November 20, 2019

Two Rosh Hashanah services by Rabbi Joshua Levine Grater

Life Saving Judaism:

A week ago, one of my dear friends from childhood, Camp Ramah and rabbinical school, lost his wife after a courageous three year battle with breast cancer. She was 42 years old, brilliant, successful, witty, cultured and a mother of two young sons. My wife Franci and I were two among hundreds in the pews last Sunday, crying and listening about a life that was taken far too soon, reflecting on our own lives, as people often do at the death of someone in a similar stage of life. I still want to say what I had planned to say this morning, but for me, the message has been intensified. I dedicate this sermon to the life and memory of Erin Williams Hyman z’l and to my dear bereaved friend, Rabbi Micah Hyman.

I am no stranger to death or funerals, as you can imagine, for that is the lifecycle moment I officiate at most in my rabbinate. But somehow I am never fully prepared for what I might hear about a person in their eulogies. Of course, the contents of a eulogy are closely related to what these holy days are all about: how do we live, what do we give, how will we die, and what will we leave behind. In just a little while, we will hear and pray the mighty Unetanetof, and we will say, “mi yichye u’mi yamut, who shall live and who shall die.” This prayer is not a threat, but a wake-up call to the overarching question that faces us: with the free-will that I have been given, and with the circumstances of my life, am I living to the best of my ability the life that I want to live?

In a NYT piece this summer, there was an op-ed entitled, “No Time to Think,” by writer Kate Murphy. She opens this way: “One of the biggest complaints in modern society is being overscheduled, overcommitted and overextended. Ask people at a social gathering how they are and the stock answer is ‘super busy,’ ‘crazy busy,’ or ‘insanely busy.’ Nobody is just ‘fine’ anymore.” (NYT, July 25, 2014) The piece goes on to discuss how people today, or at least 700 people in 11 different studies whose results were published in the journal Science, reported that “they found it unpleasant to be alone in a room with their thoughts for just 6 to 15 minutes.” (ibid.) And in a shocking discovery that grabbed the attention of psychologists and neuroscientists alike, “in one experiment, 64% of men and 15% of women began self-administering electric shocks when left alone to think. These same people, by the way, had previously said they would pay money to avoid receiving the painful jolt.” (ibid.) The essence of the study shows that no matter what was happening in people’s lives, good or bad, they just didn’t like being alone in their own heads.

Maimonides, the great 12th century Jewish thinker, writes about what the sounding of the shofar should awaken within us: “Awake, awake O’ sleeper, from your sleep…Examine your deeds, return in repentance, and remember your Creator. Those of you who forget the truth in the follies of the times and go astray the whole year in vanity and emptiness which neither profit nor save, look to your souls; improve your ways and works…” (Laws of Repentance, Chapter 3:4). Listen to that language: “those of you who forget the truth in the follies of the times…” What do you imagine were “the follies of the times” in 12th century Cairo? And if Maimonides already was writing about societal foolishness before the advent of the printing press and electricity, not to mention iPhones and Facebook, what does our tradition offer us in the face of today’s overwhelming societal, spiritual and even physiological changes? What does our tradition have to offer to counter the driving narrative that success is measured in dollars, external accomplishments and busy-ness?

In my second year of rabbinical school, I had a conversation over Shabbat dinner that is now infamous among my old friends and colleagues, and which I know I have shared at some point here, about the kind of rabbi I would be. Over dessert on an Israeli balcony, I laid out my position: everyone who wanted to join my synagogue had to agree that for 6 months, they would follow my instructions on how to observe Shabbat, keep kosher, engage with prayer, and partake of other rituals because I firmly believed in the teaching of “na’aseh v’nishmah” – that only in doing can we truly understand the value and reap the benefits of daily Jewish living. After the six-month period, my congregants would fully understand how powerful the traditional observances are, and of course they will want to then voluntarily continue because their lives had been transformed and I would be a Jewish hero leading an exemplary spiritual hevre. And, if new members wouldn’t agree to my conditions, they couldn’t join. I looked up from my little speech and asked my friend, “Great idea, right?” He responded, “Actually, no – no it’s not.”

That was nineteen years ago, and I’ve grown wiser since then. Yet, I still think that some aspects of my theory have merit. Our “insane busy-ness” is one symptom of a spiritual emergency, and as American Jews, I believe we are at a turning point that demands we slow down and access the treasures and tools of the very tradition that bring us together today. So, in addition to the blowing of the shofar to wake you up to the follies of our times, I offer you my own version of the viral Ice Bucket Challenge that I call “The Living Jewish Bucket Challenge.”

Dousing yourself in prayer today, and even more potently, on a weekly basis for Shabbat, takes time and has benefits. It can’t only be at funerals or times of illness or other crises that we look inward, or pray for insight or support, for by then it might be too late to make a difference for us. The tachlis (raw truth) of our spiritual emergency is this: Judaism is one of the oldest religious systems around, but in the United States, this generation is actually one of the most disengaged and seemingly uninterested in Jewish life. Last year’s widely-discussed Pew Report quantified this trend, and here we are, rabbis, cantors and educators, scrambling to figure out how to dump a bucket of ice cold Judaism over our communities.

So, as I do every year, I deeply hope in these few minutes to inspire, entice, excite, and encourage you to see that what we do here, what you can find here is not only a connection to a rich heritage, but a life-saving system that can counter the negative aspects of our fast-paced society and help us to improve ourselves, raise our children and repair our world. Activities in our lives – work, sports, classes, exercise, travel, leisure, everything that consumes our valuable time in modern life — are healthy and good, but in balance and moderation. Psychologist Stephanie Brown asserts in the same NYT article, “There is this wide spread belief that thinking and feeling will only slow you down and get in your way, but it’s the opposite.” (ibid.)

You can find spirituality and God and calm in hiking, biking, yoga, meditation or any myriad of ways. I know I do. But, the system we are all here to participate in today is a holistic and experiential one that, over time, and with dedication and priority, offers much that is good and healthy, and provides a framework for our lives. Just like hiking, biking, yoga or meditation, if you do Judaism once in a while, it’s nice, but if you do Judaism regularly, it is transformative. Shabbat is about rest, family, singing, eating and thinking. Torah is about questioning and engaging the mind with challenging wisdom, ancient and modern. Tzeddakah is about working for justice and believing that we make a difference. Mitzvot, which you know I don’t translate as “commandments,” are the guideposts that so many of us crave in trying to raise our children and grandchildren in a world with so many negative and unhealthy distractions and temptations. My “Jewish Living Bucket Challenge” is asking all of us to make the inheritance of our ancestors real and alive for us today, here, in community. I officiate at too many funerals, and sit at too many bedsides, where the lack of spiritual connection is lamented, and I implore you not to recreate that experience for yourself.

On my Facebook page last month, I crowd-sourced what people might want to hear about in this sermon. Some of the responses included: how we can live our values in the face of overwhelming societal pressure to care about material stuff? How can we live Jewishly and still be a part of the modern world? How can we appreciate traditions and family customs while adapting and innovating? My answer today is this bucket challenge. Nothing good in life comes for free, including values, rituals, traditions, home or childrearing. Something is necessarily sacrificed on the way to bettering ourselves. That is why in Hebrew, the word for “sacrifice” is “korban,” which actually means “drawing close,” implying that when we “sacrifice,” or give something up, we have the chance to draw nearer to something else, ideally something higher, holier, healthier and meaningful.

Will this be the year that the illusion of busy-ness as success gives way to more space for lighting Shabbat candles and coming more often to one of our synagogue’s many prayer opportunities? Will this be the year that instead of enrolling our kids in even more sports, activities and lessons, we schedule regular time for the whole family to be together in some style of Shabbat? Will this be the year when simple blessings of gratitude are said before and after each meal? Will this be the year that Israel and what is transpiring in our ancient homeland becomes more central on our worldly radar? I chose not to talk about the rising tide of anti-Semitism in Europe, but it is worrisome to be sure, and our neglect and seemingly dispassionate interest in Judaism could be interpreted as an affront to what our brothers and sisters are facing because of their Jewish identity. Will this be the year when our Jewish souls, our neshama, take priority and get the attention and care they need and deserve?

The Torah reminds us in Deuteronomy, “But, take utmost care and watch yourselves scrupulously, so that you do not forget the things that you saw with your own eyes and so that they do not fade from your mind as long as you live. And make them known to your children and to your children’s children.” (Deut. 4:9) Even in the times of the Torah, there was a sense that it would be easy to forget our past, to ignore our traditions, and to not pass them on to our children and grandchildren. That is why this reminder gets repeated over and over again throughout the whole of Deuteronomy. And as I sat in the pews on Sunday at Erin’s funeral, I couldn’t help but think that we need this Torah teaching today now more than ever.

On the way home from the shiva in Beverly Hills on Monday night, I did something that I have thought about doing for some time but have never actually done. Passing by the homeless tent community under the 101 at Alvarado, instead of driving by, I pulled over, parked and got out, looking to connect with someone and give them the rest of the money I had in my wallet. The first tent I came to belonged to William and Candice. I kneeled down and talked with them for almost 30 minutes. Six months earlier they had been living in an apartment, but William lost his job, they had soaring medical bills, and they ended up on the street. They clearly had some other issues going on, and I can’t be completely sure that everything they told me was true, but they were in their late 50s, sick, broke and trying to make it till the next SSI check at end of the month. I told them that in my work and in my faith, I am trying to eradicate poverty and homelessness, but clearly it is not working very well. They said they were grateful to be listened to, to be seen as humans, to receive empathy and compassion. At one point, William said to me, “Well, how is everything going in your life?” My eyes teared up, I told them that while I had just come from the shiva house of a woman my age that had died, thankfully, by the grace of God, my life is actually going well. And then he said, “That is good. But, if our situations are ever reversed, and you need help, I will try to be there. I would help you.” Humanity on the dark and noisy streets of LA at 10pm on a Monday night. It is because of the force of Judaism in my life that I took the time, after a long day and a draining night, to stop and talk to William and Candace. And in talking to them, I felt God’s presence because I have a practice in my life that helps me to notice God’s presence around me. I have a practice in my life called Judaism, that helps me to slow down, to feel empathy, to take notice. Yes, I could do and feel those things without Judaism, but I would not feel them as deeply, and the experience would not quench my thirst for human connection and deep meaning that comes from thousands of years of wisdom.

Here is the meaning of religion to me: God, the source of all life, pushes us to do more, to be more, to care and cry, to worry and celebrate, to think and improve, to stumble and get up, to be here, committed and conscious, engaged and striving, to be Yisrael, ever-evolving, ever-wrestling, ever expanding members of the Jewish people. Yes, people do good work in the world without being religious, but being a good person or living a moral life are not the same as living Jewishly, and to live Jewishly, we must be engaged in a Jewish community and include Judaism in our life’s priorities. To raise the next generation of Jews to be engaged, knowledgeable and proud, we have to show them that we are engaged, knowledgeable (or learning) and proud. If Jewish life doesn’t meet our needs, then we need to engage with what it is so that we can shape what we want it to be. I know that I will have to be at more bedsides and more gravesides this year, that is part of life. But I sincerely hope the Jewish Living Bucket Challenge will give me the blessed opportunity to see many, many more of you this year, awake to what is most real and dripping with Judaism, on the path of life.

Hope in Dark Times:

From a famous speech, which I imagine many of you will recognize.

We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battle-field and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.

Abraham Lincoln in his first inaugural address in 1861. The “better angels of our nature” has endured as a classic turn of phrase in the annals of literature. One hundred and fifty years later, psychologist and Harvard professor Steven Pinker has titled his recent book, The Better Angels of our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. As we look at our world, which seems to be aflame right now, with violence all around, it is hard to imagine that violence overall has declined throughout the course of human history until today, even with the Holocaust and other very recent atrocities. But statistically, it is true.

As we begin our new year tonight, I imagine many of feel the same dissonance that I do. While we wait for the latest iPhone and continue to tell the stories of our summer vacations, enjoying the best of times, the Islamic State militants, a nightmare group of extremists from another time and place, are ravaging innocent men, women and children in northern Iraq and Syria, gruesomely killing American journalists and daring us to respond to their worst of times playbook. I am inspired, however, because according to Pinker’s research, this kind of behavior is viewed by most people of today’s world, including a large percentage of the Arab world, as primitive, disgusting, and unacceptable. And while we can’t yet figure out how to eradicate this kind of behavior, if that is even possible, Pinker suggests that “whatever causes violence, it is not a perennial urge like hunger, sex, or the need to sleep.” (Pinker, p. 482) I am not here tonight to pronounce policies or suggest military options, but rather to prompt us to not become discouraged by brutality. We have the capacity to rise higher, to access “our better angels,” to stand in front of brutality and declare that we don’t want to live in a world where ISIS or rape or human shields are acceptable. The Torah commands us to “not stand idly by,” and our resolve is being tested. Religion, twisted and misinterpreted, has the capacity to inspire the kinds of violence we have seen throughout history, including in today’s extremists. But, religion has an even greater capacity to move us toward peace, toward inclusivity, toward tempering our worst selves and acting with the what the Torah calls “hayashar v’hatov, the right and the good.”

This year is a big one for our family. Our children will become b’nai mitzvah this December, a journey that many of you have taken yourselves, and one that I cherish as a spiritual leader in helping guide and walk with your families in these profound moments. I am starting to teach my children more directly about the challenges of the world, they are able to read the paper and ask questions, and of course, they have devices of their own that can access information at the click of a button. How do I explain about ISIS? How do I assure them that this kind of evil won’t threaten them? How do I inspire them to want to help others who are not so blessed? We lived in Israel last year, and so they got a view of what it is like to live in a more dangerous environment than suburban Pasadena, although obviously this past summer was much worse and they know it, we talked about it and they could imagine it directly. Seeking to strengthen my own inner compass of hope and faith so that I can pass it on to them with courage and confidence is part of why I needed to talk about this tonight. We are all looking at a world that can seemingly defy our sense of hope and positivity, but if we lose those feelings, if we give in to despair, then the terrorists and bigots win and purveyors of malice and lies and violence win. Standing strong, with hope, in the face of these great challenges, is why I am here tonight, and why I imagine many of you are as well.

One of the more powerful insights of our Torah comes in the story of Cain killing his brother Abel; it is then that God then reminds us that we are our brother and sister’s keeper. In every generation, this primordial teaching is tested again and again. We seek to bend our humanity towards justice and righteousness. Dr. King, in one of his more famous verses, took his understanding of the long arc of history from an 1852 essay by the abolitionist minister Theodore Parker, who said: “I do not pretend to understand the moral universe; the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways; I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. And from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice.” (Taken from Pinker, pg. 480) The teachings of our tradition that have been passed down through generations remind me that I am not the first, and I won’t be the last, to fight for justice and peace in the face of violence, discrimination and hatred. Before Pinker, before King, before Lincoln, the great poet and diviner of wisdom, the Psalmist, reminds us that human beings “are but little lower than the angels.” We have been battling the forces of darkness since the beginning of time, and even when we make some progress, we know that the arc is very long and sometimes it bends backwards or sideways in its advance toward goodness and righteousness. While we have overcome serious discrimination in our country, and as Pinker illustrates, we have combatted lynching, segregation and Jim Crow, we continue to struggle with acknowledging the lingering effects of these demons, thereby allowing them to crop up again and again. We have not yet succeeded in fulfilling Dr. King’s dream, and the protests from Ferguson this summer, which are still active as we speak, remind us that blacks in this country are not yet completely free, and that we have much work still to be done. The better angels of our nature call us to keep bending that arc toward justice, to not ignore the pain and suffering of our fellow citizens, and to stretch our bonds of empathy and support so that all people, in every corner of our great land, can one day be free and able to fulfill their greatest dreams and aspirations. In another time and place, it was our people that suffered, and as the Torah reminds us again and again, we know what it is like to be oppressed and to be strangers in our own land. We have come far and we have farther to go.

I know that this is not the light-hearted, ease you into the High Holy Days sermon that I usually reserve for this evening slot. These are heavy times, for some very dark times, and my heart feels more cracked open than it has in many years. So, while there is profound joy and gladness at being together, for the many blessings of our community, for the safety and security in which we live, we all must dig deeper to find the hope we desperately need to navigate the current state of the world. Our psalm for the season, Psalm 27, ends with one of my favorite lines in the whole Bible. “Kaveh el adonai, hazak v’ya’ametz libecha, v’kaveh el adonai, hope towards God, strengthen and make courageous your heart, and hope towards God.” This is not a passive verse, telling us that we can sit back and wait for God’s redemption. We are to do the hard work of strengthening our hearts, steeling our wills, and with the help of God, the Source of Life, we can become the people we hope to be, create the world we seek and fight back against the evil forces that arise in every generation. For the Torah reminds us that Amalek, the root source of pure evil, the great-grand daddy of all evil, will always be with us in one form or another. My friend Rabbi Elliott Cosgrove writes, “Not just literally, but metaphysically, Amalek came to represent any past or current forms of extreme dehumanization. Be it in the name of nationalism, radical religion or any other cause, that is evil.” Racism and bigotry are manifestations of Amalek, and we must face the crucibles that are driving the protests in Ferguson and Los Angeles and around the country just as forcibly and whole-heartedly as we will try to combat ISIS.

One of the more famous rabbis of the 2nd temple period was Rabbi Tarfon. You know him from the Passover Haggadah, where he, Rabbi Akiva and other major figures of his day, stay up all night discussing the meaning of the exodus from Egypt until their students come and say, “masters, it is time for the morning shema.” Rabbi Tarfon is known also for some of his aphorisms as quoted in Pirke Avot, Ethics of our Ancestors. The one that you probably know is “it is not up to us to complete the work, but neither are we free to desist from trying our hardest.” I am constantly amazed with how our rabbinic ancestors, some 2,000 years ago, in a totally different time and place from us, understood something as profound as this teaching. These teachers witnessed the rise and fall of the Jewish people, the destruction of the Temple and the recreation of Judaism into its present form. “It is not up to us to the complete the work” – Rabbi Tarfon understood that we cannot always, or sometimes ever, complete a task of personal change or societal development. But, we are called to never give up, to never stop trying to move the needle, even if it is just one small bit. We are but little lower than the angels, as King David said, and we have the capacity to access the “better angels of our nature,” as Lincoln inspired us. We have demons and shadows that prevent us, at times, from accessing those angels, but Rabbi Tarfon teaches us that we can’t ever stop trying.

I leave you with a story that many of you know, the story of Malala Yousafzai, the young girl from Mingora, Pakistan, who dared to stand up for her right to attend the school founded by her father as the Taliban increased control of her region. Beginning when she was 11 years old, she began speaking publicly and blogging about her right, and the right of all women, to an education. Three years later, a man boarded the bus Malala was riding home from school and shot her in the head to stop her activism. But did he stop her? We know he did not. Having moved to Birmingham, England, Malala remains a staunch advocate for the power of education, despite ongoing threats of violence against her and her family from the Taliban. After being twice nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, Malala wrote, “If I win a Nobel Peace Prize, it would be a great opportunity for me, but if I don't get it, it's not important because my goal is not to get a Nobel Peace Prize, my goal is to get peace and my goal is to see the education of every child.” If a young girl from a poor country can survive being shot in the head and continuing violent threats and not lose hope, can’t we do the same?

We may not finish the work, but neither are we free to ever stop trying. We learn from Pinker that our world is safer and less violent than ever before in human history, and yet for too many, it is not at all safe and it is very violent. Let us go forth from this place with resolve. As Rabbi Tarfon also taught, “The day is short and the work is long.” Together, with hope, determination and mighty spirits, let us face our new year with a commitment to grow, and expand, the wings of our better angels. Shana tovah.