Rosh Hashanah Sermon: Can We Talk?
By Rabbi Rafi Rank, Midway Jewish Center, Syosset, NY
So good to see the congregation gathered on this Rosh Hashanah. L’shanah Tovah Tikateivu— May we all be inscribed into the Book of Good Health and Peace, Prosperity and Goodness in the New Year, for all of us and for our families.
The story is told of the famous Sherlock Holmes and his trusted aide Watson who had to leave London en route to solve a particularly difficult case in the North. They were travelling by horse-drawn wagon when night fell and it was time to set up camp on the road. They erected a tent, ate dinner, and the two turned in for the night. In the middle of the night, Sherlock Holmes awoke with a start and looked about. He nudged Watson out of a deep sleep and said, “My dear Watson—Look about you and tell me what you see.” Watson, rubbing his eyes and allowing them to adjust to the darkness gazed up into the heavens and replied, “Well, Sir, I see planets and stars, I see distant galaxies, I see the transcendence of the universe and the majesty of eternity.” Sherlock Holmes replied, “Watson, precisely. Someone has stolen our tent.”
If God ever came to me and asked, “So, what do you think of my Bible? Give Me an honest appraisal. As a work of literature, how would you rate it?” How’s that for a question that should inspire a little fear and trembling. Tell the author, and in this case it would be an author with a capital “A,” exactly what you think of His creation. And when it comes to conversing with the Lord, deception is not a prudent strategy. “Well, Lord, now that you’ve asked, I can tell you that I think that there are many passages where the Hebrew soars poetically, and the drama is first-rate, and the laws are demanding and thought-provoking, and it is a miracle just how much is conveyed using words as sparingly as You do. “Rank,” the good Lord would say, “I hear a ‘but’ coming so on with it. What would you change?” “Well, Lord, I don’t think it’s really a ‘but’ per se, but if You ever consider a rewrite, You might want to throw in a joke here and there. You know, lighten it up. Put people at ease. I think humor is really important.” And that’s what I would say to the good Lord, Author of the most read, studied and pondered piece of literature for the past two millennia.
Assuming I actually could survive a conversation of that nature, God might just point to the funniest guy in the Torah as proof that the Bible is not divorced of humor. And who would that be? It would be Isaac, Yitzhak, whose name literally suggests “laughter.” There is a passage in the Torah that speaks of a famine, forcing Yitzhak and Rivkah to move to Gerar, a city in Philistine territory. And fearing for his life and the life of his beloved Rivkah, he tells the residents of Gerar that Rivkah isn’t really his wife, only his sister. But then one day, the king of the Philistines, Avimelekh, spies Yitzhak and Rivkah through their window and what does he see…
[he] saw Isaac [doing something with] his wife Rivkah (Genesis 26:8)
Now, the Torah doesn’t actually say “doing something with,” it uses a verb “m’tzahek” which is difficult to translate. It has been variously and sensuously translated as—Isaac was caressing his wife, sporting with his wife, playing with his wife, fondling his wife, and so forth. There are many different ways the translators have chosen to translate the term m’tzahek,” but the translation I like best is one I heard from my revered teacher, Rabbi Harold Kushner, who suggested that we translate the verse simply as:
Isaac was making his wife, Rivkah, laugh…
It really is a translation that works beautifully and it takes our most maligned patriarch Isaac, who too often is written off as silent, passive, victimized, and gives him a new and more appealing character. Isaac is the patriarch with a sense of humor. He makes Rivkah laugh. What a wonderful human activity: making each other laugh. When we forget how to laugh, we lose a part of what makes us human.
This past year, 5774, was about as unfunny a year as they get. And that’s not to say that there weren’t some positives. There were. The stock market has been pretty good. But on the other hand—we had a tough winter; Malaysia Airline Flight 370 just disappeared from the face of the earth; another one of its planes was shot down over Crimea; gun violence continued to disrupt the nation, the outbreak of Ebola in Africa; and then, of course, there was the kidnapping and murder of the three yeshivah students in Israel: Eyal (Yifrah), 19 years old; Gilad (Shaer), 16; and Naftali (Fraenkel), 16 years of age. I don’t think there’s a congregation around the world that won’t hear the names of these three boys mentioned during Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur.
It has been a long time since the American Jewish community has been as galvanized as it was this summer having received news of their murder. It was just so senseless, so pointless, so perfectly wasteful of human life. It was an action that served no one’s interests—not the Israelis, certainly not the Palestinians. I wanted the Plainview, Syosset, Jericho, Woodbury, Bethpage, Westbury communities to convene. We needed a vehicle by which to express our outrage and our sorrow, our solidarity with Israel, and with the help of the Mid-Island Y JCC, we got together, and we drew on at least a 350, perhaps 400 person crowd. We filled the gym at the Mid-Island Y.
It was a very Jewish meeting. We lit candles, we said kaddish, we listened to some speeches and afterwards we talked. The only thing missing was food. But here we were, on a week day, drawn together by a common concern, the fate of the Jewish State. It was an evening of sorrow but also an evening of triumph because that evening everyone knew that we had a purpose in this world, and the purpose was to stand up against injustice and insanity. We were there because we were Jews, and I know that for those who could not be there, they were proud of all of us who could be there. It’s amazing how powerful just showing up can be.
There’s a professor at the Harvard Business School by the name of Clayton M. Christensen. And he tells a very interesting story about an exchange with a Marxist economist who was finishing up a Fullbright fellowship in Boston. This economist was from China. And he asked the economist if he had learned anything startling during his stay in America and the economist said he had. What he found so surprising was the role that religion played in the functioning of democracy and capitalism. He was astounded by the fact that people would listen to a minister or a priest instruct them about rules to abide by that were not necessarily in their own self-interest, and then willingly abide by them. And this economist saw a connection between the ethical and moral commitments of religious faith and the success of our democracy and our American form of capitalism. Christensen, who is himself a Mormon though I have no idea how devout, reflected on the waning influence of religion on the general population and suggested that as religious commitment declines, the very foundation of democracy is at stake. There will never be enough police to keep people in check who believe that they owe no allegiance to any power greater than their own selves. Neither of them really addressed the issue of ritual or prayer, sacred rites of passage, though they must have been thinking of them as well. But their focus was more on the internalization of sacred principles, ways of looking at the world that define what it means to be a person of conscience and integrity, what we would otherwise refer to as a mensch
I love this story and I love what the professor had to say about religion. This idea—religion is that which moves you to be a better businessperson, a better human being, a better proponent of democracy—is one I want to believe in, even if we can find instances where religion seems more a toxin than an antidote. But let’s be real. Religion sometimes is unfairly given a bad rap. There’s no noble discipline in life, whether medicine, the law, politics, or religion that can’t be abused or used for disreputable purpose. I want to be more specific about religion. I want to say that it is our Judaism, when understood and practiced with clarity and creativity that actually makes us better human beings.
And yet, I always cringe when I hear myself differentiate between being better Jews and better human beings. Not that I don’t wish that—I obviously do!—but it’s as if our Jewishness and our humanity occupy separate realms of reality. Witness Person X—he’s a wonderful Jew, but a terrible human being. Witness Person Y—she’s a wonderful human being, but a terrible Jew. This divorce of our Jewishness from our humanity makes no sense. How can Jewishness be divorced from humanity? If I had a dog and only fed her kosher food, I could say, she’s not a very good human being, but a terrific Jew. There’s a reason why we think that our Judaism and our humanity occupy different realms of reality, but getting into that will take us too far afield. Suffice to say that we do think like this and because we do, our Jewishness having been separated from the issues that concern us most.
Is it any wonder that synagogues today find themselves under tremendous pressure? Membership dwindles and programs no longer capture the attention of the community as they once did. And it’s not, as some might argue, that Jews don’t want to be Jews—they do. But they are, and I would dare say, we all are seeking a Jewishness that is integral, not peripheral, to our lives. The less our Judaism speaks to us about life—our lives lived everyday and in real time--the lower a value we will place on that kind of Judaism. And the lower the value we place on our Judaism, the less likely we are to associate with an organized Jewish community.
A brief quiz: Who was it who used to get up on a stage, turn to the audience and ask, “Can we talk?” That’s right. It was Joan Rivers, alehah hashalom—she should rest in peace. It was her signature question. Public speakers sometimes have these telltale phrases that identify them, like Rodney Dangerfield when he would say, “I get no respect.” But I was thinking about Joan Rivers and asking myself why did we think that question was funny. Maybe we thought it was funny because it was a signal that we were going here something outrageous come out of her mouth. Maybe it was funny because it was a way that this petite woman, only five foot two, could immediately draw thousands within an audience into her confidence. Maybe it was funny because it had an innocently stereotypical Jewish ring to it. Suddenly, you were sitting in her kitchen or living room and you’re going to hear a juicy story. Whatever—she pulled it out of her tool box of jokes and captured our attention for however long she was going to keep us laughing.
You know, we all like to laugh and we all like to talk. And when something funny is going on, we all like to listen, which is the reason why I would have had God tuck a few more jokes into the Torah. On the other hand, the Torah is Five Books worth of conversation. God doesn’t quite say, “Can we talk?” but we get hundreds upon hundreds of verses that begin either with Vaidaber God spoke or Vayomer God said. I always chuckle when I walk into a synagogue with a sign that reads:
It is forbidden to speak during prayer
Really? I hope not, because the predominant form of Jewish prayer is speech. Were we to stop people from speaking during prayer, the entire prayer service would come to a screeching halt. We don’t have the Ten Commandments, at least not in the Hebrew, we have the Aseret haDibrotthe Ten Speakings. We even have a way of identifying types of conversation dividing them into Divrei KodeshWords of Holiness or Sihat Hullin Ordinary Discussion. Jews are talkers. We all have differing levels of skill, when it comes to communication, but it is, for all of us, the principal way that we interact with each other, touch one another, console one another, encourage one another, educate one another, enlighten one another, and it’s also the way we make each other laugh.
I was once interacting with a group and I said that I was going to make a bold assertion that there wasn’t a topic in the world that didn’t have some Jewish spin to it. So I challenged the group to stump me by shouting out a random topic. So someone shouted: Craps. OK. So what do we learn from this? We learn the rabbi should never say, Stump me. But ok—is Craps the topic? Fine. Actually, let’s broaden the topic. Let’s talk about gambling. And we did. Why do people gamble? Well, it’s fun. It’s okay to indulge yourself in a dream of being a multi-millionaire. Hey—you never know! Then again, do you know any gamblers who have an addiction to gambling? I’ve known a couple in my time and in both cases, they lost thousands of dollars, they lost their jobs, and their marriages ended in divorce. The addiction led them to lie about money, lie about where they were, and eventually create enough debt in the family as to generate the kind of distrust and anger that places substantial strains on the marriage, and in the cases I’m thinking of, the marriage did not survive. The Jewish spin? It should be clear to all that any addiction is dangerous, not only what it can do to you but what it can do to the loved ones around you. Once gambling is above the truth or above one’s marriage, then it’s legitimate to question whether one’s priorities are in order. The sacrifice of love and security in favor of wealth and riches is something our tradition will question. And you notice I’m not saying that gambling as entertainment is in some way wrong. I think we would be hard pressed to make that argument. But if asked, both Moses and God would have something to say about Craps. It’s a Jewish topic.
This group I spoke with had not gathered to study Torah. It was more of a spontaneous gathering. They weren’t necessarily regular shul-goers—some were. They weren’t necessarily observant—though some were. But they were all Jews who were fascinated by the idea that an ancient tradition, one they had presumably inherited, one they could call their own because it was their own, could in some way guide their lives today in spite of it being over 2,000 years old. And we weren’t talking about anything peripheral to their lives. We were talking about people whose decisions lead them to financial and marital ruin.
If I told you that I walked away thinking that this was one of the more successful, effective, powerful sessions in Torah study, would you agree with me that we were studying Torah? We really were. And it all happened surrounded by some really good nosh, casual conversation, and a lot of laughter. I think the humor allows us to touch on subjects that make us uncomfortable or sad or anxious in a safe way.
Sometimes, it’s the funniest people in the world who are perhaps struggling the most with inner demons. How sad were we when we learned about Robin Williams and how he ended his life. We were shocked—right? How could someone so talented and so funny be so desperate as to end his life so abruptly? I’m not going to suggest that he needed a friend or a community to talk to, (he may have had both of those, I don’t know, and perhaps his situation was such that no one could have helped him), but I do know that the people who have friends, confidants, a community that they can turn to when life becomes tumultuous fare better than those who do not. People need people with whom they can talk and talk with honestly.
Who was the funniest character in the Torah? Isaac—he made his wife laugh. At another time and another place, maybe Isaac would have been a stand-up comedian getting up on the stage and saying “Can we talk?” Wait, that’s Joan’s line; Isaac would need something else. And eventually his fame would grow and he’d be interviewed and the reporter would say, “Isaac, what in your background gives you the emotional energy to get up on the stage and be so funny?” And Isaac would say, “Well, it really comes down to anger. You see, when I was a kid, my father tried to kill me.” “Wow,” the reporter might say, “that must have been traumatic.” “Yea—that was traumatic!” The interviewer might press him a little bit more on this matter and ask, “How do you cope with the awareness that your father tired to do this to you?” and here let us suspend our imagination in favor of the actual words of Torah when we read of Isaac:
And Isaac went out into the fields, as evening fell, to talk… (Genesis 24:64)
That’s what Isaac did. Isaac might say, “I talk a lot with people who love me and care for me.” Actually, the rabbis read this line to mean that Isaac went out into the fields to pray, specifically Minhah, the afternoon service, which is ideally recited as evening falls. And maybe Isaac did both. Maybe his talking to friends in the field was a sort of spiritual encounter in which the burden of his heart was made lighter. Maybe he could at some point come to the realization that his father did try to kill him, but that was long in the past, and though it still hurt, he is now the father of two children and married to a wonderful woman with whom he speaks all the time. He makes her laugh and she makes him laugh and over time he’d been able to work through the deepest anxieties and troubles of his heart. Of the three patriarchs, Isaac lived the longest, passing from this world at the age of 180.
It’s the friend, the confidant, who challenges your thinking—gently I would hope—questions your conclusions, offers alternative perspectives, deliberates on whether there is another logical approach to the issues you face, who is among our most precious assets in our lives. We may come upon the truth ourselves but we are more likely, after multiple conversations with others who help us refine our thinking and dispute our conclusions, to finally arrive at the truth. And the truth about who we are and the path we need to take in life is always the most compelling form of Torah.
I have a few questions. With whom do you talk? With whom would you like to talk? What would you like to talk about? Is there something that’s either troubling you or something that’s puzzling you that you would want to share with a few other people troubled or puzzled by the same issue? It could be anything really. It could be issues as varied as how to say No to my teenager without the roof caving in; how to cope with a parent suffering from dementia; how to navigate through a relationship that has become unstable and tumultuous; how to deal today with a past that has included some form of physical or emotional abuse; how to deal with an addiction, your own or that of a loved one; how to survive the Bar and Bat Mitzvah year; how to love kids who have drifted from you; techniques for being a good grandparent; following a diet that is reasonable and balanced; Jewish meditation; Jewish yoga; I could go on but the point here is not to enumerate an exhaustive list of what to talk about. It is rather to get you thinking about what you would want to talk about with other like-minded individuals, with the understanding that the synagogue is a place where our Judaism and our humanity coincide, and an ancient wisdom exists which can offer us insight in how to live our lives today. But in order to do that, we have to start a conversation, with a little bit of nosh, some coffee or tea, among trusted friends or people we can learn to trust, in some safe space. The issues to talk about would be the issues closest to your hearts and you are the only ones who can tell me what those issues are.
Over the past year, I’ve been speaking to a very talented and bright group of people who comprise what has become known as the Whole Health and Wellness Committee. We’ve been talking about what a congregation would look like were it to focus on the issues that mattered most to the members who belong. We have a vision of people getting together, maybe once-a-month, maybe once every six weeks, to talk about these critical issues. They could meet at the synagogue, or perhaps in each other’s homes, or maybe at Bagel Boss or Starbucks. The location of the meeting could be anywhere, but it’s the topic that would matter most, because it would be the topic that mattered to you most. I call this group the Whole Health and Wellness Committee, because the ultimate goal of the committee is to use the congregation, our Jewish tradition and background, as a tool for promoting greater health and wellness. It is a concrete plan to follow one of the Torah’s most fundamental mitzvot: Choose Life. So here comes a little assignment I’d like to give you: I’m asking you to write to me and tell me what’s on your mind. You’ve got my e-mail address. I’ve been sending you e-mails every day. Let me know the issue that is your deepest concern. And let me know if you want a group organized or if you already have a group of friends with whom you would want to meet. Let’s get together and talk, and nosh, and think, and laugh. The laughter is really important. There is always a certain joy in coming closer to the truth.
Joan Rivers once said, “I hate housework. You make the beds, you do the dishes, and six months later you have to start all over again.” If our Judaism is something that appeals to us only a handful of days during the year, we’re going to end up hating it. For years now, the Jewish leadership around the world has been staring at the planets and the stars and galaxies without the guts to say that the tent is missing. So here I am to say: the tent is missing. There is something missing from our Judaism and it should have been obvious but we get too distracted by non-essentials. We always hear that Conservative Judaism is doing poorly. You know what: Judaism the world over is doing poorly. A tradition this old and this rich should hold greater sway over the people it supposedly serves. Our Judaism and our humanism need to reconnect, and they can, but only if we start talking about the stuff that really touches us. We will soon discover how the wisdom of the ages as found in our sacred texts can put us back onto the path of righteousness. I look forward to hearing from you this week.
Shanah Tovah, everyone.