08 September 2010

Erev Rosh Hashanah Sermon 5771

28 Elul 5770/1Tishri 5771

Shanah Tovah--I'd like to begin first of all by thanking Rev Daniel Meeter and the leaders at Old First Reformed Church for yet again expressing their warmth and hospitality and extending to our community yet again the generosity of their sacred space for us to bring in the New Year.  A year ago when a section of our Main Sanctuary ceiling collapsed, Daniel was the first person to call and said, "Do you need a place to pray?"  Not only did we but we got to warm up on Shabbat Shuvah by bringing our communities together to protest the message of hate from the Westboro Baptist Church of Kansas with song and the celebration of Shabbat.  One must admit to a kind of euphoria at that time--our values had defeated theirs and though we were not to mark Yom Kippur in our own home, the broader lesson of Abraham and Sarah's biblical hospitality, revered and celebrated by both our traditions, was of a value greater than that of dedicated space for Jewish worship.  And though at the time we talked about being here at Old First again this year, I have to admit to my own sense of failing and shortcoming in the past year.  As your leader, I must confess to not doing everything in my power to ensure that we could be back in the Main Sanctuary at 8th and Garfield by this Rosh Hashanah.  Busy as I may have made myself, I'm certain there was another call I could have made, another letter I could have written--God knows there was likely even some stimulus money sitting around just waiting to help us fix our roof!  And so I give you my solemn and humble pledge that as we forge into the year ahead, I will do everything in my power and encourage each of us to do everything in our power to raise the funds we need to ensure our return to CBE for next Rosh Hashanah.  We each know our own capacity and we know others who know others in the city, in the state, and across the country who I'm certain can help us.  And so while it's true that this time of year always evokes great joy, it also evokes, in all candor, a kind of mourning, perhaps symbolized by our Main Sanctuary dome clothed in black plastic to prevent falling slate--a mourning that reminds us of the questions we ought to ask each year anyway:  Why are we here?  What does it mean to come together in community?  We celebrate Abrahamic notions of hospitality here while yearning to be back there.  The values are transportable but the experience and where it occurs, is unique to each place.   

Something about all these thoughts brings me back to one of the over-arching themes of this night--that it is called by our Tradition a Yom Ha Zikkaron, a day of remembrance.  We think of those not with us tonight, and beseech their souls to intercede on our behalf with God; and we ask God to remember us, for life, and another year written and sealed in the book of life, the implication being that in forgetting, there is death, a terrifying thought indeed.

And yet as a religious system, it works.  I think it's death or a fear of death that brings many of us back year after year.  It may not be a conscious gesture on our part but nonetheless, one has to argue that it is a motivator, a deep river running beneath the surface landscape of our very beings.  The Book of Life, as an organizing principle, was meant to work that way.  I remember my first Rosh Hashanah, being taken to Congregation Emanu-el in Milwaukee along with my dad, grandfather and grandmother.  Mythically, I have a distinct memory of holding the fringes of my dad's tallis; watching his finger skim the Hebrew letters in the Mahzor; absorbing the melodies I had heard for the first time though realizing they were melodies that were mine, extending back, to generations that long preceded me.  I couldn't have been more than seven or eight.

The next time I'd hear Hebrew chanted publicly would be at my grandfather's funeral--an event seared into my soul.  It's an ur text of sorts, a source text of meaning to which I refer over and over again.  There's my grandmother's hysteria; my father's disjointed demeanor; my mother holding things together; the trauma of the burial; and then, shiva back at their apartment--a room packed with relatives, friends, neighbors from their building and community who all came to honor a great man, a wonderful doctor, a husband, a father, a brother, a grandfather and uncle.  A life has so many dimensions, I remember thinking.  So many different roads intersect in the soul of each of so that when we die, those roads converge, like different sections of an orchestra, even, finally, artfully, sometimes tragically, but unmistakably beautifully coming together.

I remember hiding underneath a table with my brother, surveying the room, eating kugel, and noticing my great aunt's shoes.  Don't ask me why.  Just one of those weird memories.  I was talking about it with a shrink once and he said something very instructive:  "People think that death is numbing; in fact, the senses are greatly heightened when we're in mourning and often, it's too much sensory overload so that we appear to shut down.  But the memories take hold."

So they do.  They are implanted; and then, when they want, on their watch, they reveal truths.

Oracular
Redolent of fermenting syrup,
Purple of the dusk,
Deep-rooted cane.  (--Jean Toomer, Cane)

I first read these words at the introduction to Jean Toomer's Cane, a classic of the Harlem Renaissance literature, while sitting on a dock beside Lake Mendota in Madison learning the Hebrew alef-bet, about a year after my father died.  My teacher was an Israeli professor in the Hebrew department; my classmates came from all over the state and all over North America; there was no bar mitzvah to work for; rather, the goal was to read, to get a good grade, and to head off to Israel to find the ancient Hebrew oracles of the past.  During breaks in my memorization, I read Toomer, and identified with the mixing of cultures, the plural nature of the endeavor--the memorializing of a father; an aim to go to Israel; identification with black literature; the familial otherness of the Hebrew professor (she looked like my grandmother in her youth and I often day-dreamed about what would have happened if family had not come to America from Byelorussian but instead had gone to Palestine.  Were we related somehow?)

I want to argue as clearly as I can that this is actually one of the ways Jews are made today.  Hebrew school and what we do in the Synagogue is, more often than we believe, a background to the real work and investment of Jewish identity formation that takes place outside of traditional institutions, in a context often beyond our pedagogic control, which on one hand is threatening to the perceived status quo of Jewish leadership but on the other hand is a radical re-altering, or even a return to, the roots of Jewish learning.  "Ve'shinantam levanecha--You shall teach them to your children" it says in the Torah.  Tradition is passed on one person at a time, one word at a time, one letter at a time, one life at a time and yes, one death at a time.  In contemporary America, learning is everywhere.  At home, in the street; online, at the Shul; in the market, in the park; in a crowd, sometimes, even, when we're all alone. 

It wasn't supposed to be that one hundred years ago.  Those who came to America presumed that the task was assimilation or acculturation and the educational institutions set up to ensure that people would remain Jewish were yeshivas and talmud torahs; religious schools; Jewish camping; or, for the radicals and the socialists and the communists, Jewish cultural bunds and community organizations founded for the preservation of the European social politics of the late 19th and early 20th century.   The evolving secularization of American Jewish life gave way to the JCC movement, leaving, now in the second decade already of the 21st century, Yeshivas and Day Schools and the Synagogues' supplementary learning programs along with camping and those JCCs as the first order organizing principle of Jewish life for the vast majority of American Jews.

Up until we're 18, this is officially how Jews are made.

Schools, Shuls, Camps and JCCs.  Officially.  Because then there's all that other stuff that happens when we live our lives.

Like holding someone's hand at a shiva call; or delivering food to someone who is sick; or singing someone a song or filling your kitchen with the aroma of an old recipe; like talking to an elected official about Israel or writing to the Mayor about the mosque in Lower Manhattan; like creating a sacred space for community members to wrestle with addiction or making room in a lower gym for a nightly basketball game; like adding bike lanes to reduce traffic and pollution or creating greater opportunities for fairness and decency in an over-loaded criminal justice system.  Jews, Jewishness and the animating, profound, deep-rooted cane of Judaism is everywhere.

Granted, I'm a public symbol of this particular example, but walking the kids to school today with a Shofar in my hand elicited comments and interest from a great variety of people--Jewish and not--who expressed interest, admiration, engagement and questions, all of which afforded an opportunity to re-kindle the commanding words of God to Abraham in the faithful and fateful call he received:  To be a blessing.  The Sages knew this best.  In one of their famous passages about the coming of the messiah, they envision him sitting in the gates of the city, bandaging the wounds of the poor, the simplest act of compassion unrecognized as redemptive--but once we see it as such, we are living in a different era of human existence.  Or in the case of Abraham after the expulsion of Hagar and Ishmael, the father continues to go and check on the son in the midrash.  And only knows the relief from his distance when he understands that Ishmael has grown and is living in a home based on the Abrahamic ideal of hospitality, of openness, of welcoming guests with good food and a friendly demeanor.

Neither of these images of healing and redemption--one public, one private--take place in the synagogue, serving as a vitally important message to us, who gather in synagogues each year to welcome the New Year, that our synagogues are merely the communal physical embodiment of our community and its values.  Even the home, after all, takes precedence.  And don't forget the Sages famous teaching that after the Destruction of the Temple, the Sabbath Table in the Home would become the mikdash me'at, the miniature temple upon which sacrifices of devotion and thanksgiving would be offered.  Here the Sages taught an essential Jewish value and idea--the portability of values.  On one hand, you don't need a space to be Jewish; on the other hand, for two thousand years the synagogue was the place from which we prayed for restoration.  That we share the exemplified value of hospitality, and celebrate its expression from a bima in a church, while praying for our *restoration* knowing that really, our prayers will be answered by our own efforts, is a paradox that ought not to be lost on us tonight.

One of my favorite towns in Israel no longer really exists.  It's called Tzipori.  Unfamiliar to most, it's listed by its Greco-Roman name, Sepphoris, in the Encyclopedia Judaica.  Weird, eh?   Founded in 100 BCE during the Hasmonean Era, it changed hands several times during various Roman conquests but essentially remained Jewish until the Crusades, changing hands again and finally returning to Israel in 1948 during the War for Independence.  The two main excavations in Tzipori are the synagogue--with Hebrew and Greek inscriptions, the signs of the Zodiac, and a dramatic mosaic depiction of creation, sacrifice and redemption in Biblical literature--and a beautiful palace, ornate for its time and quite impressive--including a vomitorium, not yet developed by any Brooklyn foodies as far as we know.  Yehuda Ha Nasi, the great redactor of the Mishnah, established the Sanhedrin there for a time.  It was an important place.

But what the excavations make clear is a fact of Jewish existence we know to be just as true for us today at CBE--the synagogue was the quintessential moral expression of the greater communal activity in and around the town.  Near the excavations is a marketplace with stalls, well-paved streets and aqueducts; up on the hill, a palace and other more modest homes. 

Donors names--from nearly two thousand years ago!--are still embossed in the mosaic tile; the Greco-Roman motifs were every bit as assimilationist a statement then as our stained glass windows are today; and clearly, the synagogue was only one expression of an entire community, which had schools and businesses, private and public expressions of who they were and what they did.  It's the seamlessness between the synagogue and the town that should interest us, because I believe that's the particular genius of our congregation at this point in our history.

In the town our Early Childhood Center is known as among the best in New York City; our After School Program and Day Camp are considered to be one of the greatest generators of caring for kids our neighborhood has known; at Yachad we are literally re-inventing contemporary Hebrew school as we know it, combing the best practices of summer camps, trips to Israel, informal education modules and family learning practice with music, art and culture that is every bit an expression of why people move to Brooklyn and stay in Brooklyn as well, any great tag line that Marty Markowitz can drum up!  If someone in our community is sick, they are cared for with food and visits; if someone is in mourning and wants a minyan, we are there for you.  Hundreds of adults learn and come to our literary programs each year.  In light of the current peace talks between Israeli and Palestinian leaders, we have hosted virtually every major writer on this subject in the last three years and in November will host Robert Malley, a Clinton Administration Middle East negotiator and the columnist Jeffrey Goldberg in dialogue about the current state of negotiations.   We host hundreds each Shabbat, in different services and learning environments--CBE services, Altshul Services, Bnai Mitzvahs, Yachad, Lay-Led Minyans, Shir L'Shabbat--not unlike these Holy Days, where we have more than 1000 people here at Old First; more than 500 in Prospect Park at the Brooklyn Jews service; another 6-700 in the Ballroom; and in the morning, 3-400 at our Tots Service.  On the heels of our Rosh Hashanah services Friday afternoon, several members will gather at 6.15 to go to Ground Zero for a commemoration of 9-11, honoring a secular sacred time for our city and community as well. 

With a hub of activity like this it's no wonder our Main Sanctuary roof collapsed!  It's no wonder that our Temple House is in need of repair!  We are so busy, doing what we do best for more than a century in Park Slope, that we have buildings to liberate and excavate and celebrate as both repositories of memory but as the sacred canvas upon which we paint our portrait of Jewish life in Brooklyn in the 21st century.  And as we envision this Synagogue Center for the 21st Century, this Center for Neighborhood Jewish Life, we ought to be awed by and impressed with the activity, the busy-ness, the vibrant laboratory of Jewish life we are responsible for creating and maintaining.  But we must also remember the quietude; the still small voices of encounter; the soulful expressions of our very beings that occur outside our walls but which are very much an extension of or in dialogue with, the sacred historic mission of Congregation Beth Elohim.

Rabbi Kalonymos Kalman Shapira taught,
"Let go of this world for an hour or two--its hustle and bustle, its cunning deceptions, and all your earthly aspirations.  Seclude yourself in privacy--go out into a forest if possible.  Let yourself become a simple creature in God's world.  With the sun, the moon, the birds and the trees, sing songs of praise to Him.  Reveal the greatness of God to the world, and fill it with a sense of that greatness...Then you will know why Moshe prayed to become a bird in the sky after his passing:  he yearned to sing praise to God as a simple creature before Him."
A bird out there in the sky, singing praise.  Learning Hebrew that day on the pier in Madison, with Jean Toomer by my side, I saw a beautiful collection of barn swallows circle above my head.  After consulting the dictionary I had with me, I learned that the word in Hebrew for bird is Tzipor, like the town, Tzipori, given its name because, like a bird, it sits on the top of a hill.  Just like CBE has occupied the high ground at the corner of 8th Avenue and Garfield Place for more than one hundred years, emanating the light and goodness of Jewish values that Abraham and Sarah were enjoined to share with the world--to be a blessing, not only in their tent, but in all places as they went forth.  Their structure a source of their values but a reflection of their values as well.

May we be inspired in our place, in our home, and in our community with increased learning, spirituality and deeds of lovingkindness in the New Year ahead and may you all be written in the Book of Life for another year of well-being and shalom, peace.

1 comment:

Daniel Hurewitz said...

What a wonderful sermon, Andy! Thanks for posting it for us to read over...