Rabbi Klein's High Holiday Messages at Grosse Pointe Jewish Council
“Suspending Disbelief” Erev Rosh Hashana 2016
This past summer a particularly popular topic on my rabbinic list-serv was “enhancing worship”. There were discussion- threads on new prayerbook translations, on what kind of music and how much music is most effective, on seating arrangements in the sanctuary, and the importance of the sermon. Colleagues were quick to post opinions as if the challenge of “enhancing worship” was somehow new or novel, but rabbis and congregations have been having these discussions for a very long time.
There’s nothing new in the search for making worship more meaningful. What is new are the changes that have been suggested: should we re-translate or re-write the actual text of the liturgy and its theology, should we adjust the layout of the pages, or the size of the print, or the weight of the book, or the musical selections, or the voice of the leader, or the pace and length of the service. I would suggest, however, that meaningful worship is less determined by these objective, external factors, and far more by one’s subjective, personal expectation of worship.
- For some, worship is a refuge, a haven from the frustrations and anxieties of regularly engaging the world. For them, worship is less about what happens in the sanctuary, and more about what is left outside.
- For others, worship is spiritual, an opportunity to “lift oneself” above the ordinary and regular, to allow one’s spirit to discover and be in touch with a reality that is greater than one’s own everyday existence. For them, worship brings a comforting awareness of a transcendent and encompassing presence, a presence we associate with God.
- For some, worship is a reassuring opportunity of connection to one’s community. In the sanctuary, one finds a warm reminder of what it means to be part of his/her larger Jewish family.
- And for some, worship is part of an intellectual desire to learn or discover something new, a realization-- even revelation of new ideas and insights.
And for all of these “seekers”, regardless of what brings them to worship-- for all of them, worship becomes a moment of satisfying assurance that one is not alone.
Two generations ago in the era of Classical Reform in which I was raised, we entered the synagogue as a passive audience, waiting to be inspired and spiritually lifted by the professional and choreographed services presented by rabbi and choir. And there is something to be learned from that model of the sanctuary as “theatre”. Both are opportunities to ‘escape’ the outside world. Both kinds of performances, each on a stage, encourage us to view the human condition from a new perspective, and to challenge our worldly roles and responsibilities.
And at the heart of both theatre and worship, is the unspoken hope that the ideals and values expressed within the walls of its experience may be realized and given expression beyond those walls as well. If truth and beauty and righteousness are important and valued ‘here’, maybe we can make them work out there! The liturgy of the sanctuary and the play-script of the theatre are both created with the same goal: that the people might believe deeply, be inspired with a sense of wonderment, and-- leaving the “performance”, find the spiritual encouragement to go out into the world exclaiming “Let it be likewise satisfying out here!”
The theatre creates a world of “make believe”. A rabbinic colleague of mine wrote that the power of the theatre is to re-direct one’s imagination with a “willing suspension of belief.” He meant that we must, for the moment, disregard what we know to be true, willingly suspend the rules of reality in order to appreciate what we will experience. We have to suspend our belief if we are to enjoy the theatrical production, for the performance is only effective when the characters before us are alive and real. We must “remember-to-forget” they are only actors in a play. Suspending our belief, we allow the characters to reach out and touch us, and we are moved. Similarly with the theater of magic— when a magician violates natural law by turning a scarf into a pigeon, it’s only fun if one brings a willing suspension of belief. For those who cynically declare “Well, since that can’t happen, it didn’t really happen, and I won’t believe it really happened!”—they’ve missed the very purpose of the presentation. The theatre encourages us to “make believe”.
The synagogue however, exists to “make believers.” So how is the sanctuary different from the theater? It’s different because here we are encouraged to willingly suspend our disbelief. What is it that worship asks of us? That in this space, for this moment in time, we put aside the uncertainty of what we don’t know! A willing suspension of our disbelief opens the possibility for spirituality.
But that’s difficult for us because we live our lives in the space outside the sanctuary, where we make decisions based on what we’ve learned from our physical, rational experiential interaction with the world. Reality is defined by our knowledge of how things work. Physical laws govern creation, and we expect nature to perform according to well-established patterns. An oak tree grows from an acorn because it should! Its leaves process CO2, releasing oxygen through photosynthesis, using chlorophyll that gives its leaves a green color. And as that process ends in the fall, the leaves lose their green and their grip on the branch, revealing other colors. That’s what’s true, that’s what happens, those are the rules.
What religion asks of us, is that we occasionally look at our world without the rational reality of physical truth, and unconcerned that there are some things we don’t know or can’t know. Yes it’s true that that’s how trees breathe in the summer, and why leaves turn color and fall in October. But with a willing suspension of disbelief, we see in each leaf and in all leaves, something beyond scientific explanations, something marvelous to behold—one of but so many awesome wonders of our world. That such intricate, natural, complex mechanisms of incredible beauty exist, and are regularly and readily apparent to us-- points to an unimaginable transcendent power with which Nature has been set in motion.
When a community shares the experience of that kind of awakening awareness, expressing and celebrating how magnificent and complex is this life all around us—then a religious moment happens, and worship becomes more than assembled individuals reading or singing together.
Abraham Joshua Heschel called this first step of apprehension “the beginning of awe.” He wrote “Awe enables us to perceive in the world intimations of the divine, to sense in small things the beginnings of infinite significance, to sense the ultimate in the common and simple, to feel in the rush of the passing the stillness of the eternal. [Wisdom of Heschel, p. 135]”
Getting in touch with one’s spirituality begins with the possibility of sensing the infinite beyond one’s self. It requires a willing suspension of disbelief and a purposeful decision to look beyond what is obviously true as well as what we don’t understand. It requires an unabashed openness to the wonder-filled mysteries of life, and an appreciation of its majesty.
Worship provides an experiential opportunity for that suspension and appreciation. It is the obligation of the religious leadership of the community to continually look for, and identify ways and means for finding and feeling that awe. But the presentation from the bima can only “set the stage”. And as I said before, what happens, up-front, here on the bima, is less material than what it is that you bring with you when you enter. I am reminded of our patriarch Jacob, who only realized that the ground beneath him was holy, when he awoke from his dream. The place had not changed, only his awareness of it and his momentary willingness to suspend his disbelief. And Jacob said: “Surely God is in this place and I, I did not know it... How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and the gateway to heaven. [Genesis 28:16-17].”
“Occasional Tourist” Rosh Hashana 2016
Between this last spring and summer there’ve been a number of on-line and print articles from the Jewish media announcing the failure and predicting ultimate demise of Reform and Conservative Judaism. Typical is the following from a March posting on an online Jewish weekly [http://www.jewishpress.com/indepth/columns/a-failure-in-america-reform-sets-sights-on-israel/2016/03/17/]
As Reform Jews in America disappear into the abyss of assimilation at record rates, Reform rabbis and officials are trying desperately to remain relevant. Having failed on all other fronts, they are setting their sights on Israel as the new and last frontier to conquer. . . This “new approach” by the Reform leadership to insinuate and grow their movement in Israel threatens not only the religious fabric of Israeli society but the very existence of the state.
Of course our obituary has been written and re-written many times over. In 2009 Rabbi Norman Lamm, former president of Yeshiva University, and respected voice of American Orthodoxy, said “with a heavy heart we will soon say Kaddish on the Reform and Conservative movements.”
Needless to say, the Holidays have a way of prompting us to think about our collective Jewish future as Jews in general and liberal Judaism in particular. And given the impact of radical religion-- Jewish, Christian and Muslim on Western society I can’t help but ponder the inherent dilemmas potentially posed by religion. Consider this: the very first religious act found in Torah are Cain and Abel’s offerings to God, and they led directly to the first murder! And this morning’s Torah reading only confirms that fundamental faith of any kind is fraught with real and significant problems! That Abraham is ready and willing to kill his son because he thought God told him to is frightening.
It seems that for years now we have seen a widening disparity, both world-wide and here in America, between fundamental religions and those which are not. And the widening disparity between the two is generating anger, animosity and a hostility that is becoming increasingly violent.
I am becoming more and more intolerant of religious fundamentalism, whether it’s ‘flavor’ be Muslim, Christian or Jewish. To be honest, my original intention for this morning’s message was to rant and rail about what is happening in the Orthodox Jewish community-- but I find that I cannot ignore what is happening on our side of the fence, in our own liberal religious world. But first, I need to vent about fundamentalism!
I have no particular comment about the fundamentalist Christian community-- with its extreme version the Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kansas which regularly stages protests at military funerals, proclaiming that God is killing our soldiers because America is friendly to homosexuals. Their latest protest was August 30 at the Dixie Chicks concert in Kansas City, MO. On their website they write “[We] will protest the Dixie Chicks concert in religious protest and warning. The doomed people of this nation set up these pervert artists as idols to worship instead of the one true God. Lead singer Natalie Maines is an unrepentant adulterer who proudly supports sodomy and other vile sins.”
And I likewise have nothing new to add about fundamentalist Islam and its apparent stranglehold on the general Muslim community. It’s beyond frightening. And truth be told, it’s somewhat disingenuous of me to point out the “crazies” in these other religions, when we have more than enough in our own.
This past year in Israel the charedi Knesset contingent (meaning black hat, ultra-Orthodox) have blocked egalitarian prayer at the Western Wall in Jerusalem’s Old City. They’ve rejected even Orthodox conversions here and in Europe.They are proudly preventing access of Reform and Conservative Jews to mikvahs in Israel. And of course it goes without saying that they deny the authenticity of Reform and Conservative synagogues and rabbis.
And then there are the anti-Zionist Satmer and Neturei Karta Chasidic groups who continue to actively work for the destruction of Israel, believing that the Jewish State stands in the way of the arrival of the Messiah!
The word charedi means “trembling” as in “trembling before God”-- an appellation they prefer to the term “ultra-Orthodox”. I would compare the charedim, to their cousins: extremist Muslims, except that our Jewish counterpart tends not to explode buildings and shoot people. And it’s not just in Israel that the charedim live in the land at the expense of the state. They do it here too. We often hear reports of charedi Chasidic communities in the greater New York area that have taken over cities in order to channel resources away from the public and into their private institutions. And we’ve seen it here! Last March the U.S. Department of Education cut off federal student aid to the Michigan Jewish Institute, an arm of our local Chabad Chasidic community.
If you didn’t read about it then, here’s what happened. Between 2006 and 2012, nearly 2,000 area “students” of the Michigan Jewish Institute in West Bloomfield, living in Israel (!) obtained federal Pell Grants. But not one of the Pell grant recipients ever attended a class or graduated from MJI. Federal officials said “Evidence . . . shows that many, if not most, students of MJI had no interest in obtaining or intention of receiving a degree or certificate offered by MJI. Rather they were ‘enrolled’ . . .for the sole purpose of getting MJI Pell Grants while these students ‘studied abroad.’ Such abuse of the Pell Grant program is unacceptable.” Nearly 2000 “students” each received up to $5,730 of our tax dollars to travel in Israel and study in orthodox yeshivas.
What connects fundamental Jews, Muslims and Christians is their insular and self-righteous belief that since they are doing God’s work, they are not subject to human laws. So a legal or ethical violation here or there is of little consequence when one is zealously engaged as God’s agent and providing for God’s chosen people. What is most fearful to me about fundamental religious theology is that with God on their side anything is permissible and acceptable as a means to accomplish their Godly ends. The charedim and all fundamentalists blatantly disregard secular authorities because what is not “for God” can be disregarded.
Fundamentalists of all “flavors” are driven by two truths: the first is that in God’s service, it’s their God-given right to ignore or defeat the secular, and the second is that the values of the modern world threaten that service, and are to be feared. They see the openness of modern society and individual autonomy as direct threats to their unambiguous religious authority. What separates us from them is that our community does not hold, proclaim and zealously protect the absolute, complete and Divine authority of God.
With us on “our side” is much of Protestant and Catholic Christianity, Conservative and Reconstructionist Judaism, Eastern religions, and of course all Humanist religions. And wavering on that line of separation is Modern Orthodoxy which tries to balance itself between an openness to secular culture and society, and the insular world of Orthodox observance. I yet have hope for Modern Orthodoxy because they themselves are increasingly becoming a target of the charedim.
I am additionally concerned because the fundamentalists which surround us, no matter what the “flavor”, are making it very difficult for those of us in the “religion business”. So many Jews equate “religious” with Orthodox. And rejecting the fundamentalism of Orthodoxy, and also their childhood image of God as a white-breaded man on a mountain-- they become skeptical, if not outright dismissive, of any theology! And without a theology that works and makes sense to them, they often walk away from Judaism.
My sense is that non-Orthodox, non-observant Jews see “religion” and “faith” and “belief” in terms of black and white, them and us. As Liberal Jews, we reject the absolutism and certainty and authority of Orthodoxy, but have difficulty understanding how choice and autonomy can be a viable and genuine foundation of a “faith-based religious community.”
For those of us who reject the absolute authority of a fundamental faith, it’s very hard to find something theologically firm to hold on to. Liberal religion in general, and Liberal Judaism in particular, is something of a paradox; We tell ourselves that we are free to choose what we do as Jews, and what we believe as Jews-- and from there we often conclude that it doesn’t matter so much what we do and what we believe! And then, occasionally, something in us reminds us that we are Jewish, that there indeed ought to be something that we do or believe that confirms that Jewish identity.
That occasional remembered confirmation reminds me of what happens when we look at vacation pictures and mentally re-visit the wonderful places we saw as tourists, how pleasant it was, how sincerely satisfying it was to be part of that exciting adventure. For many of us what connects us to our Judaism are memories of places and people and celebrations of times past. These momentary memories interrupt our regular day-to-day lives and remind us that we indeed are Jewish and we should do something to recapture that feeling and warm confirming identity.
Additionally, secular Jews often understand and define and “celebrate” their Jewish identity through their connections with Israel or the tragedy of the Holocaust. Both the Jewish State and the Shoah give them religious substance and reality, and a reason to be Jewish.
But if our Jewish identity is defined and directed externally, by an emotional attachment to the State of Israel, or by the passion of “never forget”, or fond memories of the past—then how is Judaism an indwelling, living, faith-foundation that gives all-of-me purpose and direction? And if Judaism is not a religious and spiritual, self-defining and directing identity that comes from within (rather than confirmed from without)—then where is its intrinsic personal value?
We know that my sense-of-Jewish-self needs to be connected with something that is bigger than me, that authenticates my place in Jewish History and within the Jewish Heritage. We reject the absolute authority of fundamental faith because it makes no sense. But what have we found in its stead-- tourist visits to the Holy Land? anger at anti-Semitism? childhood Jewish memories?!
I met and had a conversation about a year ago with a Jew who had just returned from a trip to Israel. Still glowing, enthusiastic and excited, he was thrilled to find out I was a rabbi. He gushed telling me how personally and spiritually touched he was to walk the streets of Jerusalem’s Old City, to look out from Masada, and to pray at the Western Wall. “Every Jew should go there,” he said, “to find their faith.” I asked him which synagogue he attended—he answered that he didn’t belong anywhere. So I said, “Then what will you do with your new-found faith?” He looked at me, a bit confused, and walked on.
I think of that man as something of a Jewish “occasional tourist”. He’ll revisit in pictures the holy places he saw, and occasionally remember the Chanukah candles or Passover seders of his childhood, and he’ll be reminded: ‘yes I am a Jew’—and for him, that will be enough. And I’m saddened. Not for that man— I’m sure he’s just fine with it. I’m concerned by what that means for those of us who are striving to build a living and learning, personally challenging and spiritually fulfilling, Jewish community of “residents”, not occasional tourists.
It is much harder for us than it is for the fundamentalist of any faith to “know” what is true, to “know” what God wants, to even know that God “is”! We struggle to understand what “covenant” means, but it is that very challenge that makes our quest valuable and meaningful and exciting. My invitation to you, on this first day of the new year, is to become of resident of your Judaism, to live there and learn there.
At the end of Torah we find this statement of Moses to his people as they are about to cross over the Jordan, into the promised land. And it will be, when you come into the land that YHVH your God has given you for an inheritance—that you will possess it, and you will live in it. [Deuteronomy 17:14]
As we start this new year “home for the Holidays”, may it be a good year, a sweet year and a healthy year for you.
“Fear, Faith, Death and Resurrection” Erev Yom Kippur 2016
I want to show you something in the prayerbook you’re holding. Open it up to page 399. This is tomorrow’s afternoon service, and right in the middle of p. 399 is the beginning of G’vurote, the second petitionary prayer of the Amidah. The Hebrew reads “Atah gibor l’olam Adonai, m’chayay metim atah You are forever powerful Adonai, you who gives life to the dead.” Now note the English that follows: “We pray that we might know before whom we stand: the Power whose gift is life, who quickens those who have forgotten how to live.”
It’s quite clear that the “English rendition” is not at all what the Hebrew says, and you’re supposed to know that it’s not a translation because of the little circle which marks the beginning of the English.
The Hebrew that is there comes right out of the traditional prayerbook, praising God whose power is demonstrated by God’s ability to resurrect the dead. But that belief, that hope, that expectation has never been particularly acceptable in our American Liberal Jewish communities. And since this petitionary prayer of G’vurote is recited or sung in every, single, daily, Sabbath and Festival service— over 100 years ago the Reform Movement changed the Hebrew (!) to read m’chayay hakol “who gives life to all” rather than “gives life to the dead” to more properly reflect our discomfort with the Orthodox belief that the coming of the Messiah will be accompanied by the resurrection of the dead. But when this Gates of Repentance was published in 1978 the editors wanted to acknowledge (at least once) the “original Hebrew text” and so “resurrected” (so to speak!) the resurrection-of-the-dead text, and stuck it here in the afternoon Yom Kippur service where folks probably wouldn’t notice it.
Though hidden away in the Afternoon Service, it’s inclusion sparked significant debate among Reform rabbis and sharp-eyed congregants. “Why put this in our prayerbook when most, maybe all, Reform Jews do not believe that an expectant Messiah would physically resurrect of the dead?” “What was the value of restoring a traditional text if its content violates our theology?” “Well,” the editors said, “we don’t have to interpret or understand “gives life to the dead”/m’chayay metim as actual, bodily resurrection! We can just think of it as a metaphor.” Which then prompted a new chorus of “what about intellectual honesty?”, which was rebutted with “well, what about respect for tradition?”
I tell you about this liturgical debate because I am increasingly thinking about the reality that ‘life progresses to death.’ It comes with aging doesn’t it, that we come to realize—really realize, that we are finite and with each day we are, like it or not, one day closer to our own deaths.
Did you know that there are websites that will tell you the exact day of your death?! I googled “death clock” and stopped searching at four different sites. I went to each, answered their questions, and got different specific dates for my demise that spanned 15 years. So I still don’t know! But for about 20 minutes sitting at my computer, I was truly reminded that I really am going to die! And I realized then that while the debate about resurrection (how and when and if) is theoretical and theological—my dying is actual and absolute. Hardly a revelation, but it did start me thinking.
Not particularly about my own death, we all know we’re going to die. We all know, whether we think about it consciously or not, that our time here is limited. No, I began to wonder why it is that each and every one of us waste so much time? We fritter away seconds, days and even weeks as if we don’t need them, as if our time is infinite. How to explain this strange reality? Why do we-- intelligent, cognizant, sentient beings who are fully aware that our time is indeed finite-- willingly waste so much of it?
We tuck the reality of our mortality into a corner of our consciousness, ignoring the inevitability of death—because if we did think that any moment might be our last— well, that’s a lousy way to live! Who willingly chooses to live as if any minute it could end? And so we decide we won’t think about it, and the days and months pass by, and we get along just fine without confronting and contemplating that earthly end. Until we come to Yom Kippur.
On this day: We starve ourselves even as our prayerbook asks: who will live and who will die? Congregations read the names of those who died in the past year, and light all the plaques on their memorial boards, and for a brief moment during the Afternoon Yizkor/Memorial Service don’t we wonder what will happen after we’re gone? Our liturgy tells us that today we stand in judgement before God. It’s no wonder this day is filled with thoughts of fear and faith, death and even resurrection.
I have to admit that in these weeks waiting for Yom Kippur, I’ve been thinking a lot about the swift passage of time, and how helpless I am-- caught in its steady, strong and inevitable flow. And though I’m really quite comfortable and calm thinking about death in the abstract, I do wonder: how will I feel or behave when I’m facing the actual? Will I need some kind of reassurance? Will believing in resurrection make me feel better then? But then again, aren’t these questions really pointless? We can’t know what we can’t know.
Round and round we go, but the emes is this: we don’t know what happens after death. So the better question becomes, what do we know about what’s supposed to happen during life!? There is a great phrase in the Book of Proverbs [10:2]: Tzedaka tatzeel mimavet – Tzedaka/righteousness redeems from death. Tzedaka, living rightly in this world redeems death from a state of non-being, non-existence to… something else. For me the poet is promising not a resurrection of life, but a transformation of what one’s life was about into an equally living presence within those who are left. And that’s the message I find in Yom Kippur.
We confront our lives on this day, asking ourselves if what we did last year made a difference to those immediately around us, and to our community, and to the world. Because in making a difference, there is immortality in what we’ve done, in who we’ve been, in who we are. It really is the only reasonable answer to the question of whether or not resurrection.
Of course this isn’t new, not a revelation, and nothing you haven’t heard before, probably many times before. It’s the faith statement embodied in the phrase I remember so well growing up at Temple “we live on in the acts of goodness we perform, and in the hearts of those who cherish our memory.” We often hear it today as the Kaddish is introduced, and in funeral eulogies—and it affirms an significant theological statement. And it’s echoed in the aliya-blessing after the reading Torah, when we chant “v'chayay olam natah b'tochaynu – and eternal life you have implanted within us.”
When I was in college, I thought that I had figured out, at least to my own satisfaction, God and our connection to the Divine. I imagined an all-encompassing reservoir of living energy. We draw from this reservoir while alive, each adding his and her own creative energy, which then becomes the cumulative awareness of others. An eternal (if you will) reservoir of human energy that transcends human history but is human history. A source from which everything intellectual and beautiful comes, from which morality and truth flow, and in which all that we are is contained.
I’m still intrigued by that notion of an eternal reservoir of human energy, to which we give and from which we draw, even though it is not particularly satisfying as a theological “hook” upon which I can hang a manageable image of God. But at least it’s something I can wrap my questioning mind around. And it fits within the faith statement from our Torah aliya: “v'chayay olam natah b'tochaynu – eternal life you have implanted within us.”
Eternality is already in us. It is not a destination after death. Our world is filled with the presence of both the living and the dead. And though only the former are physically tangible in this world, both are tangibly present in the unfolding of our lives, in our growth and nurturing, and in the friends and family and community we gather around us. My parents and grandparents are very much a part of me, as are so many friends and family who are no longer with us. And their presence lives as well in our children, just as the names we will read tomorrow afternoon are inherently alive in this community.
There is a story of a rabbi who was asked by a student if he could see heaven. The rabbi took him to the house of study and showed him the scholars. “They are not in heaven,” said the student. “You’re right,” said the rabbi. “The sages are not in heaven. Heaven is in the sages.”
“Life, Death and Salvation: Beyond My Kol Nidre Message” Yom Kippur 2016
After last night’s message of “Fear, Faith, Death and Resurrection” I suspect some of you were wondering if there was something you should know about my health. There isn’t, I’m just fine-- though I do need to lose a few pounds! No, my message was not prompted by a particular concern, but because this is what people “of a certain age,” think about!
Among other increasingly apparent realities, it’s harder for me to get moving in the morning, and I can’t stay up as late at night. And I’ve come to the sad realization that when others refer to “middle age”-- they’re talking about folks younger than me. And then of course rabbis who make hospital visits and write eulogies are regularly aware of the frailty of life and living. Thinking about all that, more these days than in former years, is what prompted last night’s message.
We and everything around us is finite. We can ignore that reality, or we can deny it as only a this-world illusion, or we can accept it as a significant, even determining factor in how we live our lives. And religion in general and all religions specifically are in essence a response to our mortality. We choose our faith community, at least many of us do, by how well it helps us deal with our finitude, with our finite nature.
I first encountered the truth of this relational connection between religion and finitude in seminary, at Hebrew Union College. My philosophy professor impressed upon us that Judaism, like every religion, is a response to humanity's fundamental dilemma: namely that religion, essentially, is a quest to overcome the inability of finite human beings to fulfill their infinite desires. Thus religion’s promise is to achieve what he identified as soteria, a Greek word that might reasonably be translated into English as “salvation”.
There is an innate finite/infinite tension that exists within every person. As individuals, our existential existence moves between two opposite poles: one is the reality of our daily lives, and the other is the “ideal” toward which the individual continuously strives. Each of us wants to be infinite, yet we know we can never be.
The struggle that defines our life is how to most effectively and satisfactorily stretch our finite beings in pursuit of the infinite. Because I am finite, there are places in this world that I will never see, people I will never meet, and ideas that I will never have the opportunity to explore. I will never be the athlete I yearn to be, nor the parent, husband or friend I thought I could be. Listed in my mind are countless could-have-been's and wanna-be's. And on Yom Kippur we are especially and purposefully aware of our limitations as recall and recount the ways we fell short of our own expectations. And the ultimate demonstration of my finitude is the persistent (and very apparent) aging of my body. I am daily reminded that health is a moving measurement on a scale of definite “degrees”, pointing to an ultimate, and certainly finite, end!
Existentialist philosophy acknowledges the tension between personal finite reality and infinite personal desires by saying that the sooner one learns to live with this truth the better. Therefore, the existentialist says, happiness can exist only in the moment, in the immediate appreciation of the present-- and to look for anything of significance beyond this particular moment is foolish. For the existentialist this is a sufficient and satisfactory response. But religions are built upon the premise that we can resolve the tension by taking it to a higher plane. Thus the ultimate goal of religion, said my seminary professor, is to achieve soteria, salvation—which he defined as an ultimate well-being of happiness and satisfaction that transcends the tension between my finite reality and the infinite ideal.
Judaism, early on, recognized and struggled with the dualism of existing between the infinite above and the finite below. Thus we find in Hebrew Scripture the distinctive and very different qualities of the heavens and the earth. The heavens are described as the ideal realm of infinite, unlimited perfection. The earth is the world of limitation and imperfection--the chaotic, finite reality of human existence. We see this especially clearly in the poetry of Psalm 115 [v.16] The heavens are God’s heavens, but the earth God has given to the children of men.
And it’s from the earth that we were formed, at least biblically! In the second Creation story in chapter 2 of Genesis we are reminded: [2:7] then Adonai God formed the man out of dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being. Humanity is a unique union of upper and lower opposites: the “dust of the earth”: our physical, finite existence, but filled with God’s “breath of life”: that infinite, spiritual aspect of our being that compels us to transcend the boundaries of existing reality, to move from “what is” to “what could be, might be, should be.”
This, God’s greatest gift to us, is also the source of our persistent anxiety: we are limited beings with unlimited horizons. Every other creature is endowed with a natural ability to shrink its world down to a manageable, controllable size. But we, we are pressed to see beyond the immediacy of our senses, we are aware of what could be, and we desire what might be. And there’s the rub! Unless we can give real and substantive meaning to our finite reality, despite having infinite desires, we’ll be frustrated, and probably not very satisfied with life. And because this is a universal human dilemma, we’ve developed a variety of religious responses, each offering a different solution, a different promise of “salvation”!
Each faith-system defines its own, qualitatively different response, but all would affirm that “salvation” is the end-goal of faith, belief and religion. But we don’t all mean the same thing when we talk about “salvation”! I find it interesting that many Jews have unconsciously adopted the Christian, western religious expectation of salvation, meaning: “to be saved or rescued from death”. This understanding proposes that correct faith, with proper prayer, of the right religion-- rescues me. Thus the One-True-God is the authoritative and active agent in my salvation. My responsibility is to “open myself” to the One-True-God who is just waiting to transform my life, who, in abundant and unconditional grace, is looking for the opportunity to rescue me from the limitations of my life and ultimate death. This God promises that on the other side of finite reality, exists an infinite salvation. God will “save me” from the ultimate finitude of death with an eternal life in Heaven.
That understanding of “salvation” defines some religious systems, but not Judaism! Salvation for us is not a rescue from the finite, rather it is a transformation of the finite into a value that transcends the finite. You will not hear rabbis speak of salvation as God’s promised rescue of my person or soul. Rather a more appropriate expression is Judaism’s ultimate promise of “existential well-being”, which my philosophy professor said, is a good translation of the Greek word soteria.
Thus the most significant difference between soteria as ‘well-being’ as opposed to ‘salvation,’ is that in the former, we are our own active agents! It is our responsibility to bring God's Presence into our lives as the bridge connecting our finite reality to the infinite ideal. This is the two-fold challenge that is Judaism: on the one hand we are to give the infinite ideal a finite reality, while on the other, with our lives we transcend the limits of our mortality.
Rabbi Harold Kushner suggests how this works in his book Who Needs God?: “[the message and meaning of communal worship is] to join in song and prayer with fellow worshippers [finding] God in the exhilarating experience of transcending our isolation, our individuality, and becoming part of a greater whole. When the service works we feel different about ourselves and the world...” [p 150]
The experience he describes of feeling “different about ourselves and our world” is the realization that “I am more than me.” I am part of this community of the moment, and also part of the community of the People Israel that transcends my “me” and even our “us.” The community is a “transcendent connecting,” not only of each with each other, here and now-- but a connecting with all Jews, past and future, who have and will identify themselves as Am Yisrael. Because I belong to this historical enterprise we call Judaism, my soul, my presence becomes part of the “collective”. I recognize that the dreams and hopes of generations past have become (can become) realized through me, and I believe that my desires for an infinite existence will be realized in generations yet unborn.
We are certainly aware that the first reality of living is that there will be death. We know we are finite, that in the end— it is the end. Most of us, I believe, accept our finitude, reluctantly admitting that there are finite limits to personhood and the world we inhabit. And yet, we pursue the infinite.
But because I am a Jew, I affirm that I am already connected to the past and future, in an unbroken chain of tradition that ties us all together. My actions, if I make them clear and strong, do echo beyond the limits of my life, touching other lives that touch more lives. I am connected in a matrix that reaches worldwide and through time, a matrix that stretches from what was into what will be: connecting my finite, limited being with the infinite presence of God and my people. In confronting my finite nature, there is neither paradox nor tension, there is only an infinite Presence that is as much a part of me as I am of it. Soteria, ultimate existential well-being, is knowing that in my finitude I have already touched the infinite.
And YHVH Elohim said, It is not good that The Man should be alone; I will make him appropriate companions. So out of the ground YHVH Elohim formed every beast of the field, and every bird of the air; and brought them to The Man to see what he would call them; and whatever The Man called every living creature, that was its name. [Genesis 2:18-19]
So we read in chapter two of Genesis that The Man examined the essence of each creature, and assigned its name. But the Midrash goes farther and adds this: When all the animals had been named, God then asked The Man: “What is your name?” And he said, “Adam”. Then God asked, “And what is My name?” And he answered, “Adonai, the Eternal.”
We spend a lifetime learning the names of everything around us. We begin as toddlers learning that names are associated with things, and identifying things with their relational values-- the beginnings of communication. We spend our lifetimes learning the names of things and values and how each fits into our experiential and existential world. And it is only when we pause at reflective moments like this that we realize that we’ve never learned the answer to the one question that really matters, the question God asks The Man in the Midrash – “What is your name?” Who are you? What is your essence? What are you made of?
This afternoon, in this service dedicated to reading and remembering names, it is only natural that we wonder how our names will be remembered. But for that there is no answer because as long as we breathe we are not finished with our names. The meaning and value and impact of any decision we make, of any event in our life, changes with whatever happens next. The meaning of anything today is determined, to a great extent, by what happens tomorrow.
Rabbi Ben Zion Bokser wrote “You cannot measure the life of a living tree, only a fallen tree by counting its rings. A living tree is in a state of growth and we cannot assess its stature. What it is at the moment is transitory, and it gives way to the tree's continuous unfolding. And so it is with people. We can say of a person that his life has been distinguished or otherwise, only when his days are ended. Then is the time to render an accounting. But the living are subject to change and they are, therefore, beyond final judgment.”
God asked The Man, “What is your name?” Only with death can there be an answer.
Whenever I would meet with a family on the eve of a funeral I ask them to share their memories. No matter how well I knew the one who had died, I asked the spouse or siblings, the children or grandchildren for their remembered stories. And for every life there is a theme, there are connected events, there is a coherent narrative that tells a story that has perhaps many beginnings, but only one end. And in those conversations that flow from smiles and laughter to tears, and back to laughter we hear the beginning of the answer to God’s question “What is your name?”
But of course that answer continues and grows beyond the funeral and immediate mourning and the yearly yartzeits-- as children and grandchildren tell and share and expand the stories they remember. The meaning and the value and the import and the impact of our names: who we were and what we did, are necessarily held in the hearts and minds of others.
In a recent Federation class we studied Ecclesiastes. My adult students were surprised to see this sentiment enshrined in our Biblical text: I loathe all that I had toiled for under the sun, for I must leave it to the man who will succeed me -- and who knows whether he will be wise or foolish? And he will control all I toiled for under the sun—so all is futile!
Our class discussion endeavored to “unpack” the message of Ecclesiastes, and what it means to say that “life is futile.” But if Kohelet is saying that death is the end, and that the achievements of life are thus concluded with death-- then all of us in this sanctuary I think would respond “No.” For if there is any single moment in which we all know, with certainty, that the value and meaning, the achievements and impact of a loved one’s life transcends its death— it is now.
That is the message of our Yizkor service, the reason we gather and the power of this moment. God asked The Man “What is your name?” And though he answered, he did not really know. But we, we understand that only now can the names of those no longer with us be fully known, and appreciated and valued. In El Maleh Rachamim that will shortly read, we say V’yitzror bitz-ror ha-chaim et nishmatam that “their souls will be bound up in the bond of life.” And though El Maleh is ostensibly directed to God, it is as much our own personal promise. Not a prayer, it is a pledge— that these souls will be “bound up” in “life”. Though translated as “eternal life,” that is not the Hebrew. V’yitzror bitz-ror ha-chaim “Bound up in the bond of life” means to me that their souls are remembered and honored in “life,” in our lives now, at this moment, and tomorrow, and thereafter.
God asks what are their names, and we can answer.
And in the sanctity and quiet of this moment we wonder—what will our children and grandchildren say when asked: “What are their names?” How will they answer?