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Sermon on Rosh Hashanah Morning 2013/5774

 

What's Your Inspiration: Here is Mine

Rabbi Mark Dov Shapiro, September 5, 2013

 

 

Beethoven had gone through a series of housekeepers. He was notorious for being a difficult employer. Lately, the situation had improved. The great musician had hired a woman by the name of Mathilda who had stayed with him for no less than three years.

What a disappointment, then, when Mathilda approached Beethoven one morning and announced, "Herr Beethoven, I am leaving."

Beethoven responded, "Mathilda, you mustn't leave. I need you."

"I have to go. I can't work here anymore."

To which Beethoven replied, "But, Mathilda, you are my inspiration."

To which Mathilda responded with a laugh, "Ha, ha, ha, ha."

*******

And may I ask what inspires you? What makes you tick?

This morning I would like to talk about my own inspiration - what inspires me.

I'm going to do so because this is Rosh Hashanah. This is the time of year for all of us to look inside ourselves and identify what we stand for and who we are.

But I'm also going to talk about the beliefs that animate me because this is not just any Rosh Hashanah morning. You see, this is the 25th High Holiday season we have shared together, and it seems to me that the anniversary calls for a bit of introspection. So let's look together and see if we can figure out what this one rabbi has been saying for a quarter century.

But now comes the question, or should I say here's the question that came to me as I thought about these remarks several weeks ago. If I wanted to outline what my message has been over the years, where would I even start? Maybe I would review my sermons? But do the math. If I've been the rabbi of Sinai Temple for 25 years and if, on average, I have given 50 sermons a year that would mean reading through 1250 sermons. Which wouldn't be so difficult, except for the fact that the sermons are scattered through so many files. It might take me 25 days to grab those years of sermons and digest them all over again.

That is why I decided to go at this project by reviewing another source of my writings. How about those articles which have appeared in the Temple bulletin over the last 25 years? The good news is that I have all those bulletins bound year by year, and even if there are about 250 of them, the articles are brief.

I knew I could read them all in a few hours, which is what I did.

Starting at 250, I reduced that number pretty easily when I saw that a good number of the articles are limited by time and space. They refer to very specific programs or ideas that were important for the moment but don't speak to larger issues.

Reading that way, I soon found myself left with about 50 articles. They spoke to larger issues, but 50 was still quite the number. You see, in addition to searching the material for what I called "enduring" issues, by this time the committee planning next month's anniversary weekend, had also suggested we should publish a special bulletin containing some of my favorite articles. I knew 50 articles would make a book. Much too much. I needed to choose 20 articles (about ten pages of writing) that could communicate what this rabbi with the initials MDS hopes to have taught over the last few decades.

But which 20 out of the remaining 50 when the articles cover so much territory?

After all, these last 25 years haven't been a walk in the park. From wilding in Central Park (1989) TO conflict and slaughter in Bosnia, Rwanda, and Darfur TO tornados, hurricanes and tsunamis TO war in Iraq and Afghanistan these have been tumultuous times. Over the years, I've written about all of this.

There were bulletin articles too about milestones. We've celebrated Israel's 50th, 60th, and 65th birthdays plus Sinai Temple's 60th and 75th anniversaries.

Holidays and bulletin commentary about Chanukah or Purim, and, as many of you will recall, probably 20 articles in which I invited you over and over to be at Temple for that grand morning service on the first day of Passover. (By the way, mark your calendars for the 2014 first Passover morning service on Tuesday, April 15. Pay your taxes and come to Temple all in one day!)

I've written too about prayer, God, belief, and not belief. For two years in the early 90's we even had what I called a Cynic's Society at Sinai Temple.

Articles too about Shabbat and plenty of articles about Jewish identity, Jewish history, and Jewish pride.

In the end, I did choose my 20 favorite pieces and, as you'll see when the special bulletin is mailed in about two weeks, the articles begin with my first article from 1988 and then unfold...1991, 2000, 1997 and so on with the twentieth piece coming from December 1995.

Although I hardly ever title my bulletin articles, for this special edition I call that 1995 article "Summing It All Up." True, I wrote the piece almost 18 years ago, but if you put that little essay together with the one from September '94, I think you get a summary of what makes Judaism so profound a human opportunity.

Friends, it's Rosh Hashanah morning.

You've taken the day off work.

This Jewish enterprise means something to every person sitting here.

Let's go see if we can capture how Judaism offers us all so very, very much.

First stop: September 1994. I'm going to read that month's bulletin article, which was that year's buildup to Rosh Hashanah.

Back then, here's what I thought Judaism had to teach us. In the shadow of Egyptian chaos 2013, poison gas in Syria, and continuing savagery around the world, I believe the message still holds.

September 1994 -

First there was Bosnia's genocide with echoes of the Holocaust. Then came Rwanda where the rivers ran with blood.

As I write these lines in summer 1994, it's difficult to know what other news may come our way. I suspect, however, that Bosnia and Rwanda will not be outdone. Their evil will continue to haunt us.

I think about the academic who wrote an article just after the Soviet Union collapsed. He predicted we were about to witness "the end of history." With the world’s major instigator of unrest no longer a player, he believed the world could anticipate a new era.

Tragically, the author was wrong. What we have seen instead, since the end of the USSR, is a glut of horror. What's worse, the violence has frequently been a one-on-one, person-to-person bloodletting.

It is enough to make one despair and lose faith in humanity.

Except that it is not where I find myself. For despite all the evil, I can't forget what was said about a rabbinic colleague when he retired at age 75. In an anthology of the rabbi's sermons stretching back to the 1940's, the editor pointed out that the rabbi had never given up. Despite the disappointments that history presents, the rabbi remained constant. In every one of his sermons, there was hope and the possibility of change.

In a sense that is also the great theme of the High Holidays. Of course, there are no guarantees. The very thought of finding myself in Rwanda holding only a prayerbook terrifies me.

I shudder to imagine how my theology would hold up in Bosnia.

Nevertheless, when I begin to lose faith, I remember that my colleague and all those who shaped Judaism over the centuries were not armchair theologians. They knew evil on a personal basis and still managed not to lose their bearings. Out of the depths, they resolved to dress the Torah in white and to wish each other a sweet year.

In a profound way, they were optimists.

And that knowledge gives me strength. I realize that as a Jew, I'm not alone. Others have confronted and carried on through evil. Other Jews have been nourished by the ideals that give Judaism its incredible staying power.

I'm not naive, then, if I still believe our gathering together has meaning. I'm not foolish for believing that our prayers and dreams are significant.

In some mysterious way it will matter when we see each other at the High Holidays. We are going to be touched by Judaism and, when it is all done, we will be the better for it.

God willing, our hope will be renewed. We will be ready for the New Year 1994.

Eighteen years later I still believe those words. In two weeks they will be published in that special anthology we've created - not because I wrote them but because I live them.

QUOTE/UNQUOTE..."In some mysterious way" it does matter that we gather like this on the High Holidays. QUOTE/UNQUOTE..."Of course, there are no guarantees" about life or the future.

QUOTE/UNQUOTE..."Nevertheless, when I begin to lose faith, I remember…that all those Jews who shaped Judaism over the centuries were not armchair theologians. They knew evil on a personal basis and still managed not to lose their bearings. Out of the depths, they resolved to dress the Torah in white and to wish each other a sweet year."

How did they do that? How can we do that?

For me, it's a matter of perspective. For Judaism, it has to do with how you look at life.

Here's an example of what I mean. I figured it out a few years ago at one of our monthly Wednesday morning services. That morning we were a small group of about 15 sitting here on the bimah. Two of those present had recently lost loved ones to illness. There we were midway in the service when one of the prayers in English praised God for healing the sick.

How true was that I thought to myself. Does God heal the sick (or, for that matter, the maimed, shot, and abused?)

Then I reread the passage and rethought its meaning.

Then it occurred to me that the prayerbook doesn't make an absolute assertion. It doesn't claim there is always healing. It doesn't say healing is forever. There couldn't always be healing because the world couldn't work that way.

And yet (here's what I thought that morning), when you consider our experience over a lifetime, you do realize that on balance there is more healing than death. There is pain and disaster, but, on balance, in life there are almost always more good days. There is more life than death. More blessing than curse.

That doesn't make the horror of Bosnia or Darfur or cancer go away, but it does give me a way to carry on in this imperfect world. That's what I wrote about in 1994, and I'm willing to say out loud in 2013. "There is more blessing than curse." That is what makes me tick. It's the Judaism that we all share as our birthright and future.

But there's more.

There is that final article which you'll see in print again shortly. I put it together for the December 1995 Temple bulletin. The text began as follows.

One of our Religious School teachers laughs with me. She says she can always predict what Torah verse I'll choose if I need to make a point. Experience teaches her that my text will come from Leviticus 19. Time and again, she has heard me say: "Do not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor."

Come to think of it, she is right. If I had to cite my "top ten" Jewish quotes, that verse from Leviticus would go straight to the top. In fact, I don't even mind being predictable in my use of the verse. I would be tremendously gratified if everyone at Sinai could quote the verse by heart and feel as passionate as I do about the importance of the verse.

While I'm at it, however, there are several other Jewish texts I also adore. If I were designing Jewish T-shirts, I would place some of these insights front and center. They capture for me the wisdom and beauty of Judaism.

And off I go in that article listing several classic Jewish texts that some of you could almost guess because you have heard me cite them ten if not twenty times over the years.

QUOTE/UNQUOTE..."I would be tremendously gratified if everyone at Sinai could quote" the Leviticus 19 text plus those five others. They are central to the blessing of being a Jew.

In the article, though, I offer three more texts which draw closer still to the heart of Judaism as I see it.

First, a text from Elie Weisel, Nobel prize winner, novelist, humanitarian, Jew, and Holocaust survivor. "What then are we humans?" asks Wiesel. "Hope turned to dust. But the opposite is equally true. What are we humans? Dust turned to hope."

There you have it. A moment ago we were looking at Darfur and the Bosnian genocide. Weisel lived through Auschwitz and a death march where his father died almost literally in his arms. And yet he can maintain, that although we humans have turned hope to dust, QUOTE/UNQUOTE..."The opposite is equally true. What are we humans? Dust turned to hope."

I don't know if those words touch you as much as they do me. I can only tell you that they capture for me the wondrous possibilities of Judaism. Dust turned to hope. The idea that, even in our darkest hours, there is somehow a glimmer of light. You might say that, even when we barely have the strength to lift our eyes, Judaism asks us to try and look up.

If we can...if we do...then we encounter the second last text I cite in my December '95 credo. It's from Abraham Joshua Heschel, the 20th century teacher. Heschel says, "To pray is to take notice of the wonder, to regain a sense of the mystery that animates all beings, the divine margin in all attainments."

Which leads me to what may be the most beautiful blessing we Jews recite. It comes last in this last article you'll read in a few weeks and it also contains a wisdom worthy of repetition. You know the blessing before I say it. You also know it goes along with the vision of Jewish life I've shared with you for 25 years.

God willing, it's a blessing you have all said a thousand times because life has given you opportunities to say it. God willing, you have even found times when you had no words to say except these words.

You've taken notice of the wonder and mystery in life...at a family reunion, at a wedding, at a milestone birthday, at the birth of a child, at the birth of a grandchild, when a child learned to walk, when a child began kindergarten, at a college graduation (your own) or at your child's graduation, when you saw the first crocuses in the spring, when you saw golden leaves in the fall, when Chanukah and Passover arrived, last night when Rosh Hashanah arrived, and in a few minutes when our shofar service begins.

It's a blessing. It's a way of living in the world. It's a way to take notice of the wonder in our world.

"Baruch atta Adonai...Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Spirit of the universe, she-he-che-yanu who has kept us alive, sustained us, and brought us to this day."

****

To quote Herr Beethoven..."Ha-ha-ha-ha..."

Indeed, what is your inspiration?

Is it clear? Is it strong?

Is it clear enough and strong enough to carry you from Rosh Hashanah to Rosh Hashanah and all that happens in between?

God willing, our conversations over the years have given you some of whatever is your inspiration.

God willing, the wisdom and kindness of Judaism speak to you as they do to me.

What a privilege to talk together, to have shared these 25 years, and to have grown to be who we now are.

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