Rosh Hashana 5776: Rabbi Greg Wolfe

Rabbi Greg Wolfe
Rosh HaShanah 5776
Congregation Bet Haverim
Davis, CA

Judaism was born out of revolution! We have always rejected what is, for what could be. Our role models, Abraham, Moses, the prophet Isaiah, the great rabbis of the Mishnah and Talmud, each in their own way blazed new paths that diverged into uncharted territories! Our Jewish history grows out of disrupting the status quo, disturbing the norm, and challenging the powers that be so as to create far-reaching, systemic changes that fundamentally alter the world as it is known. This is the way we have been from the very beginning. Adam and Eve, the first humans, choose to go off on their own, disobeying God and leaving the cushy life of the Garden of Eden, to take charge of their own destiny despite the consequences. Abraham champions monotheism thus making a profound break from the idol worship that dominated his day. The prophet Isaiah lashes out at the many around him who are offering perfunctory sacrifices, all the while oppressing those in need, and he challenges people, instead, to think and act in significantly new ways by paying more attention to how they are treating their fellow human beings, especially those less fortunate. And, with the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 CE, Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai completely over-hauls Jewish practice and theology by liberating God from a particular geography, the Temple edifice, and making God accessible anywhere and everywhere through the study of Torah, prayer and deeds of loving kindness.

Tonight/day, on Rosh Hashanah, as we celebrate not just the birthday of the world, but the birthday of human beings, how many of us are aware of just how revolutionary Judaism’s conception of humanity was at that time!? One of the most transformative changes that Judaism introduced to the world was a brand new way of looking at the human being’s place in the cosmos. The great rabbi, Abraham Joshua Heschel, observed that the Bible is not so much our book about God but a book displaying Gods radical understanding of the human being’s role in the world. (Heschel, Man Is Not Alone, p. 129, as quoted in Feinstein’s The Chutzpah Imperative). In the ancient Near East, before Judaism came on the scene, humans were perceived to have limited potential and were extremely passive creatures, at the mercy of the gods. According to the ancient creation myth of Mesopotamia, from around 2000 BCE, (this story is based on the telling in Feinstein’s The Chutzpah Imperative) the world is created out of chaos and battles and impetuous, selfish gods vying for control. The mother god of the sea, Tiamat, is overthrown by her son, Marduk, the god of thunder and lightning, who then becomes the chief god. The celebration doesn’t last long, however, when the gods realize that it was their mother that provided sustenance for all of them. Now, what would they do?! Marduk fashions human beings, out of  the blood of Tiamat and mud, for the sole purpose of serving the gods, literally, by providing savory sacrifices and caring for their every whim. This world is unpredictable, scary and ruled by fear. Human beings are pitiful and powerless bystanders in their own lives. Our Torah counters the Mesopotamian myth with a total reimagining of what it means to be a human being. In our creation story, chaos (tohu va’vohu) is conquered and replaced by order, purpose, and human partnership with the Divine. Human beings, created in God’s image, are given choices and responsibilities to care for the destiny of creation. Contrary to earlier myths, our Torah teaches us something unheard of for its time: human beings matter! We make a difference! As we celebrate our origins on Rosh Hashanah, we reaffirm that we are not powerless; that we can be agents for change in ourselves and in the world.

Even our High Holy Days, which offer us a powerful framework for self-improvement, are a revolutionary idea, challenging the notion that one’s fate was predetermined at birth and unchangeable! These holy days stir us from our routines and interrupt the schedules that drive our lives. We are compelled just to stop. Some people complain about this, “I can’t afford to take the time!” But these sacred days are meant to be a disruptive force in our daily lives—forcing us out of our normal patterns, stopping us from working, going to school, playing, acting as we usually do—literally shaking us awake with the blast of the shofar, our people’s ancient call to action, to our life’s central task: making a difference, making things different! We are called together, for our annual tribal reunion, to take time to reorganize and reorient our lives, our relationships, our behavior! This not simply a “day off.” Tonight/day, we are given a promise and a challenge that can be so subversive: the way things are, are not the way things have to be! We can grow and adapt. We can do things differently. Our broken world, too, can be healed and repaired. We are filled with hope.

Not only was Judaism born out of revolution, but it is still around because it has been sustained and nurtured over the millennia by bold and sometimes audacious individuals. Throughout time, our great leaders and thinkers have kept Judaism ever-growing, relevant, and meaningful in each successive age. We have been blessed by our tradition of “revolution” with agency, vision and choice to impact the world we live in. And, now, it is our turn to step up, to lead, to lend our voices to those of generations past and shape and renew the Judaism of our future.

Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai profoundly changed the direction of Judaism! The old ways were no longer possible once the Temple was destroyed; a bold new vision was required to capture the imagination of the people. When reinventing Judaism, he taught that the world now stands on three new things: Torah, Avodah and G’miloot Chasadim; study, worship and loving deeds.

In our generation, too, there are new Jewish paths to blaze, new ways to engage our Jewish hearts and minds. As we search for what will renew the Judaism of our own day, I would also like to suggest a three-fold approach. We will need these three things—a mirror, a tribe and a healthy dose of chutzpah—so we will know what we stand for. Let’s take a closer look at these three tools for deepening the impact Judaism can have on our lives and strengthening our connections to Jewish life.

A Mirror: Do you know the one about the zen master who asks the hotdog vendor to “make me one with everything!” Less well known is what happens next: The zen master says, “my friend, I gave you a 5 dollar bill and the hotdog only costs 2 dollars. How come you didn’t give me any money back?” “Ah,” replies the wise hotdog vendor, “Change comes from within!” Any change we wish to effect must, indeed, first come from within ourselves. To begin the process of our own Jewish growth, we need to know who we are and what matters to us; what we are passionate about. Only then can we know what is worth changing.

According to the midrash of the rabbis, God appears to the people at Mt. Sinai as a mirror, reflecting back to them their holy potential, reminding them of who they are, showing them the truth about themselves, that they may have forgotten or hidden from. (Pesikta de-Rav Kahana, pesikta 12, as described in Chutzpah by Rabbi Ed Feinstein) But I don’t think that was a one time event that only occurred long ago. Sinai was just the beginning! I like to imagine that one of the gifts of Rosh Hashanah is that we have the chance to look into that godly mirror again every year and gaze deeply into our own souls. Shining back at us, we can see ourselves through God’s eyes, remembering our holy potential, recognizing the truth of our lives. Once we see who we truly are, we can then live into the people we are meant to be. Judaism itself can be that powerful mirror that shows us who we have the potential to become if we are but willing to do the work to make it so. This mirror—reflecting our highest selves—is part of our Jewish family’s inheritance, inspiring and guiding our actions, helping us grow into our future better selves. As we achieve our full potential, we can have a greater impact on the world, continuing the great Jewish tradition of transforming the world for the better.

A Tribe: As it turns out, this work of “revolution” is not a solo act! The process of transformation takes a tribe, a group of people united by purpose and passion. So early on, we Jews organized ourselves into tribes—12 of them to be exact, named after the 12 sons of Jacob, our forebear. These tribes would allow us to work together efficiently, support one another for the common good, and be a structure for allowing us to achieve what any single individual was incapable of doing alone.

The power of our Jewish tribes can be seen embedded in our sacred tribal gathering chant, sung practically every time we assemble, and known to every Member of the Tribe: (singing) Hinei Ma Tov u’ma naim shevet achim gam yachad! This song not only celebrates our “sitting” together, shevet, as brothers and sisters, but conceals a new, deeper meaning about the power that resides in our coming together for a shared purpose.  If we hear the word “shevet,” not as it is normally understood to mean, “sitting,” but as its Hebrew homonym, “shevet,” with a slightly different spelling, we have the Hebrew word for “tribe!”  Thus, a new rendering emerges for this song of our people: hinei ma tov u’ma na’im shevet achim gam yachad…“behold how good it is to be a tribe of siblings, shevet achim, united together! When we act in concert, around mutual interests, we can leverage a great deal more power. When we unite together around shared ideas and passions, we are able to harness our combined energy and understanding to see and solve problems in new ways.

The power of tribes, a revered and ancient social structure, is gaining new respect and currency in our modern culture, revolutionizing the way we shape and inform our lives. According to Seth Godin, entrepreneur, inspirational speaker and author of the book, Tribes: We Need You to Lead Us, tribes are the most potent vehicle for impacting the world, making changes, and providing opportunities for people to connect in deeply meaningful ways. In a TED talk about the power of tribes, Godin teaches something that is so Jewish: Our life’s work, the job that really defines who we are is to find something worth changing in the world and do something about it. He describes today’s tribes as the forces that are changing the landscape of our world. Tribes are connecting people and ideas all over the world to initiate changes—social, commercial and even political. The way that people are getting mobilized, organized and activated, according to Godin, is no longer through the usual channels of mass advertising, or factories churning out the new widget, but through tribes; people connecting with other people who align themselves around ideas that they are all passionate about. The evolution of the internet and social media has fomented a revolution in which people who are passionate about something can easily find one other and can join together to work on shared goals. You don’t even have to convince anyone to believe what you believe. You just need to find those who already share your passions and together you form a tribe that can organize to make a difference. Tribes change our world by aligning large numbers of people because people want to connect, to belong, to make a difference. Isn’t this what has been happening for generations in those tribal centers we know as synagogues? People connecting around a shared passion—Judaism—to create something new together—a living Jewish community for their time, for our time.

And, this is where chutzpah comes in! Chutzpah: that revolutionary spirit, that gutsy, bold daring Jewish characteristic. We need that chutzpah now, more than ever, as we tap into this new way of thinking about tribes, to reimagine, recreate and renew our synagogue and the Jewish life that is shared here and beyond our walls. In every age, Rabbi Ed Feinstein argues in his book on chutzpah, it has taken chutzpah to push Judaism to the next level, to make the quantum leap to the next iteration, to Judaism 5776.0. Whatever got us to where we are today, he teaches, will not be what gets us to where we are going next. This is why experimentation, innovation and even willingness to fail are key to our success. One never knows what that next thing is until, looking back, we can see what made the difference. Abraham, Moses, and Isaiah have all had their turns and they aren’t coming back. You, my friends, are the only ones who can help create the Judaism of the future. As we search our own souls on this Rosh Hashanah, we know we yearn to be connected, to belong, to make a difference. Our Judaism can provide the opportunity to do that, even today.  But, to revolutionize our Judaism, we will all need some extra chutzpah, too!

So, here is where my chutzpah comes in! I want to invite you to join me in a brand new, creative and challenging, experiment to harness the power of tribes— connecting people and their passions—to transform and energize our congregation. We are ready to take our Community Engagement to the next level and I think that we are up to the task. I don’t know exactly where this journey will take us, but I know that having taken the journey together will make all the difference.

This will be an exciting communal experience in which we create 10 tribes—not the lost ones, but ones that are newly found! These 10 tribes will become10 incubators of Jewish innovation and, perhaps, even revolution. The goal is to empower each and everyone of our partners, both younger and older—kids, teens, adults and elders—to use these tribes as a mirror to investigate their own connections with Judaism and, by connecting with others, to discover new opportunities for expanding, evolving and adapting Judaism to their lives today in meaningful ways. This may sound revolutionary…because it is. I don’t know if anyone has ever tried this before, but I want to empower you and to challenge you to stake a personal claim in your own Judaism and to see what might emerge from this process. We, the Jewish people, have everything to gain!

Each partner or partner family will be assigned to a tribe this Fall for one year to explore, imagine and dream about how we can grow our Jewish understanding, our Jewish involvement, and our ability to impact the world. All of our tribes will be given the same three areas to explore in whatever ways they choose. We will create various opportunities to bring the tribes together to share what they are learning at different times during the year. Then we will harvest all our learning from one another at the beginning of next year. There will be very few rules as this is an open-ended, evolving process. Get involved in your tribe, learn, grow and share! That’s all there is to it. You are encouraged to share the ideas and innovations that are developed within your tribe with your friends, your chavurah, other tribes and the congregation at large. The three primary areas tribes will deal with are the same ones outlined by Rabbi ben Zakai: Study (Torah), Service (G’miloot Chasadim) and Celebration (Avodah). Of course, you may come up with other creative explorations, as well.

Study:  Choose different topics, issues, questions that you are passionate about and would like to know more about. Then go and learn. Most importantly, create new and different ways for yourselves to learn with and from one another. Expand the ways in which we learn by devising new models and alternate paths to learning for youth and adults. Try wild things. Use technology in new ways to connect your members with the learning that takes place in your tribe. Organize events to bring everyone together around a topic of shared interest.  Share what you have learned with each other and with the congregation. As a great example, last year, a partner approached me with a new idea and together we organized monthly Shabbat lunch discussions that provided a welcoming place to wrestle with tough Jewish topics. This can be a model for what our tribes devise. Our Youth and Education Committee has already been working with us to develop a brand new post-bar and bat mitzvah program for teens that will launch during Sukkot. If you have teens, be sure to have them check it out on September 27th. Together we are planting seeds that will allow us to grow in mind and spirit.

Service:  The Jewish educator and author, Ron Wolfson, teaches that we learn a great deal about each other when we know what keeps someone up at night and gets them up in the morning. Through our tribes, we will have a chance to ponder that one thing in the world that you are most moved to do something about. There is certainly no shortage of problems in the world to address, both locally and globally. Spend time sharing what pains you most in the world. What are your personal stories around these various issues? Is it racial justice? Poverty? The refugee crisis in Syria? or Something closer to home? Where do the concerns of your tribe intersect? How can you tackle some part of that problem in innovative ways? Develop, together, creative paths to mobilize people and their passions. Perhaps, you will learn about a cause and organize a day of action and become a part of a solution. Together we are planting seeds to heal the world.

Celebration: Our Jewish calendar is packed with opportunities to celebrate— everything from holy days, like Purim and Passover, to precious moments in our lives like a wedding or a baby naming. Your tribe will have a chance to imagine new and moving ways of marking these special times. How might the ways we experience Shabbat be expanded and deepened to engage more people? What new energy might your tribe bring to our communal celebrations—like Shabbat services— by participating all together?   What cultural experiences might you devise that would inspire people to gather together a bit more often? What could we be celebrating that we are not? Together we are planting seeds to strengthen our relationships with one another and with the divine.

The most exciting thing about this project for me is to be sharing the creative process of Jewish life with all of you, and I hope that this experiment will ignite new sparks of Jewish learning and connection for you, too. But I cannot make it happen. I can only hold up the mirror, introduce you to your tribe, and invite you to think outside traditional boxes. Only you can make this tribal experiment a success. Only you will see what is worth fixing, changing, and growing, and then go out and do something about it.

As I start my 21st year as your rabbi, I am deeply blessed to be going on a 6 month sabbatical starting in February. This time away will be a part of my own innovative process of renewal. This experiment in our congregation is also my gift to you while I am gone, so that you, too, will be able to experience the same rejuvenation in your Jewish life as I will. I am looking forward to seeing the many ways in which you begin to revolutionize how we can experience Judaism together. This experiment is a call to create a more powerful, passionate Judaism that will be a living presence in your lives. It is time for everyone to step up, to organize and to own your Judaism in whatever way that speaks to you most clearly. Here’s your chance to really challenge your Judaism to be relevant and important to you. And let’s let our Judaism challenge us and push us to do more and be more. We all need each other, and I will need partners to help me launch this project and to lead the tribes. If you are excited by this idea and feel called to help take on a leadership role, to participate in some way to map out this journey, or simply have questions or want to talk more about this experiment, please let me know. I am excited to begin working with all of you.

If we are going to be Jewish in the 21st century let us live a Judaism that matters. A Judaism that is not relegated to some small corner of our lives. A Judaism that is living, growing and relevant to the world that we experience around us. A Judaism that adds meaning, depth and purpose to our lives—not just when you walk through these doors, but in your homes, in your everyday, how you think and act and respond to others. Let’s see how our Judaism can shape our choices and ethics, how we work and how we rest. Let’s let our Judaism inspire us to champion the values of justice, compassion, peace, and caring. Let’s celebrate a Judaism that sparks a curiosity to know and learn and experiment and share and practice. A Judaism that touches your heart, mind and spirit and moves you to action.

Shevet achim gam yachad: “A Tribe of siblings, united together,” is our exciting experiment to bring a sense of immediacy and connection into our Jewish lives, building on a year and a half of foundational work with our Community Engagement team. Our tribes are meant to stimulate discussion, and even debate. They are meant to empower and engage without limiting what people might come up with. This is an invitation to be radically creative together so that we might grow into the next expression of what our Judaism is meant to be. We want the voices of all of our partners to be heard and to have a place around the tribal table. People are waiting, we are waiting, for you to show us where we are going next. What are you waiting for?! Let the innovation begin.

Ken Y’hi Ratzon!