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Snickering at Ourselves

Yom Kippur 5780
October 2019

This past year we had the fortune of having bnai mitzvah almost every shabbat from April to July.  Our bnai mitzvah all chanted beautifully and shared words of Torah that reflected their insights into the tradition, which was humbling for me and inspiring to all of us.  Because many of these bnai mitzvah had the same families and friends sitting in the pews, what we do in the service became familiar and accessible.  A comfort was born from the routine and repetition which is the foundation of ritual.  One of the most meaningful aspects of this special time was that for many practice and exposure led to accessibility if not meaning.

Yet there are things I see from my vantage point, from this view, that I have, at times, not looked forward to or, if I am being honest, simply dreaded.  I will always enjoy seeing a 13-year-old I have gotten to know well through the study of Torah and small talk stand over there and say, “Shabbat shalom,” following my rule for how to begin a dvar Torah.  I will always relish seeing the pride of their family; that will never get old, nor will I allow myself to grow accustomed to it.  But a row after the pride and nerves a family is experiencing, the joy of older siblings and boredom of younger ones, I often see the tangible discomfort felt by visitors, the Jewish family, and friends with Hebrew or prayer,  God, or ritual and perhaps other aspects of what we do within these walls whose reach seemingly ends before the line for lox and bagels.

And why do I have trouble with this view?  Because I can see the laughter and the snickering.  I see the trivial nature we reflexively turn to when we are confronted with something new, something we are unsure of, yet are unwilling to say, “I do not know.”  When we finish in this room and the tension leaves our shoulders as we smear cream cheese on our bagels, I see none of that joking; I see the ease of regular conversation and I engage in gracious and warm conversation with many of these same people—which I am always thankful for.  Yet in this room of prayer, of memory, a space that stands in for tradition—one that may have inspired you—for far too many it represents something provincial or scarring, an institution that said “no” when you needed “yes,” that thing your grandparents cared about or your negative memories of Hebrew school.

When standing over there by the door, welcoming people, I am feeling many things:  I feel the pride of my tradition as well as my decision to fully dedicate my life to it, the joy in this profound community and in my fellow community member who is being called to the Torah for the first time.  But I also feel hurt by dismissive or indifferent conversations happening parallel to our attempts to converse with something bigger.  I feel let down; I, feel guilty for standing in judgment, for being a part of the problem.  And I feel bad.  I do not think they have given themselves the opportunity to allow the tradition to impact them.  I worry they cannot hear our band’s music and our community’s song; while we may looking at the same thing, we see it in contrasting light.

The laughing and the snickering is a posture, but it is a posture born not only out of discomfort but also out of a scarcity:  maybe scarcity of knowledge but certainly of experience.  I think that laughter and posture say, “What does it all mean to you.”  This person is never a child, certainly not someone of another faith but, generally, someone raised Jewish, probably among many Jews, but not immersed in Judaism, at least not the one we subscribe too.  Laughter is a way to say, “I know this means nothing to me,” because it is easier than existing within the vulnerable space of “I do not know,” of acknowledging there may be something I am missing, something I was taught poorly, something I learned at the wrong point in my life.

The question this person’s body language is asking is, “What does this mean to you?”  Do you recognize that?  It is the question the Wicked Child asks at the Passover Seder.  Yet, how many of us feel like or identify with that child and their question each springtime?  I know that I do, at least in part because who among us wants to identify with the blind-faith of Judaism’s hall-monitor-like figure, one who is quoted regurgitating facts and laws that supposedly make that child the Wise Child.  It is the Haggadah’s seeming elevation of this kind of Judaism and this way of thinking that we rebel against.  It is this image of a “good Jew” that we want to defy, upending that singular image of being religious and, equally significant here, this wrong-headed approach to pedagogy.

Yet what makes the Wicked Child worthy of the tradition’s scorn is not the question but the posture, that they leave no room in their heart for a response that will enable the psychic space for their lives to grow through change.  They ask for an answer when what they need is to be heard and to trust.  There is only one place to go from there:  to disengage; seeking ceases.  I am sure we have all had that experience, where we fail to be brave and our systems fail to make room for our questions and our yearning to be heard.

Judaism and this community may not work for you; Judaism is certainly not failproof.  But the one who snickers, more often than not, has only been shown a snapshot, a single frame in a flip book; and the only response is to think that the tradition is flat, one-dimensional.  It then becomes so easy to reach for the bold assertion over choosing the language and perspective of ambiguity; discarding is easier than embracing the difficulty that comes with being vulnerable to the experiences, and, truth, of others.  We do not need nuance when we know we are right.

We are sitting here on Yom Kippur, the most significant day of the year, and we are being tasked by our tradition to confront not the person we want to see but the person we are and, we pray that the mirror leaves space for the image of the person we hope to be.  And I am not standing here giving a polemic against these individuals or trying to speak to a threat out there, something that we need squash.  Being a snickerer is a stance.  The joke is on us, it's on me, because we all contain that orientation, each and every one of us.  We close ourselves off to books, music, and food; we build walls to the perspective of others, ignoring the meaning to be found in those experiences.  All too easily and too often, we draw the shades on the joy and inspiration of others.

My interest is how do we respond, the choice we make when we catch ourselves laughing, pointing to the silliness over there, the simple nature of their beliefs.  We all do it; I know this is universal.  There is a self-help- as well as a political sermon to be offered here but I am not the outlet for that.  My concern—the only thing I know a lot about and the only reason I have been given this microphone—is tradition and the manifestation of it in this building.  The choice I want us to consider making or for many, doubling down on, is the choice to be shaped by these walls and these people, to sustain their practices, to continue to study and write our Torah together.

And to return to the end of the bnai mitzvah season, my line of vision remained the same, but the experience had changed.  Over time those who had snickered at the early bnai mitzvah stopped.  They had become comfortable with the ritual, and its familiar rhythms gave them courage and capital to knock down the walls they had constructed for themselves.  Yet, what happens when we are not obligated to show up, no RSVP is needed.  Do we disengage?  Or do we summon the courage to be brave and walk through that door?

There are so many causal and easy ways to discard Judaism or Torah:  it is not relevant in 2019, it contains offensive stories and ideas, I already am a good person, I do not identify those people.  Yet I caution us to remember a teaching of Bob Dylan:  Do not to criticize what we cannot understand.  All of those rebuttals have validity, yet they are misguided and miss a fundamental principle of being Jewish.  Judaism cannot be contained in one idea or teaching.  You are not the first to be offended by Leviticus nor the first to stand over Judaism’s waters and not see your reflection.  But making the choice to disengage based upon one of these ideas is confusing an erroneous notion of being religious with the essential mitzvah of belonging.

Making the choice to embrace our community’s tradition, complications and all, will make you bigger, and that happens in a surprising way.  The ego we hold onto in the street, in the classroom, the boardroom or the courtroom goes away, it is diminished because it holds no sway.  Yet what we shed allows for us to become bigger through an elevation offering, the sacrifice of making our community bigger, more able to handle the weight of our covenant with each other.

Whether we are praying in here and schmoozing out there, learning and arguing together, laughing and crying, this community gives us 613 best guesses at seeking meaning and finding the best version of ourselves.  The High Holidays are not solely about self-improvement, and they are not a vehicle or a religious manifestation of the self-help field—that is weak tea.  We are here to contemplate our morality and mortality, to hold ourselves accountable, the sinner and the tzadik alike because each of us contains both of them.

This is the technology that Judaism is giving us to make our lives better.  Trust it. Trust that if you give yourself over to this tradition, and, truly this community, your life will be better.  It will work regardless of the reason you came, just as long as you are open to it—to its sights and smells, its music and its people.

As a community we have inherited texts and stories, beauty and baggage, like each of us, and Judaism is given life through it all.  Please, do not be afraid of your Judaism.  It will not hurt you, and nearly anything that hurts you in the name of Judaism is desecrating the sanctity of our tradition.  I am asking that you trust that the experience, teaching, or voice you need is out there; trust it.  Trusting that this is true and will work for you is the first, but most significant step on our on-going path back to Sinai.

I want to end, as I did on the first Day of Rosh Hashanah, with Menachem Mendl of Kokst, the Kotzker Rebbe.  The Kotzker Rebbe was not born to a Hasidic family, he did not come from a coveted lineage like his predecessors, not a rabbinic dynasty; his family and upbringing were humble.  His beginning was not the typical upbringing of someone destined to lead a movement or bound for greatness, yet he became one of greatest rabbis, a Hasidic master, with generations of disciples.  One day, after years of learning from him and studying under his guidance, his students worked up the courage to approach him. They wanted to learn how their teacher, their rebbe, became a master.  With some trepidation they asked, “Rebbe, tell us, how did you become a Hasid.”  He told them that when he left home, he traveled and ended up wandering from place to place, and once he came upon a man who told stories.  Nodding their heads, they thought they got their answer.  “He must have been an amazing man, a true Tzadik, a righteous man, a man who told great stories.”  The rebbe paused, “No, he was a simple man, who told simple stories.  But he told what he knew, and I heard what I needed.”

Only you know what that simple story is or will be, but leave open the sacred space in your heart to hear it. Our tradition and its people in this room tell many stories, and my prayer this year is that we hear the one we need.

Shanah tovah, and g’mar hatimah tovah.
  Rabbi David Minkus

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