Monday, October 1, 2012

Rabbi Schwartz's Sermon for Yom Kippur 5773




Surely you remember the Broadway musical Rent, and that marvelous song, “Seasons of Love”?

Five hundred twenty-five thousand
Six hundred minutes,
Five hundred twenty-five thousand
Moments so dear.
Five hundred twenty-five thousand
Six hundred minutes
How do you measure, measure a year?

So asked Jonathan Larson, the young, Jewish playwright and composer of Rent, who tragically passed away of a heart ailment on the eve of the show’s Broadway debut.

How do we measure a year? A perfectly appropriate question on these, the High Holy Days.

When we gather in this place, at this time, at the ancient turning of the Jewish year, at the holy hour which culminates the ten days of soul searching and introspection, we are inescapably confronted with the passage of time, and the consequences of our acts.

We have started counting a new Jewish year. Five thousand seven hundred and seventy three years, since the Creation of the world… give or take a few billion.

But more importantly, how do we judge the year gone by?

The New Year is a time of counting, but even more it is a time of accounting.

No sooner do we mark the New Year on Rosh Hashanah then we are told to spend the next ten days dwelling on the previous one.

How, then, do we measure a year?

Larson continues,

In daylights, in sunsets, in midnights
In cups of coffee
In inches, in miles, in laughter, in strife.

In five hundred twenty-five thousand
Six hundred minutes
How do you measure
A year in the life?

And then he concludes,

How about love?
Measure in love.
Seasons of love.

What a challenge!

To measure in love. To judge the year gone by our triumphs and failures… of love.

There are a myriad of ways to “number our days,” in the phrase of the Psalmist, but what of the measure of love?

By the standard of professional accomplishment, I may have had an exceptional year, a mediocre year, a sub-par year… But what about love?

By the standard of economic gain, I may have had an exceptional year, a mediocre year, a sub-par year… But what about love?

By so many standards of stature and affluence, I may have scaled the heights, or experienced the depths… But what about love?

The Hebrew word for love, ahavah, like the English, conveys multiple meanings depending on the context.

What do we really mean by love?

Consider the help of the Classical Greek, which employs three terms:

Eros—romantic love.
Philos—fraternal love.
Agape—spiritual love.

The Torah implies this range of relationships:

Genesis teaches us about eros, the romantic love between husband and wife, or the lack thereof. From Adam and Eve, Abraham and Sarah, to Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob, Leah and Rachel.

So too, these sacred stories portray the depths of philos, the fraternal love, or the lack thereof, between siblings. Cain and Abel. Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau, Joseph and his brothers.

The great commandments of Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy speak of agape, spiritual love:

Love your neighbor as yourself. 
Love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. 
Love the Lord your God, with all you heart, with all your soul, and with all your might.

The Torah ideal, like the Broadway song, is that love is the measure of our relationships.

And while that may start with our spouse or children, and goes on to our parents, siblings, and extended family, its radiates out to our friends, neighbors, colleagues, employees… And even to the one we do not know or do not like.

I am always struck by the response Martin Luther King, Jr, gave when asked how he felt about an arch segregationist senator who opposed his every move:

I do not like Senator Eastland from Mississippi, but I must learn to love him.

And so on this Yom Kippur, when we turn and take a reckoning of our triumphs and failures of love over the past year, what is the accounting?

Do we emerge a loving spouse?

A loving parent? Brother? Sister? Son? Daughter?

Do we emerge as a loving friend, colleague, boss?

Part of our nature pulls in that direction. But part does not:

Was our incessant egotism checked by abundant altruism? 
Was our recurrent selfishness balanced by regular selflessness? 
Was our angry demand for justice eased by a desire for compassion? 
Was our impulse to dominate tempered by a willingness to cooperate? 
Was our stiff necked stubbornness relaxed by a readiness to compromise? 
Was our proclivity toward indifference mitigated by a yearning for reconciliation?

When we extend the embrace of love beyond our home, to our community, and even our workplace, what is the accounting?

Did I treat my colleague as I would treat myself? 
Did I accord the basic level of respect and dignity to my nemesis even in my hour of frustration or vexation? 
Did I rise to the challenge of loving the needy? The vulnerable? The marginalized? The distressed? The stranger I do not know?

The Torah commands this love of the stranger thirty-six times, because “you know the heart of the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”

Empathy born of history.

What has happened to our collective memory? Did I (do we) measure up?

I don’t know about you, but I'm concerned. If I weigh the triumphs of love, with the failures of love, I'm not so happy with the balance.

The shortcomings hurt. The disappointments hurt. The lost opportunities hurt.

They hurt us, and they hurt our loved ones.

And the closer these loved ones are to us, the more it hurts.

Why is it that we make the greatest mistakes with the people we care about the most?

But the Jewish New Year comes to say: We can begin again.

Keep a vision of the good before you, and begin again.

Profess what you did right, confess what you did wrong, and begin again.

Own up to your mistakes and begin again.

Embrace repentance and reconciliation and begin again.

Start tipping those scales in the right direction, right now.

Because your life depends on it, and because the world, which is the sum of all those individual scales, depends on it.

Every week we talk about love when we recite the second prayer after the Barechu, the prayer that comes just before the Shema.

The striking expression that begins the prayer is Ahavat Olam, unending love, or perhaps, unconditional love.

Ahavat olam… ahavtah: “You have loved us eternally.”

Such love, our tradition teaches, characterizes God’s relationship to us.

And we are taught, imitatio Dei, to imitate God.

Such love, our tradition urges, should characterize our relationship with others.

Love that is unceasingly. Unrequited. Unconditional.

The Torah puts forth the radical notion that as God loves us flaws and all, that is the way we should guide our lives.

Rabbi Rami Shapiro has written a beautiful prayer based on the traditional Ahavat Olam of the Siddur. As I read it now, think about how you might be more open to both receiving, and giving, of unconditional love.

We are loved by an unending love.
We are embraced by arms that find us
Even when we are hidden from ourselves. 
We are touched by fingers that soothe us
Even when we are too proud for soothing.
We are counseled by voices that guide us
Even when we are too embittered to hear.
We are loved by an unending love. 
We are supported by hands that uplift us
Even in the midst of a fall.
We are urged on by eyes that meet us
Even when we are too week for meeting.
We are loved by an unending love. 
Embraced, touched, soothed, and counseled
Ours are the arms, the fingers, the voices;
Ours are the hands, the eyes, the smiles,
We are loved by an unending love.

Now I would love to conclude on this pure and poetic note, but I need to add one other point: Love, even unconditional love, is complicated.

As I was completing this sermon, [now here comes my confession], I was watching the speeches at the Republican National Convention. Lo and behold, wouldn’t you know, that Ann Romney starts off talking about love.

This is what she said:

I want to talk to you tonight about that one great thing that unites us, that one great thing that brings us our greatest joy when times are good and the greatest solace in our dark hours. Tonight I want to talk about love.

She goes on to talk about the importance of unconditional love, and who could disagree with that?

Well our governor, Chris Christie, for one, who followed her speech with his. Christie stands up and says,

And the greatest lesson that my mom ever taught me was this one: She told me there would be a time in your life when you have to choose between being loved and being respected.

Christie goes on to say that love without respect is fleeting and that people in general, and leaders in particular, should stop wanting to always be loved and start making the hard choices they constantly avoid.

So who is right?

Well, I think Anne is right that unconditional love is the greatest thing.

But I think that the governor is making the case for what we often call tough love.

Are the two in conflict? I think not. Unconditional love is not necessarily uncritical love.

As parents, for example, don’t we often criticize and even punish our children for their own good, to help them grow up in the right way? It’s not that we don’t love them.

You children out there, let me repeat that: It’s not that we don’t love you.

This is precisely what the prophets of the Bible said repeatedly about God’s relationship to Israel.

Listen to the famous words of Isaiah (54:7-8):

For a little while I forsook you,
But with vast love I will bring you back.
In slight anger, for a moment,
I hid My face from you,
But with kindness everlasting
I will take you back in love.

So now, at this holy time, I conclude by asking:

Can we create a new season of love?

Can we turn to our loved ones and say:

Even though I see your flaws… I love you. 
Even though I know your secrets… I love you. 
Even though you may have ignored me… I love you. 
Even though you may have disappointed me, slighted me, rejected me, hurt me… I love you. 
Even though you are not the easiest partner… I love you. 
Even though you are not the most understanding parent… I love you. 
Even though you are not the most respectful child… I love you. 
And I… I am a flawed partner, I am a faulty parent, I am an imperfect child, sibling, friend, or fellow… But I ask you to love me the same.

Paul wrote famously:

Love is patient; love is kind. It is not jealous nor boastful nor proud; never selfish nor quick to take offense. Love keeps no score of wrongs, does not gloat over another’s sins, but delights in the truth. Love never gives up; there is no limit to its faith, its hope, its endurance.

Which brings me back to a song:

Five hundred twenty-five thousand
Six hundred minutes
How do you measure, measure a year? 
How about love?

[see our next post for more on Jonathan Larson and Rent, and to listen to "Seasons of Love"]

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