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Rabbi's High Holiday Sermons

 5780 Kol Nidre Sermon

I don’t think I am the only person here this evening who is worried about opening up the news, and hearing of a high holiday copycat terrorist attack on a synagogue. Right? That’s why we have all the security here – the bollards and the guards, the bulletproof glass and the police. Ever since the attack on the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, and reaffirmed in Poway, we Jews have been legitimately scared.

Tonight I want to talk about the martyrdom of those Jews, and what it means for us, as Jews, and how we live in the world today. Because I believe that it changes everything for us: but it changes everything in a very old way.

What is martyrdom? We don’t talk about martyrdom much these days. Some people see it as very Christian, but it’s not – or, like a lot of things, we did it first. Our religion has been talking about martyrs, people who lay down their lives for God, since its inception.

We also don’t talk about martyrdom very much because, let’s be honest, in our contemporary society, people don’t like to have much asked of them. I know this as a rabbi: a sermon that asks nothing of people, but flatters what they already believe to be true about themselves, will always be better-received than one that challenges people.

But I stand here tonight aware of what these martyrs of Pittsburgh and Poway laid down their lives for, and affirm that it would be a sin for a rabbi to give a sermon reacting to this with mere flattery. A sermon after Pittsburgh must reach into our very bones and shake us.

And I want to begin with talking about another moment of martyrdom in recent American history: the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

David Foster Wallace, the late author, wrote the following in The Atlantic in 2007:

Are some things still worth dying for? Is the American idea1 one such thing? Are you up for a thought experiment? What if we chose to regard the 2,973 innocents killed in the atrocities of 9/11 not as victims but as democratic martyrs, “sacrifices on the altar of freedom”?2 In other words, what if we decided that a certain baseline vulnerability to terrorism is part of the price of the American idea? And, thus, that ours is a generation of Americans called to make great sacrifices in order to preserve our democratic way of life—sacrifices not just of our soldiers and money but of our personal safety and comfort?

Wallace is looking at all of the trade-offs we have made, sacrificing liberty in the name of security, and asks: what if we are thinking about it all wrong? He continues:

What are the effects on the American idea of Guantánamo, Abu Ghraib, PATRIOT Acts I and II, warrantless surveillance, Executive Order 13233, corporate contractors performing military functions, the Military Commissions Act, NSPD 51, etc., etc.? Assume for a moment that some of these measures really have helped make our persons and property safer—are they worth it? Where and when was the public debate on whether they’re worth it? Was there no such debate because we’re not capable of having or demanding one? Why not? Have we actually become so selfish and scared that we don’t even want to consider whether some things trump safety? What kind of future does that augur?

I’ll read those last two lines again:

Have we actually become so selfish and scared that we don’t even want to consider whether some things trump safety? What kind of future does that augur?

We know what kind of future that augurs. We are living in it today, and whether you are a democrat or a republican, a socialist or a libertarian, you can see that the presidency in the last decades, under presidents of both parties, has undergone an expansion of executive authority that would scandalize the founders of our country. The details of this topic aren’t relevant here, but Wallace’s point is core: we must not become so selfish and scared that we sacrifice certain values.

Now, let’s apply this to the Jewish world. I for one am proud of how our synagogue has reacted to the Pittsburgh attack, but that is the exception more than the rule. In many places, Jews have closed up the gates. They have built walls to exclude and turned aside from Jewish values. Here at our synagogue, we’ve done the opposite: while we have upgraded security, we have also presided over the largest growth in membership in years – something like 40 families since July – and we have been aggressive about pursuing openness and access as a synagogue policy.

But it doesn’t mean there isn’t room to grow, and there is more at stake than how we welcome: namely, the future of the Jewish people is at stake in how we respond to the martyrdom of last October.

In classical Jewish law, martyrdom is known as “Kiddush Hashem,” the sanctification of God through an action. The idea behind it is that some things are more important than your life. The classical text on Jewish martyrdom, from the Talmud in tractate Sanhedrin, speaks of three matters on which “yehareg ve-al ya-avor” – regarding which you should allow yourself to be killed rather than violate them. These are murder, incest/rape, and idolatry. To concretize this: a person comes to you and puts a gun to you, and says to bow down to this idol, to commit this sexual offense, to murder this person, you are supposed to allow them to kill you rather than commit that sin. There is a public idea to this: by means of your death, people will say: Jews are so passionate about righteousness that they would rather die than do these things. What an amazing religion!

It reminds me of a story I heard from a Lutheran German woman who hid Jews from the Nazis during the Holocaust. Asked, weren’t you afraid of what the Gestapo would do to you if they caught you, she said: Of course I was – but I was more afraid of what God would do to me if I didn’t hide those Jews.

Now I think you understand why I spoke about courage last week. Last week in Florida, a fifteen-year-old boy, Khyler Edman, sacrificed his life to protect his five-year-old sister from a violent intruder in his house. That’s martyrdom. And it requires courage. Valor.

But martyrdom, in classical Jewish texts, is not just about dying to avoid crossing certain moral red-lines. It’s also about being willing to die in order to live a robust Jewish life. As I said last October, those people in Pittsburgh were martyrs to the most ordinary and profound Jewish act: going to shul.

A text in Vayikra Rabbah, a Roman era Jewish text written with the Hadrianic persecutions in mind, during which 500,000 Jews were killed in the second century CE, imagines a dialogue with Jews being martyred:

Why are you being taken out to be stoned? Because I circumcised my son.

Why are you being taken out to be burned? Because I observed Shabbat.

Why are you being taken out to be decapitated? Because I ate matzah.

Why are you being taken out to be whipped? Because I built a sukkah. Because I shook a lulav. Because I put on tefillin. Because I wore a tallit. Because I did what God asked of me.

How many of you have done these things? Have circumcised your son? Have eaten matzah? Have observed Shabbat?

Jews were being murdered for doing these things thousands of years ago, and Jews have been murdered for them again in Pittsburgh and Poway. Those Jews were martyrs, in the most classical sense.

But what this text reminds us, and tells us with real emotional force, is this. Judaism is not only about certain moral red-lines that we must not cross. Judaism is also about all sorts of positive actions, building a sukkah, wearing a tallit, eating matzah, coming to synagogue on Shabbat, that are absolutely necessary.

I remember, in the first decade of this century, people would joke sometimes with the punchline of, “then the terrorists will win.” You remember that? Go to this mall, or the terrorists will win. It was dark humor and we needed it at the time.

But Jewishly, it’s actually quite correct. If we stop living robust Jewish lives, if we stop doing Jewish things, then the anti-Semites win.

This is the point that David Foster Wallace was making. If we account those killed in Pittsburgh as merely victims, then our response is all about security. But when we look at them as martyrs, we say: well, what are the things worth dying for? Or: what are the things worth living about?

There’s a quote by Alan Paton, the South African author and anti-apartheid activist, that I heard from my friend, Rabbi Ethan Witkovsky of Park Avenue Synagogue in New York. Paton said the following: “When I ascend to heaven… I will be asked ‘where are your wounds?’ When I will say, ‘I haven’t any,’ I will be asked, ‘Was there nothing worth fighting for?”

What are those Jewish values that are worth fighting for? What are those Jewish practices that are worth being hurt for? What are those Jewish moral commitments that are worth dying for?

I’ll give you some:

It is worth dying to love the stranger.

It is worth sacrificing a vacation to feed the hungry.

It is worth giving up brunch to come to synagogue on a Saturday.

It is worth taking a day off to come to Rosh Hashanah services.

It is worth suffering the contempt of your friends to support Israel.

It is worth voiding your ego to acknowledge that another is right.

It is worth making peace with a person who frustrates you.

I could go on. This is Yom Kippur – you have the entire holiday to think of these things. There are lists in the book to help you.

The lesson of Judaism is that we have to be willing to do hard things. Hard things like getting over ourselves, getting out of our own ways, and conquering our urge to anger. Two years ago on Yom Kippur, I spoke of the need for what Teddy Roosevelt called “the strenuous life.” A strenuous Judaism is not one where rabbis speak platitudes, where we only offer sweet foods, but where we get a little bit spicy. Where we give you something tough to chew on.

And that has been the experience of our people: that we are tough because life is tough. And also: we are loving because life is tough. All of our teaching about the hard moments in Jewish history, it was all for two things: too make us more loving people, and to make us people who have the strength to do their duty.

It’s just that, I cannot tell you what that “duty” is beyond a general outline. That is the task for you and your prayers. The word for prayer in Hebrew, lehitpalel, means to self-evaluate. What I can tell you to do, though, is to be willing to sacrifice for what you find.

Because that is the legacy of Pittsburgh and Poway. That is what their martyrdom means to us. A martyrdom that holds before us the fact that we too must be willing to sacrifice for our Jewish values. The job of a rabbi is to explain how those specific values operate, to teach the details of our duties, but the job for you, this Yom Kippur, is to decide which of those values you need to focus on this year, for your own soul.

Because that is what is at stake. The idea of martyrdom, the truth that those Jews in Pittsburgh and Poway lived and died, is that your soul is more important than your body. And although we are not all asked always to give up our bodies, we are asked, each of us, every day, to sacrifice, and to give of ourselves, to participate in this great Jewish project.

5780 Yom Kippur Morning Sermon

What’s this? [hold up grapes] A bunch of grapes. Tasty, sweet – and they spoil in a few days. What’s this? [hold up wine] A bottle of wine. Delicious, not too sweet, oaky, hints of chocolate, a cherry finish and spicy on the tongue. Grown on a foggy, sun-dappled ridge in the Santa Ynez Valley. Okay, it’s actually just Manischewitz.

How do you get from this [grapes] to that [wine]? In a true partnership with God. Grapes are harvested, crushed, and fermented, turned into wine by the work of human civilization. Think about it: when we thank God for wine, we say, Borei Peri Hagafen, who creates the fruit of the vine. But creating the fruit of the vine doesn’t get you to wine. God supplies the raw materials – but it’s up to us to transform them into something even better.

This is the food picture of the concept of a partnership with God. God gave us all of these raw materials in the world, and we are supposed to transform them. We turn flour into bread. We turn olives into oil. We turn rye into whisky.

Makes sense? Well, it also works theologically. God wants us to transform the things of this world into something holier. We’re supposed to take our intellect and moral feelings, and turn them into Torah. We’re supposed to take our emotional lives and moments of inspiration, and turn them into prayer. We’re supposed to take our sympathy with suffering people, and turn it into tzedek, justice.

And we’re supposed to turn our basic need for human connection, and turn it into “kehilah kedoshah,” holy community.

Our basic need for human connection. Every person, I believe, has a basic need for connection with others. We see this in the Torah – God creates Adam, and realizes lo tov lihiyot adam levado, it is not good for a person to be a lone, and so then creates Eve. We see this in our psychology – numerous studies showing that connection helps us to flourish. And we see this in our society’s maladies, where so many social illnesses derive from personal isolation and its outflowing negativity.

In early 20th-century America, our ancestors founded institutions to deal with the need for Jewish connection. Those institutions, sometimes called Jewish community centers, sometimes called synagogues, flourished in the mid-20th century. They operated on a model where people paid a membership fee, and received community in exchange. The larger society was not broadly open to Jews, and this was a core chance to address that need.

But the model has operated, essentially without change, for 80 years. And it doesn’t work anymore. And we all know this. No industry can operate without structural change over this span of time – of course synagogues can’t.

And this is what our strategic planning process has been about addressing, and it plays out in what we are implementing this year. We have realized the need for change to permeate throughout our community. Our vision is a community that departs from the walled-off country-club model of the 20th century. I think it is beautiful:

Tiferet Bet Israel is an open-minded Jewish spiritual community. With an attitude of love and acceptance toward all, regardless of relationship or family arrangement, income, or Jewish background, TBI reaches across Montgomery County to spread love, meaning, Torah, and connection to God. We guide people with meaningful prayer, service for others, Torah, and relationships. We foster love for the State of Israel as part of Jewish life.

Now, we could spend all day talking about how this will operate in our synagogue. But right now, I want to talk about one aspect of the plan, which addresses a problem before us that I think is morally urgent: The 20th century American synagogue has become personally isolating, and isn’t there for the emotional, psychological, and spiritual needs of people because it gets in its own way.

I speak with an incredible number of people in our community who feel less-than, for all sorts of reasons. If you wonder why I talk about brokenness so much, it means that you’re blessed to come from a place of privilege that 90% of our congregants don’t come from. But for so many people I speak with, there are litanies of ways that synagogue makes them feel less-than.

Sometimes it is because of body image. I’ve heard people tell me that they’ve stopped coming here because somebody acted like you have to look a certain way. Sometimes it is because of family arrangement. I’ve heard people tell me that they stopped coming here because somebody suggested that single people don’t belong. Sometimes it is because of disability: I’ve had people tell me that they’ve stopped coming here because someone suggested that their child’s disability was not welcome.

I have spoken with so many people over the years who come to the synagogue and find, rather than a cure for their isolation, an affirmation of it. Instead of being a solution to a society that judges and excludes, synagogue becomes an echo of it. And I spoke about, in sermon after sermon, and most significantly when I interviewed here, about how we have to be a synagogue that tells people: the place where you feel broken or less-than is actually the location where synagogue should meet you and join you and heal you.

But this morning, I want to talk about the biggest way that people often feel less-than here: because of money.

We – I mean TBI, and also the 20th century synagogue – do so many things that suggest a synagogue should be about money.

We have expensive seats in the front.

We have charges for good parking spaces.

We hold out tickets until people pay.

Those are just High Holiday examples. But they go farther than this.

When I started college in 1999, a private university cost $30,000 a year. Today, private universities are $60,000 a year: but income hasn’t gone up. Our dues have, though. And we wonder: why do families cease their membership after their kids graduate high school? I wonder! It’s because that’s $3000 a year that no one has!

But the tragedy is this: those families really need community. It’s really hard when your last kid goes to college. You’re suddenly in a place where you’re lonely. You lose your child’s community. And often, you’re suddenly having to be a caregiver for ailing parents. For a lot of people, their 50s and 60s are a lost decade.

They really need the synagogue: but we aren’t there for them, because of cost.

Or take young families. I’ve spoken to families, trying to make ends meet, working two incomes, totally stressed, and trying to pay 5, 6, $7,000 a year to the synagogue. Two jobs, numerous kids, incredible stress – of course they’re exhausted on Saturday mornings. Of course they’re bothered by additional bnai mitzvah fees. And this is the time when they most need the synagogue, for their souls, for the parenting help, but it’s filtered through money.

The dues model is not working, and as much as it fails financially, it is failing even more morally, spiritually – Jewishly.

But there is hope. Because we are not a 20th century synagogue. We are a 21st century synagogue.

I am proud to say that in June, our synagogue is completely changing this approach to dues with the Heshbon Lev program. Heshbon Lev means an end to all of this. It means the application of a voluntary dues model in our synagogue.

The reason for this is ethical and spiritual, not financial. Look, all the finance people, our treasurer, say this will work. It works in other, similar synagogues. But the reason we’re doing this is moral. The reason we are doing this is because we want to be a place for all. Where we care institutionally about what is in your heart, not in your wallet.

And I believe – I really believe this – that it will actually allow our synagogue to be what it needs to be. Which is a place where you can come to be yourself, not a place to feel less-than. A place where you can find a refuge from the hellishness of our American news discourse, a place where you can find community and love away from the alienation of sitting in a car or cubicle or home all day. A place where you can be emotionally authentic and open, in all of your idiosyncrasy.

Because, when we clear away all of the money stuff, all of the things in synagogue that make us feel like we don’t belong, we find something beautiful here.

We find in the synagogue a place to fill the God-shaped hole in our lives. We find in the synagogue a place to connect where we feel vulnerable. We find in the synagogue a place to cry out.

We find in the synagogue arms to hold us in a world that is so often cruel and uncaring. We find in the synagogue moral complexity in a world that asserts everything is black and white. We find in the synagogue the tears of emotional authenticity in a world of superficial Instagram performances.

We find in the synagogue real communal history, stories of our elders, a past and future living together. We find in a synagogue one of the only places where people of diverse ages gather, where people of diverse means gather, where people of diverse hearts gather. We find in the synagogue a type of community that does not exist anywhere else.

We find in the synagogue wisdom of our tradition in a world that talks more deeply than soundbites and memes. We find in the synagogue big questions about existence that so often only exist in the most inchoate and unformed manner in our minds. We find in the synagogue love as a guiding principle for life.

We find in the synagogue God in a world that is often declared God-less. We find in the synagogue spirituality in a world that denies its importance. We find in the synagogue doubt in a way that can guide our lives just as well as faith.

We find in the synagogue the ceaseless partnership with God that our people have built for millennia. We find in the synagogue the beauty of words and prayers that speak to our soul in places we cannot always name. We find in the synagogue the oldest and most basic truths made new.

And so join me. Join me in this great journey of our synagogue. Join me in this partnership with God, taking these raw materials, this piece of work that is man, and making something holy of it. And let’s break down all the barriers.

Mon, September 28 2020 10 Tishrei 5781