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Rosh HaShanah Sermon 2017 | 5778

A rabbi gave the same sermon every year on the High Holy Days. He was particularly beloved in his congregation so no one ever questioned him about this. But, after several years of hearing the same sermon, some members worked up the courage to approach their dear rabbi and ask him to prepare a new sermon for the New Year.
“Rabbi, you know how much we love you. Our only problem is that you’ve been giving the same sermon on Rosh HaShanah for 15 years. Don’t you think it’s time for a new one?”
The rabbi thought for a moment. Then he said, “Of course, I’ll be glad to deliver a new sermon if you can tell me what I spoke about last year.” There was a long embarrassed pause. Then the rabbi said, “You seem to have forgotten. I’ll tell you what. I’ll give that sermon one more time so you remember it, and then I’ll prepare a new one!”
I have a couple hundred High Holy Day sermons in my files, and I can’t give any of them over again, even here in a new congregation! Though I may revisit a theme here or there, my words have to come from my head and heart as I think and feel them now. My words have to speak to me, and to you, for this moment we are living and in this community we share.
I’m delighted to be here with you and to greet you as we begin another year of telling our story, the story of the Jewish people. L’Shanah Tovah! In this New Year, may you know all the blessings of life – health, happiness, and peace.
May this be a year in which we renew our people’s story of 5778 years, reclaim our country’s story of 242 years, rejoice in Israel’s story of 70 years, enrich our congregation’s story of 60 years, and share our personal stories through all of our years. Stories are on my mind today.
Before he died, the founder of Hasidism, the Ba’al Shem Tov, gathered together his disciples to distribute his worldly possessions. He distributed his belongings giving something unique to each one of his students. He divided among them his books, his various ritual objects, and some of his personal items.
After he gave away all of his property, there was one faithful Hasid waiting to receive something of value from his teacher. Unfortunately, it didn’t look like there was anything left. Seeing his student’s disappointment, the Ba’al Shem Tov paused, turned, and spoke to his one remaining and waiting student. “To you I give my most valuable possession. I give you my stories. Travel around. Tell my stories to everyone you meet.”
There’s actually much more to this story about the Ba’al Shem Tov, which I’ll save for another time. His gift, however, is ours to understand right now.
Our ability to tell stories makes us unique among all living creatures. Only we human beings tell stories about ourselves. Only we gossip about each other. In our stories we come together or remain distant. Our stories guide our behavior and our beliefs.
In his thought-provoking book Sapiens, Historian Yuval Harari describes our stories as “imagined reality.” Professor Harari teaches objective reality exists only in the physical world. Imagined reality exists when we believe our stories. Laws, justice, human rights “none of these things exist,” he writes, “outside the stories that people invent and tell one another.” As he elaborates and challenges, “There are…no nations, no laws, and no justice outside the common imagination of human beings.”
In other words, Congregation Beth El exists only because we want it to, because our allegiance is to the idea of being a synagogue community. Beth El is a reality we imagine together. Change our story, change our commonly held beliefs – we are different or gone. Our community in and of itself has no objective reality.
Here’s why this matters, and why I find it fascinating. Imagined reality, our stories are the key to living a meaningful life. Storytelling is a human impulse. We organize the events of our lives into narratives of meaning. Human history results not from biology but from the ideas we debate, the relationships we form, and the social cultures we build.
The fictions we tell about ourselves bind us together. Our tales motivate our ingenuity and creativity. Our myths inspire us to live toward something more, something deeper or greater than our mere physical existence. Our stories point us toward belief in God, goodness, identity, and purpose.
The Ba’al Shem Tov’s student who carried his stories into the world represents a precious Jewish tradition. The Maggid, the Storyteller, traveled among Medieval Jewry bringing them stories of hope and purpose. Inspiring them not with Jewish law but with Jewish lore.
Ours is a history rooted in a story and a heritage developed through lore, the many stories we tell about our story. Telling our Jewish story, and the many other stories that define our collective and individual identities, needs to be our goal in this New Year. My invitation to you on this first holy day we spend together is to join me in being Maggidim, tellers of our stories.
We’re all in synagogue for different reasons, as Harry Golden once heard his atheist father explain. “My friend Garfinkle goes to synagogue to talk to God. I go to talk to Garfinkle.”
Each one of us sitting here has a story explaining why. Each one of our stories, with positive and negative elements, is a vital part of our whole community’s story. When we tell our stories we are telling the story of the Jewish people.
Individuals indifferent to Jewish life, or younger people complacent about their own Jewish identities, may hear in our stories rich and complex tales about our struggles and hopes, accounts of our dreams and achievements, and enduring messages of meaning and purpose all rooted in the Jewish experience. Our stories can be to those who hear them gifts of inspiration and texture, possibility and promise.
Raise your hands if you were born in America. Now raise your hand if you came to the United States from Europe, or Asia, or Russia and the Former Soviet Union, or South Africa, or Mexico, or Canada, or South America, or Israel, or Egypt, or Iran, or elsewhere in the Middle East, Australia, or elsewhere in the world. In your raised hands, in each of your lives and backgrounds, I see the incredible breadth and depth of the Jewish story, a story we must tell better than we have so far.
Telling our stories is for the sake of the Jewish people in America, in Israel, and around the world. Telling our stories connects us as a whole and holy synagogue community here at Congregation Beth El. Telling our stories is our best response to this current moment in American history.
Here in America, we live at a time of disruption and cynicism. Natural disasters and terror attacks bring us together for brief periods of time. More often than not these days, our national discourse pushes us apart.
“America has always been a divided, sprawling country,” writes David Brooks, “but for most of its history it was held together by a unifying national story.” Our national narrative gives us an overarching sense of meaning and purpose.
Last spring in Olathe, Kansas a hate filled intruder confronted an Indian-born engineer, Srinivas Kuchibhotla, about his immigration status at a bar. Though Mr. Kuchibotla lived in America legally, his crazed attacker fatally shot him. His widow, Sunayana, recently recounted that terrible day.
After peppering the couple with questions and ethnic slurs, the soon to be murderer briefly walked away from the couple to get his handgun. At that moment, other patrons in the bar approached Srinivas and Sunayana apologizing and assuring them they were welcome.
“This is not what we represent, you guys belong here.” One guy picked up their tab, and others asked to know more about them. They had begun to tell one another their stories until they were tragically interrupted by gunshot.
When we tell each other our stories we stop being strangers to one another. We begin to understand each other. We overcome fears, ignorance, and hate. We begin to see something of ourselves in other people.
In America we need to reclaim our country’s story in order to overcome the resurgent fears, ignorance, and hate disturbing us. In our story live the ideas binding us together as a nation. Our national narrative can guide the path to a better future. Hamilton and Jefferson had different visions. So do many of today’s thought leaders. Underlying any philosophical differences are common ideals and goals.
On July 4, 1776 Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson became a committee of three tasked with designing a Great Seal for a new nation. Franklin’s design included Moses outstretched hands over a split sea as he led the Israelites to their freedom. America’s founders saw themselves and their cause in our story, the Torah story of the Exodus.
This Rosh HaShanah my intent is not to offer you a lesson in American history. My intent is to talk about the need for our Jewish story at this moment in America, and in the larger world. A world in desperate need of our story’s ethics: compassion, goodness, justice, and healing.
In today’s world, as Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, identifies, religion can do one of three things. It can attempt to conquer society, as Radical Islam seeks to do. It can withdraw from society, as fundamentalists in all religious traditions desire. Or, religion can attempt to inspire society, as we must choose to do.
We must become Maggidim, Storytellers. Through the choices we make, the words we speak, the responsibilities we honor, and the stories we tell, as Jews who represent so much of our people’s historic experience, in this New Year let’s inspire and elevate.
“Until Abraham made his way into the larger world, the Holy One was, if one dare say such a thing, Sovereign only in heaven. After Abraham made his way into the wider world, he was able to declare God Sovereign over both heaven and earth.”
In vocabulary for today, the message is this. At a time of disruption and cynicism we need to bring the wisdom of our lives’ experiences, refined as they are by our ability to tell the Jewish people’s story as our own, into the public square.
Affirm it with me. Our society needs our inspiration, our story, our values, our ethics, and our presence. We must work to counter the crass culture surrounding us. We can’t be present, however, if we don’t tell the world we’re here. We have to tell our story.
The most inspiring part of our modern Jewish story is that this year we will celebrate Israel’s 70th year of independence. Israel’s existence is the great accomplishment of modern Jewish history. In a world filled with nations and people who deny Israel’s legitimacy, if Israel’s story inspires you, you need to tell it confidently and proudly. And, as we will this spring, connect to it and rejoice in it.
Between now and then, and I trust for many years to come, here at Congregation Beth El we will renew our community’s story. As you tell it, I’ll learn it. As I learn it, we’ll build on it together, looking for inspiration by renewing long standing synagogue traditions and developing new paths for prayer and celebration, learning and engagement, hesed and tikkun.
I root my vision of Judaism in traditional sensibilities aware that we can and must translate Jewish tradition to speak in this time and place. In part derived from one chapter of my personal story, it will be my goal as your rabbi to push us toward higher communal standards of Jewish practice, learning, and engagement.
I have lived a privileged Jewish life. I grew up in a home with parents who valued Jewish education and Jewish participation. I was fortunate to grow up under the tutelage of some of the greatest and most creative rabbis, educators, and Jewish personalities in the second half of the 20th century. Men and women who inspired me, challenged me, and cared about me.
When I decided to enter the rabbinate way back during my senior year in college, it was in part to pay back the privileges I received. Exposed to and excited by so much Jewish passion, vision, and thought, I wanted to pass it along, to contribute my part, and to touch someone else coming after me.
What’s your story? Personally or professionally, how did you grow to become who you are today? Or to do what you do today? Or to know who you know today? Or to understand what you do today? What’s your narrative? What’s your background? What’s your personal journey? What’s your Jewish journey? What about you can inspire someone else?
The most important thing a synagogue community can provide its members is support for their journeys in life. The most valuable relationships within a synagogue community are those reflecting mutual support and caring, mutual understanding and curiosity.
Some of this support and bonding happens naturally. It grows out of synagogue attendance and participation. It results from learning together and serving others. It comes from sharing the personal occasions in our lives and volunteering to join in with others.
Some of this support and bonding, however, requires personal conversation. It means sitting together and talking about our journeys, discussing our backgrounds, our achievements and disappointments, our next goals and hopes looking forward.
Let’s do this. Let’s get together and talk. This is your invitation. Come tell me your story. As the Ba’al Shem Tov taught his eager student, let us give each other and our society, let us give our people and our community nothing less than our most valuable possessions. Let’s give our stories to the world.
© 2017 Rabbi Ronald J. Shulman
Tue, March 20 2018 4 Nisan 5778