It’s Erev Rosh Hashanah, the sacred eve of the new year. Darkness settles over the crowded shul in the heart of the Old Country. The air is heavy with anxiety as the community prepares to usher in the Yom HaDin, the great Day of Judgment. Everyone watches with bated breath as the rabbi slowly approaches the Holy Ark. He opens the curtain, bows low, then cries out: Ich bin a gornisht, Ich bin a gornisht—I am nothing, a no one!” Then he steps back, exhausted, but also a little relieved.
The cantor and the president of the shul follow suit, then the officers, the machers, and after them, the rest of the congregation. All file up, in turn, stand before the Torah and confess: Ich bin a gornisht—I am nothing!
Meanwhile, an itinerant beggar wanders in quietly and sits on a back bench. Bewildered by the commotion, he figures this must be the required congregational custom, so he drags himself up to the ark, bows down and does his part: Ich bin a gornisht.
At which point the cantor turns to the rabbi and sneers: “Look who thinks he’s a nothing!”
This old Yiddish joke still brings a smile because, like most Jewish humor, it contains a strong kernel of truth. It gently mocks the arrogance that underlies false modesty. The punch-line warns us to be wary of excessive humility, which may be just another expression of inflated ego.
And yet, time and again in our liturgy for the Days of Awe, we stand before the Holy One and proclaim our unworthiness: We are mere clay, dust and ashes, passing clouds, grass that withers overnight. And we sing, repeatedly, the ancient refrain: Avinu Malkeinu, chanaynu v’anaynu, ki ayn banu ma’asim—God, have mercy on us and show us compassion, for all of our deeds amount to. . . nothing.
That’s the song of this season, our constant plea—and it boils down to this: All of our virtues, our charitable deeds, our life’s work. . .
Each and every one of us, from the CEO to the homeless beggar, the pious sage to the brash atheist—all of us stand before the Holy One and say, “I am nothing.”
So what can we make of this stark confession that runs throughout our davenning during these Days of Awe? How might we find meaning in the seemingly harsh and humbling words? One possibility is to read them as a bracing corrective to our narcissistic secular culture. In self-absorbed twenty-first century America, Avinu Malkeinu can be a powerful, counter-cultural reminder that we are not the center of the world. It’s the verbal equivalent of the Deep Field Image captured by the Hubble Space telescope, in which a random slice of sky, equivalent to the size of a tennis ball viewed from a hundred yards away, reveals the presence of over 3,000 galaxies. I love looking at that picture, because, paradoxically, even as it points to our infinitesimal smallness, it makes me feel expansive—blessed to be a tiny part of our magnificent, ever-expanding universe. I’ve enjoyed that same feeling while paddling through whitewater canyons, camping in the rainforest, and walking the flanks of Annapurna in the Himalayas. Like those experiences, Avinu Malkeinu simultaneously humbles and exalts us. As my colleague, Rev. Marci Glass commented to me, the words remind us that good deeds are our response to God’s grace, not a tally that we keep in the hope that God will somehow find us worthy.
A second reading of the prayer questions not just the impact of our actions but also their underlying motivation. Perhaps our intentions are not as virtuous or sincere as we would like to believe, even when our deeds lead to positive results. We are incredibly complicated creatures; the human brain, with its labyrinthine networks of over 100 billion neurons, is the most complex structure in the known universe. We are, therefore, mostly unaware of the processes that drive our decisions and interactions. Our true and full intent lies buried deep in our unconscious minds. So when we say, “Ayn banu ma’asim—We have no good deeds,” we are essentially admitting that nothing we do can be considered a purely altruistic act. Even our kindest and most charitable undertakings may contain a hidden streak of selfishness. This realization should not stop us from striving for goodness, but it might make us a bit more humble about boasting of it.
My third and final reading of Avinu Malkeinu is the one that has resonated most powerfully for me in the weeks leading up to this new year. I learned it from the eighteenth century Hasidic master, Dov Baer of Mezhirech, by way of Bob Dylan.
The Great Maggid, Dov Baer, offers a metaphor for the experience of Nothingness, which he considers the only path to becoming a new and better person. He taught:
Nothing is able to change from one form to another—for example, an egg that would hatch into a chick, without first completely nullifying its present form, which is to say, the egg. Only then will another form be able to come forth from it. It is this way with everything in the world; it must attain the level of Nothingness. Then it will be able to become something else.
In order to truly change, Dov Baer is telling us, we must first strip away everything we’ve known. If his language seems a bit opaque, Bob Dylan’s version, from his masterpiece, “Like a Rolling Stone,” is much more succinct, as he sings, with a snarl:
When you’ve got nothing, you’ve got nothing to lose.
Nothing to lose. That’s where Avinu Malkeinu takes us during these Days of Awe—to the place where, having no accrued merit, we’ve got nothing to lose. To where we can’t afford to rest on our laurels or bask in our past accomplishments—for they may be exactly what’s holding us back. Nothing to lose is a clarion call to keep it fresh, to start anew. To grow.
My friends, today’s progressive Jewish world dearly needs this perspective, for many of our established practices and organizations aren’t doing very well. Recent demographic studies suggest that liberal Jewish institutions have become sclerotic and out of touch. American Jews are voting with their feet, exiting en masse. The 2013 Pew Center report, “A Portrait of Jewish Americans” shows us abandoning religion at an alarming rate; almost a quarter of us now claim virtually no connection whatsoever with communal Jewish life. I suspect that in the West—including here in Boise—the percentages are even worse. Across the board, the leading indicators such as synagogue attendance, giving to tzedakah, and identification with the land and people of Israel, have declined precipitously. The vast majority of today’s American Jews are Jewishly illiterate and communally disengaged.
So how has the Jewish establishment responded to this epidemic of attrition? Mostly with business as usual, fiddling while Rome burns. We make superficial changes—tweaking our curricula, funding two week Birthright trips, moderating our dues scale. It’s the equivalent of applying band aids to gaping wounds—avoiding the systemic change that this crisis demands around education, access, content and membership.
But there are other voices, calling in the wilderness—visionary leaders with the courage and creativity to break new ground, like Noa Kushner, the rabbi at The Kitchen, San Francisco’s innovative Jewish community without walls. Speaking on the podcast “Judaism Unbound” she makes a powerful case for radical change, noting: “When you look at the sheer numbers of who is and who isn’t participating in Jewish communal life, if 90% are not connecting, drastic measures need to be taken and experiments need to be run.”
The good news is that history is on Rabbi Kushner’s side—and ours. If the past is prelude—and I believe it is—then we need not despair. We Jews have always rallied to renew ourselves in times of crisis. We have survived for over three thousand years because we’ve been willing and able to reinterpret Torah anew in every generation.
When the Romans destroyed the Temple, the Rabbis re-defined the Jewish community as the People of the Book, thereby making our tradition portable—and possible—in exile.
When our reading of that Book got out of balance, with too much head and not enough heart, the Baal Shem Tov and his Hasidim reimagined the tradition with ecstatic music and meditation, laughter and dance.
When Hasidism—and other Orthodoxies—rigidified, alienating young Jews, Reform and Conservative Judaism arose to offer a lively, contemporary alternative. And when those movements, in turn, grew stagnant, Reconstructionism, Jewish Renewal, and a resurgent Modern Orthodoxy revitalized Jewish community.
And when centuries of stateless exile grew first tiresome and then lethal, Zionism enabled us to realize our people’s age-old dream to reestablish a nation of our own.
Jewish life endures because we have always harkened to the Darwinian imperative: adapt or perish. That is why all the ancient empires, from Egypt to Rome to Babylon, have vanished from the earth, but we are still here.
We Jews have adapted when others have perished—we have endured—because we are committed to the Talmudic principle of ipcha mi-stabra—of questioning everything, thinking outside the box, never being content with the status quo. We’ve survived because we’ve been willing to take chances, to try and fail, and try and fail again until we get it right, at least for a little while, blazing creative new paths.
We’re still here because we know, from Avinu Malkeinu and a whole lot of history, that in watershed moments, our past deeds amount to nothing if we do not use them to transform our present.
Here, then, the question for us: What might the progressive Jewish community look like if we applied this wisdom to our current crisis? How might we envision our Jewish future if, instead of clinging to hackneyed routines, we emulated our ancestors and acted boldly, as if we had nothing to lose?
For starters, we would stop blaming those who opt out. I suspect that many of you who are here tonight do not plan to be back very much in the coming year. And many more—the large majority of Boise’s Jewish population—are not here now and never have been. It is easy for rabbis and other Jewish leaders to dismiss those on margins. Al cheyt—I’m guilty of this. I have used this bimah to urge infrequent attendees to up your commitment of both time and money.
No more. Instead of noodging or questioning those of you who rarely, if ever, come to shul, I want to interpret your disengagement as a tacit dissent to our business-as-usual approach. I want to ask, respectfully: what can we do differently, to entice you to join us? How might our failures push us to evolve into a more inclusive, spiritually-inspiring congregation? Those of us on the inside must learn to listen to the unaffiliated and disengaged. Let us hear their voices and harness their talents.
For oftentimes, the outliers teach us the most. As Jewish writer and activist Anita Diamant teaches: a tallit is not a tallit without the fringes. They are what make it holy. Systemic change rarely begins with those most embedded in established institutions; it’s the folks on the fringes who are best positioned to drive innovation.
By way of example, look at Nobel Prize-winning scientists. On average, they receive the award at fifty-five—but that is long after the fact; almost all make their breakthrough discoveries early in their careers, before they become too entrenched in the system to question its fundamental assumptions. Younger people—and other outsiders—tend to be better at thinking outside the box, because that’s where they live.
So, too, in the Jewish world. Veteran rabbis, educators and lay leaders—the regular synagogue-goers—are not necessarily the best candidates to push for radical change. We’re too vested in the status quo. It’s no coincidence that the Jewish story starts with Abraham, the original iconoclast, smashing his father’s idols. Now, more than ever, we need to seek out and nurture his ideological heirs. So if you are on the margins, dissatisfied with Jewish life as it now stands, we need you.
I need you.
After nearly thirty years in the rabbinate, firmly planted in the Jewish mainstream, I need your outsiders’ eyes and ears, your hearts and minds. In saying this, I hasten to add to the regulars, to those pillars of the congregation whose Jewish knowledge is deep and whose longstanding commitment is unwavering: such outreach does not come at your expense or diminish your standing. Your dedication and learning will always be at the heart of what we do. It is, instead, to say that expanding the circle strengthens everyone. We can all accomplish more when we complement our established wisdom with the pioneering spirit of Avinu Malkeinu, of striking out with nothing to lose.
A new generation of innovators is already paving the way, engaging those on the outskirts of Jewish life—listening to their concerns, incorporating their gifts, and putting forth bold, new approaches to Jewish study, service, and community-building.
I’ve mentioned Noa Kushner and The Kitchen. Their mission statement lays out the task for twenty-first century liberal Jewish institutions:
We believe that Jewish religious practices change lives, make meaning, and invest people in the world. This transformation requires a flexible, living ecosystem of Jewish experiences. . . There are no insiders or outsiders, there are no others here. We are all others. . . We insist that Jewish practice be relevant, a tool for greater investment in the world. At the same time, we practice irreverent reverence—looking for places where the every-day draws attention to the divine.
This is holy work, a model for Jewish renewal in the spirit of nothing to lose.
And there are others, with so much to teach us. You can hear many of them yourself on the podcast, “Judaism Unbound”.
Sarah Lefton grew up with a rudimentary Hebrew school education, then moved to a community of knowledgeable Jewish day school grads on New York’s Upper West Side, where she realized she wanted to learn more. So she took the skills she’d acquired as a young, high-tech media entrepreneur and launched Godcast, a cutting-edge organization that creates animated videos to teach Torah and other sacred Jewish texts.
David Cygielman graduated from university determined to do something about the obvious gap that existed for transient, post-college Jews, too old for Hillel but too young to join synagogues. So he started Moishe House, a network of vibrant, home-based communities run by and for Jewish twenty-somethings. There are now 93 houses in 21 countries—including one in Seattle where my daughter, Tanya is part of the team—and soon, under the leadership of our music educator and millennial outreach director Nemmie Stieha, here in Boise, too.
Aliza Kline is the daughter of a Reform rabbi. She recently founded One Table, a Jewish start-up dedicated to helping young Jews find, enjoy, and share Shabbat dinners together, all across America.
And Rabbi Kerry Olitzky is the Executive Director of the Jewish Outreach Institute. He’s also the author of Playlist Judaism: Making Choices for a Vital Future. That book challenges the Jewish establishment with a series of iconoclastic guiding principles, including “There is no intrinsic value in membership” and “Options for participation must emerge from the interest of individuals rather than the needs of the synagogue so that individuals can freely create their own Playlist Judaism”.
These innovators—and a host of others like them—recognize the need for radical change to renew progressive Jewish life. They teach us to look forward, as if our past accomplishments amounted to nothing—as if we had nothing to lose.
And they know—and embrace—the shifting demographics of the American Jewish community that they—and we—inhabit and serve. Our parents’ and grandparents’ Judaism of ethnicity and nostalgia, of Fiddler on the Roof and guilt and obligation is a relic of the past. So, too, the binaries that once defined Jewish life: male or female, Ashkenazi or Sephardi, religious or secular, Jewish or Gentile. Twenty-first century Jews want their communities less fixed and more fluid. Gone are the days when you could recognize a Jew by her name or appearance. We are now white and black and brown, Asian and Hispanic, gay and straight and bi and trans and gender-queer—and we are almost as likely to be named Harper Christensen and Arjun Patel as Rachel Goldberg and Max Cohen. Today we’re all Jews by choice, even if both of our parents are Jewish, for we choose and make our own identities, mixing and matching as we see fit. We’re Jewish atheists and agnostics, students and senior citizens, Jews with all sorts of abilities and disabilities. We’re the interested partners of intermarried Jews and the secular folks who identify as Jew-ish.
For many of us, born and raised in the previous century, this prospect is new—and frightening. The Jewish future articulated by such diverse voices may strike us as strange and even unrecognizable. We naturally fear the unknown, the feel of the once-solid ground shifting beneath our feet.
This holy day of Rosh Hashanah acknowledges that anxiety—and inspires us to take heart. For those of us in the northern hemisphere, it arrives in the fall, when the natural world is changing all around us, when everything is dying back, anticipating winter’s dark and cold. And yet we know this is the necessary prelude to spring’s rebirth, the pruning that allows for future growth. We hear this seasonal song in the shofar’s call, which is both a lament for the old year’s passing and the new year’s first wail upon being born. It implores us to muster the faith to work through our fear, to embrace the unknown, to acknowledge with the visionary Rabbi Benay Lappe that, “In one hundred years, Judaism will look radically different from how it looks to us—and that doesn’t scare me.”
And so we sing: Avinu Malkeinu, Show us compassion, for our deeds amount to nothing.
These words are, at the same time, hard and helpful, challenging and inspiring. They are the creed of a people called to constantly re-enter the wilderness, to live in the land of nothing to lose. It is an uneasy blessing. But there is great solace in knowing that we do not travel this path alone. We sing our song together, in sacred chorus, in community.
Rabbi Lawrence Kushner describes our journey beautifully in his classic book, Honey from the Rock:
This is the setting out.
The leaving of everything behind.
Leaving the social milieu. The preconceptions.
The definitions. The language. The narrowed field of vision. The expectations.
No longer expecting relationships, memories, words, or letters to mean what they used to mean.
To be, in a word: Open.
If you think you know what you will find,
Then you will find nothing.
If you expect nothing,
Then you will always be surprised.
And able to bless the One who creates the world anew each morning.
Let us go, then, my friends, together, toward the Promised Land, even knowing we will never entirely arrive. On this sacred day, let us set out, with courage and faith—with nothing to lose, a revitalized Jewish future to gain.
Let us go, with the Holy One’s abundant mercy and compassion—
loving, listening, and learning from each and every one of us.