Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Rosh HaShanah 1st Day 5771 / 2010: "Letter from the Ark"

Shanah Tovah! Here is the text of my sermon from the 1st day of Rosh HaShanah 5771 / 2010. Other sermons will be posted shortly.


Some things that I have learned about this year that I didn’t learn in rabbinical school:
The difference between the New Jersey Registry of Historic Places

and the National Registry of Historic Places.
Different types of smoke detectors

and which ones can get set off by carpentry dust.
and - that that eagle and those lions are actually removable.

We have talked about what an intensely challenging year this has been for many of us,
for most of the people in our region, our country, and throughout the world.
But this is also a time of great triumph and celebration for this community -
because, as we know, this has been the year that we have FINALLY completed our renovation - through its various phases -
and we hope you are pleased with the result!
yes, like all construction, it took a little longer than expected.

For example, The bar and bat mitzvah kids from 2005 whose families were initially concerned that their special days and events would be displaced by the construction-
they are actually starting college this fall.
As they say, time flies when you’re doing a historic renovation!

I imagine I speak for many of us when I say that it is a special joy
to gather here today
in this inspiring place for prayer and reflection and celebration -
in this space that remains just as historic as ever,
but is a good deal safer than ever – more accessible than ever -
and also, just as exquisitely beautiful as it was on the day it opened in May 1915.
and I am so full of gratitude to all those who made this happen - which is, actually, almost all of you -
and especially to those volunteers who steered the project along,
through fundraising, team-building, organizing, making architectural and aesthetic decisions, and seeing the project to its conclusion.

Construction is something I know absolutely nothing about.
but generously the committee often consulted with me about various decisions,
especially aesthetic decisions.
So this morning I want to tell you the story of the back wall of the ark.

As you know, the ark is the focal point of our sanctuary,
and it’s where we keep our Torah scrolls.
And as far as we can tell, throughout the history of this synagogue,

the inside of the ark was covered with fabric.
So Louise Kurtz and Harriet Taub went in there a few weeks ago to replace the fabric
and also - to see what was underneath that fabric.
And you won’t guess what they found.
Another layer of fabric.
And another layer. and another layer. And another layer.
Until eventually they discovered that behind it all was some nice quality wood.
And when our restoration artist saw this, she said,
“Why don’t we put gold paint or gold leaf on the inside of the ark?
We already had plenty which we used to re-gild various items on the exterior of the ark, as you see -
why not the interior also?

So in their generosity, Ken and the committee posed the question to me:

is there any reason why we shouldn’t put gold on the inside of the ark?
Being a rabbi, I can’t really listen to a question like that

without various biblical verses getting replayed in my head.
And the question made me think of a passage in the book of Exodus, Parashat Trumah,
that describes the construction of the ORIGINAL ark of the covenant -
the ark from the Mishkan, the traveling sanctuary during the period of wndering in the desert.
In that passage, we read: וצפית אותו זהב טהור מבית ומחוץ תצפנו (Exodus 25:11)
The ark should be covered with gold, both interior and exterior.
And I thought, that’s a good enough reason for me.
Now our ark can emulate the ark in the Tabernacle.
So you may not have noticed it, but the next time the ark is opened,
you’ll see that the inside is colored gold.
(By the way - in case you’re wondering, it’s, um, not real gold,
which would be beyond our means just now.
Though if you find that disappointing,

and you’re fortunate enough to be in the position to do something about it,
chat with Ken during kiddush!)
But here’s the part of the story that absolutely no one else knows.
Even I didn’t know this part of the story until I started writing this sermon.
Is it a true story?
Let’s just say it depends on what your definition of the word ‘true’ is.

Or call it a ‘midrash’ if you prefer.

This past Saturday night, late at night, I checked inside the ark

and there was a letter-size envelope.
It was labeled “Star of Israel” - but then the words “Star of Israel” were crossed out
and written over it were the words “United Synagogue of Hoboken.”
And under that were the words “To the Community.”

Upon glancing at it, I realized that this truly extraordinary correspondence

was intended for the entire community,
and so I would like to read it to you now.

“Dear United Synagogue of Hoboken Community:

Welcome back to your sanctuary!
This will probably be the most unusual letter you will ever receive.

Yes, people usually think of me as an inanimate object,
as a glorified storage area with a pretty curtain.
But I will have you know that from the perspective of Jewish law,
I am a ‘kli kodesh’ - a holy object for holy use.
And for this reason, I wanted to express my appreciation to the community
for making the decision to adorn my interior with gold.
Let me tell you why.


Your rabbi is aware, and perhaps has even told you,
that this is how the Torah describes the creation of the original ark -
the Aron ha-Edut in the Mishkan, in the Tabernacle.
That it is says,
וצפית אותו זהב טהור, מבית ומחוץ תצפנו.

cover it with pure gold, on the interior as well as the exterior.
And it feels great for me to have something important in common with that original ark.

But here’s something I bet your rabbi didn’t tell you.

The ark in the Tabernacle was different from me.
THAT ark was simply a box that held the tablets of the 10 commandments.
It would never get opened. Only its outside would ever be visible.
And that’s what made our sages so perplexed about this commandment

to put gold on the INTERIOR of the ark.
Why? It’s not like anyone will ever see the interior.
So save a little gold - no one will ever know.

And yet, the Torah commands that you’re supposed to put gold on the interior, anyway.
And so, the sages in the Talmud
came to regard the ark, with its gold on the exterior but ALSO on the interior where it would never be seen,
as a powerful metaphor for a person.
everyone knows what you put on your exterior.
other people see your clothes, your face, all the physical manifestations of your self.
And everyone sees how you act in public, what you say, what you do when people are looking.
But -- except for certain particularly intimate friends,

most people never genuinely see who you are inside.
It’s only you, and God, who really know what you are like on the inside.
So when the Torah tells us that the ark was covered with gold both inside and out,
that led the sages to say that we must each be the same way.
In fact, the Talmud comments in tractate Yoma (72b),
[Amar Rava:] kol talmid hacham she-ein tocho ke-varo, eino talmid hacham.
Any sage whose interior is not like his exterior -
is not a real sage.

So it’s my hope that any time I am open,

people in your community will see the gold and be reminded of the importance of ‘tocho ke-varo’ -
of having one’s interior match one’s exterior.
For a very small number of people, the ark may help them to confront
the reality that there is a dramatic distance between how they are perceived by others
and how they genuinely are on the inside.
people who abuse the trust of others; people who carry the mantle of integrity as a cover for dishonesty and corruption;
people who are perceived as kind and generous in their professional or civic life but then come home to terrorize their families.
For people like that, hopefully seeing the gold will be a warning for them that their lives are in serious disorder.

But it’s my experience over these last 96 years
that that’s not really the kind of people who frequent your synagogue.


As far as I can tell, each person has a secret self.
For all people, there is probably some gap between the people they genuinely are
and the people as they present themselves for public consumption.
But there have got to be places that can truly be your ‘sanctuaries,’
places where you can be most genuinely yourselves.
It’s my hope that the synagogue ought to be one of those places.
So hopefully when the ark curtain is opened,

you can see the gold, and it can remind you to check in with your core,
to connect with your innermost self....in the process known as teshuvah.

And then I am sure there are some people who have forgotten that they have gold inside -
especially this year, people who have felt beaten down, discouraged,
concerned about meeting their life goals,
and even questioning their worth.
For you, my prayer is that when you see gold inside the ark

that it will remind us of all the beauty and purity at your core,
that nothing can take away from you –

And that the true measure of a person’s worth has nothing to do with possessions or employment, but with chesed – with kindness.


And this community as a whole, also, can learn something
from the gold inside the ark.
For years, so much communal energy has been invested in the exterior beauty of this community
and the state of its physical building.
As important as that process has been, and as exquisite the result,

now is the time to remind the community about interior beauty,
about the need to nurture the soul of the community along with its body.
And the gold inside the ark can be a useful reminder

that the success of any synagogue or house of worship truly has almost nothing at all to do with the physical space,
and everything to do with the quality of the relationships that are forged there, the depth of the learning and caring and spiritual striving that is accomplished there.

But honestly, all this is only PART
of why I wanted to thank you for putting gold on my interior walls.
Because there is yet another way to understand the symbolism of mi-bayit u-michutz tezapenu:
“the ark should be covered with gold inside and out.’

Maybe some of you recognize
that the word ‘bayit’ means ‘house,’ or ‘home,’ and ‘chutz’ means ‘outside.’
So whereas figuratively they mean ‘interior and exterior,’ they also mean “at home” and “away from home.”
‘bayit’ can also refer to one’s home turf, or one’s home community,
and ‘chutz’ can refer to the rest of the world.
And that leads to one of the most significant questions that Jewish communities ought to ask.
In your community, is Judaism primarily concerned with what happens to other Jews?

or does Judaism have a universalistic vision that is concerned with all people and all of creatures?

And I am gratified that you have chosen that the knd of Jewish community you want to live in
is one that is covered with gold both on the inside and on the outside.
Demonstrating that your priorities are both -- to look inside, at the Jewish community,
and also to look outside - at the world as a whole.

After all – now brace yourselves for a provocative statement:

After all, God isn’t Jewish.
According to Jewish tradition - and this is essentially a unanimous view -
God is the creator of the entire world,
and in that role God and shows special concern for every species, every nation, and every individual.
There are numerous citations in the Bible that suggest
that God has special relationships with many nations -
that God has redeemed many peoples from their various captivities,
so don’t feel so special about the liberation from Egypt.
The book of Deuteronomy teaches

that God specifically assigned some of the heavenly spheres and planets as objects of worship for the other nations,
which seems to imply that God has some degree of tolerance for different religious beliefs and practices.
Whatever the idea of the Chosen People may mean,
there’s one thing we are SURE it doesn’t mean -
which is that Judaism as a religion is correct to the exclusion of all others.
And of course, that’s something beautiful
that sets Judaism apart from many other major world religions.
Christianity, in its classical form, dreams of a perfect world in which everyone is Christian.
Islam dreams of a perfect world in which everyone is Muslim.
And what does Judaism dream of? A perfect world in which JEWS are Jewish -
and other people constitute a diverse mosaic just as they do today -
but in this perfect world, everyone is good, just, generous, compassionate, and gentle.
That’s how Jews have always dreamed that you create a world at peace -
not by walloping everyone until they accept your ideas,
but by encouraging them to maximally be themselves.

And these theological messages are reinforced by the Jewish historical experience.
Having been slaves in Egypt - inclines Jews to work to liberate others from their oppressions.
The experience of the Holocaust - in which we sadly note the paucity of ‘righteous gentiles’ who risked their lives to save the lives of Jews -
inclines Jews to be the righteous to save the lives of others.

And Judaism expresses a universalistic vision in charitable giving.
feeding the hungry, visiting the sick, redeeming captives -
a Jew is obligated to do all of these things for people of all backgrounds and religions.
This is, in part, why your congregation was a founding constituent of the Hoboken Shelter,
and you remain one of the 5 congregations that support it and commit each year to provide a big chunk of its funding.
And I hope your rabbi is taking every opportunity to remind you that Ruth Messinger, the international human rights advocate and president of American Jewish World Service,
is visiting your synagogue on Oct 16 - I was amazed with excitement when I heard about it.
American Jewish World Service is an organization whose mission is to fulfill the Jewish value of tikkun olam - of ‘being agents for the repair of the entire world,’
responding at trouble spots around the world, places like Haiti, Darfur,Pakistan,, in the name of the American Jewish Community.

From everything I have seen, from my vantage point over the course of this century:
for an organization like the American Jewish World Service to be one of the larger and more successful American Jewish organizations today
is a remarkable transformation.
This would not have happened one hundred years ago/
no way could there have been a Jewish organization that is so saturated with Jewish values and Jewish teachings
and that exists primarily to serve the non-Jewish world.

Over the last 96 years, there are a lot of people who have sat in those pews in which you are now sitting.
And I bet you can guess what were the burning issues on their minds.
Certainly sometimes they were focused on the large issues in American society- the great depression; world wars and local wars, the civil rights movement.
But for most of them, for the largest part of that 96 years,

the issues that loomed largest were the Jewish issues.
Pogroms in Russia. anti-Semitism in Germany. The horrifying news of the Holocaust. the effort to create the modern state of Israel. the suffering and expulsion of the Jews of Arab countries. And Israel’s lengthy effort, having arrived and integrated the neighborhood of the middle east, to convince its neighbors that it had no plans to disappear.
I couldn’t possibly count the number of meetings, the number of impassioned speeches,
the tears that were shed in this room over these 96 years
out of concern for the welfare of the Jewish people around the world.
And such efforts continue to be relevant
for as long as Jews are threatened or in danger anywhere.

Jews are not only a religion, but also a people, a family.
Jews experience kinship with each other, based on common experiences and a common history,
just as two family members have a special bond because of common experiences and a common history.
And with a common history like that, it’s not so surprising
that most 20th Jews were especially focusing inward, on Jewish concerns.
Increasingly, younger Jews tend to have a more universalistic outlook.
Which is wonderful for all the reasons I mentioned before.
But I get concerned when I see it taken to an extreme.


Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach used to remark that if he would encounter someone who proudly affirmed, “I am a Catholic,’ then that person was usually a Catholic,.
Someone who would proudly announce, “I am a Protestant!” was usually a Protestant.
And someone who would proudly announce, “I am a human being!” -- was usually Jewish.

Jews were often the among the first ones

\to jump on the bandwagon of radical universalism -
in part because it seemed to fit in so naturally

with their understanding of Jewish values:
honor the stranger; respect every human being,

created in God’s image and thus a reflection of you.
But somehow, the universalistic promise tended not to get delivered to the Jewish people.
The Jewish Russian novelist, David Bergelson, was murdered by Stalin in 1952.
Before his death, he recalled
"I traded in my six-speared Jewish star for a five-speared Soviet star
and the sixth spear is stuck in my heart."

Somehow, throughout the twentieth century,
universalists embraced the noble goals and aspirations of peoples around the world - except that often the Jewish aspirations,
including the need for perennially homeless Jews to have SOME place around the world where they can live in peace and security,
were classified as parochial whining.

Increasingly there is a gap between younger Jews and older Jews
in terms of their connection to Israel.
For many older Jews, that connection is automatic.

it comes out of the experience of history, of anti-semitism,
of either memory of, or great familiarity with, the era before there was a Jewish state;
memory of the unabashed anti-Jewishness of Israel’s Arab neighbors.
And for many younger Jews, the connection is not so automatic.
Even with the amazing Birthright israel program, they are less likely to have traveled to Israel, less likely to know Israelis -

so that when they read in the news about threats to Israel’s security,
they aren’t as likely to conjure up the faces of actual Israelis they know
who are dealing with the consequences.
They are less likely to have a strong Jewish identity oriented around a sense of peoplehood.
They regard the issues of right and wrong to be cloudier,
more likely to question aspects of the Zionist narratives they have been taught.

I’ll let the rabbi speak more directly about Israel if he wants to,
but here are my two cents.
When you think about
Israel, and when you speak about Israel,

remember that, at your synagogue, the ark has gold on the inside AND on the outside.
May the gold on the inside remind you

that if you are Jewish, then Israel is family.
and may the gold on the outside remind you that you should be moved by the suffering of ANY individual in the world.
You can be a passionate supporter of Israel without agreeing with every Israeli policy.

You can be a critic of Israeli policies while also acknowledging that there is a tremendous amount of criticism of Israel that is unfair and anti-Semitic.
And you can emphatically reject the delegitimization of Israel, while still conceding that like every society, Israel has serious faults and failures.

You can celebrate Israel’s successes while also addressing those faults in a way that demonstrates that you understand that the issues are complex,
and in such a way that people living in Israel would not perceive you as indifferent to their real and unique security predicaments.

Thousands of years ago, Hillel taught us to come to the most appropriate balance between the needs of the self and one’s own group,
and the needs of others.
Im Ein Ani li, mi li? If I am not willing to take a stand for myself, who will be for me?
u-kshe-ani le-atzmi -mah ani? But if I am ONLY for myself, what am I?

ve-im lo akhshav - eimatai? And if not now, when?

And Rabbi Harold Schulweis expresses a similar idea with the image of the Shofar.
blow into the wide end, and the shofar makes no sound.
but if you blow into the narrow end, THROUGH the wide end,
then the call of the Shofar can be heard.
Judaism begins by focusing on the narrow - on the Jewish people -

but ends up transforming the world.

I know I have taken a lot of your time reading this unusual letter.
But I hope it will give you something to ponder,
to translate your physical surroundings into kavanah,
expressing your hopes, prayers, and thanksgiving at the cusp of a new year.

Each year, my favorite part of the High Holidays is at the Neilah service, at the conclusion of Yom Kippur,
when streams of people come up to spend a moment standing right in front of the ark.
Perhaps this year, the gold on the ark - inside and out - will help you to connect with everything that is golden in your life, in your soul, and in your community, and in the world.
In this new year, may each of these be ‘tocho ke-varo’ – beautiful inside and out.

Signed
Your Aron Kodesh, your holy ark.

Shanah Tovah!

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