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Two Rodfei Trips

Rosh HaShanah II, 5778

A month ago I stood in front of 27 people and acknowledged my fears about standing in front of them.  This group of people and I came together as a part of “Rodfei’s Wondering Year,” where we will study the holidays and rhythms of the Jewish calendar.  I am a confident teacher; I trust that my approach will yield a classroom where all our able to access their curiosity, as well their ability to be serve as both, teacher and student.  But that confidence is strong when I have small group of people but beyond that I grow wary of my skills and insecure about my lack of knowledge.  So before everyone went around and introduced themselves, saying why they had come, I wanted everyone to state their anxieties about being in that room—so I went first.  I said just what I told you, that my classes have gone well in the past, yet this was significantly bigger and I worried that whatever secret sauce I had splashed on those other classes, would run out before the class ran its course.

What was profound was not that I let this group in, peering behind the rabbinic curtain, but that they let me and everyone else in.  One after the other, each person stated, cautiously, how insecure they were about joining this program, how little they knew and how intimidating they assumed this space would be given the wealth of knowledge of those who came.  And embedded in many of these statements was the fear of being exposed, that the person you have sat next to for years or with whom you have shared Shabbat dinners with actually knows less than you thought.  By the time we worked our way around the whole table, people were apologizing because they were repeating what the person before them had said, perhaps embarrassed by how universal their concerns and reservations were.

What was significant to me was how deep the sense of fear was, how pervasive the idea of being a fraud was in the group.  I got the sense that many in the room had felt as if they had only been traveling through the tradition, stopping, only briefly, along the way at tourist destinations.  And that these stops have yielded only a vague sense of ownership, which is something we all feel, at least sometimes.  When we travel it is so much easier to stop at the Bean or the Empire State Building, or, in our tradition at Hanukkah or Yom Kippur because we do not need to ask for directions, we can go unnoticed and “do it right,” whatever that means.  But what if instead of being someone who touches the airports of our tradition but never the cities, a passerby, we were empowered, encouraged to explore, while honoring the vulnerability that comes with saying, I do not know.

What if we, as a community, chose to honor those willing to pull off the road to ask for directions rather than those who drive in a circle?  And if you have found yourself on that circuitous route, what would you need to do in order to put the car in park?  The person on the side of the road or the attendant in the gas station is our tradition’s way of acknowledging that we are all looking for answers and to find our way.  These stops serve as the commentators on the margins of our tradition who are there, not to give answers, but to help yield the best route towards finding them ourselves.

So, then, what happens when we are brave enough pull off the road and ask for directions?  We end up eating not at Pizzeria Uno’s or Bubba Gump Shrimp but like locals, we consume the meaning of an intimate Shabbat or engaging Seder, and we do it not only comfortably but with confidence.  I encourage you to drop in on our wondering year, but at the very least, allow the courage of those who came to be example for you on how to get beyond your fears and insecurities, it has for me; this will be the year where I am comfortable with not knowing but no longer comfortable not seeking the answer.

Judaism is a religion of wandering, of journeys, at least in part, because we knew the power of the road long before Jack Keroauc wrote about it or Bruce Springsteen sang about it.  Meaning is found out there, and we need to be willing to head to the metaphoric beyond in order to be comfortable seeking it—to the places that are messy and often difficult but make up so much of our identity.

The Torah is the ultimate book of journeys, and it concludes its narrative telling at the end of book of Numbers since the final book, Deuteronomy, is simply Moses’ farewell speech to the Israelites.  The final portion of the book gives us a list of all the places the Israelites stopped along the way, from crossing at the Red Sea in Exodus, the complaining in the desert and the rebellions in Leviticus and Numbers.  Yet something is amiss, the list gives equal air‑time to seemingly insignificant stops as it does to the momentous ones that altered the Israelite’s story.  And this list includes stops that were never recorded before- how could the Torah include this new information?  The Song at the Sea and Revelation at Mt. Sinai, our most significant moments not just in the Torah but in our collective Jewish memory, how could they stand at equal height to episodes that were not important enough to be recorded in real time?

The Torah is imparting the wisdom we all know, that we cannot get lost thinking about origins nor can we allow the destination to blind us of all the meaning that is found in making the journey.  If we focus solely on beginnings and endings, then all the growth we made, all the yearly pencil marks on the wall become indecipherable.  This, often overlooked piece of Torah, is telling us it is impossible to know what will be identity forming and what will simply be filed away in our subconscious.

This is what we ought to be reading today—this is, at least for me, what I need to be hearing on Rosh Hashanah—not a story of extreme faith, maybe a misguided one too, a story that was dropped on us out of context.  And without that context we think the story is complete rather than it being a 3rd or 4th draft, and we see characters who appear perfect rather than living a story that is pliable and meant to be interpreted.

If we are being real students of our tradition, and of life in general, we know that meaning is not found in fixed locations or on towering mountains but in the stops we make on our way towards finding them.

We need to figure out what are the things that deter us, blinding us of meaning as we travel through our Jewish journey?  We need to fully understand what gets in our way, what keeps us from seeking more and what intimidates us from asking more of our tradition and ourselves.  Is it a lack of trust in the tradition, or is it that your life is already pretty good, why mess with it?  Is it the concern of looking passé, or is it the fear of feeling like a fraud?  Or is it the fear that we are inadequate?

Karl Ove Knauusgard’s massive 6‑volume autobiographical novel, My Struggle, spends nearly the entirety of the first book addressing the death of his father, although he has acknowledged that the whole series is, in essence, about his dad.  Karl Ove’s father was emotionally and physically abusive.  Yet as he went to college his father’s life had devolved, spiraling out of control in the throes of alcoholism.  He became only a shell of himself, dying about a decade later and it was Karl Ove who was tasked with handling his affairs and the funeral.  When Karl Ove got to his grandmother’s house, with whom his father lived, he found a home that looked like the Tasmanian devil had come through it: garbage, feces and empty whiskey bottles were everywhere.

It was clear that the towering figure, the person who still tormented his self-image had long ceased to exist—yet reality and how we experience that reality are two different things.  He wrote, as he stood staring at his father’s body on the medical examiner’s table that his life would be better if it was that image that he held of his father, if he could visualize what his father became rather than who he had been.  He simply could not do it, he could not transcend the image he held of his father, as a 12 year old kid— he had a single image of his father and, subsequently, of himself.

I share this because we have allowed that towering, often damaging figure of Judaism to hold us back—we hold a single image of Judaism, of being “religious.”  Two years ago I shared how people are always coming up to me to say “I am a bad Jew,” or one rabbi I know has said when he introduces himself as rabbi so-and-so, people have instinctively responded, “I used to keep kosher.”  We need to permanently move past the idea that there is a single image of what a good Jew is or is not and bury forever the idea that there is a single Jewish story or even a correct way of interpreting that story.  Everyone in this room has many stories to tell, we have all lived many lives; and after thousands of years, our tradition has not only been retold, changing many times but it has been rewritten many times; and if we are persistent, it will continue to be rewritten.

This issue, the idea that there is a single Jewish story or one way of retelling it, is not new.  At some point we become removed from firsthand experience yet, too often, we are unwilling to alter that.  One modern commentator writes that, “The center of gravity is moving further from true experience to the assumption of what an experience should be (JPS Torah Commentary).”  That commentator was talking about the death of the slave generation wandering the desert before the next generation could enter the land, but I think he is speaking to and about us.  How often are we guilty of allowing a child, grandparents or a cousin be the one who determines how the kugel is cooked or the Seder is led?  We cannot be slaves to how it has been done, we need to stem that tide, be the sandbags at the seawall of perceived meaning, of assumed knowledge and head out to find it for ourselves.

I would imagine very few people, even in this room, have picked up Ulysses for the first time and mastered it, very few people have read Hamlet without a reader’s guide or some annotated version.  Judaism comes with that annotated reader’s guide:  it is called the tradition, it is called Jewish history.  Thank God each generation has had people brave enough to get over what they did not know, arrogant enough to write about what they did know, in a courageous search for answering what they did not.  At the outset of their quest they might been called frauds but, now, we call them sages—we know them as Maimonides, Rashi, Hillel.

The final aspect that we need to overcome is our sense of inadequacy, our sense that we do not know because we are not good enough.  We should all know Marianne Williamson’s famous quote that “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate.  Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.”  This is not simply bumper sticker wisdom, the Torah of those who are down and out but is a truism for each of us.  It is so much easier to give up than to push forward, so much easier to walk out of a class, lecture or a difficult conversation than it is to stay, and, to come back.

Almost all of the Torah is about finding our way to the Promised Land, to Israel; yet in Judaism there is no holiday for entering the Land, only holidays to honor the journey.  We know very little about the hero who took us across the Jordan River, but we know much about the one who died on the wrong side of that river, never making it to his presumed destiny (Moses).  It is our tradition’s way of saying that none of us have gotten there and we may never arrive.  Arriving, getting there is not a Jewish idea, but being on and being comfortable with the journey is allowing your power to overwhelm your inadequacies.  It is saying that sitting in the vulnerable and weather-beaten sukkah is rejoicing in the fact that we are all a work in progress.  We are all broken, and these celebrations honor not only that brokenness but that we keep journeying on with the hope of finding our broken selves rather than discarding the pieces.

The great Jewish example of wandering, of journeying in the 20th century was that of Shai Agnon’s character in Only Yesterday (Tmol Shilshom), his tome to the journey from Europe to Palestine.  His main character immigrated not to the Palestine of his Galicia dreams but to a rough, difficult and impoverished swamp.  Our comrade, as Agnon refereed to the protagonist, taught us that we are still, and always, traveling, not yet “there.”  The writer Jonathan Rosen said about this character that we are all, “still making a sort of journey that never stopped.”  He continues by saying that, “It was a simultaneously gloomy and oddly uplifting discovery, to know that Israelis were also in a constant process of Aliyah, much as all Jews are constantly choosing to be Jewish even after three thousand years of being chosen.”  I hope we can let this be the year where we, genuinely and hopefully out loud, proclaim our anxieties, our inadequacies, yet choose to overcome them—let that be our aliyah, at least this year, that is our ethnic and tribal inheritance and our individual obligation to fulfill, while communally providing the space to safely achieve that mitzvah.

My aunt, Rabbi Benay Lappe is here; the last time she was here, for my installation, she shared something that Rabbi Yitz Greenberg had taught her.  Greenberg says if we live our lives seriously, then in 1000 years people will look back at how we lived and call it torah.  We should live with that level of intention, with that purposefulness, and then we will become a living Torah.  Our tradition believes that when we are in the womb we have all knowledge in the world but an angel takes it from us before we enter the world; yet we get it back in the beit-midrash (study hall) of heaven.  The joy of life, of living, is searching for what was taken from us in the womb and what will be given to us after we die, that is what it means to be alive.  Let's spend this year not worrying about all the torah we do not know and simply live out all the torah that is to be written.

Shanah Tovah

Rabbi David Minkus

The Pulpit Shelf

Tue, February 20 2024 11 Adar I 5784