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My Rabbinic Letter

 

Yom Kippur Sermon 2017 | 5778
 
It was the night before my Bar Mitzvah and all through the house, not a creature was stirring…except for my father. As I was getting ready for bed, a bit nervous about the next morning, Dad came in and sat down. He was a sensitive, emotional man. In his misty eyes, I saw his pride and excitement. As I recall the moment, he didn’t say much. Instead, my father handed me an envelope and asked me to read the letter inside before going to sleep. Which, being curious of course, I did.
 
In an era long before parents gave speeches to their B’nei Mitzvah children during synagogue services, my father wished to impart a personal message to me. I believe he intuited from his own experience that every parent’s life is incomplete. Children can be their parents’ legacies to the world. Parents can ask their children to carry on. To build upon and extend their parents’ visions and values. Some will. Others won’t. Some can. Others can’t.
 
Still, every parent hopes. As Rabbi Richard Israel wrote while waiting for the birth of his first child, “I want you to be happy, caring, and Jewish. How I am going to get you to be any of them – ah, now the anxiety begins.” Or as the great Yiddish author Sholom Aleichem wrote in his will, “My children and children’s children can have whatever beliefs or convictions they will. But I beg of them to guard their Jewish heritage.”
 
In his Bar Mitzvah letter to me, in part Dad wrote, “There are times in a person’s life when it becomes very hard to say to another person exactly what is on their mind. This is especially true in the case of parents to their children. The thing that is hard to explain to you is the fact that as you become a Bar Mitzvah you demonstrate in everything you do that you are prepared to meet the challenges in life ahead of you. You have a genuine understanding and love for Judaism, Torah, the synagogue, and everything they stand for. Your mother and I know that you will live the right kind of life, in the right way, and this knowledge is the main source of our happiness and pleasure. Thank you. Dad”
 
It made a lasting impression. It became part of my self-understanding. And, I did the same when it was my turn as a father to enter my daughters’ bedrooms on the nights before they each became a Bat Mitzvah. As did my father before me, I also continued this letter writing practice at a few other significant milestone moments.
Today I speak with you not as your father or son. I speak with you as your rabbi. Throughout history, in every time and place of Jewish life, rabbis wrote letters to their communities expressing and recording matters of belief, practice, moral and communal concern. Each Iggeret, each one of these rabbinic letters, is unique in style and subject matter.
 
In 1858 Rabbi Israel Salanter wrote an Iggeret about Musar, ethics. Reflecting on the mood and meaning of this very day, Yom Kippur, Rabbi Salanter describes our false sense of invincibility as the greatest obstacle to Teshuvah, repentance, return, and growth in life. In response, he offers wisdom.
 
“Who is wise?” ask the Talmudic rabbis. “One who foresees the future.” What does Rabbi Salanter mean by this quote? If a person can visualize and analyze the consequences of his choices before making them, “if he will do this and his heart will understand – he will repent, and it will heal him.”
 
Rabbi Salanter goes on in his letter to offer his prescription for a life of ethical consideration and awareness, including etiquette for Yom Kippur in a crowded, small prayer space. “Even while you are absorbed in prayer on the Day of Atonement, you are not free to violate the prohibition against stepping on another person’s toes.” (I suppose today our version would be you are not free to glance over to gaze at another person’s screen!)
 
Nahmanides, the 13th century Spanish scholar Rabbi Moses ben Nahman Girondi, begins his Iggeret with a quote from Proverbs. “’My child, heed the moral instruction (Musar) of your father and do not forsake your mother’s teaching (Torah).’ Get into the habit of always speaking calmly to everyone. This will prevent you from anger, a serious character flaw which causes people to sin.”
 
The 18th century Vilna Gaon opens his letter with a different instruction. “I came to ask you to refrain from becoming sad, do not worry.” Interesting message to a Jewish audience!
 
In line with this long-standing tradition, on this Yom Kippur I deliver my Iggeret, my letter, to you.
 
Dear Beth El Friends,
 
On this sacred day of introspection and concentration, I hope you are comfortable enough to endure and uncomfortable enough to find significance in your observance. I also hope you are well. Well of body and spirit. Well of temperament and emotion. Well of circumstance and situation. If not, I hope you will find what wellness and well-being you can in this New Year.
 
I am passionate about being a Jew. My bond to the Jewish people is personal and emotional. I am not an ethnic Jew, a person who identifies primarily through culture and association. I am an ideational Jew, a person who identifies with Jewish ideas. Jewish meanings inspire me. A Jewish world view engages me. Because I am passionate about Judaism I am passionate about being a Jew.
 
I write you this letter to explain what I mean. In this letter I seek to answer a question. Though it is my question, perhaps it’s also your question. You see, there really is only one question for a rabbi to answer. “Why?”
 
“Why?” is the question of ideas and meaning, reason or purpose. “Why?” is the reality of every one of our lives’ experiences. Why me? Why this? Why now? Why not?
“Why?” may just be the toughest of all questions to answer. Ask me how, I can instruct you. Ask me when, I can tell you. Ask me where, I can show you. Ask me why, I’m not sure what to say. Because?
 
It’s not that I don’t know answers. I do. I know my answers. I know some of Judaism’s answers. What I don’t know are your answers. I don’t know your answers to the why questions of life’s meaning and purpose. I don’t know your reasons for being who you are, for identifying as a Jew, and living as you do. Do you?
As Philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche put it, “He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.” My prayer is that this letter may inspire your thoughts and responses as I offer you my answers to three questions of why.
 
Why does my life matter? Why does my life as a Jew matter? Why do I choose to celebrate and adhere to the Jewish traditions that I do? Here are the “sound bite” answers to my three why questions. After which I will elaborate.
 
Why does my life matter? Because: I want the gift of my life to be a present to the world.
Why does my life as a Jew matter? Because: I want the privilege of my identity to connect me to something beyond myself, to something historic and enduring.
Why do I choose to celebrate and adhere to the Jewish traditions that I do? Because: I want God to be present in the world through my choices and behaviors.
 
Here are the longer answers to my three why questions.
 
I. Why does my life matter? Because: I want the gift of my life to be a present to the world.
 
We each get only a few years, some of us less than others. Our goal ought to be to live fully and intensely each day and every moment. We need to be aware that every day as it ends becomes a memory of how we lived.
 
We are born, and typically we die, against our will. Through no conscious acts of our own. Who we are physically, emotionally, the circumstances we meet, all of these we do not choose. Our tradition reminds us what we can do. “Whether to be righteous or wicked, this choice is completely in every person’s hand to decide.”
We each have something valuable to offer everyone else. We each see the world through our unique lenses. No one of us sees it all and no one of us can do it all. We need each other’s individual understandings to succeed and live well. As our rabbis teach, “Even as peoples’ faces are not all alike, so too what they understand about the world is not alike. Each person understands the world on his or her own terms.”
 
Life is the most precious gift we ever receive. What we do with this gift makes us worthy of life’s beauty and mystery. Let’s each make something of this gift. Our lives are about more than our desires. Our lives are about our destiny. We should not collect experiences and enjoyments just for ourselves. Drawing on all we encounter, we should give something of ourselves to others.
 
I give the world my children. I give the world my efforts. I give the world my insights. Too many people give the world their anger, pain and hate. I want to give the world my kindness, empathy, and love. I want the gift of my life to be a present to the world. That’s why my life matters.
 
II. Why does my life as a Jew matter? Because: I want the privilege of my identity to connect me to something beyond myself, to something historic and enduring.
 
From the affirmation of being Jewish we each get an historic and enduring address and worldview for ourselves, a personal place from which to derive our values while living as one among millions and billions.
 
There was no way our ancestors could leave Egypt individually. It was only as a people that they gained their freedom. As members of this people you and I represent that first memory and message for humanity, advocating for freedom, justice, and dignity. As the most fortunate Jews to ever live, we are bearers of a sacred and sad, of a glorious and brilliant history of light and hope for the world.
 
We are in relationship with generations of Jews, some who we’ll know and others whom we could never meet, whose experiences, memories and dreams can help us to be true to ourselves. Fortunate to be thriving in and challenged by opportunities and acceptance our ancestors could never imagine, earned for us by their stamina and survival, in this present moment we have to choose.
 
Are we or are we not bound to our peoples’ past and responsible for its future? Do we want the ideas, experiences, and purposes of the Jewish people to form and inform us? Does Jewish identity enrich our personal existence and connect us to grand visions and enduring memories far more significant than ours do by themselves?
My answer is yes. I am proud to be part of the Jewish people. A people who cherish life’s gifts and blessings. A people who inherit a tradition that stands for human dignity and equality, freedom and goodness. We are heirs to standards of personal ethics and celebrations marking the seasons and milestones of our lives. That’s who we are - and that’s what I believe we must represent to the world at large.
 
At our core, we the Jewish people profess a rational religion intellectually rooted in sacred history. Our people’s wisdom for life cultivates conscience and common sense. We Jews are openly and honestly encouraged by our heritage and our history to express wonder and worry. We ask probing questions and seek relevant answers. We cherish hope and dignity.
 
It is a privilege to be a Jew. Precious few of us walk through life so honored. Affirming the privilege of our places as responsible members of the Jewish people we walk together on a path toward meaning, community, and life promise.
 
Only Jews can be Jewish. Only Jews represent to the world our history which is the source of so much that lies at the core of society and western civilization. I want the privilege of my identity to connect me to something beyond myself, to something historic and enduring. That’s why my life as a Jew matters.
 
III. Why do I choose to celebrate and adhere to the Jewish traditions that I do? Because: I want God to be present in the world through my choices and behaviors.
 
I will often tell you. I believe life’s mystery is God’s reality. A spiritual essence found within the workings of the world. God is present through us when we experience life, through us when we respond to life. God is present through us when we meet, through us when we respond to one another. When we are loving, healing, and giving. When we strive to redeem others from the struggles of their lives. By transcending ourselves, by moving beyond ourselves, by thinking about something more than ourselves, we bring God into the world.
 
God speaks within us the voice of conscience. God lifts us up and draws us upward to be better. God draws us outward to be caring. God draws us forward to be gentle and gracious. God protects us from hopelessness, helplessness, and despair. God’s image within each of us motivates us not to allow ourselves to sink into small thinking or timidity, to be self-absorbed or callous.
 
Listen to this remarkable teaching. It comes from the 18th century Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Vitebsk, a leading Hasidic teacher who moved his community of adherents out of Belarus in the Russian empire to Israel in 1777. (Think of that, a different yearning for freedom one year after our American founders declared independence.)
 
Menachem Mendel said, “All my life I have struggled in vain to know what man is. Now I know. Man is the language of God.” It is not God but we human beings who let God be present or force God to be absent in the activities of our lives. How we act, how we treat one another, how we speak, justly or unjustly, is precisely how we experience God. We are the language of God.
 
I describe Judaism as a symbolic system. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel goes so far to teach that the actual symbol of God is man, each and every human being. Each precious moment of celebration at the Torah, every ritual item we cherish at home, the foods we do and don’t eat, the holidays we observe, the Shabbat we celebrate, the social justice we work for as a result of Jewish values, and the concepts we articulate all symbolize who we are, what we care about, and how we carry ourselves into the world.
 
The power of symbols is the significance we attach to them. Symbols represent our loyalties and identities, our memories and hopes, our values and beliefs. Jewish tradition and Jewish ethics offer us many symbols, objects and practices that represent who we are, what we care about, and how we carry ourselves into the world. I want God to be present in the world through my choices and behaviors. That’s why I choose to celebrate and adhere to the Jewish traditions that I do.
 
Why does my life matter? Because: I want the gift of my life to be a present to the world.
 
Why does my life as a Jew matter? Because: I want the privilege of my identity to connect me to something beyond myself, to something historic and enduring.
 
Why do I choose to celebrate and adhere to the Jewish traditions that I do? Because: I want God to be present in the world through my choices and behaviors.
 
This Midrash best answers my why questions. “The Mitzvot-the commandments were given in order to refine human beings.”
 
My dear new friends,
 
I believe to be Jewish is to inherit from our ancestors, and to interpret and pass along to our descendants, the ethics and moral insights, celebrations and rituals, ideals and life wisdom, stories and symbols of Jewish tradition, all taught in the name of God. I believe Judaism’s goal is the refinement and goodness of every human being created in the image of God.
 
Jewish ideas give us our values and vocabulary for life. Jewish meanings comfort us when life is difficult, challenge us when life is comfortable, and inspire us when life is demanding. To live our lives as Jews passionate about Judaism elevates our humanity and validates our individuality.
 
In this New Year, I wish you refinement and growth. Don’t let too much of life’s noise disturb you from life’s nice. Life is complicated, to be sure. Living doesn’t have to be.
To lead a good, meaningful, and content life, due to or in spite of every circumstance you confront, answer your why questions of life’s meaning and purpose. Offer yourself as a present to others. Connect yourself to something more. Make God and goodness present in what you choose to do.
 
In this New Year, may you know all the goodness of life – health, happiness, and peace.
 
G’mar Hatimah Tovah,
Rabbi Ron Shulman
 
© 2017 Rabbi Ronald J. Shulman
Wed, June 20 2018 7 Tammuz 5778