To whom do you answer? Before whom do you stand? (CHACHAM)
I like having a theme for my High Holiday sermons. That may seem obvious to all of you, since I’ve now done it for five years, but I felt it needed to be stated nonetheless. Why? Why do I like themes, and why have I been employing them annually, here at our High Holiday services. Because I want to talk to you. And not talk AT you, I want to engage you in a conversation, that might start here, in the middle of services, with me on the pulpit and you in your seats, but I’m hoping it will continue beyond right now. And this moment, right here; this is precious. Today is possibly the biggest service of the Jewish year. Big crowd, holy atmosphere, major sermon opportunity – but it’s fleeting. You aren’t going to listen forever, nor should you. And it’s tempting to try and squeeze in all the things I’d like to say, all the messages I want you to hear, into this one sermon. Lord knows every Jewish and non-profit organization under the sun has been sending me material for weeks, trying desperately to convince me that I should mention THEM in this speech. They all know this is a biggy, and I know it’s important as well. But if we’re going to talk, you and I, if we’re going to start a conversation, then we can’t talk about 100 different things, or even 20 or 10. I just want to convey one idea, but (hopefully) convey it clearly and definitively, so we’ve got something we can work on together.
And THAT’S why I like themes. The High Holiday season is FILLED with different messages, some conflicting, some outdated, some provocative, and some speak to our very soul. But we can’t try to deal with ALL of them right now; we’ll wind up internalizing NONE. And we'll leave here with nothing whatsoever to show for it. So instead, here at Ohev we start working on a theme at Rosh Hashanah services (and those two main sermons are online, in case you didn’t hear them and would like to know what I talked about), we continued it into last night’s Kol Nidrei service, and right now I’m adding the fourth, and final part.
You’re gonna laugh when I tell you where I got the idea for using themes. Pastor Rick Warren’s book, “The Purpose-Driven Church.” Now I got to Rick Warren by way of a much more traditionally Jewish book, ‘The Spirituality of Welcoming’ by Ron Wolfson, about how to transform synagogues into sacred communities, but nevertheless, the inspiration itself came from Pastor Rick Warren. I’m not looking to form a megachurch, by the way, or a megasynagogue for that matter, but the rabbis of the Talmud taught me something: ‘Who is wise?’ they rhetorically ask. ‘One who learns from all people.’ So I learned a valuable lesson from an evangelical pastor.
It’s about boiling down your message, making it simple, explicit, and user-friendly. Warren says, in his book: “Teach them something on Sunday that they can use on Monday.” Our theme this year, Guilt Free Judaism? I don’t want it to apply only to Yom Kippur services, to your experience here TODAY; I want it to mean something to you tomorrow, and the day after, and basically, every day. And I’m sure most rabbis and clergy members would say, ‘Yeah, of course, we ALL want to do that,’ but sometimes you’ve just got to SAY IT! You know? Stop beating around the bush and just state it explicitly.
AND, I’ve kind of realized that in order to do that, to give you something on Yom Kippur that you can use on Monday morning, we need to talk about last year’s theme, Sustainability. Not the environmental side of it (for now), but rather the ability to KEEP THINGS GOING. In other words, how do we make Guilt Free Judaism stay with us BEYOND this Sanctuary, and beyond our parking lot? So we’re actually BLENDING themes here, people! Combining this year’s with last year’s. Stay with me, it’s gonna be a bumpy ride!!
Ok, so in order to do this, we’ve got to ask some Good Jewish Questions. That’s kind of been a staple of our work together these High Holidays, asking questions to make sense of guilt, to connect to it more directly, and thereby let it go a little, allow it to recede back and instead make room for other emotions and experiences, and more connections. So we need Good Jewish Questions, but I think that to get this to the next level, to make guiltlessness SUSTAINABLE, we also need to ask some SMART Jewish Questions. Which brings me to our guide for this, our final sermon on Guilt Free Judaism, namely the Wise Child of the Seder Table.
On Rosh Hashanah, I told you that we would be using the Four Children of the Passover Seder as metaphors for our four main holiday sermons. We’ve worked our way through the other three, Rebellious, Simple, and Unable to Ask Questions, and now we’ve ended up at Kid Number One, the Wise Child. Just between you and me, I always thought she was a little bit boring. (By the way, I just made the Wise Child female, but boys can be smart too!) It’s not that I’ve got anything against her; I guess I just think she’s a bit of a brown-noser, always trying to give the ‘right’ answer, and wanting to look smarter than her siblings. I suppose if I’m REALLY being honest, this child makes me uncomfortable, because she reminds me of myself as a child; focused maybe a bit too much on BEING good, and DOING good… and not enough on FEELING good, and being content with myself. I guess it’s sort of a ‘grass is always greener’ situation, where all the other kids sound so much more interesting and colorful, at least to me.
But as we’ve already learned three times before, nothing is ever as straight-forward as it seems. The Wise Child asks: “What are the testimonies, the laws, and the judgments that the Lord, our God, has commanded you?” And it really is a fabulous question for the Seder table, isn't it? To me, it sounds like that moment when you’re putting a child to bed, and they’ve had that last glass of water, and they’ve been tucked in, and the lights are out, and just as you’re about to tip-toe out of the room, they ask, “Dad, what does it mean, ‘to be or not to be’?” No big deal, just answer it in 15 seconds or less, preferably while standing on one foot. Right? Because if you think about it, we're right in the middle of the Seder, with the food sitting in the kitchen ready to be served, starting to get cold, with babies screaming, teenagers sighing, and grandparents falling asleep, you’re just trying to do your very best to get through all these Hebrew passages, and all the important Seder parts, and this goody-two-shoes asks, ‘What are ALL the laws of Passover?’ ‘What is this entire holiday REALLY all about?’ I mean, these aren’t LITTLE questions, are they? There’s no 30-second answer to satisfy this kid’s curiosity. She wants the facts… ALL the facts!
The anonymous voice of the Haggadah instructs the parent to ‘guide the child through all the obligations of Passover.’ Again, easier said than done. I would hope we aren’t expected to do it all RIGHT NOW, right here at the table with the Matzah Ball soup getting chilly. (Sorry, I didn’t mean to reference food while we’re all fasting. I apologize.) It’s a good first reminder to us all, that we don’t have to come up with one, single, complete answer to all our questions and issues RIGHT NOW. It’s true for the Wise Child, and it’s true for you and me, dealing with the issue of guilt. We need to be patient and kind with ourselves, and not expect to be rid of guilt by the time this service ends, or even by the time we’re breaking the fast later tonight.
It takes time. And WE take time. The key to sustainability is not rushing things, not forcing ourselves to reverse 33 years of doing things one way, or 55 or 77 years. ‘Be patient’ is key number one. And key number two also comes from the Wise Child. The main lesson she is really teaching us is, be curious! It’s important to cultivate the ability to step outside ourselves and recognize what’s going on. Why do I feel so guilty? Why won’t I let this go, and why do I continue to torment myself with things I cannot change? This may seem obvious, kind of like all those other rabbis who think it’s self-evident that speaking from the bimah means you want your message to be applicable in people’s lives. It’s NOT obvious. And we often let guilt hang out in the dark recesses of our minds. We SAY we know it’s there, but have we actually STOPPED and paid attention to it?
Named it, engaged it in conversation, and tried to gain a deeper understanding of WHY it just won’t let us go?
Probably not. Because it can be scary to do this. Guilt isn’t a happy emotion, and we prefer to just ignore it and joke about stereotypical Jewish guilt, without really giving it the significance and attention it deserves. I spoke last week about leaning into the discomfort. No one ever REALLY promised us that life would be easy, yet we spend so much of our time running from difficult emotions, and difficult experiences. We need to be curious about our guilt, and continue to engage it, today, tomorrow, next week, and next year, to teach ourselves to accept the discomfort of the emotion, and start learning more about what it’s doing there.
Later this year, our Ohev Shalom community is going to be very blessed to learn from Rabbi Debra Orenstein. Rabbi Orenstein is this year’s Scholar in Residence, and she will be spending an entire weekend with us at the end of March. I had the privilege of learning from Rabbi Orenstein last January, at a rabbinic conference. She taught a three-day course on gratitude, and it was FABULOUS. Rabbi Orenstein spoke about ‘the acceptance of what is, WITHOUT the denial of suffering.’ We do try this, don’t we? We try to deny the suffering. “No, no, I’m fine. Don’t worry about me. I've forgotten about it already. Sticks and stones! I'm fine. Really.” When in reality, we're not fine. We need to get better at accepting where we are RIGHT NOW, and that things might hurt. We might indeed be in pain. And we need to SEE that first, and give voice to it, and then we can begin to move through it productively.
I was also recently reading a wonderful post in the ‘Well’ section of the New York Times, written by a doctor, whose name I am going to mangle horribly: Haider Javed Warraich. The post was called, ‘If this were YOUR mother, Doctor…’ and it was about the physician's challenge of responding to family members of patients in terminal conditions. Before deciding whether to keep loved ones on life support, or try experimental treatments, families often ask their doctors, ‘if this were YOUR mother/father/spouse, what would you do?’ and it can be a truly terrifying question for doctors. And Dr. Warraich writes about the answer he has learned to give family members, which is, ‘tell me more about your mother.’ He goes on to elaborate, saying that it helps families ‘think about their loved ones, about what they would value and what they would consider a good life, what they would think was worth fighting for if they were available to answer the question for themselves.’
But it can’t be an easy response to offer. Because it may bring tears, and anger, and uncomfortable memories about relationships filled with tension, or the bitterness of loss. It reminds me, personally, of the many conversations I must have with families who need to plan a funeral. When I begin to prepare the eulogy, I often start with the question, ‘tell me about your loved one, and the values they represented.’ I never know what’s going to come next, what families are going to say. But like Dr. Warraich, I need to lean into the discomfort… because THAT’S where the real conversation can begin. That’s where holiness can be found.
So much of it also has to do with listening, for Dr. Warraich and for me. And just as we need to learn to be curious about guilt, and engage it in conversation, we all also need to learn to listen, to be silent, to hear what it has to teach us. Guilt from having embarrassed someone 20 years earlier; guilt from having wronged a family member, or let money split us apart; guilt because we aren’t as religious as we think we should be, or we worry that our families want us to be – ALL of these scenarios, and all the other ones going on in your lives; they have stories to tell. And we think we know the whole story already, but really we’ve never approached it with HONEST curiosity, without judgment or anger. And we haven’t been very good at listening. Rabbi Orenstein talks about cultivating the ability to wait. In the class I took, she taught us that the word ‘wait’ is actually an acronym. It stands for, ‘Why am I talking?’ Silence, and patience, and kindness are SO essential; both for really understanding the essence of Jewish Guilt, and for beginning the long journey of making sustainable change.
Listening is crucial when it comes to the Haggadah as well. I told you that the unassuming description of that Wise Child wasn’t really so simple at all, didn’t I? So much going on under the surface, but we must be willing to take the time to look, and let the book speak to us.
In fact, the whole Passover Haggadah is FILLED with stories and vignettes; TONS of insights that we often fly by in a hurry to get to the main course. I began my sermon series on Rosh Hashanah by mentioning the Seder's famous Four Questions, the Fir Kashes. I then switched gears to focus mainly on the Four Children, but I want to return for a minute to the Four Questions. A few weeks ago, I was talking to Ethan Fein, a High School senior in the congregation, about the teen discussion that’s going to take place in the library, right after I finish jabbering on. And Ethan happened to mention to me that he found a sermon online entitled, ‘The Four Questions of Yom Kippur.’
What a fantastic coincidence, considering that I already knew what a prominent role Passover was going to play in my High Holiday theme! So thank you, Ethan, for finding me this wonderful sermon, by Rabbi Jeffrey Summit at the Tufts University Hillel.
Rabbi Summit talks about how HIS four questions, for Yom Kippur, not Pesach – all found in various places in the Book of Genesis – are about ‘turning our life towards deeper fulfillment and satisfaction, helping us re-connect to people we care about, and become clearer on what is really important in our lives.’ Basically, his four questions are:
1. First, from the story of the Garden of Eden. After Adam and Eve eat of the forbidden fruit, they hide from God, and God asks Adam, “Ayekah?” “Where are you?” Rabbi Summit says, ‘it’s not about global positioning,’ the question of ‘Where are you?’ is asking, “Do you think that no one sees you, that your actions have no consequences?” And I would add that the one who truly sees us, or SHOULD truly see us is ourselves. ‘Where are you?’ can be about reconnecting with our sense of self-worth, of self-compassion.
2. The second question comes from the story of Cain and Abel, and God’s question to Cain after his brother has ‘mysteriously’ gone missing. God says, “Ayei Hevel, Achicha?” “Where is your brother, Abel?” This is a question about our sensitivity to the world around us, to other people who walk this earth beside us. Do we see their struggles? Their battles with guilt, with their own self-images? Can we practice the kindness we’re trying to embody on the people around us?
3. I really like Rabbi Summit’s third question. From the story of Joseph, out in the fields looking for his brothers, the sheep herders. He comes across a stranger, who says to him, ‘Mah T’vakeish?’ ‘What are you looking for?’ I need to stop for just a second and admit to you that this whole sermon series on guilt, it’s something I’M struggling with too! I don’t speak about things that I’ve solved, and I’m looking back behind me at you sad strugglers, unfortunate enough not to have achieved what I’ve accomplished. NO! I’m in it too. I know what I’m looking for. I know the role guilt plays in my life, and how I’m trying to work on it. But how about you? ‘Ma T’vakeish?’ ‘What are YOU truly looking for?’
4. And finally, Rabbi Summit identifies a question from our Rosh Hashanah Torah reading, when Abraham was about to sacrifice his own son, Isaac. His hand is raised in the air, he’s about to go through with this terrible deed, and a question comes from out of the sky: “Abraham?” Just his name. So subtle, we almost don’t even realize that it’s a question.
And not just ANY question, but in some ways it’s the most difficult question of all. ‘Are you there? Are you, you? Are you being the best VERSION of yourself, the strongest, most grounded, and kindest incarnation of your true self?’ ‘Matt?’ ‘Steve?’ ‘Amy?’ Such a personal question, directed squarely at each one of us. How do we respond to such a question?
And returning back to where we began today’s sermon, I also want to think about how to make change sustainable, and sustained. To me, it’s important to have anchors, some method or technique to reconnect when we start to get lost. We are SO focused here today. So committed to change, to improvement, to moving away from guilt. And then tomorrow comes, and the day after, and guilt starts to sneak its way back in. So we need anchors, ways to return back to the dedication we feel today. And perhaps that is PRECISELY when we need some SMART Jewish questions:
1. Ayekah – Where are you?
2. Ayei Hevel, Achicha – Where is your brother, where is your sister?
3. Ma T’vakeish – What are you truly looking for?
4. And our own name, ‘Jeremy?’ Are you really being yourself right now?
These four can be our smart questions, they can help us return to the intentionality of this moment, to our recognition that guilt IS a problem. They can help us focus squarely on it, be patient and curious, and start to make changes in our lives to leave guilt behind.
I want to add a fifth question as well. (After all, I AM that Wise Guy, I mean, Wise CHILD, from the Seder, and if another rabbi comes up with FOUR questions, you know I’ve got to contribute FIVE!) When I was growing up, the Amud, the main table from which we would read Torah (like this one), had a bright light hanging over it. I’m talking about the main Sanctuary in the synagogue in Stockholm, the one President Obama just visited last week (I just wanted to get that in there…). And on the corner of that light was a tiny little label with a quote on it. Most people probably never even noticed it, it was really very small, but it was intended to catch the eye of the person having an aliyah, an honor, at the Torah. The label read: “Know before whom you stand.”
And that’s really my fifth question to all of us here today: Do you know before whom you stand? Do you know who you answer to? The implied answer in my childhood synagogue was ‘God,’ but here today I think it’s ‘you.’ You stand before yourself. You have to answer to your own self, and really ONLY yourself, about the choices that you make in life, and the values that you prioritize.
THAT is my message to you all here today. Guilt Free Judaism is important enough to me that I wanted to dedicate four sermons to it during the holiest and most well-attended services of the year. But does it matter to you? Know before whom you stand; know yourself. Be curious… listen… take the time to understand your own struggles, and then keep returning to the questions that can anchor you, as you continue to focus on putting guilt in your rear-view mirror.
Ultimately, it’s still a process. My sermons are done, but the holiday continues, and after that, our year continues as well. And hopefully we’ll keep revisiting the theme of Guilt Free Judaism. But for now, we’ve got a few tools to get ourselves started. We’ve got Good Jewish Questions, we’ve got Four Children to guide us along the way, and we’re starting to work on connecting to our inner selves. And hopefully you’re also pondering the deeper meaning of the phrase, ‘know before whom you stand,’ and what it means in your life.
I'm really hoping that this is just the beginning of our conversation together, you and I. But for now, let's just acknowledge that we’ve got all these tools. We’re all set to go.
So, why am I (still) talking? A very good question indeed.