Rosh Hashanah Sermon 5780
by Rabbi Ari Sunshine
This summer, in the midst of our highly successful Shearith Family Mission to Israel, our group of 34 people spent a morning wandering the alleys of the mystical city of Tzefat, watching a Bar Mitzvah celebration at the historic Abuhav Synagogue and exploring the beautiful works in the Artists’ Colony. Soon after we boarded our bus and headed on our way, we abruptly stopped at the bottom of a narrow road where three cars were parked illegally on two of the corners. Even our skillful bus driver, Shlomi—who had previously gotten our bus unscathed through narrow berths that had us listening for the sound of metal scraping the walls or the cars on either side of us—was left with no way to get the bus around the corner and continue our drive. At Mitchell Fonberg’s urging, we briefly considered having several group members try to lift the cars and move them out of the way. Worries about people hurting themselves and liability for damage to the cars won the day, so, short of waiting for those drivers to return, the only option we had was to call the Tzefat police. Our beloved guide, Gila Rosenfield, with whom I’ve worked six times in the last 12 years on synagogue Israel trips, called the Tzefat police department to complain and ask for help solving the problem. Listening to Gila’s side of the conversation, in Hebrew, I was pretty amused: “Are the drivers of the cars there?” “Of course they’re not here, otherwise we wouldn’t be calling you and asking for help!”…”No, we haven’t gone looking for the drivers, how would we even know who they are if we found them?”…”But you’re the Tzefat police! Get down here and take care of the problem!” I couldn’t help but laugh at this exchange and think to myself, this could only happen in Israel, where a tour guide would call and yell at the police and tell them to “get down here and do your job!” And it worked. After a while, the police came, located the drivers, moved the cars, and freed up our bus, though it was too late for our rafting appointment, leaving our quest to tame the mighty Jordan River waters for a future visit to Israel!
This quirky moment is one of a number of such “only in Israel” moments I’ve experienced during my 22 visits to Israel over the years. The ingathering of the exiles—absorption of Jews from all different countries and backgrounds all over the world to unite in this shared project of building the Jewish state—has likely contributed to the relentless “can-do” approach of Israelis for any situation they may encounter. A person double parks his car in Tzefat because he needs to get something done urgently and at the same time assumes that the person who is “inconvenienced” isn’t going to be upset about it, because they’re Israeli and they’ll figure out a way to solve the problem, just like Gila and Shlomi ultimately did. For Americans on a tour bus, it seems inconsiderate and, ultimately, funny; for Israelis, it’s “no beeg deeel”.
I was thinking recently about that experience in Tzefat and recalled that moment, on May 14, 1948, when David Ben-Gurion stood up in Heichal Atzma’ut, Independence Hall, in Tel Aviv, and read the Declaration of the Establishment of the State of Israel while thousands of people waited anxiously in the streets. I wondered whether he could have envisioned that 70+ years later, Israel would both be a country of ingenuity, world-renowned robust innovation, and growth, as well as a country where the tour bus still gets stuck in Tzefat? Moreover, could he have envisioned that Israel would have as many faces as it does: Ashkenazi and Sefardi, native born and immigrants, secular and religious, different skin colors, straight and gay, left and right, Jew, Muslim, and Christian? I wonder: Could Ben-Gurion have envisioned the wide-ranging tapestry of Israel’s faces, and places, today?
A look into Ben-Gurion’s philosophies and priorities during the pre-state era and in his years as Prime Minister can help us answer that question. In Dennis Ross and David Makovsky’s new book, Be Strong and of Good Courage, they note that:
[Ben-Gurion’s] unwavering goal was Jewish sovereignty. [He] embraced with singular focus connecting people with the land, a strategy based on Jewish immigration…. [For Ben-Gurion establishing sovereignty] was a process with two equally important dimensions:… creating a political entity in the Holy Land by building new proto-governmental institutions…and transforming the consciousness of the Jews who came to Palestine from all over the world and fostering among them a shared political culture and sense of community…. (pp. 9-12)
Ben-Gurion’s vision reached its watershed moment in May 1948. With the British Mandate set to end on May 15 at midnight, and war looming with the neighboring Arab states, three days before, on May 12, the Zionist provisional government met for 14 hours straight in Tel Aviv. The meeting focused on making a most difficult choice: postponing independence and accepting a three-month truce, or declaring independence on May 14. Ben-Gurion refused to budge from his stance: a declaration of statehood would: … allow the Zionists to tap their greatest resource—supporters abroad—who could help smuggle weapons into the nascent country once the British departed…. The opportunity to [revitalize their military], prompted by statehood and denied by a truce, must not be missed. Alongside the military advantage was that offered by unchecked immigration, Ben-Gurion’s touchstone. Open gates would mean an inflow of greatly needed manpower.”
Independence was indeed declared on May 14, hours before the coming of Shabbat, to great celebration in Israel and its supporters outside the land. Ross and Makovsky comment later that, When French president Charles de Gaulle asked Ben-Gurion in 1960 what he most wanted for his country, the prime minister replied, “More Jews”. And when de Gaulle asked where they would come from, Ben-Gurion answered: from the Soviet Union, which will collapse in thirty years. (p.72)
Amazingly, he was off by only one year in his prediction. J Ross and Makovsky comment further on Ben-Gurion’s approach: Even in Israel’s early years, when it was impoverished and coping with the terrible losses of the War of Independence, he insisted that Israel must act urgently and open its gates to all the Jews, who came with no resources or possessions, from Middle Eastern Countries…. Israel roughly doubled its Jewish population within the first three years of the country’s existence…. Ben-Gurion dedicated all his effort to consolidating and building the infrastructure of the state, while also seeking to cultivate a sense of common identity among the new immigrants who now found themselves living in their ancestral homeland. (p.73)
Among the many Jews who have made Aliyah to the Israel David Ben-Gurion was so instrumental in creating, I’d like to share the story of two of them with you today. One is our tour guide Gila, and the other is Matan (Josh) Rudner, son of our congregants Lisa and Steve Rudner, who is a Lone Soldier in the Israeli army. Gila, originally known as Jill, Rosenfield, grew up in Zimbabwe in a traditional, non-religious Jewish home and went to Jewish day schools both in Zimbabwe and South Africa. Like most of the Jewish kids in Zimbabwe, she also belonged to a Jewish youth movement, Habonim, a Labor Zionist youth movement and so she grew up with a strong connection to Israel and the belief that this was the Jewish homeland and therefore, her homeland, and a seed was planted in her with a dream of going to live on a kibbutz. She visited Israel for the first time after finishing high school and fell in love with the land and the people that she met there, as well as the freedom and the feeling of belonging that she felt here. She made Aliyah to Israel in 1982, as part of a group of young idealists from her youth movement to a kibbutz on the Lebanese border, as they wanted to experience life in the north of Israel and what it felt like to live under the threat of Katusha missiles. During her first years in Israel, she participated in various programs both to learn Hebrew and to experience and learn more about the land. Later, she worked as a special education teacher and, despite loving her job, she sought a change from classroom teaching but still wanted to stay in the educational field. At a dinner party, a friend told Gila she had enrolled to do the tour guide course and suggested jokingly that Gila come study with her. After a sleepless night, Gila decided that this was the perfect way to combine her love of hiking and touring while still working in education. Her demanding tour guide studies reignited her passion for Israel, for history, and she developed a passion for archeology. When she graduated, her first guiding job was a 6-week program over the summer taking 10th and 11th graders around and working not only as a guide but also as a madricha, a counselor. Somehow, she survived and she was hooked, and so for the past 22 years, she has worked as a guide and educator. When I asked Gila what she likes most about guiding, she said:
I really enjoy being able to share my love for this complicated but wonderful country and rediscovering it through the journeys of a wide variety of people. I love introducing the historical, cultural and culinary wonders of Israel to people, and I love the connections and friendships that I have formed and seeing how each group and individual connects differently to this land. I also really like the fact that even though I may often go to similar sites, each tour offers something new and deepens my knowledge and understanding of that site.
Gila’s last comment reminds me of the classical rabbinic teaching of “shiv’im panim la-Torah”—“70 faces of Torah”—being able to turn the words of Torah around and around and constantly see new facets and insights.
Interestingly, Matan Rudner, who made Aliyah back in August of 2017, also has been reflecting a lot this year on the myriad facets of Israel’s places and its people. Since January, Matan has been writing a monthly column in the Texas Jewish Post called “Dispatch from the Homeland”. Take for example his June 6 piece, commenting on the two very different places he has lived so far in Israel, Kibbutz Urim and Tel Aviv. He contrasted them both with Jerusalem, when he wrote, “Each week as I ascend by train through the forested hills of Judea toward our golden city, my material concerns seem to dissipate and I am captivated by the story of this place—the story of a land and a people liberated and conquered and liberated once more. To live in Jerusalem, this living testament to the sacred bond between people, land and God, is to experience Jewish civilization in all its majesty”. Matan went on to add that:
This heterogeneity of Jewish experience, between the lifestyles of the kibbutzim, of Tel Aviv, and of Jerusalem, is not the result of the random physical development of our state. Every part of Israel is the fruit of a different ideological movement: Labor Zionism, Cultural Zionism, Religious Zionism, and so many others each propose unique visions of what Jewish life in our homeland can be, visions that reflect all of the facets of the Jewish soul that yearns within us.
Recently, I reached out to Matan and asked him what message he would share with all of you if he were standing in front of you today. Here’s what he shared with me:
Israel is miraculous because it is ours. The language reflects our values and history, the food adheres to our dietary restrictions, the old men and women fought for us and the children will fight for us if and when the time comes. This land is the only place in the world where we can express and explore parts of our identity as yet undiscovered. Here I’m not just the Jew- as I often was in America- I am gay and a leftist and a brother and soldier. I’m free to be whatever I want to be. And at the same time I’m Jewish in ways I couldn’t have imagined- I have the opportunity to manifest my tradition and values in public, out loud, on a national level. Whatever happens here, it will always be that place for our people, in fact the only place, where we are free to be ourselves as individuals and as a nation.
Sometimes Israel frustrates me- the bureaucracy and the politics and the invasiveness. And sometimes the tragedy of our conflict with the Palestinians makes me scream and cry. But never have I questioned my commitment to this land, never has my love of our people wavered. Because my love and my commitment are based not in Israel as it once was, as it is today or as it is in my dreams- rather they are based in what Israel represents- a bond between land, people, and God that is eternal.
Both Matan and Gila saw –and see—Israel as their homeland and a powerful gravitational force for the Jewish people, and they also both see that Israel has, as it were, 70 faces, enabling different points of connection for each individual or group in their experience of Israel.
I want to introduce you to one more face of contemporary Israel, Rabbi Tamar Elad-Appelbaum, part of a new generation of Israeli-born Masorti—Conservative Movement--rabbis. Born into a mixed Ashkenazi-Mizrahi family with both French and Moroccan roots, and raised in an Orthodox home, it was only when she was wrapping up her B.A. in Jewish Philosophy at Hebrew University and signed up for a Master’s Degree program to train both religious and secular teachers in the Jewish tradition that a new possibility presented itself: become a Masorti rabbi. At that time, at age 23, she wasn’t even aware that there were women rabbis in the world, that this was even a possibility. In Elad-Appelbaum’s words, as related in an article by Beth Kissileff in CJ Magazine, voices of the Conservative/Masorti Movement, this was a revelation that “threw me into a new story.” She received her ordination from Machon Schechter in Jerusalem in 2005, and then spent time as the assistant rabbi at Temple Israel Center in White Plains, New York. She says that her time in America “gave me the courage to come here and re-dream Jerusalem.”
In 2013, she and her husband Yossi founded Tzion: Kehilla Yisraeli Artzit (Zion: An Israeli Community) in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Baka. At Tzion, where I have personally davened a number of times over these past several years, you’ll find one of the more unusual and diverse congregations in the state of Israel. As another article in Tablet Magazine subtitled “Shepherding a New Judaism in Jerusalem” describes, “Unlike most houses of worship, which self-sort along religious and denominational lines, Tzion’s attendees span the spectrum from devoutly Orthodox to entirely secular”.
The CJ Magazine article adds that, “like her own Ashkenazi and Sephardi family, Elad-Appelbaum’s congregation brings together the “heritage of families that made us who we are.”… [honoring] three pillars of tradition: Mizrahi, Ashkenazi and Eretz Yisraeli, in other words, the Sephardic, Eastern European and Israeli traditions. Elad-Appelbaum tries to speak a Klal Yisrael language for all Jews. The blend is unique to their minyan…. She is very much committed to welcoming people from all avenues of life and enabling them to participate in Jewish life in ways with which they are comfortable.
Rabbi Tamar says about her work: “My father fought in wars for Israel,” and [my mission is] “bringing Klal Yisrael back to Jewish tradition.” She believes that the earliest years of Israel, the years involving the founding of the state, were “dedicated to the body”, [and that], going forward, the coming decades should be dedicated “to the soul.” For Elad-Appelbaum, her generation’s task is to be the “pioneers of reviving the soul, to be the magshimim (the fulfillers)…. We call our community Tzion with deep belief that this is the destiny of Zionism, and always has been: that Jews come back to the land of Israel, after walking through all cultures and nations and pains, so we can care for humanity as a whole”.
For all his brilliance and foresight and inspiring leadership of the pre-state and early Israel, I don’t think David Ben-Gurion saw Rabbi Tamar-Elad Appelbaum in Israel’s future. Ben-Gurion was supremely focused on what Rabbi Tamar refers to as the “body” of Israel, securing its sovereignty, building its governmental institutions and infrastructure, and getting as many Jews as possible to make Aliyah to Israel and rally around the common purpose of building a Jewish state. Over the years this has led to countless numbers of Jews making Aliyah from all over the world, bringing amazing and inspiring people like Matan Rudner and Gila Rosenfield to make their home in the land and share a sense of community and peoplehood, together doing whatever it takes to help solve problems and shape the country, and try to share their love for the land with others in the different ways they can. But when we add Rabbi Tamar’s story to the mix, we can see that, beyond the scope of secular Labor Zionist Ben-Gurion’s vision, emerging from the diverse populace there are amazing and inspiring things happening now with Israel’s blossoming “soul”, and not just by the hands of foreign olim, but even from the work of native-born Sabras. Matan, Gila, and Rabbi Tamar are all faces of contemporary Israel, and all part of Israel’s story— like the legendary “Start-Up Nation” innovation, the current Knesset electoral impasse, and a tour bus getting blocked by illegally parked cars. My call to each of us here today is to think about how we see our own faces as a part of Israel’s story. Visitors? Financial supporters? Investors? Advocates? Olim? We can be one of these faces, or some of them, or all of them.
In the haftarah that we read this past Shabbat morning, the prophet Isaiah offered us words which simultaneously comfort and call on us: “Ivru ivru ba’sh’earim, panu derekh ha’am; solu solu ha-mesilah, saklu mei-even, harimu nes al ha-amim”. Pass through, pass through the gates! Clear the road for the people; build up, build up the highway, remove the rocks! Raise an ensign over the peoples! Speaking to the exiles in Babylonia after the destruction of the 1st Temple in Jerusalem, Isaiah offered a hopeful message that a pathway would be cleared for their return to Zion, to Israel, a comforting message that still resounds today after our people once again returned to Zion, this time after 2000 years of exile. And the message also calls on us: While the road was cleared 71 years ago for our return, it’s still up to each of us to roll up our sleeves and build up the highway and remove the rocks, to contribute to the still unfolding narrative that is the body and soul of the State of Israel, in the land of our Jewish people. In the words of Matan Rudner, “The work lies with us, to build and to be built, to shape and to be shaped, by the land to which we have returned”. AMEN.
Rosh Hashanah Sermon 5780
by Rabbi Shira Wallach
Imagine that it’s November 1947. You’re sitting with your family, huddled around your radio, waiting with bated breath to hear the results of the UN vote on Resolution 181, which would give international sanction to the birth of what would become the State of Israel. What an extraordinary moment to witness—you know both the pain and struggle that have led to this day, and you know the vision and hope that blazed the path. When Theodore Herzl convened the First Zionist Congress in 1897, fifty years earlier, he set in motion a critical movement to establish a homeland where all Jews could depend on safety above all else, an oasis of security in a world that could no longer guarantee our people the ability to pursue a life of liberty and dignity. As the specter of anti-Semitism darkened the world, Herzl’s cause became more and more emergent. The horrors of the Shoah demonstrated that we could no longer entrust the destiny of the Jewish people to anyone besides our own. In his pamphlet der Judenstaat, Herzl wrote: “We naturally move to those places where we are not persecuted, and there our presence produces persecution.”
The Jewish question, he posited, would have to be solved by our own gumption. And the world saw, decades later, just how right he was. But the post-Shoah urgency forced the Zionist movement to encounter an impossible choice: should they stick to the original vision set forth in our sacred Torah, securing our biblical right to the land to the west and to the east of the Jordan, up to the Golan and down to the Red Sea? Surely, if God ordained these borders, we would have Divine support in asserting this path. There should be no need to compromise.
But in the post-war proceedings, our leaders began to see that insisting on the ideal at the outset, instead of working to achieve it over time, would mean losing the opportunity to ever establish a Jewish State. After all, when the UN produced a map, based on the British Peel commission report, it looked like a checkerboard: carving up our homeland, limiting our access to our holiest city, Yerushalayim. Jewish cries from around the world rose in a desperate chorus: voices like the Mizrahi delegation to the American Congress, who declared: “[We] will never consent to the partition of Palestine because every particle of earth of this land, promised to us by the Torah and the Prophets, is holy to us.” Chaim Weizmann, who served as the President of the Zionist Organization, cried: “Zionism is a modern expression of the…ideal. Divorced from that ideal, it loses all purpose, all hope…”
How challenging this moment must have been for the leaders of the Zionist movement. To come so close to achieving a dream our people held in their hearts for so long, and yet to be faced with the possibility that that dream would not include sovereignty over our most sacred places, including Jerusalam and Hevron, the burial place of the Patriarchs and the Matriarchs.
Were the Mizrahi delegation or Weizmann wrong to demand the ideal? How could any reader of the Torah deny that the integrity of our land was not just our right, but our divine sanction?
But slowly, the truth emerged: that if Zionists didn’t accept the UN’s offer, their hope of 2000 years would be dashed. Jews would again be scattered to the corners of the earth, back to their tenuous existence of fear and hiding or disappearing into assimilation.
And so, after a painful reckoning, it became clear that we needed to take the offer. We needed to put on hold our dreams of the ideal, and take the compromise so that we could be safe. That’s why, when Jews around the world hunched over their radios on that miraculous day in November 1947, hearing enough “yes” votes to secure our rights to the land, we celebrated. Finally, we could begin to work through the tragedy and devastation that gripped us. Finally, we could feel like a people with power and agency to set forth our own path. Finally, we could live in our homeland, eretz tzion and, one day, yerushalayim.
More than 70 years later, with the hindsight that we have now, we know this was the right decision. But that doesn’t resolve the profound heartbreak that our forbearers felt when they had to put Divine dreams aside to make room for reality.
This wasn’t the first time that we’ve had to compromise.
When God created the world, God placed Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, the land of the ideal, the place where perfection dwelled. With God imminently present, there was no room for doubt or conflict or competition, all those things that make our lives harder and more complicated. But we learned very quickly that paradise is not for us, creatures of free will, who need to grow and progress and analyze and improve and learn. Our best chance to live our destiny was not in a utopia, but in a world where we must live with the entire range of human experience and create meaning and sanctity in our own language. It is the messiness and unpredictability of our lives that force us to take hold of our own stories.
The Torah lays out an ideal system for worship: the Temple and its sacrifices. With the help of the cohanim, the priests, we could bring an offering that would help us express to God our gratitude, our forgiveness, our devotion. God told us exactly how to communicate and so we could follow those directions exactly. We always knew how to be in step with God, so that God would continue to protect and guide us.
But then our temples were destroyed and our people were on the brink of despair. Without our central touchstone, we lacked both national unity and the ability to continue our dialogue with God.
The rabbis knew that if they continued only to mourn and lament the Temple’s loss indefinitely, they would lose the opportunity to establish an enduring Jewish practice that could protect us through this painful transition. And so, no longer having access to the ideal setup, they created and choreographed a system of prayer: morning, afternoon, and night, that would mirror the devout devotion of the sacrifices. Instead of giving up an object of great value to express our piety, like a cake of choice flour or a blemish-less ram, we would offer ourselves, our time, our concentration, our service. Vaani tefilati lecha Adonai—we, the contents of our own hearts, became the sacrifice. Though we are now very far away from the ideal approach to worship delineated in the Torah, our post-Temple world has forced us to come before God with open souls, engaged intellects, and empowered creativity. And in this way, we discover the power of our own voices.
Our rabbis, in their profound wisdom, gave us language to understand the relationship between these two paradigms—the ideal and the real.
The ideal, or in Aramaic, lechatchila, imagines a world like the Garden of Eden. Everything that we need in order to fulfill mitzvot perfectly exists within arm’s length. Keeping kosher is easy because we have access to all of the kosher food we need, we have kitchens equipped with two sets of everything (and two more sets for Passover!), and when we don’t have time to cook, we can easily find affordable and delicious places to dine or pick up prepared food. Speaking of Pesach, avoiding chametz is easy because every single place we go is empty of it. We don’t have to worry about craving bagels and pasta and doughnuts because we don’t see them over those eight days, and we definitely don’t see that delicious-looking baking tutorial on our Facebook feed. Shabbat is easy because we have the time to prepare meticulously, so that once the sun sets on Friday, everything is in its place. All of our food is prepared, all of our work is done. Every place we’ll need to go in order to celebrate Shabbat is in walking distance. We are free to spend the entire day reveling in the miracles of rest and togetherness because everything is perfect, just as it is.
Doesn’t that world sound nice?
Of course, if we could, we would choose that world. How beautiful does that life sound, where we never have to think about achieving perfection because it’s already in our grasp? And not just in our fulfillment of mitzvot, but in all other aspects of the holy lives we seek to create?
What if we never had to worry about the physical and mental health of our families and loved ones? What if we never had to worry about managing a perfect household in which we put a healthy, home-cooked meal on the table every night and our kids always cleaned their plates? What if we didn’t have to worry about whether we’ll be able to save enough money so that our kids can go to their dream colleges, and we’ll be able to retire before the age of 90?
And while we’re at it, let’s expand our aspirational universe, because God knows how we all lay up in bed at night, worrying about escalating rates of poverty and homelessness, deaths from gun violence, dangerous weather anomalies from an increasingly volatile climate and I could go on… for a world in which we’re supposed to aspire to and live according to the ideal, we find ourselves over and over in a situation that is leagues away from perfect. Taking cues from our most sacred values of equity and lovingkindness and the inherent dignity of each and every person, of course we wish we had the power to obliterate these sources of hardship. But if we commit ourselves to that level of perfection, we will fail every time. Believing that it is in our grasp to solve these insurmountable problems only leads to disillusionment, powerlessness, and defeat. We become overwhelmed and paralyzed and decide that because we can’t access the perfection we seek, there’s no use in even trying.
But Judaism gives us a remarkable gift.
The counterpart to lechatchila is bediavad: how we act when we can’t control everything. A brilliant rabbinic mindset that never allows us to lose sight of the ideal, and yet, gives us breathing room as we pursue lives of meaning and purpose.
Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, one of the most important voices of 20th century American Judaism, wrote about the pursuit of holiness in Halakhic Man, the person who sees the world through the prism of Rabbinic Jewish law, not as a single-minded aspiration to the ideal, but as a cosmic joining of ideal and real. He wrote: “Halakhic man’s ideal is to subject reality to the yoke of [Jewish law]. However, as long as this desire cannot be implemented, halakhic man does not despair, nor does he reflect at all concerning the clash of the real and the ideal, the opposition which exists between the theoretical Halakhah and the actual deed, between law and life…Holiness means the holiness of earthly, here-and-now life” (29, 33).
He shares a beloved midrash, a rabbinic allegorical teaching, to illustrate the crucial and life-saving relationship between our people and our laws.
In Masechet Shabbat (88b-89a), the rabbis imagine a conversation between God and the ministering angels in heaven, arguing whether human beings, who are mortal and susceptible to failure, deserve the exquisite gift of Torah. The heavenly hosts cry: That secret treasure—You, God, would defile it by placing it in the hands of flesh and blood?!
God then tells Moshe to begin reading from the two tablets: I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt! God bellows: Angels, were you enslaved by Pharaoh? Did I bring you out of Egypt with signs and wonders? Moshe continues: Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy. God shouts: Angels, do you perform work and then need to rest? Again, Moshe reads: Honor your father and mother. God demands: Angels, do you have parents? And on and on.
Our tradition isn’t for creatures of perfection and divine imminence, for heavenly hosts that lack free will and never have to worry what will happen next. It is for those who doubt and fear and wonder why we are here on this earth. It is for those who are just trying to eke out a life of meaning and connection, purpose and sanctity.
Rav Soloveitchik continues: “The earth and bodily life are the very ground of halakhic reality. Only against the concrete, empirical backdrop of this world can the Torah be implemented; angels who neither eat nor drink, who neither quarrel with one another nor are envious of one another, are not worth and fit for the receiving of the Torah” (34).
Judaism doesn’t ask us to be perfect. It doesn’t WANT us to be perfect. If we were, then we’d be the wrong match for God and for Torah. And if our world were perfect, we would have no need for God, for Torah, or for one another. We need to come into conflict and encounter difficulty, we need to understand what it feels like to despair, to yearn, to break down, to lose faith in the world around us, because these are all essential experiences of being human.
And when we’re down there, in the pit of hopelessness and disillusionment, God doesn’t abandon us. God reaches down to us and says: Now you’re ready. Let’s build this world. I know about eternity and transcendence, you know about longing and imperfection. Together we can construct holiness.
In our world of bediavad, ideal and real establish a symbiotic relationship, oscillating back and forth between what is and what could be. Without a vision of perfection, without a window into heaven, we would never be able to conceive an aspiration of the ideal. We wouldn’t be able to imagine the attributes of a perfect world and set those always on the horizon. But without an acknowledgement of where we are, we would never be able to speak honestly about our needs, our missing pieces, our reality, and to think creatively about how to our live our values in an imperfect world.
Because we live in a world of bediaviad on Pesach, for example, we have to make intentional choices in each moment to renew our relationship with our story and our laws. We live in a society that mixes the secular and the religious. During the holiday, we are indeed constantly surrounded by delicious doughnuts and pizza and pasta as we go about our daily routines. Therefore we are also are given the opportunity to know that we can overcome our cravings in order to fulfill God’s laws. Understanding our reality, our rabbis gave us a ritual statement nullifying all chametz during the week of Pesach as afra de’ara, as dust of the earth. Our construct of bediavad creates this opportunity for a powerful shift in our mindset, one we would never have been given if we lived in the lechatchila world of the Torah, where in all of the land there was not a crumb of chametz to be found.
If we didn’t live in a world of bediavad, then we would not know illness and suffering. How we all long for the lechatchila in which our loved ones and sisters and brothers around the world would never have to contend with cancer or heart disease or depression or dementia or malaria or so many other terrible diseases that plague us. Faced with this bediavad case, our human compassion and ingenuity have been animated in order to increase the quality of life and dignity for all who suffer. We are forced to pool our best intellect and resources in our pledge to understand and treat these illnesses so that we can build a world of opportunity and lovingkindness for each and every person. And though sickness is a terrible price we have to have pay, think of how these medical advances have benefitted the world far beyond the original intent for which they were created. Medicine doesn’t only cure sickness, it also enables us to prolong life and elevate its quality.
And in fact, Rav Soloveitchik argues that this is how we bring about redemption: “…not via a higher world but via the world itself, via the adaptation of empirical reality to the ideal patterns of Halakhah.” In this way, “a lowly world is elevated through the Halakhah to the level of a divine world” (37-38).
God wrote the Torah FOR US, created the world FOR US, and is waiting FOR US to complete revelation as we live our lives through the lens of our tradition. Is it uncomfortable to know that we will never, ever, fulfill every aspect of Jewish law? Is it painful to admit that we will never, ever be the spouse, child, parent, sibling, employee, citizen… that we aspire to be? Is it crushing to confess that we will always miss the mark in some way?
Yes. But that’s right where we need to be.
Because then we have a choice to make. We can either quit while we’re ahead, knowing that we’ll always end up with something less than perfection or, we can revel in the discomfort. We can celebrate our endless quest to touch heaven while standing on earth.
And that is what Judaism wants us to do. To always be a little uncomfortable. Because out of that discomfort comes our best ingenuity, our most stunning creativity, our redemptive honesty.
Our rabbis (Ein Yaakov Taanit 1:11) tell a story about Yerushalayim Habnuyah, the rebuilt Jerusalem of the future. You might think that this Yerushalayim would embody only the vision of Yerushalayim shel Maalah, that heavenly Jerusalem that exudes idealized perfection. But instead, the rabbis teach us that God refused to enter this Yerushalayim until God could fill Yerushalayim shel Matah, the earthly Jerusalem, with the Divine Presence.
In this way, the rabbis teach us that Yerushalayim habnuah, the fully-realized dream of a rebuilt and reunited Jerusalem contains both Yerushalayim shel maalah and Yerushalayim shel matah. As Rav Soloveitchik taught us, it is in heaven’s longing for earth and in earth’s longing for heaven where holiness is found.
This year will be full of bediavads. We will continue to find ourselves in situations beyond our control that leave us floundering. Each day will bring new challenges in our homes, our jobs, and our relationships. Our beloved State of Israel will continue to fend off anti-Zionist and anti-Semitic attacks at the same time as she struggles, internally, to establish a government that will protect her security and allow her citizens to thrive. The political climate in our own country will continue to fuel divisiveness and hateful rhetoric, bringing us to the point where those on the left and those on the right can’t even talk to each other, much less think, that someone with a different opinion might have a useful or insightful perspective to share. And though we feel great distance from the ideal world that we seek, we cannot dismiss the extraordinary opportunities we have before us to bring life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness back into our midst, for we have the redemptive and creative power to do so.
I pray that in 5780, we finally come to terms with our inability to be perfect, to ever rise to our expectations for ourselves, in a world beyond our control. Rather, I pray that this New Year gives us the permission to be inspired by our imperfection and the sacred opportunity that it gives us to partner with God. May our discomfort lead to new creativity and discovery and may our longing bring us ever closer to a united vision of heaven and earth.
Shearith Israel clergy, staff and congregants share