Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Rosh HaShanah Sermon 5772: Tradition!

One of my favorite pictures of the last year carried the caption: “Devastating Damage of the East Coast Earthquake.” Above it: a photo of spilled paperclips on an otherwise tidy desk! It’s just too easy to laugh at the sudden anxiety of our loved ones back East.

Suffering, of course, is no laughing matter. You don’t have to live through an earthquake to know this is true. Turn inward, and consider how you have suffered since our economy soured several years ago.
Media headlines trumpet new realities: pervasive job loss, salary freezes, costly health insurance. And we continue to reel from an unstable stock market.

Nervousness isn’t just something East Coasters feel when the earth trembles. It can also overwhelm us when financial stability and normalcy become something we yearn for, rather than something we take for granted.

On Rosh HaShanah, we wish one another a happy and sweet New Year. How can we celebrate a new year marked by widespread poverty, unemployment, and distress?

As Jews, we rejoice because we – are – here. We – are – alive. The breath of life remains within us.

For millenia, we have endured even as empires sought to destroy us. The Romans. The tsars. The Nazis. And so many others. They have all tried to end Judaism permanently. Yet: we are here.

How have we survived in the face of so much anguish?

Tevye asks the same question at the very beginning of Fiddler on the Roof. And his answer: Tradition!

Like our ancestors, we can endure the current economic crisis, by drawing strength from the essential values of our Tradition. Tonight, I shall draw your attention to three of those traditions in particular: to emunat tikvah: faith in the power of hope; to shalom bayit: peace in our homes; and to klal Yisrael, to the connection we share with the entirety of the Jewish people. These were the sources of light that our ancestors relied on during times of darkness. And tonight, we shall consider how they can illuminate our way forward into the year ahead.

Long ago, our people described God as their Rock and Redeemer. God was their on-call Rescuer, standing by to assist in times of trouble.

How I wish that my own faith came so easily.

Alas, I came of age as a skeptic. I struggle with the assertion that if we simply believe in God, then everything will automatically improve.

And yet, I believe in miracles. Not the kind of miracles that our ancestors believed in. But if we define a miracle as a completely unexpected experience that moves us spiritually and emotionally to places we did not think we could go….then I believe in miracles.

I believe that in the midst of the darkness that personifies our world today, there are sparks: moments of miracles.

As the tears on my face attested, I experienced the miracle of love as Amy and I were married under our chuppah. And even though the nurses made fun of me for it, I wept uncontrollably as my children Siona and Avi were born.

Others sense miracles in the desert, or atop a mountain…moved to the point of tears by the miraculously unexpected beauty of the natural world.

I believe in the miraculously unexpected possibilities of tomorrow – and so I believe in Hope.

The prophet Jeremiah refers to God as Mikveh Yisrael – the Hope of Israel. Jeremiah offers us a wonderfully contemporary way of thinking about God – not as God per se – but as a representation of the possibility of tikvah, of hope: hope in the assurance that things won’t always be as stressful and chaotic as they are right now.

800 years ago Maimonides noted that “The world is ordered and beautiful, even if it seems ordered against us.”

During this Rosh HaShanah season of renewal, how apt it is that Maimonides reminds us that even though we might feel overwhelmed, we must keep our eyes open…ready to sense the miracles that surround us. For even if the world seems ordered against us, the world is still ordered, still beautiful, and still full of hope.

Faith in the possibility of a better tomorrow is just one of the traditions that sustained our ancestors during times of trouble. Even as they yearned for glimpses of hope, they also sought support from the ones who were dearest to them…through the longstanding Jewish value of shalom bayit – peace in the home.

George Santayana once wrote that “The family is one of nature’s masterpieces.” And for the entire span of Jewish history, our people have agreed.

Our families identify us. They offer a structure for transmitting culture, tradition, and values to our next generation. And they provide us with a set of relatives that are supposed to stand by us…no matter what.

Our tradition doesn’t just believe that family should be there to help us cope during crisis. Judaism envisions the family as a genuine source of happiness. Thus the Vilna Gaon wrote that: “The aim of the Torah…is to induce us to want to cause happiness. Let there be no dissension in our households…but let love and brotherliness reign.”

In my experience, when things are going right at home - when we are getting along with our parents and grandparents…with our children and siblings…then – on a certain level – everything is right with the world. Not because all of our struggles disappear. But because our challenges become lighter burdens, when we know that we have the love of the people that matter most to us.

The opposite is also true. That no matter how much wealth we’re blessed to enjoy, none of it matters if things are not right with the most important people in our lives. Whether it is with a loving partner or a best friend: The state of our relations dictates our sense of happiness and fulfillment – even more than the balance in our checkbook.

Our Torah readings during Rosh HaShanah emphasize the fragile bonds that tie our families together. When we read the story of Creation, we are uneasily reminded of how Adam and Eve blame each other for the problems that befall them, rather than taking joint responsibility for eating the Forbidden Fruit.

And when we read the Binding of Isaac, we cringe at the dysfunction that would impel our patriarch to willingly sacrifice his son.

For Adam and Eve, and for Abraham and Isaac, their lives are forever defined…not by their economic status…but by the brokenness of the relationships that were once so important to them.

Our job on this Rosh HaShanah is to learn from their mistakes: by not letting the anxieties of this moment distract us from the enduring Tradition of shalom bayit: of tending to the relationships that matter most. In doing so, may we find the happiness and fulfillment that this latest crisis threatens to withhold from us.

Faith in the power of hope, and a renewed commitment to our loved ones, are two of the core values that our ancestors relied on to get them through times of trouble. But the secret of the survival of the Jewish people cannot be wholly explained through faith and devotion to family. We have persisted through the ages because we see ourselves as part of something bigger: Klal Yisrael, the Jewish People.

Look around and see the power of Klal Yisrael at work right now. Our community is often absent from the synagogue. And yet…these Holy Days draw us together. We reconstitute ourselves as part of Klal Yisrael this evening: proclaiming that we are part of something bigger…something that is more important than our individual identities.

The importance of being part of a team…I was fascinated to learn this past year that in the Tour de France, cyclists do not enter as individuals; instead, they enter as members of a team. For the good of the team, most riders focus on supporting their team captain, so that he has the best chance of winning the race.

Like competitive cycling: we are commanded to look out for the other members of our team. And as in the Tour de France, the success of our team – the Jewish People – is dependent on whether we look out for one another.

The Talmud says: Kol yisrael areivim zeh ba zeh – all of Israel is responsible one for the other. How does that principal enable us to cope with our current hardships?

First, it is a reminder to anyone in this room who suffers that you are not alone.

Here at Solel, we try to live this out by working to insure that no one is turned away from temple membership because they cannot afford it.

Equally important is the counseling that Rabbi Frank, Cantor Tiep, and I have done with those going through a rough patch. We continue to be standing by: for you and for others, in the weeks and months ahead.

The same ethos is reflected in other institutions in our San Diego Jewish community, like Jewish Family Service. Did you know that JFS offers interest free loans and subsidized counseling with licensed therapists? 

Re-embracing our sense of peoplehood…of being part of something bigger extends beyond our personal needs. We don’t just invoke Klal Yisrael to demand something from it. Klal Yisrael is also about identifying with Jews around the world. It means caring about Jews who suffer in Cuba, Russia, or Argentina, and then doing something about it.

But our sense of Peoplehood can best be expressed by the love and support that we offer to our brothers and sisters in the State of Israel.

The news in recent days of the Palestinians’ attempt to gain recognition from the United Nations is merely the latest in a long line of reasons why we should care about Israel and her well-being.

Shame on the Palestinians for seeking a unilateral resolution to their existential crisis at the UN, which has been historically unsympathetic to the needs of Israelis.

I am one of the few people left on the planet who believes that a peaceful resolution can be achieved through bilateral negotiations in our time…And so, for me, the United Nations cannot be the answer. It may make the Palestinians feel good about themselves in the short run. But it will not bring peace in the long run.

Caring about Israel has been a concern of Jews for 2000 years. We face Israel when we pray. We strive to teach our children Hebrew. And we plant trees there to mark the seasons of our lives. We do all of this so that we can be there for Israel…because we know that – should we ever need her – Israel will be there for us.

Caring for each other has been the third secret to our survival. I stand in awe of the interdependent support system that the notion of Klal Yisrael helped to construct. Those in need were always helped by their sisters. And those who were able to give always gave, so that their brothers could be sustained. Times have changed, but this essential element of our Jewishness remains constant: we must continue to support and care for our own if we are to survive.

Hemingway wrote that “The world breaks everyone, but some people are strong in the broken places.”

This year has been a difficult one for our community. Some have suffered more than most. But all have been affected. All of us have tasted the anxiety that comes with loss of wealth, and with concern about our future. In Hemingway’s words, all of us have become a little more broken this year.

But we know, from the long history of our people, that we can and must endure, by discovering the strength that is hiding in the broken parts of our souls.

Our tradition is the wellspring of that strength. If you look, you will find it entrenched in our age-old commitment to the vitality of Klal Yisrael: the Jewish People and the State of Israel. And you will find it reflected in shalom bayit…in the love and support that is waiting for us at home, and within the most important relationships in our lives. Most of all, you can find it rooted in emunat tikvah: faith in the power of Hope…in the belief that the miracle of a better tomorrow is not only possible, but probable.

Our rabbis spun a tale about Adam, all alone at the end of that wondrous first day of existence….the very first day in the history of humanity.

After getting to enjoy the glorious light and heat that the sun provided him…he began to feel anxious. He realized, late in the afternoon, that the sun was setting. That…little by little…the sun was sinking down towards the horizon. And as it set, it got progressively darker. And colder. And as the darkness and cold set upon him, Adam had no idea that the sun was going to rise the next morning! He feared that he might never enjoy light again!

And so God comforted Adam, by presenting him with stones. And God taught Adam how to rub the stones together, so as to produce light.

On this Rosh HaShanah, let us be comforted in knowing that we have been blessed with the ability to endure times of darkness just as Adam did. We, too, have the ability to transform our darkness into a dazzling hopeful light.

According to legend, Adam’s stones had names. And our’s do as well. They are the foundational traditions of our People…the traditions that have sustained us across oceans and millennia. And they are called: Hope, Family, and Israel. As we reaffirm these traditions today, on this New Year, may we be blessed like Adam was, with the ability to bring new sparks of light into this darkened world…sparks that will illuminate the way forward for us, and radiate warmth and support for the ones around us.

Keyn Yhi Ratzon – May this be God’s will.

Friday, September 16, 2011

All Things Israel

Welcome back!  After our customary summer hiatus, I'm pleased to be back online with the first posting of the new school year.  As always: I welcome your feedback - especially publicly!  What do we have to do to start getting you to be comfortable posting your feedback online for the world to see (and respond to)?  It is amazing when I get your private emails with your incredible thoughts, questions, and responses.  But this is a blog...It is begging for your public participation!  If you have any questions about how to post your thoughts online, email or call me and I'd be happy to walk you through it.

In the meantime, the news is abuzz with items related to Israel.  If you have been tuning Israel news out during the summer, then you missed the unbelievable expressions of democracy that have been sprouting up all over the place!  Some of the rallies featured more than 450,000 Israelis, peacefully gathering and demonstrating for social justice and economic reforms. Check out video of the protests here.

There are two other Israel-related things things that should be on your radar screen right now.  The first has to do with the fact that the Palestinians (who do not have an officially recognized state of their own) have decided that, instead of pursuing bilateral peace negotiations with Israel, that they will instead be approaching the United Nations in the next few days for official status recognition.  Today's New York Times coverage of the story can be found here.  Nearly every Jewish organization has positioned itself as opposing the Palestinian action, including our own Reform movement.  Learn about the Reform position and sign ARZA's (the Israel advocacy arm of Reform Judaism's) petition here.  For those like myself who sometimes situate ourselves on the left-leaning side of the Israel political spectrum, it is important to note that even J Street has declared itself as opposing the Palestinians' UN maneuvering.  In the spirit of dialogue, you might be interested in reading the article here for an impassioned argument in favoring of utilizing the UN to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (though I respectfully disagree with it).

Beyond all things UN-related, there has been a parallel conversation unfolding online about the current younger generation of American Jews, and their connection to/attitudes toward Israel.  Some months ago, Rabbi Daniel Gordis (a widely-read commentator on all things Israel - you should subscribe to his email list even if you don't agree with him!) wrote a provocative version of it was published in Commentary Magazine.  It's a long piece, but well worth reading.  Basically, he makes a number of observations surrounding the fact that younger Jews today care less about Israel/are less connected.  Nothing about his piece is surprising...there have been plenty of demographic/population studies that have been telling us this for quite some time.  But Gordis is a talented writer.  And the way that he addressed the situation got a lot of attention, and raised a number of thought provoking questions/responses.  Some of them were just published in Commentary's September issue.  These are also well worth reading.

I share all of this material by way of turning to all of you...and in particular our college students on this welcome you to the conversation.  Your opinion on Israel matters!  (And for our purposes in this setting, all views and perspectives are welcome, so long as they conveyed in an appropriate and respectful tone.)  I would love to hear from you: what do you think about what is going on in Israel right now?  How do you feel about the Palestinians, and what is the best/most reasonable way for Israel to deal justly with them, and protect itself in the process?  And how do you relate to Israel?  What role (if any) does the Land or her people play in your life? 

What I would beg you to avoid is apathy....for it would literally break my heart if you felt so little connection to Israel, that you weren't even motivated to have an opinion about it.  That would be a great tragedy for the Jewish world, and for you as well.  (If you don't have an opinion about Israel - let today be the beginning of a change in that department!)

These are exciting and important and controversial times that we are living in.  I hope this forum can be a place where you will feel comfortable coming to learn, to ask, and to share your thoughts on how you can contribute to the great (Jewish) debates of our day.

Shabbat Shalom.