Friday, September 22, 2017

"If" - Erev Rosh Hashanah - 5778

[i]My Dear Friends:
L’Shanah Tovah!  Welcome.  Welcome Home!
Socrates was reported to have said: “The unexamined life is not worth living.”  Along these lines, I recently heard a story about a gorilla that escaped from the Bronx Zoo.  They searched for him everywhere.  At last, he was discovered in the New York Public Library.  Zoo officials were summoned.  They found the gorilla sitting at a desk peering intently at two books open before him.  One book was the Bible; the other -- Darwin’s “The Origin of Species.”  The zookeepers asked the gorilla what he was doing.  The ape looked at them and replied, "I'm trying to figure out whether I am my brother's keeper, or my keeper's brother."
This is the time of year when we focus on what is important in our life.
One of the key phrases we hear repeated several times during these 10 days of repentance can be found in the Amidah prayer: 
Zochreynu L’chayim, melech Chafetz b’chaim, L’ma-ancha, Elohim chayim.
Remember us unto life, O Sovereign who delights in life, for Your sake O God of life.
Zochreynu L’chayim – remember us unto life...
A few years ago, a major life insurance company created a slogan that took the word LIFE and focused on the two small letters in the middle: “IF”.
The basic theme of their campaign was that life is full of “ifs” and uncertainties.   The “If” campaign was all about the unknowns, the risks, the doubts that plague us all.
While I certainly do not want to be perceived as selling life insurance from the Bema on Rosh Hashanah, this time of year always brings me to the “if’s” in my life. 
“If” is one of the shortest words in the English language, but it also is one of the most important.
Without “if” – nothing can happen
If – by itself doesn’t mean a whole lot, but when other words are inserted before or after it, “IF” takes on new meaning and purpose.
Tonight, at this time of self-reflection, I want to talk about three ways that we use the word, “If”:
·         “WHAT IF”
·         “AS IF”, and
·         “IF ONLY”
Each of these short phrases has a profound impact on how we see ourselves, the world around us, and the sacred community that we are building here at Temple Emanuel.
Nothing in this world would ever be achieved unless or until somebody uttered the words “What If?”
Every invention and innovation began with a “what if”
Think of the incredible advancements in society over the past century:
§  Einstein asked: “What if we try to find a correlation between Energy and Mass?”
§  Susan B Anthony asked: “What if women were granted the right to vote?”
§  Somebody, once upon a time, wondered: “What if we combined peanut butter and Jelly between two piece of bread?”
§  You get the picture…
It is in the realm of the “What if?” that we find the capacity to dream, to envision, to build and to create. Without “What if’s,” our lives would be radically different than they are today.
When we say “What if?” we begin to envision new possibilities and seek new modalities of interacting, creating and implementing change.
When we say “what if” we allow ourselves to look at what lies in plain sight – but remains hidden because of our inability or fear to uncover the truth
Saying “What IF?” is also about taking risks:
Our Rabbis painted a picture of Abraham as a “what iffer”.  He was the first person to realize that idolatry made no sense.
There is a famous midrash that taught that Abraham’s parents owned an idol store.  One day, they left him in charge and Abraham took a hammer and smashed every idol in the store except the largest one.
When his parents came home, they looked at the carnage in their shop and cried out: “What Happened?”
Abraham replied, “It was horrible!  The idols got into a huge fight and that big one over there killed all of the others!”
His parents said: “What are you taking about?  They’re just statues – they can’t fight!”
“Well, what if you stopped praying to them and looked for the true source of creation?” he replied.
It was after this epiphany, our Rabbis taught, that God called to Abraham and said: “Lech Lecha” – go forth.
Without “what ifs,” the world would be a very different place.
120 years ago, on August 29, 1897 Theodore Herzl convened the 1st Zionist Congress in Basel Switzerland.  He had the audacity to ask the question:
What if we create a Jewish State?  His words: Im Tirtzu, Ain Zo Agadah – If you will it, it is no dream – became the underpinning for the Zionist movement and the Modern State of Israel.
Every major achievement in life began with a “what if.” 
All of us say “what if” at some point in our lives:
o   “What if I ask my her to marry me?”
o   “What if I start a new business?”
o   “What if we start a family?”
o   “What if we move to Colorado?”
o   “What if the Broncos win another Superbowl?”
“What if’s” are full of excitement.  But without them, nothing would ever be accomplished in our world or in our own lives.
The second short phrase I want to talk about tonight is: “AS IF”
We cannot all be in the “What if” mode all the time.  For dreams to take root, we need partners who are willing to work to make those dreams a reality.  Most “What if’s” can only come to fruition when we unite with others who share our dreams.  We then enter the realm of “as if”. 
When we say “as if”, we commit ourselves to affirming that others’ dreams are akin to our own.  We then work together to bring them to life.
When Abraham and Sarah heeded God’s call Lech Lecha” – “go forth,” they brought along a large convoy of people.  Their entire household accompanied them on their journey to the unknown.
When Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt, the people followed him – not always willingly, but they crossed the Red Sea and journeyed to the promised land, nonetheless.
Our tradition teaches that the reason that we wandered for 40 years in the wilderness was precisely because the Israelites that left Egypt did not have the capacity to say “as if” to Moses’ “What if we succeed?” Instead, they focused on the question: “What if we fail?”  It took an entirely new generation to see the power of his vision.
Often, the very act of sharing in and supporting someone else’s vision – even if it isn’t what we might normally do – forces us to see the world anew and take on that vision as our own.  Our actions determine how we behave and think.
There’s a story about a Rabbi who was known for his wisdom and common sense.  People would come to him for advice and, more often than not, he would have something important to teach them.  It just so happened, that in the same town where the rabbi lived there was a monastery that had fallen on hard times.  Many years before, the monastery was thriving.  It had attracted the best and the brightest young men who wanted to come and study. Pilgrims and spiritual seekers from all walks of life who used to flock there to learn from the monks. They also had a dairy business which produced some of the finest cheese in the region.  Then, slowly, almost imperceptibly, things began to change.  Fewer and fewer students came to study.  The dairy business began to fail.  Soon – it closed altogether.  This caused a great deal of stress at the Monastery.  As the monks grew older, they also became more frustrated with one another.  They grew angry and morose.  People would come to visit and feel the tension in the air.  They never came back a second time.  Soon, the number of pilgrims and visitors slowed to a trickle.  The situation was becoming dire.  As a last resort, the head of the Monastery came to the Rabbi to ask his council.
The Rabbi said: “Before I give you any advice, I’d like to spend a few days among you – to get to know you better.”
 And so, the rabbi moved into the monastery for a week – observing the brother monks in prayer, study and work.  He saw how they snapped at each other and how this demoralized and decimated their membership.
Finally, after the week was over, the Abbot – or head of the monastery came to the Rabbi and asked him what he saw.
“I have no advice to give you,” the Rabbi said.  “But I did learn something amazing while I was here.”
“What was that?” asked the Abbot.
“One of you,” the rabbi said, “is the Messiah!”
“One of you is the Messiah!”
“But who?” asked the Abbot.
“That I am not allowed to tell you,” the Rabbi said. “But you can tell no one what I have shared with you.” And with that, he bid him farewell.
The Abbot was amazed!  Who was it?  He had known his brothers for years – and no one had given the slightest hint that they were God’s chosen one.  He began to look at them in a different way.  Each time he saw one of his compatriots he asked himself the question: “What if He’s the One?”  He began to treat each brother “as if” here were the Messiah. Soon, the rest of the Monks began noticing that their Abbot was being so kind to them – and they, in turn, started to be kind to one another.  Visitors who came noticed it too – soon, they began to see more young men wanting to come and study.  Their dairy business was reopened.  People began to flock to the monastery to experience the love and joy that radiated from within its walls.  Soon, it became prosperous again. 
My friends, it is only when we see the potential for holiness and greatness in others that we can share in their dreams and make them a reality. We need people to commit to and support the vision of our community.  We need to live our lives “as if” the “what if’s” we receive from others are our own.  No great change can occur unless and until the majority of community is willing to work alongside one another “as if” the vision for which they are striving is already in place.
And finally: “If Only”
The saddest usage of “if” is when it is followed by the word “only”.  These 2 words convey a realization of opportunities missed, relationships squandered, and mistakes that were never corrected. 
·         As a rabbi, I often hear “If only’s” at the end of life:
o   If only I focused more on family and less on work
o   If only I told her how much she meant to me when she was here – now that she’s gone….
o   If only I learned from my mistakes
o   If only I had listened more and tried to be supportive of others’ dreams…
All of us make mistakes, most of the time.  All of us miss chances to make a difference, to connect with the ones we love, to take advantages of opportunities, to help the “what if’s” of others’ to become a reality.
Our task is to learn from our “if only’s” so that we can grow and not repeat the same mistakes over and over again.
We also need to learn to take risks in support of the greater good of ourselves and our community.
So what does this mean for us – for Temple Emanuel – for our Kehilla Kedosha – our sacred community?
As you know, a lot of change is taking place in our congregation.  Tomorrow morning, in his high holiday address, our president, Mark Idelberg, will detail the many wonderful ways that we are growing and changing.  This growth poses both opportunities and challenges.  In order to continue our progress, we will need more resources. When you listen to him – take the time to marvel at the breadth and scope of what we have accomplished – and we want to accomplish in the future.  Temple Emanuel has always been an innovative and creative force in the Reform movement.  We have not only survived but we have consistently thrived in a rapidly changing world where the purpose and function of the Synagogue is in constant flux.  The main reason that we have been able to grow and flourish is because we have never been afraid to ask the question: “What if?”
Think about it:

  • 69 years ago, we asked the question:  What if we were to become the very first congregation in the United States to open our own summer camp? This only occurred because of the generosity and vision of the estate of Maurice Shwayder.
  • 36 years ago, in 1981, Rabbi Foster asked the question: “What if we offered free Jewish Education to unaffiliated Interfaith Families?”  From this question came the Stepping Stones to A Jewish Me program.  It was revolutionary for its time.
  • 17 years ago, we asked the question: “What if we created a new experience called “Shabbat Unplugged?”
  • 6 years ago we asked: “What if we create Rosh HaShanah Unplugged?”  this was soon followed by Shema Koleynu on Yom Kippur morning
  • Last year we asked: “What if we invited homeless families into our community as part of the Family Promise program?”
  • 8 months ago we asked the question: “What if we redesigned our religious school program to better meet the needs of our congregation?” This resulted in creating new options in place today for learning and engagement that have a greater degree of flexibility for our diverse community.
  • We also asked the question:  What if we re-envision Erev Shabbat worship and bring many different populations in our community together?”  After much study and discussion, we changed the timing of our Friday night worship – moving it from 7:30 to a 6:00 start time. We also integrated family worship into the beginning and end of services, making them more multi-generational. Although it has only been a few weeks since this change was implemented, the response has been overwhelming.  Over the past 3 weeks our Feiner chapel has been overflowing and most Friday nights we need to bring in extra chairs to accommodate the overflow.
Each of these changes came about because someone said: “What if?”.
Not every innovation is successful. Success depends on a multitude of factors – but nothing is possible unless a vital and forceful percentage of the community is willing to act “as if” the dreams of others are their own.  Sometimes we fail – but as long as we learn from our mistakes we can be flexible and adjust to the realities we face.
Here’s something to think about:  In 7 years, Temple Emanuel will be celebrating our 150th anniversary.  In an environment when many synagogues are shrinking and desperately trying to hold on to what once was – we are thriving because we understand that our task is to look ahead and imagine what will be. 
The world is changing – and if we don’t adapt to these changes we run the risk of becoming yet another footnote in the story of a beautiful past.  We cannot afford to say: “If only” we saw what was coming.  Now is the time to look ahead and anticipate, as best we can, the challenges and opportunities that lie in our path.
Now this does not mean that everything must change – of course not.  Last year, at this service, I talked about the message of Rav Kook – the first Chief Rabbi of the modern State of Israel who taught: 
HaYaSHan yitchadeysh, v’ha-Chadash Titkadeysh
May the Old be renewed and New be Made Holy
In asking our “what ifs,” we can both celebrate our past and innovate for the future.
We are blessed with a incredible legacy of excellence - of spiritual depth, educational seeking and tikkun olam.  We pride ourselves in the Kehilla Kedosha – the sacred community - that we have created over the years – and we continue to create today.  We celebrate life’s greatest joys together and find comfort in difficult times.  That will never change. 
And yet, allowing things to continue as they always have been is no longer a viable option.  We live in a time of great change.  Look at the major Jewish institutions in the Denver Jewish community: 

  • Jewish Colorado,
  • the Jewish Community Center,
  • Shalom Cares
  • Jewish Family Services
  • The Rose Foundation
All are in the midst of major change.  Their essential task today is to create pathways for meeting the challenges that lie in front of them.  Temple Emanuel is not facing any crisis or drastic change today, Thank God. But, if we do not plan for the future – if we do not take steps now to ensure that our congregation is vibrant and viable – from a philosophical, programmatic, as well as a financial perspective, we are reneging on our responsibility to those who, 143 years ago – in 1874, said: “What if we create a modern, Reform Jewish presence in Denver Colorado?” – and founded Temple Emanuel.
            And so, I feel it is vitally important that, as we look ahead to the future, we do so from the perspective of anticipating and embracing all the “what ifs” that we can – understanding that there always will be surprises.
            We must continue to explore new modalities of learning – utilizing the incredible resources within our community to help envision the best paths to ensure that our traditions and values will be transmitted to the next generation.
            We need to ask difficult questions about how we are perceived in the community and whether long-held practices and prohibitions are relevant in today’s rapidly changing world.  These include, but are not limited to:

  • The meaning of membership in general
  • Questions about clergy officiation at interfaith wedding ceremonies.  It’s time to begin an honest, frank and open-ended conversation about how this issue impacts our community.  This does not mean that we will change our position, but we need to hear the pain of those who have felt rejected in the past and respond to it.
  • We need to look at our Finances: Is the current structure of dues sufficient to maintain our growing community?
  • Social Justice and Tikkun Olam – Are we doing enough in our community to put our values into action?
There are many other questions as well including
·        The size of our staff
·        Ongoing Leadership development and
·        Our ability partner with other congregations in the community
·        Finally - Our Building itself:  We are fortunate to have such an incredible facility.  And yet, it is aging.  This beautiful sanctuary in which we pray and share so many important life-cycle events is filled during the holidays and for special occasions, but most of the time it sits empty.  It also is not at all accessible for those who are physically challenged.  What if we attempted to find new approaches to use this and many other spaces that are currently underused or in need of updating?
Over the course of the next few years, we must explore these and other vital issues.   Together, we will ask difficult questions of one another with the hope that our “What ifs?” will pave the way for “As ifs” and avoid the “If only’s”.  My friends – change is difficult.  It’s unsettling - but we need to anticipate and address the realities that lie in front of us. These questions will not be answered without a great deal of thoughtful and sometimes difficult deliberation. They also will not be answered overnight – but if we do not address them we are neglecting both our commitment to our past and the promise of the future.
            Our task – our sacred task is to ask “What if?” – of ourselves and of one another, and, in the process of doing so, reaffirm our commitment to the past while opening ourselves up to greater possibilities in the future.
And so my dear friends, before I conclude my remarks tonight, I want to leave you with one final question: “What if one of you is the Messiah?”
L’Shanah Tovah Tikateyvu – May we all be inscribed for blessing in the book of life.

[i] My Thanks to my dear friend and colleague, Rabbi Barnie Bricker for the initial idea for this sermon.

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