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High Holiday Sermons 2022

 

Rosh Hashana Day 1 and 2  - YouTube Links

You can hear Rabbi Goldstein's sermons on video here: 

Day 1 - click HERE

Day 2 - click HERE

 

Kol Nidre, Yom Kippur, Neilan  - YouTube Links

You can hear Rabbi Goldstein's sermons on video here: 

Kol Nidre - click HERE     Kol Nidre Sermon starts at 2:15:15

Yom Kippur - click HERE   Kol Nidre Yom Kippur Morning Sermon starts at 2:06:12

Neilah - click HERE  (no sermon, this is a link to the service)

 

 

You can read Rabbi Goldstein's sermons here: 

Rosh Hashana Day 1

Rabbi Richard Israel of blessed memory, in his volume, The Kosher Pig, told the following story: “A few months ago, driving cross-town in a Manhattan taxi, my cab driver turned far enough around to start a conversation and asked, “Where are you from?” “Boston,” I said.

Then, since that answer was apparently not sufficiently rewarding, clearly not what he was after, he asked, “And what are your origins?”  What are my origins?... I thought to myself. Chicago is where I was born, but could I call Chicago my origins? What about England, where my father’s family comes from? Am I from Eastern Europe? I’m certainly not Israeli, or Palestinian…While I was trying to unravel the meaning of the question, and simultaneously formulate an answer which was at once accurate and intelligible, the driver turned again.  “You are taking too long to answer,” he said. “You must be Jewish.”

Comedian Seth Myers—always mistaken for being Jewish (and I can see some of you thinking…he’s not??) has quipped, “what's so great about Judaism is that it’s the only religion that ends with “ish.”

Jew-ish. Much easier to be “ish” these past pandemic years. So much of what we were and so much of what we cared about fell by the wayside. We got zoomed out, and without Passover Seders and Chanukah parties and Shabbat dinners, the “ish” part of our identity needed to sustain us.

Now, the non-Jewish world doesn’t quite get the strange ethnic and cultural nature of the-ish.  We are not just a religion, we are also a culture, a history, a civilization, a people, a tribe, a language, a lifestyle! There are countless variations and permutations. There are obvious differences between an Orthodox Jewish identity and a Reform one. But there are less obvious differences between, for example, my Jewish identity here as a minority in Canada and my Jewish identity when I’m living as a majority in Israel. There are differences between Canadian Reform Jewish identity and American Reform Jewish identity. Trust me, the differences between a Reform congregation in Toronto and Tulsa, Oklahoma are tremendous. Ashkenazic identity is not the same as Sephardi and even within that there is Yemenite, Mizrachi, Moroccan…

What is it that will create the Jew of my Jew-ish identity?

Rabbi David Ellenson wrote “persons are no longer born and socialized into a community as if by fate. Rather, identity—including religious identity—now becomes in large measure a matter of negotiation, an expression of choice among competing modes of identity….”

We post-Holocaust, post-immigrant Jews no longer assume that our Jewish identity will look lanything ike our parents’ and certainly not our grandparents Jewish identities.

Jewish status is automatic if you are born in or converted in. But your Jewish identity, no matter who you were born to or how you became Jewish or if you are raising Jewish children or sharing a Jewish home—that is not automatic. It is created— a matter of negotiation, and an expression of choice. It changes. It grows and sometimes it diminishes. It expands and sometimes it contracts. No one has just one unchanging, stagnant Jewish identity for all time. You know gender-fluid? We are Jewish-fluid!

Let me ask a question for those here in this room to illustrate. Raise your hand if you grew up identifying as an orthodox Jew…a Conservative Jew…something other than a Jew…raise your hand if you are still not sure of how you identify as a Jew… I rest my case. Yet, we all are all identifying with a Reform service and a Reform synagogue today. Fluid. Changing. Expanding.

For the past two and a half years, our should-be-evolving Jewish identity, and our should-be-evolving communal identity as City Shul, has been “on hold”, in a kind of deep freeze that is just beginning to thaw.

So I’m interested in thinking with you what factors we will use to give birth to a strong, positive Jewish identity.

The theme of Rosh Hashana, its underlying principal and main text, is found in a very short piyut or poem that is found in the machzor immediately after the first shofar blast, before we sing “Areshet S’fataynu…” It's a small paragraph we usually skip over, but it begins: Hayom Harat Olam, “today is the day of the world’s birth.” Today, our Jewish identity is newborn. Not re-born. Newborn.

Interestingly, the new Jewish year—5783—in Hebrew letters is tashpag. Tash is the 5,700 in letters and pay-gimel, pag, is 83. In modern Hebrew the word “pag” is a premie, a newborn baby that needs some help in getting out into the world. This new year is a pag, a premie.

Leadership coach for ministers Clay Scroggins suggests five factors that shape our identity: our past, our people, our personality, our purpose, and our priorities.

Past…people…personality… purpose…and priorities.

Your personality will shape how much you can manage being part of a communal and somewhat “disorganized” religion that requires you to be in a group so much of your spiritual life. Your purpose will determine how much you let Judaism into your life, into your way of thinking and the way you meet your goals. And your priorities will affect where you place being Jewish in your overall life map.

Notice he didn’t include what we profess. That’s good news for Jews. Nobody asks you when you walk in the door of a synagogue do you believe that G-d literally split the Red Sea? I think one of the most amazing things about Judaism is that one can build a strong Jewish identity while not holding strong Jewish “beliefs”. I have a feeling if I asked you to raise your hand if you identified as atheist or agnostic I’d have a lot of hands up too. How many Jewish atheists does it take make a minyan? The answer is 10, because nobody cares if and what you believe as long as you show up so your fellow Jew can say Kaddish. Here we all sit together, believers and nonbelievers, the skeptics and the sure, because what we practice is more significant than what we profess. The paragraph we start Kol Nidre with next week gives us permission to pray with and among “sinners.” The Rabbis knew way back then that the quorum here today would include lots of folks they wouldn’t have included if there was a test of belief to get in.

I’ll add Practice to the list of p’s: past, people, personality, purpose, priorities and practice.

How can we build on these factors, to create a positive post-pandemic Jewish identity?

Let me start first by rejecting what I’ll call the negative sources of Jewish identity.

First, too many of us define our Jewish present based on a negative Jewish past. Maybe your parents made you come to synagogue when you wanted to play ball. Maybe you suffered through a bad Hebrew school. (Not at City Shul of course!) But if you had a terrible math teacher in grade 4 you still add numbers today. If you were spoken rudely to by a doctor in your 20’s you still get a check up in your 30’s. The book Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain talks about how our artistic ability is stuck at 13 years old. A Jewish identity based on what we knew and believed when we were 13 is not a positive Jewish identity.

Second, too many of us let other Jews define the kind of Jew we think we should be.  We get into a self-doubting contest with Chabad and the Orthodox movement. I’ve often said they may be more photogenic than us but they are not authentic than us. When we define ourselves as “not them”, they end up being the Jewish identity we can’t or don’t want to actualize. “I’m not religious” is not a positive Jewish identity.

Third, while antisemitism is real, sociologist Egon Mayer wrote years ago: "We can no longer depend on the unkindness of strangers to keep us Jewish.” A shared sorrow may have provided the briefest taste of unity and Jewish identity after Pittsburgh, but when the candlelight vigils and rings of peace are over, what will sustain us? Gal Beckerman, senior editor for books at The Atlantic wrote, …”there (is) something sad about identity flaring just in these moments of defensiveness and grief.…” Being Jewish just to “stick it to them”, is not a positive Jewish identity.

And last, though I would never suggest that Israel is not a critical part of a Jewish identity, basing your whole Jewish identity on either criticizing Israel or fighting criticism of Israel; either demonizing Israel or lionizing Israel, is not a positive Jewish identity.

Our mission for 5783 should be to give birth to a positive Jewish identity. “I’m not”, I don’t”, and “I won’t”— are these the way we want to identify ourselves as Jews? Along with its devastating health and economic impacts, the pandemic resulted in a profound disruption of the ongoing development of our spiritual lives which has unmoored us as individuals.

So think about what positive Jewish acts you can choose this year to re-anchor those Jewish identities which went adrift. Reading more Jewish books and articles, bringing Friday night dinners back, choosing Jewish cultural activities to attend, and yes, I’m going to say it—coming to synagogue.

Now, how can we help the City Shul community, which also became unmoored in its identity, recreate itself?

First, I call to mind pre-COVID Saturday kiddushes with 2 and 3 full tables of people in their 20’s and 30’s socializing well after the announcement that we need to clean up and vacate. The developmental process characterized by identity exploration for young Jews was put on pause mode for two and a half years, but kiddush is back, and we want you all back!

Second, our young families. With Prayground grounded and Hebrew school on zoom after a full day of zoom school, with zoom BMitzvahs and bonding Shabbatons cancelled, our school soldiered bravely online but our ties to each other and to the school and shul itself were weakened. Our covenant of families attending services regularly— so they can be fully integrated into the community before their special day—is back. Tot Shabbat will be back. We will celebrate all our zoom BMitzvahs in person on Oct 29. We want you all back!

Third, our seniors tried to become by necessity “zoomers”— adept and comfortable with our online offerings, especially if they had grandchildren close by who could help them. But many were already isolated, or couldn’t deal with the technology, and slowly drifted away. We will drive you to services if necessary, but we want you all back!

And fourth, our middle-aged parents and our singles struggled, got exhausted, and lost faith. We had to move again and people got anxious about not being in the same ‘hood as if it was our choice for BSU to redevelop. We had to re-adjust every time COVID protocols changed. We pivoted so many times I still have whiplash. We tried and experimented, sometimes we failed and sometimes we succeeded and people left us and new people came. We know you want us to be a consistent and predictable refuge, and we can be, if you come back.

Perhaps we need some specifically post covid rituals, like placing stones on the things we lost and missed. We need to catch up, to re-invent, to recover our religious and cultural identities that were suspended in mid-air, and I can’t think of a better time to reflect on how we will re-invest ourselves and our shul in developing the Jew in our Jew-ish.

Shanah Tovah.

 

Rosh Hashana Day 2

So a congregant comes up to the Cantor in shul, very upset. “You have got to get some new material, learn some new tunes!” he cries. You have got to change it up!” This is ridiculous! Every time I come to shul it’s exactly the same thing: Kol Nidre…”

I can only imagine the reaction if I suggested that Tara sing a totally new tune for Kol Nidre, or Avinu Malkenu or any of the top ten. Even when we sing the traditional Yom Kippur majestic Shema Yisrael, congregants say can’t we sing that one that we sing every Shabbat?

We humans love innovation, but we love familiarity more.

Human beings crave sameness; we go back to vacation spots and hope the same restaurant is serving the same menu. But what do we do when the familiar has so radically changed that it can never be fully familiar again? Post COVID life by definition, cannot be exactly the same. Maybe in 10 years down the road, G-d willing, when the pandemic and zoom are a long-forgotten blip on the screen of Jewish history. But, till then, the “new normal” of our lives sometimes doesn’t feel normal at all. And the “new normal” of Jewish life is still evolving. Let’s call it just the “next normal” for now.

This challenges our human inclination towards that which we know. In psychology. it is called the “mere-exposure effect” — people develop a preference for things merely because they are familiar to them. In the 1960’s, social psychologist Robert Zajonc observed that exposure to a novel stimulus initially elicits a fear/avoidance response, but each subsequent exposure to the novel stimulus causes less fear and more interest. After repeated exposure, we will begin to react fondly to the once scary novel thing.

I’m waiting for fondness for livestream and masks, but that is why, in a nutshell, Kol Nidre works, and Avinu Malkenu works, and a weekly Shabbat service, in fact, works. There is an abiding power to doing something that has been done for 2,000 years. There is something about hearing that same ancient ram’s horn, unpolished and unadorned, year after year. I remember growing up in my Reform temple in New York one year the Rabbi said lets not use that old smelly rams horn, lets blow a trumpet. So there up in the front is a guy blowing tekiah on a beautiful brass instrument. We all hated it!

Yet we have also invented “new traditions” time and time again and found them meaningful. When I was a young Rabbi, for example, it was considered strange and novel to do a babynaming for a girl. Now no one anywhere doesn’t do babynamings for girls. We in Toronto started adding land acknowledgements to our Prayers for Canada and now its beloved, expected, and respected. The Torah says nothing about lighting Shabbat candles or even about having a Passover Seder. The Rabbis themselves understood that new realities need new rituals.

Right after we put away the Torah scroll each Shabbat and on every holidays we add these words from the Book of Lamentations chapter 5: “Chadesh Yamenu K’kedem”—renew our days as they were in the past. That’s a kind of an oxymoron, how can our renewed days be as they were in the past? Bring us back to the “good old days” but make them… different.
In other words, Judaism pushes us to preserve the past and, to continue moving forward. Sometimes we listen to the voice of tradition, and sometimes we acknowledge it— but don’t.

In todays Torah portion, the Akedah, Abraham goes up the mountain to sacrifice his son because of listening to a certain voice of tradition. As a result, there is an irreparable rupture with Isaac, with Sarah and even with God. While Abraham proves unwavering in his piety, his devotion to doing things a certain familiar way was his undoing. Sarah dies of a broken heart and Isaac is absent during his father’s whole mission to find him a wife. And God? God and Abraham have no further dialogue after the Akedah. With Abraham’s stubborn insistence that he listen to that voice of tradition, he fails the test of relationship.

We still may find the new a bit scary, even a bit “faddish”. We may still experience moments of ambivalence around creative, invented ceremonies; we may find ourselves sitting in judgement or poo-poo-ing them or even making fun of them. “New traditions” are not linked to thousands of years of practice. They may seem trivial or mundane. They  certainly do not look like what your bubbie did. But the "price" for new traditions is temporary. In the end, rituals that speak to the needs of the Jewish community will last, and those that do not will fall into disuse. Just like you invent new traditions for your family as your kids are growing up, so too a growing up Jewish community needs them.

Rabbi Kook, first chief Rabbi of Israel, said it this way, over a century ago: “ha-yashan yitchadesh v'ha-chadash yitkadesh: the old will be made new, and the new will be made holy.”

“Ha-yashan yitchadesh v'ha-chadash yitkadesh:” It doesn’t matter where you hear the shofar; it matters that you hear the shofar. Today is proof of the strength of tradition meeting modernity, and a personal example for all of us of the way it is possible to bring together the heart’s need for familiarity with the hour’s need for change. And today is proof that the most important aspect of hearing that shofar is in hearing it in community, wherever that community decides to meet.

We’ve now done this “new tradition” of an afternoon outdoor second day Rosh Hadshana celebration three times. In Hebrew that is known as a chazakah. In Jewish law, an action repeated three times sets a precedent. And in modern Hebrew there’s a phrase when you bump into someone twice or do the same thing twice. You say, pa’am shlishit glidah, “3rd time this happens, we have to have ice cream.” So yes, that’s why pa’am shlishit glidah, we had ice cream today! Bet you didn’t know that was a time-honoured new Jewish tradition.

May the old be made new, and the new be made holy, by us, together.

Shanah Tovah!

 

Kol Nidre

 A few years ago, there was an op-ed in the Boston Globe called 100 Years of Fears,” by Phillip Niemeyer, an art curator famous for his “Charting the Decade” articles.  In this one, he listed a heading for the major cultural fear of each year.  Here are a few of my favourites:

In 1952 we feared Polio, and in 1957 we feared Elvis Presley. In 1962 we feared missiles from Cuba and in 1967 we feared hippies. In 1980 we feared AIDS and in 1999 we feared the year 2000. In 2012 we feared gluten, and we all know what we feared in 2020.

Researchers have found that we spend on average of almost two hours a day in fearful and anxious thoughts, which is about five years of a 65 year adult life span..

Physiologically, when stress hormones are released, our heart rate increases, out blood pressure goes up, our breathing gets quicker, our neck tightens and our digestive system churns. Psychologically, our concentration and rational thought is compromised. And emotionally, after a long period of anxiety, our feelings begin to get closed and blocked off. Yes, thats what happened. In response to the overwhelming and unrelenting stress of the pandemic, many of us started to shut down, and go numb.

To be sure, there is some relief in going numb. We have learned since childhood how to deny our fear. Boys, in particular, learn that it is humiliating to be afraid. Fear looks weak.  We mistakenly think that repressing fear makes us look fearless.

And in our curated Facebook lives, in what author Susan Cain in her book “Bittersweet” calls the culture of toxic positivity, we avoid and suppress the experience of negative emotions like grief, anxiety, and depression in favour of surface-level, positive emotions: “good vibes only” platitudes of social media. 

You can call it angst. Or call it being overwhelmed. Sometimes it even manifests as anger. Our emotions right now are a kind of jumbled up melange of hope and denial, elation and deflation.

Prior to March 2020, we didn't think about malevolent viruses spreading and killing people, even though we knew they had before. Most of us didn’t even believe it at first, but now, in retrospect, we were, frankly, traumatized by the news of a world-wide pandemic. An explosion of media attention about an unknown virus spread across the globe with images of hospitals being overrun, sick people on ventilators which were in short supply, and not enough protective equipment to shield the nurses and doctors. To be safe and flatten the curve, we shut pretty much everything down. 

But we never flattened the fear. It’s like toothpaste you can’t put back in the tube. Once a trauma occurs, anxiety is maintained with fearful thinking, anxious behaviours, spiralling what-ifs. We lived with coronaphobia, and now, three years alter, we live with re-entry anxiety. As my friend Rabbi Avi Rose wrote, “This Yom Kippur we are all Jonah- we’ve all been in the belly of the fish and have emerged into a strange world that is both familiar and foreboding.”

The Tanach exhorts us not to fear. In the Rosh Hashana Torah portion, when the angel tells Hagar lo tire—do not fear—she finally looks up and sees the well that will sustain her and Ishmael. When our patriarch Avram sets out into unchartered territory he is told, "al tira- do not fear.” When Isaac sets out from the security of home and does not know where the road may lead, God says, "al tira,” The phrase, "Do not fear," is repeated so often in the Tanach that Maimonides teaches it is one of the 365 negative commandments. And he should know—he lived through a plague.

We Jews have always faced the future with a healthy dose of caution. But the paralysis that fear sometimes engenders would have kept us from surviving.

The American Psychological Association reports that we are still experiencing high levels of stress. It’s as if each of us, having spent the last few years kind of adrift in the belly of a whale now have to navigate re-entry into co-existence on a planet with other human beings.

Dr. Elissa Epel, vice chair of the Department of Psychiatry of the University of California wrote,Re-entering the busy world will be a new type of stress, because we’re not used to it anymore…being in traffic, getting to work on time, parking, managing family schedules, and having social interactions all day…”

So while we are joyful at being together again, and at seeing half faces and hearing muted masked voices, let us not mistake an easing of restrictions for a universal “we are over it” and a la-de-dah back to normal. Some of us feel apprehensive about being judged by how ready” we are to re-enter. Some of us feel skittish about still wanting to wear a mask; and some of us feel jittery every time we cough or sneeze and quickly explain “it’s allergies!”

I think many of you know this song (sing a bit of it): “Kol Haolam kulo, gesher tzar m’od…” This is taken from a teaching of Rebbe Nachman of Bratzlav, an influential Hasidic master of the 19th century. It is translated as “The whole world is a narrow bridge, and the main point is not to be afraid at all.”

But Rebbe Nachman did not actually say that. His real teaching, found in Likkutei Mohoran 2:48, is this:And know this: that a person must cross an exceedingly narrow bridge, (literally he says gesher tzar mood m’od—a very, very narrow bride) and the general principle and the essential thing is not to frighten yourself at all.”

A person must cross an exceedingly narrow bridge, be it about their health or about their mortality or about their relationships or about their family; all human beings at some point in their lives all of us must cross a very very narrow bridge. Lo yitpached. Do not cause yourself to fear. The only time we are truly in danger on that bridge is when we lose our equilibrium because we have made ourselves afraid.

We as a society have been crossing a very, very narrow bridge— and we are only halfway across.

I have been on those rickety swinging bridges over deep chasms beneath and I know that when you cross and get scared, you have 3 choices: to back up (but its still gonna be shaky and dangerous), to stay put and get nowhere, or to put one foot forward and move slowly, step by frightening step.

You can pray of course, but remember this midrash of Nachshon ben Aminadav in Exodus Rabbah: When Israel stood facing the Red Sea, raging water in front and the Egyptian army behind, Moses stood praying. G‑d said to him, very annoyed, My beloved people are drowning in the sea, and you are standing and praying?”

And in Jewish history we’ve experience this before: the conflicting desire to go back to the melons and onions we ate in Egypt, to the rebuilding of the Temple, to the insular world of the shtetel.

Now just coming out of COVID, we have the same choices. We can go back, but thats going back to Egypt. We can go forward but it is still treacherous. Or we can stay put, paralyzed, which means we’re gonna drown.

Now some of us just want to go back, return to the way it was, the way we were. That idyllic pre-Covid time. Some of us want to just stay put, keeping things the way they are now. We finally figured out the Covid protocols, lets not change them!! It is so frightening to go forward, yes. The essential thing is not to frighten yourself, lo yitpachad klal.

This past month I’ve been practicing the Jewish tradition of reading Psalm 27 every day leading up to Rosh Hashana.  The first four lines always hit me so deeply.

יְהֹוָ֤ה ׀ אוֹרִ֣י וְ֭יִשְׁעִי מִמִּ֣י אִירָ֑א יְהֹוָ֥ה מָעוֹז־חַ֝יַּ֗י מִמִּ֥י אֶפְחָֽד׃

God is my light and my help; who should I fear?

God is the strength of my life, of who should I be afraid?

The Psalm goes on to talk about the feeling of being assaulted by enemies and adversaries”—perhaps external forces, perhaps internal demons—and feeling supported in the face of these challenges. Finding the light—Ori— and the help—yishi— and the strength—ma’oz chayai.

How will we do that in this new year?

First, we will face our fears.

There’s an old Jewish folktale about a holy rabbi who went on a journey and failed to lock the door of his house. While he was away, a crowd of demons entered and when the rabbi returned, the demons rushed at him, ready to devour him. As the demons pounced, he bowed low in acknowledgement of their presence. He offered them food and drink and a place to rest. And then, an amazing thing happened. He put his head right into the mouth of the largest and scariest demon of them all. As he did, all the demons disappeared.

Second, we will cultivate courage. Courage,” Mark Twain wrote, is the mastery of fear, not the absence of fear.” Not courage as Hollywood portrays it, the super-hero in a cape who leaps off buildings to save people from planetary destruction. But the quiet courage of the heart, an inner sense of knowing you can be resilient..

Courage in Hebrew is Ometz Lev, heart strength. It is the ability to do what must be done even when we are afraid. In Judaism, the heart represents the entire inner being. It’s not just the seat of emotion but also intelligence, and the soul. On Yom Kippur we beat our breasts, knocking on our hearts with our fists.We are saying to ourselves with every strike, “its ok, you are going to be strong despite your shortcomings, despite the obstacles life throws you.”

And third, we will find faith.

I do not mean to suggest that we rely on God to rescue us miraculously. Faith is not the same as belief. Faith does not mean we know everything will be all right. Faith is not a truth claim. Faith is an attitude, a way of being in the world. Faith is, in the words of Rabbi Lawrence Kushner, to acknowledge that the world is a dangerous place and at the same time maintain…that God has planted in us the capacity to contend with those dangers…”

We will face the fear. We will cultivate courage. And we will find faith.

My friend Ilana Schatz once wrote, In truth, much of what troubles us is not the direct experience of fear. Rather, it’s our response to fear - resisting it, trying to keep it at arm’s length, ignoring it, denying it… what if our fears could be transformed into a power that enlivened us, liberated us, or even inspired us to action?”

So what actions will we take this year to face the fear, to cultivate courage and to find faith?

Friends, the last verse of Adon Olam, an 11th century piyut or poem— written in the middle of the Crusades which was a pretty scary time— ends with the words Adonai li v'lo ira—God is with me, I shall not fear.” It’s this verse that takes us out of the cocoon of the sanctuary "in here" to the world "out there." Some days those words are sung in full confidence. And some days they are simply aspirational, sung with the voice of longing.

We are in the Yamim Nora’im, the Days of Awe, days filled with yirah, the Hebrew word that means both awe and fear. We acknowledge that there are forces beyond our control. We acknowledge that we may still be afraid. May we support each other as we go forth on that narrow bridge into re-entry, into re-gathering, into re-creating our families, our communities, and ourselves. Step by cautious step, on the narrow bridge, facing it with courage and faith— together.

Gmar Tov.  

 

Yom Kippur

Chaim Yankel really, really wanted a boat more than anything in the world. His wife kept refusing, but he kept on trying to get her to say yes, and finally he bought one anyway. "I'll tell you what," he told her, "In the spirit of compromise, why don't you name the boat?” She agreed. When Chayim Yankel went down to the dock for his maiden voyage, this is the name he saw painted on the side: "For Sale." 

Ah the beauty of compromise, of meeting someone half way.

The word compromise when used negatively denotes “selling out”. But the real sense of compromise is reaching a mutual agreement even if you disagree. Compromise comes from a 13th century French word meaning mutual promise.

I love that notion: that on this holy day we can hope for mutual promise.

Do you know why your mezuzah on your doorpost is slanted? It’s because Rashi and his grandson Rabbenu Tam had a halachic disagreement. Rashi said to put it vertically and Rabbenu Tam said to put it horizontally. So a later legal code then declared: Put it slanted as a way to show that those two great Sages met each other halfway. Now, hundreds of years later, every time you pass your mezuzah you can remember that: in this house, we compromise.

Dr. John Gottman, a clinical and research psychologist who specializes in relationships, wrote: “Compromise never feels perfect. Everyone gains something and everyone loses something.” Ah, but what if, meeting in the middle, finding a half way point, is actually being one step closer to something or someone you really want to meet? What if, by meeting in the middle, we lose nothing? What if by meeting in the middle we shorten the distance between us and the goals of teshuva we’ve set in front of us?

The words we sing when we return the Torah to the Ark can help us. Rabbi Mark Brettler teaches: “…the use of this verse…connects the return of the Torah to the ark to the return of Israel to its God… the ritual action of returning the Torah might help bring about a spiritual return…” We sing it to return to the contemplation of a new year. And this year we sing it to return to in-person worship.

(Sing) : Hashiveynu Adonai elecha venashuvah. Return us O God to You and we shall return. This is the penultimate verse of the Book of Lamentations, Eicha, read on Tishe B’av. This relational plea—return us and we will return— seems a surprising choice to culminate an intense, even relentless description of agony caused by the destruction of the Temple. But the words Hashivenu-ve-nashuvah, return us so we can return, blur the lines between human and Divine initiative.

Turn—and we will turn. The midrash in Lamentations Rabbah sees these words as a powerful metaphor of Gd saying: I know I’m hard to reach. Tell you what; I’ll meet you in the middle.”

The midrash tells it as a parable: There was a king whose children behaved badly, and brought dishonour to the court. So much so that he banished his children from the kingdom, and the children went to live in another land far away. But the king grew terribly sad on account of the distance between himself and his children, and after some years, he called upon his chief advisor, and he said to her, “I am deeply sorrowful. Though I felt that their banishment from the kingdom was the right thing to do, I am diminished by their absence, and I want them to return. Go to the land in which they dwell, and let them know that I am asking for them to return home.”  So the king’s advisor set out for the distant land to carry that message to the king’s children. When she returned, she said “Your Highness,” “your children want you to know that they share your desire for return.  Only it has been so long, and the distance between you and them  is so great, that it is too hard for them to return.” The king heard the words of his advisor and then addressed her once more.  “Go and tell my children that if they will come half way, I will come out and meet them, and we can walk the rest of the way together.”

It’s a powerful metaphor, because if Gd is willing to meet us halfway, shouldn’t we be willing to meet others at the midpoint? A poem attributed to Rumi (and in our new Siddur Shirat HaLev by the way) describes this midpoint: “Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, there is a field. I’ll meet you there.”

If we are willing to meet God there, we can learn to meet anyone there.

Now—who must we meet halfway in order that our teshuvah might bring mutual promise?

Let’s look at the word elecha in this verse—turn us toward You—and think about that word “you" in three ways.

First, the verse is saying on its most simple level: turn us toward You, You with a capital Y.  What would it mean to meet G-d halfway?

It would mean giving spirituality and a sense of the Divine half a chance. When people are sure they don’t believe in Gd I ask them what Gd is it that they don’t you believe in and when they say the old man with a beard on a throne I say, well, I don’t believe in Him either. You can reject the traditional Biblical anthropomorphic notions and still retain that there is something Higher and Bigger than whatever just meets the eye in this life. I get that the metaphor of a Big Powerful Person limits our spiritual imaginations, but I also get that its a metaphor. The Tanach contains a rich and varied palette of metaphors for the divine― Water, Voice, Fire, Rock, Cloud, Mother, Becoming. Meeting Gd halfway would mean giving those metaphors a chance to speak to you.

Meeting Gd halfway would mean being prepared to see the Divine as much in rush hour traffic as in the sunrise on top of a mountain; being prepared to bring heaven down to earth in your actions. Meeting Gd halfway would mean being prepared to manifest a sense of holiness in your everyday comings and goings, and taking on new Jewish rituals this year to help manifest that.

Second, though Elecha here appears in the singular, it can also be used to describe a community; many “you’s.”  Y’all in the southern US. You guys where I came from in New York. Youse guys in New Jersey. The stadium full of people to whom the rock star shouts the singularAre you ready?” Kahal, in Hebrew, the community, is a singular noun.

Meeting the plural “you” halfway would mean giving everyone a wide berth, and the benefit of the doubt.  In Hebrew this is called “dan likaf zechut” and is found in Leviticus 19: With righteousness shall you judge your fellow.” Rambam counts it as on of the “thou shalt” positive mitzvahs.

Meeting the “other” you halfway would mean living by Stephen Covey’s fifth habit: to seek first to understand and then to be be understood. Most of us don’t even meet other people halfway in conversation!  We want to get our point across. We listen with the intent to reply, not with the intent to really hear what is being said on its own merit. It would mean having real conversations, free-flowing and dialogical, and not just discussions where one point of view is presented, to be responded to or debated by another.

It would mean seeing the Divine Image, tzelem Elohim, in everyone you meet. Author and Sikh activist Valerie Kaur says it this way: “a stranger is only a part of me I haven’t met yet.”

The word angel in Hebrew is Malach. Angels in the Tanach have the appearance of ordinary humans; they have no wings and they are sent to us when something we need to understand is at stake. Meeting others halfway would mean we act as if everyone we meet just might be a Divine messenger.

When we meet other people halfway, we can meet the community halfway. That would mean suspending judgement on what other Jews do and don’t do. It would mean not kvetching about what other Jews do or don’t do. It would mean cutting the shul some slack when it tries hard but doesn’t quite meet high bar expectations. It would mean living the saying “ask not what your synagogue can do for you, but what you can do for your synagogue.”

Think about it: there is an “i” in the word isolation, and in the word quarantine and in the word COVID, but there is no “i” in the word synagogue, in the word temple or in the word shul.

And third, most significant and most difficult—we can read elecha as an invitation to meet ourselves halfway. The inner “you” that is “yourself.”

As we strive to love others, we too often dismiss loving ourselves. Love your neighbour as yourself in Leviticus 19:18 teaches that self-love is an imperative. You cannot love your neighbour if you don’t love yourself.

Self-forgiveness is a choice that we make for ourselves. According to psychologist Dr. Fred Luskin, director of the Stanford University Forgiveness Project, and author of Forgive for Good, the biggest obstacle to self-forgiveness is our tendency to wallow in our own guilt. We draw the bad feelings around ourselves like a warm and comfortable security blanket. We continue to beat ourselves up about things that everyone else has forgiven, even forgotten. 

Meeting yourselves halfway would mean practicing self-compassion and self-forgiveness.

Meeting ourselves halfway would allow us to move on; to close the door on the past, while keeping the window open to the future. And only when we meet ourselves halfway can we meet others and in turn, meet Gd halfway.

Hashivenu Adonai elecha v’nashuva. Meet Gd halfway this year. Meet your neighbours and your coworkers and your friends and your family halfway this year. Meet yourself halfway this year.

Friends, this is what this verse wants you to consider on this holy day: that meeting halfway may seem sometimes that you and the other— the elecha” you are longing to meet—are starting from two diametrically opposed positions, 2 far-away places that have to be navigated, 2 lengths that seem too long. But look again. You are not as far away as you think. The halfway point is in sight, this year, closer to you, closer to each other, closer to the community, and closer to God.  Objects in the mirror are closer than they appear.”

Shana Tova. 

 

Sat, December 3 2022 9 Kislev 5783