Resources »
Rosh Hashanah - 2009 / 5770 - Rabbi Howard Jaffe  


Rosh Hashanah - 2009 / 5770 - Rabbi Howard Jaffe

On the morning of their wedding anniversary, a woman woke up and told her husband, "I just dreamed that you gave me a gold necklace for our anniversary. What do you think it means?"

"You'll know tonight." he said.

That evening, the man came home with a small package and gave it to his wife.

Delighted, she opened it to find a book entitled "The Meaning of Dreams."

Of course, Jews have made a few contributions to the field of dream interpretation. While Sigmund Freud probably comes to mind, the truth is we can go back a bit further. In fact, the rabbis tell us that dreams played an important part in the story we just read a few minutes ago: according to one midrash, the words "early next morning" suggests that Abraham awoke from a dream and immediately went forward to do what he understood to be God's bidding. Of course, Abraham's great grandson and Isaac's grandson, Joseph, was probably the most famous dreamer of them all. There is a profound lesson in the Joseph story that I learned only recently: Rabbi Isaac Bernstein, one of the great leaders of Anglo Jewry, points out that it is only when Joseph starts listening to the dreams of others that he begins to move along the road to redemption, himself.

We need to listen to each other's dreams, as well. Isn't that what this day is all about? Dreaming, as individuals and as a community, so that our dreams can guide us in the year ahead?

Before we can consider this year's dreams, we need to spend a moment reflecting upon last year's dreams. As a Temple community, we saw some extraordinary dreams fulfilled and even celebrated. We fulfilled the dream of bringing a cantor to our congregation who would inspire us and touch us and teach us. It is dream like to think that Cantor Doob has only been with us for a little over a year. Rabbi Brown and Gregg fulfilled dream of becoming parents became a fulfilled dream for all of us, whose lives are touched by the promise of her life and the promise of every baby born into our Temple family, including, of course, the grandchildren born to members of Temple family, no matter where they live. They are all the fulfillment of our dreams. And yes, Irene and I were blessed to fulfill the dream of witnessing our children called to the Torah for the first time as B'nai Mitzvah. Throughout the years , I have preached about and tried to build and yes, dreamed about community, yet never appreciated until that day just how powerful genuine community can be. On more levels than I can express, it was, for me, a dream fulfilled.

And what of the dreams are founding members! How many of them told us this past year that they could not have dreamt of the Temple they founded 50 years ago becoming what it is today. Their dreams became our dreams, and this past year, we all began the celebration of the fulfillment of the dream our first half-century, inspiring us to dream about what we will build over the next 50 years. We are not done celebrating, just as we are not done dreaming. Stay tuned for word of more celebrations throughout the year.

Thank God we had all of those fulfilled dreams to celebrate, because there were enough broken dreams this past year to go around.

I look out into this congregation, and I see too many who are sitting by themselves this year. I look out, and I am reminded of the losses he suffered this year, of the pain that you still live with, of the challenges and difficulties that have replaced the dreams of yesterday.

For some of us, the broken dreams are exacerbated or are the direct result of the financial crisis. We all share in that broken dream, to varying degrees. And we share it as a community.

Two years ago, I stood before you, announcing major endowment gifts, and invited you to dream with me - those were my exact words - about how we would use those funds to enrich and expand our mission. Now our task is to preserve those funds, so that we can continue to function as we have, and ensure that no one ever need to worry about being able to afford to belong to Temple Isaiah.

How sobering! I keep thinking of the Yiddish expression, "Mensch tracht und Gut lacht" -- "Man plans and God laughs." Perhaps you are more familiar with the euphemistic translation: "Man proposes and God disposes." No, I think God is laughing, though not laughing at us or mocking us. I think that God is chuckling and smiling, like an old, wise woman who has seen enough to know that our dreams are temporal, that as the world around us changes, that as we change and grow, our dreams will change and grow. Chuckling and smiling to herself, giving us the room to continue to dream and to learn.

Such is the nature of dreams. The dreams of a congregation of 2009 are different from the dreams of a congregation of 2007. The dreams of a 60-year- old are different from the dreams of a 30-year-old, which are different from the dreams of a 10- year- old. And the dreams of a middle-aged person in 2009 are different from the dreams of that same person two years earlier, especially if he or she is without work, or simply looking at a retirement account worth a fraction of what it was a few years ago.

It is only when we listen to each other's dreams that we, too, begin to walk along the road to redemption - because ultimately, our dreams are all intertwined with one another, and with our people throughout time.

This summer, I had the chance to fulfill a small dream, which was tied up in the dreams of our people, but which I did not realize until I experienced it.

In August, Irene and I traveled to Italy for the first time. Our first stop was Rome, and once we got settled into our hotel, we made our way directly to the Colosseum. Our tour guide casually mentioned that it was built by 20,000 Jewish slaves brought back the Romans destroyed Jerusalem and the Second Temple. A few minutes later, we strolled in the summer heat over towards the Forum, and there it was: The Arch of Titus. I had learned about it long-ago but had never been able to fully conceptualize the arch that became the model for victory arches throughout the world. It was built in the year 81 by the Emperor Domitian following the death of his predecessor and brother Titus, who had led the Roman conquest of Jerusalem. If you are familiar with it, you can picture the image carved into its side of Roman troops carrying the booty of their victory, including the seven branched menorah , on their shoulders. Ironically, it is the only contemporary representation of the sacred objects of the Temple that we have. I cannot imagine what went through the minds of our ancestors were carried off into captivity and resettled in the Roman Empire. It would hardly have been surprising for them to have despaired so thoroughly of ever returning to Jerusalem, or ever being able to practice their religion again that they simply assimilated into the Roman Empire. Some did. But the vast majority never stopped dreaming of redemption, and it was their dreams that kept Judaism and the Jewish people alive. Scattered and dispersed throughout the Roman Empire, they never stopped dreaming of the day when the Jewish people would once again be free in their own land, when Jews would live in freedom and with dignity.

There is a longstanding custom, probably dating from the completion of the arch, that Jews not walk through it, and so, dignify its depiction of the destruction of Jerusalem and the desecration of the Temple. There was one notable exception: in 1948, upon the founding of the state of Israel, a large contingent from the Roman Jewish community walked through the arch in the opposite direction from the original Ancient Roman triumphal march. I have to wonder how many generations dreamed of doing just that. Almost 2000 years after the Temple was destroyed and that we were sent into exile, the ancient Romans live on only in history and monuments. Am Yisrael Chai --- the people Israel lives, because our dreams still live.

But the dreams of our ancestors who were forced into the diaspora, those dreams alone would not have been sufficient to keep Judaism and the Jewish people alive.

Even as most of the Jewish nation was forcibly resettled into the Roman Empire, a small remnant stayed behind, and clung to the land as well as their national and religious identity. The greatest figure of that time was Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakai. During the Roman siege, when Vespasian, the father of Titus and Domitian was the commander of the Roman troops in Israel, ben Zakai correctly predicted that Vespasian would become Emperor and that Jerusalem would soon fall. He negotiated with Vespasian to allow the academy he established in Yavneh, some 30 miles to the west of Jerusalem to remain. After the destruction of the Temple, Yavneh became the primary center of Jewish life and learning. He taught that if God could be worshiped anywhere, that the Torah could become our portable homeland. He taught that Tzedakah, Teshuvah and Tefilah -- charitable justice, repentance, and prayer were equal to and more important than sacrifice. The dream of Jewish life in Jerusalem with the Temple as the center of Jewish life was shattered forever. But Rabbi Yochanan dreamed a new dream, an idea so powerful that it still resonates two thousand years later. Not so coincidently, It was Rabbi Yochanan who taught that the eye has two parts, a dark part and a white part, but we only see through the dark part. When dreams are broken, there is darkness, but out of our new dreams come enduring possibilities. No one welcomes failure and challenge, but it is out of the darkness, out of our struggles and our strivings that we become who we are.

From the time I was a teenager, I dreamed of becoming a rabbi. That dream was fulfilled some 26 years ago, when Rabbi Alfred Gottschalk, then president of Hebrew Union College, placed his hands upon my shoulders, and ordained me as a rabbi, as he did over time for more than 1000 of us. Perhaps you read of his passing earlier this week. He was a giant in the Jewish community, and particularly our Reform Movement. It was he who ordained the first woman rabbi, and the first woman to be ordained as a rabbi in Israel. He was a founding member of the United States Holocaust Memorial Council, serving under three different presidents, and was a guiding force in the development of the United States Holocaust Museum. Amongst his many other involvements and leadership roles, he also served as president of the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York. Fred Gottschalk earned his place as one of the great leaders of the Jewish people. One might wonder what Drove him.

We know the answer.

Dr. Gottschalk was raised in the town of Oberwessel, Germany. On Kristallnact, in November of 1938, when he was eight, he witnessed the destruction of Jewish homes and businesses in his hometown in the anti-Jewish pogrom carried out by Hitler's agents which marked the beginning of the official Nazi terror program against the Jews. Decades later, he often would recall watching his frail grandfather wade into a creek to rescue pieces of the Torah scrolls that the Nazis had seized from the synagogue and hacked to pieces.

Handing the pieces to his grandson, the old man said, "One day you will put it together again."

"I'm still putting the pieces together for my grandfather," Gottschalk said.

Because, it turns out, dreams can be passed from one generation to anoher, the Torah of one generation becoming the Torah of the next.

Last night, Rabbi Brown told us a beautiful story about the Baal Shem Tov, the great Jewish mystic who is considered to be the founder of Chasidic Judaism. There is another story about him that I would like to share:

The Baal Shem Tov was visiting a particular town, and when he finished his lecture, which was given outdoors in the main square, it was time for Mincha, the afternoon worship. He was asked if he would lead everyone was gathered across the square to the synagogue and then lead the afternoon prayers. When he got to the door of the synagogue, he stopped, and everyone stopped behind him. No one said a word. After a time, a young boy who was near the front pulled on the Baal Shem's coat. "Baal Shem, Baal Shem! Why aren't we going in?" Everyone got very upset with the boy, but the Baal Shem Tov answered "No, he is right to ask. We cannot go in because it is too crowded -there is no room inside." With that, the boy looked around, realized that everyone who could possibly be inside was actually standing out in the square. He climbed on a barrel and looked inside the window and said "Baal Shem, Baal Shem! There is no one inside!" Again, the people got very upset, and the Baal Shem Tov responded, "No, the boy is right. There are no people inside, but there is no room. It is crowded from floor to ceiling with dreams that were dreamed, prayers that were prayed, and hopes that were hoped which were left inside, and never brought out and given life. We cannot go inside and dream another dream, pray another prayer, or hope another hope, until we take the ones that are in there and give them life."

My friends, over the next 10 days, we are going to cram this sanctuary full of hopes and dreams and prayers. That is a good first step. We can make 5770 a year of blessing only by bringing them out from here and into the world. And perhaps we can create a new expression: We dream, and God smiles.