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Rosh Hashana II 5784     September 17, 2023

Rabbi Randall J. Konigsburg

L’shana Tova, may we be blessed with a Sweet New Year.

Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav, the grandson of the Baal Shem Tov and the leader of the Hasidim of Bratzlav who was born at just about the same time as the Revolutionary War between Great Britian and what would become the United States, taught to his students what would become a very famous proverb. He said, “The entire world is like a narrow bridge. The most essential thing is not to be afraid.” We learn from him that our journey through life is a precarious journey and only a narrow bridge stands between us and disaster. The essential lesson here is that in order to cross this bridge, it does not take balance or talent, but only courage, to not be afraid to cross.

Rabbi Arthur Green has been a teacher and mentor of mine for many years. I am sure that most of you have heard me invoke his name in one teaching or another. He is a master of Neo-Hasidism and Spirituality. His insights always inspire me. But just a few weeks ago, he posted a teaching that I immediately knew I would share with everyone on this second day of Rosh Hashana. Although it is about the second paragraph of the Shema, the passage from Deuteronomy Chapter 11, the part of the Shema we almost never talk about, It is a message that is not only about my life, but about all of our lives. I will share his teaching in sections and comment on them as we go along. Our lesson begins with Rabbi Green quoting the second paragraph of the Shema and then he teaches:

והיה אם שמוע תשמעו אל מצוותי אשר אנוכי מצווה אתכם היום לאהבה את ה׳ אלוהיכם ולעבדו בכל לבבכם ובכל נפשכם

“If you truly listen to My Mitzvot by which I join Myself to you this day, loving Y-H-W-H your God and serving God with your entire heart and soul…(11:13).”

I take this second paragraph of the Shema to describe the great journey that is the life of faith. Once you know in your heart that Y-H-W-H is one, you are ready to set out on that journey. Know in advance that it is going to be a bumpy ride. It contains moments of seemingly boundless spiritual fulfillment and reward. But there are also times of fear, loneliness, and disappointment. They are all part of the roller coaster called life. But our faith is that Y-H-W-H is present in all of them, binding them together. Perhaps that is why this passage begins with the word והיה, which is nothing other than Y-H-W-H in hidden form. Sometimes you just have to turn the letters around to rediscover the name - and the Presence.

As I look back on my life, a journey that took me from a small Florida town to become a rabbi and through many twists and turns, to become YOUR Rabbi, I can relate to Rabbi Green’s teaching. There have been many spiritually high moments, and moments of fear, loneliness, and disappointment. My life has indeed been a roller coaster. I have had the privilege of learning from some great teachers, some of them rabbis and many of them just regular people who I have met along the way. At least they seemed like everyone else until they shared the lesson of their life with me. In the journey of my life, across that narrow bridge, I have believed that everyone I met had a message from God to share with me. Some of those lessons I posted on the door to my office here at BSBI, others I carry still in a special section of my heart. Some of those teachers are here in this room today. Some may know what they have taught me, others may have no idea how I have taken their words to heart. Just know that all of you have lifted me up on my down days and it is my greatest pleasure to continue to share with all of you the high points of our life. I still keep my eyes open to find God wherever God may be hiding.

This is not just the lesson of my life but a lesson for us all. Life is a bumpy ride; we go through ups and downs. We can expect this even if we are not very happy about how bouncy life can be. But we don’t have to be afraid of every up or down. God is with us, hiding all around us and all we need to do is find those holy moments and let them ease our fears.  Each person we meet, no matter the time, the circumstance, or their intentions, everyone has a lesson to teach us and a message from God to share, if only we will listen. God does not speak with a booming voice from the top of the mountain. God’s voice can be discovered if only we stop to listen.

Back to Rabbi Green: The passage begins with Le-AHAVAH et Y-H-W-H eloheykhem. It appears as though a noun has replaced the verb: it is not le-ehov, “to love” in the usual verbal form, but le-ahavah, to be in the state that can only be described as “love.” There is a hidden warning here not to take this second paragraph of the shema too simplistically. The simple or childlike reading of this passages tells us that if we really love God, lots of good things will come our way. If we don’t, “better watch out.” That is the faith of childhood; it doesn’t work for adults, who have seen that the world isn’t constructed that way.

I have to admit that in all my years of teaching, I have until this moment, only been able to see this passage as a description of childish faith. That if we do good, good things happen and if we are not good, bad things can occur. What makes this passage worse is that only one person has to sin and all of us face the bad things that are coming. The second paragraph of the Shema seems to teach that one person can make the world a bad place for everyone. But way back in the biblical book of Job, the Sages noted that bad things do happen to good people, and we don’t always understand life. How is it possible that the Torah can have a passage that even the Bible admits is not always true? Several passages in the Torah promise long life to those who observe certain mitzvot, and one sage became an apostate because he could see with his own eyes that mitzvot are not a promise of a long life. We are all adults here. We know that life does not work this way. How can I teach what I know is not true? For almost my entire career as a Rabbi I have struggled with this passage. But I never gave up on it. It was just not ready to share its “Torah” with me. Some lessons require patience. I was never really good at patience, but I learned a lot about waiting from this paragraph. I trust in God’s love, and in a state of love, I have learned to trust.

For all too many people, finding a passage of Torah that is so obviously not true is a deal breaker. If God can’t teach us the truth in Torah, why bother with Torah, after all, it is just a childish dream of the world. It is not based in reality. And a God who gave us that Torah must also be a childish dream and not based in reality. It is never easy to consider that perhaps we may be wrong in our assessment of God and Torah. It is never easy to consider that if we don’t understand the Torah that the problem may not be the Torah, but it may be our problem. Torah has been around for generations and, I will bet, that in every generation there were Jews who looked at the Torah and thought that it was out of date, the creation of ignorant ancients who don’t know anything about “modern science” and Torah should be ignored. And I will be the first to admit that there were rabbis in every generation who made excuses for the Torah, who created stories to explain away what was, clearly, how the passage should be read. We call these excuses, in rabbinic circles, “broken reeds,” flimsy excuses that don’t hold up under theological or philosophical reasoning. Sometimes we just have to admit that we have no idea what the Torah is trying to teach us or even we know what we THINK the Torah is trying to teach us, but it just does not make sense. In those instances, we have to admit our ignorance and carry forward the faith that someday we will discover the meaning hidden in these difficult passages. It is not so much that God loves us, it is rather, God is the love itself, and that love can help us see through our moments of doubt.

 

Back to Rabbi Green: But we adults have something else; we have an understanding of le-ahavah, of the state of being in love, as something that has the potential to transform our vision. The experience of being in love has the power to change the way we approach life’s journey. If we learn to look through the eyes of love, le-ahavah, we may see our world – the same world, with the same pain, the same losses, the same arbitrariness – in a different way. We will learn to accept life, and the world in which we live it, with all its faults, as only longtime lovers can. How much we learn to accept in those we love! So too the “One” we love. When we do that, we can receive the real reward this passage promises, at its very end (as our teacher R. Zalman translated it), ki-yemey ha-shamayim ‘al ha-arets, “heavenly days, right here on earth!”

I learned about the power of love from Rabbi Lawrence Kushner (no relation to the other famous Rabbi Kushner). Love is such a powerful emotion that it can make us do anything for the one we love. Rabbi Kushner talks about love being able to remove our own ego and become one with the ego of our lover and it does not even bother us that our own pretty secure ego is gone. I have tried over the years to put my own ego aside to help others find their way on their own journey. Much anger, despair, pain, and confusion have been directed at me. I learned that it was not to me, that these emotions were directed, but they were directed to their Rabbi. I was God’s surrogate in such times, taking the heat for the narrowness of the bridge and the fear that stalked in the hearts of all who were making that crossing. A Rabbi absorbs that pain and anguish of life to help clear the mind to find the path forward. To heal a broken heart, one has to remove the poison that surrounds it so that the love inside can come out so it will lead us on the proper path. Only when the pain becomes faint can I help someone see their life in a different light and help them discover the holiness of a different direction. I was God’s marriage counselor, helping Jews rediscover, in all the arbitrary moments of life, the love they share with God. What did I do with all the pain and hurt that was thrown at me? I would direct it back to God. God has really big shoulders and will carry that burden until it is fully healed. Sometimes people ask me how I can believe in God. I tell them “and if there is no God, that will make me feel better?” I have a choice and I choose the optimistic path.

Love is not some starry-eyed emotion. That is infatuation and usually does not last very long. Real love can last a lifetime. But love has to be cultivated. To know and love God, to trust that the ups and downs of life have a meaning and a purpose, even if we don’t understand them, this is not a quality that comes easy. Torah is our guide to finding the hidden God in the world, to finding the hidden love in the world. We look at stories of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, Sarah, Rivka, Rachel, Leah, Moses, Aaron, Miriam, and all the people of Israel and we can easily see our lives in their stories. Their lives were just as much a roller coaster as our lives are. They had their good days and bad. Think of Abraham today. He finally had the long-awaited son he always dreamed of, only to have God tell him, in our Torah reading this morning, to sacrifice his son on the mountain. What a moment of pain and horror. When we think of being commanded to kill our children, we think of Nazis and Storm Troopers. How is such a command possible? We hide in embarrassment over an immigration policy that separated children from their parents, that even now, more than five years later, some families have yet to be reunited. We know of these horrors because Abraham faced his pain directly, testing God even as God tested Abraham. Abraham and God never spoke again after that excruciating moment on the mountain, but, for Abraham’s faith in that moment, God did bless Abraham with everything for the rest of his life. Abraham was rewarded with “heavenly days right here on earth”.

Rabbi Green takes us back to the second paragraph of the Shema. He writes: This paragraph describes a journey that lasts through the course of an entire human life. “Yes, let yourself dare to love! Be in that state of loving Y-H-W-H, which means loving All that is! Be ready to serve, with all your heart and all your soul. You will love doing it; you will fill up on the rewards of all that love: inner versions of wine, corn, and oil. But watch out; these things don’t last forever. Constant joy is no joy at all, as the Ba‘al Shem Tov taught. One day, when your heart just isn’t paying attention, you will find yourself distracted, “turned aside,” and worshipping something else. The heart is always worshipping something. When we turn aside from Y-H-W-H, there are countless other preoccupations lined up to take that place, to become our “gods” for the moment. False gods, of course. But then you look around and “the heavens will shut up and there will be no rain.” You will get angry. “Divine wrath will break out in you.” How quickly you will feel that you’ve lost your moorings upon the land! All of a sudden you will feel that faith has abandoned you, that all is lost, that there is nothing left. Yes, these moments happen in the life of every religious person.

I know a rabbi who never had the chance to ask his own father about his faith in God. His father died suddenly, and the opportunity was lost. I heard this story and realized that my father was still alive, and I could ask him about his faith in God. But before I could ask, I realized he had already shared that story with me. My father and his father-in-law, my grandfather, owned a small department store chain in western Pennsylvania. One day, the small banks they relied upon for credit to buy merchandise informed them that their credit was too high, and they were being cut off from more credit. My grandfather, with the wisdom of his age said they would figure it out. But my father, with five children to feed, was devastated. How would he care for our family? It was a bitter cold winter’s day as he walked down the main street of town, heading home to let my mother know of the problem. But suddenly he stopped in front of another store, and there, near the door of the store, there were some birds, huddled together out of the biting wind. My father told me that in that instant he understood that the God who would protect the birds from the cold would protect him and his family. And indeed, it all worked out. My father was always in shul at the beginning of the service. My brother grew up to be president of his synagogue. I became a rabbi, my sister a cantor. Two of his grandchildren are rabbis. When we have faith, we don’t have to worry about false gods.

I don’t live in an ivory tower, or in some secluded cave. I know that there are lots of distractions in the world that call on us to follow their path. Fame, fortune, fancy vacations, fancy cars, fancy homes. One Rabbi told me that when he speaks to a family about the person who has died, they never talk about how rich or famous that person was. They recall the moments of kindness, compassion and love they shared with others. Maybe I am a hopeless optimist that I believe that people who come to synagogue just once or twice a year come because they feel in their souls the empty promises of the false gods. Rabbi Green is correct, we all worship something. If not God, then some false god and we are left with feelings that heaven has shut us out and that we are disconnected from the root of all that lives. Our heart needs something, and if we can’t find God, our heart will go after something else. But our lives will be empty of meaning. This is the time of year when we examine our lives and realize that we have followed false gods, and we understand how empty our lives have become. We just know we need to find our way back but sometimes we just don’t know where to go. In just that moment, Rabbi Green points out to us the direction we need to follow…

 

Says Rabbi Green: What is the life-raft you hold onto in such a moment? Here the Torah (in the Shema) turns sharply from description to prescription. It is now that you need to take My words to heart, quite literally. Now those once spontaneous responses to the discovery of oneness, of Y-H-W-H filling all and being expressed everywhere, need to be turned into ritual. “Tie them on your hands! Bind them between your eyes!” “Write them on your doorposts!” Then you will be more than thankful that you have the wherewithal to do that. It is in these moments of feeling totally lost and without moorings when we most need the reassurance of ritual, of familiar religious forms. Those simple and down-to-earth things will bring you back to life, helping to hold your faith in those moments of doubt and despair that happen in every religious life. Trust in them and they will carry you over to the place where you and your offspring will indeed enjoy those ‘heavenly days right here on earth’.” Trust me. I know.

Sometimes I feel like a preacher in a tent revival. I am selling long life and blessings; I am handing out Mitzvot and Prayer. Just take hold of that Siddur or Machzor and together we can travel to the Promised Land. Trust me, I can bring you to God. Alas, Judaism does not work that way. Certainly not in my life. I have served congregations for over 40 years. I have not seen it all, but I have seen a lot. There were days, way too many days, when I wondered if Judaism would survive. Not the Judaism of the far right or the far left, not the Judaism of fundamentalists or the Judaism made to fit around “modern times.”  I have worked so hard so my community can see for themselves what a religious life could look like, how it could make their lives better, how it could bring meaning and hope and dreams alive. I am a Rabbi who has been very blessed, I have been able to help many people over the years find their way back to Judaism and back to God. I always thought that if I could make a difference in one life that would make all of my life worthwhile. God has blessed me with many successful moments. I am grateful for all that Torah has enabled me to share. I started my Rabbinic journey in 1983. I was among those who voted to let women enter the Rabbinate and the Cantorate. Sure, I have had my share of failures, but I have also saved some lives along the way. I was never about fire and brimstone; I have always believed in a faith built on kindness and justice and peace. I have followed a God that taught me that every life, every soul, that every part of this world is filled with holiness, and I was given the tools to teach God’s words through my classes and through my example. God knows I am not perfect. God knows my faults and my mistakes. God forgives me, just as God forgives you. I now need to find new paths where God can be found. God willing, next Rosh Hashana I will be sitting with the community learning from My Rabbi on how to cross that narrow bridge. I have no idea where retirement will take me but I still trust in God and so I will cross that narrow bridge unafraid. Or as we say when we conclude a service with Adon Olam, “God is with me, I have no fear”.

Rituals, Mitzvot, and Prayer, these are the life rafts that save us from disaster. There is great wisdom in these modes of worship. They are old and sometimes they feel clunky, but there is no doubt that they are designed to help us through our down moments in life. When the narrow bridge gets too scary, we have the wings of Rituals, Mitzvot, and Prayers, to carry us through to the other side. We sometimes mistakenly look for ways around commandments and prayer, and we miss the real power that they can hold. We know we should pray three times a day. We know that Judaism requires of us Shabbat and Kashrut. We know what we are supposed to do on Jewish holidays and holy days. But our lives are so busy with “stuff” that we either give lip service to the prayer or mitzvah or we ignore it completely. Look at the Machzor in our hands right now. We can read the words and we can see what the prayers say, but we need to add that extra step, what do the words say to ME? What are they trying to tell me? Jews have found meaning in these words for centuries; they can reveal their meaning to us if we just sit here and read them and contemplate them. The music of the prayers is a guide. The explanations and poetry in the margins give us hints. But are we really listening to what these prayers have to tell us? Who will live and who will die? What does it mean in our lives, to recite the Shema, to proclaim the unity of God? Does the call of the Shofar wake us up to what needs to be done to change our lives for the better? The Machzor calls us to leave the false gods and let YHVH rule our lives, with justice, peace, and love. Heavenly days can be ahead for us and for our families. Sure, times are hard. There is hatred, violence, prejudice, racism, political extremism. Culture wars that should unite us, instead they divide us. Do we really want to put our faith in politics to lead us out of this morass? Our rituals can help us find our way if we bind them to our hands and heads and hearts. If we write them on doorposts and on gates. If we use mitzvot to bring more love into the world instead of more hatred, we can aspire to heavenly days again. We don’t have to trust Rabbi Green or even Rabbi Konigsburg, we just need to trust in God, and we will find our way across that narrow bridge of life, and we will cross to the other side unafraid.

May God be with us in our journey into the new year so that we can cross that bridge with faith and courage, as we say ….  Amen and L’shana Tova U’veracha, may this year be a good year filled with blessings.

Thu, May 30 2024 22 Iyyar 5784