, it includes only the individual self; its diameter reaching only to the end of the nose. For others, the circle includes family, community, nation. We worship a God whose circle of concern is infinite. Adonai Echad, God is the infinite circle of concern encompasses all of life. 

Kedoshim tiheyu, You shall be holy: This is the highest spiritual aspiration of Jewish life. 
Open up the self, draw your circle wider and wider, until it approaches the infinity of God's circle.

What is the opposite of holiness? In Hebrew, the opposite of Kadosh is Hol. Translated as profane or ordinary, Hol literally means "sand." That which has no cohesion, no connection, no bonds. It's this world of Hol, sand -- of atomized individuals, of sovereign, lonely, unconnected selves that he's come to synagogue to escape. He's tired of being a consumer. He seeks intimacy, friendship, trust. He's weary of commercial, contractual relationships, he wants to belong. If we value him, we must respond. 

When you join the synagogue, you are handed an application and a bill. You sign a contract, you pay, you belong. It's a simple fee for service relationship. It's efficient. It's professional. But it's not Jewish. Because the synagogue is not a business. I am not a salesman. Torah is not a commodity. And you are not a consumer, a customer. In that sort of relationship, you may be said to belong to the synagogue, but the synagogue surely doesn't belong to you. You have a seat. You have ticket. But have you a place? A spiritual home that's truly yours? 

We need different language. When Abraham was enlisted as God's partner, God didn't ask him to join or to sign up. He was issued no membership card. Instead, God invited Abraham into Brit, into a Covenant, a Covenant of holiness that bonds us together. We are not an institution, an organization, a corporation. We are a community of individuals and families bound by a Covenant of holiness. That's what synagogue ought to mean. That's the synagogue he's looking for. What sort of Judaism is he looking for? 

He is successful. Affluence, position, prestige, he will have it all. Even at his relatively young age, he can already see that at the road's end, he will have everything he was taught to want. The question is, is that what he really wants? Will it make him happy? He's begun to taste the fruits of success; its comforts and privileges. Success in America buys an astonishing set of diversions, distractions, pleasures and entertainments. What's the bumper sticker? "The one who dies with the most toys, wins." Already, he glimpses the futility of all. He's gone from a color TV, to a Trinitron, to a flat screen, to a big screen, to a plasma screenŠonly to discover, there's nothing on. America provides endless entertainments, endless pleasures, endless fun. But America provides little purpose, little meaning, little reason to be. 

"In college I met a rabbi," he tells me, "strange fellow really. He had none of what my family defined as success. And yet, he had this special kind of joy. It was like he glowed, somehow. He'd invite us over to his tiny apartment. With such joy he'd raise a glass of shnaps and scream ŒLehaim!' And then he'd make us all get up and dance. I wonder where that kind of joy comes from?" 

Our religion was born in the shadow of a catastrophe. In the year 70 CE, the Roman Empire destroyed Jerusalem and its Holy Temple. For the Jewish people, this was a tragedy beyond measure. 

Gone was their magnificent city. Gone was all their ability to control the conditions of existence. Gone was the temple, the priest and their rites. And gone, it seemed, was God. At the center of the Temple was a sacred room, kodesh ha-kodeshim, the holy of holies, where God's presence was said to dwell; the living connection with God, the sacred place where heaven and earth touched. Now it too was gone. The connection severed; God was banished from their midst. The survivors came to the community of scholars we call the Rabbis and asked: What now? What does it mean to be Jewish now? Does God still care for us? Do we have a God? 

The rabbis faced this choice: either succumb to the darkness and declare an end to the Jewish people and its faith, or reinvent that faith in a radical new form ­ reshape it in with a new religious vision. They chose the radical path. They answered: We have lost our holy city and our temple. We have lost political power. But we have not lost our home in world. Nor have we lost God. Because we have not lost our capacity for holiness. Our world, the world of Jewish meaning will be sustained from now on by three actions: learning Torah, worship, and acts of compassion. Al shlosha devarim ha-olam omed, al ha torah, v'al ha-avodah, v'al gemilut hasadim. 

In the radical new vision of the rabbis, the destruction actually liberated the power of holiness from the Temple precincts and sent it into the world. If the holy place is gone, let us find holiness in sacred acts and holy moments. If the rites of sacrifice are gone, we will offer up ourselves ­ our energies and talents and insights -- to God's service. If the priests are gone, let us make ourselves into servants of holiness. If the Temple is gone, then our homes and schools and synagogues must become places of sanctity. The most radical conclusion of all: If God's presence is gone, it is our task to bring God back into the world. We must become vessel of God's caring in this world. How? Through learning, worship, and acts of compassion. 

If there is no holy of holies in Jerusalem, then you must become the holy of holies. Make yourself the living point of connection between heaven and earth. You become the font of God's caring. In learning, and worship, and compassion, you have the power and the responsibility to extend a circle of intimate concern around the whole world. You are the center-point of God's dwelling. 

This remarkable power and enormous responsibility is at the heart of Judaism. It is the source of Jewish joy. I am entrusted as the vessel of God's care for the world. That is my dignity, my honor, and my joy. The Talmud taught that since the time of the Temple's destruction, all the gates of heaven are closed except the Gate of Tears. The Hasidic tradition responded: Yes, but there is a master-key. All the gates ­ of prayer, mercy, justice, compassion can be opened with joy! The Psalmist sang: Eevdu et hashem b'simcha, bo'u lefanav birnana. Do the work of God with joy, come to God's presence with song. 

I have often thought that if I could make one substantial change in the way we practice Judaism it would be this: I'd make Simchat Torah a High Holiday. If we are to have 10,000 Jews in shul but a few times a year, let them come to dance with the Torah. If 10,000 Jews are to raise their voices in prayer, let them sing, Lechaim! It's that kind of Jewish joy we're hungry for. 

"I've always thought of myself as spiritual, but not religious," she offers. "I've tried some meditation and some Kabballah. My grandparents were very Orthodox. They kept all the rules, kosher, Shabbat, all the holidays. My grandfather prayed every day. I don't think I could live that sort of life. Is that what you expect?" 

You shouldn't live your grandparents' Jewish lives. You live in a world that is very different than theirs. Nor should you measure yourself against their piety. But you must understand the passion that filled their lives. 

Fifteen verses after the commandment, Kedoshim tihyu, You shall be holy, comes the Bible's most radical demand: Vahavtah l'reacha kmocha. You will love the other as yourself. 

Drawing a line between these two verses describes the arc of the Jewish spiritual journey. We begin by opening the self to the other, bonding and drawing others into a circle of intimate concern. And we are changed. We are softened. With each addition to the circle, the self is remade, reshaped. Until slowly a new kind of self emerges, a self transformed into a Jewish soul. A unique human phenomenon -- the soul that embraces the whole world, that loves and cares and takes responsibility for the world; a soul that cries at the pain and hunger and suffering in the world; a soul that is moved to act, to change the world, to challenge any power in order to bring healing. The Jewish soul. 

Fifteen verses separate the two commandments. 
Listen to just a few: 
9When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap all the way to the edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest. 10You shall not pick your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen fruit of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the stranger: I the LORD am your God. 
13You shall not cheat your neighbor. You shall not commit robbery. The wages of a laborer shall not remain with you until morning. 
14You shall not insult the deaf, or place a stumbling block before the blind. 

This is the spiritual path of the growing soul. Pay the worker on the day he works! Leave part of the field unharvested so the poor may come and gather food! 

The Jewish soul is created: one act at a time. With each, the soul grows bigger and deeper. 
.. add the needs of the stranger, of the other, into your calculation of self interest; 
.. bring the poor and the vulnerable into the circle of concern; 
.. protect those who navigate the world with difficulty; 

A soul is cultivated one act at a time. One act at a time until it becomes habitual, internalized. Until the needs and the pain and the joy and the song of the other becomes the song of my soul. The ultimate purpose of Judaism is to cultivate in us a soul ready to embrace the world, to love the world selflessly, fearlessly, actively, just like God. 

When you realize that's the goal, when you grasp the end, the purpose, the objective of Jewish living, you will keep a different kind of Judaism. You will daven but daven differently. You will keep Kosher, but differently. We will say blessings, but differently: 

Baruch ata Adonai elohaynu melech haolam asher kidshanu b'mitvotav. 
Praised are You, God, whose presence fills the universe who has given us these mitzvot, these holy acts, and with them has made us Kadosh, holy. 

We are kadosh, there is holiness in us, because we can be moved to tears, we can be stirred to action when we see bitterness, helplessness, and suffering. 

There is holiness in us because we hear the cries of the world's agony and we hear God's unceasing question, God's very first question: Aiecha? Where are you? Where are you? 

There is holiness in us because we are witnesses, we see the world's darkness, its brutality, its cruelty, and we refuse to turn away, to turn the channel, to turn indifferent. 

At the end of the spiritual quest, taught Abraham Joshua Heschel, is never some sublime Kabbalisticc experience of faith, never a mystical ecstasy with God, not even peaceful equinimity -- but an active sense of indebtedness: 
The deepest truth of our religion is that something is asked of us. And that is, in turn, our religion's most precious gift to us: The gift of a purposeful life, a life of significance. We matter. Our efforts matter. Our lives matter. 

OK, Rabbi. But let me ask something personal: Why do you care? Why do you care if I come to the synagogue or not? If I lead a Jewish life or not? What difference does it make? Why does it matter to you? 

I do take it personally. Torah is precious to me. And when something is precious, you want to share it. Especially with those who seem so hungry for spiritual nourishment. 

And I have other motives. You'd be hard-pressed to find an optimist among those who study the American Jewish community. The demographers of American Judaism are almost universally pessimistic and their numbers depressing. We are assimilating into the American mainstream so efficiently, our birth rates are so low, our intermarriages so frequent, the ranks of our disaffected and disaffiliated so large, we haven't much of a future. So we're told. I'm sure it's true. But it's not the only truth. 

In 1964, Look Magazine published a cover story by a famous sociologist entitled "The Vanishing American Jew." Ethnic groups in American, according to the article, last only three generations. By the fourth, they disappear. American Jews are reaching that fourth generation in the mid-1960's, therefore, said Look Magazine, they will soon vanish. Well, Look Magazine is gone. We're still here. 

I have a hevrutah, a study partner, a great 19th century Hasidic master, Reb Arye Leib Alter of Ger, the Sefat Emet. We spend a few moments together every Shabbos, discussing the weekly Torah portion. The Sefat Emet taught that of all the attributes of God, the most impressive is God's role as Mechadesh, God -- the source of renewal. In each of us there is a spark of this power to renew, to reinvent, to recreate, to re-energize the self. This power exists everywhere in the world. But it is covered up, occluded, blocked, in us and in the world, by what he called Teva, by the power of inertia, the suffocating weight of what is, the way things have always been. It is our holy task, he taught, to liberate this holy spark. Scrape off all that hides and hinders this remarkable power and enjoy the flow of its blessings. I believe in that God, the God revealed as mechadesh. And I believe that God lives here. Within the Jewish people. And within this congregation. But we will not know these blessings unless we are courageous enough to seek God's light. 

I refuse to believe that I belong to the last generation of the great American Jewish community. I would much prefer to see myself as one of the first of the great American Jewish renaissance. And that renaissance will begin here. It will be invented here, in this remarkably congregation. We begin tonight. We begin tonight to reveal the power of God, ha-mechadesh, by re-inventing the congregation itself. 

Please look at the last page of the supplement. This is my proposal for a Covenant of Membership for Valley Beth Shalom. I ask you will reflect on this. No one will be asked to sign it. It isn't a contract. It is a covenant of aspiration, a statement of direction.

Bra'sheet "In the beginning . . ." I share the responsibility of creating a community of holiness at Valley Beth Shalom, a community that embraces and embodies the ideals, ethics, faith and culture of the Jewish people. 

Sh'mot "These are the names . . ." I will deepen my own Jewish identity and nurture my Jewish soul through Torah/ Learning, Avodah/Worship, Gemilut Hesed/Action, and Hevrah/Fellowship. 

Va'yikra "And God called . . ." I will answer the call to become God's partner in bringing wholeness and holiness to the world. I will answer the call to repair the world's brokenness and heal its suffering. 

Bamidbar "In the wilderness . . ." I will seek shalom, the blessings of wholeness, peace, and solidarity in my family, my circle of relations, my community, in my city and in the world. 

Devarim "These are the words . . ." I share the responsibility of transmitting Judaism to a new generation.

To me, this is our community, this is Valley Beth Shalom. Not the buildings. Not the officers and directors. Not the staff. Not even the rabbis. We are a community of families and individuals bound by these five promises. Intentionally we begin with the phrase, "I share the responsibility . . ." A Covenant is statement of responsibility. A Jew is one who walks the world, not with some sense of entitlement, but with a feeling of being claimed, being called. From that, comes our sense of life's purpose. In that claim, we sense the presence of God. I hope that you will make these promises yours. Through them, we remake the congregation into a holy covenantal community, filled with Jewish joy, and devoted to the cultivation of Jewish souls. 

We must. For there is young man, a young woman, a whole generation in the back of the synagogue waiting for us to do so. 

When the Hasidic master, Reb Yitzchak Yakov, the Seer of Lublin, died, his disciples divided his worldly goods. One got his books, one his kiddish cup, another his tallis. There remained one humble hasid. To him was given the Rebbe's clock. 

On his way home, the hasid stopped at an inn. When he discovered he had no money to pay the innkeeper, he offered the Rebbe's clock as payment. The innkeeper installed the clock in one of the rooms. 

A year later, another of the Rebbe's hasidim passed by and stayed at the inn. All night, he could not sleep. All night, the innkeeper heard the restless footsteps of the hasid pacing the floor. 

In the morning, the hasic confronted the innkeeper: "The clock, where did you get the clock?" The innkeeper related the story. 

"I knew it!" responded the hasid. "This clock belonged to the Seer. It is a holy clock. All other clocks in the world mark time from the past ­ they measure us from where we've come. This clock ticks toward the future. Every time I lay down to rest, the clock reminded me how much more there is to do before redemption can be realized. 

I care, because I hear the clock ticking.

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Sat, August 15 2020 25 Av 5780