Yom Kippur Day Sermon 5773
Kehilat Shalom, Gaithersburg, MD
Rabbi Charles L. Arian
Two construction workers sat down together to have lunch at their job site. The first worker reached into his lunch box and pulled out a sandwich. He took a bite, spit it out with disgust, and said, “Yecch, ham on white bread.” He reached into the lunch box again and took out a second sandwich. He bit into that one, again spit it out and said, “Blecch, turkey on whole wheat.”The second construction worker said to him: “you know, if you hate what you have for lunch so much, why don’t you speak to your wife and ask her to make you something different?”
“My wife?” the first construction worker said. “I made these myself.”
About a hundred years ago there was a rabbi in Warsaw named Yehuda Leib Alter. He was the rebbe of the Gerer Hasidim and he wrote a Torah commentary known as the Sfas Emes, which means “The Language of Truth.” My friend Rabbi Steve Sager of Durham, NC, got me interested in reading the Sfas Emes a number of years ago. Rabbi Sager called the Sfas Emes “the first post-modern Jewish theologian” and he was right. The Sfas Emes had a unique ability to penetrate to the heart of the Torah and help us understand how it speaks to every Jew.
The Sfas Emes, in his commentary on Exodus, asks an interesting question. What did the generation which left Egypt do to merit redemption? After all, they were, when it comes down to it, not such righteous people. They rebelled against Moses, several times, tried to overthrow him and tried to return to Egypt. No less astonishingly, after witnessing God’s power both at the Red Sea and at Sinai, they committed the sin of the Golden Calf. So, how is it that they merited redemption?
The answer, the Sfas Emes teaches us, is quite simple. Prior to the generation that left Egypt, the Torah does record that the Hebrew slaves complained about their lot. But, they never asked to go free. As soon as the people asked to go free, God freed them.
The point is not some arbitrary insistence by God that the people ask for freedom, like a five year old that won’t lend out his toy until his friend “asks nicely.” No, the point is that the first step on the road to freedom is to imagine that freedom is actually possible. It’s not enough to know that you don’t like the current situation. Or, to go back to our construction workers, it’s not enough to know that you don’t like ham on white or turkey on whole wheat. The point is, you have to imagine a different possibility. Many people lack the hope that things could be different. That hope, I believe, is a gift of God, if we choose to accept it; it is the gift of teshuvah, of transformation.
Several years ago when we lived in Baltimore, I read an article in a local monthly, The Urbanite, which made this point quite eloquently. I do not know if the author, Kelly Parisi, is Jewish, or if she has any religious identification at all. I do know that what she wrote reflects a sensibility, which is deeply consonant with the message of our High Holiday prayers.
Kelly Parisi was 38 years old when her 42-year-old husband died of cancer. She writes: “the experience purged me like a fire . . . For the first time I understood ownership was an illusion. Nothing belonged to me – not the people I loved, not my own life. Everything was on loan, due date unknown.”
A few months after her husband’s death, she made a life-changing decision “one night in the grocery store after a few months of widowhood. Wandering the aisle, my basket bone empty, it dawned on me that I couldn’t remember what I liked to eat. I stood there looking at various foods and asking myself, do I like that? And I really didn’t know. I had been caring for my husband for so long, thinking about only what he could eat, that drinking a can of Boost and calling it a day had become good enough for me.”
“Confused and a little desperate, I bought three bags of Oreos, drove to Baskin-Robbins, ordered a chocolate malt and sat in the car taking stock. Gone was more than my appetite. I had lost my future and my dreams. At 38 years old, a friend had referred to me as “middle-aged and widowed.” Sometimes I felt a hundred years old, yet sitting alone in a parking lot at 9 p.m., eating cookies and drinking a malted milkshake just because I could, made me feel downright juvenile. I vowed to continue.”
“The Oreo diet worked wonders. After a few months I added Cheerios, olives, kiwi, and tuna. If it didn’t end in a vowel, I didn’t eat it. True, it was an eccentric sort of self-care, strange, intuitive and absurd, yet unquestionably correct. Slowly, one sweet choice at a time, I reconstructed my life.” She writes that she ultimately decided to give up her career as a graphic designer to go back to school and pursue a master’s degree in her true passion, creative writing.
The point is not that we should all give up our well-paying careers and pursue our passions. Kelly Parisi doesn’t mention having kids, so I guess she doesn’t, which no doubt made it easier for her to go back to school full-time at the age of 40. The point is rather that after reaching bottom, she realized that things could be different. It was the realization that she did not have to keep doing the same thing over and over, that she was not a prisoner of the past, which allowed her to rebuild her life and move in a different direction.
The challenges and disruptions we face at Kehilat Shalom are not as great as those faced by Kelly Parisi, but we too face the choice of being prisoners of the past or moving in a new, more positive, direction.
On Rosh Hashanah I quoted a provocative article by Rabbi Irwin Kula, co-president of CLAL: the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, which appeared in the Huffington Post. In his article “From the Cathedral to the Bazaar,” Rabbi Kula wrote that “the existing business models and organizational structures of mainstream religion are, as in many fields of meaning-making today (journalism, film, and music), increasingly unsustainable. Fewer and fewer Americans are getting religion in the cathedrals. They are getting what they need to get their spiritual/meaning-making job done in the bazaar, which has a very different model of authority and hierarchy, has very limited barriers of entry and far more choices, and which tends to be a user-friendly and open source environment.”
I want to explore that statement a little bit and what its implications are for us as we ponder our future. The comparisons to journalism, film, and music are apt. They are all, as Rabbi Kula puts it, fields of “meaning-making.” They help us make sense of our lives and sustain us through our times of joy and sorrow. And all of these fields are going through a radical restructuring.
People are still interested in music, but the advent of the Internet, mp3 players and file-sharing means that people, certainly people younger than I, no longer buy CDs. Tower Records and Borders are out of business and Sam Goody became FYE and makes its money mostly from video games. So musicians and producers need to figure out new ways of still being paid for the music they create, and music retailers have to figure out how to stay in business. But it would be a mistake to think the financial realignment of the music industry means people aren’t interested in listening to or creating music anymore.
The same for journalism. People are certainly still interested in news. But the rise of 24 hour cable networks and the Internet have meant fewer people rely on the daily newspaper as their main source of news. We lived here six weeks before we even subscribed to a newspaper, which we get as much for the comics and the crossword as for the news. Because my primary source of news is Google news which I look at every morning as soon as I wake up.
Film, too, faces economic challenges. Fewer and fewer people see films in movie theaters; more and more see them at home as DVDS -- bought, rented, or pirated -- or “On Demand” through their cable or satellite tv service. The advent of Youtube and other similar services have made it easier for a filmmaker to get known, but how do you make money off of someone watching your movie on Youtube? Youtube has started experimenting with pay per view options but it remains to be seen how this will work out.
Which brings us to the business model of the synagogue, which is actually not very different than that of most churches. A family chooses to join a congregation based on whatever factors make sense to them. The location is convenient, they like the clergy, they like the building, they agree with its ideology, their friends are members there, it confers status, they like the religious school. There is a difference between synagogues and churches in that synagogues have annual dues while churches have an offering on Sunday. But the difference looms larger to Jews than it actually is. Most churches set an expected level of annual giving which generally is not too different than what synagogues charge in dues, and they manage to keep track. It’s not, contrary to what you may believe, a question of putting a buck or two in the collection plate; families pledge an annual amount that is generally based on their income. The main difference is that synagogues tend to have a fixed amount per family, though of course those who can afford more often give more and those who can’t afford full dues can ask for an abatement, whereas in churches each family decides for itself what it will give based on its income and church guidelines. But a recent survey conducted by the Forward newspaper shows that churches and synagogues of similar demographics tend to raise almost identical amounts of money per capita from their members in either dues or annual giving. Indeed, church members generally give a little bit more per family than synagogue members.
As I’ve already indicated, one of the necessary ingredients in any attempt at change is the belief that change is possible. This is especially difficult in the case of synagogues as there is an unspoken assumption that the synagogue as it exists today is what has “always” been. But in fact, the American synagogue does not resemble what existed in “the old country”, wherever that was, nor do today’s synagogues much resemble those which existed 100 years ago.
Stage two is called by historians the “ethnic synagogue.” It was made up mostly of the children of immigrants and it played a dual role. It was a place of ethnic solidarity but it was also a vehicle for Americanization. Sermons were in English rather than in Yiddish, and prayers were said in English as well as in Hebrew. Thus, the synagogue was an Americanized and Americanizing institution while still being a place of ethnic identity and solidarity.
Stage three is the synagogue-center, starting generally in the years shortly after the Second World War. Jews had arrived; they were increasingly accepted in general society as anti-Semitism, while not disappearing, decreased significantly. They were more prosperous than before. Religiously, Judaism was increasingly accepted as one of the “three major faiths” and no important civic ceremony could be held without a rabbi as well as a priest and minister to give the invocation or benediction. While immigrant and even ethnic synagogues tended to be modest buildings, stage three synagogues were larger and were usually located in prominent, visible locations. They were meant to make a statement to Jew and Gentile alike about Jewish prosperity, permanence, and being a proud part of the American mix. They were much more than just shuls; they were centers of culture, of education, and a social center for the Jewish commmunity. As a rule, the space devoted to social and educational activities was much larger than that devoted to prayer. Synagogue-centers were also, largely, child-focused. Adults dropped their kids off for Hebrew school or youth group, but aside from High Holiday services rarely went inside themselves, except for family services and life cycle events in which their kids or their friend’s kids were taking part. And for the most part, worship was pretty passive. The rabbi called the pages, led the English readings, and gave the sermon. The cantor sang and taught the boys their Bar Mitzvah portions. Usually, both of them wore clerical robes. There were few opportunities for men to participate actively in leading services, and no opportunities at all for women to do so, except on Sisterhood Sabbath when they might lead the Friday night service.
The fourth stage of the American synagogue is known as the “synagogue community.” It differs from the “synagogue center” in that it is less formal, more diverse, more participatory and more focused on social action. Kehilat Shalom is very much a synagogue community. But in its organizational and financial structure it is quite traditional. It is a membership-based organization with dues and a board and a building and so on.
As I’ve shown in my talk on Rosh Hashanah, even the synagogue community will probably be less and less viable over the coming years and decades. As more and more of us have multiple identities, the idea that one particular place of worship is going to be someone’s main spiritual home, and in order to have that spiritual home he or she is expected to fork over two thousand dollars a year plus a building fund pledge -- that idea is going to be harder and harder to sell. Whatever our new business model will be, it will have to figure out a way to serve those who may wish to dabble in Judaism while also exploring other spiritual traditions. It will have to figure out a way to welcome those who consider themselves part Jewish or somewhat Jewish or “Jew-ish”. These folks will be happy to support the institution, just as people expect to pay for the yoga classes and Reiki treatments and meditation courses they take. Our model is going to have to be much more “pay as you go” and less dues-dependent, as many of the people the synagogue serves may not even be members. Of course there will always be the possibility that some of these dabblers and blenders and benders may ultimately choose Judaism as their sole spiritual path and wish to become members, but if that is presented up front as the direction in which we want people to move, we are going to fail. The goal will have to be providing ways for people to make their lives more meaningful, not convincing people to join our synagogue.
Clearly we face challenges as a community. Some of them are of our own making, but many are not. We cannot change the demographic realities of Montgomery Village or the sociological realities of American society as a whole. But we can bemoan them and become prisoners of them, or we can respond to them in bold and creative ways.
The Piaseczna Rebbe, known as the “Esh Kodesh” or “Sacred Fire”, was the Chasidic rabbi of Warsaw before and during the Holocaust. He tells a story which illustrates the point I am trying to make. It is the story of a beggar who had a dream that he would become a king. Now you must understand that in Chasidic stories dreams are of tremendous significance, because they are God’s way of communicating with us. Now most of us, if we dreamed that we would soon become a king, would be pleased. But this beggar was sorely troubled, scared, and pleaded with God not to make him a king. Why was the beggar so afraid of fulfilling his destiny?
This is why the beggar was so terrified. He said to himself, “As it is, it is all that I can do to knock on enough doors in a day to beg enough money to feed myself, my wife, and my two children. If I become a king, I will now be responsible for the welfare of thousands and thousands of people. How in the world will I ever be able to knock on enough doors to beg enough money to take care of so many?”
You see, the beggar in our story was such a prisoner of “the way things are” that he could not imagine a world in which he did not have to go from door to door to beg for his sustenance. The only difference between his current situation and being a king was that he would simply have to knock on more doors.
The main theme of this period of the year is “teshuva.” It is such a rich word because it has so many meanings. Repentance, yes. Turning, returning, changing, and even answering. And let me suggest another word: response – indeed, the type of Jewish legal writing known in Hebrew as a “teshuva” is called in English a “responsum.” The shofar call can startle us, can wake us up, and can rouse us from our slumber – if we will let it. Will we, like the beggar in the Piaseczna rebbe’s story, be prisoners of a world we imagine could not be any different than it is today? Or will we, like Kelly Parisi, respond to life’s challenges in bold and creative ways? The choice is ours alone. Shana tova.