Rabbi David Gelfand: Rosh Hashanah 5780
One morning, the Rabbi noticed little Alex was staring up at a large memorial plaque in the front of the lobby of the synagogue. And it listed lots of names, and American flags were mounted reverently on either side of it. The five year old was mesmerized, and so the Rabbi went over to him, and stood beside, and said:
“Good morning, Alex.”
“Good morning, Rabbi.
What is this thing up here?”
“Well, it’s a memorial to all the men and women who died in the service.”
Little Alex’s eyes widened, but his gaze remained fixed on the long list of names. Soberly they stood there for a moment, and when the barely inaudible voice came out of Alex. He said, “Which service Rabbi? Evening or morning?”
Sometimes things are difficult to parcel out. And sometimes the challenges seem overwhelming. This has been an endlessly challenging year, unlike one that we’ve experienced before. Not that it’s the worst, it’s just filled with the unknown, and most of it shocking.
We Jews, and those who live among us, we gather in synagogues at this time year for reflection, examination, perspective, and inspiration. What have we learned in the past year? Have we learned what it is that we hold dear? The truth be told, these are confusing, befuddling, and troubling times. We have seen a lot of life, and it has come in all different colors. Some of it is not very pretty. With what we know, how will we proceed in the new year?
Amidst the tumult of the world, Rosh Hashanah has arrived, and the tradition that we cherish beckons us to listen to the call of the Shofar, to think about the choices that we make. The ones we’ve made in the past year, and the choices we are about to make in the new year. Now is the time to remember God’s first question, Ayekah, where are you?
There’s a story of the young boy who once called up the local drugstore to ask if they needed a delivery boy. The pharmacist replied, “We don’t need one, we already have one.”
“Well,” continued the boy over the phone, “are you satisfied with him? Would you perhaps want a better errand boy?”
The man paused, “No, I’m perfectly satisfied. I have a great kid, he does a great job. Why are you calling? Do you need a job that bad?”
The boy replied, “No, I have a job. I’m your errand boy. I thought it was time to check up on myself.”
In the world in which we live, here in New York, and in this country, there are different ways of checking up on things. There are laws for compulsory car inspections, and then a sticker is placed on our car to indicate the exact month in which it was inspected. For most people, there is the responsibility for themselves, and perhaps for their children, or for others, to be checked out by a physician now and again.
But for we who are Jews, we have another time to check in, and to check things out. To think about the choices that we will make, choices personal, familial, friends, citizens, political and spiritual. Most of us learned this poem, as did I, in the 7th Grade. American Poet Laureate wrote, you know it:
“Two roads diverged in a yellow wood, and sorry I could not travel both. And being one traveler long, I stood and looked down one as far as I could to where it bent in the undergrowth. Two roads diverged in the wood, and I took the one less traveled by. And that… that has made all the difference.”
Whether it’s in the classroom with little kids, in my home, or talking to adults, as a Rabbi, in good times and bad, I’m asked, so why should I be Jewish? Or, what’s so special about being Jewish anyway? That’s from the teenagers, of course. We are challenged constantly to prove that being Jewish is worthwhile, and the imagery of Frost can help us. We are a people that more often than not, across 4000 years, has taken the road less traveled. And it… it has made all the difference.
For most of America, today is just a Monday at the end of September. But we, you and I, have chosen to be here. We are taking a road less traveled. We are here, like the young parents, several hundred of them who were downstairs with their little ones, toddlers before, earlier. Or the others who were downstairs, or every room filled with kids upstairs. And we who are here, are here because of Abraham’s courage, because of our people’s journey from Egyptian bondage to the Promised Land. From the dark days of the Inquisition in Spain, to the beauty and brightness of freedom in America, as well as the vision of Ben Gurion, Golda, and Rabin. And the 21 st century of the modern miracle of the high tech startup nation known as Israel.
We have traveled a different road, and at times it molds us as a people in different ways. We care differently. We, thank goodness, continue to share differently. We pay attention. We read more. We seek more for our children. Not because we are better, but because we have been molded across the generations.
And we have inherited a value system that speaks to us in a way that shapes us, even yet today in the 21st Century. When we have suffered, or been under siege, somehow, miraculously, time and again, we have found the road. We have been shaped by the anvil of history and experience.
In 1654, when Jews came to New Amsterdam, now New York City, they were descendants of Sephardic Jews who had been expelled from Spain and Portugal at the very time that Columbus set sail. Some of them went off to Brazil, but then as Portugal took over Brazil, they had to flee the Inquisition again. And then they began an experiment, an incredible experiment here.
At the time of the Revolution there were about 3000 Jews living in the Colonies. Others, generations later, created this synagogue in 1870. It became, from 1880 to 1940, New York’s largest, pre-eminent synagogue. At one point it took up an entire city block in Harlem. Then it moved, because there wasn’t enough space. There are more seats in the synagogue that still stands, the building now a Pentecostal Church at 120 th and Lenox, than there are at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, or Temple Emmanu-el. And then in the 1960s they moved here. News flash, do the math. Next year it’s the 150 th Anniversary of this historic congregation. A massive Eastern European migration followed from 40 years, from the 1880s to the 1920s.
Among those who came to these shores was my Grandpa Max. He came here as a young boy, about 15, in the late 1890s. Each of us has our own immigrant story, when once upon a time the flame of Lady Liberty in New York Harbor burned brightly, welcoming our families to this land of freedom and opportunity. It could use a charge.
Around the time of my Bar Mitzvah, I remember talking to my Grandpa Max – he had no accent, he had gotten rid of it along the way – and he loved going to Synagogue. He wasn’t a Rabbi, he was actually uneducated, but from his childhood he was very knowledgeable. In fact, we used to get calls, if an Orthodox Rabbi was sick, or away on a vacation, can Max come and fill in? And he never said no. He was rather observant, and most importantly, he didn’t go to synagogue to become Jewish, he went to a shul because he was Jewish. He knew what it meant for himself. I asked him why he always went on Saturday mornings, walking usually, if he could. He said things like, “We all need to make choices. Mine is to do this. It makes me more Jewish inside.”
In The Counter Life, a book by Philip Roth, he describes a marriage of the main character to a woman from an aristocratic British family. She’s pregnant, and his mother-in-law expects this child to be Christened and baptized in church. Though he had been passive, unconcerned, and disinterested in being Jewish, at this moment he said: “No, no, no, no, no. My son is going to have a Bris.” His wife didn’t get it at all. She had never seen him proactively be Jewish. He almost never went to synagogue unless he was invited. The father-tobe reflects. “Circumcision confirms that there is an us, and an us that isn’t only him and me. I have decided, I no longer want to be a Jew, without Jews, without Judaism, without Zionism, without Jewishness, without a Temple. Clearly a Jew without a home. I want to come home, and I want my son to come home with me. And as he grows older, I hope that he will move, that he will move from a Covenant of Fate, to a Covenant of Faith.”
Whether we are adults, or grandparents, or kids. Whether we are aunts and uncles to other… if we were born Jewish, then we are simply part of a Covenant of Fate that brings us here, happenstance. But if we want to be Jewish, to live those values, then like those who live among us, who were not born Jewish, we have to be willing to assume a covenant, an agreement.
Circumstances in life sometimes lead us from fate to faith. I believe that the darkness that we have witnessed, and about which surrounds us in our lives is a clarion call to think about the values that we should be living. It’s not all about them, they, him. It is about us.
I’ve been a Rabbi now for over 40 years. It’s not like the good old days, but truthfully, it never really was. But 30 or 40 years ago, not many were writing about people choosing Judaism, or even using this terminology. Four decades ago, there weren’t a lot of things that we now take for granted. When they built this synagogue in the early-mid 60s, ’62 to ’64, there was no nursery school, no ECLC. There were no Tot Shabbats, there was no Rockin’ Shabbat. When they built this synagogue, the whole congregation could sit here. That was just built for architecture, and to rent out on the High Holidays. There were less than 100 kids in the religious school, not 300 today. There are in the building today, over 1800 people, and it’s not only here. Today, Reform Judaism is the largest Jewish movement in the world.
I know sometimes, because we don’t wear black hats, and black coats, that you might think that there are some others who are. We represent 1.8 million Jews, in 850 synagogues, 2,500 rabbis in this country, and in 51 countries around the world. The World Union of Progressive Judaism reminds us that there are synagogues not only growing in Eastern Europe and the FSU. Want to travel and find a synagogue next Rosh Hashanah? You can go to Bali or Bangkok, Singapore or Shanghai, Portugal or Puerto Allegre, South Africa or South America, yes, you can even go now to Uganda or Kenya, and find a synagogue like this one. Okay, it might not have that ark, and it won’t have a Cantor like that, and it surely probably won’t have a Shofar blower like Harrison.
Around the world, people need to make choices. Many of you are here after the horrors that occurred in October of last year in Pittsburgh. With the help of my dear friend, David Harris, the AJC brilliantly created #standupforshabbat. And it was like this, except there were no empty seats. And in the seats were hundreds, and hundreds of congregants – and neighbors. There were Sikhs and there were Muslims, there were Catholics and there were Protestants, there were people of every walk of life who came to join us, to stand up with us, and we will do so again at the end of October in solidarity with Poway and with Pittsburgh, and with Jews around the world, just as we do today in a different mode.
Our commitment, your commitment is not just to be a good person, it is to know why, and how. Like from the story of Abraham and Isaac, the knife is now in our hands. Whether the knife falls and cuts the throat of Jewish life, is a matter over which every adult has knowledge and power. Will we act on our choices? There are different roads and different paths, and we all know people who take different paths.
Some years ago, I was preparing a young woman for a conversion to Judaism, it was a few weeks before the holidays. I asked her of everything you’ve studied these months, what impressed you the most? Her answer: “I love the idea of Yom Kippur. It’s like personal therapy. I’m looking forward to my first time to spend Yom Kippur at home, thinking about how I could change myself.”
And I shook my head. “You got half of it right. But you’re supposed to come and share that moment, that day, in a synagogue, be it here or elsewhere, wherever you are.”
And she looked puzzled and said, “But wouldn’t that be distracting?”
I said, “No, not at all. Atonement is the art of finding at one-ment, when you are surrounded by your family, some of whom you don’t even know.”
We are meant to be a family of families, and that means we welcome the stranger, and we support one another. There is a power in that, sitting around you, beside you, are family members, and friends, and people who maybe you’ve never said hello to, but they’re your family. When I pray with this family, when I stand here I feel the power of community, and the power of friendship, and I know that none of us need to feel like little Alex standing at the memorial plaque.
We are inheritors of a tradition that allows us to choose. We can choose anew every Rosh Hashanah. But some Rosh Hashanahs are different, and this one, I guarantee you, is going to put a smile on your face, even if you listened to the news this morning, or yesterday. We have come for different reasons, we are here at different stages in our life, and for each of us there are different paths and roads. “Two paths diverged in the wood, and I, I took the one less traveled, and it’s made all the difference.”
So, with sensitivity, and a lot of chutzpah, I have asked an eager student, and a precious friend to many of you, to come up and join me on the Bimah in a moment. In this year of tumult and difficult challenges to the world around us, that make us doubt and wonder, where is God? Or is there a God? Or will it ever be better? Or how bad will it get? And that’s before you get to your personal stuff.
It’s time to feel good. And here, in a moment, this will be something you will remember, I know. This individual – and I want to share something very private and poignant with you in public – agreed that she would share this moment with us now. Her warmth, and charm, her smile, her helpfulness and her optimism has been a blessing to many of us here. A moment which will be of profound importance to her in her life, it will be life changing. It will be a Shehecheyanu moment. That’s Rabbi talk, a moment of newness, of celebration, of smile, and maybe even of tears that smile also. And when your family and friends ask you what happened in your synagogue this morning, I hope you’ll tell them you smiled, and that you witnessed living Torah.
The path that this individual has taken, of study and learning, has allowed her to now choose to be ready this very day, to begin for the first time in her life, a Jewish New Year. For her, like over a few hundred others who have studied with me, in the spirit of Pirkei Avot, more than the teacher teaches the student, the student teaches the teacher. To guide someone to such a moment is an awesome and awe inspiring responsibility for any rabbi, and for me, one with great humility, and heartfelt appreciation. It is an answer to why be Jewish, and so it is with great joy and anticipation that I welcome to come forward onto this Bimah, Eugenia James Edwards.
In Jewish tradition there must be two witnesses.
The witnesses she has chosen in this moment are all of you. You’re more than the two. As she joins me in front of the Ark I call forward now Carrie Abramson and Marty Cohen to ascend the Bimah as well. Today we are here to begin a new year, and as you, and she, and we, choose Judaism for that new year, I would invite you all to please rise as the Ark shall be opened.