Sunday, October 2, 2011

Rabbi Schwartz's Sermon for Rosh Hashanah Evening 5772




Modeh ani, I am truly grateful, to be standing before you on this Rosh Hashanah, as your new rabbi.

I am grateful to be in partnership with our Cantor, Religious School Director, Board of Trustees, and all of you. Together we are engaged in the sacred task of creating kehillah k’dosha , holy community, or in the words of our 19th century founders, adas emuno, a community of the faithful.

When I had my first telephone conversation with Beth Ziff, Chair of the Search Committee, all the questions she asked were thoughtful, but predictable…  until the last one. “Rabbi,” she said, “if you were to end up here, what would be your first sermon?”

Thinking on my feet, as a rabbi must often do, I responded that the sermon should contain three elements:

1. It should be grounded in Torah.
2. It should be welcoming and affirm community.
3. It should offer a vision of the future.

Although I began on August 1st and have already delivered several sermons, this is my first High Holy Day sermon, and I would like to keep my word to Beth.

I stand in gratitude in this humble but beautiful sanctuary. I will try to affirm the holiness of this place each time I am present. As often as I enter, I will try to avoid making it routine.

When I visited for the first time, I searched for the words inscribed above the Ark. I smiled. They are the same as my previous congregation. They are one of the two most common verses found in sanctuaries throughout the world. I know them by heart, but do I take them to heart?

Da Lifnei Mi Atah Omed—Know Before Whom You Stand.

I am sure this is not the first sermon at Adas Emuno to be framed by these majestic words, nor the last. But on this new year I would like to take them to heart as an affirmation of faith and of community

The words themselves are Talmudic. The Tractate Berachot (28b) relates that when the famed sage Rabbi Eliezer fell ill, his disciples came to visit. “Master,” they said, “teach us the ways of life whereby we may be worthy of the life of the world to come.”

Rabbi Eliezer replied with some advice about childrearing and guarding one’s reputation.  Then he adds, “and when you pray, know before whom you stand.”

He elaborates no further. Rashi, the most esteemed of commentators, offers the traditional interpretation. The teaching, he notes, is connected to the act of prayer, and thus speaks of standing before God, B’Yirah U’Bkavvanah, with reverence and with integrity.

Rabbi Eliezer’s famous injunction does not say:  Know before what you stand, but rather, before whom you stand. In a nutshell, one could argue that this one word change encapsulates the difference between a primarily secular worldview versus a predominately religious worldview.

After all, it was Socrates who said, “the unexamined life is not worth living,” while the prophets would have rejoined, “the uncommanded life is not worth living.”

The humanism of Athens sought, above all, truth, while the theism of Jerusalem pursued, above all, holiness.

As the great Reform scholar, Solomon Freehof, put it:

The Greek is interested in nature’s law,
The Hebrew in nature’s lawgiver.

The Greek is interested in peace of heart,
The Hebrew in progress of character.

The Greeks said: Seek harmony and you will find serenity;
The Hebrews said: Seek holiness and you will find nobility.

The traditional understanding of the words above our Ark is to know that we stand before God, in all that we pray, say, and do.

On this Rosh Hashanah, I want to explore what other meaning “know before whom you stand” might have for us.

Whenever I bring young children in for a “sanctuary tour”, which I love doing, I show them everything that is special, and then conclude by asking: what is the most important thing in this sanctuary?

Often they point to the Torah scrolls, and I say they are important, but not the most important.

They point to the eternal light, and I say the same thing. They point to the Ark, to the inscription, to the plaques, to the windows, and I reply the same.

They are often stumped, and this is not a trick question, not really.

Then I have them point to themselves. And then they get it. They are the most important thing. Not an object, not even the Torah.  People are most important. As the book of Exodus teaches, V’Shachanti B’Tocham, “and I shall dwell…  among them.”

Without us, a synagogue remains a building, and a sanctuary a very nice room.

 With living, breathing, praying people, a synagogue becomes a community, and a sanctuary becomes a holy place.

In this spirit, let me suggest that to “know before whom you stand” points not only to the Holy One, but to the Holy Community, the Kehilla K’Dosha.

We stand before God, as we stand before each other.

Indeed, the very Torah passage that we read on Yom Kippur morning in the Reform tradition, Deuteronomy 29:9 begins: “Atem nitzavim hayom, You stand today, all of you, before Adonai…”  But then the verse describes the community gathered, in all its diversity, “your leaders, your tribes, your elders, your officials, every man, woman, and child in Israel, the stranger in the midst of your camp, from the one who chops your wood to the ones who draws your water. ”

These are the questions that I want to pose on this Rosh Hashanah.

What does “all of us” mean today? 

What does “every man, woman, and child” mean today?

What does “the one who chops your wood to the one who draws your water” mean today?

In truth, the Jewish people is more diverse than ever before, and I dare say that the American Jewish community is the most diverse in Jewish history.

Consider the following:

·      The traditional family (two first time married adults with children at home) now constitute only a quarter of all family units in the Jewish community!

·      The year 2000 national Jewish population study revealed that barely half (54%) of Jewish adults 18 and older are married.

·      A quarter have never married, 9% are divorced, 4% separated, and 7% widowed.

When we stand before our community we must know that we stand before single individuals and single parents.

·      One out of every seven American Jewish adults has been married a second time.

When we stand before our people we must know that we stand before blended families.

·      One out of every seven American Jewish adults was born outside the U.S.

When we stand before our people we must know that we stand before Jews from the former Soviet Union, from Iran, from Israel, and around the globe.

·      Five percent of the American Jewish community is non-Caucasian, and a fifth of children being adopted by Jewish families are non-white.

When we stand before our people we must know that we stand before adults and children who may share in Asian, African, and Hispanic descent.

·      And as we well know, almost half of all adult American Jews marrying since 1990 are intermarried.

·      Before 1970, the rate was a bare 13%.  Dramatic change began in the seventies, when many third generation American Jews married. Intermarriage grew to 38% in my generation, which married in the eighties, and rose to over 40%  in the following decade.

When we stand before our people we must know that we stand before many “Jews by choice” and before non-Jewish members of Jewish families.

A popular Jewish prayer reads, “may the door of this synagogue be wide enough to receive all who hunger for love, all who are lonely for fellowship.”

The one who hungers for love in our community today might very well be a single person or a single parent.

The one who is lonely for fellowship in our community today might very well be a Jew by choice, or an interfaith couple.

Despite the progress we have made as a movement in recent years, are the doors of our synagogues open wide enough for all to enter?

This portrait of the changing Jewish American family is our coat of many colors.  In our small congregation of Adas Emuno, shall we wear this coat of many colors with pride? What further work needs to be done?

Hineni. Here I am. Standing before God and standing before you. Standing with you.  

Let us continue our journey together.

Let us continue our journey as a welcoming community, a diverse community, a down-to-earth community, a haimish community, an inclusive community.

Let us continue our journey as a spiritually audacious community, an intellectually searching community, and a justice committed community.

Let us continue our journey recognizing that just as the German Jewish founders of this congregation had the holy chutzpah to offer a new form of worship and organization a century and a half ago, it is time for us to put new wine in old flasks.

On the application for a new rabbi, this congregation wrote that, “we know who we are, honor our traditions, but are not afraid of new ideas.” Let’s go for it!
The words above this Ark will remain our guide. Standing before our God and our people will illumine our way.

Then indeed the doors of this synagogue will be wide enough for all who hunger for love, for all who are lonely for fellowship.

Then indeed we shall be adas emuno, a community of the faithful.

May it be…  and to this we say, Amen.

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