September 14, 2013
By Thomas A. Louchheim
I just want to remind you from my Rosh HaShanah sermon that you are all religious people. This morning I am going to speak to you a little informally about your connection to God from my perspective. Not everyone feels a connection to God. There is no problem with that. My friend, Rabbi Wayne Dosick, wrote a book entitled Dancing with God: Everyday Steps to Jewish Spiritual Renewal. He says, "The prime concern of the religious quest is to bring individual human beings into personal, intimate relationship with God." I actually believe that there are very few of us on such a religious quest; therefore God may not be as important to many of us. A belief in God may be admirable; but for some, not always necessary. Let us begin with George Carlin's description of God: An invisible man who lives in the sky, with a list of ten things he expects of us, and if we don't live up to those ten expectations then he sends us to a horrible place full of fire and brimstone, but he loves us.And, as Carlin so brilliantly added, he needs money.
Before I share with you a number of stories that may help describe for you various potential relationships with God, one of the first questions one might ask in this context is, "If there is a God, is there a purpose to the Universe?" So, I share with you a segment from the Utube site, Minutephysics, narrated by the Neil deGrasse Tyson, astrophysicist, director of the Hayden Planetarium, and one of those responsible for reducing Pluto from being our ninth planet to simply a dwarf planet. After reading the angry letters he received from schoolchildren demanding Pluto's return to "planet" status perhaps his view on whether a divine being created the universe should be discounted. In any case, here is his answer with my factual inserts:
Does the universe have a purpose? I am not sure; but anyone claiming a more definitive response to the question is claiming access to knowledge not based on empirical foundations.... To assert that the universe has a purpose implies a desired outcome. Who would do the desiring and what would the desired outcome be? [The illustrator writes, "Be Awesome!"] Perhaps is it to make carbon-based life inevitable [Genesis, Chapter one], or make sentient primates our life's neurological pinnacle? [Psalm 8:4-5 – What are human beings that you think of them; mere mortals, that you care for them? Yet you made them inferior only to yourself; you crowned them with glory and honor.] Humans were not around to ask these questions for 99.9999% of cosmic history.
[The universe is 13½ billion years old. Earth was formed 3½ billion years ago; primates and other mammals arrived 85 million years ago; Homo habilis, those able to make stone tools, arrived 2.3 million years ago; Homo erectis appeared only three hundred thousand years later or more; it is suggested that Homo sapiens (us) developed between four hundred and two hundred fifty thousand years ago. The first writing was discovered around 3200 BCE in Mesopotamia. This is a far cry from the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve, and the development of Abraham's concept of God, all of which occurred generations apart from each other.]
If the purpose of the universe was to create humans, then the cosmos was embarrassingly inefficient about it (God procrastinated more than we do).
And if a further purpose is to create a fertile location for life, then our cosmic environment has got an odd way of showing it.
Earth has existed for 3½ billion years, has been persistently assaulted by natural sources of mayhem, death and destruction; ecological destruction exacted from volcanoes, climate change, earthquakes, tsunamis, storms and especially killer asteroids has left extinct 99.9% of all species that have ever lived here.
Tyson goes on to suggest that events in our lives that occur in our best interest are just as numerous as those events that may kill us then it is near impossible to prove intent. He has said, "When I look at the universe and all the ways the universe wants to kill us, I find it hard to reconcile that with statements of beneficence."
Okay, so perhaps the Noah story is not about saving all the animals God created in the Garden of Eden, only those that survived that last meteor strike. Let me suggest that religion exists not to prove God's existence from before 13½ billion years ago. Nor does it exist to collect money, as many would suggest. Rather, religion and whatever concept of God we have exist to help us understand our place in the world and how we can live on purpose and with purpose. A connection with God is not about proving God as Creator; rather it is about making a connection with higher values that are not fleeting. They are eternally true.
So, in a world where science has many of our answers, I share with you this first story:
One day a group of scientists got together and decided that man had come a long way and no longer needed God. So they picked one scientist to go and tell Him that they were done with Him.
The scientist walked up to God and said, "God, we've decided that we no longer need you. We're to the point that we can clone people and do many miraculous things, so why don't you just go on and get lost."
God listened very patiently and kindly to the man. After the scientist was done talking, God said, "Very well, how about this? Let's say we have a human-making contest." To which the scientist replied, "Okay, great!"
But God added, "Now, we're going to do this just like I did back in the old days with Adam."
The scientist said, "Sure, no problem" and bent down and grabbed himself a handful of dirt.
God looked at him and said, "No, no, no. You go get your own dirt!"
The mistake the scientist in this story makes is the same mistake that every one of us makes. We often think we have done things on our own. We are proud of our independence and self-reliance. The truth is that just as we, from time to time, rely on others, there are aspects of our lives which are a gift from God. We should learn to appreciate them.
A few nights ago I was watching Fiddler on the Roof. There are so many great lines from Tevye, the milkman from that movie. I will just provide two of them to you today.
You have many poor people. I know that there is no shame in being poor. But it is no great honor either.
Tevye is under the assumption that he is impoverished because this is part of God's divine plan and is reasoning with God that whatever the plan is it would not be so terrible if he were to have a small fortune. Should we just be content with our station in life because we believe that is what God wants? Nowhere – in post-biblical Jewish writings anyway – does it suggest that you are in a particular circumstance because God wants you there. Tevye makes a similar argument later in the movie when he hears there will be a pogrom in his shtetl of Anatevka:
God I know we are the chosen people; but sometime couldn't you choose someone else?
For the audience, Tevye is pointing to two thousand years of anti-Semitism. Didn't God know this would happen? How unfair to have chosen us to "be a light to the nations" through dedication toward justice and decency, and at the same point be the target of humiliation and destruction. Rabbi Weizenbaum taught his students, "Life is a gift, not a promise." God has given us the gift of Torah as well; what we do with it is up to us. There is no divine intent that by being dedicated to our chosenness God knew that people would hate us and try to destroy us. I tweeted this past August, "Being challenged in life is a certainty. Feeling defeated by circumstances is optional." Despite all of his complaints, Tevye never accepted defeat.
What is our role in our world? This next story may have been inspired by a poster during World War II that promoted support for the Polish Relief Fund. The poster included a sketch of Paderewski next to a boy at a piano. In some versions of this story, the boy plays Chopsticks. Many of you have probably seen a version on television.
Wishing to encourage her young son's progress on the piano, a mother took her boy to a Ignancy Jan Paderewski concert. After they were seated, the mother spotted a friend in the audience and walked down the aisle to greet her.
Seizing the opportunity to explore the wonders of the concert hall, the little boy rose and eventually explored his way through a door marked "NO ADMITTANCE." When the house lights dimmed and the concert was about to begin, the mother returned to her seat and discovered that the child was missing.
Suddenly, the curtains parted and spotlights focused on the impressive Steinway on stage. In horror, the mother saw her little boy sitting at the keyboard, innocently picking out "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star."
At that moment, the great piano master made his entrance, quickly moved to the piano, and whispered in the boy's ear, "Don't quit. Keep playing."
Then leaning over, Paderewski reached down with his left hand and began filling in a bass part. Soon his right arm reached around to the other side of the child and he added a running obligato.
Together, the old master and the young novice transformed a frightening situation into a wonderfully creative experience. The audience was mesmerized.
That's the way it is with God. What we can accomplish on our own is hardly noteworthy. We try our best, but the results aren't exactly graceful flowing music. But with the hand of the Master, our life's work truly can be beautiful.
Next time you set out to accomplish great feats, listen carefully. You can hear the voice of the Master, whispering in your ear, "Don't quit. Keep playing." Feel His loving arms around you. Know that His strong hands are there helping you turn your feeble attempts into true masterpieces. Another way of putting it is, despite the anatomical references in the Torah, God does not have eyes, a nose, a mouth, hands and feet. God has given those features to us to "see" sorrow in the face of another, to "speak" out against injustice, and to "lift" up those who have fallen into despair.
Here is a similar story I have called, What Is in Your Hand?
Rabbi Ishmael and Rabbi Akiba were walking by the way when they met a sick man. Seeing a farmer plowing his field nearby, Rabbi Ishmael asked the farmer to summon a doctor.
"Oh rabbi of little faith," said the farmer, "it is God's will that this man has become ill. If God wants him to die, he will die. If God wants him to live, he will live."
"What is that in your hand?" inquired the rabbi. "A plow, of course," answered the farmer. The rabbi said, "Why do you interfere with the earth which God has created? O farmer of little faith, if God wants your crops to grow, they will grow. But what do you do? You enter into co-partnership with God in the work of creation. Thus it is with the doctor, who is a copartner with God in the world of healing. Now go get a doctor!
This story reminds me of the story of the man from the city who visits someone in the country who shows him his farmland. The man from the city exclaimed, "God certainly has blessed you." The farmer responded, "Are you kidding. You should have seen this land when God had it all to Himself!"
Judaism is a religion based on education. We tend to frown on those who do not engage in enough study. So I share with you a story about an apicorus. This is a person who has abandoned Judaism and abandoned God.
A man told a rabbi that he was an apicorus. The rabbi asked him, "What Yeshiva did you attend?" "I did not attend a Yeshiva," the man answered. "Oh," the rabbi said, "Well, what Hillel did you attend in college?" "I did not attend a Hillel," the man answered. "Where did you get your religious education for your Bar Mitzvah?" the rabbi asked. The man responded, "I did not become a Bar Mitzvah and I have no religious education." What synagogue did your family attend when you were young?" the rabbi asked. "We never belonged anywhere." Exasperated the rabbi blurted out, "You are not an apicorus. You are an ignoramus!"
You have to know something about God in order to know what you are giving up when you say, you do not believe. Marcia and I have been doing this "rabbi" stuff for a long time. We have a great respect for those who have really well thought out their atheism. When people tell me they do not believe in God, I ask them to describe the God they do not believe in. 99.9% of the time, they describe the God of the Torah. Look at the God of the Torah. He gets angry and violent. He tells the Israelites to tear down the holy places of the indigenous people in Canaan. God gets angry when the Israelites do not kill all the people He has asked them to kill. I do not believe in that God either. The God of the Torah is the God those people perceived Him to be; not who God actually was. There is no one in this room who believes in that God either. When you tell me you are an atheist, you had best choose a better foundation for your argument than God as described in the Torah.
Here is a brief Chasidic story about whether it is important to believe in God for one to be Jewish.
A father goes to his rebbe for advice. "My son does not believe in God. What am I to do?" Without a moment's hesitation, the rebbe answers, "Love him ever more."
A belief in God is not the challenge all by itself, Trying to convince a teenager - that is an argument you are not going to win! Rather, the very foundation of Jewish "practice" is practice. It is not that faith is unimportant. Faith can help one sustain one's practice. Nevertheless, modeling God's loving nature is more important. One of God's divine attributes is love. Embrace your child. Model that behavior. God does not demand belief; only that you are the best person you can be.
Let me conclude with this. In the beginning of Exodus, Moses asks, who is sending me? Eheyeh asher eheyeh, "I will be who I will be." Interesting, God is expressing His name in the future tense. A few weeks ago, as we approached the end of Deuteronomy, we read, r'u atah ki ani, ani hu, v'ein elohim imadi, "See, then, that I, I am the One; there is no god beside Me." Look at the difference: In the beginning of your being "religious" you saw God as a potential, as Moses did in the beginning of the book of Exodus. You may not know what God's potential in your life may be. That is the future. Now, in this reading, God is present. Perhaps in this New Year God will be in the present tense for you. At the very core, is that you can believe that a connection to God is a connection to higher values leading you on a path of confidence, courage and commitment to a better future. Amen.
 Page 19.
 Utube.com, April 9, 2010
 Exodus 3:14.
 Deuteronomy 32:39.
Categories: 5774-2013 HHD Sermons
Israel: Written in Sand and Stone
Yom Kippur 5774
September 13, 2013
Rabbi Thomas A. Louchheim
Friends, I would like to begin this evening’s sermon with a story.
Long ago there lived two merchant traders, Yossi and Elazar, who set out together in a caravan with camels, horses and servants. They headed into the mountains of Northern Persia and soon came to a river that was swift flowing, muddy and dangerous to cross. Yossi, being the younger of the two, offered to go first. He started across the river holding a rope to guide the rest of the caravan. Halfway across he stumbled, lost his footing, fell into the swirling waters, and dropped the rope. Elazar did not hesitate. Immediately he jumped into the river and was able to reach his friend and pull him ashore. Upon reaching safety, Yossi carved these words on a large rock nearby: “Traveler! In this place, Elazar risked his life and saved his friend Yossi.”
The merchants traveled for many months and eventually returned to this same river crossing with loads of tea and silk. This time the water level was lower; the crossing was easy. Yossi and Elazar sat and talked by the stone cliff where Elazar's heroism had been recorded. As they sat and spoke, a difference of opinion turned into a quarrel. Words were exchanged and in a fit of anger, Elazar struck Yossi. Yossi picked himself up, took a stick, and wrote these words in the sand: “Traveler! In this place, Elazar, in a trivial argument, broke the heart of his friend Yossi.”
When I first read this story, I thought about my subject tonight and the hero that has saved Judaism over the millennia. Interestingly, the hero of Judaism is not a particular person. Yes, we have great heroes beginning with Abraham and Sarah, who were responsible for the formation of Judaism. Of course, Moses and Miriam not only rescued the Israelites from their Egyptian enslavement, but also brought them to the Promised Land. When Judaism should have all but been destroyed, it was Yochanan ben Zaccai, against the advice of the zealots, who was secreted out of Jerusalem. He asked permission from the Roman authorities to set up academies of learning. With that act, Rabbinic Judaism was given the mantle of authority to raise Judaism to a higher level.
We have had great teachers and thinkers who have been our saviors throughout the ages, like Maimonides, Rashi, Buber and after WWII, it was Rabbi Leo Baeck, who walked out of Theresienstadt and taught us about commitment and humility. Yes, they are all heros. They are great preservers of our faith.
But etched in stone there is a place – Israel.
From the beginning of our journey four thousand years ago, this was Abraham’s destination. It was the promise that sustained our enslaved ancestors in Egypt for four hundred years of slavery. The divided tribes were united by King David three thousand years ago by this place and in its city – Ir Shaleim – Jerusalem. When the Babylonians carried the remnants of our people off 700 years later, it was the Prophet Jeremiah who gave them comfort in their exile that they would return to this land of promise:
Restrain your voice from weeping and your eyes from tears;
For there is a reward for your tears, says the Lord;
And the people shall return from the land of the enemy.
And there is hope in your future, says the Lord,
And the children shall come back to their own land. (31:16-17)
Even when the Temple was destroyed a thousand years later, and some Jews remained while many others were scattered, it was the return to this sacred homeland that secured their hope and sustained them. For two thousand years, on the holy day of Passover, we repeat those words, as our parents, our grandparents and their parents before them have, “Next year in Jerusalem.”
In 1948 a two-millennium dream was realized with the creation of the political state of Israel. And from its beginning there has been trouble and sorrow, violence and death. For 65 years it has seen only moments of quiet and glimpses of peace.
Ahad Ha-Am, in my mind one of the greatest Zionist thinkers of the late nineteenth century, grew very concerned about Palestine. He frequently visited Israel and in 1891 he reported on hunger, on Arab dissatisfaction and unrest, on unemployment, and on people leaving Palestine. He was a proponent of Cultural Zionism. He attacked Zionism as it was being practiced in an article called, Lo Ze Ha-derech, “This is not the way.” He argued that the land could not absorb the Jewish Diaspora, the physical condition of Eretz Yisraeil would discourage Aliyah, and the desire just to move to the land would not solve the “Jewish Problem.” He arguably wielded his greatest impact in the 1890s and the first years of the twentieth century in one of his more influential essays dating from 1904, Shilton Ha-sekhel, "Supremacy of Reason." He utilized his understanding of the teachings of medieval philosopher Moses Maimonides to highlight how at the core of work and at the center of Judaism down through the ages were ongoing, persistent values: spirituality over materialism; genius over political dexterousness; a hierarchy of learning, not a leadership of the wealthy. He advocated a revival of the Hebrew language and Jewish culture in order for it to survive and for its achievement to radiate to all the world.
Today Israel is a place of many achievements:
Its Jewish cultural advances have been an inspiration to world Jewry:
As many of you are aware, we are planning our first congregational mission to Israel. We will have informative meetings each month prior to our trip both for those who are going and for those unable to join us. I hope many of you will attend. Our first gathering will be Monday, September 30th. Our featured speaker will be Oshrat Avitan Barel, our new shlichah, Director of the Israel Center.
On our trip in March, we welcome a return to our Jewish roots as we walk in
Yes, part of what we will see – and for those who will not be joining us on this mission, part of what you know – is that etched in stone in Israel are the heroic accomplishments (some of which I mentioned earlier). We will revel and celebrate that. Tonight, on Kol Nidrei, we also know of the broken hearts, the shattered dreams of Jews, Arab Israelis, Christians, Druze, Bedouins, and Palestinians. Tonight we pray for a restoration of those broken hearts. As one of my colleagues wrote earlier this month:
May we understand that there is room to bring Jews to the Negev and foster green development without dispossessing the Bedouin. May we understand that we can build a healthy economy which also cares for the weakest and poorest among us. It is possible to nurture a Jewish society without closing our borders to asylum seekers. It is possible to live full and meaningful Jewish lives in our ancient homeland without oppressing the Palestinian people. It is not only possible, but we must ask ourselves what kind of Judaism are we living if we do otherwise. (Rabbi Arik Asherman, Sept. 2013)
By the way, I did not tell you the end of the story of the two merchants, Elazar and Yossi. You remember that after he had an argument with his friend, Yossi picked himself up, took a stick, and wrote these words in the sand: “Traveler! In this place, Elazar, in a trivial argument, broke the heart of his friend Yossi.”
His servants came up to him asking, "Master Yossi, why did you carve the story of Elazar’s heroism in stone, whereas you wrote of his cruelty only in the sand? Yossi responded, “I will always cherish the memory of how my friend Elazar saved me in a time of danger. But the grave injury he just gave me – it is my hope that I will forgive him for it, even before the words fade from the sand.”
My friends, there are extremists who wish to etch every harm, every indiscretion, every violation and every death in stone for all to see permanently and forever. And then, there are those who are ready to interact and have empathy for the other; those who are willing to have a conversation, willing to listen carefully who will make advances toward peace. They understand that the approach to the answer in Israel is found during Passover. Have you ever really thought deeply why Passover is not simply a celebration of our freedom? If that was truly what Passover is all about, then there would be no need to eat bitter herbs. Ever think of that?
What celebration requires the celebrant to eat something they do not enjoy? Why do we eat bitter herbs? Yes, the smart alecks in the room want to yell out, “So we remember the bitterness of slavery.” Why? “So we don’t forget?”
In fact, it is not that you will forget your history. Even though we may be free, in order for others to be free, we have to eat the bitterness of compromise. No one can have it all.
We talk of Yerushalayim shel mala and Yerushalayim shel mata – the heavenly Jerusalem and the earthly Jerusalem. The heavenly Jerusalem is the city of hoped-for-peace; the reality of earthly Jerusalem is radically different. Earthly Jerusalem is vibrant, thriving, alive, but far from perfect. What links the two is human action and human hope. So while it is wonderful to see an Israel relatively safe, secure and productive, in our heart of hearts we know that peace in the Middle East, in Israel, in earthly Jerusalem, will only exist when it is the will of all that there will be peace.
And the process of peace will only begin when we decide to write all of the grave injuries done to us … in the sand and not in stone!
Reform Judaism: Compassion vs. The Law
Thursday, September 5, 2013
Rabbi Thomas Louchheim
Congregation Or Chadash
Ron Guidry was a pitcher for the Yankees. In 1976 the Yankees' organization sent him back to the minors. He was crushed and he was thinking of quitting the game. As he and his wife drove back, drove away from New York, his wife turned to him and said, "You are a great man. You've got what it takes to be the very best." Finally she said, "It's going to bother me to think that you will never know whether you could have made it in the big leagues." And so he turned around. He went to the minor leagues. He worked ever harder. He was brought back to the majors in 1977 and in 1978 he was the unanimous choice in the American League for the Cy Young Award for the best pitcher that year.
My question for you today is, if success is defined, in part, by hard work and dedication, how do you define your success by calling yourself Jewish? What is the hard work you need to be doing to be a successfully religious person? The answer most often given is: Mizvot! To be Jewish means you follow the mitzvot, the “commandments.”
“Rabbi, aren’t there 613 commandments?” Well, no, there are 613 commandments in the Torah; but you gave authority to the rabbis and we created thousands of more commandments, rules, and obligations, which, for some Jews, made your lives more cumbersome and more miserable. Why did we do such a thing? This was done to “build a fence around the Torah” – insure that the edicts from the Torah would never be violated. An example of this is that Shabbat candles are to be lit 18 minutes prior to sundown, so that you do not accidentally light candles once Shabbat has begun. And then the 18 minutes is added back on Saturday night to ensure that you observed a full Sabbath day.
So, for over two thousand years, rabbis have interpreted Torah laws and extrapolated from basic principles of the Torah to make it clear how to live every aspect of your life through God’s laws. There are laws about caring for your farm animals, laws regarding your family, and your property. There are laws that cover civil law and criminal law. There are laws that instruct you about fair business practices, including fair wages and moral practices regarding customers and employees. In the Koran we are called the “People of the Book.” The reference is partly due to the sacred stories we share in common. But to a greater extent it refers to Torah as a book of “Instruction.” The way these instructions work is, if you follow the rules, everything will be fine. If you don’t, there will be certain punishment. If this defines the entirety of our religion, then I think there is something very much lacking in it.
Laws, laws, and law – certainly there is value in having a legal system. However, defining religion through categories of laws seems somewhat cold. Now, don’t leave here today and tell your friends, “Rabbi Louchheim said we don’t have to obey the laws anymore.”
Well, few of you follow a great many of these laws anyway. There are some who have defined Reform Judaism as minimalistic – less observant than those Conservative and Orthodox Jews. And many of you are thankful for not being required to keep kosher, pray three times a day, or wear tzitzit daily.
Herein lies the problem. If we define ourselves (as we do) as “not so religious” or “not observant,” in relation to the laws, what are we saying about what our religion means to us – Not too much!
Being good at anything does require hard work, whether you are Ron Guidry, a lawyer, a doctor, a mechanic, a teacher. Often a routine is helpful. Those of us who understand the importance of good health recognize that to have it requires us to be observant or religious about our diet and our exercise. There certainly are some of you that are “religious” about it for yourselves, being “observant” about what you are doing every day. For others, if we can do it once a week, every few days, we are content and it does help. But being an “observant” and “religious” Jew is not the same. If you pray with us once a week on Shabbat, you are a religious Jew. If you join us or have family gatherings during Passover and Chanukah, you are a religious Jew. Perhaps your routine as a “religious Jew” is to attend High Holy Day services once a year. I know that I have not seen some of you in 364 days. For you, that is a routine, a ritual. To me you are religious and observant in that aspect of Judaism.
Look at all of you gathered here today. Some of you only come to Or Chadash once a year during the High Holy Days. Our last estimate of the Jewish population of Tucson was 25,000. Less than 20 percent are affiliated with the Jewish community. In comparison to you, there are 8,000 Jews in Pima County who are at home or at work during the High Holy Days every year. They would define your presence here as your being observant. In comparison to those who do not support synagogues, Jewish agencies, and Israel, you are very religious.
I have had to teach every shaliach who has come to Tucson from Israel that they are dati, “religious.” They observe Shabbat at home with their families, they keep a level of kashrut observance, and they celebrate the Jewish holidays. Everyone in this room would define those behaviors as “religious.” And yet, their definition is that the only way you are a religious Jew is if you are Orthodox. The normative definition of our religion has placed value on us discharging specific and definite acts and the ultimate reward that results. The prayers we offer prior to participating in those acts reinforce this archaic definition. Before the Torah can be read we say, in part, Asher bachar banu, “God, who has chosen only us to do this….” Before lighting candles on Shabbat or on the holidays or before most mitzvot we are partaking in, we say, “Asher kidshanu b’mitzvotav, v'tzivanu …”, “…who made us holy by being commanded …” to do specific things.
God may have “chosen us” from all other peoples to be observant in this way; but for many of us we “have chosen to do something else.” A generation ago, many Reform rabbis enjoyed the play on words by suggesting to their congregants that they are not the “Chosen People”; rather, we are the “Choosing People.” Reform Judaism became a sect of Judaism where the “Choosing People” chose to do less.
But the very foundation of Judaism should not be in how many mitzvot you obey or how often you come to services; rather, religion is defined by what values you uphold. A few weeks ago in our Torah portion Moses asked God a simple question, “Who are you? What is your name?” Not, “what do you demand of me? What do I need to do to make you happy?” Rather, he asks, “What is your name?" God responds, Adonai, Adonai, Eil Rachum v’chanun – “I am the compassionate and gracious one." God did not say, “I am the God who took you out of Egypt.” God did not say, “I am the God who commands you to do all the mitzvot.” Rather, God said, “I am compassion and graciousness, I am slow to anger, abounding in kindness, extending kindness to a thousand generations, and forgiving iniquity.” That is the soul of what Judaism should be for each and every one of you! Your success should not be graded on how many laws you follow or how many services you attend, but on how you are embodying that name of God.
The embodiment of your identity as a Jew is not found in a daily practice. Rather it is found in the values that are embodied in God’s holy name. But to take on God’s holy name is not easy. No one’s life is without pain or anguish. Just because you love another does not mean you are exempt from grief. In a world of suffering there is a need for compassion and kindness. To be compassionate is difficult. A community that cares for others through their struggles is not an easy thing to achieve. It requires great effort on our part to embrace another person who is in pain.
Perhaps that is why those who wish to identify Judaism with “the law” are so willing to do so. It is not difficult to do that. You just need to follow orders. You wake up, you place your left foot on the floor first, you put on tefillin, tzitzit, go to three daily minyans, keep kosher. This is not hard. If that is the foundation of your Jewish identity then you are minimizing our religion’s value to you. The costs are so minimized in order for us to follow the law. Laws are there to protect the innocent, the property of others, to secure the general welfare of the community. To have such laws means to minimize the sacrifice for most of us. But compassion, generosity, kindness demands so much more. It demands reason and time. Most importantly it demands a change in your moral direction, a change from your normal attitude.
Let me give you an example of a true definition of being “religious.” Over and over again, the Bible repeats, “And the stranger shall you not oppress. For you know the heart of the stranger, for you were a stranger in the Land of Egypt.” The Torah tells us this seventeen times! In fact, one of the times we read this is just prior to the High Holy Days every year.
What kind of argument is that? In fact, it is a very good argument. It is a call to memory. Remember who you are and who your ancestors were. We sing with our children during the celebration of our freedom. On Passover, we sing, “Avadim hayinu” – “We were slaves.” It is a call to remember how bad it was for you, so do not let that happen to others. In ten days you will fast on Yom Kippur. It is to remind you of the strangers in your community who need your help. To feel the pain in your stomach is a reminder not to forget the humiliation of the poor, of the unemployed, of the fired, of the immigrant, of those on the bottom of the heap, the refugees. Why? Because they were you! You were refugees thousands of years ago. Don’t forget that memory because that is a motivation to heal this world!
Shver tzu zein a yid, “to be Jewish is hard.” It is not because of the laws: keeping kosher, going to services daily, following the laws which are too numerous (613) and too arduous. Judaism is hard because you have to fight your instincts to care only for yourself; to care only for your family. Judaism demands that you broaden your perspective and consider others. You have to remember the poor, the stranger; you have to fight for those incapable of standing up for themselves. It is hard because your religion demands that you struggle against self-absorption, narcissism and selfishness.
God’s name, Eil Rachum v’chanun – compassionate and gracious – is your Torah, your “instruction” to gladden the sorrowing heart, lift up the downtrodden. To be Jewish is to accept God’s name as your name; to be rachum v’chanun – compassionate and gracious, for without it our community dies and civilization perishes.
I am reminded of a story of a man who had never traveled outside his village. He decides to see a bit of the world and takes his horse-drawn cart and travels to a village a few short miles away. He admired how everyone wore beautiful well-tailored clothing. They looked so dignified and refined. He was envious. He went into a tailor shop and bought a suit and had it tailored to fit him perfectly. He set out that afternoon to return home. He rode into town so proudly in his new suit. He was sure everyone would admire him. Well, in fact everyone treated him rather peculiarly. Not a single person said anything about his suit. When he questioned his friends about it, they certainly admired the textile; but for some reason the clothes were ill fitting on him. Perhaps the tailor did not fit the clothes very well. As one of his friends examined the suit he finally discovered what was wrong. He looked up and said, “The problem is you are wearing your new clothes over your old clothes.”
This year, I want you to wear a new set of clothing. Religion is supposed to give you a connection to your life beyond a causative reality: “Do this mitzvah and something good will happen.” Or, “Do this mitzvah because your parents or other Jews do this mitzvah.” Religion, at its core, helps open the veil of mystery of our world and gives insight to making your world better.
Rituals and mitzvot have an important place in our religious practice. Observance of Shabbat, holidays, and kashrut, make connections to family, to other Jews. These rituals, when done with the proper intention, provide you with a tranquil place, bring balance into your lives, and draw families closer together. But do them in a way that is transformative for you. These acts can ennoble your lives and inform you in special ways about what are the true priorities in your life. If you can make them into a routine, yes, you will benefit from them as you do from regular exercise or always keeping your bank accounts in balance.
At the same time, be religious and observant Jews by changing into a new set of clothes, discarding the old clothes, by acting in a way that will make a difference. Act like that better person. Do the things that you would do if you were more loving, open, trusting, more caring and more courageous. And if you think that you are not ready to do those things, then pretend. Pretend you are ready to do those things now. Don’t use excuses like, “I will do it when I am ready.” You will never be ready. When you bring warmth and care and connection into the world, you will receive it in turn. This simple act makes your world a better place to for everyone. Pretend to be the person you want to be. Don't worry that your heart is not into it at the moment. I guarantee your heart will follow.
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