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It's Time We Talk: On Being Jewish, Rosh Hashanah, 2013/5774

06/04/2015 08:12:11 AM


Rabbi FeinsteinIt’s Time We Talk: On Being Jewish, Rosh Hashanah, 2013/5774

This year, I will not be delivering sermons. Sermons come from a place of spiritual confidence and security that I just can’t find. Too much tragedy and disruption came into the lives of people I love. But the same sense of dislocation has filled me with a sense of urgency to sit with my family and have a set of important conversations. Necessary conversations. I hope you will have the same conversations with your family and those close to you. Consider this an opening, an invitation, a beginning.

When I was young, I shared a bedroom with my brother Larry. On Rosh Hashana morning, my mother, would come into our room early in the morning, and wake us up for shul. I was the good kid, I got up, dressed, and got ready. My brother Larry pulled the covers over his head. Mom would come back and try again to get him up. “I don’t want to go to shul!” he’d yell. “I don’t like it. It’s boring. Why do I have to go?” Mom would then lay out a carefully considered case for holiday observance – the whole family is going, and you need to be with us; the whole Jewish people is celebrating; these are the high holidays, it’s an important day…” Mom did a good job …but Larry wouldn’t get up. “I don’t want to be Jewish. I hate shul. Why do I have to go? Why do I have to be Jewish?” he’d scream from beneath the blankets. And then Mom would lose her patience, lower her voice and bring the heavy artillery – “My family died in the concentration camps, and you won’t go to shul?!” At this, Larry relented. “Ok, but I’m not wearing a tie.”

This went on year after year. Then came the year, he was about sixteen. The drama played itself out as always. He stayed in bed. Mom tried to persuade him to get up for shul. He refused. Mom deployed the bomb- “My family died in the concentration camps, and you won’t go to shul?!” This time, Larry whipped the covers back and a face full of rage he screamed back at her: “They died in the camps? That’s the best reason not to go!” Mom could not answer him. So he didn’t go. And not for many many years.

I’ve come to realize that despite his obnoxious attitude, there really was nothing wrong with my brother’s question. It’s actually a very important question. For most of history, being Jewish was something assigned to you even before you were born. But not any more. In modernity, being Jewish, along with every other defining identity isn’t ascribed, it’s chosen. So Larry’s questions, why go to shul? Why be Jewish? Turn out to be very important. My mother, even though she was a very committed and serious and educated Jew, my mother couldn’t answer that question. No one of that generation could answer. 

I remember going to see my family rabbi when I was home on break from Seminary one year. He was a dear and devoted man, and whenever I was home, he invited me for tea and conversation. I confronted him, with all the arrogance and rage of adolescence. “You talked about the Jewish people, the Jewish family, you talked about Israel, you told charming Shabbat stories, but you never talked about God! Why? Why didn’t you teach me about God?”

He looked at me, and his eyes filled with tears. “It was impossible,” he replied. “After the Holocaust, it was impossible to talk about God.” At the time, I was very angry with him. Now I’ve come to understand. 

We have just experienced the most traumatic century in all of Jewish history. Consider: The most devastating tragedy in all of Jewish history was the destruction of the Beit HaMikdash, the Holy Temple of Jerusalem, by Romans in the year 70. This devastation is matched or exceeded by the Holocaust. The most miraculous moment of redemption in all of Jewish history was the Exodus from Egypt. This miracle is matched or exceeded by the rebirth of the State of Israel. The Exodus and the Destruction of the Temple took place 1500 years apart. The Holocaust and the birth of Israel took place within one decade, in the experience of one generation. How does one generation absorb such gyration? How do we make sense of such cataclysm?

Emerging from the trauma, Jews stopped asking questions. Questions were too painful.  To numb the pain, the Jewish world adopted a single-minded ideology of survival. We called it “continuity.” The ideology was best articulated by the philosopher, Emil Fackenheim who taught that out of Auschwitz came a 614th commandment, the preeminent imperative of contemporary Jewish life: Don’t let Hitler win. We don’t know what to believe, or how to have faith. We cannot explain God, believe in God, or talk to God. All we know is that we are forbidden to hand Hitler a posthumous victory.

So we silenced those who challenged and questioned, and sublimated our anguish and  rage and our doubts into an explosion of collective industriousness. Count up all the Jewish institutions built in the decades since the war – all the synagogues and schools, seminaries and summer camps, all the agencies and organizations in North America, and all the infrastructure and institutions of the State of Israel. We never asked, Why? or For what ultimate purpose? Those questions hurt too much. In the face of so much Jewish death, we defined Jewish survival a self-evident value, and proceeded to build. We had no way to understand God’s presence in the world, so we determined to beGod’s presence – to be the very providence and protection we prayed for.

Toward the end of the century, however, the numbness wore off. The ideology of survival wore thin. Young Jews, just like my brother, began asking startling questions: Why? Why survive?  Why be Jewish? Why marry Jewish? Why raise children Jewish? Their parents responded by reflexively citing the horrors of the Holocaust, but the kids turned away unmoved. Anti-anti-Semitism is not a foundation for Jewish life. You can’t build a life on darkness and death.

We sent our kids to Israel to witness the miracle of the reborn Jewish state. But the kids asked, Why Israel? What is this to me? We sent them to summer camps to experience the joys and beauty of Jewish life. What’s more beautiful than Shabbat at camp? We brought the music and spirit of camp into the synagogue. And the kids appreciated it. They got it – being Jewish is joyful and sweet. Being part of a community is warm and embracing. Feeling the tug of history and heritage is ennobling. But it’s not enough. They were looking for something more; more than aesthetics, more than community or history.  They were looking for truth. Jewish truth, Jewish answers to the fundamental questions of human existence: Who am I? How do I live a life that matters?

The Passover Hagaddah imagines four children sitting with us at the Seder table. One child asks How.  “What are the rites and rules that are to be observed?” He is privileged as the Wise Child. The answers we give him don’t satisfy the second child. He asks “Why:” What does all this mean to you? That’s a much more challenging question. So he is castigated, rejected as the Wicked Child. In fact, it is this “Wicked” child who asks the important questions: Why do we do this? Why should I include myself in this story? What difference does this make to me?

Our kids are not wicked. They deserve answers. We can’t dismiss them, bribe them or seduce them. Not if we’re asking them to cultivate a personal Jewish identity, to choose a life partner who will share and enrich their Jewish life. Not if we’re asking them to devote an important part of their lives to the Jewish people, to Israel, to the Jewish community, to the Jewish tradition. They deserve answers. But to answer, we must learn a new and unfamiliar language. The old language doesn’t work any more. We have to talk to the most basic questions of life and death, about purpose and meaning, about our place in the universe. Jews have a word for that…it’s called God. We have to learn to talk about God once again.  

At the end of the Passover Seder, we invite a guest to join us, Elijah the prophet. Interesting that we invite him only at the end of the Seder. Wouldn’t you welcome a guest at the beginning of a feast? Elijah comes at the end because it takes the whole Seder to prepare us to hear his message. That message is the answer to our questions.  

Elijah’s story is set in the middle of the 9th century BCE. The people Israel, once united under King Solomon, were divided into two kingdoms. The Southern kingdom, was small and weak. The northern kingdom, prosperous and powerful, but politically unstable. At the beginning of the 9th century, a general named Omri took the throne of the Northern kingdom in a coup. He achieved a degree of domestic security, and then conquering all the neighboring kingdoms, expanded the borders and power of Israel. He secured his conquests by marrying his son, Ahab to Jezebel, daughter of the Phoenician king of Sidon. Ahab and Jezebel ascended the throne in 869 BCE, and ruled for twenty years.

While Ahab was occupied defending the borders of his empire, Jezebel set to work consolidating the religious culture of Israel around the worship of her ancestral gods. She opened a campaign to murder all the prophets of Israel’s God, and installed the worship of Baal and Asherah as the official national religion. Only one prophet survived, a lone stranger by the name of Elijah. 

Elijah realized that if he was going to bring the people Israel back to their God, he needed something spectacular.  So he challenged all the priests of Baal to a public contest. This Super Bowl of prophecy took place on Mt Carmel.  Let each side erect an altar, he proposed, bring a bull, prepare it for sacrifice, but light no fire. We’ll ask our respective gods to bring the fire. The god who complies, who sends fire from heaven….we’ll agree that one is our God.

The story is told in First Kings:

...the prophets of Baal, took the bull that was given them; prepared it, and invoked Baal by name from morning until noon, shouting, “O Baal, answer us!” But there was no response, … so they performed a dance about the altar... 27When noon came, Elijah mocked them, saying, “Shout louder! After all, he is a god. But he may be in conversation, he may be detained, or on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep….” 28So they shouted louder, and gashed themselves with knives and spears, …, until the blood streamed over them. …Still there was no response.

30Then Elijah said to all the people, “Come closer to me”; and all the people came closer to him. He repaired the damaged altar of the Lord…. laid out the wood, cut up the bull and laid it on the wood. 34He said, “Fill four jars with water and pour it over the burnt offering and the wood.” Then he said, “Do it a [again]”; and [then]… a third time,” [until the] water ran down around the altar, ….

 …Elijah came forward and said, “O Lord, God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel! Let it be known today that You are God in Israel and that I am Your servant, …. 37Answer me, O Lord, answer me, that this people may know that You, O Lord, are God; for You have turned their hearts backward.”

38Then fire from the Lord descended and consumed the burnt offering, the wood, the stones, and the earth; and it licked up the water that was in the trench. 39When they saw this, all the people flung themselves on their faces and cried out: “ Adonai hu haElohim…The Lord alone is God, The Lord alone is God!”

Elijah’s moment of triumph was short-lived. Queen Jezebel designated him as a public enemy and issued orders to find and kill him. Elijah fled for his life into the desert.

It wasn’t only Jezebel’s rage that sent him away. Elijah realized what he’d done.  He had set out to bring the people Israel back to the God of their ancestors. In the end he only proved to them that God could do better magic tricks than Baal.  He turned God into an idol.

The idol is more than an image. An idol is a projection of my ego; a projection of my desires, my fears, my needs. The idol is a power outside myself. So I stand abject before the idol. I flatter and sweet talk the idol. I bring gifts to the idol and I beg the idol to do what I need done in the world. And if the idol complies, I become its loyal servant, its slave. And if not….I’ll go find a better idol. I’ll shop my needs around until I find a god who’s interested in helping me in exchange for my devotion. Cosmic room service.

Anything can become our idol, even God. It’s how most of us do religion. We’re down here. God is up there. God, we imagine, is driving the universe. And we’re here praising, flattering, cajoling; hoping that somehow we can get God to drive us where we want to go.

It’s not entirely selfishness; ultimately, it’s about fear. When we experience how painfully fragile life is, and realize how little we really control, even the most sophisticated among us descends into that simple, primitive level of human sensibility. How could it be otherwise? We were once small children, and our parents were huge and powerful beings who protected us. Every one of us carries that subconscious childhood memory.  In moments of personal distress, every one of us yearns to be held, and protected, and sheltered in the arms of a loving parent.  

The Torah begins with the recognition that we are bigger than our fear.  If we identify our protective power as something above or outside us, we will forever remain frightened children. If we think of the universe as a hierarchy, with humans, weak and feeble below, and all powerful God or gods, above…We become slaves again. That was Pharaoh’s world. That’s what we left behind in Egypt – the servile, submissive life of the slave. Human freedom comes only with spiritual maturity, and that comes when we recognize that divine power and divine love are not outside of us. That power is within us, within our own reach. We are the channel and the vessel of that power.

Elijah is despondent. And he’s frightened. But more. He’s searching. He needs to know, if God is not the idol he conjured, then who is God? So he flees to Horeb, to Mt Sinai, where it all began, where the people Israel first met God. Again, the book of Kings: 

… The word of the Lord came to him. “…11“Come out,” He called, “and stand on the mountain before the Lord.” And the Lord passed by. There was a great and mighty wind, splitting mountains and shattering rocks by the power of the Lord; but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind—an earthquake; but the Lord was not in the earthquake. 12After the earthquake—fire; but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire—kol demamah daka13When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his mantle about his face and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. Then a voice addressed him: “Why are you here, Elijah?”

Wind and earthquake and fire, awesome, majestic, terrifying in their power, but not God. Then, kol demamah daka. Kol, means sound or voice. Demamah, means silence. Daka means delicate, fine, or perhaps, exquisite. An exquisite, delicate, silence. A precious stillness. And out of the silence, a voice.  The Bible doesn’t say whose voice. But a voice that doesn’t command, or intimidate, or terrify. A voice that asks a question, the question of all human existence: Why are you here? Why are you in the world? What is your purpose?

Elijah came to mountain seeking God. And he discovered a God seeking him. He came to question God, and discovered a God asking questions of him. Our questions of God are God’s questions of us. Why are you here? What is your purpose? The search for God begins with these questions. What kind of universe would I have to imagine in order to make sense of my existence? To lend my existence meaning, and lend my life purpose? These are not questions of a God far away in the heavens, or even up on the mountain. Not in the fire or the wind or the earthquake. These are the deepest questions of the human heart. That’s where God dwells.

Every Shabbat morning, I spend a few moments with an old friend. Rabbi Arye Yehuda Alter, the Gerrer Rebbe, was leader of a Hasidic community in Warsaw before the first world war. Through his wonderful book, Sefat Emet, we share a little of Shabbat learning together. Here is what he taught me one day: “The proclamation of oneness that we declare each day in saying, Shema Yisrael, needs to be understood as it truly is. The meaning of “Adonai is one” is not that He is the only God, negating other gods (though this too is true!), but the meaning is deeper than that: There is nothing else but God. …Everything that exists in the world, spiritual and physical, is God Himself.  …  Because of this, every person can attach himself [to God] wherever he is, through the holiness that exists within every single thing, even corporeal things.  You only have to [put aside your ego] with the spark of holiness. …A person in such a state lacks for nothing, for he can attach himself to God through whatever place he is.  This is the foundation of all the truth in the world.”

God isn’t other. God isn’t up there while we’re down here. God isn’t distant. It’s all God. And it’s all one. Beneath the surface appearance of separate and distinct objects, lies the deeper reality, it’s all one.

The Gerrer imagines the universe as one body, with God as the soul or the self of the universe. And we are cells in the body of God. Just as cells are discrete, individual units of life, each of us is both a uniquely individual expression of God’s being, necessary for the survival of the whole. But at the same time, we are organically bound to the whole, contributing to the whole and drawing sustenance from the whole. The firm and absolute boundary separating us from one another is an illusion. It’s a destructive illusion. Because it tempts us to think that we can go it alone, neglecting the needs of the whole. That’s what we call evil. Evil is to the world, what cancer is to a body – a cell that has gone its own way and has ceased to function for the benefit of the whole.

This truth is the foundation of Jewish spiritual wisdom, Jewish ethics, and Jewish religious practice. Upstairs at VBS there are two beautiful stained-glass windows. They face one another across the atrium. One says the Shema Yisrael, Adonai Echad, God is the One. The other says, V’ahavta l’reacha kmocha, usually translated: Love the other as yourself. These are two reflections of the same truth. If all is one, there is no “other.” Read the verse: Love your neighbor, who is yourself.

This is a very hard truth to live.  For as soon as we achieve a sense of echad, our oneness, the ego screams, Me! So the rabbis designed a system of cues, reminders to keep us mindful of Echad in daily life. The mezuzah on the door, for example, says Shema Yisrael, before you enter your home, listen for a moment, try to regain Elijah’s silence, and remember, Adonai Ehad, you are one, with your family who lives in your home, with the community that shares the neighborhood, with humanity that fills this very small planet. They are part of you. And so it is with everything else we do as Jews, every mitzvah and ritual and rite…it is all about quelling the noise of the world and the shouting of the ego, to regain Elijah’s silence, to know oneness.

“Why are you here?” You are the eyes and ears and hands of God in the world. You channel God’s power -- to bring healing where there is pain, hope where there is despair, light where there is darkness, peace where there is conflict.  You have been entrusted with an ancient truth. And at this moment in human history, when terrifying instruments of death are unleashed against innocent children with impunity, when environmental catastrophe looms close to home, when millions and millions suffer poverty, hunger and want, and so many among the affluent languish without a sense of purpose, the truth of our oneness in whatever language it is expressed must find its way into the consciousness of humanity. It is the only truth that can save us. That’s why the tradition imagined Elijah as the one who will announce the Messiah’s coming, and the arrival of peace and wholeness in the world.

So, why be Jewish? Because, as Elijah’s descendant, you possess the tools of the world’s redemption. Why be Jewish? Because the world desperately, desperately needs you.

Now more than ever.

Sat, August 15 2020 25 Av 5780