I’m standing in an amazing place. Powerful things happen right here. I can attest to that personally and so can many of you. You see, for many of us, one of the most important moments in our lives has happened right here on this bimah, on the day our child or children stood here as a Bat or Bar Mitzvah. And within that day, the most powerful, most tearful and most transformative moment comes when parents stand here and pass the Torah down to their child. I frame that moment as a return to the first giving of Torah. I see the ark as Mt. Sinai, which means that when I take the Torah from the ark, I get to be Moses for a moment. Before the Torah is passed to the youngster, the parents address him or her, speaking what is in their hearts. In preparation for that speech, I often tell the parents that their address should describe what they are doing as they are passing the Torah down. I ask them, “What is YOUR Torah? What is it that is important to you that you want your child to know and remember, especially about what it means to you that you are passing your wisdom and heritage on to him or her?” What, I ask, is YOUR Torah?
Each of us has our own Torah. Our Torah is the lessons we teach through our words and deeds and the best character traits we display. Our Torah is the precious personal wisdom we feel is important to pass on.
As I was thinking about these holidays, our last together as Rabbi and congregation, it occurred to me that these times presented an opportunity to sum up, in a sense, what is MY Torah. What are the essential teachings that I have endeavored to share with you for the last two and a half decades.
So over the last few months, I have reviewed many if not most of the sermons I have delivered from this pulpit on the High Holy Days and at other times since 1990. From that, I distilled a list of ten teachings which, in some way, encapsulate my Torah that I have tried to make part of yours. And since I am a fan of David Letterman, I am going to present what I am calling Rabbi Rossoff’s Top Ten List of Torah Truths.
I have numbered these from 10 to 1, but it’s not in order of importance. I have, however, saved for the last the one piece of Torah that I have shared the most and is the one Torah truth I hope you will remember above all. But since this morning I am sharing only numbers 10 – 6, and 5 -1 on Yom Kippur morning, you’ll have to wait ten more days to get to number one.
Torah truth number 10 is actually my definition of what Torah is and where Torah comes from. As I see it, Torah in the broadest sense is the accumulated wisdom of 3000 years of Jewish people answering the seminal Jewish question. And no, it’s not “When do we eat?” The Jewish question the answers to which create Torah is this: “How do we live together in the presence of a Creator who calls us to righteousness?”
First as Hebrews, then as Israelites and then as Jews, the collective response to this simple question became our sacred text, shaping and informing our civilization and our lives. Torah is the Hebrew Bible and Talmud and Midrash and rabbinic commentary and law. Torah is Jewish philosophy, Jewish poetry, Jewish story and song. Torah is all that anyone would consider Jewish wisdom in the broadest sense – anything which would lead us to holiness in our lives and wholeness in our world.
There is a great Midrash which tells us of Moses being transported into the future and plopped down in the back row of Rabbi Akiva’s academy. As Akiva is teaching Torah in the front, Moses in the back has no idea what he is talking about. At one point, a student asks, “Rabbi, how do you know this?” And when Akiva says, “That goes back to Moses at Mt. Sinai,” Moses is reassured that, while traditions change, the chain of tradition remains unbroken.
Through the centuries, our answers to what it means to live in the presence of a God who wants us to do the right thing have changed, sometimes radically. Some of the answers were timely – applicable more in other times and in other places. Some of the answers were timeless – true not only for them there but for us here and for all people everywhere. I could list dozens of them and so could you. As Reform Jews, we are called to study Torah in all its forms, find the guidance which would mold us into moral exemplars and bring us together in kehillah kedosha, sacred community.
And speaking of Reform, this brings us to my Torah Truth #9, which is summed out this way: I am VERY Reform!
Sometimes you hear people say I am Reform, which means I observe very little. So when others say, I am very Reform, it translates as I don’t do anything Jewish at all. But that is not what being a Reform Jew is supposed to be. Reform Judaism is the religion of serious, committed, questioning Jews. Reform Judaism is the Judaism which puts morality and social justice as its highest – yet not only – concerns. Reform calls upon individuals, families, and communities to expand the sacred in their lives through meaningful ritual and intelligible prayer. As I was growing up, I thought Reform was the easiest way of being Jewish. But when I started taking it seriously, I discovered that it was easy at all. It was much harder to fashion my own Jewish observance through study, reflection, experimentation and self-discipline, than asking a rabbi or consulting a book which would tell me what I could and could not do. So when I say I am very reform, that means I take Torah, not literally, but seriously, that I work towards Tikkun Olam and attempt to live by the highest of Jewish ethical standards, that I pray Jewishly in daily life at home and in Temple on Shabbat and holy, elevating the ordinary to the sacred. As a Reform Jew, I give tradition a vote but not a veto in my life. You get it. I am very Reform – and I hope you are or will strive to be as well.
Torah truth #8 is my personal theology and theodicy. Theodicy is the way people understand why the world seems so broken so that bad things happen to nice people like us. I am what is called a panentheist. Panentheists see no separation between God and world and self, knowing that there is more to God than the world. Years ago, I found a way of looking at God that made sense to me in an essay by Hans Jonas called “The Concept of God after Auschwitz,” which I have studied with some of you. In it, Jonas uses Lurianic Kabbalah and the metaphor of the primordial shattering of creation as a frame through which to see the holocaust and the evil that we do to each other. My thinking expanded as I studied the works of another panentheist, the Chasidic master, Dov Bear, the maggid of Mezeritch. One of his teachings is that we don’t pray to God, we pray for God. These and other Jewish sources suggest the idea of a so-called finite God, something I first learned back in high school from my own master, Rabbi Fred Schwartz. Rabbi Schwartz introduced me to the idea of a so-called limited God, a God who is the basis of goodness and morality, by whose love we exist, by whose presence we are comforted, but a God who would not – or could not physically intervene in our lives or in history. Rabbis Schwartz’ metaphor for God was the cheerleader who shows us the goal, encourages us on but only from the sidelines. I prefer the metaphor of the coach, who teaches us how to play to our potential, sends us onto the field with a game plan and has the faith in each of us to do what no one else on the field can do.
My thinking was enriched by some of the writings of Whitehead and what is called process theology, subjects I explored in one of my sabbaticals. Process theology speaks of an ever being and ever becoming God whose power is not coercive but persuasive, a God who does not control events but is affected by them, on whose face are forever etched our sorrows and our joys. God is the moral magnetic field to which we are called to align our moral compasses through the power of our own choice.
Whitehead saw existence being grounded in the primal energy of relationship. Everything that is, exists because of a relationship it has with something else –be it on a sub-atomic level or in human meeting. Call that energy what you will. For short, I call it God. We cannot understand God as God is, we experience God’s love in the phenomenon of life itself. There is a force, a process in and beyond the cosmos which urges, pulls, nudges, calls into existence life in all its forms, not perfectly, but unrelentingly and is the source of the human search for transcendence and morality. But then again, in the words of another panentheist, Annie Dillard, “I don’t know beans about God.”
And speaking of morality, we go on to Torah Truth #7. I admit that this one was a bit outrageous as I originally stated it. But it reflects one of my most deeply held convictions. It is drawn from a sermon I gave following my trip to Auschwitz. In that sermon I said that in one respect, Hitler was right.
You see, a number of scholars who studied the writings and speeches of the evil one saw that his war against the Jews was in part a war against the God of the Jews, specifically a war against that weakling God whose Bible condemned murder, defended the powerless and taught the un-Aryan message that morality was the key to the kingdom. In his words, the Jews and the God they embodied brought “The curse of so-called morals, idealized to protect the weak from the strong in the face of the immortal law of battle.” “It’s got to get out of our blood – that curse from Mt. Sinai!”[i] To eradicate the curse from Sinai, he felt he had to wipe out that people which stood at Sinai and whose continued existence stands as a witness to that mountain meeting. As Elie Wiesel has written, the Holocaust was aimed at God, the God of unconditional love and righteous law, personified by the Jewish People. In order to cleanse the world of this God, Hitler had to cleanse the world of God’s messengers, us.
So that is why, on this point and this point only, I said Hitler was right. We stand witness, not to the immortal law of battle but to the eternal law of righteousness and peace. We are an am kadosh – a dedicated people whose message is the unity of God, the oneness of the human family, and the infinite value of every human being. We are a people whose past is the paradigm of the redemptive possibilities of history, who brought forth to conciseness the divinity of morality, and the inextricable bond between love of God and love of neighbor as self. In Hitler’s mind, our existence as standard-bearers of ethical monotheism stood as a denial of everything he and his ilk believed. And yes it did and yes, it still does, and ever must continue to.
As long as any portion of the Jewish people lives, our mission will ever be to declare Judaism’s essential message to the world: One God in heaven, one human family on earth.
On reflection, however, the dream of making us truly one family on earth sounds like a pipedream – downright messianic. And if God cannot control history, what happens to the dream? What becomes of all our Jewish messianic expectations? What happens to hope for a better world?
I addressed that question twenty years ago in a sermon which I called, “The Messiah’s Calling Card,” the point of which is Torah Truth #6, our last for today. The sermon was somewhat in response to the death of the Lubuvitch Rebbe who many of his followers believed – and some still believe – was the mashiach, the messiah who would bring redemption to the Jewish people, if not the whole world. First, I described the traditional belief in a personal Messiah, the Reform belief in the coming of a messianic age, and the belief in some strains of Kabbalah that says that each of us has a spark of the messiah in us.
I then shared my sense that the messiah has not come and was not going to. It is neither rational nor reasonable to believe either in the coming of one messianic figure or even of a messianic age. But does that mean we give up hope for our world? Of course not: the Jew lives with hope. For even without the coming of a messiah or a messianic age, we do have the power to create what I have termed “messianic moments and pockets of redemption.” Those are actions and relationships through which what we hope will be everywhere, all the time, is manifest in for a particular time in a particular place, a blessed bubble of time and place. And how do we do that? How do we create messianic moments and pockets of redemption? Through our individual and communal acts of chesed, which is what I called the messiah’s calling card.
Chesed is a Hebrew value word that has been translated in many different ways: kindness, love, loving-kindness, and loyalty. But no matter how you translate it, as Forrest Gump would say, Chesed is as chesed does. [ii] Chesed is what God has bestows on us – ki l’olam chasdo – for God’s chesed is eternal – and we pay it forward by doing acts of chesed for others. Along with Torah study and worship, gimilut chasidim Bestowing chesed is one of the shlosha devarim, the three things haolam omed, upon which the world depends. Psalm 89 goes further, saying olam chesed yibane – “The world is built by chesed” (Psalms 89:3).
In many congregations, there is what is called the geimilut chasadim committee which reaches out to congregants in need. Here we call it the Caring Community Committee which does precisely that. And I am grateful to Susan Aidekman and her team, following in the footsteps of Yve Cohen and hers, who with no fanfare or recognition, have made sure that phone calls were made, shivas were taken care of, and people knew that their Temple was there for them in their darkest hours.
Visiting the sick, comforting mourners, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, attending funerals, sharing toys, giving tzedakah, comforting another with an understanding touch, there are so many different ways of doing chesed. It’s good to do random acts of kindness but planned and regular acts of chesed is better. Chesed can create messianic moments which send ripples of goodness out into the future. Chesed can create pockets of redemption, situations and relationships through which can be heard a whisper God’s intention when first our world was conceived. Love may make the world go round, but chesed – love expressed in action – makes the world endure. Chesed is as chesed does.
So these were the first five of Rabbi Rossoff’s Top Ten Torah Truths. To recap and rephrase:
#10: Torah is the Jewish People’s cumulative response to God’s call to righteousness.
#9: Reform Judaism challenges us to use our freedom of choice to make informed and disciplined Jewish choices. And when we do, we are very Reform in the best sense.
#8: God is around us, within us and between us – not controlling the world but calling us to be our best selves and to be partners in tikkun olam, the ongoing work of fixing this broken world.
#7: The purpose of Jewish existence is to be an am kadosh, a people holy dedicated to a Godly purpose, and the only mission that justifies the price we have paid is to be standard bearers of ethical monotheism.
#6: Our acts of chesed create messianic moments and pockets of redemption in blessed bubbles of time and space, and within that fleeting bubble, a sliver of creation is as God dreamt it to be.
Standing in this place where powerful things can happen, I have shared this part of my Torah in the hopes you would consider incorporating some into yours. I hope that during these ten days of reflection and self-review, you will examine and clarify what your Torah has been and what we together will strive to make it in the year ahead.
[i] As heard from Hitler’s lips by Herman Rauschning in 1937