"To be or not to be....Jewish!" -- Sermon for Erev Rosh Ha-Shanah, 5769, Monday, September 29, 2008
"Hineni: Here I am, or maybe not" -- Sermon for Erev Rosh Ha-shanah, September 13, 2007
“What is ‘Faith-speak’ and why should Jews be doing more of it?” -- Sermon for December 3, 2004
"Members in Good Standing?" -- Sermon for Erev Rosh Ha-shanah, September 15, 2004
"What Are You Going Through?" -- Sermon for Rosh Ha-shanah morning, September 16, 2004
“One Life—One Melody” -- Sermon for Kol Nidre, 5765, September 24, 2004
"To be or not to be....Jewish!"
A message for Erev Rosh Ha-shanah, 5769
Monday, September 29, 2008
Rabbi Jonathan M. Brown
About a century ago a son, one of twelve children, was born to Louis and Dorothy Birnbaum. They named him Nathan. His father was a Hazzan, a cantor, but not one of the better hazzanim, and as luck would have it, he died when Nathan was still young. Having little choice, Nathan went to work shining shoes, running errands, and selling newspapers.
At the age of seven he and several of his brothers formed a group they called the “Pee Wee’ quartet, which among other gigs performed in an amateur music night sponsored by a big New Yorkdepartment store. All the churches in that section of the city had been invited to submit entries. Around the corner from Nathan’s home on the lower East Sidethere was a small Presbyterian Church, which did not have a group available to participate in the competition. The pastor of the church knew about the Pee Wee Quartet and asked them to represent his church.
The following Sunday at a large picnic sponsored by the department store, the Pee Wee quartet competed in and won the contest! Each youngster received an Ingersoll watch, worth maybe a dollar. Ecstatic at his success, Nathan ran home to tell his mother, who was busy hanging up the laundry on the roof. He ran upstairs to show her what he had won, but after catching his breath, he exclaimed: “Mom, I don’t want to be Jewish anymore!” His mother, bemused, gave him a look and asked the obvious question: “Why not?”
Nathan responded: “I’ve been Jewish my whole life, and never gotten anything for being one. I was a Presbyterian for one day, and I got a watch!” He held out his wrist to show her his new acquisition. His mother was not deterred from her task and said: “Let’s finish hanging up the wash, and then you can be a Presbyterian.” Nathan helped, and wouldn’t you know it-- while they hanging the clothes, some water dripped onto his new Ingersoll watch, and it stopped working! When that happened, George Burns, as Nathan Birnbaum would eventually be known, became Jewish again! As my mother would have said, ‘Gott sei danken”—Thank God.
More than a century has passed since Nathan’s brief flirtation with Presbyterianism. But the question of what it means to be a Jew in Americastill needs to be asked, and still needs to be answered. There have been Jews in this country for more than 350 years, ever since a band of Jewish refugees from the Inquisition landed in New Amsterdamin 1654. What does being Jewish here entail?
I don’t know how many of you are familiar with the Yiddish phrase, es iz schwer tsu zeyn a yid—it’s difficult to be a Jew. But truer words were never spoken in any language. And it’s not just about trying to keep that system of commandments that we recognize as mitzvoth, as sacred obligations, nor about observing Shabbat and the Festivals and all the holidays, and more than just being a ‘good person.’ It’s about trying to stay afloat in an unfriendly sea, and it’s about being an unintended role model for Jewish behavior, since that’s how many people will judge what you say and how you perform. And it means exposing your children to ‘feeling different’ at best, and being subject to ridicule and discrimination or sometimes even physical abuse.
And despite all the efforts of the Anti-Defamation League, anti-Semitism is alive and well in America, if not socially acceptable. There are those jealous of our success, those who are angry at us for not accepting Christ, those believing that we’re part of a conspiracy to run the world, as Henry Ford did, and those thinking that it’s too bad that Hitler didn’t get to complete his intention to exterminate the Jews of Europe. And as if that weren’t enough, there are plenty of anti-Zionists around whose criticism of Israel, founded or unfounded, usually puts them in the ranks of anti-Semites as well.
These are the reasons that the burden of being Jewish can seem Sisyphean, referring to the punishment of Sisyphus who ran afoul of the ancient gods and was destined to push a huge boulder up to the top of a mountain each day, only to watch it fall back to its original place so that he would have to do exactly the same thing the next day, and the next—and for eternity.
A modern poet, Muriel Rukeyser, poses the challenge in striking and challenging terms:
To be a Jew in this century is to be offered a gift:
If you refuse, wishing to be invisible, ‘
You choose death of the spirit, the stone insanity.
Accepting take full life.
Choosing—that’s the word that defines the essence of our humanity, because we have free will, as well as the essence of our observance of these Yamim Noraim, these holy days. By them and through them we are reminded: “See I have placed before you this day life and death, the blessing and the curse; therefore choose life that you and your offspring may live.”(Deut. 29:19)
Is it hard to imagine that some would rather ‘step away’ from such a life? I’m found of quoting the midrash that teaches us that, God, frustrated by all the nations of the world having rejected His Torah because of its restrictions on their behavior, holdsMt.Sinai over the head of the assembled Israelites at the foot of the mountain, and announces that if they don’t accept the Torah, this will be your grave? What choice, then, did our ancestors really have?
I wouldn’t argue that many Jews would give up their Jewish connections for a cheap watch. But in desperate times, or facing difficult circumstances, we cannot ignore the Biblical example of Esau, who gave up his birthright for a mess of porridge. When Esau came home famished from the hunt and said to his brother Jacob: Hal’itanee na min ha-adom ha-adom ha-zeh, let me taste of this red, red porridge, and Jacob says: “Sell me first your birthright” Esau’s response can be expressed as: “I’m starving. Of what use is my birthright at a time like this?” and he sold it.
Why be Jewish? Why not sell your birthright? Why be different from 98% of the American people and subject your kids to having to explain to all their classmates why they are celebrating different holidays?
A person who was raised in a home which served as a mikdash m’at, a small sanctuary, suffused with Jewish values, replete with Jewish ritual objects, art, music, and conversation, and who experienced the joys of celebrating the Sabbath and festivals and building Jewish memories, who understood the obligation of attending services and fulfilling mitzvot doesn’t need to ask himself or herself that question. But many American Jews have not had those experiences, and even some who have been exposed to all that I’ve mentioned, decided to assimilate and disappear from the community.
As Jonathan Sarna puts it in his exemplary study of American Judaism: “There exists a long-standing fear that Jews in Americaare doomed to assimilate, that they simply cannot survive in an environment of religious freedom and church state separation. where religious diversity is the norm, where everyone is free to choose his or her rabbi or no rabbi, and his or her own brand of Judaism, or no Judaism at all.”
Well-known author Tom Cahill frames the question quite differently, placing a positive inflection. He asks: Why perpetuate this ancient admittedly remarkable religious-cultural heritage in Americawhere it must remain a minority way of life? In his book The Gifts of the Jews: How a Tribe of Desert Nomads Changed the Way Everyone Thinks and Feels he makes the case that the heritage that Jews and Judaism bring to the world is quite extraordinary. At one level, it can teach you how to survive and occasionally thrive while you are in exile, and at another, it can demonstrate that no matter how hard our enemies have worked to destroy us, we have somehow survived and regrouped when the threat was removed.
There is so much more that Jews and Judaism have brought to the Western world through the ages—a love of learning, a passion for justice, a concern for others, a commitment to relieving poverty and hunger, a skill at languages, a strong sense of community, a responsibility for those well beyond your own family, not to mention a fabulous literature in many languages, drama, music, poetry, entertainment, and much more.
And even our vaunted ‘stiff-neckedness’, or in more prosaic English, our stubbornness, can become part of our answer. Why indeed shouldn’t we remain Jews? Just because some people don’t like us, some hate us, some wish to destroy us—is that a reason to run away? They don’t like us because we represent the conscience of the world, the ‘nay’ sayers to murder and lust and the kind of greed that has got our country into such difficulties of late.
The Jew, more than almost anyone, promotes the infinite value of every human life, and will be found speaking out when any act of injustice rears its ugly head.
And no one speaks truth to power better than we do. Abraham rebuked God. Moses challenged God’s decisions about the Jewish people. Nathan rebuked King David for having Bathsheba’s husband killed so he could add to his harem; Elijah rebuked King Ahab for having his next-door neighbor Naboth killed so he could inherit Naboth’s vineyard. Nor has our voice been stilled in modern times. Not at all. Elie Wiesel challenged President Ronald Reagan about a proposed visit to Bitburg, a cemetery in Germanywhere only SS officers were buried.
And impelled by the commandment: ‘Tsedek, tsedek tirdof, justice, justice shall you pursue’, we are not likely to remain bystanders when a crime is occurring within our purview. Nor does the action we prevent have to rise to the level of criminality. The Jew is expected to stand up against discrimination in any place at any time against any person or group. “Be kind to the stranger, for you were strangers in the landof Egypt,” is the most frequently expressed injunction in the Torah.”
Then there is our unique perspective on current crises and developments. We bring not only our personal experiences but those of our people to bear. One of the intriguing aspects of the Jewish experience is that we are both here, and not here. We live a full life here in America, yet some part of us is located in Judea in the 2nd century BCE with the Maccabees, or 5th century CE with the writers of the Babylonian Talmud, or 13th century Spain during the Moorish Renaissance, or one of a score of places where Jews and the Jewish civilization have made their mark through the millennia.
To the question of ‘why be Jewish in this century” I respond: “Why not?” There are many reasons. There is such richness and so many valuable insights in our tradition, so many compelling responsibilities to raise the level of justice as well as the level of compassion in our world, to truly make a difference, to build a community of faith and a community of sharing. To exemplify a letter of Torah which each of us symbolically is.
Tomorrow morning, the shofar blast will reverberate through out synagogue and truly, throughout our being. For each of us, for all of us, it is a wake up call. Not simply to complete our heshbon ha-nefesh, our inner accounting, not only to seek forgiveness from those we have harmed intentionally or unintentionally, but to persistently ask ourselves the existential question: Do I choose to live a meaningful Jewish life in the coming year, or do I choose, as Muriel Rukeyser put it, ‘the stone insanity, death of the spirit.”
Here are the remaining lines of the poem:
The gift is torment, not alone the still torture
Isolation. That may come also. But the accepting wish
The whole and fertile as guarantee
For every human freedom, suffering to be free
Daring to live for the impossible.
I implore you: Accept the challenge, Take full life!
Hineni: Here I am, or maybe not
September 13, 2007
Rabbi Jonathan M. Brown
Sometimes when God wants to get your attention, He doesn’t shout. He doesn’t even send a whirlwind to toss you in the air. He just sets a bush on fire and waits until someone notices that it’s not being consumed. That’s how Moses, among the other shepherds in Midian, became the agent of our people’s rescue from slavery.
Some people are like that as well. They only hint at what they would like you to do or know, and you have to be very attentive to catch their meaning.
As Moses came over to the bush, God says to him: “Shal na’alechah mey-al raglehchah, kee admat kodesh hee. Take off your shoes, for you are standing on holy ground.” Moses acquiesces, and in that moment, God knows He has Moses’ full attention.
When God wanted Abraham’s attention, He spoke directly to him, as you might call your son or your husband: Abraham! And Abraham responded: Hineni, here I am. The phrase implies much more than physical location; it implies total attention and willingness to follow instructions or commands that will follow. God wasted no time. “Kach nah et binchah”—take your son. Abraham has not idea what God is about to require of him, but is certainly fully alert. Et yechidchah, your only son, and now Abraham is thinking, but I have two sons, Ishmael and Isaac, and God continues: asher ahavtah, whom thou lovest, and Abraham is still confused because he loves them both, and finally, et Yitzchak, even Isaac. And without even pausing for breath, though I know God doesn’t need do that, He continues; lekh lekhah el eretz ha-moriah, get thee to the land of Moriah. The words lekh lekhah which we translate here as ‘get thee to’ would remind Abraham of his own initial journey, when God said to him ”Lekh lekhah mayartsechah, go forth from you native land and I will make of you blessing.” Abraham may be thinking ‘aha!’ this will turn out well for both of us, but if that’s what he thought, then the next words would fling him backwards in despair: v’ha-aleyhu sham l’olah, and lift him up upon the altar there as a sacrifice upon one of the mountains which I will show you.”
One can imagine Abraham fainting from the shock of this announcement; in any event, no verbal response is found in our text. The next verse begins: And Abraham arose early the next morning and saddled his own pack animal, as though eager to be on his way to carry out God’s command, however painful, however bizarre it must have appeared to him at the time. He took two servant-lads with him to take care of the animal while he and Isaac were on the mountain.
And soon enough we find them both at Ha-makom, the place God had designated, but Ha-makom is also a name for God Himself. The fearful, fateful moment arrives. Abraham binds his son (the Akeda) and raises the knife to carry out what he is sure is God’s command. The rabbis imagine him shedding tears at the terrible thing he is about to do, tears which they say fell into Isaac’s eyes and partially blinded him. Abraham is so intent on carrying out what he understood God’s will to be that when the angel calls out from heaven: “Avraham, Avraham, do not raise your hand against the boy, do him no harm, for now I know that you fear God,” he is so intent that he is at a loss to understand what is happening.
Some people are like that, as well. They are so focused on whatever they are doing at the moment that they cannot hear even a clear call—their own name—and fail to respond until the call is repeated.
When the angel calls out the name for the first time, he is addressing Abraham the faithful servant of God, but when he calls the name the second time, he is addressing Abraham the father, and Abraham the father is able to respond and withhold the knife; Abraham the faithful could not do that.
Before the akedah, the binding of Isaac on the altar, Abraham’s life is focused primarily on his relationship with God and on his responsibilities as God’s covenantal partner. Only after completing the journey to Ha-makom, to the Place, does Abraham recognize what is equally important to him: his relationship with his son.
Fast forward to a different father and son, many generations later, perhaps our own. God again puts an Abraham to the test, but this time it’s Abraham Goldstein. He said to him: “Abraham” and Abraham answered: “Here I am.” And God said: “Take your favorite son, even Isaac whom you love, and go to the financial center of your great city, and there inform him that you have chosen him as your successor at the firm your father established years ago, and that you expect him to advance to even greater heights than you have achieved.”
Early the next morning, Abraham Goldstein stepped into his Escalade, picked up two members of his staff, his corporate attorney and his CPA, along with his son Isaac. He determined his strategy and they set out for the place of which God had spoken.
In the third hour Abraham looked up and saw the place from afar. It was a 54-story building with gleaming window trimmings, with a 5 star restaurant. And Abraham said to his servants, the lawyer and the CPA: “Dine with us today. Speak of your success, of the wealth you’ve acquired, of your professional status and achievements. After lunch, stay here; the boy and I will go up to the lounge where I will make him the offer and we will then return to you.”
Abraham asked his son to carry the briefcase into the 54-story building. He himself took the gold lighter and the fine cigar cutter, and the two walked off together. Then Isaac said to Abraham “Father.” And Abraham answered: ”Yes, my son.” “Why have you insisted that I come here with you? This is not me, not these cigars, not this fancy restaurant. I’m into health foods and a vegetarian. I want to make documentaries, not piles of money.” And Abraham said; “Only God knows your true interests.” And the two of them walked on together.
They arrived at the restaurant. They ordered from the menu and took their lunch; Abraham had the strip steak special; Isaac the vegetarian lasagna. The lawyer and the accountant spoke of their successes and status. They remained in the restaurant while Abraham and his son went up to the lounge and the father sought to persuade his son to take over the company. He laid out his cigars and cut one with the cigar cutter. He lit it with the solid gold lighter, and he was about to say to say to his son: “Youth, Isaac, my boy, is a period of impossible dreams. Only with experience and maturity does one learn the realities, the practicalities of life. Your present interests may lie in documentary film making, but that is because you are young. I know better. I have lived longer than you, much longer.”
“For your sake, Isaac. I insist that you accept the responsibility of succeeding me. For your good, I am prepared, if need be, to apply pressure, to force the issue. You must change your major from film-making to business, and go on to graduate school for an MBA, or a JD.”
“If you do not follow these instructions, if you do not do as I recommend, and remember, it’s for your own good, for the good of the company and our family, then I will take the following actions: I will no longer pay your college tuition, I will no longer provide financial support, there will be no privileges in my home for you. I will withdraw my support, my presence, and my love.”
But he never said these things. For just as he was about to say them, an angel of the Lord called to him from heaven: “Avraham, Avraham,” and he answered: “Here I am.” And the angel continued: “Do not say this to your child. Do not say anything more, for if you do, you will lose your son, perhaps forever.”
Abraham was silent for moments. Then he looked up, and his eyes fell upon his young certified public accountant, caught in the thick of a discussion of the company’s finances with the attorney, with his fingers flying across his calculator. So Abraham went to the CPA and offered him the successorship he had planned to offer his son.
The angel of the Lord then said to Abraham: “Because you have done this, because you have understood the importance of allowing your son to choose his own path, to follow his own passion, I will bestow blessings on you as well as him. You shall be named Man of the Year, become head of the Jewish Community Federation, and your wife shall be honored as a Woman of Valor.”
“On Mt. Moriah, I stated that I wanted an end to the sacrifice of human life. I now state that I want an end to the sacrifice of one human being to the desires and priorities of another.”
I don’t know how many of you may have recognized yourselves in that modern midrash, yet in less dramatic ways, aren’t we all guilty of trying to impose our agendas and our expectations on other people; if not our children, then our spouses; if not our spouses, if not our spouses, then our siblings, if not our siblings, then our aging parents, if not our aging parents, perhaps other family members? But it is with children and aging parents that I am most concerned, because they are more likely to be dependent on you and therefore inclined to do what you wish them to, regardless of what is best for them in their own eyes.
There is a poem in Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet, that conveys my message in a very powerful fashion, so I share it with you now;
And a woman who held a babe against her bosom said, Speak to us of Children. And he said:
Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.
They come through you but are not from you.
And though they are with you, yet they belong not to you.
You may give the your love but not your thoughts,
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls.
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow, which you cannot
Visit, even in your dreams.
You are the bows from which your children as living arrows are sent forth.
The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite, and He bends you with His might that his arrows may go swift and far.
Let your bending to the archer’s hand be for gladness.
For even as He loves the arrow that flies,
So does He love the bow that is stable.
Ponder well, then, whether what you are asking of someone else corresponds to what they actually want or need for themselves. Helping them meet challenges the way they choose to meet them is a far better than telling them how you think, believe, or know they should it.
May this New Year season enable us to reflect on how to use, rather than misuse the influence we have on others. Ah-men.
“What is ‘Faith-speak’ and why should Jews be doing more of it?”
Sermon for December 3, 2004
Rabbi Jonathan M. Brown
Shoshana Cardin, former president of the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations and now the head of the newly established Jewish High School in Baltimore, recently addressed several thousand leaders of Jewish Federations on the subject of “Faith-speak.” What she meant by that phrase was this: people of faith should not only ‘walk the walk,’ but ‘talk the talk.’ Jews are well-known for doing the right thing, especially when it comes to social action and community betterment, but they’re not so good at explaining how what they do emerges from their faith commitment, nor are they able to quote the appropriate Biblical and rabbinic references. In contemporary America, she argued, it’s not enough to do the right thing. You also have to have the ‘faith’ words to explain it.
I happen to believe that there is an additional problem that we Jews have created for ourselves. We don’t do ‘God-talk’—we don’t have discussions with our spouse and children, never mind with our neighbors and friends, about what role God plays in our lives, and whether we believe that God actually has a unique plan for each of us. If we call on God at all, it’s to help us surmount a crisis, or heal somebody we care about. These are good reasons to call on God, but they are far from sufficient for a meaningful long-term relationship with the deity.
I believe that part of our hesitation in these matters is our sense that ‘God-intoxicated’ people are dangerous. That being the case, we can get along quite nicely with a very casual, never clearly defined sense of what role God plays in our lives. Or perhaps we prefer to reject any meaningful role for God, so what is there to discuss? Or we may feel it’s just too personal and uncomfortable, to which I would like to respond: Get over it!, though I know saying it that way isn’t very helpful!
I interpret ‘faith-speak’ in yet another way. One of the ways by which I identify a serious Jew (aside from the usual labels—observant or non-observant, etc.) is a person who is susceptible to finding opportunities to make blessings, lots of blessings. It seems that the vast majority of us are neither habituated nor inclined to respond to the miracles of everyday with blessings—not the miracle of getting up in the morning feeling ready to start the new, or being able to wash our hands, or our facility to hear and understand what other people are saying, or to perceive all the wonderful things we perceive. As we might have learned from Moses’ encounter with the bush that burned but was not consumed, all about us is holy ground, but if we don’t stop and take off our shoes, we’ll never know it.
I’d like to take a moment to share a personal encounter that may be helpful here. Years ago when my family and I were camping in Yosemite—something we did during almost all of the 13 summers we spent in California—in this instance, in the housekeeping cabins along the Merced river—we were sitting down to our Shabbat meal and we made the ‘motsee.’ No sooner had we completed our blessing than folks from the neighboring cabin—I don’t recall if they were Jewish or not--came over and asked if I was a rabbi! I was flabbergasted!
Think about the implications of the question. Do only rabbis make blessings over what they eat? Shouldn’t ‘ordinary’ non-ordained Jews be doing that as well? Herein lies the conundrum. In fact, in public, where we can be overheard, we usually don’t,
But, you say, don’t we ‘engage’ God when we come to services? Well, maybe we do and maybe we don’t. The opportunity is certainly there. But worshipping as infrequently as we do (once a week hardly shows up on the frequency chart, when Muslims pray 5 times daily and Orthodox Jews 3 times). Overall, Jews attend services least of all the major religious denominations in this country. We are not, in the minds of the masses, a ‘faithful’ people.
This is not a good thing. It is not a good thing not only because God-talk is critical to the life of the spirit, and to our ability to cope with what life dishes out to us and our loved ones. God-talk is how we discover what it is that God wants of us; we know what he asked of Abraham, but most of us are clueless when someone says; “What is your purpose in living? Why are you here on earth? Does God have a plan for you?
It is also not a good thing because engaging in God-talk is what Christians do all the time, and what Muslims do all the time. By not doing it much or at all, we not only deprive ourselves of a tremendous source of spiritual growth, but we make ourselves ‘peculiar’ in the eyes of our neighbors.
Wait, you say. Being Jewish isn’t a statement about what we believe; it’s an identity statement. It means we’re part of a people and it means we’re not Christians. Quite right. Jews aren’t a faith group! They are a people, with much more of an ethnic connection than a spiritual one. But that too sets us apart from our Muslim and Christian neighbors.
Consider this: you might be able to find, a few secular Muslims, You will certainly find, even among members of our synagogue, a number of secular Jews, and there are hundreds of thousands of other Jews who are culturally Jewish, but in no way religious. Now listen carefully: you will not find in America, or anywhere else,—any secular Christians, because the phrase is an oxymoron! And because both the word Christian and the word Muslim (one who submits to Allah) presumes and strongly implies a relationship with Christ or Allah, we Jews, whose name denotes nothing comparable, are at a significant disadvantage when people try to understand just who we are in the category they are most comfortable with: people of faith.
America, as defined by the results of the recent election, is becoming a country in which your religious identity means more than it has ever has in the determination of voting patterns, and in your participation in the body politic, whether that be local, state, or national.
When Will Herberg in l955 published his book “Protestant, Catholic, Jew,” determining that our paltry 2% of the American population was equivalent in religious stature to 70 million Catholics and close to the 150 million Protestants then living in our country, he placed us on a pedestal which had a questionable foundation, and if it ever had a strong one, it is crumbling as we speak.
I conclude that our Christian and Muslim neighbors have difficulty accepting that our decisions and patterns of living are faith-based when we can’t explain to them how our faith motivates our actions or what role God plays in our lives. It’s not sufficient, in other words, to engage in tikkun olam without educating those whom we share our efforts to improve our community that we’re doing this because our faith demands it.
What are my recommendations? Study. Learn the sources for the behaviors that Jews do at home and in the community. Develop your spiritual awareness. Find beauty and miracles in daily life and make blessings. Earnestly seek God’s involvement in your life—not just in crisis. Try to discover what God’s plan is for you. Perhaps your doing so will transform your life, as it did in the story of the bedraggled, struggling Jewish tailor who went to his rabbi and said: “I just can’t make a living as a tailor. People give me all this work to do and they don’t pay me enough to live on and raise my family.”
The rabbi said: “Pray to God. He will help you.” Years later, the rabbi encountered the man on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. Now he’s very well dressed and obviously quite successful. The rabbi says: “Hi. I see you’ve done quite well.” The man replied: “Yes. I took your advice and God and I established a partnership. Look over there.” The rabbi looked, and sure enough, there was a huge sign over the entrance to a very fancy store: the sign read: Lord and Taylor.
Let’s surprise our neighbors. Let’s make use of every opportunity we can to be aware of God’s presence—when we wake up in the morning, when we wash our hands, when we have a meal, when we study, when we encounter wondrous things in nature, when we are feeling grateful for being alive, when we’ve found a special friend, or when we’re just feeling happy. It never hurts to throw in a sheh-heh-chee-yah-nu once or twice a day.
Let’s make use of every opportunity we can to talk about God’s role in our lives—with our families first and then with others. Let’s take more advantage of the opportunities we have at the synagogue to engage in significant dialogue with God. Let’s get involved with an interfaith project like Habitat for Humanity, and share with our fellow builders why we are doing it. For the sake of the quality of your life and for the sake of accommodating the new reality of American life, please, don’t just walk the walk. Talk the talk as well. Become an expert at “faith-speak.” Ken yehi ratzon—may it be God’s will!
"Members in Good Standing?"
Sermon for Erev Rosh Ha-shanah, September 15, 2004
Rabbi Jonathan M. Brown
My friends, it is a rare privilege and a high honor to be standing before you on this bima at this sacred hour. Neither of us knew a year, even six months ago, that this conjunction of our lives could or would take place. Yet it feels so very ‘right,’ so very much part of a larger plan, that I am confident we are well on our way to becoming partners in our quest for meaning and significance in our lives, and our desire to make Congregation Beth El a source of inspiration for its members and a by-word for caring and compassion in the larger community. Our future is bright; our hopes and dreams are gathering strength and coherence.
When I arrived here in late July I drove down to the Temple, parked my car and stood by it for a few moments thinking to myself: this synagogue is much more than just a building with windows and doors and a social hall and a sanctuary and an office and not enough classrooms or closet space or a decent library; it is the beating heat of a small Jewish community which has stood the tests of time and circumstance and limited resources. Dreams have been realized here in the form of consecrations, Bar and Bat Mitzvahs, confirmations, weddings, baby namings, and brisses, anniversaries, and welcoming ceremonies for Jews by choice. Countless Shabbats and many festivals have brought thousands to this house of worship. Members have come forward to volunteer their time and services from the moment Beth El began, and such volunteers will always be the engine that runs this congregation.
I thought of the courage and visionary actions of the founders of this congregation, and their struggle to raise the $40,000 needed to construct this mikdash in the shadow of the Blue Ridge Mountains. I thought about all of that, and I was humbled; I asked myself: Will I be able to re-kindle the flame of the love of Judaism which motivated the men and women who were part of that first generation? Can I find a way to unify a congregation whose members often live 20 or 30 or even more miles away? Can I bring a message of hope to those who have been emotionally wounded or disappointed in what life has meant for them? Can I be an agent of reconciliation where wounds have festered in relationships between one member of the congregation and another? Can I help those who are afraid of change to learn how to embrace it?
These and other questions remain unanswered as of this moment—but I am confident that my years of training and experience, plus the very positive responses that have come since I began serving as your rabbi last month will serve us well as we move forward into this exciting new century and celebrating our golden anniversary in this building.
After all, Reform Judaism in 2004 is a vastly different movement than the founders of this congregation knew when they chose to join the Union of American Hebrew Congregations—now the Union for Reform Judaism. Things we take for granted today— women on the bimah, in the boardroom, and in the pulpit, along with sensitivity to gender in the liturgy mark an enormous improvement from the traditional attitude toward the role of women in governance and in public worship. Outreach to non-Jews seeking a connection with Jewish life formally by conversion or informally by association, suits the makeup of this community perfectly. Outreach to the gay and lesbian community, while more nuanced and muted than the other forms of outreach, is still a growing reality. There is more Hebrew in the service, more yarmulkes in the pews and a tallit or two on the pulpit. There is a panoply of social action initiatives and significant interfaith involvement—things hardly on the minds of those who built this synagogue.
Women rabbis were unheard of in 1954; the woman who would become the first ordained Reform rabbi, Sally Priesand, was just celebrating her 8th birthday in l954. But many of you can recall when Beth El hired a woman rabbi just ordained from the Hebrew Union College in 1992, and has been served well by several other of my female colleagues since then.
In that arena, as well as others, Beth El has shown its ability to adjust to new realities and its leaders have kept us informed about changes in the Reform movement. Those factors suggest that we will be successful in dealing with the challenges that still have to be met in our community.
To help you address those challenges, I invite you tonight to consider an expanded definition of what our by-laws refer to as a ‘member in good standing.’ As it reads, it is crystal clear, in this congregation as in almost every other, that a member in good standing is one whose dues are paid in full, and who consequently is entitled to tickets for High Holy Day services like this one. We don’t ask if you believe in God; we don’t ask if you prefer Reform Judaism to another brand, or know anything about it. All we really require is your willingness to step forward and say: I want to be a member in good standing, and here’s my check.
Since for many, the primary perquisite of membership is seats for the High Holy Days, I am prompted to share the following anecdote. It is Rosh Ha-shanah eve, somewhere other than Winchester. The synagogue is full (as are we) and the ushers are carefully examining the tickets of all those seeking to enter and to worship with the community. The air is thick with the expectant prayers and hopes by congregants for a good and healthy New Year, and for an inscription for life in the book of life.
A stranger appears in the foyer and asks one of the ushers if he might enter and give an important message to his friend near the front of the sanctuary. The usher inquires: “Do you have a ticket?” “No,’ comes the reply. “Are you perhaps a guest from another congregation?” “No,” comes the reply. “Then I’m afraid I can’t let you in?” But it’s very important!” Finally, relenting, the usher points toward the door to the sanctuary; just as the man opens it, the usher says: “All right, but don’t let me catch you praying in there!”
We chuckle—if we haven’t heard this one before—because it seems so totally inappropriate first to require a ticket to enter a sanctuary, and secondly to insist that the man deliver his message and leave directly, without participating in the prayers, as if the sanctuary was no longer a house of prayer for all people, just one for those who can pay.
Yet the manner in which American synagogue—as distinct from European and Israeli synagogues and most churches--sustain themselves financially is to issue tickets for Rosh Ha-shanah and Yom Kippur services only to paid up members or to those who have purchased tickets especially for the High Holy Days.
The truth is, we have no alternative. It is not ‘praying’ that you are paying for, or even seats, though we do have a problem here about the number of seats available, but rather the maintenance of the synagogue that you pray in and the programs and services that it provides its members and the community at large. You’re paying for its professionals—here of course that means me—so that when someone needs a rabbi to talk to, to plan a life-cycle moment, be it a joyous or a sad one, or needs advice, or has question about Judaism and its values and beliefs, there is someone there with an answer, and more important, someone there who is a good listener. You can’t get that kind of attention on the phone or the internet, though you can plenty of information.
The synagogue will always be a place for prayer, and for 362 of the 365 days of the year, you can come here without a ticket and pray your heart out. The gates of prayer are always open, and of course you don’t need a synagogue to pray in. Many people find great inspiration in nature or even in the wonderful way in which our bodies work. But the synagogue is more than a place to pray.
We need to recall why the synagogue exists. The word itself is Greek and means ‘a place of assembly.’ As an institution it is as old as the second Temple—perhaps dating from the second century BCE. It came into existence because the leaders of the Israelites realized that getting to the Temple in Jerusalem for worship and sacrifice was just too difficult for many of its adherents. Today, we face a different challenge—getting to the synagogue itself is difficult for many of our congregants, and accessing it if you are mobility impaired is even more difficult.
As a concept, the synagogue has no peer in Jewish life. We read in our liturgy: “The synagogue is the sanctuary of Israel, born out of our longing for the living God, it has been to Israel, throughout our wanderings, a visible token of the presence of God in His people’s midst. Its beauty is the beauty of holiness. Steadfast it has stood as the champion of justice, mercy, and peace. Its truths are true for all people. Its love is a love for all people. Its God is the God of all people, even as was prophesized of old.”
As a reality, the synagogue, when graced by the presence of others who have come to pray, study, or congregate provides you with a group of like-minded folks to pray with, study with, or congregate with, to help you recover from a loss or celebrate a happy occasion and much, much else. It’s a place where you can recall your departed loved ones, and stand to say Kaddish as a mourner. It’s the place where, on the Day of Atonement, we make our confessions as a kehillah, as a community, so that no one’s individual transgressions will prevent him or her from getting a hearing on high.
And the synagogue is a place where you can learn about relationships--caring for and about the other people who are here. In praying and studying and working together, you begin to bond. Sometimes just talking with other people is sufficient:
There was once a man who was an avowed atheist; he had no use for God, and not much for organized religion. But he always went to services on the High Holy Days. When asked why an atheist would do something like that, he would reply: “People go to the synagogue for many reasons. Take my friend Garfinkle. Now there’s a pious gentleman. He’s always at services week in and week out. He talks to God as if God were a personal friend. Me, I go to shul to talk with Garfinkle.”
If you don’t want to talk to God, that’s fine. But if you don’t want to talk to Garfinkle—your fellow congregant whom you can only find at synagogue—that’s not fine at all. The sage Hillel admonished us long ago: Al tifrosh min ha-tsibbur—do not distance yourself from the community, which in Winchester means don’t disaffiliate from the synagogue. The journey here is not a moment longer the day after your youngest child became a Bar or Bat Mitzvah than it was before; the people here are trying just as hard as they always have to provide for your spiritual and emotional needs, and the synagogue should not be viewed as service station that you drive up to when you need re-fueling and don’t think about at any other time.
May I remind you that the synagogue has three crucial functions to play in the life of every Jew and those who have conjoined themselves with a Jew? Its first function is as a beit tefillah, a house of prayer for all people who need to pray. Whether we are thanking God for His many blessings, invoking God’s assistance in an hour of trial, or simply reminding ourselves that we are not alone in the universe, the synagogue is where you need to be.
It second major function is to serve as a Beit midrash, a House of Study, where the Torah will be taken out of the ark, opened, read, and discussed, and where an infinite variety of adult education opportunities can be found. Rabbi Shammai, Hillel’s contemporary, used to say: “Make the study of Torah a fixed habit.” And if accessing the actual synagogue facility is difficult, the URJ provides you with ten minutes of Torah a day by FAX or e-mail. You can sign up at our office for a weekly commentary on the portion of the week that I will begin providing after the holidays. You can acquire cassettes and CDs to play in your car, and you will soon have information on how you can go on line and take courses directly from Israel for a small fee.
Next month’s bulletin will advertise two courses that I plan to teach here—the first is called “The American Jewish Experience” and is a response to the celebration of the 350th anniversary of Jewish life in America. The second is a course on Judaism and Spirituality, wherein we will explore all the many ways in which Jewish teachings and spiritual values coincide.
In addition to being a beit tefillah and a beit midrash, the synagogue has always been a beit k’nesset, a house of gathering, which includes both formal meetings, and the informal conversations that take place after any service or other formal event. It also includes projects, entertainment, Sukkah building, and on and on and on. For some, the synagogue becomes a home away from home, but for everyone it can be a place they look forward to arriving at, since Garfinkle is always here.]
In our expanded concept of ‘Members in good standing’ people will appreciate all of these opportunities to pray and study and congregate; they will also want to learn more about Reform Judaism and read its monthly magazine. They will identify with the priorities of the movement and work for the betterment of whichever community they live in. They will welcome diversity, gender sensitivity, non-Jewish spouses and significant others playing important roles in the life of the community, and they will hold the congregation’s leadership to their tasks.
If we have a sufficient number of such members in good standing, then surely we can look forward with confidence to the specific challenges we face here at Beth El, which as many of you know, are two-fold: the first is to make this sanctuary, in its golden anniversary more accessible, more comfortable, and safer than it has ever been. And the second is to re-start the campaign begun several years ago with such enthusiasm, to raise funds to purchase land and built a new synagogue which can more adequately provide for our spiritual and temporal needs, with a larger sanctuary to enable us to host all of our Bar and Bat Mitzvahs in our own synagogue and accommodate new member families, more and larger classrooms, more office space, more storage space, and a decent self-contained library filled not only with books of Jewish interest , but with videos and DVDs and cassettes and computers.
There is a slight risk that we might fail, and the financial planning for both projects must be carefully done and the fund-raising involve many more families than hitherto. But pessimism should be avoided. A consensus should be built after all the arguments have been heard, and the projects should go forward. One of the reasons I came here was my sense that you were getting ready to take a leap of faith into the future, and to demonstrate the same courage and vision which resulted in the building we now use—fifty years ago.
A major theme of the High Holy Days is that of choosing the right path to follow. U-vacharta ba-hayyim, l’ma'an tichyeh, attah v’zarehchah. Therefore choose life that you and your offspring may live. We are at a crossroads, and I belief that if we make the right choice, the future of Beth El is unlimited. Your lives and the lives of many others will be affected by your determination to succeed in these endeavors; the well being of our kehillah will be enhanced by them. I stand ready to lend assistance whenever and wherever I can.
A hundred and more years ago, a Biblical verse inspired thousands to leave their homes, their extended families and their way of life in Russia and Poland, and journey to a land called Palestine when its Jewish community was tiny and struggling to gain a foothold in the late l9th and early 20th centuries. They were the biluim, an acronym from the phrase beit ya’akov l’chu v’neylchah b’or Adonai (Isaiah 2:5)—O House of Jacob, come, let us go forward in the light of the Lord. I say to you tonight: Beit El, House of God--l’chu v’neylchah b’or Adonai, come, let us go forward in the light of the Lord.
"What Are You Going Through?"
A sermon for Rosh Ha-shanah morning , September 16, 2004
Rabbi Jonathan M. Brown
In this morning's Torah portion we find God preparing Abraham for an extraordinary test – will the patriarch be willing to take his son Isaac whom he has so long awaited and whom he sees as the fulfillment of God's promise to him to multiply his offspring, and bring Isaac to Mt. Moriah as a sacrifice. God calls out: Abraham. Upon hearing his name, Abraham responds with "Hineni," I am here. But this is not an "I am here" like a child responds in a classroom when the teacher calls his name. Abraham means that he is present not just in a physical sense, but totally attentive, ready to respond with his whole being to whatever it is that God will want. No distractions can be allowed; it is too important for him to hear and understand God's words.
Perceiving that Abraham is going to have difficulty with His demand for the sacrifice of his son, God provides Abraham with time to collect his thoughts. When God says: "Kach et binchah, Take your son," Abraham is thinking, "I have two sons. Which one does He mean?" When God says, "et yechidchah, your only son," Abraham is thinking: Each one is the only son of his mother: Ishmael of Hagar, Isaac of Sarah." When God says: "asher ahavtah, whom you love," Abraham is thinking; "I love them both equally." It is only when God says "et Yitzchak. even Isaac" that Abraham receives confirmation that it is Isaac who is to become the sacrifice.
The Torah further demonstrates God's compassion in the command itself, because when God says "Lekh lekhah-you will surely go to Mt. Moriah to sacrifice your son," Abraham cannot help but hear an echo of the first "lekh lekhah" in Genesis, Chapter 12, when God suddenly appears and tells him to leave artzechah--your native land, molad'tichah--your birthplace, and beit avichah-your father's house and travel to Canaan. Here too Abraham was hesitant, but God assured him that he would conclude the journey safely, and that in him all the nations of the earth would be blessed. The same words and the same nuanced instructions, enabled Abraham to fully understand the seriousness of the journey he is now about to undertake. The successful conclusion of that original journey is in his mind as he now absorbs and acquiesces to God's latest and most terrifying demand.
A short time later, as Isaac trudges up the mountain carrying the wood for the sacrifice, he is impelled to ask his father a rather important question: but first he gets Abraham's attention: "Avi-my Father?" And Abraham responds to his son just as he did to Adonai, "Hineni v'nee.'" Here I am, my son. Here not just in a physical sense, but totally present. So Isaac is heartened and asks: "Here are the firestone and the wood for the offering, but where is the sheep for the sacrifice?" Abraham, sensing what Isaac is thinking, offers him as much reassurance as he can: "God will see to the sheep for His burnt offering, my son." V'yeylchu shneyhem yachdav-and the two of them continued walking together. We can now assume Isaac understands and accepts his role in the unfolding drama.
My friends, this ancient text is as relevant to your lives as your last conversation with your spouse, your child, your sister, your brother or your friend; when anyone of them seeks your attention, how frequently are you able to say 'Hineni'-I am here, ready to listen, fully attentive to your needs? It is only by conveying that 'Hineni' attitude that the person knows that you truly care what they are experiencing and may need to tell you.
We can extend the 'hineni' approach into our ordinary conversations if we so choose. But we don't often choose. Rather we greet people with a hearty 'Hi, how are you?' with only a modicum of interest in the answer-though if someone said: "I was just told I have terminal cancer" we'd stop in our tracks and be compassionate. But you're not likely to hear such a response unless it's clear to the other person that you really wanted to know.
I'm reminded of the story of two psychologists in an elevator. One says to the other: "How are you?" The other responds: "What do you mean by that?" We laugh, but it's a reasonable question. Are we really interested in knowing, or are we just carrying out the conventional greeting in this country and I suppose lots of other places.
Usually if the person we are addressing actually moves beyond the conventional "Fine, thank you" and actually begins telling us how he or she feels, we start looking at our watches or hoping that our cell phones will ring so we can extricate ourselves from a conversation we really didn't intend to have. The truth is, we are rarely prepared to listen to someone tell us 'how he or she is doing.'
There are so many people out there – some perhaps in your own home – who really need to tell you how they are, but they are not sure you are ready to listen. It behooves us therefore, to demonstrate our willingness to say the English equivalent of 'Hineni' when we approach another person and ask how they are.
Sometimes we make it even harder for the other person to respond by asking "What's new?" My experience is that this is a very intrusive question. While we might be demonstrating a slightly greater interest in the answer, chances are we've put the other person on the spot. He or she will have to think about what answer to give, and may be embarrassed if he or she can't think of anything new, as if there was sort of flaw in the way they lived their lives.
Alfred Kazin, the writer and critic, had a piece in the New Yorker Magazine awhile ago, written while he was facing treatment for cancer, and he pointed out that the "how are you?" question was really inadequate. Instead, he wanted to be asked, "what are you going through?" Meaning: what is happening to you right now that profoundly affects your awareness of your mortality, your physical self, your thoughts and feelings, your sense of self. You can take as much time as you need to tell me. I am prepared to listen.
People we encounter may in fact be going through some very difficult times, involving physical illness, emotional problems, relationship issues, post-traumatic stress disorders, and many other problems. Being asked "how are you?" and believing that the answer the person wants to hear is "I'm fine, thank you" adds to the sense of 'who really cares about me?" that the person may be feeling.
While I was a chaplain at Johns Hopkins, I came to understand how important my role was in the patient's healing process. The medical staff would come in, ask a few questions, perhaps answer a few questions, and leave. Almost never would the medical staff sit at the patient's bedside and convey the impression that they had time to listen to all of the patient's concerns. Those few who did of course, made a significant contribution to the patient's health.
But, I, as chaplain, had nothing else to do but sit and listen; and even if I did have something else to do, it was important to make the patient I was sitting with feel that he or she was the total object of my intention for as long as I was needed. That was my gesture of 'Hineni'-I am here. I have tried to continue that approach as your rabbi; you never need to apologize for 'taking my time' for whatever reason.
Since coming here, I have maintained that approach. When someone enters the office whom I haven't met, I make it a point to invite them to sit down and help them feel as though I have nothing else in the world do that is nearly as important as hearing their story. It's hard to convey such an attitude when you're both standing; the sitting is the 'signal' that time is not an issue. In all this I am encouraging you to be more present in your communications and conversations.
Now I want to address a related issue: how should you approach someone when you know, or strongly suspect, that he or she is having a difficult time. You can bring a healing presence there as well, if you are conscious of what you need to do, Our law code, the Mishnah advises us when we should hesitate to approach other people: that should be the case whenever they are angry, whenever they lost a loved one, whenever they are making a solemn vow, and whenever they have been disgraced. If we do approach them it should not be with platitudes or with questions; that they are in some distress is obvious. You should approach gently, solicitously, with a gesture, and perhaps with a statement that conveys your recognition that the person is in distress. So you might say: I see that you are troubled; how can I help? The main point is to let the other person initiate and guide the conversation, and if possible, you should both be sitting down.
This insight may help you understand why it is so important for mourners to wear a kriah ribbon on their outer garment for thirty days, and why the mourners should be seated at a shiva residence. Both the posture and the ribbon are a clear statements regarding the nature of what the wearer is going through. Mourners, for their part, should resist the impulse to stand up and greet those who come to their home. A seated mourner encourages you to sit, and makes initiating a conversation easier. You can again make yourself a supportive presence, rather than make an unwelcome inquiry. Let the mourner lead the conversation.
The world is full of people who perhaps ought to be wearing ribbons to offer us a clue to their turmoil, but that is not going to happen anytime soon, so we have to keep our antenna up and our anxiety about our next appointment down. America's first president understood this well. George Washington once wrote his nephew: "Let your heart feel for the affections and distresses of everyone you meet."
It would be naïve to suggest that our grief or pain or anxiety or humiliation or confusion could be speedily resolved by other people allowing us to tell our story. But great progress could be made toward assuaging those feelings in each conversation, because recognizing that another person truly cares about you is about as healing as the process can be.
Don't we come to the synagogue with the expectation that God will be a healing presence for us? Isn't that what prayer is really about? We say to God: Here we are in all of our finitude, burdened with concerns, prone to error, fallible. Through prayer we try to establish a relationship where God can provide a healing and supportive presence; when that happens, that is God's answer to your prayer. You have called on God's name-and you experience His answer: Hineni.
If these Yamim Noraim, these High Holy Days, can help you appreciate how much you can be a healing presence in other people's lives, then we are on our way toward becoming the kind of kehillah, or caring congregation that I am committed to helping you become-and which in the context of last night's message, is part and parcel of my extended definition of 'a member in good standing.'
We are all walking down life's road together. It is not a road meant to be traveled alone, or only in the company of our particular families. Rather do we seek a variety of traveling companions, some for awhile, and some for always, and surely a portion of their number are people you have met or will meet at here at Beth El. Resolve to treat each other gently, ask only questions whose answers you are prepared to and thank God for teaching us how to be present for other human beings. Pray for a good and sweet year for all humanity. Ken yehi ratzon. So may it be.
"One Life—One Melody”
Sermon for Kol Nidre, 5765, September 24, 2004
Rabbi Jonathan Brown
Hayyim Nahman Bialik, the Hebrew national poet, reflecting on the brevity of life, composed a poem that he called ‘Acharey Moti:’
After my death, mourn me thus:
There was a man, and behold, he is no more.
Before his time his life was ended,
And the song of his life was cut off in the middle.
O he had one more melody.
And now that melody is lost forever.
We who come together on this night to pray, and who begin our service by asking permission to pray with ‘avaryanim’ —transgressors---in order to affirm that they have as much right to be here as we do, we come together to share our songs with those whose lives are quite different from our own, and whose values may or may not be our values. But we combine to form a congregation, a kehillah kedoshah, and our songs forge a unique symphony as we worship.
If each life is a song, then each life lost or destroyed means that a particular song will never be heard again, lending even more depth to the loss we experience. Judaism teaches us that every human life is infinitely valuable, every song worthy of being sung, and we must live and behave in such a way as to protect each unique song that exists in our diverse community.
‘Infinitely valuable’—and a world unto itself. From the story of Cain and Abel, we learn that the destruction of a life is the destruction of a world. After Cain kills his brother out of jealousy, since God preferred Abe’s offering to his own, God asks him where his brother is. Cain answers: “I don’t know. Am I my brother’s keeper?” God responds: “What have you done? Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the earth!”
In Hebrew the term for blood, dam, appears in the plural form, and the rabbis say that the plural, damim, teaches us that not only did Cain slay Abel, but as well, he killed all of those who would have been his descendants. Cain destroyed an entire lineage, From which the rabbis concluded that he who destroys a single life is as though he had destroyed an entire world. Therefore, he who saves a single life is as though he saved an entire world. And so we are expected to ‘move heaven and earth’ to rescue an endangered person, and to protect the quality of all life—human and sentient creatures—this planet.
To save a single life: Irene Opdyke, a Polish Catholic woman, spent the war years as caretaker to a German officer who was billeted to a large manor house near where her family lived. Irene was only a teenager at the time, but she had courage to hide a dozen Jews in that home for nearly a year. When the major discovered that there were Jews there, she pleaded with him not to turn them in. For whatever reason, for whatever cost to her, he allowed them to stay. But that was only one of the remarkable results that Irene was able to accomplish.
The other involved one of the Jewish women hidden in that basement who discovered that she was pregnant. She wanted to terminate the pregnancy because of the danger to her and the others who were hiding. Irene convinced her to bear the child, stressing the sanctity of each and every life. Now. Sixty years later, that child’s grandson has celebrated his Bar Mitzvah.
To save a single life. While I was working at Johns Hopkins, I came to Dr. Ben Carson, who has attained a world-wide and well deserved reputation as a pediatric surgeon. Every once in awhile you can pick up a newspaper and read about his latest efforts to preserve the lives of Siamese twins, those unfortunate folks who are born attached to each other in extremely complicated fashion. But in his professional life, such high-profile cases are only the tip of the iceberg. He has decided his life and his surgical skills to the saving of other lives, as do tens of thousands of other physicians and nurses and practitioners of all the branches of medicine.
Irene Opdyke and Ben Carson. Saving lives, saving melodies. You may recall a book by Frank McCourt called “Angela’s Ashes.” Surviving a childhood of deprivation and almost unimaginable poverty, the one birthright Frank McCourt’s father gave his children—the few that survived infancy in that environment—was that each child had his own song, and only he was allowed to sing it. No one else.
There is a tribe in East Africa which respects a unique tradition: from the moment a woman first thinks about having a child, she goes off to sit alone under a tree. She sits there until she can hear inside herself the song of the child she hopes to conceive. She then goes to her husband and teaches him the song so they can sing it together as they engage in the act of love-making.
After conception the woman sings the unique melody to her child in the womb. The song is sung by the midwives who attend her labor. The villagers are taught the child’s song so they can sing it whenever the child falls or hurts itself, ad its marriage, and at other life-cycle events. And finally, when death claims him or her, family and friends gather around to sing that song for a final time.
We all have songs that have special meaning for us—songs that speak to our innermost selves, and recall significant moments in our lives. For Gracie and me—such a song is the theme song from the film Dr. Zhivago—which is the movie we saw just before our daughter Laura was born; those of you with long memories will recall that Lara was the name of the character that Julie Christie played in that film.
Each and every one of you sitting in the congregation tonight might reflect on the songs that have such profound meaning for you, and also acknowledge that you yourself are a song, your life is a melody that contributes to the symphony of our experience here tonight and always. And each component of the symphony must be present for the total effect to be what the composer wanted. God is our composer, and we are the melodies He wants to hear.
From the time that a kindergarten student learns to sing the Shema or his or her first Jewish song, until the moment when the Cantor or the rabbi chants the El Maley Rahamim when he or she called to her eternal rest, we Jews are a people of liturgical melodies. Can you imagine a Passover Seder without Dayyenu, or a Rosh Ha-shanah service without Avinu Malkeynu, a festival service without Hallel, a Shabbat without a Kiddush.
As a people we sang and danced from the moment we were delivered from Egyptian bondage. We sang—Shirat Ha-yam—the song of the Sea—when Miriam and the other women danced with their timbrels; each year when we read the passage we are doing it on Shabbat Shira—the Sabbath of Song. Azi v’zimrat yah, vay’hi li lishua—the Lord is my strength and song, and He has become my salvation. God is the song in our hearts that gives us the courage to face again and again life’s most difficult challenges.
We are a people who chant when study the Talmud, and again when we read the Torah and Haftarah in the synagogue, and constantly when we pray. It is said that a prayer which has been sung is actually prayed twice.
On this, the most solemn, the most holy night of the year, we sing a song whose melody touches our soul like no other—the Kol Nidre—a melody so steeped in our psyches that the words become platforms for music as it ascends from the depths of our being.
There is a story told about a Holocaust survivor, a man forced by the circumstances of the Kingdom of the Night to place his young son in the care of a Catholic family somewhere in Poland. After the war, he went to the place he had left his son, but no one could or would give him any information. He was in despair, but he thought of a way that might help his son, if he had survived, to re-kindle a spark of his Jewish identity. He had taken his son to shul for almost all of his son’s life, and he knew that his son would recognize the Kol Nidre melody. Since he had a violin and could play fairly well, he determined to visit all the towns and villages in a wide area of the country, going to schoolyards and playgrounds where children the same age as his on would be gathering. He would take out his violin and play the Kol Nidre.
For over a year he traveled back and forth across the land playing the same plaintive melody and looking into the eyes of the young boys who were nearby. In the end he did not find his son, and broken-hearted, he buried the violin and left for Palestine to make aliyah. (pause) They say that those who travel near the place where he buried the violin can hear the melody still.
Each of us has a song, and what a beautiful sound can be made when are songs our sung together. Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav, the Hassidic rebbe who left us a legacy of remarkable stories, admonishes us: “It is forbidden to despair.” Even if there are no chords left in your soul, there will at least one little note. By humming that note—our tiny point of goodness, of truth, of love, of compassion, of sincerity, we can begin to one note and yet another. From these notes we can build chords, and from the chords, compose a song.
On this holy evening, as we reflect on the preciousness of a single life, its unique melody, the life of a child, a life-partner, our parents, our siblings, our friends, ourselves—an entire world. And we rededicate ourselves to awaken each day with a blessing of thanksgiving on our lips for renewed life. We are energized by the thought of a beautiful Catholic woman who shielded twelve Jews from certain death and persuaded an expectant woman to have her child, and by the dedication of a doctor whose surgical skills have saved scores of lives.
Somewhere a woman sits beneath a tree contemplating the future birth of a child, waiting for a melody to emerge. And here a congregation sits expectantly in the sanctuary, transfixed by a melody, its notes fading, calling us to repentance. And somewhere a tear glistens, beginning its slow journey down a cheek, and a smile caresses a soul as a life-song is sung.