“I woke up this morning with my mind stayed on freedom.”
This week, as part of the CCAR rabbinical convention in Atlanta, I had the opportunity to explore the Civil Rights movement, through a tour of the Center for Civil and Human Rights, lectures from leaders of the Southern Poverty Law Center and the NAACP, and a visit to the Temple, Atlanta’s historic Reform synagogue, which was bombed by White Supremacists in 1958.
Among other exhibits, the Civil Rights Center has a wonderful movie about the Freedom Riders, those black and white young people who spent the summer of 1961 riding integrated buses across the South, challenging segregation laws. Who endured beatings and arrests to make their point about the injustice of segregation. The film ended with a song from the Civil Rights movement: “I woke up this morning with my mind stayed on freedom.”
I know that song. I know every word of it! I sang it as a kid at Henry S. Jacobs Camp, the Reform Jewish camp in Utica, Mississippi, along with folk songs and Hebrew songs that expressed our Jewish values. In fact, it probably wasn’t until adulthood that I realized “Woke Up This Morning” wasn’t actually a Jewish song. I suspect that this Civil Rights songs had become one of “our” songs because the earliest counselors and campers of that Deep South camp, which was founded in the early 70s, had been immersed in the struggle for Civil Rights during the previous decade.
I grew up in the South, but since today I live far away in Canada, it’s easy to forget how real the Civil Rights Movement is – how recent, and how nearby. I was born in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, 16 years after Governor George Wallace stood on the auditorium steps in that city to block the integration of the university. The events described in the Civil Rights exhibit take place largely in the states where I was born and where I grew up, and largely within my parents’ lifetime. In fact, this past Tuesday as I heard Joseph Levin, Jr, tell – in his strong Alabama drawl – the story of how he came to co-found the Southern Poverty Law Center, I felt strangely at home. I grew up surrounded by those accents and those ways of thinking – by men and women who attended those universities and were members of those fraternities, who dress conservative but think liberal, who talk in old-fashioned Southern accents but act in courageous new ways in the fight for social justice. That is, in many ways, the Southern Jewish experience. It is something to be proud of.
Yes, I know the Civil Rights Movement isn’t about me, and it isn’t even about the Jews. It’s about the brave African Americans who stood up and demanded rights and equality. But it’s also about the white, black, Jewish, Christian, and Muslim allies who stood with them in the demand for a more just society. And it is about those of every place and time who know that our world is not yet as it should be.
I rarely encountered overt racism or anti-Semitism growing up in the South in the 80s and 90s. My Temple was not bombed. My schools were at least nominally integrated. My Jewish youth group and camp experiences were positive, happy, and healthy. And yet the old issues were not far beneath the surface. There were the occasional worrisome comments. The racial integration of our schools existed only on the surface – I remember distinctly that in one of the high schools I attended in Baton Rouge, the white and black kids essentially kept to themselves. When former Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard David Duke ran for governor of Louisiana, I was floored by how many of my 7th grade classmates in New Orleans supported him. It is clear to me in hindsight that these were indications that the South is still struggling with issues of Civil Rights and racial equality. There is still work to be done.
Today I live far from the South. In fact, as a resident of Toronto, I live in a city that prides itself on being diverse, progressive, and welcoming. There is a level of diversity and coexistence evident on the streets, on the subways, and in my kids’ schools, that still astounds me every day. But that doesn’t mean that there isn’t hate. We have had our JCC bomb threats, our racially motivated killings, and our mosque attacks as well. We may not be Alabama in the 1960s, but neither can we fool ourselves that we are we living in a society free of bigotry. That is why we must continue to build relationships, why we must create bridges of understanding, knowledge, and acceptance between different faith and ethnic communities. And it is why we must speak out loudly – no matter who we are or where we live – against hate and injustice in all its forms.
Last month, when 6 worshippers tragically lost their lives in a hate-motivated attack on a mosque in Quebec City, synagogues throughout Toronto organized “Circles of Peace” around the local mosques, singing and praying in solidarity with our Muslim brothers and sisters. The members of my congregation wanted instead to attend Friday prayers at a local mosque with whom we have a relationship. And when we did, and when we were warmly welcomed by our friends at the mosque, we discovered that 2 churches were also in attendance. On that Friday, Muslims, Christians, and Jews sat together, raising their voices in prayer that someday our world will be a place of tolerance and freedom for people of all races, religions, and backgrounds.
“I woke up this morning with my mind stayed on freedom.”
There are moments in history that call for clarity of purpose. May we look to the examples of the past, to the brave men and women who have fought for justice and equality, and may we be inspired to stand together with those who are different from us, and to stand up for what is right.
It is told that once, just before the start of Yom Kippur, the Baal Shem Tov went up to a Jew in the back of the synagogue and asked him to lead the Kol Nidre service.
The man looked up at the Baal Shem and did what any of us might do in the situation: he tried to get out of it. He said, “Rebbe, I’m not a very religious man” But the Rebbe insisted.
So the man said, ““Rebbe, I’m sorry, I don’t know the prayers very well.” But still the Baal Shem Tov insisted.”
So finally, the poor man didn’t know what else say and he blurted out, “Rebbe, I’m afraid!”
And to this the Baal Shem Tov replied, “When you can say what you are, you can lead the people.” And the man ascended the bima and led the Kol Nidrei prayers.
It sounds like every Jew’s worst nightmare, right? That the rabbi will jump off the bima, hand you a prayerbook, and tell you to go sing Avinu Malkeinu. It’s like the Jewish equivalent of that dream where it’s opening night of a play and you don’t know any of your lines. Or the one where you show up to school in your underwear.
We’ve all had these dreams. We can all relate to that feeling of being inauthentic. We know it in our secular lives; we know it from our bad dreams; and we know it very well in our religious life.
The Kelemer Maggid, another Chassidic master, used to teach that Yom Kippur is actually Yom K-Purim – a day that is like Purim. How is Yom Kippur like Purim, he taught: On both days we wear masks. On Purim we masquerade as Esther and Mordecai. On Yom Kippur, we masquerade as the pious and religious Jews we are not.
I very often have conversations that sound an awful lot like the one in the story, where people say to me apologetically, “Rabbi I’m not very religious.”
That’s our way of explaining why we don’t come to services enough, or we don’t keep kosher enough, or we don’t know enough: We’re not very religious.
And it usually comes with some kind of disclaimer:
- Rabbi, I’m not very religious, but I’m looking for a community.
- I’m not very religious, but I want my children to be Jewish.
- I’m not very religious, but I’m spiritual. I meditate every day.
- I’m not very religious, but I believe in Tikkun Olam – repairing the world.
I have to tell you, as a rabbi I don’t know any way to define “religious” other than to say that it involves seeking community, and building a spiritual life, and passing traditions on to our children, and working to repair the world. For people who are “not very religious,” we sure do a lot of religious things!
And yet too often we go through life feeling like we are dressed up as something we are not.
Two weeks ago, we held a Shabbat morning talk for Religious School parents about God. We started off by defining our own beliefs and experiences of God. People said amazing things – they talked about finding God in nature, in relationships, in their children, in their learning. And then we compared that to what we believe “Judaism says about God.” And we found a huge disconnect. Where our God was found in nature and relationships, the “Jewish God,” we believed, was found in supernatural miracles and ritual commandments.
I think that for far too many of us, there is Judaism on the one hand, and then there is us – our beliefs and our practices – on the other hand. We’ll say things like:
- “Judaism says God created the world in 7 days, but I believe in the Big Bang.”
- “Judaism says that Moses parted the Red Sea. But I think it was probably just low tide.”
- “Judaism says we are supposed to keep kosher, but I only keep kosher style, and only inside the house, and not on vacation.”
We constantly we set ourselves up as outside of Judaism. As something less than the real thing. Somewhere in the back of our minds we still believe that there is an authentic way to be Jewish – that it looks like Orthodoxy, or it looks like our grandparents. Either way it doesn’t look like us. No wonder we feel like showed up at play practice without learning our lines.
We are not the first Jews to contend with this kind of inferiority complex. You can see that from the Kelemer Maggid’s little teaching about Yom Kippur and Purim. But even earlier than that, Judaism has always struggled with an idea called Yeridat Hadorot – the decline of the generations. This is the notion that each successive generation, as it moves further and further from Sinai, becomes a little weaker, a little more corrupted, a little less authentic.
In the Talmud, Rabbi Zera is quoted as saying: “If the earlier scholars were like angels, then we are mere human beings. And if the earlier scholars were human beings, then we are like donkeys.”
And that was 1500 years ago. Imagine what that makes us!
This is a truly self-defeating way to look at the world. And it doesn’t actually represent how we feel about ourselves – at least not in the secular sphere. In 21st century Canada, we believe that we are living in the most diverse, most progressive society ever to exist. We believe that, far from declining with each generation, we get to make life more fulfilling as time marches forward, by learning about the world around us and applying that learning to our laws and our customs. That’s how we evolve as a society. So why can’t we also apply that kind of thinking to Judaism?
It turns out that in fact, the Rabbis already did. In fact, Judaism as we know it is built on just that kind of thinking. When the Temple was destroyed 2000 years ago, the Rabbis of the time began to meet to debate and discuss how Judaism would move forward in this new era. The Talmud records one of these debates in the form of a story:
It tells that that once, the great sages were gathered in the Beit Midrash arguing over a certain point of Jewish law. The specific point doesn’t matter, but what matters is that all of the Rabbis believed one way, and only Rabbi Eliezer disagreed.
Rabbi Eliezer declared: “If I am right, then let this carob tree prove it!” And the carob tree flew out of the ground and landed a hundred cubits away.
And then Rabbi Eliezer said: “If I am right, then let the stream of water prove it.” And the stream of water flowed backwards.
And so on and so forth with all kinds of miracles until finally, Rabbi Eliezer said to the sages, “If the law agrees with me, then let it be proved by heaven.” And a heavenly voice cried out: “Why do you argue with Rabbi Eliezer? His rulings are always right!”
But the other rabbis weren’t impressed. And the great Rabbi Joshua stood and said words from the Torah portion that we will read tomorrow morning: “Lo bashamayim hi. Torah is not in Heaven.”
At that moment, the sages say, God started laughing and said, “Nitzachuni banai, Nitzachuni banai – My children have overruled me! My children have overruled me!” (Baba Metzia 59a)
My teacher Dr. Mark Washofky used to call this story the “Declaration of Independence of Rabbinic Judaism.” This is the ancient Rabbis declaring independence from the orthodoxies of their time. Declaring independence from the idea that there was only ONE right way to be Jewish, and that we could never measure up. Instead, they declare that we Jews have the right – and the responsibility – to reinterpret Judaism in every generation.
And there are about a thousand examples of this. When the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed, the rabbis decided that you could pray in a synagogue anywhere in the world. When you could no longer bring a Passover sacrifice, they created the Pesach Seder based on Roman practices. The Jewish calendar, the wedding ketubah, the rituals of Chanukah, the medieval philosophical writings – all of these are examples of innovations and that made their way into Judaism because of the needs of the moment and because of the cultural context in which Jews were living.
Judaism has always been Reform Judaism. Judaism has always been aware of the world around it; has always offered multiple paths to fulfillment; has always been about making real meaning in the real world.
Rabbi Kaufman Kohler, who was one of the giants of early Reform Judaism, wrote about 100 years ago that “the very spirit of Reform that empowered [the early Rabbis] to declare the sanctuary of learning to be as holy as the Temple at Jerusalem, ought by all means to empower us to assign our temples the same divine holiness.”
In other words, it is our sacred responsibility not only to follow the traditions, but to be ongoing interpreters of Jewish traditions.
It turns out that we are not at play practice without a script. The script is right here in our hands; and Judaism even gives us a pencil – to make edits and interpretations along the way. That’s also what the ancient rabbis did. It is the original, and the most authentic approach to Jewish life. It is the very definition of being a religious Jew.
I think that as Reform Jews, we need to work to reclaim words like “religious” and “kosher.” To define them based not on Orthodoxy or on our grandparents’ lives, but on what they mean in our context.
To be “religious” doesn’t just mean to observe a bunch of rituals; it means to thoughtfully learn about Judaism and about the world around us and to make meaningful choices based on that learning.
To be Shomer Shabbat – to be Sabbath observant – doesn’t only mean not to turn on lights on Saturday. It might also mean making the choice to drive to the synagogue or to friends’ houses, or gathering our families for movies or meals, or doing the gardening while refraining from paying the bills.
To keep kosher doesn’t only mean eating a certain hechsher or keeping 2 sets of dishes. It might also mean paying attention to the ethical impact of our food we’re eating – choosing local, or free range, or any of the other mindful choices that our Jewish values drive us to make.
These are real and authentic definitions of Jewish words. They are real and authentic ways to live as a Jew. And they place a real and authentic responsibility on us – to be active learners and to be active agents in building our own Jewish lives. Liberal Judaism is a religion of process, not product. It matters less exactly how you keep a given mitzvah and more how you came to that decision. In the principles of Reform Judaism it says:
We are committed to the ongoing study of the whole array of mitzvot and to the fulfillment of those that address us as individuals and as a community.
That is not at all easy to do. Being a Reform Jew involves learning and choosing, and then when our beliefs or our circumstances shift, it involves learning and choosing all over again.
The danger of liberal Judaism is that when we don’t do that kind of work, it is easy to slip into something complacent. And then we become the fulfillment of our own insecurities about not being authentic enough, not being “religious enough.” When we say that, it’s not about whether somebody else approves of our standard of kashrut – it’s about whether we approve of our own choices.
And that means that those questions of the High Holy Days – questions about living our lives authentically, about whether our actions match our values – these are questions that we need to be asking ourselves every day of our lives.
Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik wrote that the process of teshuvah – of repentence – “must energize an ever-ascending spiral in [our] spiritual state.” In other words, that the process of teshuvah can be a kind of springboard for the growth and authenticity we are seeking.
When our Jewish lives reflect honest reflection and real learning and mindful decision making, we become the most authentic versions of ourselves and the most authentic Jews we can be.
So that is the challenge of the new year, and really the challenge of every day. To pick up a new book. To learn something new about our Judaism and about ourselves. To ask ourselves hard questions: Does my Shabbat practice really reflect my what I believe about the importance of family and self-care and emotional health? Do my eating habits reflect my own ethical ideas? Am I putting effort into building the community that I need? Would I honestly define myself – not according to someone else’s definition but according to my own – as living the Jewish life that I choose?
Rabbi Akiva once said to his students: “God showed us love by creating us in the Divine Image, but God showed us even greater love by making us conscious that we are created in the Divine Image.”
We are blessed with the consciousness of God – with the ability to come to know ourselves through learning and reflection. To build the life and the self that we wish to build, and in so doing to make the world a better place. There is no act more religious than this. There is no path more authentic.
In the coming year, may we challenge ourselves and our assumptions.
May we celebrate our choices and our values.
And may we work to see ourselves as the recipients and the embodiment of an ancient tradition, as guardians of an eternal and ever-evolving way of life.
 Based on The Yom Kippur Anthology p. 120.
 Ibid 123.
 B. Shabbat 112b.
 “Blowing of the Shofar on the Sabbath.” American Reform Responsa XXIII, pp. 182-3)
 Soloveichik, Joseph. “The Jewish Concept of Teshuvah.”The Yom Kippur Anthology. P 143.
 Mishnah., Qtd in Gates of Repentence p. 4.
They say that “absence makes the heart grow fonder.” I’m not so sure about that.
This weekend, Jewish families all over the world will sit down at their tables for the Passover Seder. This season celebrates freedom; it acknowledges that somewhere in the depths of our history/mythology we were slaves. And that through forces human and divine, we were made free.
The main character of this drama is, of course, Moses. Moses the miracle baby. Moses the Egyptian prince. Moses the freedom fighter. Moses the reticent leader. Moses the prophet. Moses the philosopher. Moses the rabbi. He plays more roles in Jewish tradition than any other figure. He is the archetype for EVERYTHING.
Which makes it exceedingly curious that as you make your way through the traditional Haggadah – the prayerbook for the Passover Seder – the name of Moses appears not a single time.
Why is Moses absent from the seder? Maybe the framers of the Haggadah wanted to attribute the miracles to God. Maybe they didn’t want to encourage Moses-worship. Maybe they wished to universalize the story, allowing it to speak to oppressed peoples in every time and place. Whatever the reason, there is a sense that Moses’ actions are so extraordinary that they speak for themselves. We don’t even need to mention his name.
Moses is lucky – we know he’s there even when he’s not mentioned. But that’s not usually the meaning of absence. And that is what the US Treasury Department acknowledged this week when it announced that for the first time, a woman will be featured on an American bill. Finally, a woman’s presence on US currency! Finally, an end to this glaring absence of female voices and faces in an important federal institution.
And appropriately for Passover, the US Treasury department chose none other than Moses. The abolitionist Harriet Tubman, who escaped slavery and then committed her life to shepherding other slaves to freedom, was known in the abolitionist movement as “Moses,” because of her commitment to freeing her people. A human rights activist, a suffragist, and a symbol for freedom, her actions – like those of the original Moses – have long outlived her own lifetime.
By placing Harriet Tubman on the $20 bill, we acknowledge the central Jewish value that individuals have the power to repair the world. That where there is slavery or oppression or hatred, brave women and men can to change it. It reminds us that that our presence is felt through our actions.
May the name of “Moses” – and her picture on our currency – inspire us to be our best, and to bring freedom and peace to our world.
Chag Pesach Sameach – Happy Passover to all!
In the movie The Ten Commandments, Moses comes down the mountain with two tablets, containing the 10 laws that the Israelites are to follow.
I love that movie. But it doesn’t tell the whole story.
Jewish tradition tells says what happened at Sinai was far bigger than any 10 Commandments. It was even bigger then the entire Torah, with its 613 commandments. What was given to us at Sinai with the entirety of Judaism – the written and oral traditions, the ethics and morals and stories and laws.
This week’s Torah portion is part of that. It’s called Mishpatim, which means “laws.” And boy, does it have laws. This portion contains everything from the laws of slavery to the different kinds of sacrifice, from how to keep kosher to the prohibition against accepting bribes.
The point is that this is also Sinai. Last week, we received the 10 Commandments. This week, still standing at Sinai, we receive the laws of how to be a good society.
It says in the Mechilta of Bar Yochai, “Rules of the just society have the same divine origin as the Decalogue.”
This is an important principle in Judaism. As a religious way of life, Torah doesn’t only govern how we pray and how we perform rituals. In Jewish space, how we relate to our fellow human beings is just as important as how we relate to God.
And this week, we have seen a watershed moment in terms of how we relate to our fellow human beings in Jewish space.
This week, we learned that for the first time, the Israeli government agreed to create a true egalitarian section at the Western Wall.
This announcement is the result of a long negotiation that involves the Jewish Agency, the Reform and Conservative movements, Women of the Wall, and the government of Israel.
It provides, essentially, that the two year old “mixed gender prayer space” that is to the south of the Western Wall will be refurbished, expanded, and made equal to the existing, gender segregated space. And after that’s done, Women of the Wall will move their prayer services to that space, and the liberal movements will essentially govern a Kotel, just like the Orthodox.
This is an extraordinary shift. Rabbi Denise Eger, president of the Central Conference of American rabbis, writes:
For the first time, the Israeli government recognized the authentic ritual and religious needs of those of us who believe in egalitarian prayer and women’s equality.
Let’s not minimize that fact. The Israeli government has, begrudgingly, begun to recognize some liberal rabbis, pay a few salaries, and provide some prayer spaces. But this is the first time in history that space has been made for non-orthodox prayer at a communal Jewish holy site. That is a very big deal.
But the compromise is not perfect. Not by any stretch. There are three basic critiques of this deal I’ve seen tossed around the airwaves for the last few days. I’d like to address each one briefly, and think about what responsibilities they give us.
The first critique is the one that says “this isn’t really the Kotel.”
Take a look at the picture of the Kotel/Robinson’s Arch area. What we’re talking about here is the more “off the beaten track” area to the south of the current Kotel Plaza. The two are separated by the Mughrabi bridge that leads to the Dome of the Rock. This is actually part of an archaeological excavation, and it’s only been over the course of the last 30 to 40 years. Which means, that it’s correct to say that for the last 2000 years this wasn’t part of the Kotel. However, it IS part of the western retaining wall of the ancient temple. As Rabbi Elyse Goldstein has pointed out, it has the same holiness and the same historicity.
And as Yair Ettinger writes in Haaretz:
The Southern Wall is a site no less sacred than the northern plaza, and in many senses is a more dignified, quieter and more beautiful site, and Jewish history is strongly present due to important archaeological finds scattered there.
In other words, this really IS the Kotel. It’s just the less famous part. It’s kind of like moving into a new house – it’s no less your house, it’s just not the one you’ve been living in.
Our challenge, then, is to make it our house. To build new memories and new associations with this extraordinarily holy spot. Think of the opportunity this presents – to create a holy space – a kotel – that reflects the kind of Judaism that we believe in. It’s exciting, and it’s challenging.
Which brings me to the second critique – the charge that this compromise divides the Jewish people.
Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein writes:
The resistance of the heterodox movements to the mechitzah in the Kotel plaza means that they have erected an even larger, more ominous one between millions of Jews.
A Mechitzah is a dividing wall. And there’s no question that this creation of a parallel Kotel divides the Jews.
I’m of two minds about this one. On the one hand, I believe deeply in the value of K’lal Yisrael – Jewish unity. I think we have to choose carefully when it comes to pitting ourselves against fellow Jews. The Talmud teaches that it wasn’t actually the Romans, rather causeless hatred between Jews, that brought down the very second temple that we’re fighting about right now. That’s an important lesson for all of us.
But at the same time, my Jewish values teach me that I can’t let injustice stand. This isn’t simply a case of different ritual practices. This is about the basic moral issue of men’s and women’s equality. The basic question of whether Jewish sites should be available to all Jews. That’s why our movement made this decision.
And this isn’t the first time that we liberal movements have chosen to deprioritize Jewish unity because of some moral issue. We did the same thing when we were gained women rabbis, when we begin to perform same-sex marriages. And each time we’ve done so, we’ve seen that eventually, the Jewish world follows us. My hope and prayer is that this new liberal Kotel will be an opportunity for that to happen again.
It’s worth noting in all this that with the creation of a liberal Kotel to the parallel the Ultra Orthodox Kotel, there is one group being left behind. And that is the third critique of the compromise.
In the new setup, the Liberal section will be governed according to the laws of liberal Judaism – women and men may pray together, women’s prayer groups may read from the Torah and wear t’fillin. But that will still not be the case for the women’s section on the Orthodox side. And, as Yair Ettinger writes, that leaves “no room for Liberal orthodox.”
The big losers in this deal are the Orthodox women who wish to be able to sing, worship, and pray together as orthodox women. There will be space set aside for them in the mixed section to do so, but that’s not really what they’re looking for.
It’s a reminder to us that we still have much work to do. That this is a marathon and not a sprint. That we are still deeply engaged in fighting for the religious rights of all Jews – liberal AND Orthodox – in the Jewish state.
Eleh hamispatim asher tasim. These are the laws you shall establish.
Law is an expression of values. As we rejoice in this moment, may we recognize the ways that these new laws express an evolution in the values of the Jewish state.
At the same time, may we recognize our responsibility to continue that work.
And may Ahavat Yisrael – our love for the people and land of Israel – always be our guiding light.
 Etz Hayim 477, note 3.
NOTE: this entry was cross-posted at Jewish Values Online.
The great Rabbi Akiba used to tell this story:
A fox once spotted a fish darting to and fro in the water. He asked the fish, “From whom are you fleeing?”
And the fish answered, “From the fisherman’s net.”
So the crafty fox offered, “Would you like to come up to safety on dry land?”
To which the fish responded, “Aren’t you a clever one! If I am in danger here in the water, how much more so if I remove myself from it.” (Babylonian Talmud, Berachot 61b)
In Judaism, water is a symbol for Torah. The lesson of the story is that we are strongest when we surround ourselves with the Torah and its learning. Reform Jewish life is based on this idea: We read from the Torah weekly; we study it regularly; we seek ways to incorporate its teachings into our lives.
So who wrote the Torah?
For most Reform Jews, Torah is not the literal “word of God.” That is to say, we mostly don’t believe that it was penned by God and handed down in its complete form to Moses at Sinai. In fact, critical scholars have taught us that the Torah contains many different voices and views. The first two chapters of Genesis tell two very different – and in some ways opposite – stories of the world’s creation. Genesis 6-9 seems to be a blending of two different stories of Noah and flood. And the many different names for God apparently represent different expressions of Jewish spirituality in ancient Israel…and they don’t always agree with each other!
So where is God in all of this? If the Torah was written by human beings, what makes it so special?
Rabbi Gunther Plaut writes in the introduction to his classic Torah commentary:
God is not the author of the text, the people are; but God’s voice may be heard through theirs if we listen with open minds. (Plaut, The Torah: A Modern Commentary, Revised Edition. Xxxviii.)
Judaism has always taught that God is to be found through the actions and ideas of human beings. In Avot 3:3, it teaches that “When two people exchange words of Torah, the divine presence rests between them.” In other words, “Torah” is not only a book, but an action – an act of study and learning, an act of seeking the divine amidst the mundane, an act of trying to bring the holy into an ordinary world.
And the book we call “The Torah” is no different. It is a divine book, but was written by human beings. It is the human side of an ongoing conversation between our people and God. To quote Rabbi Plaut again, it is “a book about humanity’s understanding of and experience with God.”
This makes the Torah different from Aesop’s fables or the writings of Shakespeare, because it is an attempt to express not only universal truths, but divine truths.
This also means that as liberal Jews, we have to read the Torah on two levels – as a literature that comes out of a certain time and place, AND as a timeless literature that speaks to our lives as well. To ignore either of those levels would be to sell the Torah short, to deny part of its essence.
Most of all, it means that we are called upon to surround ourselves with words of Torah like fish in water. Talmud Torah – Study of Torah – is our opportunity to engage with the ways that our ancient ancestors found God in the world, and it is our opportunity to add our own voices to that eternal dialogue.
We are committed to the ongoing study of the whole array of mitzvot and to the fulfillment of those that address us as individuals and as a community.
For three years there were disputes between Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel. Beit Shammai claimed “The law agrees with us,” and Beit Hillel claimed “The law agrees with us.” Then, a voice came from heaven and said: “Both are the words of the living God, but the law agrees with Beit Hillel.
Once, there were two builders – one wise and one foolish. They were on a journey to a jobsite in a faraway town, and each one carried his tool belt with him as they made their way. As night approached, the builders felt weary and stopped at an inn to sleep. Since they were afraid of thieves, they placed their tool belts under their beds for the night. In the morning, they woke up at daybreak and quickly made their way down the road toward the jobsite, forgetting to take the tools with them.
They only realized their mistake several hours later, when they were already close to their destination. What to do? Well, the foolish builder said, “Quickly! Let’s press on, for we have so much work to do today.” And he continued down the road toward the jobsite.
But the wiser of the two turned back. He said, “What good will it do us now to hurry, since we are empty handed? The more sensible thing is to find our tools, so that we may build successfully.”
We spend our lives building. Building families, building careers, building communities and relationships. Building ourselves. Each year on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we come to the synagogue to gather the tools that we will need for that work. It’s a challenging and heavy season for us. But it’s also an exciting season filled with the possibilities of spiritual fulfillment and renewal.
The High Holy Day liturgy speaks the language of renewal. Over and over again throughout the holidays, we will sing the final line of the book of lamentations. It says:
Hashiveinu Adonai eilecha v’nashuvah.
Return us to You, O God, and we shall return.
Chadeish yameinu k’kedem
Renew our days/Make our days new as they were in the past.
It’s a very strange phrasing – “Chadeish yameinu k’kedem.” Chadeish comes from the Hebrew word chadash, which means “new.” And kedem is the word for ancient or old. So the verse literally asks God to make our days, make our lives, make us into something new…. that we used to be. That doesn’t really make sense. If something is new, then it is not what it used to be. And if something is as it used to be, then by definition it has not been renewed.
And yet, we repeat those words throughout the holidays.
I think it’s intended to teach us something about teshuvah – about repentance. It teaches us that the process of teshuvah helps us to become both something new and something very, very old. Our task during these Days of Awe is not to envision ourselves as an entirely different person. It’s not to reinvent ourselves. Rather, it is to return to the self that has always been inside of us. To get in touch with our own essential nature.
The Hasidim tell that the great Rebbe Zusya once came before his followers with tears in his eyes. They asked him: “Rebbe, what’s the matter?
And he told them that he had had a vision. He said, “I have learned the question – the terrible question – that the angels will ask me when I enter Olam Haba – when I enter the next world.”
The Rabbi’s followers were puzzled. “But Rebbe Zusya, you are pious and wise and humble. What question about your life could possibly be so terrifying?”
Zusya sighed. He said, “When I enter the next world, the angels will not ask me, ‘Why weren’t you Moses?’ And they will not ask me, ‘Why weren’t you Joshua?’ They will not ask, ‘Why weren’t you Maimonides or Rashi or Rabbi Akiba. Rather, they will say to me: ‘Zusya, why weren’t you Zusya?'”
Are we living our lives according to our own values?
Are we choosing our actions based on what we really believe?
Are we taking responsibility for the choices we make?
These are the difficult questions of the Days of Awe.
Judaism teaches us to see our lives as a product of our own choices. Anyone who’s ever been hiking or climbing knows that moving forward is a function of the choices we make. Where will I place my foot? Which path is the right one for me? Which rock should I hold onto?
And everyday life is the same. We make a thousand choices a day: Eggs or shredded wheat? Shoes or sandals? Homework or coffee with a friend? Should I speed up or slow down at the yellow light. Should I finish up this paperwork at my desk, or make it home for dinner? There’s not always a right and wrong answer, but our choices reflect our priorities. And in the end, our lives reflect the choices we’ve made.
Eleanor Roosevelt said, “One’s philosophy is …expressed in the choices one makes.”
That means that the task of teshuvah – the task of becoming our best selves – is actually a task of trying to make choices that are in line with our beliefs and values. One by one. A thousand times a day.
Alan Morinis, founder of the Mussar Institute, writes that “Strengthening your ability to choose expands your capacity to exercise free will, which [is] a defining feature of being human.” (Everyday Holiness, p. 38)
To be human is to be created in God’s image. To be created in God’s image is to recognize that we are choosing beings. That no matter the circumstances, no matter the behaviour of others, there is always a choice.
On the High Holy Days, we are tasked with nurturing and developing our most human and most divine characteristic – our faculty of free will. We are tasked to consider our own values and ideals, to create a road map for living and choosing according to them, and to take that map out into the world with us.
So, it turns out that the tools we need for the coming year are inside of us. Unlike those builders from the story, we cannot leave our toolkits under our beds or by the side of the road. We carry them with us wherever we go – our values; our beliefs; our sense of self worth. Our capacity to connect with others, to do for others, to repair the world, to repair ourselves.
In the coming year, may we have the strength to do the hard work of teshuvah.
May we have the patience to allow ourselves to falter.
And may we recognize that everything we need to become our best selves is already inside of us.