Joint Sermon for Erev Rosh Hashanah 5781/2020
Rabbi Ari Sunshine, Rabbi Adam Roffman and Rabbi Shira Wallach
Congregation Shearith Israel
From the day Adam and Eve were exiled from the garden of Eden, they lived together East of Eden, tilling the earth, raising children and struggling to stay alive.
After those many years of struggle, when their children were grown, Adam and Eve decided to take a journey before it was too late and see the world that God had created.
They journeyed from one corner of the world to the other and explored all of the world's wonders. They stood up on the great mountains, treked across the vast deserts, walked amid the mighty forests, and traversed the magnificent seas.
They watched the sunrise over the endless wilderness and saw it set into the boundless ocean. All that God had created they beheld.
In the course of their journeys, wandering from place to place, they came upon a place that seemed so familiar. They came upon the garden of Eden from which they had been exiled on the very first day of their lives.
The garden was now guarded by an Angel with a flaming sword. This Angel frightened Adam and Eve who fled.
Suddenly they heard a gentle imploring voice. God spoke to them: “My children, you have lived in exile these many, many years. Your punishment is complete. Come now and return to my garden. Come home to the garden.”
Suddenly to the Angel disappeared. The way into the garden opened and God invited them in. But Adam, having spent so many years in the world, had grown shrewd. He hesitated and said to God, “You know it has been so many years. Remind me, what is it like in the garden?”
“The garden is paradise,” God responded. In the garden there is no work. You need never struggle or toil again. In the garden there is no pain, no suffering. In the garden there is no death. In the garden there is no time: no yesterday, no tomorrow, only an endless today. Come my children, return to the garden.”
Adam considered God's words. He thought about a life with no work, no struggle, no pain, no passage of time, and no death. An endless life of ease with no tomorrow and no yesterday.
And then he turned and looked at Eve his wife. He looked into the face of the woman with whom he had struggled to make a life, to take bread from the earth, to raise children, to build a home. He read in the lines of her face all the tragedies they had overcome and the joys they had cherished. He saw in her eyes all the laughter and all the tears they had shared.
Eve looked back into Adam's face. She saw in his face all the moments that had formed their lives: moments of jubilant celebration and moments of unbearable pain.
She remembered the moments of life-changing crisis and the many moments of simple tenderness and love.
She remembered the moments when a new life arrived in their world and the moments when death intruded. As all their shared moments came back to her, she took Adam's hand in hers.
Looking into his wife's eyes, Adam shook his head and responded to God's invitation. “No thank you,” he said. “That's not for us not now. We don't need that now. Come on Eve,” he said to his wife. “Let's go home.” And Adam and Eve turned their backs on God's paradise and walked home.
It’s interesting, that on this evening, when we celebrate the creation of the universe, we don’t usually recount its story. Not tonight, not tomorrow, not the next day. Ironically, Rabbi Ed Feinstein’s beautiful retelling of the exile from Eden might help us understand why.
In his version of the story, God reopens the gates, allowing Adam and Eve an opportunity to return to the perfection He created for them before they corrupted it. And yet, they refuse, deciding instead to make their own way in the world.
Why? Because what they realize after a long period of struggle and hardship is that there is more meaning, more possibility, and more humanity in a world that is imperfect. In Eden, there is no conflict, so there is no growth. In the garden of the Divine, there is nothing to work for, because everything is provided for you. In the realm of the Godly, there are no problems to solve, and nothing to build.
It may seem like the world we live in right now couldn’t be farther removed from Gan Eden or a conventional definition of paradise, and yet what drives us isn’t a return to idyllic isolation from a complicated and demanding world, but rather a way to ground ourselves so we can engage fully with that world.
Like Adam and Eve after the fall, we live in a world where we are called, day after day and year after year for 5780 years and counting, to help reinvent and recreate in partnership with God. Every morning, before we say the Shema, we praise God for being m’chadesh b’tuvo b’khol yom tamid, ma’aseh bereishit—the one who is constantly renewing and re-creating our world, and charges us to do the same as much as we are able.
We are the ones who, inspired by the teachings of our Torah, decide what sacred space is, where we learn, how prayer is offered up to heaven, and how we lift each other up right here on this earth. This year, we have truly recreated all of these experiences anew.
We have been challenged to find connection with each other and with God, despite the awful circumstances in the world around us.
And how have we fared in these endeavors?
We have re-defined the possibilities of sacred space. We already knew we could find it in our synagogue building while doing things such as davening or learning or packing sandwiches for the sandwich drive, and experience it while outside the walls of the shul studying Torah together in a bar or restaurant, delivering Shabbat meals to some of our homebound seniors, or enjoying a weekend away at the Family Retreat or a week and a half on a congregational mission to Israel.
But did we know before this year that we could also create and enter sacred space when we assemble in our little boxes on a Zoom screen, and form daily or Shabbat minyanim, share a meal in a virtual breakout room for Shabbat Across Shearith, or assemble for Havdalah online every weekend with a number of congregants joining in from their homes with their own Havdalah sets?
We have expanded our notion of where we can learn, and developed our tech skills even when many of us felt we had none, connecting with teachers and fellow eager learners in accessible and versatile mobile classrooms for adults and children of all ages, and learning a lot of patience (and how to mute and unmute!) along the way, looking forward to the day when we can again discuss and debate with our fellow students across the table from one another.
We have broadened our perspectives on how we can offer our prayers to God. In the absence of our ability to gather in one room for a minyan, we have greeted each other warmly onscreen, turned to digital versions of our liturgy when we didn’t have siddurim handy, met the powerful emotional and ritual need of reciting the Mourner’s Kaddish for our loved ones, and even figured out how to sing together as a group without ACTUALLY singing together with our fellow worshipers.
And we have innovated ways to lift each other up amidst the peaks and valleys of our lives, extending virtual embraces whether celebrating a Bar Mitzvah or a bris or a baby naming, or offering heartfelt condolences to mourners at a funeral or a shiva while others quietly listen in rapt attention to the warm memories being shared.
One common thread links all of these experiences together, and that is community. Whether we are in each other’s physical presence, or seeing each other’s faces online, or even some of both, we can create a powerful sense of sacred space, we can learn and grow together, we can worship and break bread together, and rejoice or mourn together. In this we draw strength from the precept imparted to us at creation--lo tov heyot he’adam levado, we do not go through life alone, but with companionship in community.
And it’s this last point that we’d like to emphasize on this erev Rosh Hashanah, as we begin this season of High Holy Days together--not in our beautiful sanctuaries, in the seats that some of our families have occupied for generations-but in a way none of us could have possibly imagined a year ago-spread out across the city in our own homes, very far from Gan Eden.
In Rabbi Feinstein’s story, Adam and Eve decline the opportunity to return to Eden. It may be paradise, but it’s not home. Because, you see, as humans we also get to define what home means to us. Home isn’t defined by perfection. Instead we may define it in its broadest sense as a place where we feel loved and valued, comfortable and comforted, where we experience joy and laughter, where we break bread, where we struggle and where we grow. No matter how crazy the world is around us, those constants remain. For Adam and Eve, companionship was the key to these constants being realized. And with that in mind, I’d like to ask each of you to reach into your High Holy Days Box and take out and unwrap the special gift we’ve included for you. I’ll give you all a moment so you can untie the ribbon and take out what’s inside the box. As you can see, we’ve given you a compass. A compass will always point out your “true north” and let you know where to find it, even if you’re lost in a forest filled with trees and can’t see which way to turn to get home, or just feeling lost in a world that feels decidedly un-Eden like. Friends, throughout these High Holy Days, before each private Amidah prayer that we recite, we hope you’ll try picking up this compass to orient yourselves eastwards toward Yerushalayim in your prayers, as well as link yourselves symbolically, along with your fellow congregants wherever they may be located, to the unfailing true north of companionship and community which you can count on here at Shearith Israel, where we are so much more than a building. We are a strong, vibrant and caring community where we hope you will always feel that sense of home I just described a few moments ago. Whether we’re online as we are right now, in person as we hope to be very soon, or some combination of both, we remain, Shearith Israel, here for you in good times and bad, a community where you can Enrich Your Life, Elevate Your Soul, and Embrace Your Judaism. We look forward to establishing new relationships and connections, and strengthening longstanding ones, as together we journey forward into this next chapter of creation, the as yet unwritten story of 5781, one which we hope will be filled with sweetness, growth and good health for all. Shana Tova, and Shabbat Shalom
Rosh Hashanah Sermon 5781
Rabbi Ari Sunshine
Congregation Shearith Israel
Some folks are called gym rats for their intense devotion to working out, or practicing their chosen sport or sports. My Dad, however, is what I’d affectionately refer to as a “shul rat”, someone who just LOVES to be in shul. It could be at his shul, Har Shalom in Potomac, Maryland, where my classmate and dear friend and a former member of Shearith’s rabbinic team, Adam Raskin, is now his rabbi. It could be when he goes and leads services for the residents of Revitz House, a Jewish senior living facility in Rockville, Maryland. It could be when he’s traveling in the U.S. or elsewhere around the world. Wherever he is, he wants to be in shul on Shabbat. In this regard, the circumstances of the COVID pandemic have actually provided him with a small but meaningful silver lining while he and my Mom largely continue to shelter at home. Because, you see, any given Shabbat morning, my Dad can hop on two, three, or as many as five online Shabbat services, joining the Shabbat community in shuls all around the U.S—and the difference in time zones sure helps with that! Ok, admittedly he has a few favorites, whether it be Har Shalom, or Shearith where he gets to watch his son do the rabbi thing, or Beth Am in Baltimore where my cousin is the rabbi, and a handful of others. But I get a kick out of talking with him and my Mom after Havdalah or on a Sunday and hearing him say, “I went to three shuls today!” or telling me that he went to shul with his sister, my Aunt Bette, that morning. Of course, Bette was sitting in her home in Ann Arbor, MI, and my Dad was in his home in Maryland. And yet they shared the same shul experience and it was as if they were sitting next to each other, able to kibitz about the rabbi’s sermon (chances are the reviews are usually fairly positive when they’re watching one of their children preach), and the tune that was used for Adon Olam. The world has gotten considerably smaller during these past six months.
Certainly my family’s ability to “go to shul” together online on Shabbat is not the only example of this. How many of you watching today shared one or more Pesach seders this year with friends and loved ones all over the country? Yes, it’s true we could say “dayenu” at this point to the problem of not being able to sing together on the same beat, but weren’t the “Zeders” of 2020/5780 pretty special in their own way, effectively expanding our Seder tables to include folks who wouldn’t all otherwise have necessarily been able to join us? And we can say the same thing about brises, simchat bat ceremonies, b’nei mitzvah, funerals, and shiva minyanim, where family members and friends from faraway places have been able to smile and celebrate onscreen with us, or comfort us with their presence, which even as recently as the beginning of 2020 would not have been considered as an option for people, let alone one that so many folks are now taking advantage of to draw closer to those they care about.
Finally, let’s not forget that this closeness has not been limited to the boundaries of the U.S. Back in June we arranged a virtual tour for our congregation of Gabrieli Weaving’s studio in Rechovot, Israel and store in Jerusalem. We got a glimpse behind the curtain of what I would argue is the best source in the world for beautiful tallitot, from which more than 2/3 of my 16 tallitot—not a misprint—come, and a number of our members purchased tallitot for themselves, their children or their grandchildren, including several of our Shearith B’nei Mitzvah families, after setting up personal shopping appointments. We were 7000 miles and 8 hours on the clock apart, and yet there we were, connecting intimately and forging or strengthening our bond to Israel and to Jewish ritual at the same time. And we wouldn’t even have thought of trying this a year ago.
Yes, the world definitely feels smaller than it used to feel. Our reach and capacity to connect with others has been extended exponentially, which has opened up new opportunities for us personally and professionally. But what are the implications of this for us going forward, as we continue to grind our way through a pandemic, but also prepare for its eventual aftermath? Does our ability to reach further challenge us to think about widening our circle of concern, or is this just a short-term way of thinking that should yield to insularity and parochialism once things “go back to normal” within our communities or in general with the practice of our Judaism?
Friends, I would suggest that the answer to this question is found in Jewish values, and it gets back to the very core of how we see ourselves as Jewish people relative to the rest of the world. Deeply ingrained in our traditional texts and our prayer liturgies are many reflections of this basic tension, the tension between particularism and universalism.
Take the Aleinu prayer for instance. It’s a prayer many of us know well and can sing along with, but how well do we really know it? You might know a little more about it if you watched my On Demand video clip on it on the portal, but otherwise feel free to check that and our other On Demand content out later. The prayer begins, “Aleinu l’shabeach la-Adon ha-kol, lateyt g’dulah l’yotzer b’reishit, she-lo asanu k’goyei ha’aratzot, v’lo samanu k’mishp’chot ha-adama, she-lo sam chelkeynu ka-hem, v’goraleinu k’chol ha-monam”—It is for us to praise the Ruler of all, to acclaim the Creator, who has not made us merely a nation, nor formed us as all earthly families, nor given us an ordinary destiny. In these opening lines of the Aleinu, as Jewish people we are called upon to praise God as the master and creator of all, BECAUSE God assigned us a different kind of responsibility and destiny in the world. Over the course of the full text of the two paragraphs of the Aleinu, we reflect back on God as the universal creator, and yearn for the day when we will be able “l’taken olam b’malchut Shaddai”, to establish the world in the kingdom of the Almighty, or, in modern usage, to repair the world according to God’s blueprint, a world that includes, as our machzor says in a comment on p.156, “the relief of human suffering, the achievement of peace and mutual respect among peoples, and protection of the planet itself from destruction”. And then, at the conclusion of the prayer, when we cite the words of the prophet Zechariah, we hope that the day will also come when our God will be acknowledged as the one God who is sovereign of all the earth. Once again, we are pulled back and forth between universal and particular aspirations.
Aleinu is actually one of a number of prayers in our High Holy Day liturgy that reflects themes that are both particularistic towards the Jewish people and universalistic towards all of humanity. This should not surprise us when we recognize that the rabbis saw Rosh Hashanah not only as a time of judgment for the Jewish people, but also as the anniversary of the birthday of the world and a time that all pass before God in judgment: in the words of the Mishna and the U’Netaneh Tokef prayer we recited earlier, “v’chol ba’ei olam ya’avrun l’fanekha kivnei maron”, ALL that lives on earth will pass before You like a flock of sheep. Judgment and accountability isn’t just something reserved for Jews, it’s something all human beings have to deal with. And on Rosh Hashanah, as Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman points out in his book “All the World”, we as Jews “appear before God in our capacity as universal man or woman, not simply as a member of the Jewish People. To be sure, says Hoffman, it is Jewish tradition that summons us here to synagogue today, but once here, “we appear naked before God as the human descendants of Adam and Eve in Eden. We are either worthy of continued existence in God’s world or we are not; and if we are not, we engage in teshuvah” (23). We come to terms with who we have been in this past year and attempt to recreate ourselves, and the world, in a better image going forward. Hoffman adds, “Passover is one bookend in Jewish time, the particularistic one, the High Holy Days are the other bookend, the universalistic one, recalling that as much as we are Jews, we are also members of the world community, with a mission to advance the well-being of the world in which we find our existence” (23). This is right in line with the Aleinu insight of appreciating our particular peoplehood while situating it firmly in the context of the universal human experience and consequently embracing our mission of contributing to the betterment of the world.
Clearly this universal stamp is all over our machzor, and all over these High Holy Days, even when we are in the midst of our peak season of focusing on our own distinctly Jewish practices and rituals. But this theme isn’t just found during Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, it’s found in our Shabbat liturgy every week of the year, in the Kiddush. The first paragraph of the Kiddush focuses on Shabbat rooted in the creation story—God created the entire world and all life within it, and then carved out a 7th day in the cycle to rest once the creative process was completed. The second paragraph of the Kiddush adds another component: it refers to Shabbat as both a memorial for the act of creation, and a remembrance of the Exodus from Egypt, noting “ki vanu vacharta, v’otanu kidashta mikol ha-amim”, “God chose us and sanctified us from all the nations” by giving us the Shabbat. In the Kiddush we move from Shabbat as a universal gift in response to a universal act, to Shabbat as a gift to the Jewish people as part of a particular act of redeeming Israel from Egypt. Clearly we would not have been redeemed from Egypt had we, and the rest of humanity, not been created in the first place. Every week, we are charged with holding on to both contexts of Shabbat when we recite the Kiddush.
So how do we navigate this particular vs. universal tension in practice? Well, as with so much else in Judaism, it’s a balancing act. On the one hand, we focus inwardly on the powerful mandate of building our own community, learning as children and as adults about our Jewish tradition, and turning that learning into active Jewish living, observing Shabbat and holidays, eating a traditional Jewish diet through the laws of kashrut, and engaging regularly in personal and communal prayer. And on the other hand, we focus our gaze outwards, looking to reinforce the bond we share with the rest of humanity and do our part to elevate those who need lifting up.
There’s a famous maxim from Pirkei Avot, one of our earliest rabbinic collections of wisdom literature from 2000 years ago. It is “Im Ein Ani Li Mi Li—U’ch-she’ani l’atzmi, mah ani”? If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And if I’m only for myself, what am I? It’s a compelling call for both particularism and universalism in our approach to living. But there’s also a third part of the maxim: “V’im lo achshav—eimatai”. This task of looking out for both our own interests, and those of others in the world around us, is imbued with urgency. We can’t put it off, says Pirkei Avot, because we’ll just keep coming up with excuses. So today I’ll offer you a pathway to fulfilling the mandate of helping others besides ourselves, by calling to your attention the impactful work of our Shearith Israel Social Action Committee, headed up by Mindy Fagin and Andrea Solka. Here are just a few of the things they’re currently working on:
This week I ordered the newest tallit in Gabrieli’s line, one of only 72 individually numbered special blue and white tallitot made in celebration of Israel’s 72nd birthday back in May. No, I didn’t need a 17th tallit—I just loved the design and wanted to support my friend Ori Gabrieli’s business as it suffers with no tourism during the pandemic. But it’s fitting in light of my comments today that the atara, the collar, of this tallit is embroidered with the words “V’ahavta L’rey-acha Kamocha”, love your neighbor as yourself, from the book of Vayikra, Leviticus. We do have to love and value ourselves and treasure what makes us unique, but even as we work hard to develop our particular Jewish identity, we have to value our neighbors and reach out and work hard to help them too. And in this small and very connected world we now find ourselves living in, when people all over the globe are struggling with the impact of the same pandemic, where geographic or perceived distance can be bridged in one Facetime call or online gathering, we have lots more “neighbors”. Two brothers, Robert B. and Richard M. Sherman wrote a catchy little melody back in 1963, the lyrics might be vaguely familiar to you: “It’s a world of laughter, a world of tears, It’s a world of hopes and a world of fears; There’s so much that we share, that it’s time we’re aware—It’s a small world after all”.
Zeh Olam Katan M’od. It’s a small world after all, so our reach can extend further than ever before, in our own backyards and beyond. But that just means there’s that much more we can do to pitch in. What do you say we get started? Im lo achsav, eimatai. If not now, when?
Shana Tova, and Shabbat Shalom.
Watch this sermon at vimeo.com/460269520
Arriving at ShehechiyanuRead Now
Rosh Hashanah Sermon 5781
Rabbis Adam Roffman and Shira Wallach
ADAM: vehigiyanu lazman hazeh.
SHIRA: Praised are you God, Sovereign of the universe, who has given us life, who has sustained us, and who has enabled us to reach this day.
SHIRA: This blessing of thanksgiving, the shehechiyanu, recited at the start of every major holiday on the Jewish calendar, helps us transition between the ordinary and the extraordinary. Like all ritual at its best, it is also a hyperlink, a portal that connects us to the highlights of our lives, filling us with the warm glow of sweet emotions, reminding us of the essence of what life is truly about and why it’s worth living.
But what does it mean to say this blessing today, on the start of this new year, when the distance between us and the fear and uncertainty around us feel so great?
ADAM: A story is told of the Bluzhever Rebbe, Rabbi Yisrael Spira, who was imprisoned by the Nazis in Bergen Belsen during the shoah. One year, on Erev Chanukah, after a particularly brutal day, one where many of his fellow Jews had been randomly shot, their bodies still lying on the ground as night fell, the Rebbe found an old shoe, made some oil out of shoe polish, a wick out of threads of a garment, and gathered others around him to fulfill the mitzvah of lighting the Chanukah candles.
Rabbi Spira recited the first two blessings, marking the start of the holiday and thanking God for the miracles that saved our ancestors from destruction at hand of the Greeks.
Then, he paused for the briefest of moments and offered the final prayer—the shehechiyanu.
SHIRA: One Jew who witnessed this scene later came to the Rebbe and said bitterly, “I understand how you can make the first two blessings, but tell me Rabbi Spira, how can you, in this terrible place, with dead Jews lying all around us, make the shehechiyanu blessing thanking God for keeping us alive and bringing us to this time?”
The Rebbe looked at him and said “You know, I had the same problem. But then I looked around and saw these Jews in the worst of circumstances, surrounded by death and destruction, gathering together and insisting on fulfilling the mitzvah of lighting the Chanukah candles.
I said to myself: for this alone one can and should make the blessing: “shehechiyanu v’kiyamanu v’higeeyanu lazman hazeh.”
No matter how grim the world around us becomes, no matter what challenges we face, (and make no mistake, the difficult times we are living through now in no way compare to the horrors of the Holocaust), when the New Year arrives we recite the shehechiyanu.
We give ourselves the permission to fully embrace not just the holiness of this moment, but also the life-affirming forces within us and around that have brought us to this day.
ADAM: Shehechiyanu: who has kept us alive
Breathe, in and out. Feel the air rush in and out of your lungs. Put your hand on your chest and detect your heartbeat. Tense and release your muscles.
The magnificent body that God made for you, before you even knew there was a ‘you,’ continues to breathe, to beat, to move, to eat. You have the ability to sense the waxing and waning of the moon, the rising and setting of the sun.
Today, we say shehechiyanu…we’re still here. Judaism insists that gratitude must come from what we already have, not what we are given. Pirkei Avot teaches: Who is rich? The one who is satisfied with her portion. We arise in the morning and say, Modeh Ani, thank you God for my restoring soul, for returning life to my body after a full night’s sleep.
Hineni, I exist. But is that enough?
SHIRA: Has it been enough for you, parents--who had to quickly figure out how to juggle work, school, and childcare, and not cry in front of your kids more than once a day?
Or for you, the homebound seniors, who have endured inexplicable loneliness, unable to visit in person with those who give your life meaning?
Or for your children and families, who yearned with all their hearts just for the ability to throw their arms around you, to let you know that you’re not alone?
Or for all of us, who have struggled with the fear of falling ill, or of breathing our last breaths alone?
Psalm 115 suggests a surprising answer to this existential question: Lo hameitim yehallelu yah. The dead cannot praise God.
Notice: what separates us from those who no longer walk this earth is not our beating hearts or our breathing lungs or our tensing muscles. It’s the ability to transcend, to rise. To take in, to acknowledge every single element in our lives, and then to send that gratitude heavenward as praise.
In Sefer Devarim, the Book of Deuteronomy, Moshe Rabeinu gives us a last glimpse of his vision of Life, before our ancestors crossed over into the Promised Land, and he crossed over into the World to Come. In this final, pivotal moment, Moshe pleads with us: uvacharta bachayim, choose life! Don’t just stay alive, choose a life that is resplendent with justice and love, goodness and blessing.
ADAM: Vekiyemanu: who has sustained us
The word kayam should be familiar to all of you; you’ve sung it many times before. David Melech Yisrael chai, chai vekayam. David, King of Israel: he is kayam, he is eternally sustained. And if you read the Bible, you’ll see that King David, despite facing countless enemies and obstacles, was a man of boundless energy, spry enough to leap and dance in front of the Ark of the Covenant, and prolific enough to write and score all 150 of the psalms.
But think about what King David had to keep him going--a direct line to a God that adored him, legions of women and men who loved him or were in love with him. And his destiny was never in doubt--he knew exactly where he was going and why because the prophets who anointed him and advised him made sure of it.
Good for him.
SHIRA: We face a somewhat murkier picture--an endless stream of how longs and what nexts and what fors. It makes even the simplest act of being kayam, of standing up and getting out of bed in the morning, feel as daunting as facing a giant without a slingshot.
This was our struggle too, until our 15-month-old hit a sleep regression, waking us up screaming at odd hours of the night. Soon enough, we were stumbling up the stairs in a zombie daze at 1:30, 3:15, 4:45am to pick her up before the 5-year-old woke up too. I challenge you to come up with a stronger adrenaline rush.
But it wasn’t only these moments that pulled us out of our stupor.
Feeling my heart burst with pride as Hannah suddenly realized how to ride her bike, without training wheels. Watching her face as she figured out how to read, how to build circuits, how to add and subtract, how to listen to music for its time signature, instruments, and themes.
And just a few weeks ago, as I rode my elliptical still asleep, I looked up and saw Adam come in the room holding Rebecca. She regarded me with her dreamy eyes and when I said “I love you,” she said it right back. When I stepped off, she held her body against mine in the longest hug I could remember.
These are the things that sustain us, that enable us to be here today. Not only the fun, easy, joyful moments, but the hard ones too-- all of these remind us that we CAN find meaning between the bookends of our lives. What prevents us from going numb is acknowledging the mere possibility that the entire gamut of human emotion and experience is out there, waiting for us.
So we must discover, with God’s help: how are we sustained? How do we find the strength to stand, lakum? To rise up? To be an upstander? To be outstanding?
And, with the strength that we have left after an exhausting year, how do we remain focused for whom and what we must sustain, to ensure that we, our family, our community, are always chai vekayam?
ADAM: Vehigiyanu: Who has enabled us to reach, to arrive at this joyous occasion.
The Hebrew verb l’hagiyah, is causative—it implies dynamic movement that results in an action, in our case, a destination.
The start of a New Year is a true moment of arrival. We have made it to this moment and we will not be denied the opportunity to celebrate it. You may be watching this service from a screen in your own home, but the moment is no less real despite the medium through which we are all sharing in the experience.
One of the things that amuses me on the twelve-hour flight to Tel Aviv on El Al is watching the plane’s crew figure out who speaks what language. But, of course, no matter how full the plane is with tourists from America and Europe, the first attempt at communication is always in Hebrew—after all, that’s part of the pride of bringing people to the Jewish homeland on our own national airline. Once, during dinner service, a flight attendant finally made her way to my row with my favorite part of the meal, the part served from a basket.
“Magiah lecha lechem,” she said to the person next to me.
“What?” he replied.
“You deserve bread.” Not “atah rotzeh,” would you like some, but, “magiah lekha.” This is something you paid for, something you are owed.
SHIRA: Our tradition teaches, and the blessing reminds us, that the cause we referred to earlier, the one who provided us with a reason to mark this day is God.
Hayom harat olam—God has brought us to the day in which we are obligated to celebrate the miracle of God’s creation.
Hayom te’amtzeinu—To prove that we are deserving of these gifts we face God’s judgement, denying ourselves the sustenance of life until we have proven that we are worthy of it.
And yet, each time, before we read from the Torah, we call out: V’atem hadevekim b’adonai eloheichem hayim, kulchem, hayom.
All of you, all of us, who have clung to Adonai your God, we are the ones who are standing here today receiving the blessing of the Etz Chayim, the tree of life.
As Rabbi Ovadiah ben Ya’akov Sforno remarks on this verse—it is because you have been wise enough to avoid the lures and temptations that might lead you toward the path of death rather than life, curse rather than blessing, that you have been granted this moment of reunion with our most sacred of objects in the presence of holy community.
This moment is ma’giah lanu, because with an effort that has exhausted even the most spirited among us, we have earned it.
ADAM: And not only this moment, but all the moments that are ya’gia, that are yet to come for all of us in this new year.
The moment where we gather members of our community for the first time in six months in our sukkah to share in a meal, even if it is socially distanced.
The moment when we set our table for seder and instead of one or two or three place settings, we break out the folding tables from the garage, squeezing every possible square inch of space out of our living room and dining rooms to accommodate family and friends.
The moments when our children enter their school without a mask on, when we can walk them to the front door to embarrass them with that final hug or kiss.
The moment when our personal and professional achievements, when our lifecycle events are celebrated not on a screen or in a parking lot, but in a banquet hall or at an office party.
Yes, even the moment when we attend a funeral and we can go up to the mourners without hesitation or reservation and comfort them with a loving embrace.
All these moments I hope, I pray, I know are magi’im lanu. And part of the joy that we feel on this day is the anticipation of all these blessings and more that we will celebrate together in this new year.
SHIRA: In Masechet Brachot, the Talmud’s tractate on blessings, the sages relate one more occasion on which we are commanded to stop and give thanks to God for a moment that we surely had been taking for granted, but no longer.
Rabbi Yehoshua said : One who sees his friend after an interval of thirty days recites, "Blessed you Adonai, Who has kept us in life, who has preserved us, and enabled us to reach this day."
ADAM: In the Wilderness of Sinai, the Israelites constructed a tent at the outskirts of the camp, one where Moses would consult with God, receive instruction and pray for his people. The Torah describes these encounters with words whose significance has grown tremendously over these past few months:
וְדִבֶּ֨ר ה' אֶל־מֹשֶׁה֙ פָּנִ֣ים אֶל־פָּנִ֔ים כַּאֲשֶׁ֛ר יְדַבֵּ֥ר אִ֖ישׁ אֶל־רֵעֵ֑הוּ
And Moses spoke to God, face to face, like a person encountering a dear friend.
When we can finally greet each other, friend and stranger alike, panim-el-panim, face to face inside our sacred tents--our homes, our synagogues, our beloved community of Shearith Israel, on that day too, we will recite the shehechiyanu.
And we will feel, I imagine, some of the same radiance that Moses and God felt as they beheld the fullness of each other’s countenance, no barrier, no obstacle, no mask between them.
ADAM: Shehechiyanu: Thank you God, for keeping us alive and helping us find reasons to live.
SHIRA: V’kiyemanu: For sustaining us and inspiring us to sustain others.
ADAM: V’higiyanu: For the blessings of today, and all the blessings to come.
SHIRA & ADAM: Amen.
Watch the sermon at https://vimeo.com/460295310
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.
Where Heaven and Earth MeetRead Now
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