Saturday, September 23, 2017

Rosh Hashanah Sermon 5778

Rosh Hashanah Sermon 5778
Kehilat Shalom
Rabbi Charles L. Arian

What makes pizza, pizza?

What blessing should Jews say before eating pizza? Why?

A number of years ago I read an article in a rabbinic journal discussing this question. In order to answer this question you first have to decide what is the “ikar”, the main essence, of pizza. Is it the crust, or is it the cheese and sauce? The author decided that the crust is what makes pizza, pizza. But that alone doesn’t settle the question, because for grain products that are like bread but not actually bread, you still say the hamotzi blessing if it’s a meal but “borei mini mezonot,” the blessing for pastry and cake, if it’s a snack. Is one slice of pizza a meal, or a snack? So here we need to know not only halacha, Jewish law, but also certain facts on the ground. It’s not a simple question.

The author decided that whether pizza is a meal or a snack could change depending on geography. In Boston, where he lived, one slice of pizza could be a snack because the slices there are relatively small. But New York slices are bigger and even one slice would be considered a meal. So one slice of pizza in Boston is mezonot but more than one is hamotzi. In New York, even one slice is hamotzi.

Admittedly the whole matter can get a little obsessive. Nevertheless,  I do believe that the concept of saying a b’racha before we eat or drink is important. But, we need to understand not only what we say but why we say it.

The whole reason for blessings is to instill gratitude and awareness that what we have is a gift from God. The Talmud in Berachot 35a discusses the question of why we are obligated to say a blessing and states that “anyone who enjoys any of the good things in this world, and doesn’t say a blessing, is, as it were, stealing from God.” In other words, what God provides for us has a price tag. The purchase price is a b’racha.

This is perhaps self-evident if you have a traditional theology and believe in an omnipotent God. But if you have a more naturalistic theology, if you believe along with Rabbi Harold Kushner that God set the world in motion and does not intervene, this becomes theologically problematic. You have probably heard me say from this pulpit that the bad things that have happened -- whether it be natural disasters or tragic deaths -- were not caused by God and that God cries along with us when these things happen. But if we don’t blame God for the bad stuff, why should we thank Him for the good stuff? It does seem somewhat inconsistent.

This dilemma first occurred to me more than 30 years ago when my very old Datsun B-210 broke down. At the time I was going to rabbinical school in Cincinnati and I was teaching a class at Denison University in Granville, Ohio -- 140 miles away. This was well before the era of cellphones. When my car started making funny noises and losing power, I pulled off of I-71. When the car finally stopped altogether it was right in front of a Protestant church, and I managed to coast into the church parking lot. I went inside, explained to the secretary who I was and what had happened, and she couldn’t have been nicer or more helpful. She made sure someone gave me a ride to my class and that the car was towed to a mechanic with a reputation for honesty. When I finally got back to Cincinnati I told my classmates that I wasn’t sure whether I should be mad at God that my car broke down; or grateful to God that it broke down in a place where people were willing to help me. And then I realized that neither one really made complete sense. I don’t really believe that God had very much to do with my car breaking down. I just don’t think the world works that way.

So if I hold that God is not responsible for what happens to us on a day-to-day basis, why do I nevertheless think it’s important to thank God for the good things we enjoy in life?

The answer, I think, has to do with what kind of person  we want to be. In Deuteronomy chapter 8, we read “when you have eaten and been satisfied, you shall bless Adonai your God.” Eat, be satisfied, and bless -- in that order -- which is why we have Grace After Meals. The commentary Merotz Hatzvi says “If one wishes to be satisfied by the results of his labors, if he believes in the Almighty and blesses Him for all he has received, then - he will be sated and satisfied. But if he believes that only his own efforts have brought him his success, he will never be satisfied, as it is written (Proverbs 13:25): “the belly of the wicked is never satisfied.” I would frankly rather be the type of person who does not get angry at God when bad things happen but expresses gratitude to God when good things happen. I think that is the kind of person who is happiest and most pleasant to be around. Conversely, we all know people who never have enough wealth or power or fame, who believe that they are self-made men and worship their creator.

A few years ago at a Rotary Club meeting in Norwich, CT, I met a young man from a nearby town by the name of Dan Holdridge. Dan was working as a civilian IT contractor at the Pentagon on the morning of September 11, 2001. Although he was not a smoker, his work partner was, so Dan accompanied him to the courtyard for a smoke break. When American Airlines flight 77 hit the Pentagon, Dan would have been killed if he had been at his desk. Everyone he worked with, except that one colleague, was killed. Dan was injured.

A few days after 9/11 Dan came back home to Connecticut to recuperate. Dan’s body soon healed but his spirit and soul were shattered. Dan experienced what we know as “survivor’s guilt.” Why did I survive when so many others did not? He threw himself into his work and into volunteer activities, but he still felt empty inside.  He explains that through psychological counseling and involvement in his church, he figured out why he felt so empty and how he could begin to get his life back on track.

There were a few things Dan needed to do, he wrote in his book “Pentagon Prayer,” that would let him put his life back together. One was to give up on his anger. “I have to let go of my anger and hatred for the terrorists. It is eating me up inside and keeping me from moving on. . . If I can do it, they lose their power over me. If I can let go of this anger, I can regain control. I’m going to try.”

I should add that I don’t believe that Dan is saying that the world would be a perfect place if we all just laid down our arms, grabbed hands and sang “Kumbaya.” I think what he is saying is that if we let our anger and resentment control us, those who have hurt us continue to set our agenda and hurt us again and again. Hate can become an all-consuming emotion that prevents us from truly living.

Beyond letting go of his anger, Dan writes that the second key to his inner healing was to learn to appreciate what he still had. He wrote that surviving 9/11 gave him a new understanding of life and the world. It gave him the gift of appreciation. “I now have the ability to be thankful for everything that I have. And I appreciate that. . . Others have the same experience every day. If you want to appreciate life, go volunteer at an oncology ward. Go see people fighting for their lives. Do you think you’re entitled to three square meals a day? Go volunteer at a soup kitchen and watch people appreciate every bite of food. That’s what life is.”

No one ever wants to suffer tragedy, but tragedy can be an opportunity to learn and to grow. In 31 years as a rabbi, I have spoken with a lot of congregants who are suffering from cancer, and their families. It is never an easy thing, but I have often been amazed and appreciative of the bravery and the grace with which so many of those suffering from cancer deal with their illness.

But dealing as a rabbi with a congregant who is fighting cancer, is different than dealing as a son with a mother who is fighting cancer. You all know that my mother passed away in July.  What you might not know is that for six years she lived with a very rare and aggressive form of thyroid cancer -- so rare, in fact, that only 300 cases of it are diagnosed in this country every year. When she was first diagnosed, tests seemed to indicate that pursuing treatment was pointless and her best option was simply to set her affairs in order and enjoy whatever time she had left. Subsequent tests changed things somewhat and ultimately she did decide to pursue treatment. Unfortunately, the treatment itself almost killed her and she asked that it be stopped; she nevertheless survived for almost six more years.

While she was trying to figure out her next step my Mom said something interesting to me. I knew that when I was fifteen she had surgery for an ocular melanoma as a result of which she was blind in one eye. But at the time she had that illness I was on a six-week  teen program in Israel, cellphones had not yet been invented, international phone calls were expensive and pay phones in Israel somewhat scarce, so I guess I never really realized how sick my mother was at the time. At any rate, about six years ago in the hospital she explained to me why she was facing the prospect of death with a sense of calm acceptance.

“When I was 40, I was told that I had six months to live,” she said to me. “That was thirty-six years ago. I got thirty-six extra years, and I enjoyed every day of them, and I was grateful for every day of them.” It is that sense of gratitude which gave her the ability to accept whatever was coming her way with a certain interior calm, and to face her death some six years later, after declining treatment for a recurrence of her cancer, with that same sense of calm.

The 23rd Psalm is perhaps the most popular Psalm for both Christians and Jews. And yet, because we tend to know it in its King James translation or one based on it, we may not really understand what it’s saying. “The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want” was an accurate translation in 1611 but our language has changed. The Hebrew “lo echsar” means “I lack nothing” and that is what “I shall not want” meant in 1611. It’s not talking about the commandment not to covet but rather, it conveys a sense that I have all that I need.

On the Shabbat before each new moon, we ask God to bless the coming month and ask that it be filled with such things as peace, goodness and blessing. We ask for “osher v’chavod,” wealth and honor. And we ask for “yirat shamayim,” reverence for God. But interestingly, we ask for “yirat shamayim” twice. Why is that? Chasidic commentaries point out that the first mention of “yirat shamayim” comes before we ask for wealth and honor, and the second mention comes afterwards. The idea is that poor people have more yirat shamayim, reverence for God, than wealthy people. So we need to pray that we still have our piety even after we have attained wealth.

The Torah tells us that material wealth is given to us as a blessing from God. But it also warns us not to assume that somehow wealth is our due. The same chapter of Deuteronomy which tells us to say a blessing after we eat, warns us not to allow our hearts to grow proud after we build fine houses, increase our flocks, and amass silver and gold.  “You may say to yourself, “My power and the strength of my hands have produced this wealth for me.” 18 But remember the LORD your God, for it is he who gives you the ability to produce wealth, and so confirms his covenant, which he swore to your ancestors, as it is today.”

The Torah here is reminding us that all we have is a gift from God; but because we also know that we have to work hard for what we have, we may somehow think that material wealth is a sign of God’s favor. We may wrongly believe that people who have wealth, have it because of their worthiness in God’s eyes; and people who lack wealth, are poor because God is punishing them for something.

This idea reached its zenith in a misreading of what sociologist Max Weber called the “Protestant work ethic.” Weber’s analysis says that the Calvinist tradition sees affluence as a visible sign of God’s grace. This work ethic is responsible, according to Weber, for the fact that societies such as the United States, the United Kingdom and northern Europe , which are rooted in Protestantism, are more affluent than societies which are rooted in Catholicism. The Protestant work ethic sees labor and accumulation of wealth as worthy.

But it can too easily lead us to believe that the wealthier we are, the worthier we are, the more beloved of God. This is the origin of the “prosperity gospel” preached by televangelists like Joel Osteen, Jimmy Swaggart, Creflo Dollar, Joyce Meyers and others. Is the accelerated concentration of wealth in the United States -- in 1915, the richest 1 per cent of the population had 15 per cent of the income, while today the richest 1 per cent has 24 per cent of the national income -- a result of this belief? Would Moses or Isaiah have approved of the fact that since 1979, the share of the nation’s income received by the wealthiest  one-tenth of one percent of the population has gone from 2 percent to eight percent?

We have developed an idealization of wealth when what we need is a theology of abundance. Rabbi Naamah Kelman of Jerusalem writes “A theology of abundance is counter to affluence. A theology of gratitude is a reminder that we are vessels of God’s gifts, not totally in control . . . Once there is abundance we can be generous. We reach out to the other, we feed the stranger.”

When we are aware that all we have is a gift from God, then we recognize that it does not really “belong” to us. It is lent to us, entrusted to us, and we are obligated both to thank God for it and to use it for good purposes. If we think that what we have is ours, that we deserve it, it is never enough and we are not likely to share it. The attitude of gratitude, the theology of abundance, the sense of appreciation-- these can get us back on track, as a society and as individuals. When you sit down to eat, take a few seconds to say a b’racha, to thank God for your blessings. Share some of your abundance with those who don’t have enough. Volunteer to help out with the meals our synagogue does at the emergency shelter, or send a donation to my discretionary fund earmarked for those meals.  May we in the New Year appreciate what we have, learn to be satisfied, and share it with others. AMEN.