Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Yom Kippur Sermon 5771 -- Tying it All Together

Editor's Note: In my original master plan, this sermon was to be accompanied by a Power Point presentation that has, alas, still not been created. When it is, it will be made available through the Temple Solel website (www.TempleSolelMD.org).

One Brief Shining Star – Putting our Values Where Our Mission Is
Sermon for Yom Kippur Morning – September 18, 2010
Rabbi Steve Weisman, --Temple Solel, Bowie MD

There is a very moving reading – one of many – in Mishkan T’filah, our new Shabbat and holiday prayer book. We read it to prepare ourselves to recite the Mourners’ Kaddish toward the end of the service. It was originally written in Hebrew by the remarkable Jewish poet and heroine, Hannah Senesh, and translated into English sometime later:

There are stars up above, so far away we only see their light
Long, long after the star itself is gone.
And so it is with people that we have loved –
Their memories keep shining ever brightly
Though their time with us is done.
But the stars that light up the darkest night,
These are the lights that guide us.
As we live our days, these are the ways we remember.

When I read those words, whether to myself, or in facilitating our Shabbat worship, there are two visual images that come to mind. The first, befitting the artistry of her words, is Van Gogh’s “Starry Night,” a universally recognized masterpiece. The second isn’t nearly as well known, in fact, it may not even still exist, although I hope it is enshrined in a scrapbook somewhere.

It was the drawing of one of the young students of our religious school at my first congregation, in Fredericksburg. The exercise was to draw a picture of one of the days of Creation from Genesis. This youngster chose to draw the first day, and drew a line down the middle of his page. I do not remember what he drew for the “day” side of the page, but I will never forget the “night” side. Not because it was anything spectacular – just a typical childhood drawing.

With one noticeable wrinkle – when this child drew the stars in the night sky, all his stars had SIX points, instead of the formulaic 5! I was so moved by that artistic decision, I asked why he had made this choice. I was prepared for the perfectly plausible “I only know how to make 6 pointed stars” response – after all, we had given him far more practice in that in his Jewish education to date!

What I got instead was the following, “Of course the stars have 6 points. Our God made the stars and placed them in the sky. We are Jewish, and so are the stars!” How could I argue with such profound Jewish teaching? And, even more, having originally seen his artistic choice as being outside the box, his response struck me as being even more INSIDE the box of Jewish thought than my own thinking!

As we have noted throughout these High Holy Days, this young boy was far from the first Jew to note deep philosophical significance in our “star of David.” Long before it became a Jewish symbol, the 6-pointed star was a good luck talisman in the ancient world. In fact, according to Jewish legend, it was because of its good-luck omen status that the warrior boy King David chose this symbol and placed it on his shield, hoping it would give him luck as he went into battle!

Perhaps that sense of being a good luck charm comes from the unique formation of this star, which is made up of two overlapping triangles. We know that throughout history, 3 has also been considered a “good number,” and numerous are the examples of significant items coming in threes as a result. Here again, however, the perception is grounded in solid math – in this case literally. A triangle, with its three sides, is the simplest shape that provides sufficient stability to serve as a foundation upon which a building can be built safely! There can be no better sign of good fortune than seeing one’s construction remain standing and stable over time, even as others less solidly built collapse all around it!

It was this awareness that the Jewish star is made up of two of these stable foundational triangles that moved Franz Rosenzweig, the noted German – Jewish philosopher, to expound a philosophical foundation for his Judaism based in these two overlapping triangles. That he developed his “Star of Redemption” while serving in the German Army in a trench in Macedonia during World War I, writing snippets on pieces of envelopes from incoming mail whenever he could find them and the opportunity, makes his vision and clarity even more remarkable.

Separating the two triangles, Rosenzweig identified one triangle as foundational for the basic identifying principles of Judaism, which he identified as God, Torah, and the people of Israel. He labeled the other triangle with the three primary relationships we have with God – as Creator of the universe, Revealer of the Law at Sinai, and Redeemer of our ancestors, most notably at the Sea. Then he realigned the two triangles into a Jewish star, taking care to align the two triangles in a manner that added understanding and significance to his model.

It was Rosenzweig’s Star that kept coming to mind as I tried to figure out how to bring home the value-based learning model from my time at 6 Points Sports Academy this summer. Far be it for me to even think I could come close to filling his shoes, but his model intrigued me. I realized what I was trying to do was to take Jewish values and make them more obvious and visible in what we do as a congregational family, so we might transfer that increased awareness into the decisions we make outside the Temple, as individuals and families.

I realized that what I was trying to do, like the 6 Points program itself, like Rosenzweig, was to work in 2 foundational triangles at the same time. Like Rosenzweig’s model, one triangle must clearly be Jewish, and so what better way than to maintain the God/Torah/Israel basis of that triangle? But how to define the other triangle, to bring the values that we are already built upon as a Reform Jewish congregational family, that we wish to emphasize in all we do, to the forefront of our vision and understanding.

That was when I remembered the article I spoke of last night, which tried to neaten up the linguistic sloppiness that has many of us today confusing needs with wants. As we discussed last night, the true needs of human experience can be conveniently summarized in three elements. We NEED to survive – to make sure that we are here tomorrow, and if not here physically, that some legacy of our time lives on beyond us. We NEED to find acceptance – some response from others that we are valued for who we are and what we do. We NEED to feel affection – a genuine connection with others like ourselves, based on mutual respect, even love.

My first thought was that this set of three needs would serve neatly as the corners of the second triangle, and, when recombined with the first, bringing uniquely Jewish elements together with universal human needs in the Jewish star, it might provide a model that would be useful. But what was still missing was the value basis that I was seeking to establish and identify in our foundation.

So I went back and looked at those 6 corners, and adjusted slightly. Instead of God, let’s talk about yirat shamayim – the awe and fear of God in heaven. A value. Talmud Torah – the teaching and learning of Torah. A value. Ahavat Yisrael – the love of Israel. A value. At last, I thought, we may be onto something here!

But then I looked at that last one – the love of Israel. I anticipated the next question – are we talking about the people of Israel? The state of Israel? Or the land of Israel? And even though Rosenzweig had focused mostly on peoplehood (since the modern state had not yet become reality!), it struck me that we had the ability to stress all three at once at this corner! Of course we should be based upon a love of the land of Israel – the idea at the end of the Passover seder of “Next year in Jerusalem” had been an idealized dream for almost 1900 years of our ancestors living exclusively in diaspora, one that kept them together as Jews. We already do, and must, support the current Jewish state of Israel. And if we do not stress the value that all Jews are dependent upon one another (another value that we DO already embrace clearly), then we end up alone on an island, disconnected from our brothers and sisters. Indeed, Ahavat Yisrael automatically leads us to all three of these significant Jewish values!

This led me to look at the other two corners of this foundation triangle. Talmud Torah – our teaching and learning of Jewish texts – what is its ultimate value? It is how we connect dor l’dor – from generation to generation – an expression of the importance we place on history and tradition. It is our respect for din tzedeq – law based upon a just foundation – that leads us to live justly in our own lives. It is the importance of Torah lishmah – the value we place on learning for its own sake.

And what about the respect and fear of God (at least metaphorically) in heaven? Even if God is more of a concept or theoretical construct for us, even if God is something we have questions about or difficulty believing, we are still here on this Yom Kippur morning – appearing before God, asking for inscription in the book of life for another year. And therefore, God is, at the very least, an ideal to which we aspire in our efforts to improve ourselves. The theologians call that concept transcendence – our desire and effort to transcend the limits of our own world and grow towards God, towards higher goals in our life than we would set on our own. It is a value symbolized in the story and image of Jacob’s ladder.

For those of us who are less challenged by embracing the concept and value that God plays a role in our lives, that too is a value under the banner of yirat shamayim. Being open to God’s presence in our lives as individuals and collectively – both in the potential for God’s presence with us as a motivator of our own best action and growth, and in our willingness to see God in our lives when the evidence becomes obvious (and even when it is not!) – these allow us to add meaning and order to our lives in both good and challenging times, a most useful value.

And, for those who are REALLY comfortable finding God in our lives, respect for God also manifests itself in our ability to see that same spark of God’s divinity that we look within ourselves and find, that we believe has been passed down to us from the breath of life God blew into the original man and the original woman during creation, burning also inside our neighbors, friends and family, even strangers all around us. The value in this recognition is that it brings order to the world as it does to us as individuals. It allows us to see others as we see ourselves and wish to be seen by others – in the best possible light. It allows us to view those others not as others, but as fellow travelers, as partners in doing God’s work.

We have succeeded in translating the “Jewish” triangle of our new foundational Jewish star into powerful Jewish values. Indeed, in the process, we have strengthened the foundation by anchoring each corner on not one, but three related values. Each corner of our Jewish foundational triangle is itself rooted at least in an equally strong triangle of powerful Jewish values!

As I turned to the more universal triangle of human needs, I suddenly realized why survival, acceptance, and affection really wouldn’t work as the corners of this triangle. As needs, they are things we seek, not foundation pieces to build on, but holes we wish to fill in our lives by seeking other building blocks to create structures to fulfill those needs. So the question then became “What generalized universal values help us to find acceptance, affection and survival in our world?” And can we ground them in Jewish tradition.

Is it any surprise to find an answer to that question which embraces three cornerstone values in response? The most obvious of these is the value of shalom – of peace in all its forms -- for all. Shalom ishi – the internal personal contentment and peace that comes, in part, from finding God in our own lives, and working towards self-fulfillment. Shlom bayit – our ability to transcend our own personal needs, and work with others to bring peace in all its forms into our homes and all the physical spaces we share with others in our lives, allowing us to feel a wholeness that comes from connection to those others. And, eventually, through these, shalom gadol – the great peace that we all pray for and seek to bring about in the universe – the absence of war and strife, but also of suffering and privation.

The second cornerstone value of this triangle would be humility, a value taught throughout Jewish texts and tradition. Psalm 8 teaches, as accurately translated into a folk song from my youth: “Lower than angels am I.” Jewish teaching reminds us that we are little more than dust and ashes, and regardless of what we achieve in our lives, we return at the end of our lives to dust and ashes. This humility is essential for us if we are to seek honor for others, and not just ourselves – a sign of our ability to give as well as receive both affection and acceptance, to allow ourselves and others to leave behind a legacy that survives after our time on earth is done.

What are the values that support this foundational corner of humility? To answer that question, I was drawn to a remarkable teaching from Pirkei Avot, the philosophical and ethical teachings of the Talmudic masters. Chapter 4:1, ironically NOT structured on 3 teachings, but 4, asks and answers a series of questions: Eizeh hu chacham? Who is wise? The one who learns from all his fellow beings. Who is powerful? The one who controls their animal urges (the same ones the Rabbis chalked up to the yeitzer hara – the so-called “evil inclination” that we talked about last night). Who is happy? The one who is content with what he or she has? And who is honored? The one who honors everyone.

It seems clear that the core values that lead to our humility, and are rooted in this Jewish text, are first, the self-control we need in order to limit ourselves, and allow others to have their own space and share of God’s bounty (in other words -- it is NOT the one with the most toys when they die who wins!); second, the modesty to recognize that we are not “all that,” and that there is much to admire in and learn from others; and third, the ability to be satisfied without being satiated, to allow enough to truly be enough for us, so that others may have enough as well.

And the third foundational corner, I believe, is empathy – the ability to view others as having value and equal (or more) integrity. It is empathy that allows us to build communities through our relationships, to work with others, finding commonality with them while also respecting what makes them different.

The supporting values here start with the words we will read from Torah this afternoon – v’ahavta l’rei’acha k’mokhah – to love and respect your neighbor as yourself. Without that respect for others, we can hardly find acceptance for them, we have little chance of finding affection for them, and therefore we have equally little chance of receiving either from them.

They continue with the realization that the refrain of our tradition is correct, and can be expanded beyond the specific into the universal as well, as we shall see. Indeed kol Yisraeil aravim zeh bazeh – all Israel is dependent one upon the other. Given the imperative in Leviticus for us to be “a nation of priests and a holy nation,” and of Isaiah, who implored us to be “a light unto the nations,” it seems clear that our holiness as a people stems from our ability to depend upon and be depended on by others, and that this specific teaching transcends our peoplehood. Our interconnection with others, our willingness to accept that indeed “no man is an island,” is the value underlying all of this that makes it all possible.

And finally, we come to the value of compassion. This is a remarkable word. Com – “with.” It is impossible to have compassion without interconnection, without that respect for others that allows us to care about them. Without this connectedness, compassion becomes merely passion, a fire that burns within us all. And with no one with whom to share, it, our passion will eventually simply burn out, or consume us in its flames.

It is compassion that allows us to feel for and with others, to understand their feelings, that allows us to turn the natural sympathy we might feel for others in good times and bad, which is an inequality, into that empathy, which is our foundational cornerstone, that is a far more balanced relationship, one which allows us to come together to work together for common goals and betterment. It is compassion that fuels our working together toward common goals.

Since my original goal was to bring Jewish values more obviously and deeply into our congregational life and individual thoughts and actions, I will save for another day the exact realignment of these two triangles that make up the Jewish star of our values foundation, the one that allows us to draw even more awareness and learning from the model as Rosenzweig’s star provided.

This morning, we have raised and discussed 18 basic Jewish values that add to our Jewish lives – that number seems appropriate. We have organized them around 6 foundational corners of two triangles that make up a Jewish star – one triangle reaffirming who we are uniquely as Jews, the other made up of more universal values drawn from Jewish teachings, designed to allow us to find ways to fulfill our own human needs while helping others to fulfill theirs as well.

As we gather together as a congregational family, seeking to plead with God for our lives for another year, providing support for our friends and neighbors as they do the same, this model is a powerful foundation upon which to build our lives as we hope to move through the upcoming year. Used well, it can guide these last steps of our atonement seeking from last year as well, and help us to live in the coming year so that our next Yom Kippur might be the year in which we can hope not to need to invoke the insurance we took out last night in reciting Kol Nidrei.

And therefore, with full humility, I offer this model as a second starting point for the discussion of who we already are in many cases, and seek to become as individuals and a congregation, as we evaluate all we do in our lives in this upcoming year. As we take our congregational Mission and Vision statement to heart in our actions individually and collectively in the new year, may this values-based model also help us to understand ourselves and each other better; help us to grow towards each other and work together to better our lives and our world; help us to better identify and fulfill our own needs and those of others; help us to truly become God’s partners and shepherds here on earth.

If our path takes us only one step forward down this path in the coming year, one step closer to each other, one step closer to living up to the ideal selves we envision we could be, what a powerfully successful year it will be for all of us. KYR

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