Rosh Hashana 5775: Rabbi Greg Wolfe

Judaism: A Love Affair for Our Times

I want to talk to you at this most auspicious time about something a bit daring, perhaps even controversial…I want you to consider having an affair! Well, not just any affair, mind you. A Jewish love affair. Now, I am not talking about falling in love with another Jewish person, although that is great, too. Just a different sermon. I am talking about kindling a love affair with Judaism! A deep and passionate connection to being Jewish like that of the campers I meet every summer when I am on faculty at the regional camp of our Reform movement, URJ Camp Newman. There the campers have an enthusiastic ritual where they all scream together at the top of their lungs: “We love being Jewish!” The hills around the camp resonate and echo with young voices that know that being Jewish is something that touches their souls in a deep and living way. You can feel their excitement at being part of a joyous community that is alive with Yiddishkeit (Jewishness).

I fall in love with Judaism again every time I hear them shout; their contagious enthusiasm reminding me of what I love about being Jewish. Of course, there is matzah ball soup and latkes, and the first taste of herring after fasting on Yom Kippur. The familiarity of ancient words and practices that are tied up in my tzitzit, binding me to our history, to our story. I love that being Jewish means that there are always more questions than answers, and more to learn! I love that as a Jew I feel related to random people walking down the street in Jerusalem; the place I always feel at home. I love that being Jewish affords me multiple opportunities every day to feel God’s presence. I love that we have traditions and celebrations galore that punctuate our days, weeks and years with beauty and holiness, weaving a tapestry of color and texture into the rhythm of our lives. I love that our community and family are so central in Judaism, offering a meeting place of connection in which to share our lives, creating systems of support in celebration and sorrow. I love that we are a part of a venerable people that cares deeply about one another and watches out for one another. As Jews, I love that we are also immersed in a textual tradition of wisdom and spiritual riches where we can listen to the voices of our sages teaching us from centuries ago or from last week, and there find insight and guidance for our lives today. Even if we did’t go around yelling, “I love being Jewish!” at the top of our lungs, wouldn’t it be great if that is how we actually felt about being Jewish on the inside?

Being in love is so magical! Do you remember how it felt when you first met the (maybe a) love of your life? You wanted to know everything about them. Maybe you even googled them, if this is a new flame. You hung on their every word. You looked for excuses just to be near them or talk to them. You could spend hours just staring into their eyes. You adored how they made you feel. What does it take to fall in love? A moment? Just the right chemistry? A look, a feeling, a jolt of electricity and things get rolling! But sustaining love, feeding love, growing love for a lifetime, that is a completely different story. That is hard work. That takes an investment of time, energy, passion and most of all commitment. Why do we do all these things for love? Because we get something back so fundamental, so vital and visceral to who and what we are; and our love motivates us to give back even more. We share dreams, passions and pursuits. We enrich each other. We feel more whole when we are with the one we love. But it is not always easy to remember these ephemeral qualities and benefits of love in the hustle bustle of every day life. We have to be continually mindful of the connections in that loving relationship that sustain us, nourish us, and make us better people. And, if we aren’t getting what we need, the answer, of course, is not to simply walk away, but to speak up and ask for what we desire. To talk about how things could be better. And, more than that, to work for the relationship we dream of and deserve.

The same hard work that is such a necessary ingredient for the success of our human relationships is also required for our relationship with Judaism. Let’s face it! For so many in the Jewish community, not just ours, but everywhere, our relationships with Judaism are not what they could be. How many of us feel the passion that causes us to jump up and shout? How often do we even think to ourselves, I just love being Jewish? (I do hope you’ve had the experience at least a few times in your life.) Our people’s love affair with Judaism is withering and attenuating, according to many studies, such as last year’s Pew report. Often our Judaism languishes in the relationship doldrums because we simply take it for granted or don’t understand how it could possibly inform or relate to our lives today. Many times we may find ourselves living in the same “house” with Judaism, but we wake up each morning never interacting with or challenging our Judaism in any serious way. Woody Allen describes the metaphor of relationships this way in the movie Annie Hall: “A relationship is like a shark…if it doesn’t keep moving forward it dies.” Alas, Judaism, I think, is a dead shark for quite a few of our Jews. Our relationships with Judaism have ceased to grow and move us and connect with us in a meaningful way.

It hasn’t always been this way. Rabbi Larry Hoffman points out in his latest book, All The World: Universalism, Particularism and High Holy Days, that, for generations, Jews were just Jews and they never thought of being any different. There wasn’t a choice to be made. But it wasn’t so easy to be a Jew over the years, as we know. The question for many became why not become Christian, where opportunities were far more abundant. However, over the next generations and until this day, as Jews were accepted and gained entry into mainstream American society, the question for Jews became not so much “why leave?”, but “why bother staying?” What compelling reasons do we have to continue to be Jewish beyond our own self-perpetuation?

These doubts about the relevance of maintaining a loving relationship with Judaism may be voiced by the many who are thinking, but, rabbi, why should I fall in love with being Jewish, anyway? Does Judaism really have something to offer me, a modern, bright, accomplished person of the 21st century? I already have plenty of wonderful people in my life, even some I love! I am a good person. I have strong values. I do the very best I can to help others. My life is busy and full, I’ve got the family, my career, my activities; I don’t really have the time to put into this relationship, too. And, listen, frankly, I haven’t been getting much out of this Jewish relationship for awhile. I don’t really see the point.

Now, don’t get me wrong. Many are in love with their Judaism; many of you are! And that is fantastic and to be celebrated. But even in the healthiest of relationships there are new ways to fan the flames of our passion. (So, if this is you, keep listening. There still might be new insights.) But maybe some of you never were in love with Judaism. Perhaps Judaism wasn’t really yours to begin with–not your love that you sought out and chose; just something you inherited, like family–like a wise, old aunt that had always been a part of the clan who was to be respected and admired, loved from a distance, but without any real passion or commitment. Or perhaps, worse yet, Judaism was more like a crazy uncle in your family who made life inconvenient and complicated, but nevertheless was to be tolerated and accommodated with a knowing smile. Your Jewish relationship is just something that has always been there, but not really taken seriously. Accepted, but not really engaged with.

Whatever your family history with Judaism–true love or challenging relative, a source of joy or relatively challenging, or somewhere in between all of these–I would like to propose falling in love with Judaism for yourself….again, or for the first time. But in order to awaken our love, we must first be awake!

Rabbi Avraham Chen teaches that King David, the warrior-poet, would awaken each night precisely at midnight to praise God. We might wonder, how did he know when it was midnight? King David would hang his harp above his bed and God would send a beckoning breeze that would play upon the strings of his harp and wake him up at just the right time, and he would praise God with his psalms of love. If King David had never hung up his harp, he would never have been awakened to the beauty of God’s presence, the gifts from God that touched his soul. It’s not that God wasn’t always there reaching out, whispering to David! David needed only to be stirred into a receptive mode in order to receive the divine transmission. So it can be for us. How often have we neglected to open the window to our hearts, forgotten to hang a figurative harp above our beds that our souls might resonate to the beauty of our own tradition. The breezes blow with sweet messages calling us into the spiritual aliveness of our heritage, but we remain asleep, unmoved. Consider instead how we may be receptive, ready to hear, open to the messages that Judaism might speak to us. This is especially true during these High Holy Days, which, though commemorating our Jewish New Year, actually celebrate no particular Jewish event, but rather the most universal of themes, the birthday of the entire world, and even more specifically the creation of all humanity.

From harp to heart, music is the universal language of love that calls to us and touches our soul. What melody might we hear as we pluck each of the words in our ancient Hebrew prayers this day? Coursing through all the words of our machzor (holyday prayerbook), like a mighty current, flows the theme song of these High Holy Days that opens us up, filling us up, so that we might love being Jewish anew. But pluck we must in order to entice the words that are strung together on the page to release their sweet music. And then, together, let us listen for this resonant tune that might awaken us to the power of Judaism to speak to the deepest questions that we have about the meaning and purpose of our lives. I want to highlight three movements in our Jewish “Days of Awe symphony,” each of which speaks to one of those existential questions that animate every human soul: The question of who am I? What am I to do while I am here on this earth? And, what is the purpose of my life? Within these themes, I can hear, what Rabbi Larry Hoffman calls, a most profound and compelling rationale for expressing, through our Judaism, our fondest human aspirations here on Earth. (paraphrased from L. Hoffman’s latest book, All The World: Universalism, Particularism and High Holy Days) I hope that you will be moved to hear this call, as well, providing you with a sense of our sacred mission to actively engage your Judaism every day, not just at this time of year.

The first question that reverberates at the heart of the music behind the words on these Holy Days is Who am I? Our tradition teaches us, from the very beginning of our origins in Genesis, that we are created in the image of God, b’tzelem elohim. Rabbi Shimon ben Azzai taught in the Talmud (Yerushalmi Nedarim 9:5, 30b) that this is the greatest principle of all of the Torah. Each one of us is a manifestation of the Holy One! Even if you are not sure what God is or what your beliefs about God are or you don’t even think you believe in God at all, you are a unique manifestation of the Divine, just like everyone else!

We can understand this metaphor, at the very heart of Judaism, as providing us with this valuable perspective upon which we build our worldview: every single human being is sacred and has inherent and equal value. Rabbi Art Green recounts in his book, Judaism’s 10 Best Ideas, a profound lesson that he learned from his teacher, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. “‘Why are graven images forbidden in the Torah? Why is the Torah so concerned with idolatry?,’” Heschel asks his students. “You might think that it is because God has no image, and any depiction of God is therefore a distortion. But Heschel read the commandment differently. ‘No,’ he said, ‘it is precisely because God HAS an image that idols are forbidden. You are the image of God. Every human being is God’s image. But the only way you can shape that image is by using the medium of your entire life. To take anything less than a full, living, breathing human being and try to create God’s image out of it–that diminishes the divine and is considered idolatry.’” “You can’t make God’s image,” adds Rabbi Green, “you can only be God’s image. No wonder we don’t have any icons or images in the synagogue. The synagogue is filled with images of God the moment we walk in!”

In a beautiful midrash shared by my friend and colleague, Rabbi Eddie Goldberg, the rabbis explain that Rosh HaShanah is actually not a date on the calendar, but occurs when we recognize the humanity and divinity within every human being and act accordingly. What a radical idea! Rosh HaShanah is not merely a time but a way of being in the world. A way of acting that recognizes the deepest human connection that we all share. The world could be created anew every day, each moment a true Rosh HaShanah, if only we were able act in such a way as to make it so. I hope that you, too, will be able to hear this call!

As we attune ourselves to examine our actions at this time of year and consider what kind of behavior is required of us to build this new way of being, we listen for the answer to our second question: “What am I supposed to be doing while I am here on this planet?” We are envisioned by our tradition as co-creators with God in completing and fixing this world of ours! We each have a sacred task and mission to fulfill that only we can do. It is the shofar of Rosh HaShanah that shakes us from our slumber and awakens us to our holy responsibilities. In one of the sections of the shofar service called malchuyot, we imagine crowning God as our king. What could it possibly mean for God to become king?! Rabbi Eddie Golberg shares an insight that helps us see the deeper truth of this central idea of the HHDs. When we crown God at the HHDs, he teaches, what we are metaphorically doing is honoring and invoking the values that weassociate with God: acting with compassion, fighting for justice, and living with kindness. (ibid) For you see, the world needs us now more than ever to bring these core values to life, as we are all the divine agents for tikkun (repair) and transformation in the world. Rosh HaShanah then becomes God’s day when we recognize we are responsible for making the world a better place, the world that we dream of, not only for ourselves but for others, by living out our godly values.

Rabbi Noa Kushner adds one more dimension to our understanding of this particular theme of acting as God’s partner in the world that I feel is very critical. Our personal teshuvah, she explains, is part of a more “epic project.” Our personal looking within and admitting where we went wrong and approaching others and God to make it right is not only for our personal benefit, but has ultimate significance for humanity, as well. We improve ourselves so as to be better agents for God in the world. How else will we help righteousness triumph over injustice, compassion over ruthlessness? Kushner writes, “Our teshuvah is nothing less than a battle for the universal good of the world; the stakes are higher than simply our own well-being…. and if we recognize that it is our personal actions–our hand, our teshuvah, our words–that will bring this day [when there will be no injustice], then we must also acknowledge that is our failings that help hold the day back.” (ibid) If the evils of the world are to be swept from the earth, Kushner concludes, we have our own housecleaning to do; we will have to rid ourselves of our own vices that block our true potential to heal the world. It means converting our own personal teshuvah into a communal effort to bring greater goodness for all. (ibid) I hope that you, too, will be able to hear this call!

We listen, now, for the answer to our last question that the “Days of Awe” symphony help us explore: What is our ultimate purpose, the reason we are alive? Why do we travel this same path year after year, looking into our souls, struggling to become better? Are we striving for some distant, unattainable perfection? I believe that the entire process of these Holy Days is not to arrive at some external destination, but to come closer to who we were meant to be, our very best selves. This is not a journey made in a day or two or even in a few years, but requires a lifetime of discovery! And so we return, every year, to continue the process, to work on becoming ourselves, where the quest is more important than the arriving. The great chasidic master, Menachem Mendel of Kotzk, quipped in a twist on Rabbi Hillel: If I am not myself, who will be me? We are here to learn and grow, to be fully alive. To engage with life. To wrestle and question. Another Chasidic master, Rabbi Simcha Bunem, once said to his disciples, see those Chasidim over there? They are dead because they have stopped asking questions. How do we know that we, too, aren’t dead? asked the students. Ahhh, replied the rebbe, because you asked! Something to really love about Judaism is that our tradition never accepts simply embracing ideas or beliefs on faith. We are, at our core, Yisrael, Jewish wrestlers, those who are constantly grappling, seeking, always growing. So if you are still wrestling with your Judaism, that is exactly what you are supposed to be doing. Hopefully, for the rest of your life. [We invite you to join us for Wrestling with Tough Jewish Questions, beginning Saturday, November 1]

So that brings us full circle to our original question: Then, why should I fall in love with being Jewish? Can’t we all just be good, universally-minded people. After all, the message all along of these Holy Days seems to be that our life’s purpose is about bringing Equality, Justice, and the Pursuit of Self-Knowledge into the world. These are such universal themes. Why not just embrace them? Rabbi Danny Zemel cautions us, however, that while the Jewish instinct is universal; the Jewish method is particular. He writes: “Our human sense of ‘caring’ dissipates the farther removed we are from the genuine experience of belonging to a ‘something’ rather than an ‘everything.’” (ibid) A classic Peanuts cartoon underscores this point when Linus shouts: I love humanity…it’s people I can’t stand!” Zemel continues, “God created the whole universe and obliges us to care for it all. But we care for it all as Jews.” (ibid) Rosh HaShanah is spectacularly universal–as we celebrate the creation of the world, the birth of humanity, the potential of all life. Even the shofar speaks in a universal language that can be understood by all! However, I once learned from Rabbi Alexander Schindler, former past President of the Reform Movement, that we can only make a sound when we blow out of the small, particular end, of the shofar. Our unique voice starts from a very specific place and perspective and from there waxes louder and louder, reaching the four corners of the world.

The HHD’s lesson is that it is through our particularity that we are called to work on the universal issues of our day. We aren’t better or more perfect than any other group of people. But, by living our lives Jewishly, we are expressing something very crucial about who we are and what our purpose is in this world. RabbiLarry Hoffman sums it all up quite succinctly when he writes: “We continue to impact humanity as a whole because–at least in our ritual moments–we come to believe that God put us here to do just that. We have a mission to the world, not to convert it but to better it…. This is the universal message of the High Holy Day service, our raison d’être, our very reason for being–nothing less” (ibid)

A world of possibility is calling us! Will we be awake to hear it? On this day, is it possible that our own harp strings may begin to tremble, igniting our love? Hang the harp over your heart, in your home, at work, and when you go out into the world so you can hear it, too, because the ancient breezes are speaking to us right now in the parlance of today, in a universal, compelling and inspiring way that can excite our imaginations and our passions, stirring within us a desire to know and learn more about the beauty and meaning of our Jewish heritage and how it can fill our lives with a deep sense of purpose. And, perhaps, then, we might just feel like yelling “I love being Jewish!”

Ken y’hi Ratzon