RH Day 1 5778 2017 Rosh Hashanah
Sep 21, 2017
Rabbi Philip Weintraub
Congregation Agudas Israel
A few weeks ago, our nation was seemingly united. All around the country people were making plans for a big event. People drove hundreds of miles to find the perfect spot. They woke up early, with tremendous enthusiasm to get to where they wanted to go–to get into the path of totality–to see a total solar eclipse. While those looking for the eclipse are not exactly the same as Abraham and Isaac, I think there are a few parallels. Over this season, I will use the phases of the eclipse to think about the phases of our lives and the impact we can make on the world and ourselves this holiday season. This morning, I think about our preparations. How do they inspire us? How do they help us find our passions amidst the noise of this world.
I admit, I’m not an astronomer, but like many of you, I dabbled a little bit this year. I learned that there are several phases. The eclipse begins with first contact, when the moon starts blocking the disk of the sun. It continues to totality/maximum eclipse. The eclipse ends followed by the end of the partial eclipse. As I thought about these phases, I thought how it really describes our decision making processes, and our lives. The eclipse is really a microcosm of our world and our lives.
In our Torah reading this morning, God kept a promise with Abraham and Sarah. They were blessed with a new child, Isaac. Tomorrow we read of the Akedah, how God asks Abraham to sacrifice his son. Yet today, we find Sarah asks Abraham to sacrifice his son–Ishmael. Both times Abraham takes his son out early in the morning. The rabbinic commentators use this to remind us to be eager to do mitzvot. We should not wait until day’s end. We should pray at the earliest opportunity. We should offer our thanks at the earliest opportunity. We should offer our praise and love to others at the earliest opportunity. Maybe we should have our coffee at the earliest opportunity!
The big preparation for most of us was finding eclipse glasses. We all know that looking at the sun is bad for our eyes, that it can cause permanent damage, but the challenge is that during an eclipse, we might not feel the pain that we feel when we normally look at the bright sun. There is no physical reminder to look away opening up the possibility for real, permanent damage. Yet for some, there was more than just the glasses. They booked special trips–even the Secretary of the Treasury realized it would be a good day to visit Fort Knox–and just happened to have time to check out the eclipse with Senator McConnell.
Towns and cities in the path of the eclipse saw huge spikes in interest and potential revenue. Farmers rented their fields out for tremendous sums as eclipse viewing spot. Even my father’s patients called their appointments that day to ensure that they would be able to see this “once in a lifetime experience.” A couple towns almost made themselves eclipse tourist venues, hoping for a shot at revitalizing lackluster towns but then realized they had no hotels to house guests, no restaurants to feed them and no police to protect their citizens. For other places, it was a frenzy.
It is not just the eclipse though. Last week Apple announced a whole slew of new products. How many of us will be getting them when they are made of available? How about Samsung or Microsoft or Tesla or BMW or Mercedes? We love the newest and greatest. We love to show that we are part of the IN crowd. We all love to be a part of something larger than ourselves. Because at the end of the day, these things really are like religions. They can become are our idols. Think how much we, our children, our friends look up to our teenage musical idols–whether they are the Beatles, Billy Joel, or whatever it is the kids these days listen to!
I have to give a lot of respect to Fiona Apple. At 19, in 1997 she gave a very strange Best New Artist speech at MTV awards. Speaking about her fellow pop idols she said, and pardon my french, “This world is bullshit,” she said. “You shouldn’t model your life on what we think is cool, and what we’re wearing and what we’re saying and everything. Go with yourself.” And then she thanked her mom.
Now I know nineteen year olds are known for calling out the emperors with no clothes, but her words still resonate today. They make me wonder about the difference between the frenzy and real passion, real drive, real motivation. How do we know the difference between the fad that will quickly burn out and that which truly lasts?
As Jews, we have signs that tell us the difference between this year’s’ Beanie Babies or Fidget Spinners and the Torah. One is the Torah itself! We have been given the greatest gift the world has ever known–no, not the iphone X. The Torah, our established Jewish traditions, are a tremendous gift to humankind and to us. Helping create a moral foundation, reminding us of the importance of respect, humility, humanity and treating the stranger and immigrant well.
No less than thirty-six times are we commanded not to ill-treat the stranger. No less than thirty-six times are we required to look after those around us. Is it any surprise that the community that has been kicked out of more countries looks out for refugees? Is it a surprise that the community that has been poorly treated by so many around the world is the first to show up at every disaster? Is it any surprise that rabbis, cantors, Jewish educators and Jews from all across the country are the first to call out hatred, bigotry and anti-immigrant sentiments in our beloved United States of America.
Israel has a plane fully loaded with supplies ready for any natural disaster. It can be wheels up before the storm has passed. While now called simply HIAS, the organization began as the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, looking out for Jewish refugees from Europe and around the world. Today it uses its expertise to make a difference for anyone in need of help. Why do these organizations exist? Why does Israel help anyone and everyone?
Because these are Jewish values. This is our Torah. We are commanded to keep kosher, to keep Shabbat, to come together today. We are also commanded to love our neighbor, to help the stranger, to protect the widow and the orphan. These commands are not either/or. Simplistically, we live in a world where some Jews are focused on one set of those commands and some are focused on the other. To be a CONSERVATIVE JEW, is to know that BOTH are relevant to us.
We were founded to CONSERVE our traditions but also to modernize them. Our forebears knew that talking about waiting three hours after eating meat before dairy wasn’t going to win them tons of new adherents, but that discussing eating a salad in the diner might! We are Jews who do not desire to live in ghettos or in isolated communities. We want to be among and a part of our broader communities. Yet we cannot forget our stories. We cannot forget what makes us unique.
Here our Torah values our somewhat countercultural. They tell us that it is not enough to fight for justice for all. It is not enough to fight for Israel. We must fight as Jews. It is not enough to eat matzah ball soup. It is not enough to pay Chabad to do Jewish for us. We must play a role ourselves.
Our American society tells us that we are bunch of disparate individuals, but our Jewish roots teach us that we are all connected. We are a nation of peoples, with traditions and customs to share. Right now we live in a time of great division, yet our Torah teaches us the importance of unity. This past week, Rabbi Freedman, Stefanie Kostenblatt and I, worked hard to demonstrate that. Rather than our traditional Selichot service, we invited the entire community to join us. We heard from pastors and ministers, chaplains and teachers. We had an imam share words from the Muslim tradition, a voice from the Bahai, and even a gospel choir on this bimah. Afterwards, barriers were broken over cookies and cake. It was not just a kumbayah moment. It was a powerful lesson of what we can accomplish together–and of our Jewish leadership. We organized this to protest racism and hatred, to acknowledge that we all have a role to play in allowing it to fester. As Jews, we must speak out. We spoke out BECAUSE of our Torah.
קידושין מ׳ ב
היה רבי טרפון וזקנים מסובין בעלית בית נתזה בלוד
נשאלה שאילה זו בפניהם תלמוד גדול או מעשה גדול
נענה רבי טרפון ואמר מעשה גדול נענה ר”ע ואמר תלמוד גדול
נענו כולם ואמרו תלמוד גדול שהתלמוד מביא לידי מעשה
Rabbi Tarfon and the Elders were once reclining in the upper story of Nithza’s house, in Lydda,
when this question was raised before them: Is study greater, or practice?
Rabbi Tarfon answered, saying: “Practice is greater.”
Rabbi Akiva answered saying: “Study is great, for it leads to practice.”
Then they all answered and said: “Study is greater, for it leads to action.”
Study is greater because it leads to action. We cannot be ignorant. We must know our texts. We must know our history. We must know and live our Torah. Yet, we cannot just sit inside these walls. We must go out and share the love we learn. We must go out and teach. We must go out and work.
This is the seventh time I stand before you. In the last few years we have accomplished much together. We have found new connections to our tradition. We have learned about Jewish law. We have studied Torah and our ancient traditions. We have discussed what ancient practices can bring meaning to our lives. Most importantly, I have seen a real growth in the connections between members and a great improvement in our prayer lives.
What are our hopes for the next seven years? Membership growth is always important, but I want to see growth of our members. I want you to feel more connected. I want you to know that you have partners in the other members of the community. I want you to have the ritual skills to feel comfortable walking into any synagogue in the world and not to feel out of place. I want you to be voices of peace and love in our local community and on the national stage. I want you to know that you are never alone as a Jew, that from birth to death and beyond you are a part of something greater. I want you to know that whatever your thoughts on the Holy One, God is the Most Moved Mover, ready to hear your voice and to respond–although not always in the ways you expect. I want you to know that no matter what today or tomorrow looks like, we live in a world of miracles, that hope is essential the the Jewish neshama, to our souls and to our lives. I want you to know that passion for our traditions will inspire every aspect of those lives, that Jewish ritual, ethics, ideals are not just some fly-by-night internet guru, but a source of love, hope and meaning, now and always.