Last week, on Rosh Hashanah morning, I shared with you a question that I often ask of Bar/Bat Mitzvah parents as I prepare them for that moment when they pass the Torah down to their child. Thinking of the place where they are standing as Mt. Sinai, I ask them, “What is YOUR Torah? What are your truths that you want to pass on to the next generation?” Then, by way of encapsulating in our final year together what I have tried to pass on to you during our 24 plus years, I began to summarize MY Torah, the most important Jewish lessons and ways of looking at life that I have shared from this pulpit. I came up with Rabbi Rossoff’s Top Ten List of Torah Truths, the first five of which I presented last week, the last five of which I will share this morning.
If you were not with us Rosh Hashanah morning, here are the first five of Rabbi Rossoff’s Top Ten Torah Truths:
#10: Torah is the Jewish People’s cumulative response to God’s summons to righteousness.
#9: Reform Judaism bids 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 coaching 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 and exemplars of ethical monotheism.
#6: Chesed – our acts of love and kindness – creates messianic moments and pockets of redemption, and in those blessed bubbles of time and space, a sliver of creation is as God dreamt it to be.
And on that happy note, we continue to Rabbi Rossoff’s Torah Truth #5, which is: Synagogues must have windows. The one architectural feature Jewish law requires for a place of prayer is windows. What we do and say in here has to be connected to what happens out there. Where Jews gather can be a sanctuary but not a hiding place, shutting us off from the world and its problems. The sanctuary is meant to be a moral window into the world. This is the place where Jews get fit with the vision to see the world through Jewish eyes, through the eyes of the prophets who taught that religious piety without social justice are an affront to God. The prophets of the Bible railed against those who paid attention to the minutia of the Temple worship, but turned their backs on the poor, the disenfranchised, and the powerless. They spoke of justice rolling down like waters and righteousness as a mighty stream, speaking out against economic inequities and social wrongs.
And that is why I have spoken out on issues and events such as: two gulf wars, confronting hunger in America, cancer, domestic violence and abuse, anti-Semitism, Islamaphobia, access to health care, terrorism, including of course, during the special service we convened on September 12, 2001, violence and gun control, the environment and global warming, marriage equality, Darfur, our obligation to help the victims of various natural disasters including Hurricane Katrina, Sandy and Irene, and the tornadoes in Alabama where some of us went to help clean up, and of course, Israel. We can’t pray to God in here while ignoring what God cares about out there. That is why synagogues must have windows, as must our hearts and our minds as well.
And speaking of Israel, that brings us to Torah Truth #4: And I said it again on Erev Rosh Hashanah: Wherever we stand, we stand with Israel. Those who know me, know how deeply I feel about Israel, the land, the language and the people. After 2000 years of homelessness and powerlessness, we came home to create a new Jewish reality out of the ancient soil, challenged by the difficult dream of being a modern nation-state both democratic and Jewish, wrestling with what it means for Jews to live with power.
I grew up in what I call an implicitly Zionist home. Our Zionism was the pictures from Israel on the wall and the bust of Chaim Weitzman in my bedroom. My first time in Israel was my junior year of college, 1973, the year of the Yom Kippur War. During and after the war, I was in a musical group which performed for civilians and members of the IDF in hospitals, army camps, and for those still in the field. Last week I quoted the Israeli author Yossi Klein Halevi. Yossi and I were classmates that year at the Hebrew University. We met up again back in 2008, and his very first question to me was, “Was that year as transformative for you as it was for me.” “Absolutely,” I said. “Absolutely!”
Since those transformative experiences, Israel has had a very special place in my heart. I have returned to Israel so many times I have lost track, which included leading seven Temple pilgrimages. Israel is a place that fills me with wonder, reverence and meaningful existence. It is also a source – like in any family- of consternation, frustration, anger and disappointments. I have stood with Israel but not uncritically, as many of you heard again Erev Rosh Hashanah. I have always insisted that we have a duty to show our support and a right to voice our concerns. I have encouraged you to think about Israel and to have an opinion, knowing that no matter what position you took on just about any issue, there were at least 100000 Israelis there who agree with you.
The best way of to stand with Israel and give voice to our values is by standing with those in Israel who share those same values and concerns. For me, the focus of my partnering has been with the Reform/Progressive Movement in Israel. I have given voice to my passion in the congregation, on the board of ARZA, the Association of Reform Zionists of America, in my work as chair of the Israel Committee of the CCAR, our national rabbinic body, and on the Pluralism Committee of Greater MetroWest. Through the years, members, led by Gary Aidekman, have helped our sister congregation in Mivaseret Zion build, grow and flourish. Again this summer, our Temple Pilgrimage worshipped there, and it was Bob Goldstein who proudly pointed out the name Temple B’nai Or on their donors’ wall.
Despite the obstacles past and present, Reform Judaism has a great future in Israel. It is Reform Judaism there which, person by person, family by family, congregation by congregation is draining the swamps of religious indifference, bringing water to parched Israeli souls and making the Jewish spirit bloom.
Reform Judaism in Israel has made tremendous strides through the World Zionist Organization and the Jewish Agency. And we have you to thank for that – you who voted for ARZA in the last World Zionist Congress elections. This resulted in your sending one of the largest American voting blocks to the World Zionist Congress. It is at that convention that priorities are set, budgets take shape, and roles are assigned in the arms of the Jewish Agency. There is another election coming up this January; and it will be an even greater challenge to counterbalance the growing strength of the Orthodox community here and in Israel which has a very different and certainly less pluralistic view of what Jewish life should be. On the tables outside you will find election pledge cards. We are not asking for a pledge of money, just asking that when the voting begins early next year, ARZA will be able to count on you. Once again it’s our turn to strengthen the heart and soul of Israel by making sure that Israelis know that there is more than one way to be Jewish.
Next. Torah Truth #3 turns our attention back to our county, America, and our lives as American Jews. The Torah truth I shared was this, “Intermarriage is not evil – it is a challenge and an opportunity.” I first shared this in my Yom Kippur sermon on intermarriage in 1992, and then again in my second, 18 years later. It was in that sermon that I explained the journey I took which led me to begin to perform some intermarriages. That intermarriage is not evil rings so obvious that it is almost insulting. It was not so obvious back in 1992 or in the mid-1980s when I first voiced those words from the pulpit back in Chicago.
Intermarriage is not evil, I said, but if you want to have a Jewish home, and raise Jewish children with unambiguous Jewish identities, it is much easier to do and more likely to happen if one marries someone Jewish. And of course, if you care about the meaningful continuation of Judaism and the Jewish people, then you understand that statistically, intermarriage is decreasing the likelihood that American Jews and American Judaism – at least of the non-Orthodox variety – will survive, let alone flourish in our country.
I love Judaism and think it has something unique and much needed to give to the world. And in order for there to be Judaism, there need to be Jews. And we get the most Jewish people when Jews marry other Jews. You should know that the offer of free memberships with JDate for children of our congregants still stands.
But at the same time, I lift up and bless those intermarriage parents who have made the commitment to raise their children as Jews. And I could point to some of our most Jewishly engaged teens and young adults who have a parent who has given to Judaism and the Jewish people the priceless gift of raising their children in a faith not their own. And so this morning, as I asked God’s blessings on the non-Jewish parents of Jewish children, I did so with a full and truly grateful heart.
This congregation has been and will remain a welcoming home for individuals and families who are building Jewish homes and raising up the next generation of our people and our faith. Likewise, this congregation has been and will remain a welcoming home for those whom Jewish life had previously marginalized, be it the intermarried, the Jewish single, the Jew by choice, and LGBTQ Jews. As the prophets said and as we sing on Friday evenings, “Ki bati beit t’fila l’chol ha-amim – My house shall be a house of prayer for all peoples!”
We move on. While Torah Truths numbers 4 and 3 were about different corners of the world, Torah Truth #2 is a bit not of this world. In a sermon in 1995 “On Immortality.” I said “What we know and what we can know, is not all there is to know.” I talked about how, contrary to what many of us were taught, Judaism has a rich treasure trove of beliefs about life after death. Certainly, there is what my teacher, Rabbi Harold Schulweiss, called “the immortality of influence.” That is the way we live on in this world through the influence we had and the legacies we left behind. The world we live in is not the same as the world which might have been had we had never been born. Whether our lives were measured in decades or mere days, we leave a lasting mark in this world: in the love we evoked, in the lives we created and shared, in our actions – be they for good or not – which continue to resonate – if even infinitesimally – long after we have exited the scene. Be it through acts of tzedakah, teaching, institution building, or organ donation, we have many tools by which to create our immorality of influence. And as we partake in and contribute to the life of an eternal people, we become part of the Jewish People’s eternality. In this sense, olam haba, the world to come, is the future we create in this world. The world to come starts today.
But Judaism offers us other understandings as well – other beliefs about the immortality of the soul, reincarnation, transmigration of souls, even resurrection at the end of days. Panentheisits like me might offer the Eastern metaphor of God being the ocean and our lives being the waves. You name it – just about anything that any religion said about what happens to us after we die, some Jewish person liked it, wrote it down in Hebrew, and thereby made it an option for Jewish belief.
And beyond the various beliefs, there is also experience. Many of us have had uncanny moments of connection – inexplicable experiences of presence which do not fit into a mechanistic framework. But ultimate reality may be bigger than our three dimensional limitations. In the words of Rabbi Raphael Simcha Paull, Judaism teaches that “even after death, the interconnection between the living and the dead continues.” It takes not faith or belief but humility to admit that that we know and what we can know is not all there is to know.
And that brings us to the last of Rabbi Rossoff’s List of Ten Torah Truths.
Torah Truth #1, the one that you have all been waiting for since Rosh Hashanah – although I shared it then too – is the truth I have uttered most often on and off the pulpit is this and has been a running theme in my talks and in my life. I’ll let you fill in the blank: “The Jew lives with ___.” (No, not guilt!) The Jew lives with hope! Hope is the quintessentially Jewish approach to living in this world, and is, according to Thomas Cahill, one of “the gifts of the Jews” to western civilization. The Exodus narrative introduced to the world the idea that things do not always have to be as they were and that human beings had reason to hope. Slaves can be free. Pharaohs can lose power. Walls can come tumbling down! How could we have survived 2000 years of exile without the redemptive hope that someday it would end?
I don’t believe in blind hope, the naïve belief that somehow everything always turns out for the best. I feel it, I just don’t believe it. There are many ways to understand hope. Hope is a sweet drink served in many different cups. And through the years I have offered various understandings of hope and how to have it, live with it, work towards it and share it.
In the sermon on healing in 1993, the one in which I instituted the Friday evening healing prayer, I said this: Hope does not deny the reality of today or the fear of what may be. Hope moves us away from the paralyzing question: “Why me?” and propels us towards the empowering question: “What now?” What can I do now? How can I become one of the exceptional statistics, or not see myself as a statistic at all? If I can’t live longer, how will I live better? If I can no longer have the one I loved, how will I love best the ones I have?
But we get hope in other ways as well. In 1996, in a sermon entitled, “When Life is a Curse and Death a Blessing,” I quoted Dr. Sherman Nuland’s understanding of hope in his book How We Die. “Hope, he says, “Comes not simply from the belief that things will turn around, that the disease will disappear and the suffering will ease. Hope comes from the conviction that, in our lives, there is at least one more success ahead, one more opportunity, one more moment of humanity that is worth the price of waiting in pain.”
Last year, I quoted Pastor Robert J. Voyle who defined hope as is the ability to envision a more life-affirming future and the knowledge that you have or will have the resource to reach that future. Hope, like love, takes work. As I know that if you would love another, you must be willing to do the work that love demands, so too with hope. If you would hope, you need to do the work that hope demands.
The first one who knew what it took to substantiate hope was Abraham. Here he was, in the land that God had promised to him and his descendants. And yet when Sarah died, he still had to purchase a burial place for his beloved wife. From this we learn that God’s promises for tomorrow are fulfilled by the work we do today, for God has no other hands but ours. The world to come, the world we would hope for, begins today with us.
Last year, in a sermon I called “Preparing for your Final,” I shared the questions our tradition says we will be asked when we meet our Maker, and one of them was, “Did you live with hope?” So remember, when that question comes your way, all you have to say is, “Of course I did. I’m Jewish, and the Jew lives with hope!”
So to recap again numbers 5 – 1 of my Torah Truths:
#5 Synagogues must have windows to the world outside.
#4 Intermarriage is a challenge and an opportunity.
#3 Wherever we stand, we stand with Israel.
#2 What we know and what we can know is not all there is to know.
And the number one on Rabbi Rossoff’s Top Ten List of Torah Truths is
#1 The Jew lives with hope!
Each of us has a Torah. Our Torah is recited and re-written every day through the midot – the timeless Jewish values we embody and the mitzvot – the timely Jewish acts we perform. When we teach significant Jewish ideas and perform significant Jewish acts, we find ourselves again renewing that eternal covenantal moment when first we assembled – each of us and all together – at that sacred mountain. As my teacher, Rabbi Gene Mihaly beautifully wrote.
“Our Sages, of blessed memory, said:
Whatever a faithful student will perceive and transmit,
the Torah he will create, the commandments she will teach.
They were all said to Moses at Sinai.
Sinai is ever present: not only a past event.
Whenever we gather to seek God’s presence,
to renew the covenant, to discover God’s will;
whenever we listen and hear, receive and transmit,
we stand at Sinai.”
While standing at the Mt. Sinai allows us to receive and transmit Torah, in order to create Torah, we have to climb to the top. But you see, the mountain has no top, not Sinai. But that is as it must be, for Torah is created not standing still at the summit, but in the climb, in the work and the struggle and the questioning and the self-reflection that happens when eyes are turned upward and vision is set high. Through the years, I have shared with you Torah that I heard in my own climb, through my work and struggle and questioning and self-reflection. I urge you too, never stop climbing, never stand still, because in the work and the struggle and the pursuit of the top, that is when we hear the voice of God!