We are a people that remembers. Remembering is so important to us that we have not one…but two days on the Jewish calendar designated as Yom HaZikaron: a Day of Remembrance. We recite Yizkor, our liturgy of remembrance, which we will share together in a moment, not once….but four times over the year. We are commanded to remember and remember and remember.
It becomes hard work, after a while.
The late Israeli poet, Yehuda Amichai, complained about it, when he wrote:
Let the memorial hill remember instead of me,
That’s what it’s here for. Let the park in-memory-of Remember,
Let the street that’s-named-for remember,
Let the well-known building remember,
Let the synagogue that’s named after God remember
Let the rolling Torah scroll remember, let the prayer
For the memory of the dead remember. Let the flags remember,
those multicolored shrouds of history: the bodies they wrapped
have long since turned to dust. Let the dust remember.
Let the dung remember at the gate. Let the afterbirth remember.Let the beasts of the field and the birds of the heavens
Eat and remember.
Let all of them remember so that I can rest.
Unfortunately, however, remembering is not a task that Judaism permits us to abstain from.
Consider, for a moment, the greatest tragedy of the Torah. The Book of Deuteronomy recalls that the evil Amalekites caught the Israelites unaware as they were wandering through the desert. They massacred the ancient Israelite women and children in the very back of the pack, where they were left unguarded by the men who walked in front.
How often, when a great tragedy occurs in our life, are we inclined to try to block it out? We try to forget about it because the pain and the hurt are so great. And we try to forget about it because we want to move forward, and move on with our lives.
Yet our ancestors chose a different path. The Torah is explicit: “Remember what Amalek did to you on your journey, after you left Egypt—how […] he surprised you on the march […] and cut down all the stragglers in your rear. Therefore, when the Lord your God grants you safety from all your enemies around you, in the land that the Lord your God is giving you […], you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven. Do not forget!” (Deut. 25:17-19)
Why does our Tradition make this demand of us? This demand that we shall not forget under any circumstances…?
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, the outgoing Chief Rabbi of England, writes that: “There is a profound difference between history and memory. History is his story – an event that happened sometime else to someone else. Memory is my story – something that happened to me and is part of who I am. History is information. Memory, by contrast, is part of identity."
And Sacks goes on: “Memory is the past as present, as it lives on in me. Without memory there can be no identity. Alzheimer’s Disease, the progressive atrophying of memory function, is also the disintegration of personality. As with individuals, so with a nation: it has a continuing identity to the extent that it can remember where it came from and who its ancestors were.”
We Jews believe that our personalities are on the line, when it comes to the issue of remembrance. We understand, if not consciously then subconsciously, that the very essence of who we are as individuals…and as part of the larger body of the Jewish People, is at risk if we don’t remember…the good times and the bad of our past. Of the loved ones that came before us, and of the impact that they had on who – and what – we are.
The Baal Shem Tov once noted that “in remembrance lies the secret of redemption.”
I believe that he was right. I believe that even though it can be painfully difficult to turn our thoughts back to the past, we have no choice but to go there….to return…to feel the pain and loss, so that we can experience the smiles and laughter…the pride and joy all over again as well…the way our loved ones had the ability to make us feel like we were the only ones who ever mattered.
We remember our loved ones now, as we remember them always, with Seder Yizkor, our Service of Remembrance. [Click here for an online text of a typical Yizkor service.]
A few years ago, there was a video that went viral. It was a satire of Israel and its tourism industry. The clip opened with a shot of the beach in Tel Aviv, with trendy music in the background. And then, the camera zoomed in on two guys…who resembled typical American college students…hanging out on the beach (perhaps on a birthright Israel trip). And suddenly: they notice that they’re surrounded by beautiful women, who start smiling at them.
As each woman notices them, they take turns exclaiming: “Holy Jesus! Holy Bleep This! Holy Bleep That!” Then: the tagline scrolls onto the screen: No Wonder They Call It The Holy Land!
Okay…so this wasn’t an officially sanctioned ad from the Tourism Ministry. But it does compliment their advertising of late. It’s suddenly okay for the Tourism Ministry to encourage people to visit Israel by handing out condoms with double entendres printed underneath the Israeli flag!
How fascinating…For the first time in decades, Israel is actively interested in encouraging everyone to visit – not just religious pilgrims and history buffs.
There’s something about our current cultural moment that has shifted. When people Google Israeli travel information today, the first results are the Israeli news stories rejoicing in the fact that Israel was just designated as the country with the world’s 7th hottest women, and 10th hottest men.
Perhaps it’s all good. Israel is welcoming its largest group of tourists in years. There were 300,000 this past July alone – an 8% increase from July of last year. And I don’t have to tell you that those numbers are all the more remarkable because they come at a time of massive regional instability…where the mere mention of Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, and Iran raises questions about the physical and emotional security of Israel today.
It’s a paradox: even as the world sits by and waits…frantically hoping against hope that Iran won’t finish developing a nuclear weapon which it has promised to use against Israel…international tourists are streaming in.
We could celebrate the economic vitality that comes with such a tourist influx. But Israelis, and Jews around the world, might alternatively ask themselves: what price are we willing to pay for being just another country filled with good looking young men and women? On this Yom Kippur, when we meditate not only on the state of our own Jewish identity, but also Israel’s, I would ask you: How much of Israel’s essential identity, and our own, are we willing to trade away, as Israel re-brands itself in the 21st century?
Here’s what I think.
Israel is different. And I stand before you on this most solemn day of the year to tell you that I don’t think it should aspire to be like every other great country in the world.
There was a time, you know…when that’s all we hoped Israel would be. When Theodor Herzl, founder of modern day Zionism, imagined the Jewish State, he presumed that people would speak, read, and study primarily in the great European languages of the day. He yearned for a Jewish state that wasn’t particularly Jewish, except for the Jews that would be living there.
We know, today, that Israel has evolved past Herzl’s vision. Israel wasn’t just founded to be a homeland for Jewish People. It was also founded in order to be an explicitly “Jewish” State.
Ahad Ha-Am, one of the visionary founders of Zionism alongside Herzl, distinguished his approach from Herzl in this text, from 1897. Zionism, he believed, must begin “with national culture [Judaism], because only through the national culture and for its sake can a Jewish State be established in such a way as to correspond with the will and the needs of the Jewish people.”
For 64 years, the State of Israel that we have known and loved has been a fusion of Herzl’s and Ahad Ha-Am’s vision: a place that functioned for the Jewish People as both a political homeland and as a spiritual one.
But Israel’s spiritual identity is now being called into question. Not just by the amusing marketing of the Tourism Ministry – but also by the controversy that overtook Israel this year surrounding HaTikvah, the Israeli national anthem.
The debate began in February. It was then, at a public official ceremony, that TV commentators noticed that Israeli Supreme Court Justice Salim Joubran, the only Israeli Arab sitting on the Court, was not singing along to the national anthem.
Those on the far right criticized Joubran, and some even called for his resignation or firing.
But others, including Prime Minister Netanyahu, came to Joubran’s defense. How – some asked – can Israel legitimately expect its Arab citizens to express fidelity to a song that is clearly Jewish? Not only is it almost exclusively sung in Hebrew…but it contains Jewish references like nefesh yehudi – a Jewish soul; and: ha-tikvah shnot alpayim, lihiyot am chofshi bei’artzeinu- the hope of 2000 years: to be a free people in our land. It’s not hard for us to imagine why Israeli Arabs might be uncomfortable singing these words.
The Joubran incident has become something of a dilemma in progressive circles since then. Many have asked: what does it mean for us to have a national anthem that cannot be sung by 20% of Israeli citizens, for indeed – Israeli Arabs – not including the Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza Strip – make up 20% of the Israeli population.
This problem…almost a mini Israeli existentialist crisis for some…spawned a series of possible solutions.
One camp suggests that we re-write HaTikvah…either from scratch, or with the necessary edits…to insure that the song can be sung by every Israeli citizen.
The biggest proponent of this plan was The Forward, the newspaper of our own American Jewish community. The Forward edited the lyrics that they deemed offensive to those not Jewish, and then commissioned the noted American Jewish singer Neshama Carlebach to record the new version.
A second camp seeks a compromise…on the one hand, it has an affinity for the original version of the song, and on the other hand, it is sympathetic to Israeli Arabs who feel excluded. Why not, this camp wonders, construct a national anthem like Canada’s – which has stanzas in both English and French. Canadian event planners are given the latitude to choose the most approprioate version for their gathering.
According to this approach, we might retain the original version of HaTikvah as one stanza, and write a more inclusive second stanza. People would then have the choice of singing one and then the other; one or the other….or: a mixed crowd could sing both simultaneously.
The third approach is to do nothing. This camp asserts that, at least with regards to the national anthem, it does not matter that Israeli Arabs are uncomfortable singing it.
Somewhat unexpectedly, I have come to identify with this latter group. The chief critique of the so-called “do nothing” approach is that it is fundamentally racist, and that, of course is painful for me to hear.
I am particularly aware of the conflicting emotions regarding this response…because, in terms of my own personal political views of Israel, I generally situate myself left of center, particularly when it comes to conversations about Israel and her relationship with the Palestinians. As you get to know me, you will come to discover that I am a rabbi who believes that the Palestinians are people too…that I believe that they deserve for their human rights to be respected no less than Israelis do. And I believe that the Jewishness of the Jewish State is supposed to inform the ethical way that all Jews – and all Israelis – treat the Palestinians.
(I trust that there are some in this room who would disagree with me on this last point. I look forward to much dialogue in the years ahead, in settings both private and public, where we can learn with and from each other about this pivotally important issue.)
Yet, for all of my bleeding heart liberal concern for “the other” in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, I stand before you on this Day of Atonement to admit to you that I am not particularly moved by the calls from some in Israel to change the words of HaTikvah.
I confess this to you, out of the belief that this conversation is not just about the future of a song…but rather about the future of Israel, and the future of the Zionist project. (Pause)
Allow me to digress momentarily, as I invite you to think about…bedtime routines…perhaps the ones that you experienced as a child, or the ones that you used (or still use) as parents or grandparents today.
In our house it’s a daily routine. Siona and Avi brush their teeth, change into pajamas, read a few books, and then pile into bed. And then, we sing two songs.
You’ll have to forgive me and Amy for being such a cliché of a rabbinic family…but we made the decision a long time ago to sing songs at bedtime to our kids that would convey to them a sense who they are…of where they come from…and to give to them a sense of identity which we hope they’ll carry with them into the future.
And so…each night…we sing the Shema…and then: we sing HaTikvah.
We do this not because we think of ourselves as religious fundamentalists, or Zionist activists. Neither could be further from the truth.
We sing HaTikvah to our children because we want them to know that even though they are a little bit different from the vast majority of those who live in this wonderful country…that there is a place in this world that is dedicated to harboring the Jewish People…and that will always be there for them, should they ever decide that they do not want to make their life here…but would instead prefer to bind themselves to the fates of our Israeli brothers and sisters…..to a place that is not just for Jews….But a place that is a Jewish state.
I already acknowledged that sometimes Israel falls short of the lofty Jewish ideals that we have for her. And it’s not just in terms of how she relates to the Palestinians, but also with regards to the way Israel indulges the ultra-Orthodox even as she fails to appropriately recognize the rights of Progressive Judaism.
But re-writing HaTikvah as an expression of political correctness is as inauthentic a solution to the problem of integrating Israeli Arabs into Israeli society, as the decision of the Tourism Ministry to sell Tel Aviv as just another Western beach resort with buff bodies everywhere.
Israel ceases to be Israel when we dilute her authentic Jewish character, and turn it into something that is just like every other place. This is true with regards to tourism campaigns. And it is true with regards to national anthems. The innate Jewishness of Israel is what sets Israel apart from every other country in the world.
Rebbe Nachman of Bratslav once wrote that: “Wherever I go, I am going to the Land of Israel.” In this sense, his Zionism…his connection to the Land…was a mindset. Though he would never use the word, it must have been akin to a pleasant fantasy: he believed each person should act with ever-increasing holiness, which would bring them, if not actually, than at least metaphorically, to the Promised Land.
The problem is that we live in a world where the Land of Israel must be more than a fantasy. We can no longer afford to think of HaTikvah….the great hope…as merely an ideal to work toward.
In a world that is post-Auschwitz, post-Rwanda, and (we pray) post-Sudan, we know – more than Rebbe Nachman did – of the immense evil that humanity is capable of. And so we know that a Jewish state of Israel must be more than a fantasy. It must be real – because….god forbid…our children, or their great-grandchildren might need it….like some of our grandparents did, not so many decades ago.
That’s the reason that Israel can’t just be encapsulated by trend setting sex appeal, like any other Western capital. Now…at the very moment when we worry about Israel’s existential future because of an Iranian bomb…now is the moment for us to articulate the vision of an Israel that we are moved to fight for, and defend. Before any conversation about how Israel should treat the Palestinians, and before any conversation about the role of the ultra-Orthodox in contemporary Israeli life…we must ask ourselves: are we willing to demand that, Israel, first and foremost, can and must be a Jewish state? One that respects its Arab citizens, to be sure. But one that is unapologetically Jewish about its history, its values, and above all: its national anthem.
Aristotle once wrote that “hope is a waking dream.” But Zionism is the Jew’s response to Aristotle. Our tikvah, our hope, is no mere dream. Herzl taught us: Im Tirtzu, ein zo agadah – if you will it, then it is no dream. And for 64 years, our dream has been a reality: the existence of a Jewish State. On this day, let us affirm that the dream still lives, and that we are ever-committed to insuring the Jewishness of the State, not just for another 64 years, but for all of the years upon years upon years that might come…after that.
 “The Jewish State and the Jewish Problem” as it appears on p. 269 of The Zionist Idea, edited by Arthur Hertzberg.
“Let us begin by committing ourselves to the truth, to see it like it is and to tell it like it is, to find the truth, to speak the truth and live with the truth.”
That sounds like good advice…except that those words were proclaimed by Richard Nixon at the 1968 Republican convention. Given what we now know about Nixon, it makes better sense to invoke the words of Billy Joel, who sings that “honesty is hardly ever heard.” [Scroll to the bottom of the posting for a video of Joel performing the song.]
Distressingly, the evidence seems to suggest that Joel was right. We know that it’s true of our current batch of national political leaders, when we have to rely on non partisan fact checking organizations to weigh in every time our presidential candidates open their mouths. And we know that it’s true of American adults in general.
For example, a University of Massachussetts psychologist gathered 120 adults together a few years ago, and invited them to sit down in pairs for some brief small talk. As part of the experiment, the conversations were videotaped.
Later, participants were asked to watch themselves, and to count the number of lies that they told. The average student lied THREE TIMES during these interchanges – one lie every 3.3 minutes!
Lying, of course, is not just something that adults do. The Josephson Institute of Ethics recently surveyed thousands of students, ranging from 6th graders to college students. Seventy five percent described themselves as “serial liars” and freely admitted that they would not hesitate to lie, if it would bring them some kind of advantage.
In light of that statistic, perhaps it shouldn’t have come as such a surprise to us last spring when news of the cheating scandal at Stuyvesant High School, one of the leading public schools in the City, broke. More than 60 students have been implicated in the mess there, which included the sharing of answers in multiple sittings of the Regents Exam, transmitted via cell phone.
Even more disturbing was the recent word of an epic scandal at Harvard, whose administration now accuses more than 100 undergraduates of copying from the same study guide for a simple open book/take home final exam. Oh the bitter irony for our Cambridge friends….where the Harvard motto is naturally Veritas, Latin for truth.
Billy Joel’s observation that “honesty is hardly ever heard” is hardly earth-shattering. Nor is it new. For two millenia, our rabbis have been struggling to come to terms with the fact that we humans lie. Intentionally or not: it happens. And as a result, the prayer that we recited at the beginning of this evening’s service…Kol Nidre…was composed.
Kol Nidre is our plea that all of the vows and promises that we made in the last year, and all the half-truths and outright lies that we told, be forgiven.
For me, the prayer is powerful because it gives us the opportunity to begin the process of teshuvah, or repentance…by offering us the chance to communally admit to the lies we’ve told. Confessing our wrongs, of course, is just the first step of teshuvah. It is always followed by a real commitment on our part to turn the page on the behavior in question, so as to insure self improvement in the year ahead.
But before we can consider how to stop lying, we have to begin by asking ourselves: why do we lie in the first place?
In his book, The Cheating Culture, David Callahan argues that we are lying now more than ever in order to acquire wealth.
Obviously, there’s nothing wrong with harboring the desire to be financially secure and successful. The key, according to Callahan, is to not let this desire take over our lives. If we examine ourselves more closely, Callahan believes that we will find that – time and again – we are willing to violate our own ethical standards if it means making a little more money, or securing a position for even greater future professional advancement.
The Stuyvesant and Harvard cheaters are perfect illustrations of Callahan’s argument. Take a group of proven academic superstars and tantalize them with the possibility of even stronger grades, and an even higher GPA, and they will do it…even if they rationally know that it’s a stupid idea that could have serious repercussions. They do it because they are under incredible pressure to perform….to get the best possible grades, to set up the best college application, or the best grad school application, or for the best internship….all in order to secure the “best” job at Goldman Sachs, or wherever it is that the uber-successful fantasize about working these days.
I need not tell you that lying and cheating are not just the provenance of the Ivy League. Every American wrestles with the question of honesty each spring, as we prepare our tax returns. Consider this statistic: the IRS collects approximately $300 billion less than it is supposed to each year, because people fail to pay everything that they owe. Unpopular though this may be, the fact is that when we avoid paying taxes that we are legally and ethically obligated to pay, we are acting deceitfully to ourselves and to our country.
Fellow parents in the room: we are often guilty of additional acts of dishonesty when we become overly concerned about the future earning potential of our kids.
Consider the case of former Wall Street analyst Jack Grubman. Several years ago, Grubman deceitfully upgraded the rating on AT&T’s stock, in the hopes that former Citigroup chairman and AT&T stockholder Sanford Weill would help get Grubman’s twins into the elite preschool at the 92nd Street Y. I don’t know if Grubman’s kids were ever admitted. But I do know that he was hit with a $15 million fine from the SEC, and was permanently banned from securities trading for the rest of his life.
Yet my sense is that we don’t just lie for financial or professional gain. We also lie to bolster our own self esteem.
Some among us are paralyzed by a sense of self doubt and self worth, which leads us to conclude that the only way to cope is to lie – to create an elaborate fantasy world, where we can be in denial about who we really are.
I’m especially worried about this issue, in light of the unique technological age that we inhabit. When we go online, we have the option of engaging with others as anonymously as we want. There are little or no safeguards in place to monitor how truthfully we represent ourselves on social networking platforms, on dating websites, in chatrooms, or in the virtual universe known as Second Life.
What we tend to forget is that the basic ethical values that govern our “real-world” day to day lives also remain in play while we’re online. If we lie about who we are online, and then go to meet an online friend in person, we need to remember that the hurt that we cause is no different than the pain we inflict by lying in the real world.
It goes without saying that our own Jewish tradition is firmly opposed to lying. Suffice it to say that the Torah feels so strongly about the dangers of widespread lying that dishonesty is prohibited multiple times within the Ten Commandments alone!
On this day of Yom Kippur, it’s worth pointing out that the prohibition against lying is also echoed in our machzor. Throughout this day of confession, we recite the words: al cheit shechatanu lifanecha b’chachash u’vichazav – for the wrong we have committed before You, O God, by engaging in fraud, and in speaking words of falsehood.
Interestingly, unlike some other religious traditions, Judaism does permit lying in very limited circumstances. Often the value of truth-telling is weighed against hurting a person’s feelings. For example, the Talmud famously commands us to compliment a bride on her beauty on the day of her wedding, even if she is particularly unattractive. And, the rabbis would rather us keep our feedback to ourselves, if Grandma’s cooking has taken a turn for the worse.
But outside of these limited exceptions, our tradition is uniformly opposed to lying. Channeling the story of the boy who cried wolf, the Talmud notes: “Such is the punishment of a liar that, even when he speaks the truth, no one listens.” Rabbi Joseph Telushkin notes that this is not just about others trusting us. He writes that liars themselves often have a hard time trusting other people, since liars become paranoid – unsure if those around them are lying just like they are.
How do we avoid that trap? Beyond the simple recommitment to tell the truth more (which I of course strongly recommend), how can we change the way that we think about our behaviors, and the patterns in our life that enable them?
1700 years ago, St. Augustine wrote that “when regard for truth has broken down […] all things remain doubtful.” What he meant was that the mutual trust that we share with one another…the trust that allows any society to function properly…will eventually break down if widespread lying goes unchecked.
There is a great deal of evidence to confirm Augustine’s assertion: studies show that we lie considerably less to the people that we are already in relationship with – the people that are a regular part of our community.
One solution that we should be focusing on, then, is strengthening the relationships we have with others. Unfortunately in this day and age, we live socially disconnected lives. Forget about the fact that we have fewer friends than Americans of 20 or 40 years ago. We often don’t even know the names of our next door neighbors! Gone are the days of small town America, or life in the Eastern European shtetl, where everyone knew everyone else; where a total lack of privacy also meant that there really wasn’t that much opportunity to lie to your friends and neighbors.
Our tradition imagined that this would be the ideal life that Jews would be living every single day – one where we are intimately connected with the people who surround us.
This is one reason that we have Yom Kippur in the first place. Yom Kippur is not just our Day of Atonement. It is also our Day of At-one-ment. The rabbis presumed that we would be very social people 364 days of the year, and that we would need this one day on the calendar to enjoy a little privacy and introspection.
The trouble for us is that we are alienated from others – and are at-one with ourselves, our computers, and our cell phones all year long!
Let us take this Yom Kippur to try and restore a sense of balance to our lives. We should strive to spend a little less time in relationship with our electronic devices, and a little more time in relationship with the people that surround us…here at the synagogue, with our friends and family in each other’s homes, and with our neighbors. For, from these relationships springs an almost automatic behavior modification system. It is a fact: the more bound up in someone’s life we are, the less likely we are to lie to them.
Our tradition imagines a world where we might rely on each other – where our relationships would be an automatic system of checks and balances so that we could monitor each other’s honesty. But if we are not seeking out relationships – then that system of checks and balances cannot work. We will be free to lie with even greater frequency, and our society will suffer because of it.
Sadly Billy Joel’s prophetic vision of our future will become real: Honesty will hardly ever be heard.
Like a gift, though, Yom Kippur arrives on our doorstep each autumn as a second chance…an opportunity for us to choose to stop lying, and to re-embrace the truth.
As the American Jewish poet Merle Feld put it:
I am grateful for this,
A moment of truth,
Grateful to stand before You in judgment.
You know me as a liar
And I am flooded with relief
To have my darkest self exposed at last.
Every day I break my vows –
To be the dutiful child,
Selfless parent, caring friend,
Responsible citizen of the world.
No one sees, no one knows,
How often I take the easy way,
I let myself off the hook,
Give myself the benefit of the doubt –
Every day, every day.
On this day, this one day,
I stand before You naked,
Without disguise, without
I implore You-
Let me try again.
We begin with this oft-told Hasidic story: There was a man who’d been wandering in a forest for several days utterly lost. Finally he saw a person approaching him. His heart leapt with joy. “Now I shall surely find my way out of this forest,” he thought to himself. When they neared each other, he asked, “Friend, will you please tell me the way out of the forest?” Said the other to him, “I don’t know the way out either, for I too have been wandering here for many days. But…come now, let us search for the way out together.”
Well…here we are…at our first Rosh HaShanah together. Like two new friends who have met in the middle of the forest, joining hands, in search of a path forward to the future.
But even on a holiday devoted to looking ahead, our Tradition goes to great lengths to teach us that first we must consider how we got here. This is one reason why we call Rosh HaShanah the Birthday of the World - because we are meant to pause and step back, and to look behind us into our distant and recent past. And, indeed, if you join us tomorrow morning, we'll go back in the Torah all the way to the beginning...to the ancient Jewish etiology of the universe, which is meant to frame the way we understand life today.I love that word, etiology.
Etiology is the study of causation, or of origins. An etiology is a conversation about where things come from…about how something, or someone, came to be the way they are today.
Though the word might be unfamiliar, the concept is everywhere. Place names are etiologies…New Amsterdam, and later New York, for example, tell the etiology, or the story, of the City’s historical roots….of how Europeans came to arrive and establish settlements here centuries ago.
And our own names are etiologies as well; just think of the Eastern European Jewish custom of naming children after deceased relatives. Our names tell part of the story of who we are, and where we came from.
I thought that I might begin these High Holy Days with an etiology…of us….of how it came to be that we are facing each other in this figurative forest at the start of this new Jewish year, 5773.
The twisting path that brought me to Scarsdale was no mere metaphor. It’s an actual trail, and you can go see it for yourself (with binoculars), if you stand on the shores of the Hudson, just north of Yonkers, staring out toward New Jersey.
During Memorial Day Weekend of 2011, Amy and I had a brief vacation, which included a day of hiking in Palisades Park.
And as we enjoyed the view of the river and of the mysterious trains shuttling back and forth between the City, we had one of those great life conversations that resulted in the first tentative decision that we were ready to leave the beach life of San Diego for a new, and as yet undetermined, home.
One of the driving factors of our decision was our commitment to family. Our parents and closest friends are here. We are East Coasters, and we didn’t want the sunshine and surfing to addle our brains!
When we arrived in California, we thought we’d stay 3 – maybe 4 years tops. But…we fell in love with the ocean breeze, and with Temple Solel, the community I served there. Our friends became our family, even as Amy and I welcomed our children there – creating a family of our own. But in the end, it was our kids who helped us to realize that we didn’t belong there permanently. We had never intended to raise them so far from their grandparents.
But it wasn’t just family that had a defining impact on my etiology. There was also something that was happening to me, as a rabbi.
When I was ordained in 2005, I sought out a position as an Assistant Rabbi, because I barely knew anything! I wanted to learn with, and be mentored by, a great rabbi. And for the last seven years, I found that in Rabbi David Frank. He is a gifted, and nationally respected, rabbinic colleague. And I am grateful that I experienced all the joys and challenges of the rabbinate under his supervision.
But after five years of rabbinical school, and seven years in San Diego, I came to believe that I had grown as a teacher, scholar, and counselor. I was now ready to seek out a community of my own.
That’s my etiology….a bit of who I am, and where I came from. But what about you? Where did you, as a community, come from?
We might begin the story of Scarsdale Synagogue by mentioning its founding, and by recalling the initial leadership of Rabbi David Greenberg during the early 1960s when some of Scarsdale’s leading families sought to establish a new temple in the heart of Westchester.
If you or your family joined Scarsdale Synagogue before 1976, would you stand now so that I, and we, can recognize you?
And we reflect, with pride, on the unique history of this synagogue… which has not once, but twice, welcomed substantial numbers of families from other temples whose communities were unsustainable. Even if we refer in shorthand to our temple as Scarsdale Synagogue, we know that we would not be who we are today without the unique contributions made by those who trace their etiologies back to other proud centers of Reform Judaism.
If you or your family trace your path back to Temple Tremont, would you please stand so that we can recognize you?
And if you or your family joined Scarsdale Synagogue by way of Temple Emanu-El, would you please stand?
And if you count yourself as a proud member of SSTTE who has not yet stood, would you please stand now so that we can recognize you?
Never was the phrase E Pluribus Unum more true: Out of Many…One. Our diversity is our strength. Let us continue to celebrate and honor it.
For me, though, the etiology of SSTTE begins and ends with Rabbi Steve Klein. As a senior colleague of mine, I marvel at the three decades he spent as your teacher and confidante. He was, in the best sense of the term, your rabbi. I’m truly humbled by the opportunity to succeed him. Although Rabbi Klein has graciously chosen to absent himself during this high holy day season, as I begin my tenure…nonetheless, will you join me in recognizing the indelible stamp that his rabbinate has had on SSTTE?
Like many of you, I can say that I am, on a certain level, only here today because of him. For I fell in love with the SSTTE that he built.
The synagogue that I met last fall was one that was founded on the principle that every person who walks through our doors should feel welcome.
Whether you are gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, or searching: you are welcome here. Because: at the end of the day…aren’t we all searching? Perhaps not in terms of our sexual orientation or identity, but surely in terms of a spiritual one.
Regardless of our faith etiologies, we are a community of searchers. And as such, we welcome anyone seeking a meaningful engagement with Judaism. Our’s is a community that celebrates the prophet Isaiah, who said: .כִּי בֵיתִי בֵּית־תְּפִלָּה יִקָּרֵא לְכָל־הָעַמִּֽים
God’s house shall be called a House of Prayer for All Peoples.
What matters to me, and what I think should matter to us, is that this synagogue is an institution of authentic Jewish life and practice to anyone in search of Judaism’s wisdom about how to live a life that matters.
Rabbi Klein deserves credit for teaching what it means to be welcoming. And I should take this moment to affirm the spirit of Rabbi Klein’s rabbinate in this regard. Although I might make specific decisions that are different from the ones he made, particularly around the pivotal question of rabbinic officiation at interfaith marriage, make no mistake: every interfaith family that seeks a meaningful Jewish life can, should, and will find a supportive home here.
And as to whether or not I’ll officiate at interfaith weddings, I invite you to join me in study and dialogue in the coming year, as I move toward a decision. You can find details of those programs in the Lifelong Learning Booklets…and, in the coming months, in the newsletter and online.
And if we consider the etiology…the origin of where else the welcoming openness of SSTTE comes from, then I suggest we turn to a particular group of heroes, whose contribution often goes unnoticed. The particular vision that we have for welcoming interfaith families is dependent on the untold numbers of non-Jewish individuals in our families …who, though they have chosen not to convert to Judaism….nonetheless have courageously agreed to raise their children as Jews. They have done this philosophically. And they have done this practically….by committing to Hebrew school carpools, attending and volunteering at temple events, and financially supporting SSTTE. I would like to invite them to rise…so that we might honor you and thank you for helping to sustain this synagogue, and the Jewish People.
For me, everyone in this room ultimately embodies the essence of the etiology of SSTTE….it’s your passion and commitment which helps to explain who this synagogue is, and how it came to be the institution it is today.
Etiology is not just a tool to understand our past. The story of our origin also informs our future. As we look ahead, what can we expect in our synagogue’s future?
You can expect that Study, and the thoughtful consideration of Big Words (like Etiology) and the Big Ideas that those words are connected to, will be a hallmark of my rabbinate. I purposely chose, for example, to name my website – which you can find by the way – at www.bit.ly/rabbibrown - anyway I purposely named the site “Seventy Faces of Torah.” The name suggests....that there are a multiplicity of voices and perspectives in our Tradition. There is never just one Jewish position on the most pressing questions we encounter. Whether it’s about God, Israel, Torah, Interfaith Marriage, Gender or what’s happening here in America…Judaism has a lot to say about it!
Now…you need to know something at the outset of my tenure: we won’t always agree. We shouldn’t – because that would violate the eternal law of 2 Jews, 3 Opinions.
But I passionately believe that to be part of a Jewish community is to be engaged with the issues that matter most to us. We’ll do that with text and stories; with film; and even with field trips (like the upcoming one to the National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia, which I hope you’ll join me on). We’ll do it during Shabbat and holidays; and we’ll engage with older adults, and with younger people. Because the only Judaism that can be sustained in the 21st century is a relevant one…one that has something to say about that which matters most to us.
I also believe that our synagogue should be devoted to helping us figure out our own etiologies….to figure out who we are and how we want those identities to guide the future choices that we make. Though we live in a time and culture which prizes assimilation….when our televisions and magazines try to compel us to shop at the same chain clothing stores, and eat in the same chain restaurants…Judaism prizes that which is unique, individualistic, and different.
Being Jewish in a world that isn’t Jewish matters to me. The fact that I am spiritually descended from one of the world’s most oppressed minorities helps me to know who I am. It helps to teach me and my children that we are different – never better or worse – but different from many of the people that surround us. We have our own values and customs to transform what could be a secular life empty of meaning into something kodesh, something deeply holy.
Take time out during this season of contemplation to consider your own etiology. Be in touch – I’d love to set up an appointment so that we might do this work together. Or, you might ask yourself privately: Who am I? How did I come to be this way? Look in the mirror. How do you feel about the person staring back at you? And are you committed, as I am, to changing, learning, and improving in the coming year?
How will our etiologies…the journeys that’ve brought us from our past, inform the people that we are going to be in the year ahead?
I’m not quite sure what the answers to all of those questions are …but with all my heart, I can say that I am so very excited to walk down this path with you….in the hope that we might find our way out of the forest…together.
A story, first, from the legendary town of Chelm, whose residents were particularly Jewish, but not particularly brilliant.
It came to be, once, that two of the leading citizens of Chelm were stuck in an intense argument over how it is that we human beings grow over time.
Ever the literalists, the first Chelmite argued that we grow from the ground up, saying “Just look at the army as it marches by, and you’ll see that I’m right! None of the soldiers’ heads is at the same level, but all the soldiers have their feet on the ground. Clear proof, don’t you think, that people grow from the ground up?”
But the man’s friend would have none of it. He countered by observing that if you looked closely at the marching band that was passing by, you’d see that the pants of their uniforms didn’t reach all the way to their shoes! Some of the pants were too long, and some were too short. This, he insisted, proved that people grow…from the head, down.
When the two men failed to resolve their argument, they turned to their rabbi for a resolution. Thankfully the rabbi stepped in and announced: “My dear friends, we human beings do not grow from the top down, or from the bottom up. We only grow…from the inside, out.”
Is there a better time than on Rosh HaShanah for us to consider the Chelmites’ question…as to how it is that we grow and evolve over time? On this New Year in which we celebrate New Beginnings, let us take the night to reflect on the changes we face in our lives, and how managing them properly can lead us to a more fulfilling year ahead.
We often utter the maxim that change is occurring in our world faster than it ever has before.
With the near constant flow of information between our electronic devices, some of us feel that if we step away from email, Facebook, or Twitter for even an hour (and God forbid we take a weeklong vacation!), then it’s as if the world has literally passed us by.
That’s the kind of disorientation that some of you no doubt are feeling tonight. For you are not just faced with the arrival of a new Jewish year. You are also coming to terms with the fact that there is a new rabbi standing before you.
For some in this room, this will be the first Rosh HaShanah in more than three decades in which Rabbi Klein has not greeted you, or guided you through this season of contemplation. His absence from this space is, perhaps, unsettling to you.
It will not be easy for all of you to think of me – the new guy – as your rabbi, when Rabbi Klein has been the one who has been present for you and your family, for such a long period of time. In light of your shared history with him – and with Rabbi Gordon – let’s acknowledge this evening that it might take a little while for us to forge such deep connections with each other.
Nonetheless, I have been hard at work throughout the summer to begin meeting as many of you as possible. As I mentioned at the beginning of the service, Amy and I have been deeply moved by the warm welcome that we have received from you. And I am anxious to continue getting to know as many of you as possible in the weeks and months ahead. I look forward to greeting you throughout these Holy Days, and I want to reiterate my invitation to all of you: do be in touch….I’d love to be able to schedule time for us to sit together and continue to get to know each other.
But the lay leadership and I are of one voice in articulating that this transition isn’t just about us getting to know each other, and to reminisce about our respective past’s. It’s also about us beginning to share with one another the hopes and dreams that we have for the future of Scarsdale Synagogue Temples Tremont and Emanu-El.
There is something paradoxical about the fact that our High Holy Day season is focused simultaneously on both past and future. We are, on the one hand, taught to engage in the process of cheshbon ha-nefesh - literally, to do an accounting of our soul…in order to discern where we have fallen short in the year that has just passed.
But we do that in order to change our future….To affirm that just because we have always done something that way in the past…does not mean that we have to continue doing it that way in the future.
What about here at the temple? With a new rabbi here: surely some of you will be wondering: what’s going to stay the same, and what will be new…and different?
There are no easy answers to those questions. On the one hand, I stand before you on this holy day to affirm the very best of Scarsdale Synagogue’s traditions. And I look forward to considering some of those qualities in a little more detail with you tomorrow. For now, though, let me just say that I would like to think that, in the best sense of the word, your synagogue – now: our synagogue - won’t change…just because there happens to be a new rabbi here.
And yet, I have a confession to make: I am not Rabbi Klein. You will undoubtedly discover, over time, that every rabbi does their job just a little bit differently. So: anytime there is a new rabbi, there is a certain amount of automatic change, because…as I said…Rabbi Klein and I are different.There will of course, be change here at the synagogue for other reasons too. I would, for example, mention the French philosopher Henri Bergson, who once wrote that: “To exist is to change, to change is to mature, to mature is to go on creating oneself endlessly.”
I think that what he was trying to say is that: In order to continue to thrive, change has to come…over time…If our synagogue is going to truly be able to write a new chapter in its history, it will necessitate a certain amount of change along the way.
In our temple life, we have processes that have been put into place to insure that that goes as smoothly as possible. Temple President Ellen Baken and I are consciously re-committing ourselves to model what it means for temple staff members to work hand in hand with our lay leadership. We’re doing it not only to manage my transition well, but also to build a strong foundation for our community’s future. It’s our hope that this kind of working relationship will help insure that what our institution is doing and working on is what you aspire for our community to be doing and working on.
That’s one example of how we are managing change, and fostering a sense of institutional growth and renewal here at the temple. But what about in our personal lives? How do we navigate change there, when every molecule in our bodies often warns us that it is more comfortable…to stay the same?
Here, I would invoke the important 1987 book Necessary Losses by Judith Viorst. In her book, Viorst argues that our inner growth is partially dependent on our ability to constantly grieve and give up a variety of different attachments in order to become the people we are destined to be.
Viorst teaches us that this is a process that begins at birth, when we are forced on a subconscious level to accept the fact that we are no longer inside the womb.
In childhood and adolescence, we undergo a similar struggle, as we seek to make sense of what it means to become independent of our parents.
Our own tradition of Bar and Bat Mitzvah sheds lights on the importance of this turning point in our lives. How lucky we are to have a ritual which allows our young people to willingly take responsibility for their own choices. No longer are our teens able, at least Jewishly speaking, to rely on a loved one to take responsibility for their mistakes. Becoming B’nei Mitzvah gives our young people a set of tools and values that they can draw on as they navigate the confusing passage from childhood to adulthood. If that isn’t managing change, than I don’t know what is.
There is a difficult kind of loss that we must navigate in early adulthood, according to Viorst. As we begin searching for healthy relationships with romantic partners, we have to come to terms with the fact that our partners are not, and cannot, be some idealized version of a fantasy that we had in our minds, which came, perhaps, from movies or from television. In the real world: our partners are not perfect. They are flawed, sometimes deeply so….just like we are.
And Viorst suggests teaches us that we should mourn the loss of those fantasies, in order to make room for the reality of our lovers and partners. We should accept them for the people that they are, and in doing so, they might accept us for the amazing, but imperfect, people that we are too.
Grieving necessary losses is not just something that children do in the process of growing up. It’s something that parents must do, if we are to successfully create space that will enable us to have healthy relationships with our grown children.
As parents, we don’t just grieve the fact that our children will, for the rest of their lives, seek to establish an ever-increasing sense of independence away from us. (I’m already having a hard time with that part, and I just have a six year old and a two year old at home!) But it goes beyond our kids wanting to be independent. It’s that we must also grieve and accept the fact that they will not grow up to like all of the things we want them to like. And they will not always do the academic or professional things we want them to do. And they will not always befriend the kinds of people we want them to befriend. And they will not always fall in love with the kind of person that we always presumed they’d fall in love with. Navigating unmet expectations and change is hard. And it is particularly difficult to handle with our children.
Again and again throughout her book, Viorst invokes the imagery of loss. For example, she writes: “The road to human development is paved with renunciation. Throughout our life we grow by giving up. We give up some of our deepest attachments to others. We give up certain cherished parts of ourselves. We must confront, in the dreams we dream, as well as in our intimate relationships, all that we never will have and never will be. Passionate investment leaves us vulnerable to loss. And sometimes, no matter how clever we are, we must lose.”
Judith Viorst presents us with a gift….a simple methodology that we can use in order to grow…in our personal lives, and in our life here at the synagogue. We can begin by paying tribute to the past that we have lost. And then we can prepare ourselves to welcome a future….one that is new and, exciting, but also….different.
Acknowledging the losses of our lives is a core component of a ritual that is traditionally performed during this Rosh HaShanah season, known as tashlich. It is an ancient practice in which we customarily toss bread into a body of water.
The traditional interpretation of tashlich ties it to our notions of sin, and of repentance. We take responsibility for our mistakes, and then we symbolically toss them away, so as to proclaim: I am ready to be a new and improved person in the year to come.
But I would offer an additional reading on the ritual. It’s not just about repentance and teshuvah. Tashlich is about change. It’s about what we sometimes have to give up, in order to grow…both as individuals and as a sacred community. We have to honor and make peace with our past. And then, we have to find some way – on some level, and only when we are individually ready to – to let it go, so that we might turn to embrace our new beginnings.
As I said at the outset, this will not be easy. But I draw on the wisdom of the Baal Shem Tov, the 18th century founder of Hasidism, who used to teach that we should ‘believe that each day the world is created anew, and that you yourself are born anew each morning.’
At the heart of Judaism, and at the very core of Rosh HaShanah, we embrace the notion that growth and renewal from the inside out is always possible….We affirm our faith in second, and third, chapters. And we most certainly embrace new beginnings.
How incredible it is that we belong to a tradition that does not just consider this Rosh HaShanah to be the theoretical 5773rd birthday of the world. But Judaism also thinks of today as the beginning of Day One. A New Universe is born today, and with it a new world, and a new year. A rebirth of our lives…in the sense that anything is possible…for our future selves, and for our community….so long as we would be courageously open to it…and to all of the mystery that comes along with anything that is new.
The Italian writer Cesare Pavese once remarked that “the only joy in the world is to begin.” And so we shall, in search of that joy…set off on this path…together.
 As told by Rabbi Adam Wohlberg in Three Times Chai (ed. by L. Becker), 2007.
It seems somehow fitting, in my mind, that 9/11 coincides nearly every year with Rosh HaShanah...in the sense that Rosh HaShanah is also known in our Tradition as a Yom HaZikaron (a Day of Remembrance). This is not just our Jewish season of remembrance. It's also our American one.To all of of our friends and neighbors who lost loved ones on that horrific day: we stand with you.
And to all of the brave men and women who serve in our military, and who are putting themselves in harm's way so that we can live here...safe, and free....we salute you, and thank you, and honor you for your service which inspires us.
For a selection of prayers in memory of 9/11 from many different faith traditions, click here.
Hey Everyone! Happy Labor Day Weekend to you and your families! Just a quick note to let you know that there are two new features now posted on my website.
For the opportunity to do some spiritual reflecting, check out Eyes Remade for Wonder.
And for some more tachlis (practical) information about ways that you and your family might experience Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, click here for my new High Holy Day Resource Page.