Sunday, September 15, 2013

Yom Kippur Morning, 5774 - the Gift of Shabbat

The Gift of Shabbat
Yom Kippur Morning- 5774/2013
Rabbi Joseph R. Black – Temple Emanuel, Denver, CO
Dear Friends,

Two and a half weeks ago, our youngest son, Ethan left for college.  Sue and I are now officially empty nesters. We knew it was coming – we had prepared ourselves and are proud of both of our children’s achievements and accomplishments.  Nonetheless, when the car was finally packed and Ethan and Sue were ready to begin their drive to Austin, TX where he was to begin his Freshman year, I looked at my handsome, 6’ tall son and I felt like Tevye in “Fiddler On the Roof” about to sing Sunrise Sunset. Although I was determined not to get emotional, the minute I hugged him goodbye, the tears began to flow…. What a cliché! I suddenly had flashbacks of all of the times when I was there for him – and the times when I wasn’t. I remembered all of the little league games I attended – and the many more that I missed.  I remembered the tears and the laughter. I remember the times we spent playing music together – and especially the time he came up to me – guitar in hand and asked if I would teach him to play Harry Chapin’s song, “Cat’s in the Cradle…”  I was really busy - in the middle of something, I recall, but what was I going to say, “No – I’m too busy to teach you to play ‘Cat’s in the Cradle’?”  I remembered the times that I was filled with pride and the moments of disappointment as well; the times I was there and when I was absent. All of the memories of fatherhood came flowing out at that moment.

Now, I know I’m not the only parent who has experienced a flood of emotion when sending a child off to college – but the experience is very real nonetheless – many of you have experienced it…. Some of you will in the near future. There are moments in our lives when we are acutely aware of the limits of time, of our inability to slow down the clock - to hold on and be present – to take in the beauty and the pain of seeing our lives pass by us and through us – as though in an instant.  Try as we might to gain control of time –to somehow bypass the laws of nature – we cannot.  That is the price of our mortality.  All we can do is to savor each precious moment we are given.

Just a few moments ago, we read these powerful words from the Torah:  Atem Nitzavim – kulchem hayom – Lifnei Adonai Eloheychem.  You are all Nitzavim –before Adonai Your God.

I deliberately didn’t translate the word Nitzavim because it is filled with nuance.  Nitzavim is often translated as “Standing” – but it means much more.  It implies standing at attention - like a soldier, or an athlete – waiting for an command to be issued, or a ball to be snapped, or the starter’s gun to go off – fully present –awake - aware, prepared for whatever comes next. 

Nitzavim means that there are can be no distractions – we are fully focused on what is in front of us.

·         It is increasingly becoming more and more difficult to stand as we did at Sinai - Nitzavim

·         We live in a society that places distractions and obstacles in front of us nall the time.

·         I have a colleague, Rabbi Jonathan Miller who is the Sr. Rabbi of Temple Emanu-El in Birmingham AL.  Rabbi Miller announced the following to his congregation on Rosh HaShanah: 

"Saturday, September 14 is a big football day," the announcement said. "Some of Temple Emanu-El, and all of the clergy, are college football fans. It is because of our support (that) the past seven National Championships have been won by the Southeastern Conference and, the last four, in Alabama. On Yom Kippur, and the hours afterward, we will not discuss or even insinuate the scores of football games. It is a violation of our Holy Day, and it will ruin the post Break-The-Fast experience some of us hope to have when the day ends. No scores, or high fives, or Roll Tides or War Eagles. If even a peep gets out, our pages in the Book of Life will be compromised and all of us will suffer."

The message is clear.  Even though almost anyone has access to the scores on their smart phone - Yom Kippur trumps football.  But there is another message as well.  We have the power to access information at any time and any place – but that doesn’t mean we should.  There are moments when we need to be fully focused on what is in front of us. 

And this isn’t always easy.

o   We possess technologies that claim that they can allow us to bypass the limits of time – promising the ability to be in multiple places at the same time.

o   We hold in the palms of our hands the incredible power of social media – of Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and whatever new app is currently being developed.  Social media has helped to overthrow governments, find lost children, prevent tragedies from occurring –

o   but I fear that it has also threatened our ability to be in touch with the sacred experience of being present – in the moment;  and replaced it with an obsession over what we are missing….

Information has become the most powerful currency in our modern world.  We want to be “plugged in” – in contact with everyone and everything.  I am as guilty as anyone – I love my phone.  I’m constantly checking email, facebook, twitter and instagram.  Siri and I are on first name basis. I have an extra battery in my cell phone case so I’m never out of power.  If I discover that I left my cell phone at home and am without it for a couple of hours, I get nervous.    I either leave wherever I am and go home to retrieve it or, more often than not, I call Sue to see if she can drop it off at Temple if she hasn’t left for work yet.  Without my cell phone, I tend to go through a sense of withdrawal.

And I’m not alone.  How many times have you been in a restaurant and seen a table full of young people who all have their noses buried in their phones?  Instead of engaging the people around them, they are carrying on multiple conversations at once.  We announce to the world where we are, who we are with, what we are doing, but in the process of doing so – we lose the ability to be fully present.  I recently learned of a custom where, when a group of people are at a restaurant together, everyone is required to set their phones to “vibrate” and then the phones are placed, face down, in the center of the table.  If a phone rings, nobody knows whose it is.  The first person to reach for the pile of ringing phones to see if the call is for him or her has to pick up the check for the entire table.  Try that the next time you’re out for dinner…..

Research has shown that there is a physical component to our addiction to technology.  Several recent studies show that access to information stimulates the dopamine receptors in our brains – giving us instant gratification – but leaving us wanting more and more stimulation.  These result in what can only be described as “Information Loops” that cause us to go from one click to the next on the internet as we totally lose track of time.[1]
Judaism teaches us to be present – to be Nitzavim – whenever and wherever we can.
At the beginning of our service last night we recited the Bracha:
/v®Z©v i©n±z‹k UbŠgh°D¦v±u Ub¨n±h¦e±u Ub²h¡j¤v¤J 'oŠk«ug¨v Q†kœ¤n 'Ubœ¥vO¡t ²h±h 'v¨T©t QUrŠC
We praise You, Adonai our God, Ruler of the Universe, who gives us life, sustains us, and brings us to this sacred time.
The Shehechianu is a prayer that we say almost routinely.  And yet, if we truly examine its message, it teaches that we need to be aware of the fact that we are in the middle of something holy – something wondrous.  God has brought us – it says – to this moment.  Time is sacred. Let us acknowledge it. Let us savor it.  It truly is a gift.

Of all of the gifts that Judaism has given the world, none is more precious than an awareness of the precious nature of time.  And of all the rituals and observances that teach us this important truth – none is more important than Shabbat.  Shabbat is more than simply a weekly observance with prohibitions and rituals.  It is a way to see the world.  The concept of Divine Rest, I believe is one of the most radical and powerful ideas that has ever been formulated. In the book of Genesis, God gives us Shabbat as a parting gift.  Shabbat is the reward for creation and a motivation for celebrating the fact that we are created.  When we understand the true meaning of Shabbat, we are, in essence transforming ourselves from creatures who live for the purpose of sustaining ourselves, competing for limited resources and avoiding pain and seeking pleasure, to partners with the unfolding of meaning and purpose in the Universe.

The great 20th Century theologian, Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote a book called The Sabbath that transformed my understanding of the power and beauty of Shabbat.  Indeed for several generations of modern Rabbis, this short book was and continues to be – a pivotal centerpiece of personal theology.   Heschel writes:

The meaning of the Sabbath is to celebrate time rather than space.  Six days a week we live under the tyranny of things of space: on the Sabbath we try to become attuned to holiness in time.  It is a day on which we are called upon to share in what is eternal in time, to turn from the results of creation to the mystery of creation; from the world of creation to the creation of the world.[2]

In other words, Shabbat is the day in which we turn away from the trappings of the physical world – the pleasures and the pain; the labor and the logistics, the planning and the profit-making – and focus on the simple fact that we are so incredibly fortunate to be able to be alive.  For six days, Heschel writes, we create things, we labor in the fields of our daily toil – but one day a week – instead of creating – we focus on the fact that we are CREATED. Instead of making, spending or wasting time – we mark time – with our prayers, our joy, our loved ones and our community.

Shabbat is a window into something much bigger than ourselves- an opportunity to put away the trappings of our complicated world and share in the beauty of the fact that we are fortunate enough to be alive.  Shabbat is the day when we put aside all of the distractions of our modern world and focus on being present – with ourselves, our loved ones and our community.

Some of you know that this past Spring, during the 6 weeks between Pesach and Shavuot, we shook things up a bit on Friday nights here at Temple.  We changed the times of services, offered new alternative worship options and created opportunities to gather together as a community before and after services. We asked for your feedback and received some important information.  Our goal was – and still is - to use the experience of Shabbat worship to build a stronger sense of community among our members and worshippers.

All in all – our experiment was a success – although we made a few mistakes along the way.  We learned that, for many of our congregants, the familiar rhythms and melodies that have been a part of Temple Emanuel for decades are a vitally important touchstone to the past and to their personal spiritual journey.  We also learned that there are many who are hungering for new opportunities to explore ritual and liturgy.  We learned that every time we gather together:  whether in song, in prayer or merely to share food, we elevate the spiritual components of our lives.  Finally, we also have learned that in order for any change to be lasting and important, it cannot only come from the clergy and staff.  We need to involve all of you – the members of our congregation.

This year, we are continuing our quest to reshape Shabbat at Temple Emanuel,  We have a series of initiatives and programs designed to strengthen our sense of community and connection through Shabbat.  We have some changes in store – but before we finalize anything, we need to hear from you.  As part of our initiative, we will be creating multiple opportunities for individuals and small groups to talk about what Shabbat means to you.  This afternoon, during the study session that follows the morning services, Rabbi Immerman and a core group of facilitators will be teaching about and listening to your input on Shabbat and how it impacts your lives.  I encourage you all to come and be part of the conversation. During the coming weeks and months there will be other opportunities to share your thoughts and feelings as well.

As we learned in our experiment, not everybody wants change and so, any changes instituted will be small, gradual and there will many opportunities for traditional worship experiences.  One thing that will remain constant, however, will be our desire to use the Shabbat experience as a way to strengthen and build our sense of communal connectivity.

My friends, Shabbat is a gift.  It provides us with an opportunity to experience life fully – purposefully.  Shabbat also teaches us the importance of community.  When we come together in prayer, we are not only fulfilling our own spiritual needs – but we are helping those around us do so as well.  Jews don’t pray alone.  We need a community for true prayer and true connection to God to occur.

It was said that The Baal Shem Tov – the founder of the Chasidic movement – used to pray for hours at a time.  So intense were his prayers, that he would appear to be transformed and transported to another world.  His disciples, while pious, never were able to reach the same heights of spiritual bliss as their master and, invariably, after two or three hours of prayer – they would stand around and watch as the Baal Shem Tov continued – seemingly oblivious to their presence.  One day, one the students said to his fellows, “Why don’t we just sneak out for a while – he won’t notice.  We can come back in an hour and he won’t have moved an inch.”  That seemed to make sense to the others, and so they decided to leave the synagogue for a brief respite.  As soon as they started to leave, the Baal Shem Tov turned with a start and cried out:  “What happened?”  The chagrinned students admitted that they had finished their prayers and were getting restless.

“Don’t you understand?”  said the Baal Shem Tov.  “When I pray, I ascend a ladder to heaven.  Each of you becomes one of the rungs on that ladder.  When you left, I could no longer continue, for the foundation upon which all of my prayers was based was taken away from me.

My friends, as we enter into a new year – let us strive to find the meaning and purpose that so much of society strips from us.  Let us learn to support one another – in joy and in sorrow – so that we can experience the beauty of the world around us.  We have the tools at our disposal to help put our lives in perspective – chief among them is the gift of building our community through Shabbat observance.

May the coming year bring with it opportunities for all of us to savor every minute with which we are blessed.  And may we bring that blessing into the world.
AMEN Shabbat Shalom, Chatimah tovah.

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