As I've done in previous years, I am posting my High Holiday sermons here on the blog. Included below is the sermon for the First Day of Rosh Hashanah. Comments and thoughts are welcome. Thank you!
“Adonai, do not Your Eyes look for truth? You have struck them down, but they felt no anguish; You have consumed them, but they refused to take correction. They have made their faces harder than rock; they have refused to repent… In vain I have struck Your children; but they would not respond to my discipline; Your own swords have devoured Your prophets like a ravenous lion.”
These are the words of Jeremiah, the ancient prophet. He was speaking to, and about, the Israelites more than 2,500 years ago, and how they refused to listen to him, despite all the warnings he gave them about their sinning, idolatry, and mistreatment of the disenfranchised in society. They never did change their ways, and destruction befell them. The Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed and the people enslaved. So why, you may ask, did I begin my sermon with these words from Jeremiah? Is this the fire-and-brimstone sermon you’ve never heard me give?? Well, I guess that remains to be seen.
Let me say this: I am not a prophet. I am not claiming to have seen visions or to have heard God’s Voice. But I have never before felt, the way I do today in 2017, the true nature of the prophetic dilemma, of seeing REALLY challenging, disconcerting things going on in society around me and wrestling with how to speak up, while not knowing how I could possibly keep silent. I have never previously felt, the way I do right here, right now, the urgent need to speak out about so many critical issues; the complexities of Israeli politics, our and my attitudes on interfaith marriage, condemning racism and bigotry in America, the surprising thorniness of acknowledging climate change, or voicing a clear opinion about immigration and dreamers. Again, I am not a prophet. Although, what is a prophet really anyway? To our own detriment, I think we all completely and utterly misunderstand the purpose of prophecy.
Prophets predict the future, right? They hear voices in their heads and dream fantastical dreams of reanimating bones and the End of Days. They perform miracles and battle idolaters, and even sometimes, on rare occasions, breathe oxygen into a lifeless body and bring it back from the dead. If those are the criteria, I am WOEFULLY underqualified. I once had a cool dream about being able to fly, but that’s pretty much the extent of it. But here’s the thing: All of that stuff does grab our attention, and it’s memorable… but NONE of it is actually at the core of the prophetic mission, not today and not even in Biblical times. Everything I just listed is a bunch of special effects. Hocus-pocus and impressive explosions, designed to make for a good story, to keep the listener and the reader engaged. But THAT is NOT the function or purpose of the prophet. Fundamentally, a prophet is a social critic. If they’re showing you visions of a terrifying future, it’s to scare you about what may be IF you don’t change NOW! And when they offer promises of a utopian future, it’s meant to comfort and give hope, when today is too depressing to face. But more than anything else, a prophet holds up a mirror to all of us today, and says “Look! Please, you have to look. You need to see what I see... what God sees.”
In 1962, Abraham Joshua Heschel, one of the greatest philosophers of his time, published a book entitled, “The Prophets.” I acknowledge, by the way, that I quote Heschel to you nearly every year, but his words so often just speak to me, and so by extension they speak to you as well. In his book, Heschel describes prophets like this (and I’ll preface this quote by saying it’s from 1962, so gender-neutrality wasn’t a thing. I personally avoid using “he” and “him” to mean “person,” so I apologize, but I also didn’t feel I should edit the quote.) Heschel writes: “The prophet’s words are outbursts of violent emotions. His rebuke is harsh and relentless. But if such deep sensitivity to evil is to be called hysterical, what name should be given to the abysmal indifference to evil which the prophet bewails? … The prophet is a man who feels fiercely. God has thrust a burden upon his soul, and he is bowed and stunned at man’s fierce greed... Prophecy is the voice that God has lent to the silent agony, a voice to the plundered poor, to the profaned riches of the world. It is a form of living, a crossing point of God and man. God is raging in the prophet’s words.”
Right now, you might be thinking to yourselves, “Huh, I guess the rabbi’s theme this year is prophecy… also, he’s a little fiery this year!” Well, I thought about making prophecy my theme, but decided against it. I WILL be talking a lot about prophetic voice and prophetic call TOO, but there’s another message I feel compelled to convey to you all. My theme this year is the word “harmony.” But I’m also going to do things a little differently this year, and I’m not going to use that actual theme word itself again until my final sermon on Yom Kippur. In sermons 2 and 3 I will ALSO tell you that the theme is “harmony,” but I won’t explain WHY until Saturday morning next week. Just keep the word “harmony” in the back of your minds, and let it simmer there for a bit. Perhaps decide for yourself why you think the theme is “harmony,” and then we’ll compare notes and reveal our conclusions to one another on Yom Kippur.
When I first sat down to start writing my High Holiday sermons for this year, and I found myself reflecting back to last Rosh Hashanah, I could not get over how different the world seems. Has it really been only ONE year? We were on the precipice of an election, and probably could not have imagined how deeply affected and impacted we all would be by it. We thought it was important… but we had no idea. It began with a change in the White House, but it has since led to the creation of many movements, and groups, and rallies, and marches, and protests, and conspiracy theories, and more and more. But it actually goes back further still. In recent years, a wave of fear seems to have spread, not just across the country but around the globe. We’re afraid of Muslims, immigrants, or terrorists - or to make it easier we are tempted to just conflate them all, and make those three categories into synonyms of one another. Or perhaps we fear the spread of white nationalism, anti-Semitism, or other hate groups. Add to these fears, the damage caused by hurricanes and tornadoes, earthquakes and nuclear threats, and all of it is enough to make us want to crawl back under the covers and NEVER come out again.
It’s also painful, because we’ve been here before. The Jewish people, that is. Jews KNOW these emotions of fear and uncertainty, and we’ve known worse. In the year 587 BCE - 2,600 years ago - the Holy Temple of Jerusalem was destroyed by the Babylonians. This was Jeremiah’s reality. The city was laid waste, and most of the Jews were dragged off into slavery in Babylon. So I guess if we compare ourselves to that moment, we’re doing ok… mostly? At that lowest point, in the pit of despair, another prophet emerged named Isaiah, who softly consoled the people, telling them: “Comfort, oh comfort, My people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and declare to her that her warfare has ended, her sins have been pardoned.” (Isa. 40:1-2) Chaverim - dear friends - I too want to offer comfort. Not because I have the answer to our concerns, or the cure for what ails our society; but because comfort and compassion and unity are the strength and courage of our Jewish people, and even when we can’t see it, they are also at the very core of our American values as a nation. I know they feel hidden right now, but they ARE there. Compassion helps us keep pushing forward. We unite together, we gather our resources, we reach out a hand to help another, and together we look for new ways and paths, and we continue climbing. We KNOW that whatever gets thrown at us, natural disasters and more, we will overcome. We will persevere, and emerge stronger.
Now, here is the reason why my theme this year is NOT prophecy. This isn’t about hearing an external voice that prods you along. It isn’t about waiting for someone else - like a Jeremiah, an Isaiah, or even some rabbi on a bimah that’s really WAY too high up in the air - to hold up a mirror to your face. Who’s got time for that? We can’t wait for mirrors! There’s work to do right now. So what I REALLY want to talk to you about is the importance of being grounded. Heschel told us the prophet “feels fiercely.” We need to do that too. All of us! It is essential that we feel all of our emotions. Each of my sermons, these High Holidays, will focus on one emotion that I don’t think we emphasize enough; both on the happy end of the spectrum, and the sad end. We don’t feel them fully, and we are weaker for it. And we need to be strong. We allow ourselves to be numb to pain and suffering, but honestly we censor joy as well. We can’t help it! We are then left with what Heschel called “abysmal indifference,” and we need to shake ourselves out of that lethargy. That’s what the shofar call is trying to do; rouse us awake! That’s also why I began with that sharp quote from Jeremiah; to provoke you to feel SOMETHING! Even if you didn’t like what you heard! And right now, today, as we take a deep, deep breath and prepare for the year ahead, we need to be strong. We need to have courage and pride in ourselves, we need to resist fear and fear-mongering, and then when it’s thrown back at us - because it will be - we have to resist it again and again and again. To-Day, we need ALL of our emotions.
When we are afraid, we must face it head-on, and say it out loud: “I’m really afraid right now.” You don’t have to have solutions; just naming it IS powerful. You’ll be surprised. When we are sad, we can’t hold that back and pretend we’re fine. We do that constantly. I see people doing it ALL THE TIME! But it’s hurting us. It’s hurting you. Tomorrow, I want to talk about the power of anger, a power that we fear and run from - that I fear and run from in myself - when we all need to know it fully. And on Yom Kippur I also want to celebrate the immense energy we can draw from yearning, from longing. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Let’s feel something else, fiercely, right now.
In the time I have remaining, I want to focus on the emotion of joy, happiness. I should probably state that clearly, because it’s possible that up until now this hasn’t felt like the most joyful of sermons. I recognize that. Nevertheless, I persist. This may not be a moment in many of our lives when we’re feeling immense happiness. I know scary, hateful sentiments in the public debate are a reality. Shouts of “Jews will not replace us!” have sent shivers down all our spines, either because we’ve heard it before, or we thought we’d never have to hear it in our lifetime. But let me offer a slightly different read: We also live at a moment in human history - in Jewish history - when we genuinely feel we have the right to expect our government to denounce anti-Semitism, bigotry, and racism. Even if and when we don’t get to hear that as clearly as we would like, take a moment and recognize that our Jewish ancestors NEVER had the luxury of expecting the leaders of their host countries to decry their oppressors. Today we get to yell back at elected officials: “You aren’t doing enough, you’re not saying enough! I need more!” Just that fact, alone, is incredible. Millenia of our ancestors NEVER knew that feeling.
And this is precisely my point about joy or gratitude. In times of fear and hate, we need to INSIST on feeling positive emotions as well, and feeling them fiercely. Too often, when good things happen, we mitigate them. We say, “I had a really good day today... but if I name it, if I declare it out loud, I’m going to jinx it, and something bad will happen.” Or we say, “I had a great summer… but now I’m feeling stressed or tired, or I didn’t get as much done as I’d like to have.” I do this too! I’m not exempting myself in any way. We don’t allow ourselves to say something positive, because we fear we’ll sound too naive or maybe pollyanna-ish. We mute our emotion of joy, of fully experiencing happiness and NAMING it when it happens, maybe out of superstition, or being jaded or cynical. Take a moment now to feel gratitude for this day, for this service, this community. Just feel it, if even for a second. I’ll wait. Happiness, strangely enough, is hard! We don’t let ourselves feel it fully. And if we can’t be present to, and mindful of, our joy, we’re not going to be able to handle grief and rage either.
A good friend of mine is a rabbi in San Francisco, Rabbi Corey Helfand. We were sharing sermon ideas and themes, and he told me about a sermon of his from a couple of years ago. In his sermon, Rabbi Helfand referred to a term that scientists coined: “emodiversity.” He quoted an article in Greater Good Magazine, entitled “Variety is the Spice of Emotional Life,” in which the author, Kira Newman, argued that “[we need to] live our lives feeling a variety of emotions, positive and negative, balancing things like amusement, awe and gratitude with ones like anger, anxiety, and sadness.” Rabbi Helfand also cited Dr. Tal Ben-Shahar, who taught a course at Harvard called “The Science of Happiness.” Dr. Ben-Shahar suggested that we need to “[give] ourselves permission to be human. When we accept emotions such as fear, sadness or anxiety as natural, we are more likely to overcome them. Rejecting our emotions, positive or negative, leads to frustration and unhappiness.”
We need to be more grounded; we need to cultivate emodiversity. Can we ALLOW ourselves to just be human? It sounds so easy, but it’s really quite difficult to do. And to keep doing. There is no question that there are terrible forces at work around the world, but we cannot match hate with hate. The answer is also not to wall ourselves off, figuratively or literally, and hide under our proverbial covers. No, we have to face those fears and those powerful emotions. We insist on feeling joy, on embracing challenges because we KNOW they will make us stronger and more resolute. Let’s pick a prominent issue where this plays out right now: Today we are challenged by the needs of immigrants and refugees. There are countries like Syria and Afghanistan that are forcing people to flee en masse, and lately we can add Myanmar to that terrible list as well. Millions of people are refugees now, who just a few years ago (or weeks ago…) were not . But in response, we see people like Marin Le Pen in France or President Erdogan [Erdowan] in Turkey, or frankly politicians in the country where I grew up, in Sweden, as well as here in the United States, who respond by shutting borders and instituting bans. That’s fear talking! But what does the prophetic voice inside us all say to that? It is begging us to open our arms wide. Is it scary? Sure! But we must. If we turn away from their plight, are we not the ones Jeremiah railed against, turning our faces into stone, refusing to repent?
We cannot, we must not. I know it’s hard. I do. The sheer mass of people in question is intimidating and overwhelming. And yet, we need to push back. In a moment where we COULD turn to anger or sadness, we must raise up our joy and gratitude. I KNOW this feels like a strange moment to do so. But as the descendants of immigrants - all of us - we need to celebrate the myriad blessings and gifts and contributions of ALL immigrants to this country, to be strengthened in the truth that we know to be real; that immigration is vital to every nation around the world. Our Torah DEMANDS of us that we welcome the stranger, the orphan, and the widow. Every year, we are especially reminded of that when we celebrate, sing, laugh, and eat at the Passover table. Joy mixed with obligation. We WERE those immigrants, and now it’s our turn to give back. It is THE theme of Pesach, and it’s a central tenet of Judaism; it cannot be ignored.
Across the world there is a wave of anti-immigrant sentiment. Our prophets - ancient and modern - remind us that kindness towards the stranger isn’t an option. It’s a must. It’s who we are. Frankly, it isn’t even about that other person, it’s about elevating goodness and compassion in ourselves. Treating others, ALL others, the way we ourselves want to be treated. God forbid there’s a hurricane here, and our homes are washed away and we become nomads seeking sanctuary and kindness, we would want others to welcome us. We would want to be cared for, and helped to stand back up and rebuild. We need to embody all of that TODAY. Our faces and our hearts cannot be hard as rock… waiting until the moment we need help, and then we seek compassion. That is too late. Now is the time, this is the place.
This may feel like a scary moment. I know there are so many reasons to despair. But I have also seen so many examples of kindness and courage - in people helping one another in Houston and Florida, in people organizing and speaking out against hate and intolerance, and in communities reaching out to welcome immigrants, and refusing to turn on those who are already here, including the Dreamers. I believe, in my heart, that we need to lift ourselves up. We need to cultivate our emodiversity, and not buy into the narrative that being positive means we’re ignoring the problems in the world. No, we need to feel our gratitude and our joy and our kindness towards others, so that we can battle against that abysmal indifference, so we can stop feeling numb.
Maybe you don’t agree with me. Maybe you’re feeling something radically different right now, at this moment. But that’s actually good too. You’re feeling SOMETHING; go with that! These High Holidays, let’s take on some thorny issues together, and express our emotions authentically. Even, and perhaps especially, when they clash. I think for many of us, it’s a muscle we haven’t flexed in a long time. But there are too many things happening around the world for us to remain apathetic. We cannot afford it any longer. Over the summer, I signed on to a statement together with over 2,000 rabbis around the country, crafted by the wonderful organizaion, HIAS (Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society). Though founded in 1881 specifically to help Jewish refugees from Eastern Europe, today they advocate on behalf of all refugees, proudly embodying our Jewish values. In the statement I signed, we collectively declared: “As Rabbis, we take seriously the biblical mandate to “welcome the stranger.” Grounded in our history and values, we will continue to raise our voices in support of refugees and call on our great nation to uphold a legacy of welcome.” You can read more on their website, hias.org.
This is our mandate as well. All of us. I need you to do something for me. Go home (well, not right now, services aren’t over yet! But after we’re done, Go home), and consider two messages: First, think about my theme for this year, give yourself permission to be human, contemplate your own emodiversity, focusing today on joy and gratitude, and challenge yourself to flex a new emotional muscle. And second, let us listen for the prophetic voices inside ourselves - whether rebuking Jeremiahs, comforting Isaiahs, or urging Heschels - let’s all challenge ourselves to truly feel something, to feel it fiercely, and let it spur us to action. We ignore those prophetic voices - outside and inside - too much. It’s time to make a change. Listen to the sound of the shofar, rouse yourself, and let’s get to work.