Sermon for First Evening of Rosh Hashanah 5775
As you probably know, it’s a long standing tradition to visit the graves of loved ones during the month of Elul, the month immediately preceding the High Holidays.
This year when we gathered at Temple Emanuel Cemetery for our congregational visit on Sunday, September 13th we didn’t have a minyan present, so we didn’t recite mourners kaddish. Subsequently, I was asked by someone who had been present there why we couldn’t simply count some dead Jews in the minyan since we were standing in a Jewish cemetery. I told him, sorry, it doesn’t work that way:
ONLY THE LIVING CAN PERFORM MITZVOT. NOT THE DEAD.
For in the Talmud in Masechet Berachot/ The Tractate on Blessings, a story is told about two sages who were visiting a cemetery.
רבי חייא ורבי יונתן הוו שקלי ואזלי בבית הקברות הוה קשדיא תכלתא דרבי יונתן
“Rabbi Chiya and Rabbi Yonatan were walking in a cemetery, and Rabbi Yonatan’s tzitzit (the fringe of his garment) was dragging [over the graves]. Rabbi Chiyah said to him --- “Dalyey”/”Lift it up!” --- ‘Lift up your garment lest the dead say – “Tomorrow they will be joining us yet now they mock us.”’
Hearing this story, we might wonder --- Why did Rabbi Chiyah think that dragging his fringed garment on the graves constitutes mocking the dead?
According to various commentators on that Talmudic story, we learn this from a verse in the Book of Proverbs, Proverbs 17:5 to be exact:
ה לֹעֵג לָרָשׁ, חֵרֵף עֹשֵׂהוּ
5 Whoever mocks the poor blasphemes his Maker […]
The commentators say that the dead are considered “poor” in that they can’t perform mitzvot (such as, for example, the mitzvah of wearing a fringed garment). So, that explains Rabbi Chiyah’s challenge to Rabbi Yonatan:
‘Lift up your garment [don’t drag your tzitzit on the graves] lest the dead say – “Tomorrow they will be joining us yet now they mock us.”’
I’ve often thought about this general idea that it‘s only the living who can perform mitzvot.
Certainly, we are spiritually blessed by the life lessons that our loved ones of previous generations have left us – lessons of proper living based on the examples of their lives. That’s why funeral eulogies traditionally end with the phrase --- zichrono livracha/ may his memory be for a blessing or zichrona livracha/ may her memory be for a blessing. And that’s why we mark our loved ones’ yahrtzeits each year on the anniversary of their deaths. And that’s why we have a yizkor service on Yom Kippur. Zichronam livracha/ for their memories are a blessing and an inspiration to us.
And blessing can also come from the material generosity provided by previous generations. A prime example of this is the legacy of Jeanne and Ben Overman through the Ben and Jeanne Overman Charitable Trust which to this day helps assure the financial stability of Temple Israel. Indeed, those of you in the rear rows this evening are physically sitting in the “Overman Room,” our social hall, which we rededicated in summer 2013.
But, in the final analysis, Judaism teaches that the most important time for realizing our values is here and now/ ba’olam hazeh/ in this world-- a world in which we are only temporary sojourners.
As it says in Psalm 90:
12. Teach us to number our days, so that we shall acquire a heart of wisdom.
יב. לִמְנוֹת יָמֵינוּ כֵּן הוֹדַע וְנָבִא לְבַב חָכְמָה:
We do so by being here for one another – celebrating each other’s joys and supporting each other in times of sorrow. And helping one another to engage with the traditions of our people.
That, in short, is what being members of a congregation is all about.
Someone asked me recently what was so important about being a Temple member, especially if one participated in Temple functions and even donated monetarily to the Temple – but without officially being a member.
In looking for a way to respond I found an article on the web that summed up the value of synagogue membership much more eloquently than I could do in my own words. I liked the article so much that I shared it with the Board – and members of the Board liked it so much that they asked if I could share it with you.
So, here permit me to share with you some excerpts from an essay, composed in 2009 by Rabbi Gil Steinlauf of Adas Israel Congregation in Washington, DC, and entitled “The Power of Membership:”
Rabbi Steinlauf writes:
Why be a member at a synagogue? The answer to this question is not at all as simple as it was a generation ago. Once upon a time, belonging to a synagogue was a given in American Jewish life. There were a host of unspoken bonds that linked us Jews to one another—ethnic bonds, Yiddish language and culture, first and second-generation immigrant values and aspirations—and synagogues were our gathering place. We may not have necessarily believed in God. We may have been secular in every other aspect of our lives. We may have attended synagogue only on High Holy Days. But synagogue membership was sacrosanct. By and large, we didn’t belong to country clubs, to the uppermost echelons of professional societies, and we didn’t attend the old-boy elite universities.
[And, an aside here, as Jack Seiler remarked to me, in Duluth some of those country clubs and private societies, such as the Northland Country Club, explicitly barred Jews from membership not so long ago.]
Rabbi Steinlauf’s essay continues:
Shul was where we gathered and affirmed that we belonged to something important, timeless and meaningful. Shul was where we accessed our time-honored traditions, where we felt special, where we could marshal our resources to look out for each other, and for Jews around the world.
Times have changed. We Jews have made it in America. There is hardly an elite institution or cultural achievement in this society where there is not a Jewish presence and influence. Yiddish language, culture, and ethnic identity—however beloved and cherished—has fallen into the background of our lived experience.
Of course, there are still many Jewish people who still proudly support synagogues because of strong family traditions, strong ethnic sensibilities, and identification with Jewish particularism in the world. But for all the Jews who belong for the time-honored reasons, there are many more Jews today who do not feel that they need a synagogue to play its traditional role for them anymore. Jews today can belong to so many movements, so many institutions, so many means of finding and expressing meaning beyond the Jewish world. Ever-increasing numbers of 21st-century Jews no longer seek meaning through ethnic identification. We’re global citizens now. Many Jews today see just as much in common with other races and religious groups as we do with our ancestral religious and ethnic group. Our prevailing societal outlook is postmodern: we can and do invent ourselves. […]
To become a member of a synagogue in today’s world is an extraordinary act. It’s something we can easily choose not to do. To do so, then, is not just about giving money to receive services. It is, first and foremost, an act of faith that this institution called a synagogue stands for something important in our lives, and in the world. Synagogue membership runs against the grain of postmodern expectation. In most settings nowadays, you give your money, you click that button, and you receive instant and personalized gratification. Not so in synagogues. Synagogue membership is about something deeper. You give your money so that you and your family benefit, yes, but also because other individuals and families will benefit from the very same services that you value. Those other individuals and families may be your friends, but they also may be people whom you don’t know at all. At times, they may even be people you don’t like! To be a synagogue member is to rise above all of that, and to acknowledge: “I may not know you at all, but I am responsible to you for no other reason than the fact that you and I share a common heritage that matters in the world. I am responsible to you because--just maybe--you and I share a common destiny to improve this world as Jews.” In other words, synagogue membership is an act of faith in the power of community to transform the world.
[…] To be a member of a synagogue means that you are expressing faith that the community will not only mirror your personal expectations and preferences, but it will also challenge you to question those very preferences and expectations by force of Torah and wisdom when circumstances demand that we be challenged. To be a member at a synagogue nowadays is an expression of faith that the synagogue just may inspire us to live in new and more meaningful ways. It’s an affirmation that we just may discover insight from an ancient heritage with thousands of years of collective wisdom. […]
On the deepest level, synagogue membership is not just an act of faith. It’s an act of Chesed, of lovingkindness. […] It symbolizes that we care about what it does, that its mission succeeds. It’s an act of Chesed [kindness] because it it’s not about instant gratification! […] We give for our membership because we know that our funds will keep the lights and heat on, even if we’re not there. It will pay the salaries of the teachers of Torah who can enrich the soul of someone else’s child, if not my own child.
Our ancient sages teach that Chesed shel Emet, True Lovingkindness, is giving with no expectation of reward. This is the essence of synagogue membership in the 21st century. We belong not because we’re in it just to get something out of it. We belong because the very act of belonging is an act of kindness and giving, of being there for others beyond our personal self-interest. […] To belong to a synagogue confirms that we really can transform our lives—together. And together, from generation to generation, is the only way we can transform the world.
Those excerpts from Rabbi Steinlauf’s essay, “The Power of Membership,” remind me of a couple of verses from Psalms that appear in the liturgy for Selichot (which we observed last Saturday night) and Yom Kippur (which we’ll observe next week):
From Psalm 51:
יג אַל-תַּשְׁלִיכֵנִי מִלְּפָנֶיךָ; וְרוּחַ קָדְשְׁךָ, אַל-תִּקַּח מִמֶּנִּי.
“Do not cast me away from Your Presence; Do not take Your holy spirit from me.
And from Psalm 71:
ט אַל-תַּשְׁלִיכֵנִי, לְעֵת זִקְנָה; כִּכְלוֹת כֹּחִי, אַל-תַּעַזְבֵנִי.
“Do not cast me off in old age; when my strength fails, do not forsake me.
The psalmist writes in the first person singular, but when these verses are incorporated into the High Holiday liturgy, Jewish tradition does what it often does – It transforms them from the realm of the individual to the realm of the community.
“al tashlicheNUmilfanekha [SAYS THE MACHZOR]-- Do not cast US away from your presence; do not take your holy spirit from US
“al tashlicheNU l’eyt ziknah -- Do not cast US off in old age; when OUR strength fails; do not forsake US!
The fact that our prayers are so often in the first person plural – even when incorporating biblical verses that were originally in the first person singular – reminds us of the importance of community in Judaism.
As Temple members, we join together in fellowship so that, hopefully, we can ensure that none of us ever feel cast away or forsaken. In fact, in Hebrew, the same word – chaver – means both friend and member.
This is a work in progress.
But it is indeed our work.
As chaverim/ as members here at Temple Israel we also come together to share the simchaot/the joys and happy occasions/ in our lives as well. (The next such simcha, by the way, will be the brit milah of Maxwell W_______ --- 5pm this Monday here at Temple Israel – YOU’RE ALL INVITED!).
To put it in the words of Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan (words which mean so much to me that I’ve included them in the signature line on all my outgoing Temple e-mails:)
“We short-circuit religion when we treat it as an affair between the individual and God. To function normally, the religious current connecting the individual with God must pass through the life of the people.”
Tomorrow afternoon at Chester Bowl, our Tashlikh --- our “Casting Off” -- will be a symbolic casting off of our sins even as we continue to engage in prayerful reflection and repentance over this entire period of the Aseret Ymey Teshuvah.
During these Ten Days of Repentance – as we try to cast away our sins --- it also behooves us to give some focus to our responsibility not to cast away one another.
Like all mitzvot, we see this responsibility not as a burden but rather as a gift and a blessing – as an opportunity to make real the poetic sentiments of the siddur:
Ashreinu, mah tov chelkeynu, umah na’im goraleinu, umah yafah yerushateinu…
“Happy are we, how good is our portion, how pleasant our lot, and how beautiful our heritage….”
Let us be thankful for the blessing of being able to observe these Yamim Nora’im/Days of Awe together with one another once again.
May each of us, and the whole House of Israel, be inscribed and sealed in the book of life for this new year Five Thousand Seven Hundred and Seventy Five.
And may it be a year of shalom u’veracha/ peace and blessing for all the world.
(c) Rabbi David Steinberg
September 2014/ Rosh Hashanah 5775