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This I Believe: Yom Kippur 5776 Neilah - September 23, 2015

Rabbi Richard Plavin

The Neilah hour is full of emotion because it signals that the end is near, the gates are closing.  I like the way it is described in our Machzor:

“The sun has begun to set and the holiest day of the year is about to come to a close; we are weak from fasting and tired from a day of praying. On the one hand, we may be looking forward to resuming our normal lives, confident in our having cleansed ourselves and grateful for the chance to begin again. On the other hand, we are especially conscious of the passage of sacred time, of the spiritual work that remains undone, and the extent to which we squander opportunities today and throughout the year.”

For me tonight, the closing of the gates have very special meaning. This will be my last High Holiday sermon as the rabbi of Beth Sholom B’nai Israel, and truth be told, for many of you, it may well be the last time I have the opportunity to address you in a formal way. Our synagogue, like most synagogues in America, is designed with High Holiday accordion architecture. The sanctuary, which is hardly crowded one Shabbat to the next, suddenly has to expand to include the room behind it and room behind that. Recognizing this reality, I want to take this last opportunity to share a few of the ideas that have become especially important for me over the course of 42 years in the rabbinate.

I am fiercely chauvinistic about being Jewish. We Jews constitute barely one-fifth of one percent of the world’s population, and yet our contribution to civilization has been immense.  I love being Jewish and I became a rabbi because I want to share that joy with other Jews. And if folks come to me and say they want to learn more about Judaism, be they Jews or non-Jews, my greatest joy is in teaching them. In the next few minutes, I want to share with you what I think some of the important teachings are.

Judaism has made tremendous, revolutionary contributions to civilization, chief among them, the belief in one God, creator of all that is.  Friends, I won’t explain God to you becasue I don’t understand God.  In fact I am suspicious of people who claims they do. My teacher Neil Gillman was once asked if he believed in God. He responded, “Tell me what you mean by God and I will tell you if that is the God I believe in.” What is more important than an definition of God are the corollaries that follow from God’s existence: That we were all created in God’s Image and therefore every person has ultimate worth, Divine potential and deserves our utmost respect.

I believe that the mission of the Jewish people, our obligation under the covenant, is to be God’s agents here on earth. In the days of Noah, God destroyed the world because it had become so violent and corrupt. God then promised never to destroy the world again, but clearly given the current state of the world, destruction would be well deserved. That puts a heavy burden upon us to try and improve the world and the lot of each and every person created in God’s image. We call that Tikun Olam, and there is nothing more important that we could be doing. I like the way David Harris of the American Jewish Committee says it, “[We have a] partnership with God for the repair of our broken world, and we recognize that this work is not to be outsourced to a higher authority, or to fate, or to other people, but that it is my responsibility during my lifetime.”

I mentioned Noah and the flood, but I want to make something clear. While I do not take the Bible literally, but I do take it very seriously. I believe in the concept of Torah Emet, that we have a Torah of truth, but I don’t understand that to mean empirical truth, it is a religious truth that is every bit as important and must guide my life as a Jew.

I believe that Halacha, Jewish law, is the glue that has held the Jewish people together over the centuries. It is the secret of our survival. That’s a concept I learned from my teacher Dr. Gerson Cohen, alav ha-shalom. Halacha, at least my personal understanding of it, continues to work for me and connects me to Jews throughout the world and throughout history. I am very sad to see that Halacha is not working for most Jews in America and I think that is a tremendous loss to them and to the world. Many people think that Halacha only applies to ritual: what’s kosher and what’s treif, what is obligatory on which holidays and what is prohibited, what prayers must I say and when. That is Halacha - but there is so much more to it. Halacha touches every area of life. The Shulchan Aruch, the Code of Jewish Law, has four sections, and they cover every conceivable subject: relating to our neighbors, serving our country, plagiarism at work and in academia, how we are to treat our employees, how we are to allocate our charitable giving, how we are to honor our parents, and on and on. If a good person lives a life of integrity, that person may be doing God’s will. But only if that person understands himself to be commanded by God is he living a life guided by the Halacha, a Jewish life.

A life of mitzvah consciousness requires knowledge, and that brings me to another core belief: Talmud Torah k’neged kulam. The highest value is the study of Torah. Torah study does more than impart information; it shapes character

For me, the two most important concepts in the Torah are found in the middle of the book of Leviticus, in parshat Kedoshim. The parsha begins with the commandment, “You shall be holy.” Isn’t that commandment superfluous? After all, the Torah is full of mitzvot to direct our behavior. If we observe those mitzvot, the net result should be a life of holiness? Not necessarily. Maimonides teaches that the mitzvot are a bottom line, a basic minimum. People will say, “It’s the least I could do.” But Judaism does not want you to do the least. A holy life, which should be our goal, requires that we do more than the minimum and we should do it with joy and enthusiasm.

Just 18 verses into that parasha we read what is arguably the most important line in the Torah: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Bottom line, that is what it is all about: reaching out to help others in need, building relationships, truly caring in the deepest sense and then acting on that emotion

I want to share a tale that illustrates the beauty of loving one’s neighbor. It a true story about a cab driver in New York City. Here are his words:

I arrived at the address and honked the horn. After waiting a few minutes I honked again. Since this was going to be the last ride of my shift I thought about just driving away, but instead I put the car in park and walked up to the door and knocked.. 'Just a minute', answered a frail, elderly voice. After a long pause, the door opened. A small woman in her 90's stood before me. She was wearing a print dress and a pillbox hat with a veil pinned on it, like somebody out of a 1940's movie. By her side was a small nylon suitcase. The apartment looked as if no one had lived in it for years. All the furniture was covered with sheets. 'Would you carry my bag out to the car?' she said. I took the suitcase to the cab, then returned to assist the woman. She took my arm and we walked slowly toward the curb.

She kept thanking me for my kindness. I told her, 'It's nothing. I just try to treat my passengers the way I would want my mother to be treated.'

'Oh, you're such a good boy,’ she said. When we got in the cab, she gave me an address and then asked, 'Could you drive through downtown?'

'It's not the shortest way,' I answered quickly.

'Oh, I don't mind,' she said. 'I'm in no hurry. I'm on my way to a hospice.’ I looked in the rear-view mirror. Her eyes were glistening. 'I don't have any family left,' she continued in a soft voice. 'The doctor says I don't have very long.' I quietly reached over and shut off the meter.

'What route would you like me to take?' I asked. For the next two hours, we drove through the city. She showed me the building where she had once worked as an elevator operator. We drove through the neighborhood where she and her husband had lived when they were newlyweds. She had me pull up in front of a furniture warehouse that had once been a ballroom where she had gone dancing as a girl.

Sometimes she'd ask me to slow in front of a particular building or corner and would sit staring into the darkness, saying nothing.

As the first hint of sun was creasing the horizon, she suddenly said, 'I'm tired. Let's go now'.

We drove in silence to the address she had given me. Two orderlies came out to the cab as soon as we pulled up. They were solicitous and intent, watching her every move.

They must have been expecting her.

I opened the trunk and took the small suitcase to the door. The woman was already seated in a wheelchair.

'How much do I owe you?' She asked, reaching into her purse.

'Nothing,' I said.

'You have to make a living,' she answered.

'There are other passengers,' I responded.

Almost without thinking, I bent and gave her a hug. She held onto me tightly.

'You gave an old woman a little moment of joy,' she said. 'Thank you.'

I squeezed her hand, and then walked into the dim morning light. Behind me, a door shut. It was the sound of the closing of a life.

The kindness, shown by that cab driver, that true Hesed, is a beautiful demonstration of keeping the mitzvah of loving your neighbor. Surely, it is the greatest mitzvah in the Torah.

I will conclude will one belief that has been foundational for me. It is expressed in a verse from Psalms my daughter Ariel chose to print on her wedding invitation: Ivdu et HaShem b’Simcha. Worship God with joy.

Joy in Jewish living is the key, particularly if we want to see it passed on to future generations.  I believe you should never say a prayer when you can sing it. I want Jews to see every mitzvah as a joyful opportunity to serve God and community. And that joy has to come from within. I know there are synagogues that think they are enhancing Jewish life by having a band on the bima to promote singing and dancing on Shabbat. I much prefer a synagogue in which that joyous prayer style comes from the depths of the souls of the worshippers, not from the hired musicians. Jewish living should be joyful and spiritually satisfying. Our young people shouldn’t have to seek spirituality in eastern cults. Today, our fast of Yom Kippur was not fun, but I do hope you found it spiritually satisfying. There is a difference between Simcha, deep spiritual joy, and fun, transient pleasure. A Hasidic teaching asks why we sing Ashamnu and Al Chet, the confession of transgression, with such joyous gusto. “Ashamnu, bagadnu, gazalnu…” “We abuse, we betray, we are cruel.” Does that sound like a happy song? The answer is that we know that God is compassionate and will forgive, and that makes brings us joy. It provides us with a true sense of Simcha. You want to understand Simcha? Come back to the synagogue on Simchat Torah. Sing and dance with us. Make a l’chayim. And come to understand what it really means to “Serve God with joyfulness.”

This is a significant moment for me. I cannot sum up 42 years in the rabbinate in a single sermon. But I want to conclude by letting you know how much being Jewish has enriched my life, and my greatest joy would be to know that some of that emotion has spilled over onto the members of my congregation.

May your life as a Jew be filled with many moments of joy. And when times of sorrow fall upon you as they must, gather strength from the well springs of our faith.

Kevey el Adonai – Hope in the Lord. Chazak v’ya-a-metz libecha – be strong and take courage. V’kevey el Adonai. Place your hope in the Lord.

May this be a year of blessing for us and all Israel. Gmar Chatima Tovah.

Sat, July 2 2022 3 Tammuz 5782