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Finding Each Other

04/06/2015 08:21:00 AM


Finding Each Other
Rosh Hashana 2001 by Rabbi Edward Feinstein

Tevye: Golde, Do you love me?

Golde: Do I what?

T: Do you love me?

G: Do I love you? 
With our daughters getting married,
And this trouble in the town,
You're upset, you're worn out, 
Go inside, go lie down.
Maybe it's indigestion.

T: Goldie, I'm asking you a question Do you love me?

G: You're a fool!

T: I know But do you love me?

G: Do I love you?
For twenty-five years I've washed your clothes,
Cooked your meals, cleaned your house,
Given you children, milked the cow,
After twenty-five years, why talk about love right now?

She doesn't understand. She doesn't grasp the meaning of his question. She lives in the world of tradition; a world in which the self is embedded in community and shaped by tradition. You remember: Tradition. We have traditions for everything, how to eat, how to sleep, how to wear clothes. And even the most personal of decisions, are given by tradition to an authority wiser than we are to mama and pappa, to the matchmaker, to the elders, to the rabbi, to the Torah, to God. We marry, not for love, but to fulfill the duties placed on us by tradition. And because of that tradition, each one of us know who he is and what God expects him to do. It's how we keep our balance on this unsteady rooftop called life. She doesn't understand the question.

T: Do love me?

G: I'm your wife!

T: I know But do you love me?

G: Do I love him?
For twenty-five years I've lived with him,
Fought with him, starved with him. 
Twenty-five years my bed is his,
If that's not love what is?

Tevye knows what he's asking. He knows that something has changed. Something new has blown into their lives and has changed everything. That something is called Modernity. And though it may have been authored by Spinoza and Jean Jacques Rousseau, by the French Revolution and the Industrial Revolution, it was carried into the lives of Tevye and Golde by their oldest daughter, Tzeitel. Tzeitel, you remember, received the good news that her marriage had been arranged with the butcher, Laizer Wolf. Tzeitel doesn't want to marry Laizer Wolf. She wants to marry her childhood friend, the tailor Mottel Kemzoil. Why would you marry a skinny, poor starving tailor when you can marry the wealthy, powerful, prestigious Laizer Wolf? Because, Papa, I love him. I love him. To which Tevye quotes the great rabbi, Tina Turner, "What's love got to do with it?" 

Love, that kind of love, is exactly what modernity is all about. Romantic love is the triumph of the self unencumbered, the independent self, the emotional self, the psychological self over the communal self, over the traditional self, over the self that is wrapped in God's commandments and tradition's demands. In modernity, ony the self is sovereign. There is no authority higher than the self. And so we teach our children to think for themselves. To stand up for themselves. To be independent, to be your own person. 

The Sovereign, independent, unencumbered Self is an American cultural icons. We worship those who strike out on their own, cutting ties that bind them, to make their way down the road less traveled. They make their own rules. The explorer, the pioneer, the frontiersman, the entrapreneur. 

Henry James once said, in a wonderfully pregnant phrase, that America is a hotel culture. A hotel is a place we sleep and a place we eat but we don't live there. We don't set down roots there. It's not ours. In a hotel we never fully unpack. In a hotel we can leave a mess, and someone comes in the middle of the day (someone you don't know) and by the time you get back it's all nice and neat and pristine. -- all sanitized, antiseptic and clean. In a hotel, we don't care who lives next door or across the hall. Their affairs are none of our business. We'll just check out and move on tomorrow. 

Americans have a romance with the road. We are a mobile people. The most powerful myth of American culture is the myth of the frontier. We're on the road. Ralph Waldo Emerson said, "Everything that's good, happens on the highway." Walt Whitman sang the Song of the Open Road. Jack Kerouac wrote "On the Road" and Bruce Springsteen declares he's "born to run." 

In the old world, people live their entire lives in a very small circle. They were born, grew up, married, raised children, aged and died, never venturing more than a hundred miles from home. This was true both geographically and personally. Success was defined in carrying on a tradition in living out the same life your parents lived. So whatever your father was, that would be your life as well. If you father was a tailor, you'd likely become a tailor. If your father was a butcher, you'd be a butcher. Unless, of course, you were a woman, and then you were destined to be a wife and homemaker, no matter what your talents and interests. 

The Sovereign Self of modernity, on the other hand, revels in the freedom to make choices. Your father is a tailor, you become a doctor. Your father is a butcher, you become a lawyer. Your father is a lawyer, you become an artist. This world of free choices is open to women as well as men. It extends to every aspect of human life. Some of you are old enough to remember a famous ad for Clairol hair color. If I have only one life, let me live it as a blonde. This philosophy extends well beyond hair color. It includes your politics, your tastes, your personal values, your relationships, your spirituality, your sexuality, even physical appearance. In my morning paper, next to ads for department stores and new movies, are the ads for plastic surgeons. We live in a culture so committed to choice, you're not even compelled to live with the body your were born with. 

This freedom is a gift. But it comes at a cost. The more we make the Sovereign, choosing self, the locus of all value, the harder it is connect with one another.the lonelier we become. The Sovereign self is wary of deep connection. Community, friendship, family comes with demands, with expectations. It ask sacrifices of us. It imposes strictures on our choices. It casts guilt on those who violate its rules. Why haven't you called your mother this week? Why haven't you been in shul all year? What kind of friend are you, you don't call me when I'm sick? We run the other way. 

Stanford University sociologist Robert Putnam discovered a curious anomaly some years ago. There are more Americans bowling than ever before. But many fewer bowling in organized leagues. More and more of us bowl alone, Putnam concluded. Then he expanded his research and discovered that Americans have backed away from many of their associations: membership in PTA has decline dramatically, as has affiliation with civic clubs, lodges, community political organizations, neighborhood groups, churches and synagogues, municipal leagues, ethnic associations. All have dropped precipitously over the past 25 years. The fabric of community has grown thin and frayed as we have lost, what he calls our "social capital" that set of associations and social connections that bind us into a coherent community. 

This sovereign self, the self that accedes to no demands but its own, is destined to corrode and destroy every social connection: marriage, family, friendship, faith, community, because all social connections come with demands. Sovereignty atomizes the society. It turns every relationship into a one-night stand. 

T: Then you love me?

G: I suppose I do.

T: And I suppose I love you too.

T & G: It doesn't change a thing but even so,
After twenty-five years, it's nice to know.

We are Tevye and Goldie's great-grandchildren, but we are also Tzeitel's grandchildren. We deeply cherish our sovereignty. We defend our freedom to make choices. But we have an intuition that with all our freedom, we're missing something: Life without connection, without community, without a calling is hollow and empty and meaningless. You can read this in the culture:

There was a remarkable commercial on TV some time ago. This middle-aged, easy talking, regular guy is telling us how wonderful it is to be on AOL. He looks right at us and says, "All of us in AOL, we're sort of like a kinship". Kinship is a powerful world. He's saying: I know you're looking for kinship. I know you're looking for a connection. I know you're looking for a community. And you know where you're gonna find it? On AOL! 

Where do we find community today? Oprah. Oprah is amazing. This lady has no talent except one -- she's a community builder. And in a world where everyone's out working, taking care of children, running around busy as anything at 3:00 in the afternoon there's one person in the whole world I know who will always be there for me, who will listen to my needs, my problem, one person who really cares. Oprah. She's always there! And she's so good. She invites you in. Have a cup of coffee, sit, we're going to talk to somebody interesting today. We have a book group on the air. We'll talk about the troubles with our marriage, with our kids. We'll share our search for spirituality. We'll fawn over a movie star. We'll have a schmooze. The women in the neighborbood used to get together for a coffee klatch in the afternoon. But now everyone's at work or doing yoga. So if I want to connect, if I want to have coffee with someone at 3:00 in the afternoon, I switch on Oprah.

But Oprah's not real. AOL, the virtual community, the chat roomit's not real. It's a psuedo-communty. In the end, it will prove futile and will leave us even more lonely. Because these aren't real, people, they are created characters. Because they don't really know us as real people. They only know us as an audience. Because they don't offer the sincere, unconditional love that comes with deep friendship. And in the end, their real motivation is not to satisfy our needs for connection, but to sell us something. The promise of connection is only the bait. Their real purpose is to sell the more products. And the more desperate we are for connection, the more stuff we'll buy just to keep in touch. Case in point: Starbuck's coffee. Starbucks coffee is an amazing phenomenon. Who would have predicted ten or fifteen years ago that Americans would spend three and a half bucks for a cup of coffee? But that's not really what Starbucks sells. Howard Schultz, the founder of Starbucks was on vacation in Italy. It occurred to him that there are 225,000 coffee bars in Italy. People don't need them for coffee. Starbucks doesn't just sell coffee; Starbucks sells the promise of connection, of community. It's a place to sit and schmooze share conversation, the music of shared human existence. So I'll spend $4.10 to sip my Frapachino and listen to a couple of lovers having a fight, or watch two Russian guys play chess, or wait for someone I might know to sit with me and chat.

On Tuesday morning our lives changed. We were wounded. We are still shaken. And it will take many weeks and months to discover just how much has changed. But the immediate response this week was remarkable: We have discovered one another. In January, 1994, when the Valley shook and the walls separating our homes all fell down, we re-discovered the power of neighborhood. This week, we rediscovered the power of nationhood. 

This has been a moment of revelation:

We have a discovered our new national mission. Beyond extending our prosperity, we are called to a higher purpose. There is something precious we are called to defend. And while we will surely debate the means, the ends we pursue are beyond moral equivocation. 

We have discovered a new seriousness in our national politics. Last Monday, we were still discussing whether Gary Conditt's interview with Connie Chung necessitated his resignation. We were concerned with the integrity of the Social Security lock-box. Today, we discuss issues of profound import can a democracy with a tradition of civil liberties, defend itself against terrorism? How many liberties will security cost us? 

We have discovered a new international perspective. Last Monday, most Americans didn't know who the Taliban were. Islamic fundamentalism and its attendant terrorism belonged to another world. Following suicide bombings in Israel, our government cautioned Israel to respond with restraint. And that sounded right to most Americans. 

We have discovered new heroes. No more whiney millionaire athletes or movie stars with carefully managed media images, but plain working people who aren't interested in being famous, who don't care if we know their names. There was an interview with an iron worker. A burly, inarticulate working guy who knows this is his hour, for this he's spent a lifetime learning to use a welding tool like a surgeon wields a scalpel. "I put this building up, I know how to take it apart. If there's anyone alive I there, I'll find `em." 80,000 tons of steel, dismantled and carried off by hand. Bloodied, bruised, heroic hands. 

We have discovered new symbols. We can once again sing, God Bless America, and mean it. Without a shred of cynicism. Many of us didn't own a flag until this week. Rudy Gulianni, the Fiorello LaGuardia of our time. No longer a politician, with a bagful of political and personal indiscretions, he's a symbol now of New York's toughness and strength, of America's character and resilience. 

Most of all, we've discovered each other. The candles, the flags, the conversations on line in the supermarket. As a nation, we've shared a traumatic experience. Something bonds us now. Friday night, 2000 people came to shul. We needed to touch and be touched. We needed ancient words, words of inspiration and courage and faith. We needed to rehearse the stories, the stories that give all this some enduring, eternal meaning. We needed to share our hurt, our fear, our apprehension. We needed one another. 

Like you, I am horrified and shaken and frightened by what these terrorists have done to us. But I am proud of America's response. And I'm grateful that, at least once in their lives, my children will feel this deep bond with America. 

There were alternatives. There many ways we could have responded to this crisis. We could have turned inward, away from one another in fear and suspicion. We could have scapegoated one group. The outpouring of patriotism, this new sense of nationhood, bespeaks, to me, a deeply felt need for connection, for community that's been with us for a long time. The trauma has simply uncovered our hunger for a shared collective narrative that brings life into perspective. 

I realize that it's temporary. Before long, things will most probably be back as they were. That's the nature of a crisis. Soon after the earthquake, we forgot our new-found neighbors and neighborhoods. Today, we support the President's call to arms. It's stirring, it's energizing. It transforms pain into rage, suffering into action. Let's see what happens as time goes by. Let's see what happens when something real is asked of us. Real war demands real sacrifice. 

Nevertheless, for a brief moment, we have tasted a different kind of life. We experienced a different kind of self. We've tasted the sweetness of community. We've experienced a self -- defined not by its Sovereignty -- but by attachment and belonging. 

Can this be sustained? Is there room in the life of the Sovereign self for a sustained experience of community? 

If anyone can do this, it's us. We are the heirs to the oldest tradition of community living in the history of human culture. Louis Thomas, the Harvard biologist once quipped that in nature, there is no such thing as "an ant." In nature, ants come in colonies, in cities. Similarly, there's really no such thing as "a Jew"isolated, insulated and alone. True, we all take moments of solitude. And that's an important part of anyone's spiritual life. But the moments that matter in Jewish life always demand community. You can hide yourself as a hermit high on a hilltop.until you need to say kaddish.

Every page of our tradition, every tennet of our faith and culture testifies to the truth articulated in the third chapter of Genesis, Lo tov heyot adam levado, human beings cannot subsist alone. In the mind of Judaism, the self is nurtured in relationship, in connection with others. In the mind of Judaism, the demands, the duties and expectations laid upon the self are not interpreted as limiting our personal freedom. They are mitzvot, they are imperatives that lift us up to a higher state of spirituality, they are the source of our dignity, the foundations of meaning. What is it that ultimately tells me that I matter, that I exist? That people need me. That is my existential dignity. 

But the truth is that this is hard to find in Jewish life. Community is hard to find within the walls of the synagogue. That's because we've assimilated one of the worst parts of American culture:

When the Sovereign self comes to shul, he comes wearing a mask. That mask is called, "the Consumer." The Consumer interprets all relationships as commercial transactions. That way they can be controlled. "Limited Liability Partnership." He can regulate what might be demanded of him. "I pay you dues, you take care of my Judaism. You educate my kids. You `Bar Mitzvah' them. You maintain the synagogue, conduct services and the like, so that when I need you, you'll be there for me. Until then, I won't bother you, please don't bother me." 

He's a member of the synagogue. He's also a member of AAA, Blockbuster Video, Kaiser Permanente, and Balley's Fitness Center. And he has same arrangement with them all. Emergency Roadside Judaism. 

Worse, is that the synagogue responds to him in corresponding terms. When he joined, he was handed an application and a bill. There was very little that's personal or spiritual about the process. He signed a contract, he paid and he belongs. It's a simple fee for service relationship. (No pun intended.) And it's efficient and professional. But it's not Jewish. It's not community. It's just another expression of the loneliness and emptiness at the heart of American culture. 

We can do better. Thirty years ago, Rabbi Schulweis challenged us to break down the anonymity of the synagogue and to form havurot. This has become the signature of this congregation and a model for congregations all over America. 

Let it begin here: We are not consumers. We are not consumers. The synagogue is not Blockbuster. We are a community that learns Torah, our sacred story, together. We are a community that shares prayer, ancient meditation, together. We are a community that celebrates life and meets death together. We are a community that reaches out together to heal the world. We are a community that together welcomes everyone who seeks wisdom and warmth. As a community we seek to bring the presence of God into all the corners of life. 

In the Torah, ancient Israelites were commanded to make pilgrimage to the holy Temple in Jerusalem. There, they would recollect and recite the sacred story of their ancestors' journeys. They would reconnect with relations from all over the world. They would reaffirm the covenant of peoplehood and faith. Va'yay'ra-eh leefnay adonai, They would stand in the Presence of God. These Israelites never came to Jerusalem empty-handed. They brought their best: The best of their flocks and herds, the best of their fields and vineyards, the best works of their hands, to share as an offering before God. 

Bring the best of you your search for meaning, your journey, your struggle, your time, your gifts, your head, your heart, your hands and this can become a covenanted community. If you don't know how to pray, how to study sacred texts, how to mend the world, we'll teach you. No one is excluded. But neither is anyone excused. Everyone has something of which they can fashion an offering. That's what a sacred community demands. Here, you will find caring, wisdom, connection and purpose; the way to a life that is significant, a life that is important, a life of blessings. That's the great promise of Jewish life, lived fully in community.

The Rebbe asked his students, how do we know when the night is over and the day has arrived? And the students interpreted this as a serious matter of halacha, of ritual practice. After all, there are prayer that must be said, important rites that must be performed at the appropriate time. So the students pondered the Rebbe's question. 
Until one student answered: Rebbe, night is over and day arrives, when you can see a house in the distance and determine if that's your house or the house of your neighbor. Another student responded: Night is over and day arrives when you can see an animal in the field and determine if it belongs to you or to your neighbor. Yet another student offered: Night is over and day has arrived when you can a flower in the garden and distinguish its color. 

No, no, no thundered the Rebbe. Why must you see only in separations, only in distinctions, in disjunctions. No. Night is over and day arrives when you look into the face of the person beside you and you can see that he is your brother, she is your sister. That you belong to each other. That you are one. Then, and only then, will you know that night has ended and day has arrive.

We pray this Yom Tov, that the night is near its end. And the day is soon to come. Amen.

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Sat, August 15 2020 25 Av 5780