I want to start with a poem. "Those Winter Sundays," by Robert Hayden.
Sundays too my father got up early
and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold
then with cracked hands that ached
from labor in the weekday weather made
barked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.
I'd wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking
When the rooms were warm, he'd call
and slowly I would rise and dres,
fearing the chronic anger of that house.
Speaking indifferently to him
who had driven out the cold
and polished my good shoes as well.
What did I know, what did I know
of love's austere and lonely offices?
Getting up early is not easy. Personally, I hate it. Especially when it's cold out, or dark out, and usually, it's both at the same time.
I don't think I'm the only person here who has trouble getting up early. Go ahead, raise your hands – we believe in vulnerability here! – who else has trouble getting up early in the morning?
But you know, there is much more going on in this poem than talking about how it's hard to get up early when it's cold and dark. The poem tells us some other things, too. It's about the literal labor of love – the work of love. It's about the fact that sometimes love can be austere and cold and lonely. It's about the difficulty of appreciating love, and of showing gratitude for it. It's about the difficulty of expressing in words that you love someone. It's about learning to see a parent as a whole person and not just as your parent. It's about the idea that sometimes a person who transmits love can also live in a place of fear and chronic anger, that love isn't a cure-all for chronic issues.
I want to talk about love today, and specifically, the type of love called Hesed.
Hesed is often translated as "lovingkindness," but that's really a way of dressing up the word "love." Hesed means something like "love in its mode of giving." Hesed is like, "expressing love." If you think of the poem above, the father is expressing Hesed.
What is hesed? We often talk about Gemilut Hasadim, "acts of lovingkindness" – which is another way of saying, doing loving things for other people. We have a Hesed committee here at TBI – more on that soon – which, in short, tries to do things for people who need them. When we participate in a Jewish funeral, we participate in what is called a "hesed shel emet," a "loving thing based in truth" – the idea that burying the dead is a fundamentally unselfish act, because it is a hesed, it is a kind thing, that can never be repaid.
Maybe the best way of thinking of Hesed is to think of examples from our own lives. In the poem, earlier, we heard about the father waking up early to chop wood. When have you woken up early? Was it to drive someone to the airport? To get to the hospital before an operation? To make a morning shiva minyan? Often, when we get up early, it is to serve. It's to express Hesed.
We all have experiences in our lives when someone has shown Hesed to us. Right now, I'm thinking of my mother-in-law, Jane, zichrona livracha. Last August, when she was so sick with brain cancer, she visited us for what we knew was her only trip to Blue Bell. We had just moved in, and we had a back porch filled with boxes – you couldn't even walk through it. I had a broken foot, and had just started working here, and we had a million things going on. And one morning, I looked out the window, and I saw Jane, with her kerchief round her head covering up her hair lass from the radiation, dragging each box, with one hand, because only one worked, around to the front of the house for the recycling. And she didn't ask for our help, because she didn't have the language at that point. And she did every single box. And it was like, this deeply loving thing that she did. I'll never forget that.
And it was pure Hesed. That's what Hesed is. I've seen Hesed here at shiva minyanim, my family's and other families', when people just show up. I've seen Hesed from our Chevra Kadisha – more on that later – who take care of our deceased before burial. I've seen Hesed from congregants like Fran Radel, who just write unceasing notes of kindness to others, or from Edie Harris, who puts her heart into every stich of the baby blankets and comfort shawls she knits.
Hesed is a posture of giving. Of unceasing, continual giving. And its paradigm, in Judaism, is Abraham.
Abraham. This morning we read about Abraham's act of sending his son, Ishmael, out to die in the desert. Tomorrow, we read about Abraham's task of slaughtering his son, Isaac, on an altar as human sacrifice. Abraham is our model of Hesed?!
If you look at the story from today, and the story from tomorrow, one Hebrew phrase is repeated, verbatim. Vayashkem Avraham ba-Boker, Abraham rose early in the morning. Genesis 21: Abraham rose early in the morning, and gave Hagar and Ishmael water, and sent them on their way. Genesis 22: Abraham rose early in the morning, and took Isaac, and went on his way. And the parallels between the two stories continue. Micro, linguistic parallels – words repeated again and again – stylistic parallels, the same tone and tenor of writing. Content parallels – Abraham is sending his promised children away to die, one by his hand though at a distance, and one by his very hand.
The idea that Abraham is a model of Hesed is baked into Judaism. We simply cannot say, "Oh, that's wrong." We don't get to stand outside the tradition and judge it that way, not if we want to lay claim to it. Rather, we have to ask: how is it possibly the case that Abraham is a mdoel of Hesed?
The reason is, Abraham is seen as a model of doing something that is deeply, cosmically hard, and that requires giving over his full heart, and giving up his entire hope for his future, and putting all of that on the line. That, that self-sacrifice, is Hesed. My mother-in-law rising early in the morning with her glioblastoma to shlep boxes – God, I wish she was still alive and I didn't have this anecdote – that's Hesed. Giving up your evening or your morning or your afternoon to go to the funeral home to wash a dead body according to Jewish law – that's Hesed. Talking to a person who is scared or sad even if you think you won't make a difference – that's Hesed.
On Rosh Hashanah, we read these stories of Abraham because we are supposed to think of ways to emulate his Hesed. We're supposed to see him as a role model. And you know what? I think that's important for us.
We have a society that is so quick to be crass rather than kind, to be consumerist rather than connected, to be self-involved rather than serving. Abraham is a model of kindness, connection, and service. Abraham models love of the stranger and hospitality in Genesis 17 – values which are non-negotiable in Judaism. Abraham models the correct way to argue with God – from a place of moral concern, as in the argument about the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, and not from a place of id and appetite. Abraham models the way to take risks in your life which make spirituality real, in Genesis 12.
Does Abraham have some areas where he falls short as a role model? Absolutely – and we read about them today and tomorrow. But so does the virtue of Hesed. Hesed does not get us all the way to a perfected world. It's necessary but not sufficient. As we read in the poem at the beginning, "slowly I would rise and dress, fearing the chronic anger of that house." Hesed is not a panacea for outstanding family dynamics, mental health issues, relationship challenges, or societal ills.
Indeed, from a classical Jewish perspective, a life of Hesed is a life out of balance – it needs to be tempered with judgement, with din, the ability to say no, to set boundaries, to hold back, to be stern. Just like Hesed is not the answer to everything. Visiting the sick, an aspect of hesed, is non-negotiable, but it needs to be a part of a broader society that values all those who are ill or suffering. Feeding the hungry is central to Judaism, but it needs to be a part of a society that takes care of the poor. (And, as an aside, the Talmud tells us that the real reason the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed, was that they passed a law making it a crime to feed a hungry person or give money to a beggar; a law similar to this was passed in Fort Lauderdale a few years ago.) Passionately giving of yourself to the world is important, but it can't come at the expense of sacrificing your family life or emotional well-being.
Hesed has blind spots and limitations. In our community, it's very easy for us – those of us who work at a synagogue – to wait for sick people to call us. But you know what? A lot of illness is chronic, and a lot of illness is actually mental health or addiction. And many synagogues tend to underserve people who are dealing with chronic health challenges or mental health issues, or to ignore people struggling with addiction issues, or their relatives.
That's why I'm proud to work with Emily Cutler, the amazing chair of our Hesed Committee, after the wonderful Nancy Shapiro lead Hesed through a visioning process to make sure it is addressing the disparate needs of our community. Our Hesed Committee is about helping people come to services through giving rides, and giving food or social support to the suffering, but it's also about raising awareness for mental health issues in the community, and normalizing conversation about illness so that people feel empowered to share what is really hard for them.
One new program that I'm excited to begin offering is a caregiver support group which I'll be leading once a month. You can find details on it, including its dates, on the handout table in the lobby and in our October Ma'aseem. Rabbi Dayle Friedman is coming three times this fall and winter to speak about hospice, about care, and about hesed. The goal of both of these programs is to reach people whose needs might be invisible sometimes.
We need your help with Hesed. We need your help with tasks to help others – driving people to shul, helping to bring meals, lending a supportive ear, cooking, advertising, and more. We need your help both as a provider and as a customer, if you'll forgive the expression. Because healers get sick, too, and caregivers need care, too. And we at TBI are here for you.
We also have here a Hevra Kadisha. The Hevra Kadisha is a group of people who prepare and wash the deceased in our congregation. It's gender-fixed, so only women work on women, and men on men. It's physical work. And there's a taboo against naming members of it, for reasons of modesty – because these are people who see a lot of things, and we shouldn't look at members of the Hevra Kadisha and say, "Oh, this person has had this experience."
But unfortunately, this taboo, combined with a Jewish tendency to avoid talking about death, causes us to fail in educating about the Hevra Kadisha. And that's not right. The Hevra Kadisha is a group of people who come together at varying times to do a mitzvah that is absolutely central – preparing and washing of a corpse. It is a hard thing to do, and it is not for everybody. But it is certainly for some. For many members of the hevra I've spoken to, it's the holiest and most powerful thing they've ever done. For some, it's their core Jewish activity – and that's good. Many are doctors or nurses or physical therapists, people who are used to dealing with the human body and not disturbed by it, and who want to use their knowledge and abilities to do something important that Jews have done since Abraham.
If you think that you might be interested in serving on the Hevra Kadisha, or learning more about it, you can find resources in your seat. I'd love to talk to you more and arrange some conversations. It's so important, and so holy. And it is something that is really in need of your help.
I want to return to the poem with which I started. "What did I know, what did I know, of love's austere and lonely offices?" The word "office" has a double meaning. It's both the place where a person goes to do work – as we see, the father working on Sunday morning to chop wood for his son. But the word "office" is also a word for describing a prayer service. You might say, "We are offering the Rosh Hashanah offices," if the word were in vogue.
There's something about the acts of Hesed that are themselves a type of prayer. And sometimes one lonely and austere. Hesed is not easy. But, as Spinoza said, all things noble are as difficult as they are rare. When my mother-in-law dragged those heavy boxes around our house, it wasn't only dragging them away. It was also, very clearly, a prayer for our well-being and happiness, a dedication of our house. It was her saying: I'm going to be with you and help you even if I am far away.
When we face the recent devastation in Mexico, in Puerto Rico, in Houston, in Florida, our work to send help is both help, and also a prayer. A prayer for wellbeing transmitted through action.
When we sit with the bereaved and the mourning, it isn't only offering comfort and companionship – it's also a prayer in the form of a deed, a way of saying, "I cannot fix what you are facing, but I am here for you even in my inability to fix things."
When we talk to a person facing depression or a huge caregiving burden, it's not just a way of saying, "let me lighten your load a bit," but it's a way of saying: "I'm going to be here with you even when things are bad and you feel like you're not deserving."
That's what Hesed is. That's love's austere and lonely offices.
We're going to go through a tough ten days together, these High Holidays. They're not just about Hesed. But I would like you to try to lift Hesed into your consciousness over the next days. Where can you be more kind? Where can you let go of anger? Where can you get up early to help? Where can you give to those in need, through Hesed, the Hevra Kadisha, or other aspects? These are concrete questions that, frankly, we owe it to God to answer.
Because that's what Rosh Hashanah is about. Being present to face these toughest of questions, in the most loving of ways.
I remember the first time I was really moved to take on Jewish observance. It was the beginning of my freshman year in college – I had just met Katharine a few days earlier – and it was Rosh Hashanah morning. At services, I saw a professor in front of me, with a huge tallit wrapped around him. Prof. Peter Just.
Seeing him in that tallit, shuckling and moving with the liturgy, and then bowing all the way at the grand Aleinu – which I had never seen – shook me. This was real religion and piety. I had only ever seen what felt to me as something watered-down and bland; I had only ever seen a tallit as the tiniest scarf, but this person was wrapped in his Judaism. I looked at him, and thought, I want that.
The drive to become religious – my journey to be a baal teshuvah – both split open my life, and created a sense of completeness and wholeness that was new to me. And I want to talk about that today. The way that sometimes, we are broken open, and sometimes we are made whole, and sometimes these come from the same things.
So let's start at the parashah. We read today about Abraham, going up the mountain to sacrifice his son. There's no text more central than this, and the reason we read it on the second day, I think, is because we have to go up the mountain of holiness, the mountain of kedushah, in order to be able to receive it. We can't jump into it on the first day; we have to have a whole lot that happens before we can even face it.
Abraham takes the wood in preparation for the sacrifice, and he splits it. A small detail. The Hebrew word here is, "va-vaka," and he split it. The root, bet-kuf-ayin, is a word for a split or gorge. If you've ever been to Jerusalem, you might know of the area of the city, Baka, which comes from this word, being the word for valley. It's the same word in Arabic as well.
Abraham split the wood. What was going on for him at that time? He must have been splitting open his heart. He is commanded to take his son, who has been promised to him and Sarah by God for years, and about whom God told him that all of his and Sarah's hopes for the future will live through Isaac, and told to kill him as a sacrifice. He must have felt loss, and anger, and resignation. Like, I knew this was all too good to be true. Have you ever felt that way? Betrayal at how the world turned out.
And so, as he is splitting that wood, doing what he has to do, because he could not envision walking away, he is splitting open his own heart. He is breaking apart.
Now let's fast forward, in biblical history, to much later. To the Red Sea, and the next use of the word "vay-vaka." Moses and the Israelites have been freed from Egypt, but are facing death as they stand in front of the water. They must have felt that same betrayal that Abraham felt. Everything they had been promised by God, everything God told Moses, was being betrayed. They were freed in order to be slaughtered by the Egyptians in the desert. All of the hopes that they had felt, for freedom, for a different life, for their hopes and expectations, were dashed, as they heard the chariots, the Egyptian army bearing down on them. They must have felt that their hearts were splitting open.
And then, God splits the sea. And the word for that? Vay-vaka. The exact same word from the story of the binding of Isaac. Vay-vaka.
And it's the moment of greatest redemption. Moses and Miriam sing songs, breaking into dance. The blessing we have here, which we sometimes call Mi Chamocha, is actually called Birkat Geulah, the blessing of redemption. This splitting isn't a breaking open – it's a putting together. It's a moment of completion.
Many things in our lives express these two aspects, splitting apart and coming together. Moments of break and rupture in our lives can also be moments of connection or completion.
For me, becoming a baal teshuvah in college meant that I effectively severed my relationship with my high school self. My goals, my self-understanding, my priorities, changed so much just as I left home, that in many ways I was not the same person. Add to this the fact that I met Katharine right at the beginning of college, and you can see the way that I had a life before college, and after college, and they're split from each other.
But, of course, it was also a moment of completion and coming together. I was, of course, still the same person. I had the same passions and the same flaws, I had the same interests and the same boredoms. In high school, I was so into the newspaper, writing for it, being its managing editor, and although being a rabbi is really different, all the writing I do in this job derives from my high school newspaper experience. In short, the rupture of being a baal teshuvah changed me, but it also, I think, lifted me up, and made me a better version of myself.
I imagine that many of us have had experiences like this. Experiences where a big change in our life actually causes us to come home to ourselves. And let's be honest – change can be painful and terrifying. It can be disruptive and upsetting. It can hurt and it can break. But it can also bring us back to our true selves.
And I will be so brash to say, I think our synagogue has experienced it. I think that, although we have gone through some big changes in recent years, I think we have actually more clearly become our true self as a shul.
Our lives are suffused with changes, but also with returns to our true selves. Losses which break forever also lead us to become who we are. This in no way mitigates the loss. If you look at the Israelites, you'll see that they struggled after their salvation with a constant fear that they were brought into the desert to die. Perhaps they never really adapted properly to freedom because they weren't able to face the truth of their experience of loss. Perhaps they papered over it so quickly with song and dance that they were primed for their rebellions in the desert.
We have to face our real losses – our necessary losses, as Judith Viorst calls them – and also think about how we have grown in our lives. What have we learned? What do we carry with us into the future?
This two-fold nature of our life experience is expressed in the sound of the shofar. Traditionally, it has both tragic and celebratory valences. Here's the tragic one. The word that the tradition uses for what a shofar is supposed to sound like, is the word "yevava." It's a strange word that means "tears." And it only appears one other place, so this must be the source.
It appears in the story of Yael and Sisera in the book of Judges. Sisera is an evil Philistine general who is at war with the Jews. Yael assassinates him with a tent peg – there's a great Caravaggesque painting of this by Artemisia Gentileschi – and the book of Judges gives us a poem. In the poem, it tells us of the experience of Sisera's mother, waiting for him to come home, paralleling this with Yael, who served to "mother" him into death. We read that she was expecting him to come home victorious, and she keeps looking out of her window, with her anxiety increasing as he doesn't come home. And finally, when she hears news of what happened, she lets out a great cry – and the word for this cry? Yevava. Her heart breaks open. All of her hopes for her son have been dashed, and her cries pierce the air.
Why, later in Judaism, does the word for a shofar sound take the word from Sisera's mother's wails? I think that, at its surface level, it is trying to promote an idea of empathy with our enemies, which is an important Jewish moral value but not what I'm talking about today. I think that, at a deeper level, it points to that existential breaking-apart I spoke of earlier. Yevava is the sound of rupture. It is the sound of break. It is the sound of shattering.
But there's another valence for a shofar entirely. It's the sound for a coronation of a king. Coronations of royalty are always challenging. The change from one ruler to another is actually a moment of rupture and discontinuity, so our society's come up with all sorts of rituals to show the opposite – that the change is actually all about continuity. So we say things like; "The King is dead; God save the King." And we have all of these rituals and symbols.
And the shofar is one of them. The shofar is blown to show that there is a basic continuity to what is going on. To show that joy and completion are expressed as this new person takes the throne. We see the shofar as a sign of joy in psalm after psalm; most notably in Psalm 150, where we readm "Halluhu b'kol shofar," praise God with the sound of a shofar.
And so here, the shofar is a sound of joy and connection. It is a sound of reassurance and continuity. It is a sound that suggests that things will actually be okay.
So many of us experience ruptures and breaks in our lives. There are times when are hearts are broken apart. And so many of us also experience paradoxical growth, experiences of coming together and growing into our true self.
These holidays are about living in that tension. The tension between brokenness and wholeness. We live in that tension all the time, and this time of the year, we take ten days aside to focus on it very deeply.
And so I end with hope for you. My hope for you is to engage in some autobiography as we pray today. Join us in mussaf as we go deep into questions of who we are. As we break ourselves down, and put ourselves back together. Where is your true self? Where is your broken self? Take these questions, and bring them to God.
Two years ago, I stood on the bima at my synagogue in Columbus, Ohio. I had plans and expectations for the year and for my future in Columbus. I had a 2-year-old, Ayelet, and a six-month-old, Tamar. And I gave a Rosh Hashanah sermon about mortality, and about how it can come and interrupt our plans.
And exactly two weeks later, my mother-in-law had a seizure that was a symptom of glioblastoma, of the brain cancer she developed out of nowhere from which she would die in 15 months.
For my family, it felt like we went into a tunnel when that seizure happened. On one side of the tunnel, we lived in Columbus with a two-year-old and a baby, and we planned to stay there and make our lives there. We had a healthy, happy extended family, a brand new nephew in DC, and it felt like everything was before us. And then we entered the tunnel of my mother-in-law's illness, and then deciding to leave Columbus, and suddenly, we came out of the tunnel, living in a totally new place, at a new, wonderful, loving synagogue in Blue Bell, with a four-year-old and a two-year-old, and without my mother-in-law.
The past two years have been exceptionally hard years in my life. The experience of loss, which is with my family every day, has changed us all.
I gave a sermon that Rosh Hashanah two years ago, about mortality and how it can come and interrupt our plans. I didn't plan on it being predictive of my life in the ways that it was. But it turned out that way. And tonight, I want to talk about this a little. To talk about the way that we live, knowing that we are not in control.
And so here's a story, from the Tzantzer Rebbe, which I told two years ago, about mortality.
There was once a poor countrywoman who had many children. They were always begging for food, but she had none to give them. One day she found an egg.
She called her children and said, "Children, children, we've nothing to worry about any more; I've found an egg. And being a provident woman, I'll not eat the egg, but shall ask my neighbor for permission to set it under her setting hen, until a chick is hatched. For I am a provident woman! And we'll not eat the chick, but will set her on eggs, and the egss will hatch into chickens. And the chickens in their turn will hatch many eggs, and we'll have many chickens and many eggs. But I'm a provident woman, I am! I'll not eat the chickens and not eat the eggs, but shall sell them and buy me a heifer. And I'll not eat the heifer, but shall raise it to a cow, and not eat the cow until it calves. For I'm a provident woman! And I'll sell the cows and the calves and buy a field, and we'll have fields and cows and calves, and we won't need anything any more!"
The countrywoman was speaking in this fashion and playing with the egg, when it fell out of her hands and broke.
This is a story about death and mortality. It tells us the way that, with our plans and all our hoping, we live in a world of broken eggs. We live in a world in which we have certain expectations, visions, and hopes for ourselves and our families and our world, and they can be broken apart so easily. They're as fragile as an egg.
We have all had these broken egg moments. I have heard, as your rabbi, about your losses. About sudden and surprising deaths. About diagnoses out of the blue. About things that should never happen, happening. We have all had these broken egg moments.
We've seen this recently in Puerto Rico and Mexico, in Texas and Florida, in earthquakes and hurricanes that have come from nowhere to wash away people's lives. We are deeply vulnerable.
This vulnerability is real. But the message of Judaism is that, fundamentally, vulnerability is not depressing. Because what Judaism is about, is saying: in a broken-egg world, a world of vulnerability, the meaning of life is in holding true to our values and our sense of dutiful mission. And, Judaism adds, there is in fact infinite and transcendant nobility and dignity in doing this.
Judaism says: the meaning of life is that in a broken egg world, the human being is so noble that he or she is able to nevertheless live by values and duties, by the Torah, and is able to achieve profound dignity, the dignity that makes us worthy of divine love. We're told in Judaism that humans are on a higher spiritual plane than angels. Why? Because of this. Because it's our fragility that allows for our nobility. If you think of the great stories of self-sacrifice in our world, and you think of the nobility of the human spirit, that is what makes us worthy of God's love and forgiveness on Yom Kippur. Humans, who create art and prayer, who sing and love and dance and save, who heal and teach and build, humans earn – or squander – divine love through how they live their lives.
The theme of this holiday is: in a world of broken eggs, wherein we fast so that we feel the fragility of our bodies, we are still capable of nobility and accountable for our duty to God.
I can't tell you what your own values and missions are. I can't tell you the meaning of your life. I can indicate the Torah and I can set up my hope that this is your value and mission. But that's actually a question only you can answer.
But what I can tell you, are two areas in the world in which the world of the broken egg, the fragility of human experience, points us to a focus on values and dutiful mission, rather than a sense of despair or nihilism.
It's no secret that the presidential election was a surprise for many, of both parties. Many experienced it as a broken egg moment. And since then, we've had other broken egg moments. We've seen an upsurge in anti-Semitism and white nationalism that, in addition to threatening our community, also threaten our sense of safety. It threatens the narrative we hold of Jewish flourishing in this country. The eggs we have held are cracked.
Sometimes, my fears about the future of our country, and the future of the Jewish people in it, cause me to want to give up on values. Sometimes the sense of frustration, or despair, or anger that I feel overwhelms the feeling that I have any other values or duties in the world.
But our task as Jews is to say: we hold our values and duties most dear when we feel fragile. It is times like this, times when we have physical fears about Jewish well-being, that we are most obligated to live our values. For now is the time to wear kippot in the supermarket. Now is the time to send your child to Jewish camp. Now is the time to choose Jewish day school. Now is the time to start keeping kosher. Now is the time to feed the hungry. Now is the time to double your tzedakah giving. Now is the time to come to synagogue more often.
We as American Jews, and as Conservative Jews, have a specific and crucial mission in this country. We represent the idea that it is possible to have deep particular moral commitments and values and to be open-minded in the public square.
I don't know what is going to happen in our country. But I know that I feel more patriotic than ever. I feel more connected than ever to George Washington, and I remind my daughters often of their ancestor, Lt. David Baker, who fought in the Continental Army for General Washington at the Battle of the Brandywine, and of my grandmother and her family, Mexican immigrants to our country. I feel proud of this country and fly its flag at my home. I took my daughter on a tour of the USS Olympia and the USS Bacuna at the seaport, so she could feel a connection to our country's tradition of military service. Go Navy.
I don't know what is going to happen, but what I do know is that nothing can shake my faith in our values and mission as Americans. We are committed to building a society in which all people are treated equally, a society where we give to bigotry no sanction, a society where we welcome the weak and the huddled masses yearning to breathe free.
The experience of the broken egg, the sense that we don't know what will happen and face a world of vulnerability and fragility, leads us to a doubling down on mission and values. This is why, in the wake of Charlottesville, we came to synagogue in the morning and sang the Battle Hymn of the Republic. Because, we who love, we who believe that all people are created equal, are the true bearers of the flag.
Okay. Now, the second place where the broken egg points us to a doubling-down on values: TBI. Our synagogue.
Synagogues today are threatened by societal and civilizational challenges that are nearly overwhelming. The model of a synagogue as a "membership institution" is in collapse around the country. The relevance of Jewish worship and modes of living is challenged by everything from our iPhones to our work lives to our relationships. The idea of Jewish community being central to people's lives often feels like description of a sub-culture or a pastime.
TBI is threatened by this. We have a building fund, when what flourishes is Amazon Prime. We have a membership that is growing, particularly among people in their 30s with young children, but the concept of membership seems outdated. We have a talented staff and clergy team, but in the world of the internet, it's very easy to find other talented staff and clergy.
To address these challenges, our synagogue is embarking on a great strategic planning process. Now, the phrase, "strategic planning," sounds like jargon, and I don't like jargon. Jargon is the opposite of truth. So let's call the process what it is. It is a process of helping all of us to think about who we are as a synagogue, and where we need to go as a synagogue.
And this is key. The way to address the challenges we face is to figure out what our values and msision are. That's our task. It's not to say, how can we be relevant? It's not to ask, what's a better model than dues? It's not to jump to quick fixes or snake oil solutions. It's to engage in the hard work of discerning who we really are and who we are becoming. The hard work of strategic planning.
I'm so moved by the strategic planning steering committee that we have formed. Chaired by Jeff Llewellyn and Nancy Shapiro, our steering committee is leading us – all of us – to do the work of discernment to determine our mission and vision. Who are we? What are we? Why are we? These are the questions we need to answer.
This work is parallel to the soul work we do around the high holidays. If your high holiday goals are just to be, I don't know, better, stronger, faster, richer, happier, that's not what the holidays are about. And likewise, many of us are inclined to think of goals for the synagogue as: what will make us better, stronger, faster, richer, happier? But that's not what it's about. The real work is saying: who actually are we, and who actually are we becoming, and what is this all for? Asking the tough questions, the big questions, the deep questions.
In the course of our strategic planning process, we're going to involve you in the big questions of our synagogue. Because in a time of stress, and all synagogues are in periods of stress, we are committed more than ever to our values and sense of dutiful mission.
We live in a world of mortality. We live in a world in which illnesses, hurricanes, deaths, can shake our identities to the core. But on Yom Kippur, we stand up to affirm that, through it all, we will commit. We will envision. We will hope and we will grow.
Nothing that we face in the future of our country or synagogue will be easy. Nothing we face in our lives will be, either. But God never promised us a free ride. God never promised us a life on easy street. God promised us, that when we stick to the vision and values of our Torah, we'll find in them life eternal. As we say every time we have an aliyah, v'chayei olam nata betocheinu, God has planted among us eternal life through Torah.
We will all face broken egg moments in our lives. We fast on Yom Kippur to remind ourselves of this. And we fast on Yom Kippur to say – we will outlast them. Our mission, our sense of duty, our commitment – those are tougher than death. Those are tougher than death.
So join me. Join me as we walk forward into an uncertain future, a future in which we model the commitment that is our life's work. Join me as we pledge together to imagine and to create, to discern and to describe, to stand and to march. And this all begins now, with a fast.
Good morning, Shanah tovah.
I love Washington, D.C. I could do without the humidity, and maybe the politicians, but it's a great city. I can tell you five places to get seriously off-the-hook croissants, but maybe I won't tell you about that on Yom Kippur.
No, today, on Yom Kippur, I want to tell you about the time, a few weeks ago, when I went to Washington twice in one week. Once was for the Ministers' March on Washington, and the second time was for the AIPAC rabbinic symposium. And I want to talk about why each of these occasions was, I believe, part and parcel of upholding the goals Isaiah set forth in the haftarah this morning, and why and how we can live those goals in this new year. And why we must. And why we must.
First, the Ministers' March. At the Ministers' march, I joined a bus sponsored by the Philadelphia Jewish Federation and the Jewish Community Relations Council, with a number of other local rabbis on it, to meet up with 3,000 ministers and rabbis who were marching to support the values of love and justice in our society.
We marched on the anniversary of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s, "I have a Dream Speech." We marched to stand up for the value of human dignity in our society. We marched to stand up for love of the stranger. We marched because we feel these values are under threat today, by many people in power, and that religion must speak out.
In a stirring ovation, one reverend said, "We did not come here to make a political statement or to identify with any political party, because all parties are flawed. We are here to identify with the Creator. We are here because God calls us to stand for human dignity."
That's important to affirm. All political parties are flawed – don't we know it – but we clergy, and we religious people, are here to identify not with some political figure, not with Chuck Schumer or Nancy Pelosi or Donald Trump or Paul Ryan, but with God. God has given us moral obligations in the world, religious obligations in the world. God has commanded us 36 times in the Torah to love the stranger.
If some politician comes and tries to mess with our love of the stranger – well, that's not us getting political. That's them getting religious! That's them coming into our turf, and telling us about morality. And that's not how it works. That's not how it works.
We live in a values-based country. Our country has long affirmed, and will never forget, that our politics is based on certain transcendant, even religious, moral values. We have values in our society that all people are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Those values have been expressed by Thomas Jefferson and George Washington, by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Frederick Douglas, by Abraham Lincoln and Chief Seattle, by Theodore Roosevelt and Louis Brandeis, by John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan. And those values are bigger than politics. Those values are bigger than politics. Affirming them is never political, and the day that we call such a values-affirmation political, is the day those values have died because we have killed them.
Love of the immigrant is a transcendant American value. The idea that a person can work hard and get a square deal and a fair chance at life is a transcendant American value. The idea black and white Americans are deserving of equal empathy and respect is a transcendant American value.
And another transcendant value – and this gets to my second trip to Washington that week, is the America-Israel relationship.
I am proud to have returned to Washington DC one day after the march to stand up and be counted as an AIPAC-supporting rabbi. I was invited to attend the AIPAC national rabbinic leadership Council, and that was a wonderful honor. But more significant than that, it was crucial to talk about the work that AIPAC is doing to support the ironclad relationship between Israel and America today.
Israel is today under great threat. This may sound like cant, or a refrain we hear all the time, but it is true. Iran is stronger than ever. We know about its nuclear program, but the central concern today is actually its filling-the-vaccuum that has been made since the retreat of ISIS in Syria. Iran has set up hardened missile sites throughout Syria and in Hezbollah-controlled areas of Lebanon, with missile technology as capable as anything we have. We aren't talking the inaccurate Katyushas of 2006, or the Hamas rockets of 2014, we're talking about hardened missile sites run by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard that could hit that side of the bima as opposed to that side. This is a tremendous problem.
AIPAC works in partnership with all American governments to create an ironclad security and diplomatic relationship between America and Israel. AIPAC is wise enough to stand above partisan politics, and it is wise enough to avoid backing specific candidates or giving them money. Its mission, rather, is education. Education of Congress. Education of the White House. Education of the policy sector. AIPAC is there, knowing that governments come and go, but the relationship between Israel and America must be broad and deep if it is to guarantee Israel's security.
I'm so proud of our AIPAC commitment at the synagogue. We are a passionate, engaged, serious AIPAC synagogue. Right now, our enrollment to date for next spring's policy conference, has already exceeded by 25% the entire enrollment for policy conference last year. That is huge. But we should do better and we can do better. We need many more to come pray with their feet at the AIPAC Policy Conference, March 4-6.
But the America-Israel relationship is actually bigger than AIPAC. It's based in the same transcendant values I spoke of earlier. All the way back to the Puritans, who saw this country as a city on a hill, throughout our history, America has been, because of divine providence, a welcoming home for Jews. I believe that the Jewish success in America is based in a holy and providential relationship between the Jews and this country.
We Jews and we Americans are one and the same. We have a long history of connection, and support for Israel comes right out of that history and that tradition. America supports Israel not only because it is the right thing to do, but because it is the American thing to do. This is a transcendant American value.
But today, the idea that our country is guided by transcendant values is under threat. The way that this threat works, is that it attempts to politicize our values. It tells us that speaking for Israel, or for our neighbor, or for the stranger, is a political action.
But it is up to us, as Jews and Americans, to stand stronlg against this and affirm our values. We must speak a great Jewish and American language in support of our values. We must speak up and make clear that we stand for values. Where we find existing institutions failing to speak these words, we must move past them and speak them ourselves.
We must be the ones to speak in the voices of King and Isaiah, of Jefferson and Hillel, of Abigail Adams and Devorah the prophet.
We must be the ones to stand up for the bipartisan commitment to Israel. This is not easy. Both parties want to politicize this. Some Jewish organizations want to politicize this. But we must do better.
Sometimes, the move to politicize comes from inside ourselves, too. When we are feeling low, we humans have a sympathetic nervous system, and we can quickly make ourselves feel a pick-me-up by making ourselves feel angry. It works. You know it. Have you ever had an argument with someone, that you've solved by changing the subject to something – or someone – else you're even madder about? It works. But it does real damage.
In our society, which is filled with alienation and negativity that is just floating around and has no place to go, we often create anger as a panacea. And it's a terrible, terrible thing. This isn't a social media thing, although social media makes this easier. It's a post-modern thing, it's a psychological need to express anger and negativity to deal with the void and the pit in our hearts.
In the evangelical world, they say that people today have a God-shaped hole in their hearts. I think that's exactly right. And that's what Yom Kippur is about.
Yom Kippur is about saying – we need to push out the anger, and let in God. We need to be able to hear the still, small voice of God that is here to comfort us and to give us unconditional love. The affirmation and comfort that we need as humans, that does not come from our society, comes from letting God in.
But here's the catch. We have to pair comfort with moral action and teshuvah. God will not fill that hole in our hearts unless we are ready to step up and serve God by serving the cause of justice. There's a concept described by Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith that I find compelling, and it is a risk for all of us. He says, we are at risk of moralistic therapeutic deism. That is, it's really easy for clergy like me, or Cantor Shammash, or those of us on the board, to promote an easy, feel-good religion. An oasis for parched souls. A respite from the stress of society. A Shabbat where we talk about what is good and happy. A Yom Kippur where we have a group hug.
Well, that is not going to be good enough. There are real people in danger, in this country and in Israel. This morning, in the Haftarah, Isaiah challenged us:
Is such the fast I desire,
A day for men to starve their bodies?
Is it bowing the head like a bulrush
And lying in sackcloth and ashes?
Do you call that a fast,
A day when the Lord is favorable?
No, this is the fast I desire:
To unlock fetters of wickedness,
And untie the cords of the yoke
To let the oppressed go free;
To break off every yoke.
It is to share your bread with the hungry,
And to take the wretched poor into your home;
When you see the naked, to clothe him,
And not to ignore your own kin.
It is not good enough to engage in the easy onanism of spiritual self-comfort. We have to do real work.
The God-shaped hole in our hearts can only be filled if we engage in real work.
What we need is what Teddy Roosevelt called the pursuit of the strenuous life, and we need it in religion. We need to test and push ourselves. We need to sometimes make ourselves uncomfortable.
When our values are under threat, we need to speak out in favor of them. The Torah warns us in 36 places to love the stranger. You know the feelings of the stranger, of the immigrant, it says, having yourselves been strangers in the Land of Egypt.
We cannot read the Torah with integrity and think that it does not have an opinion on many current political events. It does. And if it seems political to say so, I repeat what I said earlier – we didn't come to politics; they came to us.
Look at that stained-glass window over there. You'll see a picture of the Statue of Liberty, with Emma Lazarus' poem on it. Give me your poor, your tired, your weak, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free. Do you know this poem was recently mocked by someone in the White House when DACA was threatened? That's just an assault on American and Jewish values, dressed up as politics, and if we don't defend those values, because someone called them political, then we have killed them. If we're told that welcoming the immigrant is a political value, then we need to get a new window over there.
Likewise with Israel. We're going to start connecting to Israel with love. Every drop of anger we put into our Israel conversation, even when that is coming from a good place, will come back to bite us and serve the cause of our enemies. Linda Sarsour, a self-proclaimed progressive activist who seeks to do Israel harm, knows precisely what she is doing to our communities, throwing contemporary American political faultlines in front of our Israel support. She wants to put ruptures between politically progressive and conservative Jews so as to chip away at Israel support by tying it to American culture wars.
We have to be much stronger than this. We have to stand up for Israel, and sometimes hold ourselves back. That's the AIPAC way, and it's the right way. It requires toughness. It requires confidence. It requires cool under pressure.
That's why I'm so excited to talk about our new Israel committee at TBI, Ahavti. It takes its name from one of my favorite Israeli dance songs, "Od Lo Ahavti Dai." That means, "I have not loved enough." The name of the committee, is to challenge us each to love more. Each of us can do more loving. Each of us can do less anger. Each of us can grow in connection. The group is outward-facing, and will be teaching the kind of loving Israel engagement we need: study of Zionism and culture, Yom HaZikkaron and Yom Ha'atzmaut programming, and interfaith outreach.
This year is the 70th birthday of the State of Israel. And I want to tell you about something we're going to do here to celebrate it. It's not loud, it's not ostentatious, but it's real. We're going to do a community siyyum of Yossi Klein HaLevi's book, "Like Dreamers." A siyyum is when the entire community studies a text together, connecting to its details, and then celebrates its completion. Yossi Klein HaLevi's book talks about the paratroopers who liberated Jerusalem in 1967
And this is all why I am equally excited about our new social justice committee, called, "One Justice." One Justice asserts the centrality of our moral and religious values in the world. It's not about politics. It's about education on Jewish values which are simply non-negotiable. One Justice inspires us to live the words of Isaiah.
Isaiah tells us that, if we do these moral things that God requires:
Then shall your light burst through like the dawn
And your healing spring up quickly;
Your Vindicator shall march before you,
The Presence of the Lord shall be your rear guard.
Then, when you call, the Lord will answer;
When you cry, He will say: Here I am.
If you banish the yoke from your midst,
The menacing hand, and evil speech,
And you offer your compassion to the hungry
And satisfy the famished creature—
Then shall your light shine in darkness,
And your gloom shall be like noonday.
The Lord will guide you always;
He will slake your thirst in parched places
And give strength to your bones.
You shall be like a watered garden,
Like a spring whose waters do not fail.
This is the real comfort of religion. Not something cheaply gotten. Not therapeutic religiosity. Not Bill Clinton saying, "I feel your pain." But the real product of the strenuous life, of hard work. There is, to address those holes in our hearts, much in religion, but if we just feel good while oppressing the stranger, or ignoring Israel, then we haven't filled our hearts with God, we've filled them with something else. And we won't be forgiven for that.
Our task as humans is to build our lives and build ourselves to be true servants of God. Doing what is necessary and right in the world.
And I think of an anecdote about this, something I'll never forget. It's last spring, at the AIPAC Policy Conference. On the last day of the conference, time is spent lobbying, walking all over Capitol Hill office buildings, literally praying with your feet in the hot D.C. sun. And I walked all over the place, with Keith Cohen, and Steve Plon, may his memory be a blessing. And I will always remember, that Steve was the least tired of all of us. He walked up and down the street, up and down the stairs, he stood and asked questions, he prayed with his feet even at the end of his life.
I hadn't known Steve for a long time like others here did, but what he did was a mitzvah. He was a person who prayed with his feet. He was a person who prepared himself for divine service. He was a person who lived the strenuous life, a life of values and commitment, a life of seriousness, and the kind of moral seriousness that Isaiah speaks of, the kind that brings real joy. The kind that fills our God-shaped holes with God, not with self-love.
Our task as Americans and Jews is a great one. It always has been. We have always been the people, as Jews and as Americans, who stand up to do what is right. We have always been the people, as Jews and Americans, who are a light unto the nations. We have always been the people who know that service of God is dependent on us, on our own selves, doing the work to be vessels for God.