Erev Rosh Hashanah Sermon 2017
We are a people of words. We say that G-d creates the world with words, and we don’t just take those words at face value. We interpret them; and in doing so, we add more words. It is for these reasons that all of this year’s High Holiday sermons will revolve around the concept of “words,” albeit sometimes with more of an “interpretive” connection to that topic.
On the High Holidays we recite lots of words. We come together as a community and stand before G-d with words as our offerings. The priests and the Prophets, the sages and the rabbis, the poets and the writers, and the generations of our people have added their words to the liturgy. Words are sacred; they are not easily discarded. Therefore, our High Holiday Machzor, or Prayer Book, has grown and expanded over the centuries. You can define a people by what it saves. Jews save words. We never discard our religious books, we bury them in a geniza, an underground archive.
Among all those words, is there one that is more important than the others, one that we find is repeated more often? What is the most commonly used word in the Torah? (pause) You might think, “It has to be ‘G-d,’ or maybe ‘love.’” It is neither G-d nor love – it is the word…“and.”
In Hebrew, that word is a single letter – vav! One letter, one word, and it is repeated again and again. And G-d said; and Abraham went, and Sarah died, and Moses sang. It is at the beginning of almost every sentence in the Bible – one word – “and!”
One Midrash suggests that the word “and” represented by the Hebrew letter “vav” was the mark that G-d put on Cain’s forehead after he killed his brother Abel. Why a vav? What kind of mark is that? Why write “and” on Cain’s forehead?
Cain thought of himself as separate from his brother. After being confronted by his murder of Abel, he asked, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” G-d’s answer was the mark of the vav, the “and.” G-d wanted a sign that said, not just to Cain, but to everyone who saw Cain – you are your brother’s keeper. You are connected to and responsible for each other. It’s not just about you….It’s about you, and everyone else.
That is what is so striking about Rosh Hashanah. It is clearly the Jewish New Year, but it’s not just about us, about Jews. Rosh Hashanah doesn’t celebrate the beginning of the Jewish people, it celebrates creation, the beginning of the world, of all humanity. It is about you and me as Jews and about everyone else.
Rabbi Akiva taught that the essence of Torah is “love your neighbor as yourself.” Self and neighbor. The essence of the Torah is “and.”
The Book of Jonah, which we’ll read on Yom Kippur, isn’t at all about the people of Israel. It’s about the people of Ninevah – foreigners, non-believers. Jonah didn’t want them to do well, he didn’t want to help them or to be the instrument of their redemption. He wanted them to fail. Even though Jonah didn’t love the people of Ninevah, G-d did. Jonah ran away and said to G-d, “leave me alone,” and G-d answered, “It’s not just about you, it’s about you and others.” Yom Kippur is not just about repairing the self, it’s about repairing the self and the world. In the words of Dara Horn, a local, Jewish novelist and Harvard professor, “what I want from the world matters less than what the world wants from me.”
Every Hebrew letter has a numerical equivalent. The Hebrew letter “vav,” which means “and,” also represents the number 6. The Book of Genesis says that Adam was created on the 6th day of Creation, the day of the vav, the day of the “and.” G-d said, “It is not good for man to be alone.” And, G-d created woman, and through Adam and Eve, all the world’s population. And and and and and, because to be fully human means to be connected with and involved in the lives of others.
Our definition of who we are in the world has been marked of late by angry rhetoric and partisanship, by a rigid dichotomy that divides our country. It seems our vocabulary has been limited to “either/or.” Being moderate used to be the most popular political faction in America. In 1993, moderates made up 43% of Americans. By 2013 this figured had dropped to 34%. The extremes, on the other hand, rose from 10% to 23% over the same 20-year period. (from Pewresearch.org) We have a hard time reaching consensus, making compromises, and building coalitions because we seem to have forgotten that it’s not just about me, my wants, my party; it’s about us, our needs, our country. It appears that we have lost a sense of what it is that unites us, the delicate art of the “and.”
In the 12th century, the great Torah commentator Rashi, and his grandson, Rabbenu Tam, had a disagreement about how to place the mezuzah on the doorpost of the home. Rashi said that the mezuzah should be placed vertically because the Torah teaches, “You shall speak of them…when you rise up”. Rabbenu Tam believed it should be in a horizontal position because the Torah teaches, “You shall speak of them when you lie down.” It became the custom to put up the mezuzah neither standing up nor lying down, but slanted – right in the middle. It’s not about you or me; it’s about us. At the entrance to some Jewish homes is a mezuzah, the shape of the vav, the symbol of us, of compromise, a sign of the “and.”
Our Torah and Haftarah readings for Rosh Hashanah teach us the transformative power of “and.” In tomorrow morning’s Torah portion, we’ll read about Sarah’s conception and birth of Isaac, as well as her casting away of Hagar and Ishmael. Despite being the matriarch of Judaism, Sarah was still human. Her fear of competition with Hagar temporarily blinded her ability to think of anyone beyond herself. This led to real plight for Hagar and her son, Ishmael. Having run out of water, Hagar thought that her son would die from thirst and didn’t want to see him suffer. Then the whole situation is transformed, a rebirth of possibilities, as soon as G-d revealed the “and.” It’s as if each “and” in the verses opened up new doors for Hagar. “And G-d opened her eyes, and she saw a well of water; so she went and filled the container with water, and gave water to the boy. G-d was with the boy and he grew; he lived in the desert and became a hunter.” (Gen. 21:19-20)
In the Haftarah for the second day of Rosh Hashanah, from the Prophet Jeremiah, we’ll read, “A voice is heard in Ramah, a wail, a bitter cry. Rachel is crying for her children, refusing to be consoled, for they are no longer here.” But the passage doesn’t end there. It continues – “Your children will return from the land of the foe. AND there is hope for your future.” V’yesh tikvah.
In the Torah portion for the second day of Rosh Hashanh, we’ll read another story of the “and,” the Binding of Isaac. Forget for a moment about Abraham and what would have motivated him to walk his son up a mountain, tie him to an altar, and hold a knife over his head. Focus instead on Isaac, bound, with a knife poised above him in his own father’s hand, knowing that the G-d of Abraham, his G-d as well, had commanded it!
Abraham and Isaac walked up the mountain together, but Abraham walked down alone. The Torah doesn’t mention Isaac again until he meets Rebecca several years later.
The question we often ask is what motivated Abraham to go up the mountain, how strong his faith must have been. A more intriguing question, I think, is what Isaac did immediately afterward. His father had just tried to kill him. After that, how did he manage to get down the mountain and go on to build a relationship, marry, have children, and create a life? When life’s losses and difficulties confront us, how do we?
I believe the answer lies with the word, “and.” Isaac’s experience could have led him to give up and give in. We would have understood. But he didn’t give in, he didn’t say, “never again will I hear the sounds of joy.” He didn’t take the altar or the knife as the final word. He grieved his loss and he knew despair, but it didn’t end there…Isaac heard the sound of the shofar. He didn’t put a period at the end of his trauma…he put a comma, then wrote, “and.”
This year, let us remember the vav. If we take with us only one word from these next 10 days, may it be “and,” the symbol of us, of connection, and of hope.
Rosh Hashanah Sermon Day 1 2017
Free Speech Versus Good Speech
On this Rosh Hashanah, as we celebrate the creation of the world, let us remember that G-d brought the world into being by speaking. Speech has been described as the “holiest of the holy.” The Book of Proverbs teaches that “life and death lie in the power of the tongue.” These seemingly hyperbolic statements turn out not to be an exaggeration – words have stunning power. This is captured in the magical expression, “abracadabra.” This ancient Aramaic word literally means, “I will create (abra) as I speak (kadabra).” Words indeed have magical powers. They can create worlds. Words can heal or hurt, sooth or irritate, seduce or alienate, make peace or proclaim war.
Freedom of speech is an important value for any form of democracy. Long before any Western constitution was written, the Prophets of Israel were demonstrating the importance of speaking truth to power and communicating unpopular ideas. This could very well have been one of the precedents that the American founders had in mind when they sought to limit the power of government by guaranteeing broad rights to political and religious speech, even when it’s unpopular.
The First Amendment was what made America unique among other nations at the time of its founding. It reads: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
Today, Americans live in a world that places an enormous emphasis on individual autonomy. In terms of speech, that means we have the capacity to say or write whatever we wish, whenever we wish, and to whomever we wish. In the US a wide range of obnoxious expression is permitted in the name of free speech. This is partly about a commitment to personal freedom, but it is no less about the belief that creating an open society is the likeliest way to support democracy, which depends on a free exchange of ideas and information. Most of us highly value that openness, even though we might question the good sense or good taste of some of the people who use it without restraint.
Every system of government confronts the need for some limits to freedom of speech. One criteria is Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.’s Supreme Court opinion in 1919, “freedom of speech would not protect a man falsely shouting ‘Fire!’ in a crowded theater…as to create a clear and present danger.” Even outside the broad boundaries of legally protected speech, Americans continue to debate vociferously how much freedom of speech is good for society and how much they will tolerate in different settings. For example, the government cannot penalize hate speech, but we increasingly expect private institutions to do so, even to the point of depriving people of their livelihoods for speech considered hateful (think of Don Imus or Helen Thomas or Kramer from Seinfeld). So it would not be right to say that “American values” simply promote freedom of speech. Freedom of speech is an important value, but not the only one and not always even the dominant one in American public life.
Those who rallied for free speech in Charlottesville this past summer, carrying full body armor and guns, and shouting about white supremacy, were acting completely within their rights. Similarly the counter-protesters were acting within their rights by shouting back at them. Before violence erupted, everything about this demonstration was legal. Another limitation of the First Amendment is that while you can say or write whatever you want, physical violence goes beyond “speech” and it cannot be protected. In the case of Charlottesville, this exercise in free speech led to 3 deaths (one counter-protestor and two police officers in a helicopter accident) and at least 30 more injured.
Protests can be intense. Sometimes people are passionately screaming, defending the core values they believe in. This is why police are often present at protests, preventing people from letting their words turn to violence. But if only everyone followed Jewish speech ethics, there would be no need for police at protests. Let me explain.
Jewish approaches to speech and its power relate not just to the government, but also to the religious and ethical development of individuals. While America’s Freedom of Speech is mostly about individual liberty and limits to the power of the state, the rules of speech in Judaism are mostly about human virtue and ethical attainment.
This makes Judaism stricter than American public culture, because the issue is what speech you should avoid for your own sake. Some forms of speech are unambiguously prohibited under Jewish law, and they fall in the category of leshon hara, evil speech. Cursing your parents falls under this category. So does cursing G-d or a judge, or spreading gossip or slander about another person. The Torah teaches “Thou shalt not go up and down as a talebearer,” so even if what you’re saying is true, it’s never right to speak negatively about another person. The only exception to this is if you are trying to help someone avoid some kind of danger; but most of the time, we gossip about the way someone looks, dresses, eats, or anything else, without any intention of actually helping anyone.
There’s a Chasidic tale that illustrates why leshon hara is to be avoided. A man went about the community telling malicious lies about the rabbi. Later, he realized the wrong he had done and began to feel remorse. He went to the rabbi and begged his forgiveness, saying he would do anything he could do to make amends. The rabbi told the man, “Take a feather pillow, cut it open, and scatter the feathers to the winds.” The man thought this was a strange request, but it was a simple enough task, and he did it gladly. When he returned to tell the rabbi that he had done it, the rabbi said, “Now go and gather all the feathers. Because you can no more make amends for the damage your words have done than you can re-collect all of the feathers.”
Once speech exits our mouths, we can’t control where it goes. Jewish tradition teaches that the harm that can be caused by speech is worse than the harm done by stealing or by cheating someone financially, because amends can be made for monetary harms, but the harms done by speech can never be fully repaired.
There are many other forms of speech that are considered bad or degrading and are to be avoided. Some examples are: speaking lewdly and immodestly, causing someone public shame or embarrassment, false advertising, betraying confidentiality, boasting, and many more. Of the 43 sins enumerated in the Al Cheyt confession recited on Yom Kippur, 11 are sins committed through speech. Because Jewish morality is concerned with making you the best person you can be and not just controlling the power of the state, it makes sense to tell people to avoid speech that is bad for them or bad for society. At the end of the Amidah, which is traditionally recited thrice daily, we read, Elokai netzur l’shonei may’ra – My G-d, guard my tongue from evil and my lips from speaking deceit.
One reason there are so many restrictions on free speech is because our words are very connected to our thoughts. By forcing ourselves to be honest, humble, and helpful with our speech, this slowly changes our mindset; so that rather than looking for things to gossip about or deprecate, we may find ourselves looking for things to appreciate, if we really hold ourselves to only speaking positively about other people.
So does Judaism value free speech? Absolutely. We depend upon it for the democracy on which we all rely. We’ve seen throughout history what the absence of democracy means to everyone, especially Jews. But in order to become the best individuals we can be, and to create the kind of community and society that we want to live in, we need to hold ourselves to higher standards of speech.
A week after the Charlottesville rally, there was another one up here on the Boston Common. I wasn’t present, but if I had been in town that weekend I would have gone to the rally, following the precept in Leviticus, Hocheach tochiach, “you shall surely reprove.” You shall surely tell someone when they’re doing something wrong. The basis of human society is trust that people will conduct themselves in a manner that allows us to be safe in their company. When people do bad things without receiving a critique, they assume that their conduct is being accepted. So when a couple hundred “Free Speech Activists” showed up to make speeches on the Common, they were greeted by tens of thousands from America’s mixed multitude. Rich people, poor people, white people, black people, Asian people, Muslims, Jews, Christians, atheists…tens of thousands gathered in support of unity, acceptance, and love. The Neo-Nazis felt so dwarfed that they abandoned their podium and left. Words really do create new worlds, new realities, even in 2017 or 5778.
The most prominent 19th century Jewish legal genius, Chofetz Chaim, wrote that your most valuable possession is your gift of speech. You use it to make blessings, you use it to learn Torah, you use it to encourage and uplift people. We use the power of speech when people get married — Their status changes from “individual” to “spouse” by merely uttering a few words. So our words are very precious. The Chofetz Chaim goes on to say that you must treat your words as though they were your valuables – More valuable than diamonds or jewels or any amount of money, which you keep in your safe deposit box. Nobody but a fool would leave their safe deposit box open, right? Of course not. You make sure you have the combination, the key, and when you need to pull out those precious items you go in, unlock the box, and take it out. And so too, even though we live in a society that grants us freedom to say anything anytime, our words should be unlocked only when we’re prepared to say something that’s going to have meaning, purpose, value, and something that will help someone, encourage someone, uplift someone…something that will elevate ourselves and our communities.
Rosh Hashanah Sermon Day 2 2017
On this Rosh Hashanah, 5778, what are the greatest challenges facing our generation as Jews and as Americans? Is it the rise of anti-Semitism? Is it the Palestinians or ISIS? Is it intermarriage? While these issues may feel like existential threats, I believe the greatest threat that faces us is Jewish illiteracy and indifference.
Most of us could list all of the negative incidents and canards leveled against Jews and Israel, but many of us would be hard-pressed to list the most significant transformative moments, ideas, and events in Jewish history. We know more about those who have sought to destroy us than about the philosophers, poets, activists, and visionaries who have helped to form and shape our heritage.
When I ask 13-year-olds and their parents why becoming a Bar or Bat Mitzvah is important to them, they most often respond – because it’s “tradition.” At times of celebration and grief congregants want to return to “tradition.” But what does it mean?
Tevya, in Fiddler, sang about the passing of tradition. Even he didn’t realize that that is what tradition is all about, “passing on.” The Hebrew term masoret and the Latin word traditio, both mean to “pass on.” Today, we’ll talk about the substance and meaning of the Torah tradition.
This is how the ancient sages expressed it in the opening words of the Mishnah, the earliest record of Judaism after the Bible:
“Moses received Torah at Sinai;
he passed it on to Joshua;
Joshua passed it on to the elders;
The elders to the prophets;
And the prophets passed it on to the teachers of the Great Assembly.(Pirke Avot 1:1)
This Torah or “teaching” refers primarily to the first 5 books of the Bible. But “Torah” also means an entire process of interpretation and transmission. And so, Judaism speaks of two Torahs:
Torah sh’biktav, the “Written Torah” which he have in the scroll;
And Torah sh’b’alpe, the “Oral or Spoken Torah,” the ongoing teaching, the moral, cultural, legal, and spiritual traditions that unfold from the written Torah.
Torah is not static; it is passed on. It is handed from parents to children, teachers to disciples, not in frozen form, but fluid, enriched, changed, interpreted, alive. The ancient rabbis imaginatively taught:
When Moses ascended the mountain, he found the Holy Blessed One occupied in attaching little decorations or crowns to the letters of the Torah.
Moses asked G-d; “Master of the Universe, why are You drawing those crowns?”
G-d replied, “Someday in the future, a man named Akiva ben Joseph will appear, and he will be able to make heaps of interpretations based on these little crowns.”
“Moses said, “Let me see him.”
“Turn around,” G-d said.
Moses then found himself in Rabbi Akiva’s academy and took a seat in the back to listen to the class. But he was unable to understand [a word of] what was going on, and he was distressed.
Finally, a certain subject came up and the students asked Akiva, “How do you know this?” and Akiva replied, “This is Torah, from Moses on Sinai.” And Moses was comforted… (Talmud, Menahot 29b)
Moses could not understand Rabbi Akiva’s teaching, his interpretation and transmission of Torah. There was a generation gap, at least a thousand year gap. Was Rabbi Akiva destroying the Torah or preserving it?
Torah is synonymous with Judaism. The word Judaism is of recent vintage. Our ancestors spoke simply of the Life of Torah – a dynamic, unfolding, ongoing conversation between the generations. Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, the founder of Reconstructionist Judaism, taught that Judaism or Torah is the “evolving religious civilization of the Jewish people,” the sum total of the Jewish experience. As a civilization, Judaism includes history, law, language, literature, music, poetry, art, rituals, folkways, standards for personal and social ethics or morality, spiritual ideas, aesthetic values. This Torah, this tradition, is evolving, growing, dynamic – not static. It is diverse, pluralistic, complex – not monolithic.
The Prophet Jeremiah taught, “Is not My word like fire, says the Eternal, and like a hammer that breaks the rock in pieces?” When the hammer strikes the rock, sparks fly. Many sparks. The meanings and possibilities of Torah are myriad. Our sages envisioned the enlightenment of Torah as spectacular as a fireworks display on July 4th.
The Jewish tradition was never interested in finding the “true” meaning of Torah, but rather, exploring the many truths of Torah. When the rabbis argued respectfully about a text, even if they disagreed among themselves, the judgment would be, “Elu v’elu divrei Elokim hayim” – “both these and these are the words of the living G-d.” While in Christianity, “the Word became flesh,” in Judaism the Word becomes more words and more words! We flesh out the words for ever-new meanings and possibilities.
There’s an ancient story in the Talmud of how, once, in the midst of a very intense debate in the academy, a series of miraculous interventions seemed to support the opinion of one sage, Rabbi Eliezer, over the other, Rabbi Joshua. Even a divine voice was heard in favor of Rabbi Eliezer’s opinion. Rabbi Joshua rose to his feet and proclaimed, “Lo B’Shamayim Hi!” – “The Torah is not in the heavens!” quoting Torah back to G-d. He meant that the Torah has been given to flesh and blood. G-d, please stay out of the argument! The decisions are now left up to humanity. And what about G-d? The Talmud comments, “G-d was pleased and said, ‘my children netzachuni,’” which means both “my children have defeated me” and “my children have made me eternal.” Under the auspices of the great rabbis and sages, Judaism became the human charge, the endeavor of the community.
A 18th century Polish mystic, Rabbi Isaac Horowitz, the Seer of Lublin, said that, “the Torah must be interpreted and reinterpreted in every generation, in every land, in light of new and changing circumstances. Just as we are G-d’s partners in completing the creation of the world (Shabbat 119b), so are we G-d’s partners in continuing the evolving understanding of Torah and halacha, of teaching and law.” This was not a revolution; rather, it was an accurate rendering of Jewish tradition. We are beckoned to wrestle with the Torah and to maintain its relevance in every generation.
While in the Orthodox understanding, the entire written Torah is deemed the revealed word of G-d, some Conservative modernists question whether the Torah was literally revealed, and regard the Sinai event as the encounter which inspired the writing of Torah in subsequent generations. Among the Reform, there are those who believe that only the moral, and not the ritual law, is divinely inspired. Reconstructionists and other progressive Jews reverse the process, and instead of claiming that “G-d gave the Torah to Israel,” we affirm that Israel, in its quest for G-d, creates Torah. Torah is not the last word; it is the first word. The story continues to be written and we are its authors.
To our ancestors, Torah was eternal, primordial, the blueprint G-d consulted in creating the world. It was true and alive for all times, with no beginning and no end. The ancient rabbis taught, “There is no before or after in the Torah.” Chronology melts away in its letters. We are the before and the after; we are the descendants and the ancestors; the receivers and the transmitters; the learners and the teachers; the question and the answer…and the question…
That is perhaps why we read it from a scroll, we roll it forward and backward, backward and forward again. The scroll is a work of art, but the Torah is not a museum piece, an heirloom that we tuck into the Ark and bring out to admire; something fragile we guard, and protect, and safely hide away. No! Torah is the living word which we treasure and carry and touch and kiss, we dance and rejoice with it, we roll and read and chant and learn and teach it.
Torah, tradition, is the circle of life, renewing itself like the seasons, in the constant flow of what was, what is, and what yet shall be. Let us write ourselves, let us be and become part of the ancient yet ever-renewing cycle of Torah, our Tree of Life. When we return the scrolls to the Ark we sing the words, eitz chayim hi lamachazikim ba…”She is a tree of life for them that grasp it. Her ways are ways of pleasantness and all her paths lead to peace.”
Kol Nidre Sermon 2017
On this very night, exactly 90 years ago in 1927, the founder of Reconstructionist Judaism, Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan was leading Kol Nidre services at his synagogue in New York City. What made this Kol Nidre service very unique was Kaplan’s omission of the Kol Nidre prayer. A Kol Nidre Service without the Kol Nidre prayer?
The prayer normally opens up the service. The text is short and is repeated three times, with a haunting melody that dates back to the Crusades. Here are the words:
“All the vows (kol nidre), all the commitments, all the oaths that we take upon ourselves between this Yom Kippur and the next Yom Kippur – may this year be a good one, so that this statement is vacuous – we express our regrets in advance for making any such vows, and we announce that they are null and void. They cannot be upheld or enforced. These vows are not vows. These commitments are not commitments. These oaths are not oaths.”
To Kaplan, Kol Nidre’s focus on the abrogation of one’s vows seemed to conflict with, and even undermine, the holiness of the holiday. To him, it spoke of contracts instead of kedushah, sanctity. Worse still, Kaplan feared that American Jews would misunderstand and misapply the prayer’s tenets to encompass ordinary business dealings rather than one’s relationship with G-d. Confiding in his diary, Kaplan recounted with disdain how several of his congregants confessed that they resorted to Kol Nidre to absolve them of their financial responsibilities and charitable pledges. He wrote, “A text that was capable of being so interpreted as to condone delinquencies ought not be tolerated as part of the ritual.”
Rabbi/Dr. Mordecai Kaplan argued fervently that we should actually believe the words that we pray. In his line of thinking, our liturgy and all of our religious observances should accord with “our highest ethical and intellectual standards” so that we can pour our full hearts into them. So if there’s a prayer or ritual that doesn’t jive with our rationality or modern sensibilities, then we need to “reconstruct” it into something more inspiring and meaningful for us in today’s world. For Kaplan, none of Kol Nidre’s text could be salvaged, so he replaced it with Psalm 130, to the tune of Kol Nidre, to begin his service 90 years ago.
Even though he had the Board’s permission to omit Kol Nidre, there was serious backlash from his community at the synagogue he founded, the Society for the Advancement of Judaism. His congregation was mostly made up of people who had recently forsaken Orthodox Judaism for the promise of a “reconstructed” religious experience. To them, Yom Kippur seemed incomplete without singing Kol Nidre. Old habits die hard. The power of tradition proved much stronger than Kaplan’s dismay.
Ever since 1927, the Society for the Advancement of Judaism has adapted a “reconstructed” version of Kol Nidre, which amended the text with several qualifying phrases, making it clear that these are vows between ourselves and G-d.
In 1941, Kaplan’s next major change to Jewish ritual sought to keep the Passover Seder in line with our “our highest ethical and intellectual standards.” The New American Haggadah was the first haggadah in all of Jewish history that completely left out the 10 plagues. Kaplan didn’t want to worship a supernatural deity who punishes the innocent along with the guilty. To him, collective punishment and the killing of innocent people is something we should condemn, not glorify, even if G-d was the culprit. What was the response to Kaplan’s New American Haggadah? It was panned…not just by his own community, but also by his colleagues at the Conservative Jewish Theological Seminary, and also by Agudat HaRabbanim, a precurser of the Orthodox Union. With his haggadah, Kaplan may have gone too far.
Despite the critiques, Kaplan knew that his work was vital to keeping Judaism alive, exciting, and meaningful in the 20th century. In 1945, a month after the end of World War II, Kaplan released a new Shabbat Prayer book. In its introduction, Kaplan wrote:
“People expect a Jewish prayer book to express what a Jew should believe about God, Israel and the Torah, and about the meaning of human life and the destiny of mankind. We must not disappoint them in that expectation. But, unless we eliminate from the traditional text statements of belief that are untenable and of desires which we do not or should not cherish, we mislead the simple and alienate the sophisticated.”
Thus, Kaplan notably eliminated references to several traditional doctrines: The personal Messiah, resurrection of the dead, divine retribution, Jews as the chosen people, and the restoration of the Temple sacrificial cult. In some cases, he and the editors replaced the traditional texts with ones that responded to the moral tone they wished to set; in others, they simply excised the troublesome passage completely.
And how was Kaplan’s Shabbat Prayer Book received by the New York Jewish community? The Agudat Rabbanim, which is now called the Orthodox Union, held a public book burning for this Siddur, then excommunicated Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan. He is the first and only American Jew to have a herem, or censure, pronounced on him.
The purpose of the excommunication was to silence Kaplan, but his congregants, colleagues, students, and other followers continued to support his groundbreaking work. He remained on the faculty at the Conservative Jewish Theological Seminary for decades thereafter. Kaplan astutely recognized, decades ahead of his time, that Judaism will lose its relevance if it doesn’t adapt and evolve to meet the needs of each generation. In his 1934 work, Judaism as a Civilization, he made the case that since the days of Moses, Judaism has constantly been evolving and changing due to geography, outside influences, and the various personalities who contributed to our wisdom and practices. There’s the saying, “change is the only constant,” and it’s as true for Judaism as it is with anything else. To think that our Jewish practices and teachings have been unaltered since the days of Moses is a nice myth to buy into, but it’s not a completely accurate story.
Kaplan defined Judaism as “the evolving civilization of the Jewish people.” If Rashi, an 11th century Torah scholar, walked in here right now, he’d have no idea what’s going on. Similarly, if Rabbi Akiva, who lived in 2nd century Palestine, walked into Rashi’s synagogue, HE’d have no idea what’s going on there. And if Moses walked into Rabbi Akiva’s Synagogue, he’d ask, “So where do you sacrifice the animals?” To say that it’s an unbroken chain of tradition from Moses to today is a myth that may have deep resonance, but it leads to a belief that change or evolution is contrary to Jewish tradition, which couldn’t be further from the truth.
Several years ago, this community affiliated with the Reconstructionist movement. Recognizing that Conservative Judaism is in decline across the country, you chose to embrace change, evolution, and a more inclusive and welcoming environment. In my first year here, I tried to change as little as possible, but I know that I introduced many new melodies and practices that had never been done here before, like playing guitar during Shabbat services. That change has gone over quite well I think, and tonight, I’d like to introduce a new community discussion that we’ll be having over the coming months.
How many you believe that G-d is planning to send a Messiah who will bring peace on earth? How many of you believe that when that happens, you will be resurrected in the Land of Israel? Those are both core Jewish beliefs articulated by Maimonides 900 years ago in his 13 Principles of Faith. Throughout our liturgy, we pray for Moshiach ben David and techiyat hametim, Messiah and resurrection, but do we actually believe the words we’re saying? Should we believe the words we’re saying?
Currently, we are one of several Reconstructionist communities that have held onto the original texts of Conservative Jewish liturgy. This year, we’ll be going through a democratic Values Based Decision Making process to determine if we should stay that way. We’re going to examine our own beliefs as a community and see how those beliefs align with the words we pray. If it turns out that none of us are anticipating a future resurrection in the Land of Israel, then we’ll think about changing our prayers to reflect that. Instead appreciating G-d as “reviver of the dead,” we could instead appreciate G-d as “the Source of All Life.”
What about chosenness? I know that many people in this sanctuary were raised with the belief that Jews are G-d’s treasure, an am segulah, G-d’s chosen people. We’ll examine that belief starting with what the Torah and Judaism have to say about it, what science and history have to say about it, and what values are at stake. If, in the end, we keep the prayers the way they are, that’s truly ok with me, because it will be an informed decision based on the needs and desires of this community. My role as rabbi is not to change your beliefs or your practices – it is to support this community in doing what you want to do.
When Kaplan removed the Kol Nidre prayer, his community demanded that it be put back in, and it was. When his Haggadah was panned because it removed the 10 plagues, he put them back into his next edition. But Kaplan’s Shabbat prayer book proved to have staying power because it helped reduce people’s cognitive dissonance around prayer. This year, we’ll embark on this process together and make sure that our prayers and our rituals – what we do in this building – carries the greatest amount of meaning, relevance, and inspiration for the greatest number of people.
Yom Kippur Morning Sermon 2017
We’ve now reached the Avodah section of our service. In Pirke Avot, Ethics of our Fathers, we read that “the world stands on 3 things: Torah, Avodah, and Gemilut Chasadim” – or to put it in English: wisdom, work, and acts of loving-kindness. Avodah is translated as “work,” but there’s more to it than that. In addition to our jobs, which give us meaning and security, Avodah also references the inner-work that goes on throughout our lives. Avodah is the work that we need to do in order to align our will with G-d’s will, and this is accomplished through tefilah, or prayer.
When I was growing up, I was strongly influenced by the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. There was one episode where the bad guy brainwashed the entire city. Everyone in the city lost the ability to think for themselves, and they all mindlessly repeated whatever they were told. So one day when I was sitting in Synagogue, I had an epiphany during one of the responsive readings…”These people are brainwashed! They’re like robots who don’t know what they’re saying!”
Many of us come to Synagogue to pray, not really knowing why we do it, how we do it, or what the point of it is. We know we’re supposed to understand these words and mean these words, but how many of us actually do? By reciting these words, are we guaranteeing ourselves a good year ahead? If so, how?
Around 100 years ago, Rav Abraham Isaac Kook, the first Chief Rabbi of Israel, said, “No wonder in a sophisticated society people can be disgusted with prayer, because the common man thinks that prayer is all about trying to coax G-d to change G-d’s mind.”
The first thing you need to know about Jewish prayer is that there is no such thing. Jews do not pray. If you look into the root of the word, “prayer,” it comes from a Latin word which means, “to beg.” And that’s not what we’re supposed to be doing in Synagogue. We’re not trying to beg and bargain and convince G-d to change G-d’s mind. What we do is something in Hebrew called lehitpallel, or doing tefillah. Some Hebrew words don’t have a corollary in another language, and tefillah is one of them.
Prayer is really the wrong translation. If the implication is “I’m trying to change G-d’s mind and I’m trying to beg and grovel, and get G-d to see I’m in so much pain, and maybe, somehow, bargain something off.” That’s not what we’re supposed to be doing here. What we do is mitpallel. And to mitpallel or lehitpallel is a completely different experience, and when you understand it, you’ll understand what it means to get your prayers, or better, your tefilot answered.
So what does lehitpallel, translated as “to pray” – what does it really mean? In Hebrew, verbs get conjugated in vastly different ways than in English. In Hebrew there are reflexive verbs that we do to ourselves, and verbs that we do to other people. For instance, the root for getting dressed is lavesh. If I dress myself, ani mitlabesh. Notice the T sound. But if I’m going to dress someone else, then ani malbish oto. It’s 2 different conjugations of the same root.
So if what we do in Synagogue is lehitpallel, then we’re really trying to change ourselves! Is that a paradigm shift for some of you? We don’t pray, because to pray means to try to change G-d, what we do is mitpallel so that we can change ourselves.
When we go to Synagogue and open up a Siddur, we’re not talking to G-d because we think G-d needs to hear what we have to say…WE need to hear what we have to say, WE need to change OUR mind. If you know that you’re going to talk to G-d, then you better listen up to what you want and what’s really on your mind.
So what does pallel mean? Lehit means to do something to yourself. But what are you doing to yourself? What does Pallel mean? The best way to find out what something in Hebrew means is to go to the original book, the Torah, and see how the word is being used. The word “pallel” is used at a very touching moment. Jacob is nearing his death, and his son Joseph came and asked him for a blessing for his two children, Ephraim and Menashe. You may recall the story, how Jacob was led to believe that Joseph was killed. 22 years later, he discovered that he still had this son, and that Joseph had 2 children! The end scene of Jacob, Joseph asks for a blessing for his children. And Jacob says, “lo pallalti” I never palleled that I would have ever seen your face, and yet the Divine has graced me to see the face even of your children. So what does pallel mean? I never would have imagined, I never would have dreamed, never would have anticipated, thought.
Rashi, the great commentator from the 11th century explained what Jacob said in this verse. Lo pallalti, I didn’t pallel…I didn’t fill my heart to think the thoughts that I would have ever seen your face again, and yet I have been graced to see the face of even your children.”
This is what we should mean when we come to Synagogue and open up a Siddur or Machzor. It means we’re involved in an exercise of filling our hearts to think the thoughts, to dream the dreams, to want those ultimate wants in our lives.
What we’re doing here in synagogue is a self-induced experience of envisioning peace in the world, redemption in the world, justice, livelihood, health. And that’s why the leader is called a Chazan. A “singer” would be a zamar. Chazan comes from hazon, which means to envision. The Chazan leads us in a collective exercise in envisioning. Master of the Universe, may we align our vision with Your will.
The Chazan is leading a congregation in an exercise of visionary thinking, dreaming. We’re envisioning and anticipating peace on earth, health, happiness, and security for everyone in every level of society. The more we want what G-d already wants, the more the will of G-d can come into our lives.
In other words, most people think that the point of prayer is to try to get G-d to want what we want. And that is the point of prayer, but not the point of tefillah. Our unique experience is not how to get G-d to want what I want – it’s about how to get me to want what G-d wants. The more I align my will with the Divine Will, according to traditional Jewish belief, the more we become a channel, or a receiver, for G-d’s will in the world.
And now I’d like to introduce some more mystical aspects of what tefilah can accomplish. The founder of Chasidism, the Baal Shem Tov, explained that a curse in your life is actually an unwanted blessing. A blessing is trying to get into your life, but because you’re not oriented to it, receptive to it, you’re experiencing it in a negative way.
Jewish mysticism teaches that only light and only G-dly presence is coming into the world, but if we’re not tuned in, or aligned in mind and will, then that blessing can transform into something painful, only for the sake of trying to help us retune ourselves.
How does tefilah work? How do you get your prayers answered? Answer them! Don’t sit around passively waiting for G-d to change something, rather the way we can change our situation is by getting in touch with ourselves. What do I really want? What is my greatest vision for myself, my community, my world? Is this aligned with G-d’s ultimate vision of the world? And if there’s an alignment, then the blessings come into the world.
Sometimes you look up on a gray, cloudy day and it seems like there’s no sun in the sky. It’s there, it’s just that clouds are obscuring it. Similarly, according to the mystical tradition, we can through the things we think, do and say, can create these clouds that prevent blessing from enter into our lives.
When you open up our siddur, the sages have given us an amazing exercise of what’s really worth wanting. In other words, right now there is hip hop music playing. Is anyone here hearing it? That’s because nobody’s tuned into it. If we turned on a radio, we’d hear it immediately. The mystical masters taught that the Garden of Eden is right here right now. We never left the Garden in essence, only in mind. When we close our minds to the blessing and abundance of divinity in our lives, then we live in a dark world. But that symphony of G-dliness is trying to penetrate into our lives, and we need a lifestyle, through what we say, think, and do, to align ourselves and allow for that incredible music to come into our lives. The more we want what G-d all along has been wanting to give us, the more G-d can come into our lives.
There was a great 20th century non-Jewish sage, who sang, “You can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, you’ll get what you need.” Jewish tradition teaches that you won’t always get what you want, but you’ll always get what you need. Even if what you’re experiencing might be very painful, then the first thing is saying, if this is what’s happening, then there must be a reason for it. Because if it’s coming into my life now, then somehow it’s a blessing for me, it’s an opportunity for growth. I’m going to work with that and grow through that, and seek to bring more of G-d’s guidance and light into my life.
Sometimes we’re trying to align ourselves to G-d’s will, but G-d has a different plan. For whatever reason, that soul is ready to leave the world. Some of the greatest leaders in Jewish history died young…Rabbi Isaac Luria, Ramchal (Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzato), Rebbe Nachman of Breslov – all BRILLIANT minds that perished before the age of 40. We didn’t come here to stay. As our Yom Kippur liturgy says, we’re just passing through, “like a cloud that’s passing, like an ephemeral dream.” So we pray for people’s health because we’ve been commanded to
Noah, interestingly, isn’t considered to be an amazing personality because he didn’t do tefillah on behalf of his community, he didn’t pray for the world. He was told the world would be destroyed and he said, well, ok, where do I start building my boat? He didn’t try to be a vehicle for G-d’s blessing in the world. The Zohar explains that the generation of the flood was actually positioned to receive the Torah, but because they had so distorted their ways of thinking and relating to each other, the waters of Torah came into the world, and it turned into a flood, but it was really meant to be Torah, but they weren’t receptive so it came in a different format.
38:30ish All the bargaining back and forth, Abraham on behalf of Sodom and Gemorah, G-d wanted Abraham to ask to save them. Moses
Our tradition teaches that G-d only wants to give us the absolute best, only wants to heal us, help us grow, and give us what we really want. One more rock reference, Janis Joplin’s famous prayer. “Oh Lord, won’t you buy me, a Mercedes Benz…” We’re in a society that wants the wrong things. Billions of dollars are spent trying to convince us to buy things we don’t need. This causes some people to become fixated on buying things and having the newest and best products, or a bigger house so there’s somewhere to put all those products! Ultimately we shouldn’t want things. I saw a bumper sticker once that read, “The Best things in life are not things” We’re all yearning and searching for want love, meaning, happiness.
You don’t need to have things to be happy. PIRKE AVOT – WHO IS HAPPY? HE WHO REJOICES IN HIS OWN PORTION. The teachings of Judaism help us focus on what’s really worth wanting, what’s worth dreaming about. When you’re thirsting for that in your life, it increases the chances of you noticing it when it does come into your life.