Rosh Hashanah 2020 Day 1

Rabbi Philip Weintraub

Congregation B’nai Israel

Rosh Hashanah Day 1

In 1983, MASH’s final episode drew over 105 million viewers.  Other than the Superbowl, no single tv episode has ever come close to those numbers.  What draws millions of people to sit at home, watch something simultaneously, and stay tuned throughout?  If I knew that for sure, we would have tens of thousands of people on this livestream!  What I do know is that the shared experience can be the goal itself.  It is not just the episode, the worship, or the sporting event, it is the idea that we are united together.  MASH ran for over a decade.  It shared positive stories and challenging ones.  The characters felt real, human.  They made mistakes and they learned from them, just like us.  By the end of the series, it seemed like the entire country wanted to know what happened next.  Those watching were joined in a common purpose.  Just like those MASH-watchers, we share a common destiny. The same is true in sports, where people are tied to their teams as much as their families.  They have strong connections.  Most Red Sox fans could never become Rays fans or vice versa.  Here at CBI, we would be more than satisfied with pre-COVID Rays attendance.  

People go to games to socialize, to entertain themselves, for the giveaways, for that tribal connection.  The same is true for us.  My grandfather, Artie, always said that his friend Harry went to shul to talk to Gd, but he went to shul to talk to Harry.  Today we need more Harrys and Arties.  The world feels different.  For many it feels darker, more challenging, but I wonder what Abraham, Sarah, Moses, Rabbi Meir or Bruriah would say at this moment.  

Tractate Menachot 29b shares a fascinating story of Moses:

"Rabbi Yehuda, quoting Rav, said: `When Moses ascended (to receive the Torah), he found God sitting and tying crowns to the letters (adding crowns to the Torah's letters). He asked, "Master of the Universe, for whom are You delaying the Torah's granting on Mount Sinai (for whom are you adding these crowns)?" God replied: "A person who will appear a few generations from now and who will be called Akiva, son of Joseph. He will explain each and every thorn on these letters and will generate mountains of laws from them." Moses said: "Master of the universe, please let me see him." God answered: "Walk backward." Moses went and sat in the eighth row of benches (in Rabbi Akiva's academy). He could not understand what the others were saying. His strength dwindled (he felt weak due to his sadness over not understanding anything). When Rabbi Akiva reached an item (a certain item), his students (Rabbi Akiva's students) asked their teacher: "Rabbi, how did you reach that conclusion?" He answered: "(The source of my statement is that) Moses received this law at Mount Sinai and passed it on to succeeding generations." He (Moses) felt relieved (because he heard Rabbi Akiva citing him). 

In our narrative, Moses discovers that Rabbi Akiva interprets the laws in ways he cannot comprehend.  He feels less than until discovering that Rabbi Akiva teaches that he learned them from God and Moses!  As we live, we must adapt AND preserve.  In the words of Rabbi Mordechai Waxman, Conservative Judaism has always been about “tradition and change”.  Yet it is not just Conservative Judaism that has had to adapt, it is Judaism, period.  In the 1st Century of the common era, synagogues co-existed with the Temple in Jerusalem.  Yet it wasn’t until the destruction that they became a primary space for worshipping God.  

At the start of this pandemic, the Rabbinical Assembly and Committee of Jewish Law and Standards met regularly (virtually) to advise rabbis on how to serve our communities best.  They digitized siddurim, gave permission to count a minyan online and offered national programs--like last week’s Selichot--that allow us to join with our brothers and sisters worldwide.  These times have been different and challenging, but they have also created new opportunities.  Again and again, our primary texts come to bear.

פעם אחת היה רבן יוחנן בן זכאי יוצא מירושלים והיה רבי יהושע הולך אחריו וראה בית המקדש חרב [אר״י אוי לנו על זה שהוא חרב] מקום שמכפרים בו עונותיהם של ישראל. א״ל בני אל ירע לך יש לנו כפרה אחת שהיא כמותה ואיזה זה גמ״ח שנאמר כי חסד חפצתי ולא זבח

Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai once was walking with his student, Rabbi Joshua, near Jerusalem after the destruction of the Temple. Rabbi Joshua looked at the Temple ruins and said: "Alas for us! The place that atoned for the sins of the people Israel through the ritual of animal sacrifice lies in ruins!" Then Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai spoke to him in these words of comfort: "Be not grieved, my son. There is another equally meritorious way of gaining atonement even though the Temple is destroyed. We can still gain atonement through deeds of loving kindness, for it is written, 'Loving kindness I desire, not sacrifice' (Hosea 6:6)." (Avot D'Rabbi Natan 4:5) 

Throughout Jewish history, we have not only overcome tragedy, not only survived, but found new ways to thrive.  If we look only to the last hundred years, in postwar America, the expectation was that traditional Judaism was gone.  Kashrut, Shabbat, and more were no longer relevant to the modern Jew.  Yet in this room and so many others, those values remain relevant.  A century ago, it would be shocking to imagine an independent nation of Israel.  Jews were slowly returning to the land, buying property, farming, building cities, but they had no sovereignty.  Today nearly half of the Jewish world is in Israel and almost the entire other half is here in the United States.  In every state in this nation, one can find a synagogue, a Jewish community.  Some are thriving.  Some are struggling.  Yet wherever we are, Jews come together to pray, to study, to congregate.

As a rabbi, my mission statement has been to support and develop our community to fulfill the traditional three-fold mission of a holy community, to be a place of gathering, a place of study, and a place of prayer, a Bet Knesset, a Bet Midrash, and a Bet Tefillah.  Traditionally, this mission was fulfilled physically, but in our pandemic times, we have had to quickly adapt.

Each morning that I join minyan on Zoom, I lament its lack of physicality, the fact that I cannot reach out a hand or share a hug.  Yet a moment later, as I put on my tallit and tefillin, as I look into the faces of our regular minyannaires, I see our community living its values. I see grandchildren waving hello to their grandparents during minyan.  As Maureen creates Shabbat and high holiday boxes for families, breaking records of recent enrollment numbers for PRTT, sometimes we find that our children are more up to recent challenges than we are.  Seeing one another virtually, sharing sorrows and joys has shown me the power of our tradition to adapt, over and over and over again.

As we gather for study, we have welcomed in guests and friends from across the country.  Family and friends have joined us to study Torah, to learn new melodies, to see their grandchildren for a Shabbat show and share.  We have gathered together socially to discuss books, life, meaning, health, Israel and even politics.  Online barriers have come down and helped us talk more openly and freely about important issues.

Through it all.  We are a community.  We have been side-by-side at CBI.  We have all made and received calls.  We have brought food to those who needed, shopped for those who needed, given technical support to those that needed.  Coming together digitally has created silver linings.  We have had new minyannaires, those who could not physically get to shul before.  The same is true on Shabbat and Festivals. When we return to our sacred spaces en masse, we cannot forget those who cannot physically return.  We must consider them in our plans!

After months of virtual shivas, virtual funerals, virtual bar and bat mitzvahs, virtual weddings and so many virtual classes and prayers, it is a blessing to be in this room with a small number of physical people.  Yet standing six feet apart with masks does not get me my kiddush lunch back! 

Both are true.  It is a pleasure, a mechayeh, to see a handful of people in shul, and it is a tragedy that it is not YET “normal”.  As we continue to protect the health of our community, the slow return is vital.  We cannot rush or be rash, rather we must l’at l’at, slowly, slowly, take care of our needs, together.

To be a community, we cannot just look after the healthiest among us.  We must care for ALL of us.  As a shul, we connect for higher purpose.  We gather socially, spiritually, educationally, prayerfully.  Together we are more than the sum of our parts.  We are a holy community.  

Lshanah tovah, let us always be so!

(Note: post edited to go directly to sermon)