My Only Sermon – It’s All About Relationships
The story is told of Reb Israel, the Maggid of Koznitz, who visited the town of Apta at the time of Rosh Hashanah each year. On one such visit, the elders of the town asked the rebbe to preach in their shul for the holidays. To their surprise, Reb Israel refused. When they asked him why, he said: “Last year when I visited, you made the same request. I was only too happy to give a sermon. But I am sorry to say that I accomplished absolutely nothing by doing it. Things here are exactly the same today as they were a year ago – nothing has changed. Apparently, nobody heard a word I said. Why, then, should I waste my breath?”
The people of Apta were devastated…no, they were insulted. They were insulted and devastated. Could it be that the rabbi’s sermon had fallen on deaf ears?
As word of the Rebbe’s harsh rebuke spread swiftly through the town, the people of Apta fell into a deep depression. Finally, a craftsman asked to meet with Reb Israel.
“I am neither a scholar nor a saint,” the man said to the Rabbi, “but I can say that you are mistaken about your sermon having no effect. I listened to what you said last year. You spoke of the obligation of every Jew to practice what is written in the Psalms – “I place You, O God, before me forever – I am ever mindful of Your Presence.” (Psalm 16:8) From that moment on, I have sought to do just that. The Name of God is constantly before me, revealed to me as black fire written on white fire – I see God in every person I meet and in everything I encounter. I live in awe of God’s presence constantly.”
The Rebbe smiled at the man and apologized for his hasty rebuke. “If one heart was opened last year, perhaps two will open this year.” And he agreed to preach for the New Year.
My friends, I stand humbly before you, and I eagerly and unconditionally agree to offer you a sermon for this tenth year running. I truly do not know how many of my words you may have heard over the years, nor how many you have taken to heart. I pray that I have given some of you a bit of insight, and still more of you – words of comfort. It would please me if most everyone in this holy congregation has gotten a sense of the meaning and the beauty and the joy I experience every day in Judaism and Jewish life. If over the past ten years I have accomplished that much, I can find the strength or at least the audacity to offer you a few words again today.
They say a rabbi has only one sermon. We just keep giving it over and over again, throughout our careers in a variety of different ways. Hillel’s sermon, for example, was short and sweet, yet infinitely complex. Two thousand years ago he said: “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. The rest is commentary. Now go and study.”
Now, over the past ten years, I have given 36 sermons from this bima during the High Holidays. In the first year, just days after 9‐11, I spoke about comfort and hope. Since then, I have tried to make the case that acting for social justice is mandated by the Jewish tradition. I urged everyone to forge personal relationships with the land and people of Israel. I taught you six criteria from the Talmud for a life well‐lived. We talked about developing a personal theology that works for you and is authentically Jewish. I offered a portrait of the beauty and power that Shabbat can bring to our personal and communal lives. We talked about judgment, repentance, teshuvah and forgiveness. Above all, I have shared my insights about relationships – by presenting an ethical will, a talk about caring for aging parents and a letter of love for our teens. I have talked about community and community and community, over and over again.
So, if you have been paying attention to my sermons, or the divrei Torah I have given on Shabbat or any of the teachings I offered in our Beit Midrash, Torah Hevra or the classroom, I know you have heard my sermon. It is very simple. I can express it in three short sentences:
“I believe that God exists, not out there somewhere, but in all things. The oneness of God is reflected in the oneness of the entire universe. As a part of creation animated by the divine spark, we are called on to instill all our relationships with holiness. – That’s it. The rest is commentary, now go and study it.”
There are three parts to my message. The first two are theological, and therefore, foundational:
1. God exists
2. God is One – Therefore all being is one.
If you do not accept these premises, it does not matter all that much. Don’t get hung up on the theology. The third part is the action item. It’s the one I want you to pay close attention to:
3. Because we are creatures animated by the divine spark within us, we are called to sanctify all of our relationships and make them holy.
At a certain level, this calling we share is simply a matter of looking for and recognizing God in every person and in every thing. Our duty is to see God’s presence in the other and make it manifest by bringing out the holiness in potential. The Chasidic masters called this “raising the sparks.” Martin Buber called it “hallowing our relationships through holy living.” I call it living life with meaning and purpose and demonstrating our sense of responsibility for others by doing Mitzvot – holy deeds.
That’s my sermon, and I guess it probably is the only one I’ve got.
Let me just share a few observations and implications.
• You can’t be a Jew alone. We need each other in order to live lives of meaning and purpose. Holiness can only be created in relationship.
• You can be a Jew without praying in Hebrew or without actually knowing much of anything. (But you run the risk of feeling a little lost.)
• You can be a Jew without being born Jewish.
• You certainly can be a Jew without believing in God – as long as you act towards others as if you do believe in God.
• But you can’t be a Jew alone. You can’t be a Jew living on a mountaintop and you can’t be a Jew sitting anonymously in suburban comfort.
To be a Jew is to sanctify your relationships with others in order to bring God into the world. That is why I am constantly talking about community. Community – that is, the way we organize our relationships – is the mediator of Judaism and Jewish life. Judaism teaches us how to live with others, beginning in our homes with those whom we feel closest to. It extends to our friends, our congregation, the larger community and the world beyond.
For Jews, there is no such thing as independence or complete autonomy – in truth we are interdependent with others. We need each other in order to live out our religious lives, and God needs us to bring the Divine Presence into the world by discovering and creating holiness everywhere we can.
Martin Buber relates a story on this theme in the name of the Baal Shem Tov:
Once there was a fellow who saw a rare and gorgeous bird, roosting in the top of a very tall tree. The bird was exceedingly beautiful – its exotic plumage dazzled his eye in the bright sunlight. As he gazed upon the unusual bird, the man was filled with a deep desire to reach out and take it. But, alas, the tree was too tall – no ladder was high enough and the tree was impossible to climb. So the man called to the others around him and suggested a plan. He persuaded the folks to make a kind of human pyramid so that he would be able to climb up and reach the bird. The people were quite willing at first, for they had seen the bird and were almost as desirous of it as he. But before long, those on the bottom tired of the weight and with little incentive to play their part, they soon considered leaving their post to pursue other distractions. No sooner had the first of them slipped away, the whole pyramid came tumbling down.
The Baal Shem Tov explained: Every individual has ultimate worth. But only when they fuse together as one, united in love, can they reach out and bring heavenly goodness into our world. When one leaves to take care of their personal needs or desires, we cannot achieve holiness in the world.
Today, I feel a special sense of urgency about this. I sense that we are in the midst of a major shift in our society in the way we engage with others. This shift, away from the communal to the individual, has serious implications for our congregation, our communities and the way we live our lives. We are fast moving into an age of hyperindividualism in which our communities and all they bring to us are potentially at risk.
Friends, we live in a world of unprecedented opportunities for personal choice. The entire economy seems to be driven by them. On airplanes these days, there is no one movie that everyone has to watch on a long‐haul flight. Nowadays, every seat on the plane has an individual entertainment system loaded with movies, TV, games and music to suit every taste. So even on a 12 hour flight to Tel Aviv, you don’t have to actually talk with the person sitting next to you. Car manufacturers are advertising dual LCD screens in minivans and SUV’s so that children can watch their own shows on the road. Siblings, it seems, don’t have to agree on anything anymore. Everyone gets what she wants, when he wants it. I’ve observed that the best way to avoid interaction with other people in the gym or while walking the dog in the neighborhood is to wear headphones. Our interactions with our neighbors have been reduced to a polite wave and maybe a smile.
These days, it seems, everyone is making shabbes for themselves. And of course, this isn’t entirely bad. The ability to make personal choices can be very empowering. But when it creates a real disconnect from those who would be our friends and partners in life, extreme individualism pits us in competition with each other, burdens groups trying to meet everyone’s needs and threatens to become destructive to the individual and corrosive to our society.
This is our challenge: to respond to the culture of individualism and isolation by nurturing communities that provide centers of value and meaning for their members. Beth El, of course, is such a community. We cannot function as a religious community unless our members join together and sacrifice a bit of themselves for a higher, communal purpose.
In his classic work, I and Thou, Martin Buber wrote that a community must have a center. It has a shared vision, purpose and commitment through which all members are connected to each other like spokes on the hub of a wheel. In order to create such a community, people give up some of their individual needs and desires for the benefit of the group. In return, the collective provides its individual members with the support they need to live lives of meaning and purpose.
Beth El’s center – the shared vision and purpose that binds us together – is our commitment to support each other as we deepen our engagement with Judaism and Jewish life through prayer, study and acts of social justice. To this end, members are expected to give of themselves in support of the community in a wide variety of ways:
First and most obvious is by paying dues and fees to maintain the building, hire staff and support the rich programs and services we offer.
Secondly, Beth El members expect others to show up. Woody Allen suggested that 80% of success is in showing up. Other members are delighted to see you when you show up for services, their child’s Bar Mitzvah, a class or a social event. They are disappointed if you don’t show up when it’s your turn to provide the Kiddush or oneg. They need you to come make a shivah call and be a part of a minyan so they can say Kaddish for a loved one.
Albert Einstein, who they say was a pretty smart man, said: “Strange is our sojourn here upon earth. Each of us comes for a short visit, not knowing why, yet sometimes seeming to divine a purpose. From the standpoint of daily life, however, there is one thing we do know: that we are here for the sake of others; above all, for those whose smile and well‐being our own happiness depends; and also for the countless unknown souls with whose fate we are connected by a bond of sympathy. Many times a day I realize how much my own outer and inner life is built upon the labors of others, both living and dead, and how earnestly I must exert myself in order to give in return as much as I have received and am still receiving.”
Our tradition teaches us that when two people sit and exchange words of Torah, the Shechinah – God’s presence is among them. When we share our stories and bind ourselves together in meaningful relationships, we provide a place for God’s presence to dwell among us, making this Kehillah Kedoshah truly a sacred community.
What is the purpose of our community?
We are here for religious and spiritual quest – our search for meaning and purpose: We gather together for study, for celebration, for prayer and reflection, because none of us can do any of these things alone.
We come together in community to provide for mutual support.
We form and nurture relationships in order to create and discover holiness in the world through the performance of mitzvot.
These are all ways of recognizing the godliness in others, sanctifying our relationships and, ultimately, bringing God into the world.