The following is the sermon I delivered on Rosh Hashanah morning 5776.
This being the 14th High Holy Days that we’ve shared together, I hope you’ll indulge a personal reflection. I think back all the way to the first High Holy Day sermon I delivered here. It was Yom Kippur. The year was 2002 or 5762, if the Hebrew calendar is more your style, and I was a freshly minted rabbi straight out of seminary. I remember the moment vividly: standing up as the ark was closing, walking from my seat over there across the bema, arriving at this very spot. I remember looking up to see all of your faces. Faces that were unknown to me before that moment, with no history or memories yet cultivated or shared. And the rest, as they say, is history. Now, 14 years later, I am ever so grateful for all the times we’ve shared and the multitude of memories we’ve made together.
The power of memory: let’s start there.
In his beautiful book Everything Is Illuminated, Jonathan Safran Foer writes about the special place memory holds in Jewish consciousness:
“Jews have six senses: Touch, taste, sight, smell, hearing … [and] memory. While [others] experience and process the world through the traditional senses...for Jews, memory is no less primary than the prick of a pin, or its silver glimmer.... It is only by tracing the pinprick back to other pinpricks – when his mother tried to fix his sleeve while his arm was still in it, when his grandfather’s fingers fell asleep from stroking his great-grandfather’s damp forehead, when Abraham tested the knife point to be sure Isaac would feel no pain – that the Jew is able to know why it hurts. When a Jew encounters a pin, he asks: What does it remember like?”[i]
Not “What does it feel like?” but “What does it remember like?” An inherently and uniquely, I believe, Jewish question. But to fully understand it, we must first distinguish memory from history.
To demonstrate, an example from my family – some of you have heard me share this before:
When my son was three, we took him skiing with us in Colorado. It was a disaster. He hated ski school, his boots hurt, the snow was slushy, and his skis kept getting stuck along the very small bunny hill run. Because the experience was so bad, we assumed that that would be our first and last family ski trip. History.
But something funny happened when we printed out our pictures from the trip about 2 weeks later. Our son started recalling how much fun he had had on our first ski trip. That he was proud of himself that by the 4th and final day the boots didn’t hurt as bad and he couldn’t wait to go skiing again. Memory.
History is something to which we are witness, over which we have little to no control. Memory, on the other hand, is something we shape ourselves. History is passive, and it navigates in the past. Memory, on the other hand, is active, innately more personal, and helps us construct identity. Memory is not just about the past, but the present and the future as well.
And Jewish memory ups the ante on just how much potential it has to form and shape what is possible in the world! One of the unique gifts of Judaism is its insistence that memory is nothing less than the driver of creativity, inspiration, and transformation.
One of the most repeated commandments, appearing more than 120 times in the Torah alone, is Zachor/Remember, and it is not just an ancient biblical notion; it is a critical tenet for us in our day too: that we remember our past and affirm who we are in order to navigate into the future. Zachor/Remember.
Want to know something interesting? In the original form of Hebrew, there is no word for “survival.” Think about this for a minute. How is it possible, for a people who has undergone such tragedy and in so many ways prided itself on its miraculous ability to survive, that there is no original Hebrew word for survival!?
Over and over again, in the face of imminent danger and destruction, we have instead responded with, what former Chief Rabbi of Great Britain Jonathan Sacks, rightly calls, “a burst of creativity!”[ii] It was the destruction of the First and Second Temples that gave birth to the creation of the Talmud. It was the Spanish Inquisition that gave birth to rich mysticism of Tzfat. And as Rabbi Sacks himself writes: “The Holocaust, in human terms the worst tragedy of all, led to the single greatest affirmation of the collective Jewish will…the birth of the state of Israel. Jews recovered, [and] turned tragedy into creativity because they refused to see themselves as victims.”[iii] In reflecting on what has happened to us, we have always chosen to remember, not with the lens of victimization and despair, but instead with operating assumptions of agency and hope.
This idea is woven into the critical three part narrative that is our Jewish master story:
1. They tried to kill us.
2. We thrived instead.
3. Let’s eat.
But too often in our day, we remember only the “they tried to kill us” part of the story. And we let that singular viewpoint color and shape who we are as Jews. This, my friends, is what I view as the greatest existential threat to Judaism and Jewish peoplehood in our time. Not Iran. Not Hamas. Not anti-Semitism in Europe. Not the Republicans or the Democrats. But what seems to be the Jewish community’s singular obsession with Jewish survival as the end all and only metric that matters. Google the phrase: “Jewish survival” – it will come up 26,500,000 times! But a Judaism that is obsessed only with its survival is a Judaism that will not survive.
Renowned Scholar Jacob Neusner addresses this issue when he writes: “... The major concerns of the Jews retain the obsolete qualities of the siege-mentality… And for the average [American] Jew, the chief Jewish issue is phrased in wholly ethnic terms: whether children marry Jews is [too often] more important than whether they build Jewish homes, [and] whether people live in Jewish neighborhoods matters more than whether the neighborhoods in which they do live are places of dignity and commonplace justice.”[iv] And in a country in which Jews are more assimilated and better accepted than they have ever been at any other time in history, we cannot, nor should we, expect that our children will be satisfied when we answer their question of “Why be Jewish” with a fear driven statement evoking a narrative about the Holocaust or worse, with a passive statement about “that’s just how it’s always been.” These answers, thankfully, no longer satisfy. Survival is not enough.
Look up survival in the dictionary, and you will see it defined as: “remaining alive after the occurrence of some event.” It means having a pulse, it means “not being dead.” There is no Jewish word for “survival” because this, in and of itself, from a Jewish view, is not really living.
Judaism is concerned not with surviving, but with thriving. We must shift our concerns away from how many people with a pulse we can get to fill the seats, and focus on getting people enlivened by Judaism. Getting people’s hearts to race faster with the electric pulse of Jewish wisdom, inspiring them to, at once, connect with the generations before them and to see themselves as inheritors and progenitors of a faith and practice that calls them to do nothing less than heal the sick, clothe the naked, help the poor, pursue peace, love each other, to animate the Divine in themselves and others so that they can transform the world from the way it is to the way it can yet be.
Should we be concerned with the external threats that loom? Yes, of course we should. But if we let fear be the sole driver for that concern, if the only reason for our worry is to continue a Judaism that exists in name only, well then, what’s it all for?
Let me speak for a moment to those of you who are here today even though you really would rather be somewhere else. Why are you here? Maybe you were dragged here – either by the living forces of family or community or the voices of ages past that stir a guilt inside you that needs to be silenced. Maybe you are here because of Jewish survival. Because of what our ancestors sacrificed for you to be here. Maybe you don’t even know why you are here. But nevertheless, you are here.
Despite cynicism and skepticism, despite alienation and marginalization, you are here. And I believe that one of the reasons you are also here is because in some part of yourself, you remember that here, today, is the possibility that maybe, just maybe, something will happen. That you might feel less alone, that you might feel awakened, enlivened. That you might be brought more fully into your life, the life of community, the life of the world. With your questions of transcendence, your struggles over life’s meaning and your purpose in the world – you are here. We are here.
Sure, the first thing that may come to your mind in remembering is the “they tried to kill us” part of the story, but I also think that each and every one of us deep down carries the deeper moral and message. Part two and three of the story: “We didn’t just survive – we thrived.” And then, “Let’s eat!”
Deep down in our kishkes, this is the root of our profound pride. Jewish population studies may report low percentages of religious affiliation, but the percentage of Jews who feel proud to be Jewish soars higher than it ever has before.
And in this, we see what is undeniably the greatest opportunity beckoning the Jewish community at this moment in time: We Jews are on the precipice of the next great burst of creativity: the next great American Judaism, a Jewish renaissance revitalized for our time.
We are more than just cells and oxygenation, more than metabolism and response to stimuli. As the great 20th century Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik puts it: “Man is born an object and dies an object, but possesses the ability to live like a subject, like a creator, an innovator... Man’s task in the world, according to Judaism, is to transform fate into destiny; a passive existence into an active existence; an existence of compulsion, perplexity, and muteness into an existence replete with a powerful will, with resourcefulness, daring and imagination.”[v]
Did you know that Rosh Hashanah is not the original name for this day we observe today? Long before it was Rosh Hashanah, it was Yom HaZikaron - the Day of Remembering. And then later, it became Yom Harat HaOlam - The Day of the Birth of the World.
On this first day of the New Year, this Yom Harat HaOlam - this Birth Day - this day that insists that what is at stake is nothing less than the rebirth and renewal of ourselves, our relationships, and our world, and on this Yom HaZikaron, this Day of Remembering - of reframing, widening and deepening our memory to encompass the fullest and best version of who we’ve been, who we are, and who we can yet and once again be, I invite you to remember:
What does being a Jew remember like?
What does being a part of this community remember like?
What does being part of the people whose eyes are always open to what is yet possible remember like?
Remember with me the story of Creation – the story we celebrate this day. We are likely familiar with the Genesis “In the beginning God created” story. It puts each phase of creation neatly into one of 6 days and names the 7th day the day of rest. A friend of mine likes to call that story the Container Store creation story because everything fits nicely and easily into pretty little structures that are easy to understand. In it, we, humans, are the passive recipients of God’s creation and need to respond accordingly – God’s “yes-men” as it were.
But I want to let you in on a little secret. This isn’t actually the first creation story. There is a story that comes before that story, originating in the Jewish mystical tradition. This is the one I want you to remember: Your soul will remember it even if your mind does not.
In the beginning, God’s presence filled the universe and there was only light. When God decided to bring this world into being, to make room for creation, God needed to make space for it, so the Divine contracted itself. From that contraction, darkness was created. But the light and the darkness were totally separate. So God sent vessels of the Divine light, like a fleet of ships, into the darkness to create the universe. But the vessels were too fragile to contain the powerful light. They burst open, shattered, and all the holy shards were scattered across the cosmos.[vi]
That is why we were created: to gather the sparks, no matter where they are hidden. And to put them back together so the vessels can sail all the way home. When the broken vessels are restored, tikkun olam, the repair of the world, will be complete. We were not created to be “yes-men.” We were created to restore the unity of all things.
That is what it remembers like:
An engaged, challenged, charged responsibility and opportunity, even destiny, to make ourselves, our relationships and our world whole.
Our faith, our culture, our tradition was not designed for stagnation, to serve solely as the anchor of a vessel never intended to be put to sea. But more as a wide, billowing sail enabling it and us to thrive as we traverse and discover more of the endlessly revealing cosmos of which we are an integral, covenantal, evolving part.
Will you be fearless and join us as we remember, re-imagine and reanimate what a 21st century synagogue can become? A community that is substantive and consequential, a community in which everyone is invited, a community that recognizes the Divine spark in each and every person and invites them to learn, interpret, and demonstrate the impact of Judaism in their own lives? In the lives of others? And in our world? A community that is at once broken hearted for the pain of our world AND open-hearted, hopeful for the potential for healing? Will you join us in remembering our faith in the possible?
Hashiveinu Adonai Aylecha vNashuvah. Chadeish yameinu K’kedem.
“Return us to You, O Source of All, and we shall surely return. Renew our days as they were in days of old.”
In a New Year of abundant blessing, goodness, and possibility for us all,
[i] Foer, Jonathan Safran. Everything Is Illuminated. pp. 198, 199.
[ii] Sacks, Rabbi Jonathan. To Heal a Fractured World. p. 181
[v] Rabbi Joseph Soloveithchik, “Kol Dodi Dofek,” in Bernard Rosenberg and Gred Heuman (eds.), Theological and Halakhic Reflections on the Holocaust. Pp. 54-5
[vi] Based on Isaac Luria