Rabbi Robert L. Tobin
B’nai Shalom, West Orange NJ
EREV ROSH HASHANAH (SUN SEPT 29)
Erev Rosh Hashanah: "Living When Kaddish is Over"
ROSH HASHANAH 1 (MON SEPT 30)
"Beyond Existential Threats: Thriving in Culture and Learning"
Shanah tovah. Today we are being told that there are 2 great existential threats to us as a community, and to Jews in America. They are White Supremacy, and Assimilation. The enemies, according to this view, are hate, and love, both being equally deadly. This view of the world, that we are under immediate, constant and deadly threat as a whole has become increasingly common of late. What is deadly about the exaggeration is that it distracts us from what is most important in the hear and now, in favor of the worst case scenario. And our focus must be on how we live, without making all of our choices from fear of death. We must recognize the unique strengths of American Judaism and embrace them. American Judaism is a precious culture within world Jewry, and we have bright days in front of us.
For the word-smiths among us, the grammatical construction is strange because it means ‘a threat to existence’, rather than ‘an existing threat’. Think of parallels: Islamist threat does not mean ‘threat to Islamists’. Intentional threat is not ‘threat to intention’. What is a threat to existence? What is existence?
Although the word existence was known in the 14th century, most people wrote about philosophy in Latin at that time and used the word existentia. The verb exist waited another couple of centuries to appear, not being known before Shakespeare used it in the mouth of King Lear, who swore to disown poor Cordelia ‘by all the operation of the orbs/ From whom we do exist and cease to be’. It’s the threat of ceasing to be that worries people now. (Dot Wordsworth, The Spectator, Jan 2015).
In the duck-and-cover fear of nuclear destruction in the 1950’s, mankind faced the possibility of complete annihilation for the first time. And this fear, in part, fueled the upheaval of the civil rights movement and beyond. The fact that the abandonment of most nuclear agreements between Russia and the United States has gone virtually unnoticed in the past two years is stunning considering how passionate the topic was for so long, and how dire the potential downside is. We have moved on to newer and shinier existential threats, and the old ones just seem so passe.
According to Columbia Professor Jon McWhorter, writing in the Atlantic this past June, existential threats are all the rage. It has become a set term in reference to climate change, as used by Governor Jay Inslee and by Senator Elizabeth Warren, both on Twitter and in speeches, while Mayor Pete Buttigieg has used the variation existential security challenge. Former Vice President Joe Biden refers to President Donald Trump as an existential threat to the nation, and Senator Cory Booker widens the lens, applying the term to the opiate crisis, suicide rates, and even our general lack of civic unity. It isn’t only people left of center who are newly fond of the term: According to a National Rifle Association spokesman, Senator Kamala Harris is an “existential threat” to the Second Amendment.
Crucially, though, existential threat was not regularly used in American public speeches in the late 20th century, despite how widely discussed existentialism itself was among the educated. In his speech on the Bay of Pigs, President John F. Kennedy referred to what we recognize as an existential threat, but did not call it one. Ronald Reagan referred to the Soviet Union as a threat, but not an “existential” one.
The “existential” add-on has jumped in this century specifically, first embraced in reference to terrorism after 9/11, and then again after the election of you-know-who in 2016. Google yielded about a million hits for existential threat in 2015, and 1,700,000 the year afterward, and 2,300,000 in 2017.
It seems that anyone who is anyone who knows anything about everything must be in fear of imminent mass extinction if they are to be taken seriously. It is the manipulation of fear, because fear is powerful.
As Jews in America, we do face two serious threats that most of Amerca does not: the violent anti-Semitism of White Supremacy and the siren’s call of American Religious Freedom. Hatred and Assimilation are put before us as trying to do what Hitler could not. They are indeed threats. But they are not existential threats. They will not kill us off. There is a recipe for life.
Two years ago I gave a sermon on the High Holy Days on the rise of White Supremacism in America. It was in the wake of Charlottesville, and American Neo-Nazis had begun a movement to Unite the Right, chanting antiSemitic slogans, and preaching a form of nationalism that insists America to be the provience of only the white protestant male. And since last Rosh Hashanah they struck the Conservative Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, and Chabad of Poway California, killing 12 and wounding more. They are literally killing us. But not just us. White supremacism now has a body count that keeps growing, and its influence is both national and international. Killings at a food festival in California, or a Walmart in El Paso.
Bias and intimidation crimes have escalated nationwide by leaps and bounds. Jews continue to be the most common religious target. Blacks have always been the favorite target of White Supremacists in this country, but with 12 percent of America black and 16 percent of America Hispanic, the anti-Hispanic hatred has risen precipitously. Yes, they hate us, and blacks and hispanics and gays and lesbians and more. And they are emboldened and audacious.
The DHS and FBI are slowly coming to realize that Hate and Bias crimes do not fully describe white supremacism. It is terror, pure and simple because it is violence or threat of violence for political purpose. They want a government that empowers them to disempower us and the others and they advocate the use of violence to achieve it. 39 of the last 50 Domestic Terror attacks in the United States were perpetrated by White Supremacists.
But is it an existential threat? As horrific as it sounds, No. That is an exaggeration of a very real threat. A deadly threat. But America will survive it. And as Jews we will survive it. We survived Babylonia, Rome, the Crusades, Hitler and will continue as the miracle people that we have always been.
Given how hateful and menacing they are - we can and will do what is needed to stop them. Our community and law enforcement combine to establish strong preventive measures to mitigate the effect of their violence. The Jewish community is documenting, tracking, educating, training, preparing, decrying and defending. We are the voice of history, witnesses to hate. I believe that the forces in play in America today to oppose white nationalism and right wing extremism will be sufficient to carry the day. That battle is winnable and we are fighting it well. It is a threat, and an expensive one. But not an existential one unless racial divisions become the defining identity of what it means to be an American. The answer to that threat is culture and learning. We embrace the culture of American pluralism, and we learn and teach the lessons of history.
We are often told that the real threat to Judaism in this country is Assimilation. And again an exaggeration has driven tremendous passion in our community. This threat says that social and cultural mixing in American society is the watering down of Judaism and eventually the destruction of our people. It predicts that intermarriage and assimilation will eliminate the self-identified Jew. It points to the failure of the synagogue to engage the next generation as proof of our eventual doom. Yes, but no.
As a historian of American Judaism, the chicken little view of the sky falling on is does not match the facts of our history. This view stems from a particular definition of Judaism as a closed endogamous circle defined by ritual observance. That circle is one that I live within, love and teach. I dedicate my life’s work to it, and hope that my family and community embrace it. It is the world of daily prayer, kashrut, shabbat, and Torah learning. But the truth is, when I get outside of my own definitions, that Judaism is much bigger than that. The truth is that American Jewish history does not support the idea that assimilation will kill us off. It simply doesn’t.
Today is more like 1850 for us than any other time in history. America is relatively affluent, and economic opportunities abound. Jewish immigration has slowed to a trickle, and we are widely accepted in society. We are educated, professional and centered primarily in the cities. And, like in 1850, all of this mixing has resulted in intermarriages and growth of what you would identify as Reform trends against traditional forms of worship. The society around us is divided, both politically and racially, and Jews exist on all sides of the political spectrum. All of this we’ve seen before. And while it changed our mode of communal organization, creating in the face of massive Eastern-European Jewish immigration things like the Conservative Movement, the Orthodox movement, social welfare organizations, Jewish Hospitals, labor zionist movements and more, it did not kill us off. Our core remained strong, reinterpreting our Judaism by American norms, some to the left and some to the right.
What is at risk is what we have been, not what we will become. To posit American Judaism as doomed is to deny the reality of Judaism in America for the last 300 years. And this view that we are doomed is the actual threat. The insistence that we must be what we were or we are nothing, is hubris at its height. In fear it makes us close our doors to the generation that is intermarrying at a national rate of 80%. You may be afraid of losing grandchildren to American assimilation, but how is shunning 80% of our children going to solve that situation? How can we thrive as a synagogue if all we do is focus on that beautiful, wonderful core of religious commitments that I love so much? There has to be more than this, and there is.
Israeli politicians have already discovered the power of fear mongering against American Judaism on this topic. We have been told, from this very stage actually, that Israel doesn’t have to care about “liberal American Judaism” because we won’t exist in another generation. Ridiculous. 40 percent of the Jews in the world live in America, and 45% in Israel. And 90% of our 40% are subject to that prophecy of doom. Do we really believe that 30% of the worlds Jews will simply disappear in a generation in this country? No that is politics from a particular view of Judaism that is fully in play in the coalition games that have now trapped Israel in an electoral cycle of frustration.
It is the far right of Israeli religious politics that is most invested in this idea that American Judaism will die out. Because they want it to. Israel today has abandoned any significant effort to defend the rights of non-Orthodox Judaism, because we haven’t made aliyah, probably won’t make aliyah, and don’t vote there. It’s not that we don’t know enough, observe enough. It’s that we don’t matter to Israeli elections. Russian Jews, after 70 years of enforced assimilation under the Soviets were embraced as Jews despite intermarriage, unobservance and gross ignorance of Jewish practices because they were going to make up a large voting bloc one day. American liberal Jews, observant in Reform and Conservative modes, are dismissed. From the Western Wall compromise, of the Ne’eman commission to provide for communal conversion, or the wedding laws in the last knesset that threaten rabbis like me with Jail should we dare to marry couples that the local Orthodox rabbinate does not validate, the American liberal forms of Judaism, fully 1/3rd of the Jews in the world, are dismissed. But they can’t say that politically. So they embrace the idea that we won’t survive, and therefore should not waste their time on us. And they learned to do it from us and all our shreing about the threat of assimilation.
America is a land of Jewish opportunity. We have always adapted to the new playing field. You are listening to a sermon in English, through a microphone, sitting as men and women together and probably driving home when we’re done. Are you dying? But there are fewer this year than last, and that trend goes back a long time. Are we dying? We are making ourselves less relevant every year that we stay the same. We are risking eternal anachronism.
What is dynamic about Judaism is America, which matches Conservative Jewish beliefs perfectly, is the idea that change does not mean loss. We grow our traditions, flex the halakhah appropriately, and meet the new with relish. At our core is and must be Jewish literacy, Jewish living, Jewish homes, Jewish children and Jewish grandchildren. But in the past, the attraction to the synagogue was as a center of Jewish life and learning within a particular strand or movement. That doesn’t work for the centrist any more, because identity is more extreme these days, and our view is moderate.
So the question is not how do we not drown in the face of wave after wave of social change in American Judaism, the question is how do we learn to surf? How do we stay on top of it, agile and flexible? The answer is not circling the wagons, stiff-arming the Other, digging deep down inside to create closed systems that lives behind closed doors. The answer is to find those things that Jews in America need, enjoy and find relevant in both building a unique identity and remaining fully involved in society.
The answer is culture and learning, within a religious community. The embrace of American Judaism as a tapestry of culture, and the depth of Jewish meaning as accessible through learning is the key. It is far overdue within the religious mode of synagogue life, while it also can not be done at the expense of synagogue life. It is the synagogue community, our core, which keeps Judaism alive and that is who we are. But our membership list is a narrow slice of who might be interested in what Judaism is.
We can bring a concert, Orthodox but the Orthodox won’t sponsor
We can bring an artist, shocking and challenging is her presentation of Torah
We can bring a rabbi, radical in her critique.
We can bring a political writer, pushing the envelope of Jewish Politics
We can show a film, demanding a frank confrontation with race
We can form a relationship with other peoples of faith, learning and growing with them.
We can travel to Newark or to Israel finding our roots and busting our own convenient myths of what our history really looked like.
We can welcome our friends and neighbors, whose Judaism is different from ours, into our halls, classrooms, artistic and literary experiences in non-dogmatic, non-denominational ways and times so that we become again more of what we meant to be when they first put the name “The Jewish Center of West Orange” on the building.
We can promote a broad and exciting Center for Culture and Learning, and all of our programs can grow as a results. Sisterhood, plus. Men’s club plus. Hazak plus.
And the heartbeat underneath is our own community’s commitment to each other in daily minyan, shiva minyan, wedding, birth, bar and bat mitzvah. The sacred calendar of time, holiday and renewal. The return to our roots while casting inviting shade for all to come and enjoy.
The answer to hatred is life. The answer to assimilation is life. The affirmation of American Judaism is that we, like the Yemenites, the Iraqis, the Persians, the Spanish, the Portugues, the Italians... we too are a culture of Judaism, no less valid and no less real, no matter what politicos in Israel may wish to say about us. Like in 1850, we American Jews have a long and a strong future in front of us, even in a time of strife and division.
So join us in the year ahead. Strengthen your own understanding and embrace of the many things that Judaism can be. Invite the stranger who will be a part of your family in an embrace of culture and learning, while committing to your religious forms always. Be the bedrock, but welcome the blowing wind.
Is Judaism in America facing an existential threat from hatred on the one hadn and love on the other? Absolutely not. Is the threat real if left to itself? Absolutely yes. Hatred is to be destroyed, and love is to be embraced and built upon.
While the diagnosis may be correct, I believe that the prognosis is wrong. Today in America we are facing historic forces that we Jews in America have seen before, and there is a recipe for success. Culture and Learning is what unites us with all of American Judaism, while core commitments to our religious community give us purpose and meaning in our dearest moments. We can have both, we can be both and we will thrive in the face of challenges as a result.
ROSH HASHANAH 2 (TUE OCT 1)
"Picking Favorites: Loving One More than Another"
Do you pick favorites? Most parents will deny that they pick favorites among their children. Most children insist that their parents do it anyways. Who is right and who is wrong?
How brand loyal are you in the store? Do you ever reach past a coke for a pepsi, or past a pepsi for a coke? Why? For the flavor and pleasure it gives you? From habit? What if the company is unethical? Will you choose to abandon it, even if you love it?
Yesterday, in our Torah reading we heard of Sarah’s dreams to have a child. This was a dream that she carried even into old age, as the Torah accentuates the miracle of birth by God remembering her at the age of 90. In the meantime, she has given her servant, Hagar, to her husband so that the household could have an heir. The child of that union is Ishmael, and when Sarah becomes pregnant with his half-brother Isaac the stage is set for conflict. Isaac is born, and celebrated with a great feast. וַתֵּ֨רֶא שָׂרָ֜ה אֶת־בֶּן־הָגָ֧ר הַמִּצְרִ֛ית אֲשֶׁר־יָֽלְדָ֥ה לְאַבְרָהָ֖ם מְצַחֵֽק . Traditionally, we understand this to mean that Hagar begins to mistreat Sarah, taunting her and lording over her that Hagar and not Sarah is the mother of the firstborn and the more important of the two. Taunting that she is Avraham’s favorite. Sarah demands that Abraham cast them out, and Avraham is forced to choose. וַיֵּ֧רַע הַדָּבָ֛ר מְאֹ֖ד בְּעֵינֵ֣י אַבְרָהָ֑ם עַ֖ל אוֹדֹ֥ת בְּנֽוֹ: Bad news for Hagar, he seems not to be very concerned with her. He is tormented regarding Ishmael, עַ֖ל אוֹדֹ֥ת בְּנֽוֹ because he is yet his son. How can he choose between his two children? God promises that Ishmael too will be a great nation, and though it seems to human eyes a cruelty, they are cast out.
The Torah clearly impugns Hagar in this episode. The rabbinic tradition also adds faults to Ishmael. The Torah says that Ishmael grows to be a skilled archer, and in this our tradition understands him to be violent and a shedder of blood. The choice between Isaac and Ishmael is less between Sarah and Hagar’s competition for status in Avraham’s house, and more about the character of the two boys. One is a man of war, and the other a man of the Torah. Violence versus faith. For Sarah and Avraham, now alone as a couple with their child, all their eggs are in one basket. It would seem that the time for choices is past.
Today, in our Torah reading we see God tell Avraham to take Isaac, his son, his only one, his beloved one, to the place He will show him and there to offer him on an altar as a sacrifice. Shockingly, Avraham must again choose. This time it is not between two women, or two boys, but between his son and God. Does he have a favorite? The hidden irony is that it is in turn a violent test of faith that Avraham must pass. Avraham must bind the boy, and raise the knife before God declares “stop. Now that I know that you have withheld nothing from Me, I will bless you.” Avraham has chosen God. God has chosen Avraham.
The stories are about impossible choices. Do we choose from love, or do we choose from evaluation? Do we pick favorites based on our own needs, or based on some inherent superiority in the person or thing?
Are you brand loyal? Can a Yankee fan root for the Mets? After all, they are in different leagues and rarely play each other. If a Yankee fan says yes, it is because “I love New York,” but it’s hard to push that very far. Can a Knicks fan root for the Nets? Islanders for the Rangers or the Devils? Jets for the Giants? We’re all New York, but somehow the sports fan knows that she must choose. One over the other is “my team.” I was severely criticized this week by a fellow Yankee fan when I said that I would root for the Boston Red Sox in a World Series over any National League team, except my favorite (The Brewers). How can a Yankee fan root for the Red Sox?! Like the New York question, I argue that I like the American League more than the National League. It was unthinkable and unacceptable. Choices made from love are hard to challenge. On the other hand, would a Red Sox fan even want my support? Will a Red Sox fan root for the Yankees this weekend, or wish us nothing but hardship born of years of resentment and conflict?
The Torah knows that we are picking favorites all the time. In one sense, picking favorites is what defines us. We pick styles of clothing, neighborhoods, careers, friends, spouses and more. Everything that defines us, ideally, is the result of some choice - or so goes the American dream in times of peace and prosperity. And the consistency of our choices is what makes us predictable or dependable to others.
But some choices are meant to be forever, and other choices we say should never be. We hope to choose our spouse for life. We are told we can’t pick favorites among our children. The Torah repeatedly challenges this idea of choice.
When Isaac in turn grows up, he and Rebecca have two sons as well, and like Ishmael and Isaac - Esau and Jacob are different. Esau is a hunter of the field, and Jacob dwells in tents - a metaphor for Torah learning and peaceful demeanor. Only one can carry the family name, and the choice must be made. Isaac is literally blind to the difference between them, only seeing how Esau brings him meat from the hunt. Isaac would pick Esau has his favorite, to give him his blessings and to raise him up to the mantle of leader in the family. Isaac’s choice is based not on the character of the child, nor even his love for him, but in the selfishness of personal enjoyment. He gives me what I like. This kind of picking favorites is doomed to create conflicts, and Rebecca, Jacob and Esau are soon into competition, trickery and conflict to raise Jacob up. The anger and the broken family take a generation to heal.
Can you pick a favorite child? Do you love one more than the other? In my family, the firstborn status seems to be important. I say this as the baby of the family. My grandfather named his eldest as the executor of his will, as did my mother for my sister. I never understood my aunt’s jealousy over not being an executor. In my family I always new that my sister had those roles, and it didn’t concern me. I think it is because of how and why those choices were made. I never felt that I was passed over for anything, or that my competence was in question. It wasn’t that my mother didn’t trust me to be able, but rather that the default was to my sister as the oldest. There is wisdom in that, as it makes the choice not one of favoritism but of function. She was chosen, because she was chosen. It did not diminish me in any way. When we choose someone or something that we love, do we inherently reject another that we love less?
In Torah times, a man can marry more than one woman at a time, but the case is immediately raised about the hated wife. In Devarim 21:15, If a man has two wives, and he loves one but not the other, and both bear him sons but the firstborn is the son of the wife he does not love,... he must not diminish the inheritance of the son of the hated wife. Once a choice is made, you must live with it honorably. The next verse, 21:18, is the case of the ben sorer u’moreh, the stubborn and rebellious son who will not listen to his father or mother.... The parent must chose between the child and the good of society, as a convicted son in this case is executed. Is the Torah’s version of the binding of Isaac, only this time justifying the act. Isaac was a pure innocent, and this kid is the kid you really do want to kill every once in a while. The frustration of this child is that they are given everything by the parent that they need and they reject it in the worst manners imaginable. How dare they chose not to do what I want. How dare they not conform? Of course this rule was never enacted, never enforced and no child was ever executed that way. I would argue that the parent who would bring their child forward for execution for disobeying, is merely the flip side of Isaac on his deathbed blind to his children’s characters. The parent must be as complicit as the child in the breakdown of choices for the scenario to take place.
God is choosy. God judges. God prefers. God gives and takes, rewards and punishes. God sets before us the idea of the greater good. God is not unmitigated love without picking favorites. Barukh atah Adonai, Eloheinu Melekh HaOlam asher bachar banu mikol ha’amim v’natan lanu et Torato. He chose us from among the nations to have the Torah. Yet every other mitzvah we observe with a berakhah we say, Barukh Atah Adonai Eloheinu Melekh HaOlam Asher Kidshanu be mitzvotav vetzivanu. He reveals his purpose and his will, and commands us to follow. He makes us holy, sacred, unique, apart by commanding us.
Why not ask politely? The truth is, we are a stiff-necked people - as a nation and as individuals. Asking politely puts the choice into the realm of our desires. When Judaism is about feeling like it or not feeling like it, Judaism slides downhill. If paying attention to children, or a spouse, or a job, or a synagogue, is about wanting to or not wanting to in the moment, it will be a problem. Conflict, jealousy will ensue and the relationship or thing will fall apart. Commandedness is essential.
But the other truth is that our love can blind us to the needs for justice. Think of all the fictional dystopias or genuine cases where a person must chose between the greater good and their own family. The hostage manipulation, the threat against ones family that drives the good person to aid the terrorist in order to save his own family. It makes for good drama, because we can all identify with the momma bear defending her cubs. Love is not blind. It blinds.
And yet, the Torah demands that we reach beyond that, as Avraham did with Isaac, to pick and choose based on higher ideals and greater goods. On the other side of the coin the Torah has declared many times, “I have placed before you life and death, blessing and curse, so therefore choose life” (Devarim 30:15, 19). It is not much of a choice, but the choice is yours.
The message of the Torah is that it is the commanded obligation that wins the day. You may enjoy one child more than another in a given moment, but you may not favor that child. You may treat them differently based on their needs and the moment, but you love them each because love is an infinite emotion - the more you give the more you have left to give. And hopefully, in the long term treating them as individuals will be understood not to be favoritism but commitment.
God in choosing Isaac still blesses Ishmael, but for a different destiny. God, in choosing Jacob, still blesses Esau, but for a unique identity. The Torah commands that even if we fall out of love, we maintain our commanded commitments to the children. Love is not blind, but it can blind you. We pick and we chose not from some kind of emotional gluttony aimed at fulfilling our self-centered needs, but based on the character of the one being chosen, the one being tasked with sacred task. We, in our choosing, recognize like Abraham or the parent of the rebellious child, that our choices are about the world we are creating and the legacy we are accountable to. We choose to be commanded, and so we are.
Commandedness matters. The tradition insistes, gadol ha metzuveh ve’oseh me’she’eino metzuveh ve’oseh. And the reason is clear. If the hungry person will only get fed when I feel like it, justice will not be consistently served. My tzedakah giving is not charity, emotion, pathos, pity moving my to an act of generosity. It is a tax pure and simple. I must give because I am commanded to give. I must maintain synagogues and charitable institutions because the world needs them. I must feed the hungry because justice demands it. And I must feed that person regardless of my feelings, or even if I don’t like them. Even if I could use that money for my own family in some less pressing way. I am not being asked, when they ask me to give. I am being offered my own obligations. We are commanded because we love and we choose, and God knows that left to ourselves we will choose ourselves. That is why God gives Torah. Not because we are bad, but because we are human. So God commands us to choose to be commanded. Choose wisely, avoid favoritism and nepotism, and always seek the greater good.
L’shanah tovah tikateivu.
KOL NIDREI (TUE OCT 8)
"Creating Sanctuaries in Troubled Times"
What is a sanctuary? Middle English (in sanctuary (sense 3)): from Old French sanctuaire, from Latin sanctuarium, from sanctus ‘holy’. Early use in reference to a church or other sacred place where a fugitive was immune, by the law of the medieval Church, from arrest, gave rise to sanctuary (sense 1, sense 2). Sanctuary has become a political term in the past year, referring to cities or places that promise to shield undocumented foreign workers from enforcement of the immigration laws of the country. It is an example of a perfectly good word, which is hard to use these days because of the political tones that it evokes. Like the word trump, which I have always used as a card player to mean something that beats other arguments. Now, I have a hard time using the word, as it invites immediate distraction, comment and interruption. So, among other things, my hope this year is that we can turn back to the actual meaning of words, and resist the reaction and distraction of the noise outside. So what is a sanctuary? It is a holy place, and a refuge.
In our synagogue, the Gruhin sanctuary is a specific room, created with an amazing artistic and spiritual eye to focus the room on the central line between torah reader and holy ark in a light that comes from above. It is a place of prayer, and of meaning. It is a place of challenge and of comfort. It is a place of laughter and tears. A place for the young and the old. And yet tonight we gather, because we are too many to fit in our sanctuary, in the Maron social hall. And here we have created another sanctuary. Assembled to mirror our sanctuary, as best we can, with a focus on the Torah and the ark of God. We gather once again for purpose and for meaning. For comfort and for challenge. Young and old. Republican and Democrat. Carnivore and Vegan. Believer and Non-Believer. Tzaddik and Sinner. We have declared Kol Nidrei, beyeshiva shel mala... [etc] we convene the great bet din of judgement and stand ready for the verdict.
What is odd about Yom Kippur is that our Sanctuary is a Courtroom. If you have ever attended a courtroom, you know it has its rituals, its procedures, its rules. And much is done to assure that it be a safe place from which to dispense judgement. You will pass metal detectors, and Xrays screeners, armed bailiffs and - often in some places - armed judges. Accuser and Defender are secured under wave after wave of imposed authority in order to create a space where each can speak their mind. Each can share their version of the truth, or their best argument for their hopes under the law. They will speak, their thoughts and memories can be questioned and challenged. Evidence is weighed, and a decision or ruling comes down. Closure is attained, society strengthened, and people move forward again in their lives under the new reality, with the conversation behind them.
The same is true tonight, as we stand before God...
There is something powerful about a verdict. Closure. Even in our case, where the verdict is not known, the idea that the verdict exists allows us to move forward and leave things behind. A renewed life of... (ad lib prayers).
And that is why our sanctuary, here at B’nai Shalom, is not a courtroom. And as such, the things that divide us can not be meted out in judgement from the bimah, or decided by disputation and vote among us.
Israel. Explored and understood, but without taking sides for one party or another.
The Presidential Election. To bide our time, waiting to speak only when the clear moral mandate of a Torah topic arises.
Impeachment. A political process and trial whose only mandate from the Torah’s point of view is that the law and the constitution be followed. Din d’malkhuto din hu (etc,...)
Things are hard, and the topics are real. The divisions are genuine. Friends and families are becoming divided. People are afraid to voice their opinions or to talk with each other. And so, Our home is a sanctuary, where all are welcome and none are on trial.
It is a place where we come not to litigate, but to build. Not to judge, but to seek. Not to silence but to speak and to listen. Not to divide, but to unite. First and foremost, we build this sanctuary.
Second you build your own sanctuaries, a mikdash m’at, wherever you go. There is a Jewish belief that we are each a microcosm of the universe, that all that is lies also within us. And that each of us is also like the ancient temple, in which the presence of God lives, and which needs physical and spiritual nourishment. This is why smoking and vaping are not kosher, not because of the ingredients but because of the treatment of the body. Spiritual poison, grudges, lashon hara, hatred and prejudice is likewise forbidden to us just as it is forbidden in synagogue. You are a walking synagogue in a way.
And third, here we create a sanctuary knowing that the resolution of conflict, that verdicts and judgements lie not in synagogue, but outside of it. We know that conflicts must be resolved in the world we love, seek justice and pursue it. That is synagogue we learn and grow and in the world we act. Form your views from knowledge, fact and respect and pursue them with the understanding that your fellows are usually also seeking a better world for everyone.... (etc, ad lib).
So I pray that this year your create sanctuaries. That you support and attend our sanctuary where all are welcome and none are afraid of the bias and stigma that is tearing us apart.
I pray that you and I Make this sanctuary a safe haven for all, and that you make your life a place where all can gather in peace. That you are the place of sanctuary that the world needs in a time of chaos and conflict.
[transition to Yizkor, with people exiting]
L’shanah Tovah, tzom kal, and g’mar chatimah tovah.
YOM KIPPUR (WED OCT 9)
Yom Kippur: "Owning Memories, A Yizkor Sermon"
Shanah Tovah. When God remembers Sarah, it was for a concrete purpose. In the Torah, memory is about the covenant. God recalls His promises, and I recall my duties. But for us, memory is the well from which we drink every moment of every day. It is the sum of our experiences, and we can’t hold it all. Everything from where the toothpaste is to how to get to work, to my children’s names and my loving memories. My fears from times gone by. My wonders from unexpected moments indelibly painted in my mind’s eye. Everything and everyone I recall creates in me the desire for more of that, and the revulsion to avoid some of that. Hopes and fears, dreams and cautions, are the structures build in my mind.
Yet the Torah has an enigmatic view of looking backwards or knowing the future. For example, Deut 4 says כי שאל נא לימים ראשנים אשר היו לפניך, Ask of the former days that will be before you... the days that are 'before us' are the days that already happened. And in Gen 49, we find the idea that the days that are 'behind us' are the days we have yet to experience האספו ואגידה לכם את אשר יקרא אתכם באחרית הימים Jacob says to his sons, Gather and I will tell you what happened to you in the last days.
Poking fun at human confusion, Lewis Carol in Through the Looking Glass had the Queen of Hearts surmise that, “It’s a poor sort of memory that only works backwards.” (Lewis Carol, Through the Looking Glass, 5). Indeed.
I am the sum of my experiences, recorded in me and experienced by others who in turn form their memories of me in the time we have together. At a funeral we cut the kri’ah tear in our clothing or on the ribbon and we declare that God is the God of Truth. In part this is the truth of judgement, the final gavel and verdict on our eternal soul. In part it is the God who knows the truth of everything, more than any of us will ever know of each other no matter how close we are.
The metaphor used in the Torah is that we are walking backwards through time, with good visibility of the days that have come before us and virtually no visibility of the future.
We live facing backwards while walking forwards into the future. Every decision, thought and desire is shaped by what has happened in the past - whether 5 seconds or 50 years. Our love, our family relationships, our feelings all arise out of experiences held or hoarded in our memory. And slowly in life, or quickly, memory inevitably declines.
We are blind even to the very next moment in life, trained only by what we have seen to be able to guess what might yet be. It is why a star first baseman can drop the ball. We only know the past, and the future can surprise us.
Ogden Dash’s pithy observation, “How confusing the beams from memory’s lamp are; one day a bachelor, the next a grampa. What is the secret of the trick? How did I get so old so quick?” (You Can’t Get there from Here , Preface to the Past). Before you know it, 50, 60, 70, 80, if fortunate and blessed 90, 100 or beyond. How often does the mirror remind us that we are living in the past?
I think about the cell phone generation when it comes to memory. Pictures and selfies of every moment from birth to death. Thousands, even millions of pictures by the time they are done. What memories they will have! There are those who look at the cell phone life and say, they are just stuck in their phones. But more often they are connected and connecting. Looking for the meme they will share, the clip to make someone laugh, or the post that will express themselves to their friends and followers. They are creating memories faster, saving memories longer, and sharing memories more widely than we ever could in the past. How will the shiva house of the future be changed with so much information available to share and to tell. How will we memorialize when memory isn’t so much trying to remember, as editing down how much to remember? What a wonderful problem to have.
But no matter how many selfies we take, we are ultimately much more than we remember even about ourselves, but we will never know it in this life. Everything we do is based on memory, the fickle companion. We were taught. We learned. Most of what we do, we don’t even think about, until a finger, a hand or a leg doesn’t work and suddenly we have to button a shirt, pick up an object, or learn to walk in a strange and challenging way. Our memories work best in ritual and routine, and if either is taken from us - either the memory or the routine - we flounder a bit to find our way.
Marcel Proust wrote, “The bonds that unite another person to ourself exist only in our mind. Memory as it grows fainter relaxes them, and notwithstanding the illusion by which we would fain be cheated and with which, out of love, friendship, politeness, deference, duty, we cheat other people, we exist alone. Man is the creature that cannot emerge from himself, that knows his fellows ony in himself; when he asserts the contrary, he is lying.” (Remembrance of Things Past. The Sweet Cheat Game). What a sad view, that memory is everything that we are, and that its fading diminishes the bonds between us.
Is memory nostalgia, not warm but sad?
William Cowper penned the verse, “What peaceful hours I once enjoy’d! How sweet their memory still! But they have left an aching void The world can never fill.” (Olney Hymns, 1, Walking with God). Some memory is cruel, reminding us of what we can never have again.
You may know the book The Giver, by Lois Lowry. The idea is that in a perfected dystopia people are medicated to not feel emotions, and trained to be precise and truthful with their language at all times. There is no memory of the past except in the person of one individual who holds all the memories of past love, hate, color, joy, war, horror and emotion. The Keeper of memory finds life virtually unbearable, and only completes his purpose when he becomes a giver to another keeper. Memory must be shared, if we are to be fully human. It is in the relationship, not the self, that memory means everything.
What Proust misses in his existential philosophy of the self, is the survival not of our own memories, but of the memories of us. Throughout this life, while we acquire memories that will shape and define us, while we permeate our soul with love and truth in the hope that the soul may survive death, we are simultaneously pouring out ourselves into other people. Our memories leave a footprint in their memories. The bonds he speaks of as if they were inventions of my mind are real when they are echoed in the minds of my family and friends. We hold parallel thoughts and feelings that are grown and experienced together. We have memories in common. And like the cell that reproduces, doubling its chance of survival, it is shared memory that can survive.
Our own memory is sweet, or sometimes tragic, allowing us to relive - to feel again - that moment of sacred time. Our memories of each other allow the other to live again for a moment in us. Whereas Proust sees life as the gathering of, and losing of memories, identity, relationships and meaning, I see life as a gathering of sacred remnants of those we meet. I don’t hold memories of me, but of you. We are the sacred stewards of each other in time.
And in two ways we become the owners of each other in time. When I remember what you have forgotten, or when I remember after you are gone. And in those thoughts of days gone by, which meant so much to you, but only I remember, I face a challenge, and a reward. The reward is that I finally win all arguments about what happened, even if I am wrong. The challenge is: Can I carry you, when you don’t even know? I must. And that is part of love. We become the sacred ark, which holds the knowledge of others when their own vessels have broken and spilled out their contents. And so the truth becomes clear. Whether from sickness, age or death, our memories can only live if they have been shared.
Memory is not perfect. Our first impressions may be false, as we draw conclusions from half facts or glimpsed evidence. We may forever believe something that in fact never happened that way. We may create, combine or change memories over time not even knowing that we have done so. We carry the lessons of those memories, and tell our own stories to pass on those ideas and beliefs. So memory can also become confused, garbled, not just lost. Memories shared are strengthened, and can be corrected and preserved. This is why staying close to siblings and childhood friends is precious and dear. Because we receive so much in the sharing of time. And we hold the possibility of being the only one, one day, who remembers, so it would be important to get it right.
For me, it has been a year of memory. My mother is gone now, and my time of kaddish has just come to a close. I have pieces of her puzzle entrusted to me, which I must carry and cherish actively. But I must also share them, and give them away to others who might care. I must copy the image, write the story, retell the joke that brings her light back in a flicker of new experience for another. Because In our own minds, keeping our memories is eventually tilting at windmills. Milan Kundera wrote, “The struggle against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.” (The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, Pt. 1, sec. ii.). Power inevitably wins, as forgetting vanquishes memory. To save memories, we must give them away before they are gone.
And but for God this would create only despair. Are we to be forever forgotten? The psalmist says “The wicked flourish like the grass of the field, only to wither and die.” Are we momentary life, forever lost? Only in this part of life.
We carve a name in stone, with dates and a dash. Father, mother, sister, brother, son, daughter, husband or wife. If fortunate, perhaps grandparent or great grandparent. Friend. These words speak of the person who is alive as much as the one who has died. We carve in stone the piece of them that touched us and others most dearly, and when that happened. But no memory is retained in the cemetery as it rests silently without us. For they are gone, and those who carry them in their memories will slowly fade as well. Yet not in God’s loving embrace.
It is the great challenge of the meaning of life, not that we die, but that we fade and are ultimately forgotten, if we are fortunate, but for a name left behind and given in love to a child born whom we’ve never met. And our name lives on without us. Will we leave a name that they want to perpetuate?
And so, today, we declare God’s memory as we remember them. We hold thier memories like the family heirlooms they are: precious, irreplaceable. We stand again to declare that while we live, so much of them is not yet gone. Their love, their purpose, their shared best lives. But it is all a tip of the iceberg of the truth that is any one life.
The Torah declares, and the machzor repeats, the hidden things are for God but the revealed things are for us and for our children. The revealed, the known the remembered. The hidden, the unknown, the forgotten. God is the keeper of everything lost to the fading memory of human time.
And today and tomorrow we not only seek to preserve memories, to walk backwards into the future with our lived lives intact, but to create new memories. To expose ourselves to that new experience, to open up to a new person, to go to a place we’ve never seen - either around the block or around the world. For as we live, we yet experience, and seek to hold something new for a moment. To share that moment before it’s gone. And to give that moment away so it can out live us.
To look at every moment like an artist in the midst of her canvas, and to declare, “For memory has painted this perfect day with colors that never fade” (Carrie Jacobs Bond, A Perfect Day).
At this time, we turn to our Yizkor service, in pure faith that truth and love are memories within us that empower the soul to survive death, to live in the presence of God for all time. We declare in faith that God remembers what we have forgotten, for all time. That the souls and the memories of our loved ones lost continue to be with us, to have not just meaning but life as long as we live. We join God is the sacred task of keeping their memories alive.