Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Rosh Hashanah Sermon 5771

Values We Can All Live By in the New Year – PART 1
Sermon for Rosh Hashanah 5771
Rabbi Steve Weisman – Temple Solel, Bowie MD

So, here we are for the 11th time together for Rosh Hashanah you and I, our 10th consecutive High Holy Days here at St. Matthew’s – it hardly seems possible! We have been in this room together for some interesting moments – both challenging and celebratory. Our very first Rosh Hashanah here in the immediate aftermath of the tragedy of 9/11. Five years ago, when our Rabbi returned from major surgery. Years when we wondered if we might outgrow this space as well, and years in which we questioned whether we still needed to leave our own building for our most significant communal days.

This year, I look forward to introducing you, hopefully tomorrow morning, to our new host. As most of you know, Rev. Stetler, who was personally responsible for bringing us to St. Matthew’s, has retired. We wish him well, and we are excited that, with retirement, he has not (yet) relocated from our community, giving us the opportunity to continue to share with him, and learn from him. The new spiritual leader of St. Matthew’s, is young, dynamic, and already bringing a new energy and focus to St. Matthew’s and our entire community. We look forward to meeting her and learning from her as well!

So right out of the gate, the New Year 5771 is everything we would expect in a New Year – that unique combination of the familiar and the new; of continuing patterns and activities that help to define us as a congregational family, and new realities requiring our creativity and effort to address. Fortunately, our congregational year got off to an early start, only in part because of the early fall, at least on the secular calendar, of our High Holy Days. With a new president in office, our leadership has begun to develop that same balance between continuing efforts and new ideas. Our universally well-respected Religious School has already begun its year, helping our young people, and hopefully their parents as well, deal with these very same issues.

Even my personal summer experiences provided that similar dichotomy, and have influenced my sharing with you on these High Holy Days. As many of you know, in addition to spending my two weeks at Camp Harlam, where I have now spent parts of 23 summers of my life, which provided the (mostly) familiar, I also had the unique privilege of spending two weeks at our newest URJ Camp – 6 Points Sports Academy, helping to create, from scratch, a unique Reform Jewish environment of learning, sharing, and experiencing, as that program celebrated its inaugural summer. As a congregation, we sent 14 of our young people to Harlam this summer – and 5 more to 6 Points – an absurdly high 20% of our religious school enrollment!

But even more than being a teacher and role model at 6 Points, my two weeks there were spent GAINING knowledge, experience, and new perspectives on all that I do as a rabbi, and we attempt to do as a congregation. And it starts with these silly wristbands!

You see, the challenge in creating this new program was to make it authentically Reform Jewish, while at the same time, recognizing the realities of the core participants lives outside of camp, which in many cases are the most marginally involved in the community, because of their heavy involvement in sports, all while striving above all else to gain legitimacy within the world of REAL sports camps. And so the decision was made to embrace one of the emerging fields of Jewish education and run with it, albeit in some unique ways. That approach is values-based education.

Following the examples of many great Jewish thinkers through our people’s experience, the brain trust at 6 Points looked at the Jewish star that is not merely in our logo and at the core of our name, and selected 6 core Jewish values upon which the program would stand this summer. Each of these core values was introduced to the camp community, and reinforced during the morning “stretch” before breakfast. Members of the camp community who were observed demonstrating one of these core values in the course of going about their day would be awarded the corresponding wrist band for that value.

In other forums, I have noted the brilliance of this program in playing to the basic nature of the participants, creating a self-reinforcing learning experience that could, and has, transcended their 2 weeks at camp. I have also noted the genius, from a continuing PR standpoint, of having these participants go home, showing off these bands with pride to their friends and family, and including on the bands the camp name and web site! But this morning, I want to focus on WHY this program worked.

It worked for three basic reasons. It worked because the 6 clearly Jewish values selected for emphasis were all things that the participants could, and should, be displaying on the playing field. It worked, because the faculty weren’t just Rabbis and educators – we were people who were role models to the kids – both off the field and ON; and because the REAL role models of cool athletes who were Jewish was provided by an amazing staff. And it worked because we avoided the temptation to do too much with it.

All of which got me to thinking – how can I bring this home and have a similar impact within our Solel family? The first caveat that was drummed into my head after my Harlam experience this summer, where our efforts to create a more holistic Jewish program like that at 6 Points made little more than baby steps of progress, was that there was a 4th, unique element in 6 Points’ success this summer. Because we were starting from scratch, there was no existing culture that needed to be changed or re-evaluated, no pre-existing core group with a sense of “ownership” of the program as it had previously been who might be made uncomfortable by a change in direction! That absence removed a significant obstacle to success. But then, how to apply those lessons here at home – where we have 46 years of congregational history, and a culture that embraces the status quo?!

I recalled that one of our successes in my first year at Solel was the development of a formal “Mission and Vision Statement.” I also recalled that it took several years after its creation for this document to begin to become the litmus test of decisions we were taking and programs we were running as a congregational family. Perhaps, I thought, with the start of our second decade together, as we approach, in only a few years, our 50th anniversary as a congregation, this would be a good time to review that document, to make sure that it really does still represent the core values that we believe we stand for as the Solel family.

And so tonight, as our President and Board already have been made aware, along with the Religious School faculty who are, as always, at the front line of so much that we are attempting to do and be as a congregation through their interaction with our students and their families, I am issuing a call for us to make 5771 the year when Temple Solel becomes even more of a Jewish values-based community. I am calling for the leadership and membership of our congregation to embrace our existing “Mission and Vision Statement” even more deeply in the coming year, both for the value that effort brings to us as individuals and as a community, as we struggle to deal with the issues of the remarkable day and time in which we live, and also as a way of determining whether this document still truly represents all that we are and wish to be as individuals and as a congregational family.

To that end, on the tables in the lobby of both of our communal homes throughout these Holy Days, you will find copies of that one-page document that is our current statement. Please take them and make yourself familiar with them. In the words of V’ahavta, that we read in Deuteronomy, and recite whenever we gather as Jews for worship, speak about them when you are sitting in your house, when you are going about your daily routine, teach them to your children – by words and actions together. Take notes of what works and what doesn’t, what is critical to keep as part of the document and what is missing from it.

For example, the word “family” appears in the main paragraph describing who we seek to be as a congregation. Is that single reference enough? Or, are the bullet points we choose to make in the body of the document, spelling out the reasonable expectations of what we will do together and for each other still indicative of the places where our program puts the emphasis? If not, does the document need to change? Or does how we expend our time and energy?

Much like the now concluding self-inventory period of Elul calls upon us first to turn inward to ourselves before we can turn back to our friends and neighbors to seek atonement and grant forgiveness, I ask everyone to share our ideas and our thoughts. Share your responses to this document – via traditional forms and electronically. With the summer, we have gotten away from using our congregational facebook page – still a remarkable place for the exchange of information and ideas.
THIS would be a great way to bring us back to making that page, along with our congregational web-site and the weekly e-mails, central parts of our daily and weekly check-in routine. How many of us, when we get to work, or go on our home computer, have a set line-up of websites we instinctively check in with? Favorite blogs, or information and news sources, or even junkfood for the mind distractions? Shouldn’t www.TempleSolelMD.org and Temple Solel on Facebook be among yours, if they are not already? (And, in a blatant and personal plug, consider adding the Rabbi’s own primary website – WordsFromAWeisman.blogspot.com – to your regular collection -- where in addition to texts of my sermons and Temple Topics articles, you can also find my responses to topics of the day, as well as links to information on Israel and other topics of Jewish interest and import, along with a few (hopefully) entertaining blogs on some (mostly) lighter subjects, like music, sports, and the constant challenges of local traffic, written by some of my more eclectic “friends.”)

You should know, by the way, that as we undertake this effort to clarify and codify the Jewish values upon which we stand as a congregation, we are far from alone. The recent restructuring of the URJ, although driven by harsh economic realities, began, in large part, from a similar effort. The work of the seminal German-Jewish philosopher, Franz Rosenzweig, who developed his “Star of Redemption” while fighting in the trenches of Macedonia during World War I (about which we will talk more on Yom Kippur) was a basis for the development of the 6 Points program along SIX points.

Indeed, looking at the development of the early synagogue almost 2000 years ago, as a house of worship, a house of study, and a house of gathering – which became one of the motifs for our own congregational mission and vision statement -- it is easy to hear the voice of Pirkei Avot – the “Sayings of the Fathers," and recognize the value-based foundation of that development. This collection of pithy philosophical summaries of the positions of many of the great Rabbis of Talmudic times gives us tremendous insight into their thinking and motivation.

Indeed, the collection begins, after linking back historically to Moses receiving Torah at Sinai, with perhaps the most well-known Jewish values statement still today: On three things the world stands – Torah, worship, and acts of lovingkindness. Compare those values to the development of the synagogue and its tricameral nature!

But less well known is the teaching that ends that same first chapter (although we used to, occasionally, sing this version in returning the Torah to the Ark): On three things, the world is established: truth, justice, and peace. Taking these two bookend teachings together, it is not hard to see al-haTorah, v’al ha’avodah, v’al g’milut chasadim as the uniquely Jewish embodiment of the more universal concepts of truth, justice (really judgment, as in by a Divine judge), and peace.

And when we do see this text this way, we come to a very significant realization: that same Zen, yin/yang tug-of-war that goes on within most of us still today, as we seek the balance between Jewish and secular influences in our lives, was just as true in Talmudic times, and has a valid place in our discussion of the Jewish ethics that serve as a foundation stone in our lives today. And this is perfectly acceptable! In fact, it is necessary, if we hope to make our Judaism once again a way-of-life, something more than merely one of the many special interest identities we each have that compete for time, funding, and energy in our over-programmed lives.

Because the truth is that the same core Jewish values that fuel the sense of outrage that many of us felt upon reading yet another attack on Israel in the guise of an in-depth journalistic report on the cover and pages of this week’s Time Magazine, the same sense of pain at the seemingly deliberate timing of that attack, er, report, in relationship to both the restart of the peace process AND these Jewish Holy Days, is also at the core of our very Jewish response to and disgust at the attempt of a Florida minister to turn September 11th this year into “Burn a Quran Day,” and our sadness at the unfortunate timing of that event coinciding with a Muslim celebration of one of the Eids, or festival meals, that are also a part of their Ramadan observance. Just because our latter response is outwardly directed to the defense and sensibilities of others, and not inner directed to our own survival needs, does not make it any less an example of our authentic Jewish core values at work.

As we go through the rest of these High Holy Days as individuals, seeking to make atonement for our own shortcomings, seeking to forgive those who seek our forgiveness, we can do far worse than focusing more on these core Jewish values. As we go thru this period as a congregational family, we will look more deeply at the history of some of these efforts, with the ultimate goal of creating, by the end of these High Holy Days, at least the working framework of a model of our congregational family’s core Jewish values from which to take our emerging discussions, and which individuals can use as a starting point in working through this material for themselves.

If we achieve ONLY this discussion in the course of the year – and we KNOW we will do much more than that – we can enter our New Year 5771 fairly secure that our foundation will only grow stronger in the coming year, fairly confident that whatever we each choose to build on that more solid Jewish ethical foundation will add beauty to our lives and our world. And THAT is a pretty good way to start a New Year! KYR

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