Thursday, September 24, 2015

Sermon for Yom Kippur Morning, Beth Israel Synagogue, 10 Tishrei 5776

This past May, in an outreach effort toward the Jewish community, President Obama spoke at Adas Israel Congregation in Washington about the state of relations between the United States and Israel. At the beginning of his speech, he noted that one of the congregation's members, Jeffery Goldberg of The Atlantic Monthly, had once called him the first Jewish president. Mr. Obama happily assumed this as an honorary title.

I found this intriguing, so I looked up Mr. Goldberg's article to try and understand his thinking. He begins it with a funny story. Mr. Goldberg, it seems, was one of the contributors to The New American Haggadah which was published three years ago. When he gave Mr. Obama a copy of the book, the President asked, “Does this mean we can't use The Maxwell House Haggadah anymore? Mr. Goldberg refers to this as an Member of the Tribe remark.

Mr. Obama's sense of humor is not the only evidence he cites to support his contention that the President is Jewish. In his education at Columbia University and Harvard Law School, Mr. Obama was exposed to and taught by more Jewish teachers than any previous American president. In his political career, not only has he had more Jewish advisers, they have been among his closest, and they have exercised considerable influence over the President who apparently does use The Maxwell House Haggadah at the seven Passover Seders he has held in the White House. From this, Mr. Goldberg not only learns that Mr. Obama is Jewish, he learns that he is a traditional Jew; a Jew more comfortable with the known and well-trodden paths of American Judaism; the kind of Jew you would expect to find inhabiting a retirement community in Boca Raton.

Well, I don't know the types of Jews to which Mr. Goldberg was exposed as a child, but where I came from, Mr. Obama could only be taken for one thing: a goy. And therein lies the subject I want to discuss with you today; the subject of Jewish identity. What is it that makes us Jewish?

Let me begin with a word of cautious clarification. The object of this story was not Barack Obama, it was Jeffery Goldberg. The President, I believe, as a black man, feels a deep empathy for the Jews in the same way that Jews, fifty-years ago, became prominent in the Civil Rights movement. Mr. Obama makes no claims of being Jewish. He seems to have enough trouble getting certain people to believe he is a Christian. It is, rather, Jews like Mr. Goldberg who make the claim. Which leads me to wonder: what do Jews think being Jewish means anymore?

This is a very large question; one that cannot be done full justice in the course of a short – or even very long – sermon. But I believe it a vital question for us right now. On Rosh Hashanah, I asked us to dedicate ourselves to rebuilding this synagogue – a new entryway, a new sanctuary, a new social hall, new classrooms – perhaps even a mikvah. This would be an enormous and risky challenge for us. We should undertake this challenge, I suggested, to make this place vital and exciting again – a place where people want to come together to learn and pray and eat and argue and live in a rich, rewarding Jewish community. It all sounds wonderful and I am sure even the doubters among us would love to see this place crowded and thriving again. But to make that happen, you have to be able to answer the question, why be Jewish? What does being Jewish mean? What makes Jews different?

Jews used to be different because we lived differently. We spoke Yiddish, we ate kosher, we had weird holidays that involved strange rituals like throwing out our bread or building little booths for ourselves, and which seemed to creep up on us, sporadically. All of that is a shadow of what it once was. As Jews have become fully integrated into American society, we are looking more and more for universal messages from our religion – the things that make us more like everyone else. You can see this in the evolution of the idea of mitzvah. Ask virtually any Jew what a mitzvah is and he or she will tell you its a good deed. Gone is the idea of commandment which implies a particular responsibility performed as part of a relationship – a covenant.

But the covenantal relationship not only connects a Jew to God, it connects her to her community. If we are going to rebuild this synagogue and with it this Jewish community, we are going to have to become comfortable again with the idea of a Jewish covenant and the particularism that implies. In other words, we are going to have to get used to the idea that Jews are – in important ways – different from everyone else. To me, this is not a theoretical proposition, it is a simple fact. In trying to understand this fact for myself, my thoughts have focused on three ways in which Jewish identity is inevitably different from that of our neighbors. First, we live in a different place from everyone else. Second, we live with a different sense of time and personal identity than everyone else. And finally, these profound differences in our understanding of place and time impress upon us an equally profound sense of purpose that is different from everyone else. Let me try to explain.

When I say that we live in a different place from other people, of course I mean this metaphorically. What I mean to say is that Jews constantly have before us both a vision of the real world in which we live and an ideal world which we need to build. The place we live in is somewhere in the middle, and we are constantly negotiating between the two, never quite sure in which we want to be.

This strange limbo comes directly from our relationship with Torah. To us, Torah is sacred – the unchangeable, immutable word of God. To question the sanctity of a single letter – let alone a word or phrase or commandment – is absolutely forbidden. Yet as my friend Ken Burt, one of my most devoted study partners and himself a Catholic is constantly asking me, “Is this really where you want to be?” Let me illustrate his point. Torah prescribes the death penalty for something like two dozen different offenses including blasphemy, sabbath breaking and cursing a parent. Yet when we actually look at how Jewish law is carried out, we discover that the death penalty is virtually never imposed. Our tradition teaches that a rabbinic court that passed down a single death sentence every 70 years was considered blood-thirsty. Caught between the Torah's demands and the real world in which we live, we have sided with the real world – all the while insisting that in doing so, we are honoring the Torah's sanctity. And this is but one example of the thousands of interpretive liberties that Jews have taken with the Torah – all done in the name of being true to its message. So convinced are we that kol n'teevotekhah shalom – all of its ways are ways of peace – that we will not rest until they have found the decency and humanity in even the most challenging of its pronouncements.

This ability to, on the one hand declare something immutable and unchangeable and, on the other, to change it, may sound like madness. It is, in fact, our peculiar genius. It has cultivated within us the attributes that have made Jews so successful in so many endeavors. On the one hand, it has developed our skills of deep analysis and creative thinking as we try to negotiate between the worlds that surround us. On the other hand, it has ingrained in us an incessant dissatisfaction with our choices which is the essential spur to achievement. Is it any wonder, then, that Jews have so greatly succeeded in virtually every academic and artistic field? And is it any wonder that Jews have practically defined American humor – infecting it with the strong sense of irony and neurosis that are themselves the byproducts of feeling oneself forever caught in the middle?

This strange sense of place that I believe is the essential element that makes Jews different, is enhanced by another sense that is equally weird: our sense of identity. The old joke that seeks to summarize every Jewish holiday in three simple sentences captures the essence of this weirdness: They tried to kill us. We won. Let's eat. The weirdness comes from the pronouns: us and we. Jews have a peculiar ability to see the world not in terms of “I” and “mine” but of “we” and ours.” This is not due to some inherent generosity that makes Jews more selfless then other people. Far from it. Jews can be as avaricious as anyone. It comes, rather, from the way our tradition demands that we see ourselves. Think about all the einus and ahnus in our prayers as in ahnu amechah or eloheinu v'eilohey avoteinu. Each one of those is a we or an our. Even on this Day of Atonement, our lengthy confessions of sin are all in the first person plural.

But the truly cool thing about this collective identity of ours is that it travels through time. We learn in both The Maxwell House and The New American Haggadah that every Jew needs to see him or herself as coming out of Egyptian slavery. We were there when we were led out of slavery, and we were there when we were marched into captivity. We were there with the Maccabees, and we were there on Masada. We were expelled from Spain in 1492, and emancipated in France in 1791. We were on the boats that landed in this country at the turn of the last century, and on those that were turned away 40 years later. We were dancing in the streets of Tel Aviv in 1947, and were crying at the Wall in 1967. The way we pray, the way we talk about history, the way we think about ourselves as part of the covenant all evokes a single message: that each of our lives compasses all of Jewish history. And that is the real point here: because all of Jewish history takes in not only the past, but the future as well. This peculiar sense of Jewish identity teaches us that the past is ours to draw on as we shape the future that is in our hands.

These two great differences – our altered sense of place and time – leave a deep impression on us, leading to yet a third difference – the belief that being Jewish really matters to who we are. Down through history, many Jews have decided they do not want to be different and therefore have left Judaism, one way or another. But those that remain – whether they embrace their Judaism or are hostile to it – do so because they are, in some ways, marked by their faith. I remember when I was in college talking to a casual acquaintance with whom I had no religious connection when one of us dropped a coin. “That sounds like a dime,” he said. “How can you tell,” I asked, a bit incredulous. He shook his head at me and gave me a wry smile. “I'm Jewish,” he replied, thus embracing a dubious stereotype as part of his identity.

To be a Jew in this country is to be one person in 50. To be a Jew in this world is to be one in 50,000. For those who do not consciously cast their faith away, the sheer improbability is often enough to give us pause. So long as being Jewish means being different and so long as that difference retains the vitality it had for their ancestors, they will see their being Jewish as something meaningful. And if their Judaism is meaningful, then their lives must be meaningful as well. Finding meaning is the greatest quest each of us.

My concern with defining how Jews are different, may strike some of you as exclusionary. If it does, I urge you to come to Torah study one Shabbat morning. Around our large table you will find quite as many Christians as Jews, studying together and learning from each other. The Christians are not there because they want to convert. Far from it. They are there because they find that that atmosphere – where we all struggle to find the sanctity in what are often very difficult texts, and where the voices of thousands of years of Jewish thinkers echo in our very modern ears – is something unique and precious; something they cannot find in their own churches, but something that adds sanctity to their lives. In other words, we become closer to our neighbors not by hiding our differences, but by sharing them.

I was raised an atheist in a thoroughly Jewish home – a home filled with Yiddishkeit. The Yiddishkeit alone, though, was enough to convey to me those things that make Jews different. The concern for the health of our society which was a constant subject in our home, and the deep sense of irony though which all my elders seemed to look at the world, taught me to measure what there is against what there might be. Concern for the plight of Russian Jews and the safety of the State of Israel turned my attention from “me” to “we.” And the prevalence of playground antisemitism made me believe I was a Jew for a reason. When it came time to make my own home, to raise my own family, I knew the Yiddishkeit I could bring to it would inevitably be a lower cholesterol version. It would not be enough to convey to my children that which makes us different – that which makes us Jewish. And so I found myself turning to Torah. Etz hayyim he lamah khazikim bah – it is a tree of life to those who grasp it. What I learned in grasping Torah was not a substitute for Yiddishkeit – for the Jewishness of my youth. It is Yiddishkeit, Jewishness, itself. It is the thing that defines us, it is the thing that can sustain us. It is the thing around which we need to rebuild.

I want to rebuild this place, I want to make it new again, I want to see it grow again because I want every Jew that enters its doors to want to be – and love being – distinctly Jewish. I want us together to delight in this beautiful, complex and weird world of ours that demands our imagination to understand it, our sense of irony to cope with it, and our passion to make it better. I want us to feel the weight of our history – a powerful history that has known humankind's greatest heights and deepest depths. I want us to engage meaningful in our own times, driven by the sense of a bond that links every individual Jew into a “we” and an “us” and an “our.” And I want us to shape the future together, confident that we will, somehow, be present for every moment of it, as we have, somehow, been present in every moment up to now. In doing so, we will teach and reteach to each other the profound truth that every one of our lives not only matters, but is of infinite importance.

As to Barack Obama, perhaps in his post-Presidential years he will choose to make his honorary Jewishness official. To which I can only say that I would be honored to help him prepare for his conversion. He already seems to have the humor down. I suspect that, along with the aleph-bet, and with him being a politician, it is the “we” versus “me” part that will need the most work. But then he can take a dunk in our new mikvah and become someone different.

Sermon for Yom Kippur Evening, Beth Israel Synagogue, 10 Tishrei 5776

One of my teachers from rabbinical school died this past June. Rabbi Bernard Zlotowitz was an admired and beloved and figure at the Academy for Jewish Religion when I was a student there. But I am also tempted to call him an iconic figure and in doing so, I am aware that I am treading on what is, in Judaism, forbidden ground. I want to spend a few minutes tonight talking to you about this special man from whom I was privileged to learn and whose death taught me yet one more important lesson about how we live.

If I am tempted to call Rabbi Zlotowitz admired, beloved and iconic, let me begin by distinguishing among those qualities. Rabbi Zlotowitz was admired for the depth and breadth of his academic achievement and his experience as a rabbi. I am almost tempted to call him rabbis, because he actually held ordination both as an Orthodox and as a Reform rabbi. The Orthodox ordination reflected his family heritage; indeed his brother is one of the world's leading publishers of Orthodox books. But the Reform ordination reflected his true disposition – someone who combined a deep, abiding faith in God with a love of critical scholarship. He earned a Master's degree from Columbia University, and a doctorate from Hebrew Union College. He had broad experience both as pulpit rabbi and hospital chaplain and as a leader in the Reform Movement. Each of his many students cherished the stories he would tell us and the wisdom he would share with us from so broad and varied a career.

But if Rabbi Zlotowitz was admired for his achievement, he was beloved for his kindness, his humility and his simple faith. Two stories will illustrate this point. I was taking his class in biblical historiography my first winter at AJR. For some time, an ice storm was crusting over everything with an increasingly thick and slick coating. The administration decided to cancel afternoon classes right in the middle of Rabbi Zlotowitz's class. The students were terribly nervous about how we would get home, and for many of us that worry took in our 80-year-old teacher who walked slowly and with a cane. “Do not worry,” he reassured us in that beautiful, aristocratic voice of his. “God takes care of those who are engaged in His holy work.” It was such a simple and sincere confession of faith from a man whom I had already grown to respect for his knowledge and wisdom that it gave me pause. From his example I drew the lesson that one of the most important things a rabbi does is model faith and give his congregants permission to believe.

The other story touches – however lightly – on all of you. It was a little more than a year ago and I had gone to visit Rabbi Zlotowitz for a project I was working on for my school. By this time he had grown very old indeed. I arrived at his apartment around eleven in the morning, but he was still in bed. His wife of more than sixty years roused him and he greeted me in his bathrobe. He wasn't wearing his glasses and he had a dazed and perplexed look on his face. I wondered how awake and aware he was. But he asked me about my rabbinate and I told him that I had a congregation in Wallingford Connecticut that was very small but which I loved very much. Without a moment of hesitation he responded zeh ha-katan, gadol y'heyeh. Would that I, almost forty years his junior and supposedly in full possession of my faculties were ever that sharp, for it took me several moments to place his words. They were from the ceremony of brit milah – of ritual circumcision: this one is small, but some day he will be great. May that blessing come true speedily and in our days.

But if Rabbi Zlotowitz was admired for his many achievements and beloved for his kindness and humility, there was also much in him that made him iconic. Rabbinical students of all people are very susceptible to idolatry. They are surrounded by great minds and great hearts to which they seek attachment. If you close your eyes and try to conjure up the picture of a beloved teacher, the image you will form will bear a striking resemblance to Rabbi Zlotowitz during my student days. He was a small man who often wore a light colored suit with a tastefully contrasting sweater-vest, a neatly starched shirt and a perfectly knotted bow tie. Clean shaven among so many bearded teachers and students, bare headed among all those kippah covered crowns, Rabbi Zlotowitz stood out as model of the Reform rabbi of an older generation. And then there was the voice – slow, aristocratic - “Mr. Alpert,” he would greet me, “how are things in Connec -ti- cut?” Now couple that bearing with his extraordinary resume and his extraordinary kindness, and you have a figure that I think can honestly be called iconic.

For most of us, greatness seems to pass our way only rarely: the star athlete, the adored celebrity, the rising politician, the noted author, perhaps they brush into our lives once in a blue moon. My wife once was in the same swimming pool with the actress Julianne Moore. My father, as a boy, once sold a newspaper to Thomas Dewey who famously lost the presidency to Harry Truman. And I once played a round of golf with the Yankee pitcher Andy Pettitte. When such moments come, we try, hopefully discretely, to find some kind of connection between ourselves and that greatness. So it was with Rabbi Zlotowitz. So many of my fellow students crowded around him admiringly. So many sought and indeed achieved close relationships with him for the joy of being in his presence and the pride of telling others that they were his student. They would speak of their relationship with him as a point of distinction and merit in their own lives and careers.

I have to admit that I felt a certain envy toward these students and their special relationships with this great man. But I felt like I had arrived too late at the party. Rabbi Zlotowitz was well surrounded by disciples by the time I took my first class with him. There was no room for another. And while I did share a pride in being taught by him and having him know my name, I never confused that acquaintanceship with true intimacy.

There was, however, one student with whom Rabbi Zlotowitz shared a special closeness. Peg Kershenbaum was a few years ahead of me in school. In fact, Peg was the first AJR student I would meet. I met her in the cafeteria just before I climbed the stairs for my admissions interview. She told me she was there over the summer because she was working on a project with one of her teachers. In time I learned more details about that project.

What she was working on was a dictionary that she was writing with Rabbi Zlotowitz. It was to be a dictionary of the Septuagint which is the Greek translation of the Hebrew scriptures. The name Septuagint – which means 70 – comes from the legend that seventy rabbis worked independently on a translation of the Torah from Hebrew to Greek and miraculously each came up with an identical work, word-for-word. The dictionary was to be in English, Hebrew and Greek. It was a mammoth undertaking, one on which Peg and Rabbi Zlotowitz labored throughout her rabbinic studies and beyond. During that visit I paid to Rabbi Zlotowitz a year or so ago, I learned that he and Peg were still working on it – now more than a decade on.

About a month after Rabbi Zlotowitz died, Peg and I were chatting about this-and-that when she commented, quite matter-of-factly, that she had no idea what she was going to do with the dictionary. She didn't have the heart to throw it out, she said, but as it ran to thousands of pages, it was taking up quite a bit of space in her house. I was dumbfounded. I had been hearing about this dictionary for so long, it had achieved epic standing in my imagination and here she was thinking of actually throwing it away? How could she?

She explained that all those thousands of pages were hand written, and that she had neither the time nor the inclination to type up and organize and edit them into a workable form. To the suggestion that someone else finish the work she thought it both highly unlikely and unmanageable; the insights contained in it could only be gleaned by someone whose approach and understanding encompassed that of Rabbi Zlotowitz and there was no one to do that. Besides, who would want such a dictionary anyway. She spoke all this as if she were telling me about today's weather – casually, easily, without a hint of regret or wistfulness.

“But the work!,” I went on, still incredulous. “What did you do it all for?” I asked.

“I did it,” she said, in that same, even, matter-of-fact tone, “to keep him alive. It gave him something to occupy his mind, something to live for.”

Think about that for a moment. All those years. All those hours. All those thousands upon thousands of pages of work done for no other reason then love.

Peg was so calm as she explained it all, I felt I needed to hide my own emotions. But I was floored. For so long I had thought what a great and wonderful man Rabbi Zlotowitz was and how privileged were all those who were close to him. Never once did it occur to me that this classmate of mine was such a great and wonderful soul in her own right and how privileged I was to be close to her.

It is easy, I believe, to seek greatness off in the distance; to believe that wealth or fame or some unique skill conveys others to some realm that we can only touch with our admiration. This, of course, is idolatry, and it is a grave sin. It is a grave sin because it confounds our ability to distinguish between excellence and transcendence – between that which may be the finest within the human realm, but which never does, and never can, cross the threshold of the divine. And it is a grave sin because it blinds us to the greatness and the goodness that is lived by those who surround us, and which is always within our grasp if we dare allow our love and our commitment and our courage to move us that far.

From having spent five hours with him, I can tell you that off of the pitching mound, Andy Pettitte struck me as a humble, unassuming and pretty ordinary guy, dealing with the same struggles that all of us face – how to best care for our loved ones, how to honor the blessings that sustain us. Under what is still a tall and hard body, there may well be a great soul; and if so, it is the same kind of greatness that inhabits the souls of so many in this room tonight. I look around and I am in awe of so many of you for your kindness, for your wisdom, for your willingness to sacrifice for others with no expectation of reward or even acknowledgment. I feel in my heart the words of our father Jacob – mah norah ha-makom ha-zeh – how awesome is this place – achein yesh Adonai ba-makom ha-zeh v'anochi lo yadati – surely God is in this place and I did not know.

Rabbi Zlotowitz used to tell jokes during class. Here is one of my favorites. A fund raiser for the local Jewish Federation comes to the wealthy business owner, Mr. Goldstein, seeking a donation. Goldstein is incensed. “What on earth made you think I was Jewish!” he thunders at the fund raiser. “I am an Episcopalian,” he says. “I come from a long line of Episcopalians! My father is an Episcopalian! My grandfather, alav ha-shalom was Episcopalian . . .”

For Rabbi Bernard Zlotowitz, alav ha-shalom, I hope my words tonight do honor to the great blessing it was to be your student. For my friend, Rabbi Peg Kershenbaum, how exalted is our Lord that He would send one great soul to love and sustain and care for another. For the great and good souls who sustain me here in this congregation, know that you are all in my prayers for a g'mar khatimah tovah – a sealing for goodness in this new year, for my sake as well as yours. And for the rest of us, may the cleansing we seek on this most holy of days open our eyes to the goodness, the greatness, the blessing that is right there before us.

Sermon for Rosh Hashanah Morning, Beth Israel Synagogue, 1 Tishrei 5776

This building, as it stands today, in 1969, represents the efforts of a legion of selfless people dating back to the beginnings of the Wallingford Jewish Community.

How many of you recognize those words? They are displayed prominently in the foyer of this synagogue. I have been been staring at these words and contemplating their meaning for some time now. This building, as it stands today, in 1969. The plastic plaque, dyed to look like wood, just as much as the words themselves, is an anachronism. So too is so much else in this shul: the porcelain water fountain; the metal railing around rabbi's lectern; the paneling in the social hall; the books in our library.

What really gets me are all the signs. For some time, my favorite was the one that read “Cloak Room.” As I was only six, my memories of 1969 are not very clear, so others will have to remind me: did men back then wear cloaks over their sansabelt slacks? Did women wear cloaks over their mini-skirts?

My fascination with the cloak room, though, gave way as I tried to decipher the meaning of the kitchen doors. The two doors to our kitchen display four signs in total, and figuring out the particular meaning of each has proved a task requiring all the textual skills I developed studying Talmud. Each door is topped with a sign that says Kitchen. These I have concluded are for identification purposes. The door on the left also has a sign that says “Kitchen, Donated by the Sisterhood of Beth Israel.” Since this door already has a sign that identifies it as being the kitchen, I have decided that the word “Kitchen” on this sign is to indicate what precisely the Sisterhood has donated. The difficulty comes when you get to the second sign on the door on the right. This one says merely “Donated by the Sisterhood of Beth Israel.” To what could this possibly be referring? At first I thought it might be the kitchen, but surely this cannot be for the other door already has a sign to tell us that the kitchen was donated by the Sisterhood of Beth Israel. Then I thought, well maybe its the door. But since there is already a sign on it that says Kitchen, thus making it a part of the Kitchen, and since I already know that the Kitchen was donated by the Sisterhood, this cannot be the case either. The conclusion I drew is that the sign that says “Donated by the Sisterhood of Beth Israel,” refers to the sign itself.

This building, as it stand today, in 1969 . . .

When I first got here eight years ago, the building made only a modest impression on me. I was forty-four-year-old, and a third year rabbinic student. I felt very lucky to have this job. I was more interested in proving myself competent to you then critiquing the facilities. In the years that followed, an amazing thing happened. I fell in love with this place and the people in it. You have all always treated me with such kindness and patience. You have always acted toward me is if I were doing you a favor by being here, when in fact, it is quite the other way round.

It is hard, when a place becomes so warm, welcoming and beloved in your mind to look at it with fresh eyes. Fond memories are like beautiful garments that highlight our best features while hiding our flaws. And yet the lifeblood of any community is its ability to bring new people into its fold. And when someone walks into this place for the first time and sees it galeh b'ervatah, we might say – uncovered in its nakedness, unadorned by the memory's finery – what do they see?

This building, as it stands today, in 1969, represents the efforts of a legion of selfless people dating back to the beginnings of the Wallingford Jewish Community. For the people who dedicated that plaque on the occasion of their rebuilding of this synagogue, there is an unspoken pride in that declaration. It recognizes a history of generosity and commitment that was their inheritance, and proclaims that the work that they have done to renew and reinvigorate this place was worthy of what they were given. So now ask yourselves this. Imagine we were given the charge of dedicated our own plaque for the lobby. It will begin with these words:

This building, as it stands today, in 2015, represents . . .

How will we complete that sentiment?

Last year, on this very day, the first day of Rosh Hashanah, this congregation delivered to me a wake-up call. My sermon topic was a very personal statement of how I came to love Israel. I hoped such a statement would kindle in all of you a passion for the beleaguered Jewish homeland. When we adjourned to our social hall for our lunch & learn, I discovered that your passions were indeed inflamed – but not over Israel. You were incensed, and understandably so, about this town's callousness in scheduling its Celebrate Wallingford festival on Yom Kippur. It was as though you were saying to me, “Wake up, Rabbi. We live here, not there.”

So shaken was I by your message that I tossed my planned Yom Kippur sermon and wrote a new one. Forget about getting the recognition you seek from this town, I told you. We are a small minority here and we are afforded tolerance and nothing more. We should not look for more, nor should we feel ourselves victimized by not getting more. Instead, we should tend to our own house. And our own house is in need of repair. We need to build it anew.

Many of you thought I was speaking metaphorically. Certainly that's what David Stein, our resident architect thought when I approached him a few days later. “Well,” I asked him, “are you ready to rebuild this place?” “I always wanted to design a synagogue,” he replied.

In the past few months, I have been meeting with a small group of board members and others in our congregation to help me flesh out this idea. That group includes Alida Cella, our president and her husband David whom you all know is a builder; David Stein, of course, and my cousin Jay Alpert who is also an architect and is currently overseeing the rebuild of the Woodmont Synagogue. And Dick Caplan and Bob Gross, both long time members and leaders of this community whose wise counsel and thoughtful actions have kept both this building and this community standing through some difficult times. Most of them came to our first meeting out of respect for me and a willingness to indulge my fantasies for an hour. But as we walked around this place, imaginations opened up, and dreams became wonderful possibilities. Climbing a rickety ladder, Dick peered up into the crawl space and reported that our cracked, stained sanctuary ceiling conceals a vaulted roof supported by beautiful truss-work. Peeking through the shuttered blinds, David imagined opening up our social hall to our new lot – bringing in air and light and creating a gathering place that connects inside and outside. Walking across that lawn Alida pointed out to me where the entryway to our new mikvah should go. All agree that a new entrance to the building – one that welcomes people in with light and color and beauty and warmth is an absolute must. I know in my imagination, this space we are now in combines the new with the old: our beautiful stained-glass windows shed light on the rich colors of our new carpet and upholstery; a magnificent ark soars all the way to the vaulted ceiling, chairs circle a central lectern big enough for Nancy and me to share and not dozens but hundreds of congregants raise their voices to beg zochreinu l'chayim – remember us for life.

So take a moment. Look around with your own eyes. Imagine this synagogue as if it were new again. Imagine it beautiful again. Imagine it vital again. Most importantly, imagine it filled with people all the time; people who want to call this place their own because they built it and its beautiful and its filled with singing and learning and praying, and eating and arguing, and laughing and caring about one another in good times and in bad. Imagine it – not as the inheritance passed down to you, but as the legacy you are building for the next generation. Can we – a small and struggling group actually make this happen? We are no poorer in resources or spirit then those who built these walls originally. We need only the vision and the will to do it.

So what is that vision? And what is that will? The will is our collective commitment and hard work. This project will require the active participation of every member of this community. We are going to need a building committee, a decorating committee, a fund raising committee. We are going to need a committee to document and preserve the history of this place so that everything that makes it precious and meaningful to so many remains an integral part of it. We are going to need schleppers and sorters and even a few critics. We are going to need people to ease the pain and trial of the loss and dislocation a project like this inevitably entails. And we are going to need people to step in and do jobs that we won't even know need to be done until we start doing them. This is the will that we require in order to make such a project a reality. It is your will, for only you can make this happen.

The vision, however, is something entirely different. And here I need to be frank with you about the costs. Thanks to the hard work and commitment of this synagogue's lay leadership, Beth Israel has achieved a measure of economic stability. Not a lot of money is coming in, but it doesn't take much to run the place. You are looking at your biggest expense, and frankly, I work cheap. To engage in a project of rebuilding would be to put that stability in jeopardy. If our efforts fail – it we add to our expenses without growing our membership – this place will not survive. The course I am encouraging for this shul can be summed up in five words: Go big, or go home.

So let me speak with you very personally. I mentioned already my falling in love with this place and its people. That was not the intention. When I first came here, I did so as an employee. I had a contract with minimal but defined responsibilities. I had hopes of staying on for at least a couple of years to fulfill my requirements for a student pulpit. But that was it. I didn't come here looking for a spiritual home.

That all began to change when I started teaching Torah here; first once a month, then, tentatively, more frequently. And you came out and supported me – at times in large numbers. As we learned more Torah together, our spiritual needs began to grow – yours for more learning, mine to make a bigger difference. There have been days this past year when I have had our children and their parents in this sanctuary for Shabbat services, while my good friend Rabbi Hesch Sommer – who volunteers his time here out of love and friendship for me – has led a crowd in Torah study in our social hall. Fifty people being led by two rabbis in this tiny little shul, and I have thought to myself al ha-nisim sheh-asitah – Oh, for the miracles that You have done!

I did not come to this place looking for a spiritual home, but for me, the miracle of Beth Israel Synagogue is that I found one anyway. I want to see this miracle grow and I believe in my heart we can do it. I have already seen it happen here time and time again and I have seen it happen in my own life. My own spiritual journey from my father's atheism to the rabbinate has taught me how hard can be the struggle with what we believe and how we should behave. Many people refer to converts to Judaism as Jews by Choice. I think in this day and age – when the price of disbelief is so low, and the cost of belief so high – every Jew is a Jew by Choice. But there are so many Jews out there – and perhaps even a few in here – who are looking for permission to make that choice. Every Jew who finds her way to a synagogue on Rosh Hashanah, or peaks furtively around a sanctuary at a nephew's Bar Mitzvah, or just pauses when she passes a shul long enough to wonder what its all about – in every one of those Jews, the ember of belief is still flickering, longing for the air that will make it flame up anew. My vision of this synagogue is of a place that fans the flame of meaning and purpose and community and caring and love and insight in people's lives. Such a life affirming vision must itself be affirmed by the space it inhabits. It can be modest or bold, traditional or modern, outgoing or reflective, but it must be vital. It cannot be a living relic to the aspirations of a generation now gone. It must be alive with the needs and dreams of those who love walking in here. We can make this happen. We have to make it happen.

So here is my suggestion for our own plaque in our welcoming, beautiful new shul:

This building, as it stands today, in 5778, represents the commitment of a new generation of Jews to honor the inheritance passed onto us by our ancestors by keeping it fresh and vital. As we say of them today, so may it be said of us a Jubilee hence: they left us something worthy of making new again.

Sermon for Rosh Hashanah Evening, Beth Israel Synagogue, 1 Tishrei 5776

Recently my teacher and dear friend Vicki Hoffer shared with me the following observation. “Judaism,” she said, “is the closest thing to atheism.”

If I pursued the thought with her, I confess to not remembering the details. The comment, though, has stayed with me. You see, I was raised an atheist. I remember as a small boy, my father answering our kitchen phone one evening. We could tell from the long pauses followed by the clipped, one word responses that he was answering a survey. One of those answers he gave was “atheist.” It didn't take much imagination to guess the question.

My father lived with cancer for three years. Terminal illness did not change his take on religion, and he lived out his final days with the same gentleness and humor and philosophical good will he showed all his life. In the years after his death, as I found religion myself and ultimately wound up a rabbi, I have felt at some pains to understand this teshuvah – this returning of mine – not as a rejection of my father's atheism, but as an affirmation of myself as his son. Such an affirmation gets at the heart of the question of what it means to be a Jew – a question that I have been pondering for some time now, and one I will address tangentially tomorrow, but in greater detail on Yom Kippur.

Hence, when Vicki suggested that Judaism was the closest thing to atheism, I was more than ready to agree. But what does this actually mean?

In my understanding, Judaism is astonishingly based on reason rather than faith. Pretty much everything in the Torah – the plagues, the parting of the sea, the revelation at Sinai, the manna and all the miracles – can all be understood equally profitably as interpretation or as metaphor. Indeed, 800 years ago Maimonides went so far as to insist that if something in the Torah appears to conflict with what we know of natural law, the Torah has to be reinterpreted as metaphor. To my way of thinking, Judaism requires us to make but one real leap of faith: it requires that we believe that somewhere – on the other side of the Big Bang – stands God putting this all in motion; and that somehow He communicated this truth to all of us. This is, to me, Judaism's one great claim on our powers of belief. And if it is a claim that cannot be supported by reason, it is, nevertheless, the claim that furnishes the reason to our dearest hopes and darkest pains. Let me try and explain.

Judaism's minimizing of the role of faith comes at a steep price. While the notion of Olam Ha-Bah – the world to come, in which all the righteous will have a share – is an important part of Judaism, its actual nature and meaning is not a matter of religious doctrine but rabbinic speculation. To put it quite simply, our Christian neighbors have a more definite idea of what awaits them beyond the grave then we do. This uncertainty, together with Judaism's natural emphasis on this life, leaves the idea of salvation beyond the grave very much an open question for us, and one which good and faithful Jews can answer quite differently.

Judaism's uncertainty about life after death has led to the canonization of two remarkable books. Koheleth, better known as the Book of Ecclesiastes, is in essence an extended exhortation to enjoy the sensual pleasures that life has to offer, because what lies beyond those pleasures is both unknowable and, perhaps, futility itself. And the Book of Job is one innocent man's pained lament that God is under no obligation to treat human beings according to their just deserts.

And that brings me to the message I wanted to share with you this evening as we begin our High Holiday odyssey together. There has been much pain in our congregation of late. Kathy Schacht's tragic loss of her sister Mary Beth a couple of weeks ago was mirrored just just weeks earlier when our prayer leader, our cantor Nancy Huber lost her sister Sherry. This morning, almost unbelievably, I found myself attending the funeral of the sister of another dear friend who also died suddenly. Often times such tragedies strike at moments when a person is most vulnerable – when life is already presenting them with challenges enough. As I have done my inadequate best to help these friends of mine in this terrible moments, my mind has drifted back repeatedly to a single line in the Book of Job. Three messengers come to tell Job of a series of horrible disasters that have carried off all of his wealth. Then a fourth messenger comes to bring him news of the deaths of all his children. The arrival of each subsequent messenger is announced with the same words: zeh m'daber v'zeh bah vayomar – this one was still talking when this one came and said . . .

Our worst nightmares conjured up in five words: zeh m'daber v'zeh bah vayomar - this one was still busy upending my world, when this one came and made it all so much worse. Personal tragedy is always a challenge to our faith in a benign and benevolent God. But tragedy upon tragedy is a challenge to our faith in justice, mercy and ultimately, meaning. The Book of Job and, in its own way The Book of Ecclesiastes, force us to face these challenges. That Judaism has chosen to canonize these books – that it has taken such honest confrontations with the greatest challenges to faith and declared them holy – is testimony to my friend's assertion that Judaism is the closest thing to atheism. And it has immeasurably deepened my faith in my religion and my God.

Since my younger daughter went off to college, an odd thing has happened in my life. The alarm rings in the morning, I make Terri her breakfast and she sets off for work. And I am left alone. Everything in my life that I hold dearer then life itself is beyond my reach. I walk into my office. I pull on my tallis, and I pray. I pray because as a father and husband, that gnaw of anxiety for my wife and children never leaves me. I pray because as a rabbi, I have promised my prayers to a lot of people who are in pain, and I have seen what comfort they gain from knowing someone cares enough to think about them every day. I pray because as a man, I am conscious of the many blessings in my life and I need to acknowledge them. But mostly, I pray because, as a Jew, I am obligated to do so. It is that sense of mitzvah – that sense of commandment – that fills my life with a sense that behind it lies a purpose and meaning that goes beyond my own pleasure and my own pain.

Zeh m'daber v'zeh bah vayomar – after all the messengers had come and had their say, after God further tested Job by inflicting him with boils from head-to-foot and reducing him to scraping at his sores with a shard of pottery – Job's wife comes to him and tells him to curse God and die already. Job is incredulous: gam et ha-tov n'kabeyl mai-ait ha-elohim, v'et ha-rah lo n'kabeyl he asks. Can we receive only the good from God and not receive the bad? I hear in Job's words something far deeper then the simple message that we have to take the bad with the good. To me, he is saying that without God, there is no bad or good and this pain that I feel, this grief that I suffer is meaningless. God in His absolutely unfathomable Will, can take everything from me. But so long as I still have Him, I still have meaning. In that moment of ultimate pain, such a message may seem of small comfort. In the constant uncertainty that surrounds my life, and all of our lives, I am trying to live as though that were the greatest comfort there can be.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Sermon for Yom Kippur Morning, Beth Israel Synagogue, 10 Tishrei, 5775

Long before I came to this shul – before even I thought about becoming a rabbi – I decided that if I were ever given the opportunity to give a High Holiday sermon, I would talk about the importance of building a sukkah. Some time thereafter, my friend and mentor, Rabbi Hesch Sommer, did in fact give me a chance to deliver a sermonette on Yom Kippur. I did not talk about the sukkah. In the eight years I have been here, I have delivered perhaps 35 High Holidays sermons. None of them has been about the importance of the sukkah. Indeed, as of last week, I had no intention of talking about the sukkah this year. But then came the first day Rosh Hashanah discussion group and what turned out to be a very animated conversation about Celebrate Wallingford. Shortly thereafter, I decided that the time for the sukkah sermon had finally arrived. So today's planned sermon was retooled for last night, last night's sermon was placed in my “sermons I never gave” file, and the one sermon topic I have been harboring for a dozen years or more is finally getting a hearing.

I built my first sukkah maybe 15 or 16 years ago. Sarah would have been 5 or 6, Rachel 1 or 2. It was built out of 4-inch PVC pipe, held together with duct tape. I set out our festival dinner inside it and the thing promptly collapsed in the breeze.

The next year I got serious. The sukkah I built was of 2 by 3 furring strips, fashioned into four foot by eight foot frames with cross bars for added strength. I drilled holes equidistant from the top and bottom of each frame, through which I bolted the frames together. The roof was supported by 2 by 3 beams resting in aluminum stud hangers. The finished sukkah was 16 feet long by eight feet wide. The next year I doubled its size. At 16 feet square, I have one very large sukkah. I also have lights for the sukkah and propane and kerosene space heaters. Since the sukkah leans against the exterior wall of our family room – where our modem is located – the sukkah has a very strong Wi-Fi signal. All-in-all, it is quite far from a hardship to dwell in my sukkah, except on the coldest or rainiest of nights. And we don't actually sleep out there, but we do pretty much everything else.

Sometimes, on a sunny afternoon during Sukkoth, I will sit in my sukkah and look up at the blue sky and the changing leaves through the bamboo mats that are its ceiling. I will look at the tarp covered walls of this structure that sits, for 51 weeks every year, stacked up in the back of my shed. And I will know in those moments what it means to dwell in a makom kodesh – a holy space. My extended family gathers and we laugh and talk and eat together, tenuously but lovingly sheltered in this sukkat shalom - this peaceful refuge.

But the real magic of building a sukkah is what it has done for my kids. When they were younger, they would spend their free time in the days after Yom Kippur cutting up strips of construction paper and stapling them together into what we would call “the paper chain that ate Connecticut.” It would be probably 50 feet long by the time they were done and we would thumb-tack it to the ceiling and the center posts to give the place a more festive air. My kids would come home from school and do their homework in the sukkah. We would have dinner there – often with friends joining us. After which we would sit outside and read or talk or play computer games until the cold started to creep into our bones. Then we would turn off the lights and go back inside, happy, but also a bit saddened, knowing that another day in that sacred space had come to an end.

The week of Sukkoth is magical around my house. It is like a week out of time. Everything is centered around that sacred space and the joy of sharing it with our loved ones. Its always a sad day when the sukkah comes down and gets stored away for another year. The air is invariably cold – a reminder that fall is about to set in for real. And this fragile structure whose walls are sheets of plastic and whose roof lets in the starlight reminds us of how tenuous is our own hold on this world. I always say a prayer when the last pieces of the sukkah get stored away. “Please, God, let me merit the chance to dwell in this holy place again next year.”

Sukkoth is, in our tradition, HaHag – the festival. It is the perfect holiday. Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are centered around the synagogue and not readily accessible to young children. Hanukah and Purim are minor holidays whose very adult themes have been glossed over with child-centered activities. Pesach is perhaps the most powerful of our holidays, but it is also burdensome. But Sukkoth is z'man simkhateinu – the time of our rejoicing. Building a sukkah and celebrating this week-long festival combines serious and distinctive religious practice in the most conducive atmosphere possible – concentrated time with one's family. Build a sukkah and celebrate these days and you will stamp your children's lives with a strong and affirming Jewish identity. They will love being Jewish. They will never ask for a Christmas tree because they will never envy anyone else's practices when there's are so beautiful.

To build a sukkah is to build a Jewish soul. That is what we as individuals, and we as a community need to be – builders. In a passage from Isaiah it says “And all your children will be students of the Lord, וְרַב שְׁלוֹם בָּנָיִךְ - and great will be the shalom of your בָּנָיִךְ - your children. But the Talmud teaches us - אל תקרי בניך אלא בוניך – Don't read the passage to say בניך – your children. Change the vowels around so that it reads instead בוניך – your builders. Because those of us who are builders can overcome any stumbling block.

Which brings me back to Rosh Hashanah and our impromptu catharsis over Celebrate Wallingford. I knew before that day that members of this shul were outraged that this “feel good about the place you live” festival was scheduled for our holiest day. I share that outrage. I share that outrage because I know it is part of a larger pattern of disrespect that this town has shown for its Jewish residents. When the date of Yom Kippur is printed on practically every civil calendar, it is outrageous that a town like Wallingford, a town that has had a visible Jewish community within it for more than 100 years, should schedule such a celebration at such a time. I cannot think of how this can occur except through willful antipathy or unacceptable ignorance. I expressed the source and the depths of my outrage in a letter to Mayor Dickinson. At the time that I sent it, I believed much of the outrage we all felt could be soothed by an empathetic word from him. But while Mayor Dickinson's response to me was thoughtful, there was something that I heard in our Rosh Hashanah discussion that told me that the people of this congregation don't need to hear from their mayor. They need to hear from their rabbi.

What I heard that day – expressed repeatedly and by a number of you – was your belief in the importance of having a Jewish community in Wallingford. That belief was never expressed in response to a particular point. No one was standing up there saying there should not be a Jewish community in Wallingford. Rather, I think the comment reflected a deep seated anxiety that that Jewish community is under threat. The callousness with which this town scheduled Celebrate Wallingford triggered in each of us the profound sense that we are – at best – on the town's margins. And maybe not even there.

Well, the truth is, we are marginalized in this town, and that is the town's loss. And we are indeed a community under threat. But the threat isn't out there. Its in here. Because if there is a reason why it is important that Wallingford have a Jewish community, it has to be for something other than expressing our outrage and victimization. No one will sign on to join a community whose sole purpose is to cry foul at the rest of the world. Doing so is neither fun nor particularly enlightening. More than that, its a waste. Its a waste of Judaism which I am telling you is the most intellectually diverse and spiritually enriching religion in the world. Indeed, as someone who very slowly and carefully and thoughtfully made the journey from atheism to the rabbinate, I believe that Judaism is the world's greatest achievement because it places humanity on the plain of holiness.

Just think about this day: this day of atonement. Think about it in the context of the days that came before it; the preceding month where we were called upon to take an accounting of our soul, and Rosh Hashanah where we were asked to see ourselves as standing before the Judge of all the world. It doesn't matter whether you buy into the imagery. It doesn't matter if you believe in God. Because what Judaism demands of us is that we judge ourselves and make amends for our failings before we stand before God. What it demands, very simply, is that we see our lives as sacred trusts and take them seriously. The purpose of this day is to solemnize – through serious reflection and symbolic affliction – the work we have done to make ourselves better. There is nothing that is going on outside that can compare in importance with what is going on in here. Let that thought temper your outrage.

But there is more.

When we began our prayers here last night, we responded as a congregation to the cantor's entreaty for forgiveness with the words וַיֹּאמֶר יְיְ סָלַחְתִּי כִּדְבָרֶךָ - And God said, I have forgiven according to your word. The line is actually a verse from Torah. God had commanded the Israelites to cross the Jordan and take possession of their promised land. But the Israelites refused. They thought themselves too weak compared to those who inhabited the land already. They saw themselves as victims and preferred to complain over how they had been abused rather than build their homes and their lives. God was incensed and wanted to wipe them out. But Moses entreated on their behalf: סְלַח־נָא לַעֲוֹן הָעָם הַזֶּה כְּגֹדֶל חַסְדֶּךָ - Please forgive this people according to the greatness of Your kindness. And God responds סָלַחְתִּי כִּדְבָרֶךָ - I have forgiven according to your word. Think about that for a moment. Moses did not sin, but he is the one who asked for forgiveness. It was the Israelites who sinned, but they made no such entreaty. God forgave them anyway.

Take a lesson from this. The town of Wallingford is not going to apologize for what happened, and even if it does, it will not do so adequately. Forgive them anyway. Forgive them for your own sake because we as a community have better and more important things to do than be angry and count ourselves victims. We cannot be victims because we have to be builders. We have sukkahs to build and souls to nourish. We have identities to be formed and ideas to be spread. We have as our inheritence the most beautiful and precious possession: the Torah, an עץ חיים – a tree of life from which has been built the most life affirming tradition the world has ever known. What are we going to build to affirm that tradition? Look around us. This shul is the makom, the sukkah that our parents built for us. What are we going to do that turns us from banim, children, into bonim, builders? Look around again. Everything we need to build a vibrant, modern Jewish community is here in this room, right now. All we need is the will to be builders. Who among you is willing to swing a hammer and build the Jewish community we so desperately need?

Sermon for Yom Kippur Evening, Beth Israel Synagogue, 10 Tishrei 5775

Every Jew has his star … why, the whole sky is Jewish … I hope it’s not mine that just fell, I prayed, suddenly thinking of Hodl. Lately she’d seemed cheerier, livelier, more her old self again. Someone had brought her a letter, no doubt from her jailbird. I would have given the world to know what was in it, but I was blamed if I was going to ask. If she wasn’t talking, neither was I; I’d show her how to button up a lip. No, Tevye was no woman; Tevye could wait … Well, no sooner had I thought of my Hodl than she appeared by my side. She sat down next to me on the stoop, looked around, and said in a low voice, “Papa, are you listening? I have to tell you something. I’m saying goodbye to you tonight … forever.” She spoke in such a whisper that I could barely hear her, and she gave me the strangest look— such a look, I tell you, as I’ll never forget for as long as I live. . .
What do you mean, you’re saying goodbye forever?” I asked, staring down at the ground to hide my face, which must have looked like a dead man’s. “I mean ,” she said, “that I’m going away early in the morning. We’ll never see each other again … ever.” That cheered me up a bit. Thank God for small comforts, I thought. Things could have been worse— though to tell you the truth, they conceivably could have been better … “And just where,” I inquired , “are you going, if it’s not too much of me to ask?” “I’m going to join him,” she said. “You are?” I said. “And where is he?” “Right now he’s still in prison ,” she said. “But soon he’s being sent to Siberia.” “And so you’re going to say goodbye to him?” I asked, playing innocent.
No,” she says. “I’m going with him.” “Where?” I say. “What’s the name of the nearest town?” “We don’t know the exact place yet,” she says. “But it’s awfully far away. Just getting there alive isn’t easy.” She said that, did my Hodl, with great pride, as if she and her Peppercorn had done something so grand that they deserved a medal with half a pound of gold in it. I ask you, what’s a father to do with such a child?

Last week was the fiftieth anniversary of the Broadway opening of Fiddler on the Roof. In a childhood devoid of religion, my Jewish identity crept into me in roundabout ways. I talked, last week, about the impact Israel had on that identity. But there were other things as well: my the aunt's Yiddish aphorisms, my grandmother's tsimmes, my father's sense of humor. And it came to me, at least in part, through Fiddler. Growing up, I listened to that album so often I had to pile pennies on the stylus to keep it in the worn and scratched grooves. I can't remember a time before the time when I knew every line of every song.

I have always thought of Fiddler as a thoroughly Jewish musical. But I discovered this past spring when I, for the first time, read the stories on which it is based, that Fiddler on the Roof is not really a Jewish show at all. Rather, its an American show projected through a Jewish lens. Fiddler is the story of a man learning to cope with modernity. Each of his three eldest daughters pushes Tevye ever further from the the old ways. Tsaytl, his oldest, asserts her right to choose for herself whom she will marry. Hodl goes even further and declares her determination to marry whomever she will regardless of whether her father consents. And Chava pushes him even further, claiming the right to marry even outside the faith.

The lessons his daughters teach him will stand Tevye in good stead because by the show's end, he and his family – in fact, the entire town – are expelled from their homes and forced to flee to America. The deep irony here is that the ending is probably the most Jewish thing about the show, for even as we shed a tear for the dear little village of Anitevka, we know that this expulsion is, in reality, Tevye's and his family's salvation from the Shoah that would have engulfed them otherwise.

Fiddler on the Roof, then, is a typical immigrant story of leaving the old world of oppression for the new world of freedom. We sympathize with Tevye for his feelings of loss, but not for the things he is actually losing which are largely folkways and tribal customs that have no place in America. That Tevye can indeed survive their loss – that he even comes to some reconciliation with Chava – assures us that he will survive; and that indeed constitutes a kind of happy ending.

Sholem Aleichem's Tevye the Dairyman bears only a passing resemblance to the musical Fiddler. This is not the story of a man learning to bend in the winds of modernity. Rather it is a modern retelling of one of Judaism's oldest and most powerful stories: the story of Job.

Tevye the Dairyman is composed of eight short stories written by Sholem Aleichem between 1894 and 1916. In each story, the same amount of time has passed in Tevye's life as has passed since the previous story's publication. Indeed, each story is told as if Tevye were catching up his honored acquaintance – the writer Sholem Aleichem – on the doings in his life since last they met.

And what a life that turns out to be. Tevye, we quickly learn, interprets everything that happens to him through verses of the Bible, the Talmud or the siddur. He lives his life in constant dialogue with God and takes as axiomatic that anything to befall him is God's doing. He tells us in his first story
As we say on Yom Kippur, mi yorum umi yishofeyl— who will be exalted and who humbled - leave it to Him to decide who goes on foot and who gets to ride. The main thing is confidence. A Jew must never, never give up hope. How does he go on hoping, you ask, when he’s already died a thousand deaths? But that’s the whole point of being a Jew in this world! What does it say in the prayer book? Atoh bekhartonu! We’re God’s chosen people; it’s no wonder the whole world envies us …

The touch of irony you sense in those words will deepen almost to bitterness in the end for Tevye will suffer greatly. Hodl, we know, will follow her Pertchik to Siberia. Chava will marry outside the faith and become dead to him. Tevye's fourth daughter, Shprintze, will fall in love with a rich boy from a nearby town. The boy's family is convinced that Tevye is a gold digger and moves away. And Shprintze throws herself into the river and drowns. His fifth child, Beilke, fulfills Tevye's life-long dream of having a daughter marry a rich man. But that nouveau-riche husband is so disgusted by his poor, dairy-man father-in-law that he plots to ship Tevye off to the land of Israel. The husband goes bust before Tevye can board the boat and he and Beilke flee to America to escape his creditors. And along the way Tsaytl's husband Motl dies, and Golde dies, and Tevye is evicted from his home. The one bright spot in Tevye's life is a repentant Chava's return on the eve of the family's eviction. The last view Sholem Aleichem gives us of Tevye is as a homeless old man, trying to take care of his two remaining daughters and his grandchildren. Through it all, the dialogue with God goes on.

To say that Tevye is a modern-day Job is not to compare suffering. It is to compare their response to suffering. Job is described as blameless, upright, God-fearing, shunning evil. When his children go off partying at night, he sacrifices burnt offerings on their behalf, lest they should blaspheme in their revery. And when it is all taken from him and he is reduced to sitting on an ash heap, scraping at his diseased skin with a shard of pottery, he fearlessly and forthrightly insists that the reason for his suffering lies not in his own actions, but in the secretive ways of the Almighty. “Know that God has wronged me,” he says. “He has thrown up siege works around me. I cry 'Violence' but am not answered; I shout, but can get no justice.” When Job cries out “I know that my Redeemer lives!” it is practically a challenge to God to defend Himself.

Compare this with the very end of Tevye the Dairyman and our protagonists astonishing valedictory:
I ask you, Pan Sholem Aleichem, you’re a person who writes books —is Tevye right or not when he says that there’s a great God above and that a man must never lose heart while he lives? And that’s especially true of a Jew, and most especially of a Jew who knows a Hebrew letter when he sees one … No, you can rack your brains and be as clever as you like— there’s no getting around the fact that we Jews are the best and smartest people. Mi ke’amkho yisro’eyl goy ekhod, as the Prophet says— how can you even compare a goy and a Jew? Anyone can be a goy, but a Jew must be born one. Ashrekho yisro’eyl—it’s a lucky thing I was, then, because otherwise how would I ever know what it’s like to be homeless and wander all over the world without resting my head on the same pillow two nights running?

In his introduction to his translation of Tevye the Dairyman, Hillel Halkin remarks that there are three common ways through which people understand the suffering of the innocent. Either they believe that God is good and all powerful and what we perceive of as injustice is just an illusion or a test. Or they believe that God is good but not all powerful and that He sometimes loses out to these other, evil forces. Or they believe that that God does not exist and suffering is like all other things – the result of blind chance. But Halkin goes on to say that there is yet a fourth way of understanding why the innocent suffer. It is to say “God exists; He is good; He is all-powerful; therefore He must be just; but He is not just; therefore He owes man an explanation and man must demand it from Him. This is Job’s response. And it is also Tevye’s.”

The story of Fiddler on the Roof reflects the times in which it was created. Jews like Sheldon Harnick and Jerry Bock and Joseph Stein and Jerome Robbins could look back fondly at the Tevyes in their own lives and see in their sufferings and pains the seeds of their own success. What those immigrant Jews were forced to give up was quaint and comforting and not without its rewards. But what they gained in return was something far greater: freedom; freedom to be Jews, freedom to be like every one else. Its a wonderful story and wonderfully told. But its an American story. It isn't the story of Sholem Aleichem's Tevye. For that Tevye is more than a simple dairy man. He is, indeed, a man in the mold of Abraham and Moses and Jeremiah and Job – a man who can stand upright in his wretchedness and call the Almighty to account. On this day, when we are charged with standing before the Creator of All and beseeching His forgiveness, it is good to remember the Tevyes who demand that God be worthy of answering our prayers.

Sermon for Second Day Rosh Hashanah, Beth Israel Synagogue, 2 Tishrei, 5775

A couple of years ago, I came to a startling revelation. I had never, to my knowledge, had a Budweiser. I was not much of a beer drinker when I was young, and by the time I did start drinking it, I could afford Sam Adams. What was I to do about this situation? After very little thought, I concluded that I would be in more exclusive company by staying away from the stuff. And the assurance by any number of friends that I wasn't missing anything confirmed me on my course. For all I do, this Bud's for . . . well. . .

I share with you this barely interesting piece of personal trivia because up until today, I have never given a sermon on the Akeidat Yitzhak – the binding of Isaac. I say this knowing full well that, unlike the Bud, most of you have not given a sermon on this topic either. But the binding of Isaac is no doubt the perennial most popular second day Rosh Hashanah sermon topic, so for me, not having given such a sermon is a bit more unusual. Part of the reason is that, for the past four years, my mentor, Rabbi Hesch Sommer has given the second day sermon. Rabbi Sommer himself is the author of a wonderful sermon on the Akeidah which was published in a journal whose editor swore he would never publish another such sermon. But a bigger part of the reason is that I have doubted I could have anything original or insightful to say. Those doubts continue with me. But they have been crowded out by the sense that any rabbi worth his tzit-tzit should venture to say something about this subject. So with no small measure of trepidation, here goes.

I want to open this discussion by examining one of the more perplexing questions raised by this story: why doesn't Abraham – who argues with God over the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah – not offer a single word in defense of his son? These two events set up a devastating contrast. In the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham is at his most loquacious and argumentative as he tries to talk God out of destroying these two cities: “Will You sweep away righteous with evil? Perhaps there are fifty righteous ones in the midst of the city. Will You sweep away the place rather than forgive it for the sake of fifty righteous ones in its midst? It would be a sacrilege for You to do this thing – to cause the death of the righteous along with the wicked – as though the righteous were like the wicked. It is a sacrilege to You. Shall the Judge of all the earth not do justice?” Having established his point through God's consent, Abraham continues to argue – reducing the number of righteous on account of whom the cities will be spared all the way down to ten.

And yet, when God commands Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, Abraham says nothing. Not a word. In fact, he rises up early the next morning to get started on his journey – the split wood and his ignorant son in tow. And yet where is the justice in this command? Why will not Abraham place the mirror before the Judge of all the earth on behalf of his son as he did for the strangers in Sodom and Gomorrah?

Indeed Sodom and Gomorrah is not the only time Abraham argues with God. And while this argument is less dramatic – really just a single sentence of parental longing – it is perhaps more relevant to our understanding of the Akeidah. When God tells Abraham that his 90-year-old wife Sarah will bear him a son who will inherit his covenant and his blessing, Abraham appears dismayed. He already has a son – Ishmael – by Sarah's handmaid, Hagar. לוּ יִשְׁמָעֵאל יִחְיֶה לְפָנֶיךָ - Oh that Ishmael might live before You! pleads Abraham on behalf of the son he so dearly loves. אֲבָל
replies God. "Nevertheless . . ."

But if there are other instances besides Sodom and Gomorrah where Abraham argues with God, there are also many instances when he does not. For those of us who have reflexively covered our groins with our hands when attending a bris, we should note that the 99-year-old Abraham offers no objection when ordered to perform that operation on himself. Most powerfully, though, at the very beginning of his story, God commands Abraham – then known as Abram – to leave his land, his birthplace, his family and set out for some unspecified place that will be shown to him. Abram, 75 years old at the time, who as far as we know has had no previous communication from God, leaves behind everything he knows without saying a word. Interestingly, the language of God's command in both stories is eerily similar. In the opening story God says to him לֶךְ־לְךָ מֵאַרְצְךָ - Go for yourself from your land. In the Akeidah, the command is לֶךְ־לְךָ אֶל־אֶרֶץ הַמֹּרִיָּה – Go for yourself to the land of Moriah. And in both cases the response is silence.

I dwell on these examples to make a point. In both the cases of Sodom and Gomorrah and of the revelation of Isaac's birth and inheritance, Abraham objects. In neither case, however, is Abraham being asked to do anything. God is merely providing Abraham information. In fact, in the case of Sodom and Gomorrah, the text makes this point explicitly when God says הַמֲכַסֶּה אֲנִי מֵאַבְרָהָם אֲשֶׁר אֲנִי עֹשֶׂה – shall I hide from Abraham that which I will do?

But when God issues a command to Abraham, he does it. And he usually does it in silence. So to my mind, the question isn't why does Abraham object to the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah but is silent with regard to the sacrifice of Isaac. The cases are not analagous. The real question is why does Abraham comply with virtually every commandment – regardless of how those commandments will pain him physically, emotionally, or both – in silence?

The answer to that question is, I believe, that Abraham loves God. He loves Him with all his heart, with all his soul, with all his being.

Well if this is love, you may be thinking, it is love at its most perverse. For certainly true love – healthy love – cannot be revolting and immoral. Is not love the desire to possess and be united with that which is good and beautiful? That desire is indeed how the Greeks defined love. But, as Professor Simon May argues in his book Love: A History, that is not how the Hebrew bible understands it. As he persuasively argues, our scripture's understanding of love is as the emotion most intimately connected to the strongest human need: the need to find a place for oneself that anchors us in this wide world. Those people or things that we truly love are who or what define who we are, and thus give our lives a sense of purpose and meaning. That which we love gives us our place in the world.

Think about how this idea plays out in Abraham's story. Though God promises him that his descendents will inherit the land of Canaan, from the time he is commanded to leave his land, his birthplace, his fathers house, until the day he dies, Abraham quite literally has no place on earth that he can call his own. גֵּר־וְתוֹשָׁב אָנֹכִי עִמָּכֶם – I am a stranger and soujourner among you, he tells the Hittites as he is forced to bargain for a cave in which to bury his wife. The only thing that gives Abraham a place in the world is his relationship to God. To lose that is to lose everything. The irony here is that for many of us, our relationship to our children is to us what Abraham's relationship to God is to him: that thing for which we will sacrifice anything, including our morality; for to lose it is to lose who we are.

Much of what makes the Akeidah so emotionally shattering is its language. It is so spare that every detail speaks volumes. It isn't merely Abraham who is silent. A three days journey toward Mount Moriah passes without a word of description or emotion. Then, as Abraham and Isaac make their way up the mountain, the story's only dialogue:
And Isaac said to Abraham, his father,
And he said, “My father,”
And he said, “Here I am, my son,”
And he said, “Here is the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?”
And Abraham said, “God will see to the lamb, my son.”
And the two of them walked on together.

That repetition of the words “his father,” “my father,” “my son,” “my son” is, to my ears at least, heartbreakingly tender. But amazingly enough, for a story about a man off to slaughter his son, the Akeidah is just that: tender. Its tone is set in the very command that sets this tragedy in motion. קַח־נָא אֶת־בִּנְךָ, it begins. That נָא in he middle is a word of entreaty – often translated as "please." "Please take your son." With what pathos that one little word colors this entire story! How did Abraham hear this command? As a thunderbolt from the blue? Or perhaps as a gentle whisper: "Please take, your son, your only one, the one you love, Isaac."

Which raises what is perhaps the most startling and maybe even redeeming point of this story. If Abraham is willing to sacrifice his son at God's commandment because he loves God and finds his place in the world through Him, then God loves Abraham too and for precisely the same reason. For it is indeed through Abraham and his descendents that God has found a home among the peoples of the world.

It may seem strange – perhaps even to some, distateful – to think of the Akeidah as a love story. That is because we think of love as something beautiful and good. But love doesn't have to be either. What it has to be is grounding. It has to tell us who we are. Think of the famous closing words of the bible's greatest love story, the Song of Songs: שִׂימֵנִי כַחוֹתָם עַל־לִבֶּךָ כַּחוֹתָם עַל־זְרוֹעֶךָ כִּי־עַזָּה כַמָּוֶת אַהֲבָה – Place me as the seal upon your heart, as the seal upon your arm, because love is as fierce as death. Our loved ones mark us. They leave their seal upon us and, through it, they affirm in us who we are. The Akeidah is a story of love that is as fierce as death. What is so unusual and so powerful about this story is that both parties – both Abraham and God – are the objects of each other's love. Both are looking to ground their existence in the other. So when God says to Abraham קַח־נָא אֶת־בִּנְךָ - Please take your son, what he is really saying to him is שִׂימֵנִי כַחוֹתָם עַל־לִבֶּךָ - place Me as a seal upon your heart. Perhaps that is why we read the Akeidah on this day of remembrance – to remind the One who judges all the earth that we are as a seal on His heart as well.