The Windy Tent — Rosh haShanah 5777

07/10/2016 at 08:52 Leave a comment


Good morning, beloved friends and community.  My family and I wish you a sweet New Year, filled with powerful blessings of love, sustenance, prosperity, and of course, good health – above all.  You and your loved ones are all most welcome in this sacred space – today and every day — and I hope that this New Year brings you many moments of inquiry, satisfaction in engaging study, and the ability to express yourself wholly in prayer and petition, beyond self-consciousness, in a quest for meaning and significance.  Blessed be the longing that brought you here.


As I have been reflecting on the changes in my life and in our Agudas Achim community from last year to this year, I have been thinking about the stories that we tell ourselves that allow us to justify our attitudes and our behavior.  This morning, as we honor the birthday and the renewal of this world, I would like to share my rationale and reasoning that informs the kind of person and rabbi that I strive to be – one who honors the aphorism of our sages which teaches – hafoch ba v’hafoch ba d’chola ba—never be satisfied in the answer – to keep turning the questions, holding them up like diamonds, their various aspects sparkling in the light.


This morning, I would like to share some memories of my Bar Mitzvah with you – perhaps one of the worst experiences of my younger life – and certainly one of the most impressionable.  My Bar Mitzvah was celebrated on Labor Day – 5 September 1983.  I was 12 years old.  Based on a compromise with certain quarters of my family who would not travel from their homes to my synagogue on Shabbat, my parents rented a tent and held the service in our backyard in a decidedly non-Jewish suburb of Chicago – a northern town called Libertyville, on that Monday morning.  That particular Monday was very windy – blustery – and the flaps of the tent were shaking mightily as we began the morning prayers.


Much of that day was a blur – I don’t remember if I wore tefillin – and I do remember that I was presented with a tallit by my parents (OBM) and a Chumash by the president of the Sisterhood.  This date was also near my father’s 50th birthday – so there was a combined party – and many of his long-time friends were in attendance, in addition to my relatives.  I had about three friends that I invited from my public school.  It seemed like there was a lot of preparation that led up to this event – my father was in the wholesale plumbing business, so he knew folks who designed kitchens and did woodworking and cabinetry.


As a present to my father on this occasion, and also to our synagogue, one of his friends designed and built a portable ark – meant to hold the Torah in rituals that were held outside of the synagogue.  I remember it being made of dark wood, with panes of glass in the front – we were very proud of this and it had a place of honor on our simple deck in our backyard.  I remember too that my Bar Mitzvah was videoed – we had a neighbor who was big into technology, and he had purchased the top of the line JVC VHS-C camcorder that was just released that year – the iPhone 7 of its time – and despite the whipping of the wind into the microphone, he went around filming and asking people to comment on what they saw around them.


Generally, when I meet with Bar and Bat Mitzvah families in our community, to give perspective and to offer empathy for our kids – the following is the story that I tell:


I did not have much study time with the rabbi.  He recorded a cassette tape of my Torah portions in the late spring and he told me to come back to see him when I had learned them.  I had never had any formal training in service leading or chanting Torah, and like a typical 12-year old, I didn’t do much work over the summer.  I remember that the rabbi called our house about two weeks before my Bar Mitzvah asking about my progress, and my mother, seeing that I hadn’t really started – made that a priority of my life – and in a matter of days I memorized the three Torah readings, without knowing what or why I was doing what I was doing.


As the big day arrived, I felt awkward, dressed in my polyester suit – and very out of place as a gawky 7th grader, surrounded by observant cousins whom I didn’t know, or barely knew.   So, the service was happening and I was going through the motions – there, but not really present.  What I know is that suddenly the fierce wind knocked over the portable ark, and the front glass smashed, and the Torah hit the deck hard, unfurling underneath the broken wood.  Needless to say, the services were interrupted.


When I speak to our kids – this is where I end the story – with a chuckle about how their Bar or Bat Mitzvah experience will already be inherently better than what mine was – even with the Torah falling, I became a Bar Mitzvah – and I offer some encouraging words about how the support of rabbis, teachers, and family in their lives makes all the difference in the world.  And all of this is true – and there is a second part to the story, which I share now.


After the Torah fell, in my mind’s eye, I next remember having many of the guests gathered in my parent’s unfinished basement – a place that collected old newspapers, spiders, mildew, and the flotsam and jetsam collected from the various chapters of my parents lives.  My knowledgeable relatives were standing tightly together, discussing how we were to address this calamity – as our custom teaches, were all of the men to fast for 40 days, or should each person fast for a day or two – with the sum totaling 40 days?  Should we start today, or after this simcha – should we start tomorrow?  What about the approaching High Holydays?  Should we fast on Rosh haShanah?  On Sukkot?  I was already mortified – and my many non-Jewish neighbors were standing around my relatives – and after listening intently, one of them said, “We would like to fast too – we want to help.”


My heart lifted – these were the people with whom I shared my everyday life – playing baseball and going to school – having sleepovers and playing Atari — they were not imported for my family’s special simchas, when yarmulkes suddenly appeared for us to wear, for appearance’s sake – and my father’s old, rejected yeshiva background came once again to the fore.  And my hope was dashed in an instant, when one of my relatives suddenly turned to this curious, accommodating neighbor and curtly responded, “How could you help – you’re not Jewish, you don’t matter.”


I remember too turning many shades of red, as embarrassment spilled over my face and shame pulsed through my body.  I went upstairs to my room and I’m sorry to say, hid under my bed, for what seemed to be a long time – not sure what to do with my feelings of anger, alienation, and what could only be termed as exile from my identity — until I came back down and finished the service and lurched through the rest of the day, feeling smaller and smaller – a stranger in a strange land.


Rosh haShanah was three days later that year – and I remember going to services then, and then not really returning to the synagogue for another eight years — until I was 20 and had a chance to come to terms with becoming Jewish on my own terms.  Had it not been for later transformative experiences as a college student in Poland — being able to walk in the death camps of Auschwitz and Birkenau to look directly into the void, and encounter the dire consequences of not taking my Judaism seriously — and then visiting Israel in the summer of 1991 after the First Gulf War, there is virtually no chance that we would be together today.  I think I would have disappeared – fully assimilated into the larger, enticing American culture.


I keep returning to that episode in my parent’s basement on that windy day – when in my memory, my friends and my way of life were indicted and my soul was torn. I think I watched the video with my parents once, a few years later – and then finding it again, when I was cleaning out my parent’s home after their deaths, I threw it away.  Feeling that I scrabbled intentionally in the decades that followed to become who I am instills me with vigor in not only encouraging the children of our community – but to continue to find ways to welcome anyone who is interested in learning about or connecting themselves to our traditions.


And yes, according to the letter of the law, my relatives were right to not involve my neighbors in fasting for a fallen Torah.  However, it was how they did it – tactlessly with a maladroit spirit – with a presumption of superiority, with a churlish narrowmindedness — that cut me to the quick, and drove me away.  As I have since learned, when making a decision, it is much easier to say no then to say yes – however, actually saying no – with immediate and cocksure self-righteousness – which builds impenetrable walls, what is lost – how many disenchanted ones have abandoned the search for Judaism because of such reflexive intolerance?


Our children ask, what is the value added in being Jewish – not only by binge-watching Seinfeld or Transparent episodes, absorbing and applying Jewish cultural cues and learning a Jewish lexicon – but also, immersing oneself in the practice of spiritual discovery with the efforts of discernment and difficult questions.  Our youth are asking to be inspired – not to be furnished with inherited truths, which reveal flaws even in dim light.  We have the examples of Job – who struggled with faith and meaning – and Ruth who sacrificed much to be with Naomi – we have the wily Jacob, and Joseph, who lives fully in two separate worlds.  We have the rabbis of the Talmud who navigate their own feelings of belonging and distance to create the Talmud – a most extraordinary creative and wise riff on Judaism, tweaking an establishment that seems so sure of itself as it staggers unsteadily forward.  And so many poets, sages, philosophers, mathematicians, doctors, inventors, workers, politicians, dreamers, and merchants over the ages – who were able to negotiate Judaism in their own contemporary society.


We have tremendous challenges currently in front of us.  College campuses that are to serve as laboratories for inquiry and critical thought, are instead breeding grounds for vicious and absolute anti-Israel condemnation.  Increasingly, young Jews are singled out and isolated, and repugnant movements like BDS – Boycott, Divest, and Sanction encourage a diminution of free-ranging thought and obstruct the ability for kids who had a bland or negative childhood experience of Judaism, to recover pride and propulsion to think for themselves and to be Jewish again, on their own terms.  And if we in the home communities live a binary life, steeped in groupthink and the poor choices of political correctness – clinging to how we think things should be because of how they have been, our Jewish lives will become arid, and our sanctuaries, that should be filled the vibrancy of give and take – with dreaming and imagination — will be covered in dust.  As our synagogues look to remain places of inspiration and refuge, we must ask the vital question – who belongs?  Who is allowed to support and love our community?


The prophet Isaiah teaches – harchivi m’kom aholeich – enlarge the place of your tent, and let them stretch forth the curtains of your habitations—do not spare your cords – rather, lengthen them, and spread out wide your stakes.  I am committed to broadening our conversations, increasing our accessibility and our visibility, and welcoming all those who want to show up and contribute as a part of our sacred community.


I think our community could benefit from deep and wide ranging conversations about the meaning of membership, belonging and attachment to our synagogue.  I think our conception of who can be and even who is a member of our community should be reconsidered.  It is important that we encourage serious and thoughtful conversations that are not commandeered by embittered and unreasonable bias, and indurated, preexisting lines in the sand.  Let others lead groups of short-sighted reactionaries who define themselves by who they are not – rather, I want to inspire and be inspired by those who recognize both the dilemmas and the consequences of participating in our revered debates, b’shem shamayim – for the sake of heaven.  I ask all of our entrepreneurs of the spirit to gather to think about how our community can meet the challenges of organized Jewish life in these times – I issue a call to action for all those who would like to be engaged in meaningful study of our texts to host me and any of your friends for times of study in your home.  Let us speak about our unabashed connection to, or profound distance from God – and yes, let us speak about our multi-complexioned support and love for Israel without penalty.


I realize that many of us are wounded and lack for strength by throwing shade and talking smack haphazardly about other people.  I ask us to be better than that.  I ask that our community be made holy by your presence – let us take our subterranean conversations out into the sunlight, and say yes – or say no, at least, with more compassion and examination.


The themes of Rosh haShanah are misunderstanding, resentment, and sending others away – we are asked to step into the story and to change the endings – to find a way for Sarah and Hagar to live together, to speak more compassionately to Hannah as she prays for her life in the sacred precinct, as she has been ostracized by Peninnah because of her infertility – and to resist sacrificing our children in the heat of the moment, just because God calls us to – or because that’s how we grew up.


At times, I marvel at the long and winding road that has brought each of us to this vital, sacred place – each of us with the potential to share the stoked fire burning deep within our souls.  I think of what a miracle it is that I feel with all of my heart, soul, and might the importance of the work that I do.  We are not called to mark time, in the turning of the New Year, content to be written in the Book of Life until we are not.  We must find ways to upgrade and call home again all who recognize the wisdom of our timeless texts and the worth of supporting a synagogue – we are to be ambassadors of our legacy, proud of how we find ways to live in formidable circumstances – we are to take the words of Shimon Peres (z”l)  to heart – when you have two alternatives, the first thing you have to do is to look for the third that you didn’t think about, that doesn’t exist.


What would I have done back in the basement, in 1983 – most likely, I would have partnered with my earnest non-Jewish neighbors.  I would have chosen certain days to fast alongside them while offering guidance about why honoring a fallen Torah is important in our tradition.  And now — our beloved Agudas Achim community can become much more than we are – it will take your ingenuity, your imagination, intention, and your resourcefulness – it will mean for us to break free from our zero sum gamesmanship to find a calmness and serenity, even on windy days – in short, it means that each of us needs to fall in love with our texts and our community again and again.  We have an extraordinary opportunity to do this with our newly commissioned Torah project – which you will hear more about on Yom Kippur.


The shofar summons us to refresh our behavior, and our sacred texts dare us to dream differently, about who we yet can be.  Let us continue to learn together as we continue to demystify our prejudices, and let us invite all who are willing to gather – to sit together to speak, as we continue to build bonds of affiliation, deeper connections, mutual respect, and love, everyday.  In this year, some of which will be windy inside our tents – let us craft a different ending to the stories that we know – and truly make a conscious decision to choose life.


Shanah Tovah u’Metukah

Ketivah va’Hatimah Tovah



Entry filed under: Judaism, Liturgy, Talmud, Torah, Uncategorized. Tags: , , , , .

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