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Now Is The Time - Rosh Hashanah 2016/5777

Rabbi Hoffman

"Now Is The Time"

Chaim is on his deathbed, resting as his daughter sits dutifully by his side. Chaim perks up and says, “Is that noodle kugel? I smell noodle kugel.” His daughter responds, “Yeah, Mom is making some kugel.” The curtain is just about to fall. Chaim looks like he’s on his last breaths. And he says, “Oy! Just to taste Kugel once more before I die.” And she says, “Of course, Daddy.” The daughter runs into the kitchen, comes back empty handed. She sits down. She folds her hands. He asks - barely even able to say the words - “Where's the kugel?”

And she says, “Mom says it's for after.”

Timing is everything.

In 2008, John Zogby, a noted pollster published a book, entitled, The Way We’ll Be.  His findings were somewhat prescient and certainly corroborated by an abundance of demographers, social scientists and social critics.  In 2008, presumably forecasting today, he surmised we’ll be more personalized, more global, more networked, more inclusive. We’ll search for authenticity, and accept each other not by what we own, but by who we are.

The messages there are inspiring. And listening to the conclusions, we wrinkle our noses knowing just how far from the truth some of these predictions are still today.

It is only 2016. Maybe ‘the way we’ll be’ just hasn’t happened yet.

It’s the same thinking of William Straus and Neil Howe we read of in their book called, Generations: The History of America’s Future.  Where audacity meets scholarship, these two authors were the ones to officially call today’s young adults, Millennials. Millennials refers to the generation entering adulthood at the turn of the 21st century.  

Charting social trends for hundreds of years, their conclusion is that generations follow four basic and cyclical patterns. The group that is entering adulthood today has familiar tendencies to the generation we called, Boomers, of the 1960’s. Free-thinking, inclusive, creative, networked.  Our technologies may have advanced but essentially human beings haven’t changed much at all. Just another iteration in the cycle of human community, and whole lot more debt.  

There’s a problem to this kind of thinking. First is that classifying people into neatly delineated groups give us excuses. “Oh, those millennials! They’re so indecisive and choosy.” Or, “I’m a millennial! I’m supposed to grow a beard and wear a fedora!” Being a Gen-Xer, another term that comes out of this 1990 study, I’m supposed to be envious of and frustrated by the millennials. These guys have no idea what they’re talking about!

There is a real issue here too. While we have the tools to study our behavior and predict the trends of our behavior into the future, we fall into a terrible trap.  As Jews, we’ve been struggling to avoid this trap for thousands of years.

The trap is about how we look at time. We don’t experience time in cycles alone. The idea that ‘the way we’ll be’ can be predicted, analyzed and even criticized before it actually happens is to believe that everything is the same, is to see the world as a continuous cycle. This is a trap into believing that the way things were reflects the way things are, and predicts the way things will be. Year after year, season after season, moment after moment follows a cycle. What is happening now has happened before and most certainly will happen again.

Hear the voice of Ecclesiastes here: “Everything is futility! One generation comes and another goes and things stay the same.” While we kept this book in the Bible for good reason, it’s the entire story of the Torah that challenges us to see things differently.

God creates humanity and they rebel. God destroys life on Earth, and promises never to do it again. Abraham emerges and looks into the world to see there is one source of life and power. Moses sees the suffering of his brothers and answers God’s call to redeem the Israelites. The Israelites journey from the shackles of bondage to the Promised Land, kicking and screaming along the way. Each step of the journey the Torah teaches us and the world is that things can be different. They can be better.

The biblical scholar Thomas Cahill captured this idea so well in his book, The Gifts of the Jews. Ancient near east religions and cultures worshipped the cycles of time. The ebb and flow of seasons, the turning of time in cycles was comforting. The gods would intervene, express power and will, but only to assure that obedience to the deity would be absolute.  

Instead, the Torah introduces a cyclical-linear time construct. There are holidays - Pesach, Shavuot, Rosh HaShanah. Each year flows into the others, an endless sea of time washing ashore the opportunities for gathering loved ones, learning lessons anew, and eating some delicious kreplach (that’s what we do at our home!). The prayers are the same, the people we sit near can even be the same for decades or a lifetime. The rabbis’ talks are too long.  While the cycles of time are familiar, there is a strong and abiding belief that we can change, that we can grow for the better.  It’s this profound quality of hope that things will not always be as they are, but that there is a way things ought to be that makes Judaism so vibrant and relevant even today.

To illustrate this, we look to another biblical scholar, James Kugel. He wrote about his battle with cancer in his book, In the Valley of the Shadow. He grew in awareness that the background music of his life had somehow stopped once he heard the traumatic diagnosis. Living in cycles is familiar, comfortable and safe. It’s like the background music keeps on playing until something shocks us into a reality that is neither comfortable, nor safe. The Jewish way sees these moments not simply as the consequence of existence.  SIckness and healing. Present and future. Life has a path that when the background music stops along the way, we listen carefully to melodies that have been echoing for eternity.

This is the time to listen to the melodies of eternity. These days afford us a luxury of deliberately pausing the background music of our lives. The notes play a lyrically sweet song of renewal and possibility. Listen carefully to the sounds of the world around us as the holiday begins.

We will do well to pay close attention to the forces of change in Israeli society today. The polarization of secular versus religious has created a vacuum of identity.  The rigidity of religious life is forcing so many young people to leave the protection of the religious community and entering into the world of modernity. Not quite secular and not quite religious, this generation of seekers is defining authentic living with a richly observant past. The secular community, the founders of the State, their children and grandchildren have sewed a strong nationalistic identity into the soil of the Land, with their hands, their blood and their souls. It’s amazing to watch the birth, or flourishing of the secular and spiritual Jew, neither rejecting the religious doctrine of her brothers and sisters, nor embracing an identity devoid of reaching and aspiring. These two identities meet together in places like the Tel Aviv port where hundreds gather for Shabbat prayer and celebration. It is the most authentic religious expression that neither the Beit Midrash nor the Cafe could capture alone. The way we’ll be is now being written and sung and celebrated every day in Israel.

The social unrest today in the United States hearkens back to the age of the ‘60’s. The repetition of these cycles bring us concern, frustration and dismay.  We cannot look toward a tomorrow without acknowledging that today’s political, social, and spiritual upheavals command our attention. Today our concerns for the stagnation of social evolution isn’t a frustration from American culture. This is a Jewish issue. Our mandate is to be the voice of sacred change, to remind the world again and again that tomorrow does not have to be like yesterday.

There once was a rabbi who loved nothing more than conducting High Holiday services in a swanky Las Vegas hotel. Passionate sermons were delivered, Moving prayers were recited, and the community embraced in the possibility of a year to come.  One congregant asked the rabbi why Las Vegas was such an important destination for the holiday gathering. It’s simple, the rabbi responded.  No matter what happens in here during the holiday, when the services are over everyone will pour out into the lobby and see in flashing lights everywhere, “Change! Change! Change!”   

We’ve just finished a month long inquiry into the question of the Torah, Ayekah? Where are you?  And now is the time to begin answering the question, “Hineni.”

Where are you with your relationships, your creativity, your generosity, your capacity for renewal?

Now is the time to answer the question. Get Involved. Learn, Act, Worship, Belong. The tasks are set before you.

You can change. Rosh HaShanah is the time to make a change. Now is the time when we turn inward and toward others and begin the process of change. You can be the difference.

Sun, July 5 2020 13 Tammuz 5780