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Torah reading” Adonay pakad et Sarah”
One concept echoes itself through out the Torah Reading and forms a core element of the Musaf Service. It is the concept of “Remembering”.
It starts with the Torah reading of the first day, Adonay Pakad et Sarah Kaasher Amar,” The Lord remembered Sarah as He promised.” In the Hafatarah, we are told of Hannah who prayed for a son Vayizkereha Hashem,” The Lord Remembered her.” In the next day’s Haftarah, we are assured that the exiled children of Israel would be saved, Zachor ezkereno od,” I shall surely remember him.” The Musaf Amidah includes ten verses from the Bible in which God remembers His promise to the children of Israel.
I must ask if we are worried so much if God will remember us, as if anyone else will remember us, notice us, look for us.
We may ask, ”Why do we come to shule?”
That question was asked of readers of one of America’s most venerable of Jewish papers, Der Forwerts, The Yiddish paper, Forward, in its popular column, A Bintel Brif, A Bundle of Letters, a hundred years ago. This was the Jewish Ann Landers & Dear Abbie- before these two Jewish sisters were even born!
Wrote one of the readers in rough paraphrase,” Moishe comes to shule to pray to God. I come to shule to be with Moishe.”
We come to the synagogue, as much as we need to come to be with God, hoping that God remembers us, notices us, as to be with our fellow Jews. That’s why the noise level in synagogues is always so high, because we are talking twice—once to God, and at the same time, to our neighbor. We come to shule, because, in order to find God, we need to find our neighbor. Even if we don’t come to find God, maybe, because we come to be with our neighbor, God will find us.
We Jews are supposed to get together three times a day, seven days a week. Practical life whittles it down to Friday nights and Saturday mornings, and festival, and then, life is hectic and busy, so its some Friday nights, or some Saturday mornings—but at least, now Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, we all try to get together in shule, in the synagogue, planning to be with our neighbors, and hoping, in the process, at this holy season, to bump into God as well.
Togetherness is so crucial for us, and it is so difficult to find. In truth, it has been difficult for ages.
It is Rosh Hashanah, and the heroes of our season are actually the heroines- Sarah, Hagar, Hannah, and Rachel, from our Torah and Haftarah readings. It is appropriate then, that I bring in another set of heroines form our Torah—Naomi and Ruth, for their story puts our modern concern into a nutshell:
As you recall, Naomi and her husband moved to a foreign land, where their two sons married local women. The husband and sons both die, Naomi is left alone, alone on her own, alone, a stranger in a strange land. There was only one solution--to head back to her own homeland with what little property and belongings she could still her scrape together. Perhaps her own long-forgotten friends and relatives would have pity on an old widow.
There was one saving grace. She still had one trustworthy daughter-in-law . Just as things looked the bleakest, this young woman shone through like a ray of light on a gloomy, cloudy day.
“ Don’t ask me to leave you”, she told her mother-in-law. “Wherever you go, there I will go, wherever you lodge, there will I lodge. Your people are my people, your God is my God.”
We have a glimpse of life from the perspective of Naomi, and the solution offered by Ruth.
This is our most modern of stories. For although the story is set in a date three millennia ago, the fear of loneliness and isolation is very much our present day worry and concern. At least, in antiquity there were organic societies, in which one had ones niche as long as one lived. Even into the good part of the last century, it was still possible to find warmth and support in life from voluntary communities and associations as well.
Now, however, we Jews have been uprooted, involuntarily and voluntarily, and so have so many other peoples. America, par excellence, is a nation built up by uprooted peoples from all over, uprooted not only physically, but emotionally as well, by the march of industry and modernity itself.
As a result, we no longer belong to the organic societies of antiquity, nor the contractual societies of the past centuries. We are now in the NO society. No permanent society, NO permanent friends, NO permanent home. There is total freedom from the bonds of patronage or parenthood or guilt, and there is also loneliness, isolation, solitude.
Is this the world we seek to live in?
I raise this issue because I see it too often. Many times, as a pulpit Rabbi, I had requests for aid from absolute strangers to the Jewish community, who had been living in the neighborhood for years, yet who knew no one and had never bothered to come by.
When times were good, they had no need of us, yet, in time of trouble, they discovered that no one had any need of them. Rabbi help me; Rabbi, what can I do; Rabbi, who can I turn to. I must admit, that in these cases, besides a few words of advice, I was pitifully unable to do anything.
To be sure, we moderns are caught in a paradox. We prize our individuality, our personal rights. It is the hallmark of American society, since the earliest colonists and frontiersmen. We sing "I did it my way" and a fast food chain echoes it in the commercial "Have it your way". It is enshrined in our Constitution, our Bill of Rights, the theology of our civil religion.
Despite this, we know, as Josh Billings once said, "Solitude is a good place to visit, but a bad place to stay.” Think about a popular show of several years ago, Cheers, whose theme song was:
“Where everybody knows your name, and they're always glad you came.” Very few truly want to be alone.
Today, everyone has a Facebook account. It’s another way of creating an intimate community, of just friends, It is a community that now encompasses a few billion, and we find ourselves measuring our importance in the number of friends we have and the number of followers we have on Twitter. I find myself constantly contacted by people looking to connect, from Arab lands, from Africa, from Asia, people with whom I have nothing in common but who are seeking to connect, to be noticed.
We all want someone else to know our name. Not just Vadonay pakad et Sarah, The Lord remembered Sarah, but, even more so, we want the fellow around the corner, the woman next door, to remember us as well.
I suggest that for the Jew or anyone else to find himself or herself alone could be the ultimate Hell. Our liturgy for this season includes the poignant prayer, Shma Kolenu, God, Hear our voices.” It then continues Al tashlikhenu b’et zikna, kichlot kochenu, al taazvenu, Do not throw us away in our time of old age; as our powers wane, do not abandon us."
My father would tell me that in his synagogue, in his home town of Dolina, in Galicia, the old men of the congregation would begin crying at this verse and my father, as a little child, would begin to weep as her saw his elders weeping.--This was a prayer addressed to God but cried out loudly for the ears family and friend. It carried the point to them – “You do not abandon me!"
Our teachers, since antiquity, were keenly aware of the vulnerability of the individual in his aloneness. Thus the greatest threat the Bible had to offer was not the punishment of death, but of karet--of being excised, cut off. Venikhretah nafsho metoch amo,” For he himself shall be cut off from the midst of his people. “
Rosh Hashanah points us toward the conclusion of this season, Yom Kippur. The very name of this day in English gives eloquent voice to that concern. We speak of Yom Kippur as the “Day of Atonement”. The word “Atonement’ is a compound old English word; it is, in its root, “At--One—Ment”.It is being at one, the opposite of being alienated from God. We can also speak of “At - 0ne – ment”, in regards to our fellow human beings. At this season, we seek to be at one with our fellow man and woman.( This usage is attributed to an early English Bible translator, Tyndale).
A legend recorded in the Talmud gives voice to classic Jewish sentiment on the need for human attention. In other faiths, great saints are said to flourish on isolation; not so in our tale. The great saint and holy man famous for Tu b'Shvat legends, is Honi Hameagel. We know the basics of the story:he sees an old man planting a tree, laughs at him for wasting his efforts on something he will never enjoy, and the old man retorts that he plants for his children’s children. Long before Rip Van Winkle, he falls asleep for 70 years, only to awaken to see a Carob tree grown from seedling to fruit bearing tree. This part of the tale is oft told.
However, we never hear the rest of the story.
He enters the Rabbinical Academy to hear the teacher declare:
This issue is as clear as it was in the days of the great Honi Hameagel, for he could answer every question. At this, our seventy-year sleeper shouted, "I am he", but who would believe him? At that rejection, he fell faint, prayed for mercy, and died. Jewish saints don' t seek to be alone; they, too, seek to be remembered and be seen . Thus, the Talmud Concludes, people say: O Hveruta o mituta” Give me companionship or give me death." Notice-not Liberty or death, but companionship or death.
Think about our concept of worship. Many years ago, I saw for the first time, the great Cathedral of Notre Dame. There is an overwhelming sense of transcendance, of the smallness of the human being, of the total power of God. The pious Christian is awed by the the mysterium tremendum, the holy mystery, the totaI otherness of God . At the core, Cathedral comes from Cathedra—the throne- the seat of authority which the individual must accept.
The same sense is felt inside the walls of the great mosques of Islam, the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, the great Mosque at Isfahan in Iran. The essence of Islamic religious architecture is geometric variation in design--circles inside circles, filigreed walls and columns-ceilings supported by a multiplicity of columns. All this is intended to convey the sense of the abstractness, of infinity, of the vastness , the total otherness of the mystery of God. The word Mosque comes from the Arabic masjid, from an Aramaic word, for bowing. One bows in the presence of God.
Then, there is the synagogue. There is, in the synagogue, no sense of awe and mystery. Our houses of worship may be beautiful, but, since the Temple of ancient Jerusalem—there is no Notre Dame.
Is this plainness the result of a lack of piety or devotion? Is the Jew any more or less pious than the Christian or Moslem because of this?
What does synagogue mean? It is from the Greek for bringing people together.That, in turn, comes from the Hebrew,Beit Haknesset, the place of the gathering of people- from which, the Christians derived the concept of “Ecclesia”, the Church, the collection of the people, not the building.
The nature of our synagogue gives witness to the nature of our faith. The shekhinah, God's presence, is not automatically found within the walls of the synagogue. God’s presence has not been in the Temple Mount since the year 70. It has been in the Exile, in the gathering of the Jewish people wherever they maybe, that God’s presence is felt.
One may not say the Kaddish in praise of God when alone in the synagogue. But one may chant the Kaddish in praise of God any where:in the jungle, in the desert, in the concenrtration camp, if one has ten adults. The people, together--ten adults--a minyan. We are commanded to declare the Holiness of God’s name in public—Kiddush hashem—in public, not alone. Even dining in Judaism prefers company—we need three to eat together, so we can jointly give thanks for our food and our blessings. God is found even in the presence of two engaged in Torah. God's presence is within the interaction between human beings, not within the dead walls of a building, no matter how awesome, immense, and awe-inspiring it may be.
Be-rov am hadrat meIech-- It is in the multitude of the people that the
King is truly glorified.
If God is enhanced in the workings of society, how much more so then, the human being is enhanced in the midst of a kehillah, a congregation. The human individual, within the context of society, becomes the vehicle for the emanation of God in this world.
Can we not therefore suggest, that the answer to the human condition of this century is to be found right here, this very day.
Here, within the walls of this congregation,we can find the solution to our modern malaise.
We are no longer born into our communities; we must now actively seek them out, and create them. It is the synagogue which can best offer the Jew his or her shelter and his or her comfort, as well, partners in joy, strengtheners in sorrow. I know that you have a big task in holding together this wonderful congregation , this Beth El, House of God of nearly a century, but you need to continue; you need each other, you nourish each other.
I close with the thoughts of Franz Rosenzweig. He had planned to go to the Baptismal font. By chance, he went first, to a very traditional, plain, and unpretentious Kol Nidre service. The presence of the shared community, bound in common prayer, made him reverse his decision. He Iater became a great Iight of Jewish Philosophy in Germany before the Hololcaust. I close with his words: “None of us has solid ground under our feet. Each of us is only held up by the neighborly hands grasping him by the scruff, with the result that we are each held up by the next man, and often, indeed, most of the time, hold each other mutually.”
Let us all join together, in keeping ourselves upright and on solid ground in life and make God’s presence felt in our midst.