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b'shalom rav - rabbi ron shulman's sermons 2021-22 | 5782

high holy day sermons 2021 | 5782

In my High Holy Day sermons this year, I thought about who we are and the circumstances in which we live. I’m gratified by the responses to my thoughts and look forward to on-going conversations. My sermons follow below in this order.
 
On Yom Kippur, I discussed "Jewish Peoplehood & Purpose."
On Kol Nidre Eve, I reflected on our "COVID Exhaustion."
On the First Day of Rosh HaShanah, I described this year as a "Sad New Year.”
On the Second Day of Rosh HaShanah, I reflected that “It Takes a Long Time to Become Young.”
On Erev Rosh HaShanah, I urged that we “Can't Be Over It.”
 

jewish peoplehood & Purpose

Yom Kippur Sermon 2021 | 5782
 

 

 
When I next get the opportunity to be in Israel, I’m looking forward to returning to a favorite old museum. After a $100 million renovation it’s now new. The former Beit Hatfusot, the Museum of the Jewish Diaspora, is now ANU, the Museum of the Jewish People. One recent visitor describes it as “a cheery, inclusive vision of Jewish Peoplehood.”
 
The old museum told the story of the Jewish People outside of Israel. Honoring our religious heritage. Teaching our history. Paying homage to victims of antisemitism, and exploring varieties of Jewish identity, culture, and ethnicity.
 
This new museum is the only museum in the world that attempts to tell the Jewish story in its entirety. About it I read, “One has the unmistakable sense that the designers and visitors have a shared understanding of what Judaism is, even if they might not agree on all its meanings and implications.”
 
Catches your imagination, doesn’t it. Jews in agreement about Judaism? That’s something I’ll have to see to believe.
 
I know in our synagogue and greater Jewish community some of you are supporters and donors to this unique venture. Perhaps you agree, as some observe, that this new museum is more lighthearted than the original Diaspora Museum.
 
For example, in addition to permanent exhibitions about “Trailblazers of the Jewish People,” and “Synagogues Past and Present,” the first temporary exhibit is entitled, “Jewish Humor Around the World.” Among its features I understand there are Seinfeld memorabilia from America and routines from Israeli stand-up comics.
 
I look forward to visiting. Until then, I can’t comment on the museum’s merits or impact. Still, knowing about the existence of a world class Museum of the Jewish People in Tel Aviv raises a few questions. Among them, this.
 
Is Jewish Peoplehood, the idea that you and I belong to a distinctive people, a group with whom we each have an affinity for and identify with, is Jewish Peoplehood something most Jews, or even we here, acknowledge today?
 
I also have a more personal question. If you were asked to select an item to display in this new Museum of the Jewish People, if you were asked to choose something from your life experiences, your memories, or your home that represents your Jewish identity or belonging to the Jewish People, what would you choose? What is your connection? Even deeper, what is your contribution to the story of the Jewish People?
 
Upon entering the Museum of the Jewish People, a visitor meets life-size projections of individual Jews describing what Judaism means to them. The effect is to create a conversation about the purpose and significance of being Jewish. My last question, for now. How do you explain your personal understanding of Jewish purpose and meaning?
 
At the outset of the pandemic we continue to endure, I did not imagine these to be among my questions or concerns when we would emerge from seclusion and slowly return to being with one another. Yet, coincidental to our necessary separation, and perhaps because of it, many people began asking questions of Jewish identity.
 
The absence of physical community. Lost opportunities to gather with family and friends for Jewish occasions and celebrations. We turned within. We asked ourselves about our Jewish interests, habits, and beliefs.
 
Then came last spring’s conflict between Hamas and Israel which also raised questions of Jewish identity. When Israel came under attack by enemies sworn to her destruction, as riots erupted in Israeli cities and synagogues burned, from a safe distance, some American Jews expressed their personal discomfort with Israeli politics and policies before expressing their personal connection to and concern for Israel. I said at the time, our compassion is for all who are innocent and all who suffer, but our bond with Israel is unique.
 
A word about Israel.
 
Israel is the fulfillment of Jewish Peoplehood. Israel enables complete consciousness of Jewish being, identity, and purpose. No other land and no other place allow Jews this wholeness. That’s why our bond is so very emotional and compelling. Why many of us feel it so personally.
 
Last spring many of us saw in Israel a nation under siege. Others saw in Israel a vitality and strength that overwhelms the region, especially in Gaza where we all see poverty, suffering, and pain. We all genuinely grieve the loss, pain, and human suffering. We feel it for each IDF soldier and Israeli citizen when they are killed or wounded, for his or her family. We feel it for all innocent Palestinian families who mourn their losses of children and loved ones.
 
Through the lens of our people’s story and moral memory, however, we see cause and effect, goodness and hatred. We see narratives and context for an intractable conflict. Apparently, many don’t. Former AP Middle East reporter Matti Friedman describes it clearly. “The Jews of Israel are the screen onto which it has become socially acceptable to project the things you hate about yourself and your country.”
 
As a result, last spring defending Israel and celebrating Zionism became controversial. Yet far away from the Middle East, here in America, 222 reported antisemitic incidents took place during those two weeks when Hamas terrorists reigned missile attacks against Israel.
 
A word about antisemitism.
 
In the context of our discussion today, the historian of antisemitism Daniel Goldhagen explains. “From the beginning, the notion existed that Jews formed a people, an identifiable ethnic group, like a large family, and not merely a freely come together collection of believers.”
 
About which Rabbi Judah Loew, the 16th century Maharal of Prague explains. “Since we Jews are separated and scattered among all the nations of the world a person will think that this is the Jewish people’s greatest deficiency.”
 
In other words, not worthy of our own nation as Jews, the nations of the world don’t need to tolerate our presence mixed in among them. Which, thinking again about Israel, is why Israel is a fulfillment of Jewish Peoplehood even for those of us who do not live there.
 
In my view, the antisemite is a coward. Afraid of himself or herself. Fearful of the burdens of freedom and free moral choice. Nervous about changes in society and around the world, the antisemite seeks an escape from personal responsibility by hating the unknown other.
 
A word about us.
 
In addition to whatever engaged, entertained, and challenged us at home these past months, many of us were alone with our thoughts during a more reflective and quiet time in our lives. We come to Yom Kippur, this sacred day of introspection, with lots of practice.
 
We say of God on Yom Kippur, “You know the mysteries of the universe, the deepest secrets of everyone alive. You probe our innermost depths. You examine our thoughts and feelings.” Ourselves aware of what only we and God may know, we seek forgiveness and atonement.
 
We are here to reconcile our thoughts with our deeds, our self-awareness with our personal visions for being in life. In other words, over the past many months we’ve gotten good at contemplating the nature of our lives. We have actual experience outside of a synagogue service considering how we hope to carry ourselves back into the world.
 
Maybe you’ve thought about your appearance. Perhaps you’ve considered what new ventures to pursue and to which former activities you will or won’t return. Beyond how we look or what we do to keep busy, on Yom Kippur we focus on character, vision, and purpose. Have we considered how we might present ourselves and interact when back among others? Kinder? Respectful? Tolerant? Forgiving? More grateful for what is than upset for what isn’t?
 
In a city of 1.4 million, in a state of 39.7 million, in a country of 333 million, and a world of 7.9 billion human beings, we 14 million Jews each ask who am I? Where do I belong? With whom do I identify in this vast, mysterious, and diverse human world? What am I about? What binds me to others? What sets me apart?
 
It’s complicated. We each function in several subgroups of people simultaneously. Jewish Peoplehood is one such historic and enduring address and association. A personal place to belong while living as one among millions and billions. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel writes. “Judaism is primarily the living in the spiritual order of the Jewish People, the living in Jews of the past and with the Jews of the present.”
 
A most familiar prayer of Jewish tradition is Aleinu. We all know the prayer signifies the end of a service. But do we know why? The origin of Aleinu is a matter of debate, though we know it is ancient and was first used formally on Rosh HaShanah in the 2nd or 3rd century. Aleinu expresses the essence of Jewish Peoplehood in 10 compound sentences.
 
It begins with the particular. Aleinu l’shabeah la’Adon hakol. We praise the Sovereign of all existence. We acclaim God for the special role of the Jewish People in history. Shelo sam helkeinu kahem. Our destiny is different.
 
We then look forward to the day when differences between peoples will not matter. It concludes with the universal. God embraces all of humanity. Bayom hahu yihiyeh Adonai ehad u’shemo ehad. On that day the Eternal God shall be one and the name of God, one.”
 
In the middle, the transition from distinguishing the Jewish People to celebrating all people, is this phrase. L’taken olam b’malkhut Shaddai. To repair the world, or possibly instead of repair, to establish the world, under God’s Sovereignty.
 
This is a statement of Jewish purpose. Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan describes it as our two duties. Our first duty is to the Jewish people’s covenant with God. Our second duty is to seek covenant with everyone else.
 
Quoting Rabbi Heschel again. “Judaism is an attempt to prove that in order to be a human, you have to be more than a human; that in order to be a people, we have to be more than a people. It is our destiny to live for what is more than ourselves.”
 
Let’s learn from COVID. There is a universal reality to the experience of being human. Yet a person does not find his or her life’s meaning in their universal existence. Meaning and significance come from our particular identities and experiences.
 
If we are not each unique, the world has no need for our personal gifts and talents. If we are not distinctive as a group, if we have no lived history or sacred story to tell, then we have no wisdom or vision to share with the larger world. As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks describes, “Judaism believes in one God but not in one religion, one culture, one truth. The role of Jews and Judaism is to teach humanity the dignity of difference.”
 
This is what Aleinu means every time we recite it. That we do not allow our universal sensitivities to become a rejection of Jewish Peoplehood. Our liberal values must serve as a quest for particular Jewish significance in a uniquely pluralistic and multi-cultural society. We need to reclaim Jewish particularism as a foundational expression of Jewish identity and values in an open society.
 
I began, a long time ago, by asking what you might display in the Museum of the Jewish People as your individual contribution to our collective story? How might you explain your personal understanding of Jewish purpose and meaning? I hope you’ll give this some thought. I hope we’ll find opportunities to talk about this alone and together in the year ahead.
 
I might choose to answer with ideas I have taught. Textual interpretations I have shared. Moments in the lives of Jewish individuals and families at which I have officiated. What I might choose is an unfair measure for you. My career choice is to serve the Jewish People. I hope I have contributed in some small way.
 
For our purpose today, I’ll level the playing field. Not as Rabbi Shulman but as Ron Shulman, I ask myself as I am asking you. What represents my Jewish identity and belonging? What is my personal contribution to the story of the Jewish People?
 
My contribution is not mine alone. It is the promise inscribed on Robin’s and my wedding rings. The rings Robin and I designed and wear contain the Hebrew words, “Ani v'atah, neshaneh et ha'olam.” It is the name and refrain of our favorite Israeli love ballad composed by Arik Einstein. “You and I will change the world.” Easier said, easier sung, then done!
 
We give to each other our personal and unconditional love and loyalty. We also give our love and loyalty to the ideas, traditions, and dreams of Judaism and the Jewish People. To make Jewish a personal priority and a family lifestyle. To believe that the purpose of Judaism is to seek ought over is. To imagine what can be even when it is not. And if not yet true in the world at large, to find within the celebrations and ideas of the Jewish People a community where it can be true for me, for us.
 
The love and loyalty I’m speaking about is of purpose. No current challenge of Jewish life, no concern about Jewish identity and demographics, no personal spiritual or religious curiosity, no fears of antisemitism or discussions about Israel will be met effectively unless and until we find purpose in belonging to the Jewish People.
 
Va’anahnu korim u’mishtahavim u’modim. Lifne Melekh Malkehi haM’lakhim, haKadosh Baruch Hu. We humbly bow before God’s sovereignty and holiness. We accept our privilege to be members of the Jewish People. For that distinctive, precious, cherished, unique, and only ours privilege, we give thanks.
 
© 2021 Rabbi Ronald J. Shulman
 

covid exhaustion

Kol Nidre Sermon 2021 | 5782
 
 
 
 
I recently asked a physician I know about COVID exhaustion. He looked at me sympathetically and started listing off symptoms like fatigue, headache, and shortness of breath. Just as he was about to ask me if I had any such symptoms, I stopped him. No, not physical illness or exhaustion, I explained. I’m thinking about COVID emotional exhaustion.
 
On this sacred night, with sensitivity and compassion, I know we are all exhausted. In my soul is a revision of the Kol Nidre phrase we recited earlier. From last Yom Kippur until this one, who could have possibly imagined how emotionally challenging and debilitating the last year, the past eighteen months, would be?
 
We are all COVID exhausted.
 
Parents trying to maintain balance in their families while juggling work or underemployment, their children’s schooling and various needs. All the while also striving for self-maintenance and healthy personal relationships.
 
Still other parents, grandparents, and teachers creatively and vigorously doing all they can in response to our youngest children, maybe even for all of our children. Children who are developing emotionally and physically, learning language, social and life skills, more slowly and more isolated than is typical.
 
Those of us whose employment is still not secure. Possibly our income is diminished. Those among and around us for whom even running errands has been difficult. We all have felt occasional bouts of loneliness. Many of us coping with illnesses, grieving loved ones, or just feeling disheartened.
 
Adults fretting over families and friends, each day sensing a bit more of their lives quietly slipping away. Individuals, at every life stage, alone and aging, afraid and unsure. All of us asking, is it safe to go out? With whom and where?
 
Medical personnel, first responders, essential workers, educators, organizational and communal leaders, researchers, journalists, people from all walks of life and all segments of society trying to keep apace, working tirelessly to sustain, maintain, and create anew the structures, activities, and support systems some require and so many others desire.
 
Many of us feel a palpable sense of disappointment. We were on the path out of the pandemic, and suddenly it seems like this virus isn’t going away, which it probably isn’t I’m told. We have postponed things we hoped to return to. It’s emotionally draining continuously to be “COVID Careful.” Assessing risk, making choices, living as fully, “normally,” and responsibly as we can.
 
We are all COVID exhausted.
 
Months after their Exodus from Egypt, after enduring a long period of disruption and difficult circumstances, Torah reports that a very tired and weary group of Israelites were attacked while on their journey to the Land of Israel. On this sacred night, at this sacred season, this Biblical memory resonates. Torah recounts both a physical and emotional impact.
 
The Coronavirus attacks us physically, to be sure. Tonight, we focus on its other effect. Emotionally, we are a tired and weary group of people. Tonight, we acknowledge this and seek a spiritual response for coping and restoration.
 
On Yom Kippur we are present to ourselves, to one another, and to God. Not only for forgiveness, but also for rejuvenation. “If you see within me cause for sadness,” we recite in the Mahzor, “guide me in ways everlasting.”
 
In Torah we first learn about this purpose of Yom Kippur. “It is a Sabbath of Sabbaths for you…” A Shabbat of complete rest. Shabbat Shabbaton, a double Shabbat. Rest not only for our bodies but also rest for our souls. “…and you shall answer your souls, this is a decree for all times.”
 
It’s our first small step. To rest. As we take a break from our normal routines, let’s use this night, and tomorrow, to exhale. (Go ahead, exhale!) Then to be honest about what we are feeling. We fast to deny our physical needs so we can answer our souls with a degree of emotional and spiritual refreshment.
 
The Biblical prophet Elijah once placed his emotional exhaustion before God. Elijah felt the burdens of his people’s pain and aimlessness. Elijah witnessed their worries and understood their apprehensions. Distraught himself, Elijah withdrew from his routine.
 
“Enough,” he cried. “Take my soul.” Next we read, “He lay down and fell asleep.” Maybe save the actual sleep for a bit later. For now, in these evening hours of Yom Kippur, as did Elijah, express what you are feeling.
 
It is among the Bible’s most powerful spiritual scenes. As I read it to you, don’t think about Elijah’s circumstances. Think about your own. Remember, our first step is to rest. Our second step is to express ourselves. To others, if we are able and comfortable. To ourselves, and to God, as private reflection and personal prayer.
 
“God said to him, “Why are you here, Elijah?” He replied, “I am moved by zeal for the Eternal God, for the Israelites have forsaken Your covenant, torn down Your altars, and put Your prophets to the sword. I alone am left, and I fear for my life.”
 
“Come out,” God called, “and stand on the mountain before the Eternal God.” And the Eternal God passed by. There was a great and mighty wind, splitting mountains and shattering rocks by the power of the Eternal God; but God was not in the wind. After the wind, an earthquake; but God was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake, fire; but God was not in the fire. And after the fire, a soft murmuring sound.
 
When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his cloak about his face and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. Then a voice addressed him: “Why are you here, Elijah?” He answered, “I am moved by zeal for the Eternal God. I alone am left, and I fear for my life. The Eternal God said to him, “Go back by the way you came…”
 
In quiet and calm we recover our equilibrium. Returning to all we must do and manage, as God sends Elijah back by the way he came, we need a different emotional response. We won’t gain emotional health from life’s mighty winds and shattering rocks. We instead, will find what we seek by looking out at the world with a more forgiving and uplifting attitude.
 
This is the third step. After we rest, after we reflect about ourselves and our circumstances, we reorient ourselves. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel explains. Our goal should be to live life in radical amazement. To get up in the morning and look at the world in a way that takes nothing for granted. Everything is phenomenal. Everything is incredible. Never treat life casually. To be spiritual is to be amazed.
 
Heschel writes, “Spiritually we cannot live by merely reiterating borrowed or inherited knowledge. Inquire of your soul what does it know, what does it take for granted. It will tell you only no-thing is taken for granted; each thing is a surprise, being is unbelievable. We are amazed at seeing anything at all; amazed not only at particular values and things but at the unexpectedness of being as such, at the fact that there is being at all.”
 
Yes, for the past eighteen months it has been incredibly hard for parents to balance all they and their children need and do. Yes, for longer than we’re accustomed to we are monitoring our children as they grow and mature.
 
And yet, as parents we are providing our children with the best possible environments we can. Our children are learning. Our children are playing. Our children are thriving in our embrace and our love.
 
Yes, day in and day out some of us worry about our finances and our daily capacities. Yes, too many of us have been dealing with illness, grief, and dismay. Yes, we fret over the passing of time.
 
And yet, here we are through our own means and with the assistance of others who care. When we have known illness, we have also experienced healing. When grief has touched us, comfort has supported us. When we were disappointed and worried, we regrouped and changed our plans as possible. We have lived on to see the next day and what it might bring.
 
Yes, we are all stressed by the demands of responding to a global pandemic. Yes, we worry about how best to move forward. Yes, we are tired.
 
And yet, we have discovered how resilient and creative we are. How determined and optimistic we remain. How anticipating a post-pandemic future keeps us looking ahead, not back, hopeful not hopeless.
 
We are all COVID exhausted.
 
And yet, we welcome a New Year with expectation and resolve to live at our best as best we can.
 
“Standing eye to eye with being as being,” writes Rabbi Heschel, “we realize that we are able to look at the world with two faculties, with reason and with wonder. Through the first we try to explain or to adapt the world to our concepts, through the second we seek to adapt our minds to the world.”
 
On this sacred night, with sensitivity and compassion, we pause to rest. We turn within and to others. We express all we may be feeling. We calmly and quietly adapt ourselves to the world as it is so that we may regain our composure. I pray we continue to rest, to reflect, and to adapt from this Yom Kippur until the next. On this sacred night, and through every next day, may we choose to see all around us wonder not worry.
 
© 2021 Rabbi Ronald J. Shulman
 

sad new year

Rosh HaShanah Sermon 2021 | 5782
 

 

 
Shanah Tovah! I greet you this morning with the fervent hope that this New Year will be a good one for you, for us, for the Jewish people, and for all of humanity. Our greeting, as you know, is for a good new year, a Shanah Tovah. Not a Happy New Year. We leave the happy for January 1st.
 
At this liminal moment, a holy transition from what ends to what begins, from the old to the new, today our hope is for what our lives require. We seek goodness, meaning, health, and contentment whether the coming days are happy or sad.
 
Honestly, if emotions are to be our measure right now as time moves forward, I feel this to be a sad New Year. I am sad that COVID’s lingering threat prevents more of us from being here together in this room. I am sad that we were on a path out of the pandemic and had to backtrack. I am sad that COVID is morphing into an endemic and that “COVID Careful” is going to be the path we must learn to walk.
 
Sadly, I wonder if this is what it felt like to live in Biblical times. People all over the world suffer from nature’s wrath. Blazing fires. Devastating earthquakes, hurricanes, and flooding. Illness afflicting millions. People suffer the results of humanity’s failings, too: widespread poverty and despair, insecurity and indignity.
 
It’s Rosh HaShanah. This is not the holiday when we spill wine from our Seder Kiddush Cups to symbolize sadness at the plagues afflicting humanity. Though these troubles are ever present around the globe, at this moment, amidst all the disruption the COVID pandemic continues to cause, I feel a deep sadness about all that is and should not be.
 
I am sad that more pushes us apart than pulls us together as Americans and as Jews. I am sad that groups we may associate with, and some of our families too, divide rather than come together. I am sad that we emphasize our differences more than we appreciate our similarities. In other words, I am sad that all too often we can’t agreeably disagree.
 
I am sad that the darker side of human nature is openly, wantonly, and all too comfortably on display throughout our toxic and intoxicating social media culture, our public discourse, and our society at large.
 
I am sad that too often a lack of honesty and integrity, the undermining of truth and trust, diminish allegiance to country and community. I am sad when selfish preferences masquerade as rights, when responsibility toward others is not seen as civic duty.
 
I am sad that antisemitism is rampant and the hypocrites who spew it so animated. I am sad that misrepresenting Zionism and questioning Israel’s right to exist are the in vogue politically correct posture.
 
If emotions are to be our measure, I feel an inner sadness as this New Year begins. To describe my mood, I teach this comment on a verse in today’s Rosh HaShanah Torah reading. It is an insight of the 19th Century Polish Rabbi Menahem Mendel of Vorki.
 
After Abraham sends away Hagar and her son Ishmael because Sarah is jealous of them, we learn that without enough water, Hagar worries for her son’s life. Then we read, “God heard the cry of the boy…” Rabbi Mendel explains the verse this way. “Nothing in the preceding verses indicates that Ishmael cried out. No, it was a soundless cry,” what I call inner sadness, “and God heard it.”

On another occasion Rabbi Mendel discussed the verse in the Torah which tells about Pharaoh's daughter when she rescues Moses from the river. In that scene we read, “When she opened the basket, she saw that it was a child, a boy crying.”

“What we should expect to be told,” says Rabbi Mendel, “is that she heard the child Moses crying, not that she saw him crying. But the child was crying inside himself.” Another example of inner sadness, “which is why later Pharaoh’s daughter declares, ‘This is one of the Hebrews' children.’” Moses’ cry reflects his inner sadness. “‘It was the Jewish kind of crying,’” concludes Rabbi Mendel.
 
The Jewish kind of crying. We are an introspective and reflective people. Throughout history, we take in what the world foists upon us. With enduring strength, we give back to the world the moral lessons of our experience and the wisdom of our ideas. This describes my mood as the New Year begins. So, don’t worry.
 
It is not my intention to depress you this morning, if I haven’t already. I do want to think out loud with you about human nature, about the nature of this moment in time, and about our vision and ability to transform inner sadness into goodness.
 
Let me begin with this insight of the Talmud. In establishing the patterns of Jewish prayer and ritual, the rabbis teach. “One recites a blessing for the bad just as one does for the good.” At a time of distress, we don’t give up hope. As well, “One recites a blessing for the good just as one does for the bad.” At a time of contentment, we seek perspective.
 
Making such bold statements, the rabbis offer examples. If one’s land floods, though at the time a bad circumstance to confront, perhaps benefit will come from the sediment enhancing the quality of the soil. Bad for now. Hopefully better later.
 
Or perhaps you find a valuable object. At the time, a good situation to be in. But if the original owner claims his lost item, you will have to give it back. Good for now. Possibly not good for long. A metaphor for many of our lives’ experiences.
 
Bad times give way to better days. Good times are fleeting, to be savored while they last. In life it is our blessing, it is our burden, and it is our goal to seek significance. We want to find meaning in the brevity, variety, and mystery of everything we experience.
 
These past 18 months were no exception. Consider everything we did. Remember everything you did. Reflect on all you still may be doing. To cope. To help. To make something good for yourself and for others during this most unusual time in our lives.
 
Unsure and unsettled, we found new and imaginative ways to fill our days with purpose and productivity. We made use, as we are making use, of God’s gifts, the gifts of human ingenuity and resilience. We responded to a unique challenge with our best virtues. Compassion and caring as we confronted loss and distress. Creativity and conviction as we worked, celebrated, and gathered. When lonely we appreciated hearing from others. When worried we sought hope. When wearied we tried new things.
 
“What are human beings,” asks the Psalms of God, “that You have been mindful of them, humanity that You take note of them? You have made human beings a little less than divine, adorned them with glory and majesty. You have made human beings master of Your handiwork, laying the world at their feet.”
 
The author of this Psalm is overcome with the world’s beauty. Yet, of all the magnificent things in the world, for this poet nothing compares to the wonder of human beings. Masters of God’s handiwork, blessed with intelligence, emotion, and conscience, we can reach down to raise up our circumstances out of most any abyss.
 
Or, in alphabetical order (because in the religious poetry of the High Holy Days alphabetic lists symbolize the totality of our good or bad capacities) we can abuse, berate, cheat, destroy, exploit, fool, gloat, hate, insult, justify, knock, lie, mock, negate, offend, persecute, quarrel, ruin, steal, troll, undermine, violate, wreck, [be] xenophobic, yell, and [be] zealots.
 
Each of these acts, all together and all too often, reveal the dark side of human nature. All too often they overwhelm our better instincts and the potential of our humanity. They always have. In every generation. All too much on display currently, the nastiness of these negative traits when displayed between people and groups contributes to my inner sadness. But it doesn’t have to be this way.
 
Let me tell you about three of many things that happened 18 months ago on March 13, 2020. It was a Friday, but we’ll put aside all the Friday the 13th superstitions. Although that date means it was “National Blame Someone Else Day.” Not quite a Hallmark holiday, but a day established in 1982 to encourage individuals to pawn off their mistakes or mishaps on someone or something else. A tempting theme, but I’ll put that aside for now, too.
 
18 months ago, on March 13, 2020, here at Beth El we gathered for our last Shabbat evening service before we closed. No one knew what lie ahead. In fits and starts, around the country folks headed home and into seclusion.
 
Meanwhile in Washington DC, all 16 fragments of the Dead Sea Scrolls on display at the Museum of the Bible were declared, “cunning forgeries.” Considered some of the museum’s most valuable items, described as “the oldest known surviving copies of the Hebrew Bible,” they were fakes. Copies made of aged leather and modern ink. The quality of these forgeries was so good, some of the world’s leading scroll scholars were duped.
 
All the while, north from here in Berkeley, CA a scientist named Jennifer Doudna couldn’t sleep. It was 2 a.m. in the pre-dawn hours of March 13. She sensed her world, our world, was about to change.
 
Walter Isaacson tells the story. Dr. Doudna led a March 13 meeting of her colleagues. She stood in front of the room and also via Zoom to rally 50 researchers with an intensity she usually kept masked by a calm façade. “This is not something that academics typically do,’ she told her peers. ‘We need to step up.” Jennifer Doudna is recognized for her lead role in the genetic research that ultimately produced the two mRNA COVID vaccines.
 
Living amidst a pandemic as we and everyone closed the two sides of human nature were present on that March 13, as they are every day. In a museum, thieves were found to have perpetrated a scam. In a laboratory, scientists started a journey toward healing. In our homes, with our relatives and friends, and by ourselves, you and I looked at our unexpected reality and had to decide what to do.
 
While there will always be bad actors among us and weak moments for us all, I refuse to live in the darkness of humanity’s baser inclinations. In the world I inhabit, I choose to emphasize possibility, potential, and the promise present in people’s best efforts.
 
Talmudic sage Rabbi Elazar reflects this choice. Knowing there would be bad acts among human beings in the world, God chose to see and promote the good of creation. “Even one righteous person would justify the creation of the entire world,” Rabbi Elazar teaches. In the mythology and wonder of God’s creation, wherever possible in life and in the world, our purpose is to see and do the good.
 
But I also know the saddest verse in the Torah. It comes after humanity’s creation in Genesis. There has been murder, corruption, and hurt. After which we read, “And the Eternal God regretted making human beings on earth, and God’s heart was sad.” We recognize the source of God’s inner sadness. People exhibiting their inclination to evil, their Yetzer haRa, rather than their inclination to good, their Yetzer haTov.
 
Yet, we need to know this. For God’s image in Genesis, and for so many voices in Jewish tradition, sadness is a pause on the way to compassion. Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi teaches. “If one does not have a broken and contrite heart, one cannot be said to have a heart at all.”
 
The remedy for my inner sadness, and any you may also feel, lies in this truth. If I don’t want my inner sadness to endure, I must turn it into compassion and kind-heartedness.
 
I need to create an alternate reality, not of facts but of ideals, of hopes, and of personal ethics. A way to manage my existence in the real world with a vision of a better world. A source of inspiration, motivation, and retort to all I see that troubles me. For all that crowds my heart and soul with painful images and disturbing information I must know but am somewhat helpless to fix.
 
I need to care for my soul in order to care about my world. I need to withdraw in order to engage. I need to search for meaning in order to contribute something meaningful to others. As individuals and a community, we know we are blessed in the condition of our lives. Aware of our people’s history, aware of all that plagues people around the world today, we live as the fortunate few.
 
I wonder if our relative comfort separates us from the deeper experiences of humanity. Human history, including life around the globe today, finds people searching for understanding, for security, for personal purpose, or just for simple survival. Life’s depth comes from standing vulnerable to the natural and human made ill winds that blow around the world.
 
We need a way to take hold of our humanity. To connect us to others’ realities. To allow life’s precariousness to motivate joy and gratitude, compassion and kindness. What I seek is to grow through my comfort toward a recognition of the true earnestness and intensity of life.
 
I propose something unusual. An additional reason for doing mitzvot, for consciously choosing acts of Jewish celebration and rites of ritual demonstration.
 
The choices we make to observe Jewish life according to its patterns and customs, to celebrate Rosh HaShanah as we do today, to be thoughtful and ethical about our interactions with all that lives, is to give over some personal autonomy to be larger than I am alone and greater in vision than I can imagine.
 
Doing mitzvot may just be a way to bring into our lives a depth of purpose. To focus on what it means to care for ourselves and others. To focus on the patterns and needs of our lives. To connect us to realities of human experience within our group and beyond our own. In Jewish observance we act out the dramas and quests of human striving. We glean wisdom of the ages urgently necessary today.
 
We may not always be able to control our moods. Emotions well within us. We can decide how to respond to what we feel. When sad we can find motivation in the memory of better days. Of soul and conscience, you and I can counter meanness when we encounter it. We can be good when others are not. We can model decency where it is lacking.
 
Remember we are but a little lower than the divine, as the Psalm imagines we each exist in life. It’s up to us. There are those who will use their ingenuity to perpetrate fraud. To hurt. There are also those who will use their talents to make things better. To assist. Each of us can do the same. We can harm or we can help.
 
We can refuse to give credence to public personalities whose efforts and belligerence are unworthy of our attention. We can refuse to make space in our minds for people whose words and intentions are rude. In this New Year, we can shine the light of our ideals onto the dark places of human experience.
 
The remedy for my inner sadness is personal resolve. Care and compassion. Honesty and integrity. Generosity and activity on behalf of others, by whatever means we can. And spiritually. By living in sacred time and doing sacred deeds. Establishing an alternate reality of ideals and of personal ethics. By embracing daily, weekly, or periodic moments of mitzvah, of connection, of faith, of hope, and of love.
 
Shanah Tovah! May we rejoice and reflect as we begin a new phase of living and striving. May we return to God by improving the quality and character of our deeds. It is all ours to see and ours to do. To transform inner sadness into goodness, and in the end, in an alternate reality, to declare 5782 to be a good and happy New Year!
 
© 2021 Rabbi Ronald J. Shulman

 

it takes a long time to become young

Rosh HaShanah Day Two Sermon 2021 | 5782
 

 

 
Author and playwright, Garson Kanin tells this story. It is 1966 in Cannes, France. A retrospective of Pablo Picasso’s art works is on display. Hundreds of canvasses arranged in chronological order. The viewers are visibly impressed by the breadth and beauty of the exhibit.
 
Through it all, Picasso himself is moved, enjoying the show more than anyone. He is 85 years old, surrounded by many younger admirers. A woman approaches Picasso. She compliments him on the presentation. “It is stupendous!” she gushes. “But I do not understand the grouping, not at all,” she comments. “How so?” asks the artist.
 
“Well,” she replies, “the beginning pictures are so mature, so serious. The later ones more and more different and wild. It is almost as if the dates should be reversed. Starting here with your new works and ending there with the first. How do you explain it?”
 
“Easily,” Pablo Picasso answers, his eyes sparkling. “It takes a long time to become young!”
 
That’s why we’re here today!
 
It takes a long time to renew our spirits, our souls, and our sense of self at the start of a New Year. When we’re young, we rush to grow up. As we age, we strive to stay young. On this Second Day of Rosh HaShanah, we actually stop time. We don’t age, nor are we getting any younger. I’ll explain in a moment.
 
Picasso’s insight, “it takes a long time to become young” is true. It takes a lifetime for each of us to grow comfortable with who we are. It takes years of experience to fully embrace our strengths and weaknesses. It takes the misplaced confidence of youth to measure in our older years the attainments and disappointments of our days.
 
Most of all, it takes the skills we develop and the efforts we expend over time to become really good at whatever we have set out to do. That’s how I understand what Picasso said. It takes a long time for us to achieve our goals in life. Whatever we may seek, we work hard at it until we’re proficient. Until our maturity expresses itself like a youthful vitality. It takes a long time to become young.
 
We are here today, at the synagogue and at home, because Jewish tradition understands Rosh HaShanah to be one very long day. Yoma Arikhta, a long day blending two sacred days into one. There is no yesterday, only today for the 48 hours of Rosh HaShanah.
 
Centuries ago, the imperative of celebrating a New Year wasn’t only to gather, to pray and reflect, to share greetings and good wishes with family and friends. The ancient rabbis had to set the communal calendar. They and their peers could not check a digital or printed calendar. They had to gaze up into the night sky, look for the new moon, verify its sighting for accuracy and, as a result, set the sacred dates for each month of the year.
 
There were Jews who lived a distance from the Beit Din in Jerusalem when holy days were declared. They lived in areas where the news of which date to celebrate might be late. News which might be delayed by opponents of rabbinic law who wanted to confuse the people in distant communities.
 
Those who lived far away and were unsure if they should mark today or tomorrow celebrated both. They observed two holy days to avoid violating a Torah command for honoring a precise sacred date. More on than off, this has been the practice inside and outside of Israel through the generations.
 
We are all familiar with this tradition still today. Two days of festival in our Diaspora for every one day in Israel. Second Seder celebrations and the like. We’re also aware of the change in circumstances. We know with a precision unimaginable to our ancestors what time it is here and everywhere else. Therefore, we find additional reasons to honor Second Day Yom Tovim – or not.
 
Minhag avoteinu b’yadeinu – the custom of our ancestors is in our hands.” In the Diaspora, taking more time to focus intentionally on our Jewish lives, identities, and heritage balances the necessary cultural assimilation that is Jewish life outside of Israel. In our added celebration, we strive to be united with Jews worldwide. We are also aware of rabbinic law which understands. “The sanctity of Second Day Yom Tov is lighter.”
 
Except when it comes to Rosh HaShanah! We are not celebrating today because we aren’t sure it was Rosh HaShanah yesterday. We know that it was. We’re here today because it takes a long time to become young.
 
It is taking a long time to become free of the Coronavirus pandemic, too. As if last year’s High Holy Days weren’t unusual enough, here we are in a mode of holiday celebration that may change us well into the future. In person and online, when able to gather again safely and comfortably, will we choose to when we can? I’ll leave the future until then.
 
Here and now, we are aging as we are enduring, not only physically but emotionally. Averages for human life expectancy have shortened. Many of us feel overwhelmed and weary. If it takes a long time to become young, in the moment it seems to be taking longer than ever before!
 
We learn, “Anyone who tries to push off the moment,” in other words avoid what is, “will be pushed off by the moment,” in other words struggle. “Anyone who is pushed off by the moment,” in other words confront what is, “the moment will be pushed off for him,” in other words succeed.
 
Success takes time. Success requires work. Success results from an honest appraisal of what is, what must be done, and how. To achieve my best self, to become a better version this year of who I was last year, even if I was pretty good - we don’t have to be glum to be contrite – to do teshuvah as we are called to do on Rosh HaShanah, is to pause, turn within, and try to recreate or renew something about ourselves.
 
Let’s not regret or resent what we are living through. Instead, let’s confront the challenge of our lingering pandemic days. This year, teshuvah means we ought to plan for our return to all we miss and desire.
 
We want health, security, and the full renewal of our life routines. We want to make improvements where we see shortcomings and offer help where we see need. We want to change ourselves just enough to discover what we are capable of and maybe just a little more than we thought possible before.
 
Teshuvah is our quest for growth of soul and character as we age in both years and accumulated experience. It takes a long time to become young. It certainly takes more than one day. This is our task every day. This is also why Rosh HaShanah is described as one long day, not two distinct days. Yoma Arikhta, a long day modelling the time and endurance it truly takes to achieve worthwhile goals.
 
On this Second Day of Rosh HaShanah, we have stopped time, at least spiritually and morally. We are not aging, nor are we getting any younger. Instead, we are pausing the clock to decide in our hearts and heads if what we want and need is more important to us than whatever may prevent us from accomplishing it. We can use the gift of this expanded sacred time, at synagogue and at home, to motivate our consideration and decision.
 
Last night those of us who sat down for a holiday meal, we raised our cups to recite Kiddush. Monday night, on Erev Rosh HaShanah, our recitation of Kiddush concluded with the b’rakhah Sheheheyanu, expressing thanks for our being in life, for all that sustains us, and for us reaching this new moment and year.
 
A simple and familiar ritual moment, except for last night about which we ask this question. If Rosh HaShanah is one long day, and not two separate days, should we say Sheheheyanu on the “second night” or not? If so, what we are celebrating as new?
 
Maybe it’s not the most profound question we Jews ask. It does have, however, a sweet answer. Find something new for this special occasion. Wear a new garment. Choose a new fruit to eat. If and when COVID safe, gather with a new group of family or friends for this meal. Seek awareness. Celebrate the new amidst the familiar.
 
An admirer of Pablo Picasso’s art once wondered why his paintings appeared to be more youthful, fresh, and new as the famed artist grew older. Picasso’s answer is useful to us today.
 
Teshuvah, as we are called to do on Rosh HaShanah, is to pause, turn within, and try to recreate or renew something about ourselves. Using the wisdom of our years and learning from life’s various tests, each of us has this capacity. To refresh our approach to all that engages us. To vigorously, or should I say youthfully, put forward our best efforts for all to admire.
 
Afterall, as this Second Day of Rosh HaShanah represents, “It takes a long time to become young.”
 
That’s why we’re here today!
 
© 2021 Rabbi Ronald J. Shulman

 

can't be over it

Erev Rosh HaShanah Sermon 2021 | 5782
 

 

 
I’m a Twitter tourist. I don’t post or comment. I monitor a bit to see what’s going on out there in the “Twitterverse.” If you tweet or want to recommend who I might follow, please let me know.
 
A cute Twitter handle I follow calls itself, “My Shul Called Life.” It seems to be a group of synagogue staffers very familiar with the flows and idiosyncrasies of synagogue life. No matter the synagogue, its religious style, or communal culture synagogue norms and patterns are largely familiar from one community to the next. Those of you who have belonged to different synagogues through the years surely recognize this.
 
A recent tweet from “My Shul Called Life” asked, “Is it too much to ask for 24/7 coverage on the state of synagogue changes in High Holy Day plans by Steve Kornacki?” This one is also cute. “A congregant has left a significant gift to the synagogue in her will. She notes in her estate that it is only to be used ‘to hire someone who can actually proofread.’”
 
However, here’s my favorite recent tweet of theirs. “We regret to inform you we will be cancelling the High Holy Days this year. Not because of Delta, we’re just over it.”
 
For some of us, it has been difficult anticipating this moment we now celebrate. It’s still summer and these are our fall festivals. It was just Labor Day weekend. This is the “earliest” the High Holy Days can come in the overlap of our Jewish and civil calendars. More impactful, we were looking to be past the pandemic and safely all together this evening, tomorrow, and through the sacred days ahead.
 
Whatever the early inconvenience or situational disappointment we feel, I think our mood is also affected by the totality of what we’re living through. These are not the hardest days in human history, nor the most challenging in Jewish history. Still, these are our days here and now. We feel the burden of so much continuously pressing down upon us. COVID, conflict, nature, and whatever else you want to list.
 
I will address these feelings tomorrow. This evening, I want to help you, me, all of us set the mood for these days we observe.
 
After I laughed at that tweet about being over the High Holy Days, I thought no. We can’t be over it. What we share on Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur is too important to gloss over. If not this year, then when? We need to grab on to these few hours of holy time and grasp their message.
 
“The genius of Judaism,” writes the late Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, “was to take eternal truths and translate them into time, into lived experiences. Other cultures have constructed philosophies and theologies, elaborate systems of abstract thought. Judaism prefers truth lived to truth merely thought. Ancient Greece produced the logical imagination. Judaism produced the chronological imagination, truth transposed into the calendar. Rosh Hashanah, the anniversary of the creation of humanity, invites us to live and feel the human condition in graphic ways.”
 
What truths about the human condition will we live in the next days? Let’s consider our holiday symbols to discover a few of them.
 
Perhaps yours is a custom to wear a new outfit or eat a new food on Rosh HaShanah. Yes or no, I hope tonight and tomorrow we all recite the b’rakhah Sheheheyanu, expressing thanks for our being in life, for all that sustains us, and for us reaching this new moment and year.
 
Life is a gift. We are born. We may give birth and enable the lives of others, but we each receive our own life through no effort of our own. Life is the most precious gift any one of us ever receives, followed only by the gift of love others give us, if we are so fortunate. HaYom Harat Olam. On Rosh HaShanah we celebrate the miracle and renewal of life, the world’s and our own.
 
Life is also sweet, and potentially good. The apples we dip into honey symbolize the continuous mahzor, cycle of experience, day to day, year to year. Life is sweet in the wonder of all that exists, in the beauty of all that is, and in the challenges we face to make our days and our world good.
 
Life is not always easy. In fact, it can be very difficult. Yet even a hard life contains a few simple moments of kindness, help, and pleasure. More or less, life is sweet and can be made good.
 
The sound of the Shofar calls us to this task of being good and seeking goodness. The call of the Shofar is a demand. Life demands much of us. God demands much of us. We demand much of each other, and of ourselves. It is only with great expectations that incredible things are possible. Hear the Shofar and urge yourself to settle for no less than your very best.
 
Teshuvah, Repentance, Tefillah, Prayer, and Tzedakah, Righteousness avert the severity of the decree.” Tomorrow morning when we recite this phrase asking of our fate, will it be a year of life and health or not, we understand.
 
There is much about life we do not control. Much will surprise us in the days ahead. And yet, we are endowed with incredible power. We are free as human beings. We are free to choose how to be. We are free to decide what to do. We are free to figure out how to respond. When and where there is joy, we can enjoy sharing in it. When and where there is sadness, we can humbly bring comfort and support.
 
Life is a gift. Life is sweet. Life, and in life we, can be good. It is ours to choose and to seek. What we do, who we do it with, and how we live our days are what matter.
 
I hope our mood this High Holy Day season will be one of gratitude for all that blesses us, sweetness for all that inspires us, goodness in all we can imagine, and freedom to pause, reflect, and sincerely imagine how to make a difference in this New Year.
 
We can’t be over it. What we share on Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur is too important to gloss over. Let us grab on to these few hours of holy time and grasp their message.
 
Shanah Tovah!
 
© 2021 Rabbi Ronald J. Shulman

 

Sun, October 24 2021 18 Cheshvan 5782