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Erev Rosh Hashanah 2011/5772 - Rabbi Jill Perlman  


Erev Rosh Hashanah 2011/5772 - Rabbi Jill Perlman

Shanah tovah.

 

No matter what age I am working with, from the tiniest toddler to the grayest head amongst us, I
find there is one symbol of this season that intrigues us across all ages. One symbol that is so
simple yet so sacred. One symbol that yanks us out of the life that we live every other day of the
year and immediately renders us… enlightened to all of the possibilities that Rosh HaShanah
have to offer us. That symbol? The simple, the elegant… the sometimes smelly shofar.

All I need to do is bring a shofar into a classroom of kids to see them begin bouncing in their
seats, wanting to take a turn to see if they, too, can make the shofar sound. I ask, what is this
called? They respond gleefully, It’s a shofar! I ask, When do we sound it? They respond, getting
jumpier, On Rosh HaShanah! I add in, And at the end of Yom Kippur. I ask, What does it sound
like? And it’s like I have opened the gates of the zoo. I hear elephants trumpeting all around me,
fingers and hands curling near children’s lips as they do their best shofar impressions. I ask, Why
do we blow the shofar? What does it mean? Happy faces become faces lined deep in thought and
consternation. Why do we blow the shofar? And I hear a tentative “to wake us up.” Ah…
Someone was paying attention in religious school.

To wake us up. The shofar, long a symbol of this holiday, is not merely a relic of our past that we
dredge out of storage each year, devoid of its meaning and relevance. No, it is very much a
symbol for today. In our Rosh HaShanah liturgy tomorrow as we prepare ourselves to hear the
shofar, which, interestingly is the only actual mitzvah required of us on this day, we read a text
from Rambam, the eminent 12th century philosopher. He writes of this instrumental tool: Uru
y’sheinim mishnatchem
- Awake, you sleepers from your sleep! V’nirdamim hakitzu
mitardeimatchem!
- Rouse yourselves, you slumberers, out of your slumber!1

Rambam is assuming that we have long been asleep and like a rooster, like an alarm clock the
shofar exists to wake us up. But what does that mean? How have we been sleeping? I don’t know
about you, but I feel like I have certainly been awake these past few months, running around,
getting my children situated in their new home, their new daycare, and their new routine, getting
to know my community here at Isaiah and in my new hometown of Bedford, getting things
done… that’s what it means to be awake, right? But maybe there’s more…
Rambam continues, “[Wake up and] examine your deeds and turn to God in repentance.
Remember your Creator, you who are caught up in the daily round, losing sight of eternal truth;
you who are wasting your years in vain pursuits that neither profit nor save. Look closely at
yourselves; improve your ways and deeds. Abandon your evil ways, your unworthy schemes,
every one of you, [every one of us]!”2

To wake up then is to engage in the sacred process of teshuvah, whose root shuv mean to turn.
Waking up is the sacred process of turning and re-turning and re-examining our soul, our deeds,
who and what we are in order to better ourselves for the year ahead and the life that stretches
before us. When we are not engaged in the process of teshuvah, it is as if we are asleep at the
wheel. The car may be moving, but the driver is checked out and making it safely to our
destination without causing serious damage is in question.

But what does that really mean to better our ways… to better our souls? What are the standards
by which we are meant to examine our lives? Who sets the rules? Who sets the consequences?

This is exactly the question that a sociologist recently took on, though not necessarily through
the lens of teshuvah. Adding that lens is our task. That sociologist was Christian Smith, a
researcher at Notre Dame and he conducted a study on the moral state of today’s youth in
America. Maybe you heard about this study. David Brooks profiled it about a month ago in an
op-ed for the New York Times.3

What Smith and his team found was not that today’s youth are any more or less moral than any
other generation, but rather that they lack the vocabulary and categories necessary to adequately
describe their choices and why they were making them. What he found was that they did not, as
had previous generations, turn to a larger landscape of moral frameworks, both religious and
secular, to help guide them in their own moral decision-making. Rather, they were operating
from a place of moral relativism or moral individualism. Essentially, they figured, if it feels
right, then it probably is right.

Now I personally have no problem with listening to the voice within. Our own moral tradition
urges us to seek out God not only in the grandness and greatness that is our external world, but
also in the still, small voice that echoes and reverberates around our soul.4 There is great power
and wisdom to the voice within… but I, and others, would argue that that voice would benefit
greatly by being in dialogue with other still, small voices.

In what is perhaps the most interesting and telling line of the entire profile of this study, David
Brooks writes that this research says a whole lot more about adult America than it does about
youthful America. His conclusion is that we as the stakeholders of the home, of the family, of
organized religion have become afraid – we have become hesitant and frightened - to set moral
standards for fear of impinging upon what has become the new essential moral unit: the
individual. We’ve become afraid to not just set rules, but even to provide guidelines.

If the individual trumps all else, then the next reasonable question would and should be: what use
do we or does anyone have anymore for connecting with a faith-based tradition that grounds
itself in notions of morality? If we already have the answers within, then why bother with
listening to what anyone else, let alone a 5,000 year old religion has to offer?

Our tradition cares for the self, but we also have a deep thread embedded in Judaism that speaks
strongly of the power of community. That’s why traditionally when we study, we study in
chevruta, in pairs and that’s why traditionally when we pray, we pray in a minyan, in a group of
at least ten. It’s not that we don’t trust ourselves; it’s just that we so highly value the dynamic
that occurs when the many get together.

That thread of the power of community follows us to the high holy days. Ten days from now
when we gather together on Yom Kippur, we will join together in a part of our liturgy known as
the vidui, a chance for us to publicly acknowledge the many ways we have strayed from our
paths in this past year. For this communal confessional, we will beat our chests and say
ashamnu, WE have sinned; bagadnu WE have betrayed gadalnu WE have stolen – and the list
goes on – and do you hear that repetition, that nu nu nu, ashamnu, bagadnu, gadalnu, after each
of these confessions? That nu means that each of these verbs is in the first person plural.

We ask God to forgive us for our deeds even if we, as individuals, have not sinned, betrayed, or
stolen. By asking us to share in acknowledging these communal shortcomings aloud, this
liturgical ritual binds us together; it renders us responsible for each other. If you have stolen, it is
as if I have stolen and if I have betrayed, we all have betrayed. Language is a powerful force in
framing behavior and so this ritual serves to frame our behavior by asking us to take part in a
system of checks and balances in each other’s lives.

We’re not alone in asking these questions about the interplay between the individual and the
community. Reverend Lillian Daniel of the UCC tradition writes, “There is nothing challenging
about having deep thoughts all by oneself. What is interesting is doing this work in community,
where other people might call you on stuff, or heaven forbid, disagree with you. Where life with
God gets rich and provocative is when you dig deeply into a tradition that you did not invent all
for yourself.” She warns us of becoming too invested in ‘self-centered American culture,’ which
finds ‘ancient religions dull, but [our]selves infinitely fascinating.’5

I think this is where the real conversation about what it means to be a part of a community needs
to begin. When we operate only within our own selves, when we alone get to determine what is
right and wrong, we never become exposed to other ways of thinking. It may be uncomfortable
to be challenged at times or to challenge someone else, but what Reverend Daniel is saying is
that being a part of a religious community is not about being held safely and embraced all of the
time. Sometimes, it’s about being stirred. Sometimes, it’s about disagreement as long as it is –
and I’ll put this in Jewish terms – a mahkloket l’shem shamayim – a disagreement, a challenge
for the sake of heaven, for the sake of a sacred purpose. If we are arguing about how best to feed
the hungry, how best to educate our youth, how best to create investment and involvement, that
that is a mahkloket l’shem shamayim, an argument for the sake of heaven. Being part of a whole,
part of a community urges and challenges us to grow - and it is difficult to grow and change all
by oneself.

Being in dialogue with community and tradition stretches us and in turn, we stretch others. But
what if that grander moral landscape is a place that we don’t want to be? I would be remiss if I
skipped over the multitude of examples of “moral” societies with major deficits when it came to
what we would consider modern ethics. It is perfectly normal for some communities to not only
exclude, but to openly oppress those who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender – and they
would consider that moral. That would consider that what it means to uphold morality.

There are plenty of communities that dictate what is appropriate for a woman to do, to say, to
wear, whether or not she is allowed to drive, whether or not she is allowed to go out in public by
herself without a male guardian. Some would consider this what it means to uphold morality.

There have been “moral” standards that dictated that Jews had no place in the same schools as
others, the same professions as others, and eventually the same existence as others. We would
call that a distorted sense of morality, we would call that immorality, but it is a sense of morality
nonetheless. It is just a morality by which we cannot abide. It is a moral landscape to which we
will not open the door.

We all know that it can be dangerous to set communal standards that carry the stamp of the
sacred when those standards enforce oppression, inequality, and hate.

That is not what we mean by morality.

And shouldn’t we as a religious community – all of us – have something to say about what it
means to act in this world? Does the flagrant and irresponsible misuse of the concept of morality
mean that we should shy away from setting any communally based standards? Is there a way to
frame a moral conversation that is less about limits and more about positive behavior? Less
about who is out and more about who is in? Don’t we, too, as a religiously progressive
movement in this world, don’t we as Reform Jews have something to say or will we let what it
means to be stakeholders in this thing called morality be co-opted completely by other faiths and
traditions?

For far too long, religious progressives have happily handed away our power in this debate
because we misguidedly thought that to be religiously progressive translated to moral relativism,
to a world in which everyone’s set of moral conditions are just fine when in truth, we know that
that cannot be the case. We have avoided putting moral stock into our community because we
simply have stopped valuing our community as arbiters of moral truth. This is where it gets
difficult. This is where we have to dig into our tradition for guidance.

Our sacred text teaches us that Noah of Noah and the Flood fame was an ish tzaddik a righteous
man b’dorotav in HIS generation.6 Our text is clear; he is not necessarily to be judged as the
most exemplary man across all generations – simply b’dorotav, in his generation. For all we
know, Noah could have been the best of the worst (in fact, some commentaries in our tradition
cast him that way). Therefore, our sense of morality for the human condition has evolved over
time - and through the story of Noah, our tradition affirms this.

We often carry the misguided illusion that Judaism is static, that the morality of the Jewish faith
has never evolved when, if anything, it has been the opposite. Judaism has long been evolving.
As time passed and we traveled from culture to culture and continent to continent, we adapted
and changed, but we did not sever our relationship to our past.

We, too, in our generation, in this place, have something important to say and add to shalshelet
hakabbalah
, to the chain of tradition for we are a worthy link. What are our values? For what are
we willing to go to bat? What – are there any - lines in the sand which we are not willing to
cross?

As I look out from this bimah at all of you, at my new congregation, I can say that I am
beginning to grasp the nuances of who we are and what we are all about. Though I am just
getting to know you, my new community, I can say with all sincerity that I already feel embraced
as family and that alone says so much about who we really are and what is at our core.

I see a community in which egalitarianism is firmly entrenched. That is our tradition and we
would never imagine it any other way. We recognize that there is an equality between man and
woman. We do not pray with a mechitza in this communal space.

That egalitarianism extends to an equality of character between those who are straight and those
who are gay and the entire spectrum of sexuality as well as gender. That is our tradition.

That egalitarianism extends to status – traditionally, there is a difference in status among Jews
when it comes to worship and ritual between the priestly class, the Kohanim and the Levi’im and
the rest of us. That still exists in many synagogues, but here, we are all the same. There are limits
to what we can accept in the conditions of our moral community, as Reform Jews, as Temple
Isaiah and intolerance of any kind is not allowed. Egalitarianism across the board – no special
privileges, no special access – this is a line in the sand we will not cross.

I see the welcome embrace of interfaith families; we honor mothers and fathers who bravely and
beautifully raise Jewish children even though they may not call Judaism their own. That is truly a
gift to the Jewish people for which we must say thank you. We strive to find a home for all of
our families in all of our diverse needs.

We welcome seekers to Judaism, those who are trying to find the right religious fit for their lives,
and those who are considering conversion. Just this past week, Rabbi Jaffe, Cantor Doob, and I
had the honor – and I mean that, the true honor – of welcoming several new Jews into the
covenant.

As someone who traveled down a similar path in my young adult life who grew up in a home of
mixed faith traditions, who entered a synagogue for the first time at age 15, who entered the
mikvah and underwent an official conversion at age 16, who celebrated her bat mitzvah with her
adult b’nai mitzvah class at age 17, I highly value and appreciate the openness that I see here at
Isaiah and the myriad of open doors into our community, all sacred and all unique.

In our modern age, I believe that we all choose to affiliate ourselves with the Jewish people. In a
time when it is so easy to opt out, we all have made the choice to stand up and say I align myself
with Judaism, I align myself with the Jewish people.

When I see Temple Isaiah, I see an open tent. There are many pathways in, many ways – all valid
– for living out our Jewish lives. We enter this tent for spiritual sustenance, for Torah learning.
We enter this tent to be inspired as advocates for tzedek, for social justice, to be moved as
comforters of the sick and the bereaved. We enter this tent to find friends, to find family, to
connect with the past and with the future.

We are not perfect – no family ever is – as we strive to help each other find the space that we
need to revel in our Jewishness. We humbly ask for forgiveness to those for whom the tent has
not stretched open enough. Please help us lift the sides a little higher up, stretch them a little
further out so that we can truly welcome all those who wish to enter.
I have found the community at Temple Isaiah to be kind… to be caring… and lastly, to be
deeply, staunchly moral. And by moral, I mean, that we are constantly engaged in the process of
figuring out what is right and what is wrong, guided both by our ancient traditions and wisdom
as well as by our new communal traditions and wisdom, none with a veto on the other – and
that is the key, that is the key – none with a veto on the other, constantly in dialogue, framing the
sacred that exists in our lives.

When we play with morality, we are, of course, playing with the notion of truth. In the middle of
the torah, right smack in the middle of the torah scroll we find the word, emet, the word for truth.
The word emet itself is interesting – it is made up of the letters alef, mem, tav - alef being the
first letter of the alef-bet, tav its last and mem, right there in the middle and so we keep turning
inward, further and further inward… and isn’t that something? That at the center of Torah, at its
core is truth?

We struggle every day with the truth our tradition offers to us. We turn it over in our hands, in
our minds, in our hearts. It is our truth, our moral foundation because once we stood at Sinai and
were drawn into a covenant and we remain bound to that covenant by affirming our place in this
community today – and that truth is still being revealed, a little more generation by generation.

A thought that has always resonated with me is something that Franz Rosenzweig, a Jewish
thinker born over a century ago, said about his relationship with torah and its mitzvot, its
commandments. He was asked if he accepted and adhered to all of them. He didn’t answer yes
and he didn’t answer no. He answered: not yet. Some mitzvot he could not follow because they
too harshly collided against his own moral compass, but he didn’t shut the door – he refused to
shut the door - and he continued to be in conversation with his tradition. The two-way
conversation helped him guide his own truth.

What truth will we hear when the shofar is sounded tomorrow? Will we awake when we hear its
call? Will we indeed rouse from our slumber to it like an alarm clock set to wake our souls?

I want to challenge us in this coming year to consider where and how we derive our values, to
make our decisions in concert with our tradition, or, at least to test our decisions against the
teachings of that tradition, to put moral stock into our community, and to fight when there is an
injustice among us. I challenge us not to let the debate around morality be co-opted by others. I
challenge us to join the conversation, to continue to determine what our shared values indeed are
and to pass on those values because we, too, are a worthy link in the chain of tradition.

When the shofar is sounded tomorrow, I hope, I pray that I am able to listen, that I am able to be
shaken, to turn inward, to turn outward, to struggle with notions of truth, not alone, but with all
of you, my new extended family. I hope and I pray that you, too, are stirred and that you will
engage in that conversation with me, with us, with each other as together we enter this new year.

Shanah tovah.

________
1Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Teshuvah 3:4
2 Ibid.
3 “If It Feels Right…,” New York Times, 12 September 2011.
http://www.nytimes.com/2011/09/13/opinion/if-­‐it-­‐feels-­‐right.html4For more on the still, small voice, see 1 Kings 19:11-13. 5Reverend Lillian Daniel, Spiritual but Not Religious? Please Stop Boring Me.http://www.ucc.org/feed-­‐your-­‐spirit/daily-­‐devotional/spiritual-­‐but-­‐n3ot-­‐religious.html6Genesis 6:9