Saturday, September 29, 2012

Rabbi Schwartz's Sermon for Kol Nidrei 5773




It is not everyday that I take as my rabbinic teaching text, not the Torah or the Talmud… but Sports Illustrated!

I love basketball, playing (once upon a time) and watching. I went to Duke University, and am a passionate Blue Devils fan. I grew up a Knicks fan in the glory days of Willis Reed, Dave Debusschere, Walt Frazier, Bill Bradley, and Earl-the-Pearl Monroe.

This year I rooted for King James to get his crown and the Dream Team to get their gold.

Some years ago when I lived in the Philadelphia area the Sixers' Allen Iverson went off for a career high 60 points against the Orlando Magic. The very next week, Sports Illustrated did a piece called: “How It Feels… To Be On Fire.”  It was marvelous. And I said to myself:  There’s a Yom Kippur sermon there!

I’ll make this brief, but allow me to quote a few of the players cited in the piece so you get a feel for what I’m talking about: to be “on fire”:

Jason Terry: “There’s no feeling like it. It’s like a hip-hop song. You’re just there grooving, swaying back and forth. It seems like the net doesn’t even move.” 
Ben Gordon: “You lose track of time. What quarter it is. You don’t hear the crowd. You don’t know how many points you have. You don’t think. You’re just playing. Offensively everything is instinctive.”
Vince Carter: “It feels like nobody’s out there, you’re playing by yourself. You don’t care how good a defender is guarding you.”
Joe Dumars: “It’s like an out-of-body experience, like you’re watching yourself.”
Eddie Jones: “All you see is the rim and how big it is. It’s a mental thing. Everything is just correct. Your shot is correct. The way you’re coming down is correct. Your form is correct. Everything.
Pat Garrity: “The ball feels so light, and your shots are effortless. You don’t even have to aim. You let it go, and you know the ball is going in. It’s wonderful. It’s like a good dream, and you don’t want to wake up.”
And Iverson himself: “You honestly don’t really feel it when the shots are going down. You don’t get the goose bumps until the fans start to appreciate what you’re doing.”

Believe it or not, there is a Hebrew term for “being on fire.” 

The word is hitlahavut.  Lahav means flame. As Rabbi Arthur Green states in his book, These are the Words: A Vocabulary of Jewish Spiritual Life, hitlahavut means that the soul catches fire.”

Isn’t it interesting that the mystics in Judaism use the phrase “catching fire” just as modern athletes do.

Athletes describe being “in the zone,” when one loses track of time and space. Mystics describe being “in the zone,” usually during ecstatic prayer, when they too lose track of time and space.

Athletes see nothing but net. Mystics see nothing but God. 

Arthur Green, former president of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, founder of the Havurah Movement, and something of a practicing mystic, continues: 

In such moments all obstacles to perceiving God everywhere are consumed…. It is a rare and precious moment… Usually it comes and goes almost in a flash. But no matter: the real impact of hitlahavut is in the memory of such moments. They are stored in the contemplative’s mind and become important steps on the road toward the much cooler but longer lasting goal of [devekut], an attachment to God in which one may live and act.

Okay, so why am I talking about basketball and kabbalah? Why am I comparing the runner’s high to the religious high? 

As a ballplayer and as a rabbi , yes, I have “caught fire” on the court and on the bimah (in my better days), but what am I really getting at here?

Well, let me share a story at this juncture.  It takes place in a church in New York. A church with one of those large, formal high ceilings, with ushers marching up and down the aisles. At one particular service, a woman from the south was in attendance (who hailed from a different religious background). During the minister’s sermon she kept yelling out “Amen! Amen!”  An usher scurried over and asked if she was ill. “Ill?” she replied, “absolutely not. I got religion.” “Please,” said the usher, “not in here!”

The anonymous rabbi who tells this story goes on to write:

It is my belief that the hitlahavut, the religious fervor, of Hasidic Judaism, is a sorely missing ingredient in the life of the American synagogue.

This sermon is about rekindling our religious flame. It is about finding our Jewish passion, our Jewish enthusiasm.

Enthusiasm, by the way, from the Greek, en (in) and theos (god). 

I always give my sermons titles. Not that it especially matters, since the words are spoken, not read. The title I gave this sermon is “Judaism on Fire.”  

What sparks each soul is going to be different for every human being. 

But in the words of the old church saying: “Find your glory.” Find what you are passionate about. Show your enthusiasm.

Both my sons interviewed for new jobs this year. I told them that when I have hired someone, more than the resume, more than the references, it ultimately came down to the passion the candidate showed for the position. 

In the Jewish context our tradition teaches that one should be passionate about three things: learning, praying and giving. These three things are called “the foundations of the world”. They are considered the classic pathways to loving God and loving your fellow.

On this Yom Kippur I want to take up the challenge of religious passion. And yes, in this secular age, this skeptical age, this is a challenge. And yes, unbridled passion can sometimes degenerate into fanaticism, but don’t let the zealots and the fundamentalists hijack passion. It’s too precious, too important.

Learning (Torah).  Can we be passionate about Jewish life-long study? Can we infuse our Jewish learning with as much zeal as our secular pursuits? Can we take the plunge and dive into the sea of wisdom that has been deepened for three and half millenia? 

Learning is a voyage of outer exploration that inevitably ends in self-discovery. As Arthur Koestler once commented, there are three kinds of stories:

Ha-ha stories amuse and entertain.Ah-ha stories expand and teach.Ahhh! Stories connect and inspire.

What’s on your reading list? I’d be happy to make suggestions.

Come learn with us every Shabbat morning. This year we are studying the master work of Moses Maimonides, considered the greatest sage in Jewish history. Make the connection. Experience the ah-ha and the ahhs!  

Praying (avodah). Can we be passionate about prayer? Ironically, for many of us, this may be the most difficult of the three paths, even though it is the easiest. Orthodoxy excepted, we are not much of a praying people anymore.

When it was revealed that up to the day he died, Pope John Paul spent several hours a day in prayer, some of it raptuous, we were piqued but largely uncomprehending. When we sense the spirit of many of our Christian neighbors we are perhaps momentarily tantalized but then inhibited. Jewish ecstatic prayer is largely a lost art, though its roots are Biblical and its branches bear fruit in every age and place.

Come pray with us. Nourish the spirit. Discover a lost art. 

Giving (g’milut hasadim). Can we be passionate about our sharing?  Of our wealth? Of our time?  Of our hearts?

In the words Edward Markham:
 “Giving is living,” the angel said. “And must I keep giving again and again?” My selfish and querulous answer ran. “Ah, no,” said the angel, as her eye pierced me through. “Just give till the Eternal One stops giving to you.”

In the words of Noah Ben Shea:

A rich man cam to Jacob [the baker] and sought his advice. “Why must I give…?” “Because [giving determines] your freedom,” said Jacob.The man was astonished. “How does giving… bring about my freedom?” “You see,” said Jacob, “either the key to a man’s wallet is in his heart, or the key to a man’s heart is in his wallet.So, until you express your charity, you are locked inside your greed.”

What’s in your wallet?

“Live generously.”  And we thank you for supporting our congregation!

Isn’t it interesting that when Moses found his calling, when his life changed forever, the imagery is fire.

 An angel of the Lord appeared to him in a blazing fire out of a bush. He gazed, and there was a bush all aflame, yet the bush was not consumed. (Exodus 3:2-3)

Later, when the people of Israel find their destiny, once again it is fire:

Now Mount Sinai was all in smoke, for the Lord had come down upon it in fire; the smoke rose like the smoke of a kiln, and the whole mountain trembled violently. (Exodus 19:18)

A contemporary poem captures the moment

Somewhere out of timeIn the mystery of time…I remember how I once stoodAt your mountain tremblingAmid the fire and the thunder…
And, yes, I can rememberHow the thunder was my heartAnd the fire was my soul.
O God, I do remember.The fire burns in me anew.And here I am, once more.

As I was researching the term hitlahavut for this sermon, I came across an essay by Rabbi Yitzhak Miller about why he left a lucrative position in business consulting to become a rabbi. Here is the concluding paragraphs of his essay:

 The last of my story: after I was accepted to rabbinical school, my mother sent me a cassette tape in the mail, with no indication of what it contained, but simply a note attached that said, “put in your tape deck and push play”. It was the voice of my grandfather, and the tape from my Bar Mitzvah- a message I probably didn’t even hear when I was 13, but at least didn’t remember. Maybe I wasn’t supposed to hear it then. Who knows? But 14 years later, and some 12 years after his death, I not only heard but felt the blessing he offered me.
Not fame , not fortune…  not even happiness. “hitlahavut,” he said. It was an old Chassidic term- you see, he was supposed to be the next in a long line of Chassidic rabbis, but gave up that calling when he emigrated to America as a teenager. “I wish you hitlahavut in your life,” he said, “the burning fire that comes from your soul when your heart and your mind are dedicated together to that one holy purpose for which God placed you on this earth.”

That is my wish for us, on this Yom Kippur. May we discover that holy purpose, that holy flame. 

Could it be that the eternal light above us burns brightly for that very reason, to remind us to find the flame within?

A final word: I came across a news item in my file, a piece from the New York Times a few years back: “Dying Star Flares Up, Briefly Outshining Rest Of Galaxy.”

It begins:

For a fraction of a second in December, a dying remnant of an exploded star let out a burst of light that outshone the Milky Way’s other half trillion stars combined, astronomers announced Friday.

Ironically, you and I didn’t notice because most of the light was in the form of gamma rays that are blocked by our atmosphere. But instruments on every NASA spacecraft went berserk. Even though a lone physicist, from Ben Gurion University in Israel no less, had predicted that what they call a magnetar flare of such huge proportions could theoretically occur, scientists were dumbfounded.

 [It] seems so improbable it’s a puzzle right now, said NASA’s lead scientist. “There’s something going on here that we don’t understand.

I’m no astrophysicist, but I’ll tell you what’s going on. That star is on fire. It’s got hitlahavut, baby.  It wants to go out with a bang.

But I hope that star realized that it shone its whole life. The divine light is everywhere. Just find your glory.

He turns. He shoots. Nothing but net. Nothing but God.

Holy purpose, holy flame.

L’shanah tovah. May you be inscribed for a good year, a passionate year, on fire!

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