The Doorways of A New Year
Erev Rosh HaShanah, 5773/2013
Rabbi Joseph R. Black
Temple Emanuel – Denver Colorado
L'Shanah Tovah. Welcome!!!!! Welcome home......
I want to begin my remarks this evening by asking you a question:
What doorway did you walk through tonight to enter into this building?
Now this may seem like a strange question. After all, most of us came through either the front or back door, after parking our cars, greeting old friends, giving and getting hugs and kisses. But I ask it again - What doorway did you walk through tonight?
Tonight, things are a little bit different. Some of us walked into the front door of Temple and turned right into the sanctuary. Others walked into the Social Hall. All who are in this building have come to celebrate Rosh HaShanah – but, for the first time in a long time, there are two distinctly different types of services taking place. Here in the sanctuary – the beautiful voice of Cantor Heit and our choir and organ stirs our hearts and our souls as our prayers sail into the heavens. In the social hall, the sound of contemporary music – a 5 piece band and our Rosh HaShanah Unplugged service offer a very different – but nonetheless spiritually fulfilling experience.
But my question was not really about which service you chose to attend, but rather, which doorway you walked through to enter into this building.
You see, I believe that there are as many doorways to this place as there are people sitting in these seats. I ask the question because I believe that every person entered this sanctuary tonight through a doorway that is uniquely their own - a doorway that they created or inherited or discovered through a variety of experiences, expectations, history and temperament.
There is a passage in the Talmud that teaches about a special blessing that one should say when one sees a great crowd gathering. This blessing is: "Barukh Chacham Ha-Razim - blessed is the One who discerns the secrets of each of our individual hearts."
I love this blessing. In one small sentence it encapsulates a very sophisticated theological concept: God listens to us. You see, although we are all here tonight - a large and dynamic congregation united in worship - each of us is here as an individual - we all have our own expectations, thoughts, fears, joys, sins and secrets.
Those of us who feel we can pray, talk to God in our own individual way.
All of us are unique. All of us are holy. And yet, our tradition teaches that although our prayers and petitions may be different from one another, they all ascend to heaven; they are considered, measured and answered during these High Holy Days. We may not get the answer we desire - but we are answered, nonetheless.
"Barukh Chacham Ha Razim - blessed is the One who discerns the secrets of each of our individual hearts."
If only we could listen to each other's prayers as well as God does!!! If only we could hear one another above the noise of everyday life. If only our mouths and our ears could be attuned to the messages that fly around us - so many problems could be avoided - so many crises averted.......so much misunderstanding could be re-directed. But we can't, can we? Each of us experiences the world within the context of our own individual reality.
I know that each of us here tonight is experiencing this service a little bit differently, for each of us has entered this sanctuary through a different doorway.
· Some of us are seeking answers to difficult questions.
· Some of us have been inspired by the beautiful music.
· Some of you are looking at your watches right now - wondering how long I will be speaking;
- Some of you are wondering why I'm speaking at the beginning of the service and not at the end…. The answer is – because after I'm done delivering this sermon, I'm going to switch places with Rabbi Immerman, and speak at the Rosh HaShanah Unplugged service – it's hard to be in two places at the same time…..
· Some of us are overcome with the joy of sitting together with those whom we love the most.
· Others are acutely aware of the fact that there are empty seats where once loved ones used to sit.
· Some of us are remembering the High Holidays of our youth - shared with parents and siblings
- Some of you come from multi-generational families here at Temple Emanuel – each time you walk into the building you are filled with memories of High Holidays from your childhood. You see your confirmation picture on the wall – and maybe those of your parents and grandparents as well.
- For some of you, this may be the first time that you have been in our building – or maybe this is the 1st time that you have participated in a Rosh Ha-Shanah service – or even been inside a synagogue …welcome!
· Some of us are angry with God
· Some of us are filled with joy
· Some of us are lonely
- Some are hoping to meet a soul-mate
- Some are looking to make a difference
· and some of us don't know why we are here.....we are seeking meaning, purpose, connection, holiness – and we are open to the possibility that, on this holy night, we might find a small sign that there are thresholds that can be crossed that might lead us to something larger than ourselves.
The truth is – we are a large, dynamic and diverse congregation. And we're proud of our ability to sustain such a large membership. But we also need to be aware of the fact that with size comes complexity. There are approximately 6,000 souls who are members of Temple Emanuel. In addition, tonight there are many here who are not members – but who have come to pray with us as a community – WELCOME! That means that over the course of the next 24 hours there will be thousands of doorways that need to be opened and entered.
This is the third year that I have stood on this pulpit and shared the New Year with you. My family and I feel truly blessed to be able to be a part of the Temple Emanuel community. Over the course of the past two years, as I have come to know many of you personally, I have learned a tremendous amount. There are still many of you whom I have not yet met – but I am committed to changing that. There are also some of you that I have met – but I can't remember your name – I promise – I will keep trying. Do me a favor – please remind me……I'll get there! Slowly but surely, I am getting a handle on what it means to be the Sr. Rabbi of such a large and multi- faceted synagogue.
I want to tell you a story – a true story that happened just last week. I was at a salon – getting my nails done. Now – this may raise a few eye brows….yes – I get my nails done – but just the 4 nails on my right hand – I have acrylic nails put on because I like the way they sound when I play the guitar….. Anyway – I was at the salon and an older woman who is a member of the Temple saw me there and after dealing with the shock of seeing her rabbi getting acrylic nails applied, said: "Rabbi – I need to talk to you!" "Yes?" I said… "Rabbi, I'm worried that you are turning the Temple into an orthodox synagogue. There is too much Hebrew in the service! I came for Yahrtzeit last month and I just couldn't follow along! And I am not alone – there are many others who feel the same way!" I listened to what she had to say – and I understand how she felt. While I don't really think that we are even close to becoming orthodox, there are some changes taking place.
After I left the salon, I recalled a similar conversation that had taken place just a few days before (not at the nail salon….but in my office) where I spoke with a young couple who shared with me that they were concerned that our services were becoming "too watered down" and the Jewish education that their children was receiving was not good enough: "There's hardly any Hebrew in the service!" they complained….. "Our children don't know basic prayers. And we're not alone – there are others who feel the same way."
So who do I listen to? Who is right? The answer, of course – is both. Things are changing at Temple Emanuel – and change – any change – even good change – is always stressful. Tonight, two very different worship experiences took place in our building. In both the sanctuary and the social Hall, people came together to pray, to sing, to find inspiration, to reconnect, to look deep into their selves and their souls and find the answers to the questions that women and men have been asking since the very 1st day of God's creation.
The truth is – we can't be all things to all people – and we shouldn't try to be. But we would be fools if we didn't acknowledge that the world around us is very different today than it was even ten years ago.
We need to understand and adjust to the fact that Judaism and the Jewish people in the 21st Century are facing unprecedented new challenges in our almost 4,000 year history. Many recent studies have shown that American Jews – especially YOUNG American Jews, are increasingly viewing their Jewish identity as unimportant or inconsequential. And for those who are choosing to become involved, the portals of the parents are not necessarily the doorways of their descendants. Unaffiliated Jews are, without question, the largest demographic of non-orthodox members of the American Jewish Community.
In the past, Jews joined synagogues for one of three main reasons:
- To have a place to pray
- To educate their children
- To receive the services of clergy for life-cycle events.
Today, this is no longer the case. There are many organizations and individuals who will provide these services without the need of affiliation. We live in a "fee for service" society. We can tailor our personal Jewish experience any way we want. So why do we need synagogues at all? Why do we even need Judaism for that matter?
My friends, these are not rhetorical questions. They are being asked and acted upon every single time someone walks away from our tradition and culture. And if we don't provide an answer to these questions, then we will will ourselves out of existence.
I believe that we do have an answer- and it's a powerful one. You see – despite the fact in today's modern world we have more ways available to us to communicate, busy and entertain ourselves, we nonetheless face a crisis of meaning; despite our technology – or maybe even because of it – we are losing touch with our own humanity.
Rabbi Harold Kushner, in his book, When All You've Ever Wanted Isn't Enough, writes:
"Our souls are not hungry for fame, comfort, wealth or power. Those rewards create almost as many problems as they solve. Our souls are hungry for meaning, for the sense that we have figured out how to live so that our lives matter, so that the world will be at least a little bit different for our having passed through it."
My friends, I believe that Judaism is a radical faith. Torah and Judaism exist for one purpose and one purpose only: To provide a framework for human beings to understand that we are not alone and, in the process, to affirm that our lives have meaning, purpose and value.
Of all of the institutions in Jewish life – and there are many – it is the Synagogue that is poised to provide meaningful answers to the existential questions that keep us awake at night. Here we learn, we grow, we rejoice in the lives of our children and those of our friends and family. Here we grieve and are comforted in our loss by ancient ritual and the presence of a loving and supporting community. Here we work to perform acts of Tikkun Olam – of repairing our all too imperfect world.
I believe that, in today's world, one of the central – if not THE central missions that a synagogue must undertake is the creation of sacred communities that will address the hungers for meaning, purpose and connection that plague our society.
The 20th Century Jewish humorist, Harry Golden once asked his father, "If you don't believe in God, why do you go to synagogue so regularly?" His father answered, "Jews go to synagogue for all sorts of reasons. My friend Garfinkle goes to talk to God. I go to talk to Garfinkle."
Golden's father was telling a profound truth. The most important ingredient in a synagogue is not the liturgy, not the beauty of the cantor's voice, the choir's harmonies, or the architecture, or the cookies served at the oneg, the programs offered, or even the length of the Rabbi's sermon. What matters MOST in congregational life are the people who come together to perform the sacred work of building a community.
There is a reason that tradition teaches that we need a minyan – a group of 10 or more Jewish adults to say certain prayers. As Jews, we are not supposed to pray alone. Joel Grishaver, a well-known Jewish educator and a mentor, teacher and dear friend of mine, taught me once that the most important sound that we make as a congregation when we pray together is: NU…. NU – as in Eloheynu, Avinu, Malkeynu, Kidshanu…. And on and on. "NU" is a suffix that means "US," or "OUR" or "WE." When we pray: "Avinu Malkeynu" we are saying "OUR parent, OUR sovereign" – not "MY parent, MY sovereign". Jews pray in the plural. We pray with each other and FOR each other. Ultimately, if we do not create a sense of community in our prayers, we end up not praying at all.
At the beginning of this service, I asked you to look around and introduce yourself to someone you didn't know so we "shouldn't pray together as strangers." I did not choose those words lightly. We are not – we CANNOT be strangers to one another. And we need to come together – not only on these holiest of days – but on Shabbat, on Holidays, at classes, social functions, community actions and congregational meetings – to affirm the fact that we value one another.
Having said this, I also understand that this it is not only your responsibility to show up at Temple. We, your clergy and staff, have a responsibility to create doorways through which you can enter. As a Kehilla Kedosha – as a sacred community - we need to provide a wide array of diverse opportunities for our membership to connect with one another on a spiritual, intellectual and communal basis. We can't be all things to all people – but we can and are committed to finding new ways to come together.
- It is for this reason that we introduced Rosh HaShanah Unplugged this evening at the same time as this parallel service
- It is for this reason that we are introducing Family Learning Havurot in our religious school so that small groups of families can learn together on their own time – with guidance from talented teachers – and build relationships based on Torah study and communal values
- It is for this reason that we are expanding our offerings on Shabbat mornings.
- It is for this reason that we are reshaping the mission of our Library
- It is for this reason that the HESED program is entering a new phase of learning and activism
- It is for this reason that we offer multiple options for Shabbat worship and study on Friday nights.
- It is for this reason that we are radically changing our adult education program: offering weekly classes on Sunday mornings and branching out to multiple locations around the city.
There are many overt and subtle changes that will be taking place this year. In the pockets in front of your seats, you will find a full list of new opportunities for involvement. But programs, by themselves, cannot have an impact unless you take advantage of them. Tonight, on the Erev Rosh HaShanah – the beginning of a New Year, I am challenging every one of you to think about how you might be able to become more involved in Temple Emanuel. Find a class. Come to Shabbat worship on Friday night or Saturday morning. Become involved in Sisterhood or Brotherhood, for our teens, get involved in Youth Programs, volunteer in the library, take part in our HESED project and make the world a little more holy….there are so many ways to get involved.
Everybody here – every person in this room walked through a different doorway to get here tonight. And you are all part of our kehilla kedosha – our sacred congregation. We are committed to helping you find your place at Temple Emanuel.
In several places the Torah teaches that when we build an altar to God, we must not use hewn or cut stones. Instead, we must use stones that we find and try to fit them as they are into the sacred construction. We can't cut any corners, break them or shape them to fit specific holes – we need to work hard to find a way to make them all fit together. If you think about it, this is a wonderful metaphor for our – or any - congregation. Just as every person walks through a different doorway into this sacred space, so too do they bring their unique gifts and experiences with them. Everyone in our congregation is unique and holy. Everyone has a place – if you look for it. It is the differences that make us beautiful and strong that create our kehillah kedosha – our sacred community.
My friends, as we anticipate and celebrate the diversity of our congregation – as we welcome a New Year of blessing and we welcome all who walk through our doorways – as I look out at this holy community, the words: "Barukh Chacham Ha Razim …..- blessed is the One who discerns the secrets of each of our individual hearts."
May the New Year, 5773, be filled with new doorways for each of us. And may we walk through them all together.
AMEN Shanah Tovah