Tuesday, September 11, 2018

RH Evening Sermon 5779: Looking Back, Thinking Ahead, Learning and Listening Together

Well along their way to Jerusalem, a band of pilgrims arrived at a labyrinthine junction in the heart of a dark forest.  A dense tangle of trails spun off with no apparent sign of destination or direction.  The confounded travelers wandered about, looking for a clue on how to proceed, until, at last, they found a broken signpost half-buried in a nettle patch.  It was placarded with arrows, each pointing toward a different terminus—B’nai Brak, Tiberius, Sefat, Tzippori, Yavneh, Lod, Beersheba, Jerusalem—but alas, laying collapsed on the briary earth, it offered the pilgrims no real assistance.  Weary and frustrated, they debated how to proceed.

One group clamored to turn back.  “It’s the only way we know,” they insisted, “and besides, everything was better there—abundant food, clear water and smooth trail.  Alas, we didn’t appreciate how sweet it was! Now we can return and really enjoy it.”

“No,” argued a second faction, “we must not fall back.  It’s true, we don’t know which path leads to Jerusalem, but it doesn’t really matter.  As long as we’re going forward, into the future, the destination isn’t important.  Let’s just choose a road and take it, come what may.”

“Forward or back—none of you have a plan,” interjected the third group.  “We set out to find Jerusalem and that’s what we’re going to do.  The best course is to split into pairs, two on each trail.  A couple of us are bound to make it to Jerusalem; they can circle back and gather up the rest.”

And so they bickered, on and on, until the most reticent of all the pilgrims—the only one yet to utter a single word—quietly but firmly interrupted the quarreling.  “I know the way,” she said, picking up the fallen sign and confidently righting it so that the arrow marked “Jerusalem” pointed unambiguously down one of the trails.

The others laughed, scornfully: “You fool, this means nothing.  How do you know you’re holding that marker in its proper place?  Just a tiny turn in either direction and everything would change!”

“True,” replied the lone pilgrim, “yet I am certain this is the way, because I know from whence we came and placed the sign accordingly.  That’s the journey’s lesson: When we reflect on where we’ve been, remember where we’re going, and keep our commitment to traveling together, the way reveals itself.  Now let’s go forth, to Jerusalem.”


This tale recalls an ancient piece of Jewish wisdom from the the book of Lamentations.  From there, it made its way into our liturgy, where we sing it every time we return the Torah to the ark.  It is also a recurring motif of this sacred season:

Hashiveynu Adonai eylechah v’nashuvah; chadesh yameynu k’kedem

Return us to You, Holy One, and we shall return.  Renew our days, as of old.

At first encounter, this verse might seem deeply problematic—a nostalgic idyll at best and, at worst, a retreat from the responsibilities of our own place and time, suspiciously reminiscent of “Make America Great Again.”  When we plea, “Renew our days, as of old” are we just asking God to “Make the Jews Great Again”?  Are we really so regressive, hard-hearted, and willfully naïve as to turn away from our current challenges and hearken back to an idealized past that never was? But if so, why would the passage play such a central role in our liturgy?

Thankfully, a more careful, nuanced reading of the verse paints a radically different picture.  The Hebrew word k’kedem—usually translated as of old—can also mean “to anticipate” or “to be in front of.”  Thus, as Rabbi Ron Wolfson notes, while the superficial meaning of the text is a longing for a bygone, seemingly better age, a more accurate understanding takes it as a call to future action: “Renew our days so we might anticipate and prepare for times to come.” 

During the Days of Awe, that’s our focus.  We remember that our lives hang in the balance, individually and as a synagogue community.  Our tradition reminds us that to remain ever the same person—or congregation—is to die a slow spiritual death.  To live is to grow, to never cease becoming, like the God in whose image we are created, whose name is Eheyeh asher eheyehI am what I will become.  The words of the wise traveler and the Hashiveynu offer us a three-step roadmap toward renewal: we pause to review where we’ve been, reckoning with both our successes and our failures; we formulate a clear-eyed vision for where we’re headed; and we commit to making that journey collectively, listening, going and growing together, despite our differences.  In other words, the pilgrim’s way to the Promised Land is REFLECTIVE, PROACTIVE, and COLLABORATIVE. 


We begin with reflectionhashiveynu, help us turn back—with an honest accounting that gleans wisdom from our past without romanticizing it.

This is easier said than done.  Our culture’s ever-accelerating pace leaves little occasion for review.  We run pell-mell from one thing to the next, frantically and usually futilely trying to keep up. Thus we spin, like hamsters, each on our own wheel, expending enormous effort and energy, going nowhere fast.

Here, too, at CABI—our staff and board and volunteers are consumed with tasks—creating programs, arranging lifecycle events, attending meetings, writing and teaching, budgeting and managing, tending the grounds, maintaining our building, scrambling to keep up to date on emails, phone calls, and paperwork—so that all too often we’re functioning on a well-intentioned but ad hoc basis.  We lurch from one event to the next without pause to consider what’s working or why we’re doing what we do.

Getting off those hamster wheels requires a conscious, disciplined effort to carve out opportunities for reflection. Fortunately, our tradition recognizes this, commanding weekly rest each Shabbat and an annual spiritual accounting of our deeds during these Days of Awe. We dearly need this mandate to examine our lives, to acknowledge our shortcomings with self-compassion and to celebrate our successes without resting on our laurels.  Intentional, constructive change starts here, when we pause to honestly assess our choices, good, bad, and ambivalent. As CEO and storyteller Courtney Spence reminds us: “Life lessons don’t happen in the moment—they happen when we take the time to reflect on that moment.”


On our journey toward the Promised Land, reflection is necessary but not sufficient.  The next step in both our personal and congregational odysseys is to be proactive, to translate the lessons gleaned from our accounting into a thoughtful course of action, driven by purpose, vision, and mission.  We move from hashiveynu, turn us backto k’kedem, forward to the future.

The book of Proverbs teaches: “Where there is no vision, the people perish.”  Absent a sense of purpose, life becomes a slog; when we are mission-driven, we constantly reaffirm our ability to make a difference in the world.

To paraphrase bestselling author Simon Sinek, vision starts with why.  Why are we here, as human beings, as Jews, as a synagogue community?  In today’s Jewish world, these queries are as pressing as they have ever been.

For most of Jewish history, the question of why was thought-provoking but not existential.  Jews could, and did, argue over all sorts of beliefs and practices, yet whether or not to identify as Jewish was not a matter of choice.  You may have lived in Poland or Germany or Turkey but you were not a Pole or a German or a Turk; you were a Jew, because the anti-Semitic dominant culture defined you as such.

Thankfully, those days are gone.  While anti-Semitism endures, here in America, our non-Jewish neighbors no longer negatively determine our identity.  Such acceptance is a blessing—but also a profound challenge.  In this cultural landscape, where Jews can and do opt out in large numbers, why has become an existential question.  Look around you: Even during these Days of Awe, when synagogue attendance mushrooms, the majority of American Jews still stay home. Their absence deepens my gratitude to all of you who have chosen to be here with our community tonight—and heightens my awareness that that we are the exception, not the rule.  The hard and holy work of renewal starts with us, and it turns on our ability to set forth a compelling vision.  Without an inspiring why, progressive Jewish institutions like CABI will not survive—but I believe, with all of my heart, that with it, we will thrive.

Creating a vision to guide CABI through this transitional time is, by nature, a shared project.  It will take board and staff, outside advisors and—especially—the entire synagogue community, sharing our dreams and differences, too.  I’d like to offer a few of my own thoughts on this matter, not because I possess any definitive answers but because I feel a calling, as CABI’s rabbi, to open the process, to invite you to participate in the holy work that awaits us in this new year 5779.

In a nutshell: I envision CABI as a center for Jewish spiritual sustenance and lifelong learning that inspires just and compassionate action in our personal lives, our community, and beyond.

Let me elaborate briefly, piece by piece.

I believe that in our impersonal, materialistic world, we long for community.  Jewish spiritual practices address this human need.  They remind us that we are not alone; we are part of an ancient, embodied tradition that finds holiness in ordinary things like food and family.  I believe that music and nature have special roles to play in nourishing our community’s spiritual life, touching our heartstrings and reminding us that we are, paradoxically, both infinitesimally small and inexhaustibly expansive, tiny and yet essential workings of the vast grandeur that some call God.

I believe that Jewish wisdom—from Torah and Talmud through the transformative teachings of today’s best Jewish minds—can guide and enrich our choices—if we are mindful to make time to learn.  This means re-thinking Jewish education as a lifelong endeavor.  When we drop our youth at Hebrew school, we teach them to grow up to drop their kids at Hebrew school; when we study together, across the generations, we teach our posterity to value the tradition as the sacred gift that it is meant to be.

And I believe that to prove worthy of their mettle, our spiritual practice and Jewish wisdom must inspire us to pursue justice and compassion in and beyond our synagogue community.  As Talmud teaches: One whose wisdom exceeds his deeds is like a tree with shallow roots, easily upended by the passing breeze, but one whose deeds exceed her wisdom is like a tree whose branches are few but whose roots are many—even if all the winds of the world blow upon it, they cannot move it from its place.  This is the true test of our labor: How does our learning move us to care for one another in seasons of sickness and health, light and darkness, mourning and celebration?  How do our spiritual practices prompt us to speak—and act—on the most pressing social issues of our age?  Our work falls fatally short if it does not lead to moral and merciful deeds.  Here at CABI we must not endorse partisan political candidates, but I believe that we make a mockery of our progressive Jewish values if we shy away from the public sphere, especially in this time of unprecedented corruption spilling out of our nation’s highest corridors of power.  As our prophets reiterated again and again in their visions for the Jewish people, the value of our tradition is measured by the just work it sustains in the world.

This is the start of my vision.  Over the course of the new year, I urge you to share yours, for this is how we turn, forward, toward our future. 


Hashiveynu—we look back, to reflect upon our past.

K’kedem—We turn ahead, toward the future we envision.

But if our travels are to take us to the Promised Land, we must walk in community. Our journey will succeed only if it is reflective, proactive, and collaborative.  And so we say Chadesh yameynu—renew our days, together.

Here, too, we face significant challenges.  We live in a profoundly polarized age, in which we struggle to converse civilly across political divides.  In the current atmosphere, political adversaries have all too often devolved into mortal enemies. Alas, the American Jewish community is not immune to this demonization of difference.
Yet we Jews have the tools to do better.  We have a heritage of working well together despite—or even because of—our discord.  Judaism is not a religion of consensus; out of roughly five thousand major debates in the Talmud, only fifty or so are resolved to everyone’s satisfaction. Our tradition doesn’t teach us how to agree; instead it offers lessons in how to argue respectfully and live peaceably with our disagreements.  The key is to keep our disputes l’shem shamayyim, for the sake of heaven.  We do this by focusing on the issues at hand rather than attacking those who raise them, and assuming the good intentions of those with whom we differ.  Rabbi Brad Artson describes our obligation as one of arguing to learn instead of arguing to win.  It’s a crucial distinction, for no one wins all the time, but we can always learn.  Indeed, our challenge, as Malcolm Gladwell so felicitously turns the phrase, is to learn how to learn from those who offend us.
As we work together to create a guiding vision for CABI, we hope to listen to, and learn from, every member willing to share your diverse views on the proper course for our community.  There are no guarantees that you’ll concur with every step of the roadmap we ultimately follow; as Jewish educator Issa Aron notes: “While collaborative leadership involves listening. . . it would be impossible to agree with everyone and equally impossible to implement every suggestion, no matter how creative and persuasive it is.” The ability to compromise is an essential prerequisite for being in community.  But I am confident that, together, we can pursue the kind of bold action that our Jewish future demands. We need all of you to join in the journey by participating in the conversation and we’ll do everything in our power to ensure that your perspective counts. If we are to grow as a congregation, everyone’s voice should be heard and considered, and our vision will only carry us forward if we are faithful to that credo.
And so we journey into the New Year 5779:
Looking back.  Thinking ahead.  Learning and listening together.
My friends, I have been a rabbi for three decades now, and this sacred season begins my 25th year with you at CABI.  We’ve traveled side by side for a quarter century, through celebrations and sorrows, births and deaths, achievements and challenges—and it has been one of my life’s greatest privileges to experience the journey with you.  On this sacred pilgrimage that we are taking together, considerably more of the road lies at our backs than ahead. I’m proud of the paths that we have pursued, and even this far along our passage, I am confident that we can continue to learn by looking back and reflecting on the turns we’ve taken, the missteps and the many milestones, too. 
And I believe with all my heart that our greatest adventures still await us, as our city grows, and with it our Jewish community, in both size and spirit.  On the threshold of this New Year, I joyfully anticipate walking that wild, beautiful way toward the Promised Land with you.  Let us go, together, with renewed vision and shared, sacred purpose.  The best is yet to be, my friends, the best is yet to be.

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