Rosh HaShanah Day 1 Sermon: Jonah and the Question

Here we are – Rosh HaShanah – the busiest time of the Jewish  year.  The Days of Awe.  The days when synagogues get their highest level of attendance – the reason our synagogue and most synagogues in the US are built with folding walls – so that we can seat all of the Jews who flock to pray at this time of year.

Today we are taught that God opens up the “Book of Life” and begins to decide who will live and who will die in the year to come.  We have 10 days from today to convince God that we deserve to live.  On the 10th day, Yom Kippur, we fast – no eating or drinking, no teeth brushing, showering….no taking part in any pleasure.  On top if this, while we are starving, dehydrated and suffering from really bad breath, we recite prayers in which we declare that we are morally weak, severely flawed mortals who are drawn to sin.

Yes, this is our most popular time of year!

By the end of Yom Kippur, after all the self-deprecating rituals that focus us on our faults and – if we do what we are supposed to do – make us feel really, really guilty, we are totally and completely exhausted.  Too tired to return to the synagogue for the really joyful holiday of Sukkot that encourages us to focus on all the amazingly beautiful things that fill this world.  We don’t need expandable walls on Sukkot.  Nope.  Not for Simchat Torah or Chanukah or Purim or Passover or Israel Independence Day or Shavuot – all joyful celebrations.  No, we only need the expandable walls during these days during which we live in limbo – wondering if our prayers will get us written in the “Book of Life” for another year. God willing, we will say what we need to say, do what we need to do and we will be written in the “Book of Life” and, therefore, make it back here next year so we will have to open up the walls again to seat everyone.

While I find this time of year spiritually reinvigorating, the High Holiday prayers and rituals extremely moving and I enjoy seeing so many people fill our sanctuary, I find this time of year to be sad.  Sad because so many people only give themselves the opportunity to experience the serious, often depressing, even frightening side of Judaism.  If only the crowds would flock here on Purim and laugh so hard that they cry tears of joy!    But they don’t.

As a rabbi, my primary goal is to transmit Judaism in a way that makes it exciting – especially to our kids – the next generation.  I want them to be drawn to all that is beautiful and incredible in our tradition.  If we make it boring – or worse, sad, even scary (and don’t tell me the prayers about being written in the “Book of Life” don’t keep you adults awake at night!) – we lose them.  We can’t allow this to happen and this is why my colleagues and I work so hard to get people back in the synagogues after Yom Kippur – to experience the good stuff.

Allowing  our children to experience the happiness of Judaism – this will be the key to keeping them connected.

I have said this before.  Last Rosh HaShanah, I made mention of the couple that marched down the aisle to Chris Brown’s song “Forever” as I gave a sermon on the importance that Judaism places on happiness, joy, laughter and dancing.  Lots of you know that the wacky holiday of Purim is my favorite Jewish holiday!  I love the joyful side of our tradition.  I get it!

But, I’ve learned this summer, that I didn’t “get it” as much as I thought I did.  This summer, I allowed myself to fall into the trap that so many of us fall into – the trap that gets us focusing on the “oh woe is me” part of Judaism.  And once this happens, the joyful stuff flies out the window.

As you know, Cheryl and I took Jonah and Abigail to Israel this summer.  It was their first trip to the holy land.  We took them to the Kotel – the western foundation wall of the ancient Temple.  We were guided through the tunnels surrounding the Kotel.  The kids learned about the destruction of the Temple – not one destruction, but two destructions!  We even were lucky enough to welcome in Shabbat together with other Ramat Shalom families at the southern Temple excavation – were I led services and talked about how fortunate we were to stand at the ruins of the ancient Temple and welcome in our day of rest.  We visited a site in Jerusalem called the Burnt House – an ancient home occupied by a Priestly family during the 2nd destruction of the Temple.  The home gets its name from the fact that the archeologists who discovered the ruins of the home were able to see (and we were able to see for ourselves) the burning and destruction that took place within the home – burning and destruction that were linked to the destruction of the Temple by the Romans in the year 70.  The skeletal remains of a woman’s arm were found in the house – a victim of the Roman attack.  Jonah and Abigail were pretty freaked out by the remains.

We took the kids through Hezekiah’s tunnels in the ancient City of David – an incredible relic of the ancient city that existed prior to its destruction thousands of years ago.

The kids saw the remains of ancient synagogues – beautiful mosaic floors that captured a long lost era of Judaism.

Abigail and Jonah got to understand the present day tension between Jews and Palestinians within Israel.  Barbed wire fences, military with machine guns, areas that were not safe enough to go into without guards….They saw it all.

And Cheryl and I, we were proud of ourselves.  Showing our kids our history.  Teaching them why they need to be Jewish.  “Look how we were almost destroyed, but we survived,” I kept explaining to them over and over again.   With my experience in archaeology, I took great pride in showing Jonah and Abigail the ash line in the soil – proof that the ancient ruin we stood in was burned and destroyed centuries ago.

And then, one day, during a trip to another ruin, Jonah asked, “Dad, is Israel only about broken and sad things?”  Caught off guard, I asked him what he meant.  “Well,” he explained “there are all these ruins and everything is pretty sad and about how people tried to kill us and burn down the Temple and ruin the cities.  It is pretty scary.  Is there fun stuff too?”

And it hit me, I brought my kids halfway around the globe to show them the most amazing Jewish place in the world – the holiest place in the world – and I had turned the experience into the Days of Awe.  I had allowed myself to get so caught up in the negative stuff that can pervade Judaism – particularly during this time of year – that I lost sight of the “fun stuff” of Judaism.

And, to be honest, this is a problem that most of us who “work” in the Jewish world do a lot.  We talk about the history – the challenges, the losses, the fragility of our faith and we forget that most people want a reason to be Jewish in the here and now.  Jews – no matter what age – just like my Jonah – want to connect to their heritage for positive reasons – not because we almost died or we did die and we are products of the ashes.  While these things may be true and important– they don’t draw us in, rather they keep us on the edge, make us feel guilty for not being more involved, make us fearful, or keep us from feeling a strong desire to be involved and connected.

I did not want my kids to think you go to Israel because you have to pay homage to a past filled with violence, death and destruction and observe a country presently at war with people committed to wiping Israel off the face of the planet.  Certainly, it is powerful to see our past first hand, it is intense to experience Israel’s military in action today – but the fact is, Israel is so much more than the ruins of an ancient past and the present day soldiers, guns, tanks and aircraft.

After hearing Jonah’s question, Cheryl and I refocused and adjusted our plans to that Abigail and Jonah would have numerous opportunities to see all that is incredibly positive and wonderful about Israel.

They got to see that Israel is a country of beautiful mountains, magnificent plains, and awe inspiring deserts.  Israel is a place where you can go white-water rafting in the Jordan river, float in the Dead Sea, and sun bathe on the Mediterranean coast.  Our kids now know that the streets of Israel’s crowded cities and villages are filled with Jews of all flavors, colors, sizes, and shapes.  Abigail and Jonah got to experience a land were you can go cave spelunking and discover pottery that is thousands of years old. You can visit Eilat, the French Riviera of Israel or Tel Aviv, which has much of the excitement of major cities like New York, Miami, or London.  For two weeks, Abigail and Jonah truly lived the Hebrew language.  They rode camels and met people who still live in tents just like our ancestor Abraham.  As a family in Israel, we experienced incredible spirituality – from the holiness of the Kotel and the kabbalistic spirituality of Tzefat to the religious traditions of the other faiths that live in and flock to Israel to connect to their past.  And we saw with our own eyes that Israel is filled with incredible miracles – one being the fact that Israeli farmers have turned the desert into a rich farmlands.  Israeli vineyards produce incredible wines and nothing beats Israeli tomatoes and cucumbers.  And, of course, we explained to the kids that  the most miraculous aspect of Israel is the fact that she is a Jewish nation – with a Jewish government, a Jewish justice system, and a Jewish military.  Am Yisrael Chai – the Jewish nation is alive and well!

Israel is so much more than ruins, war and stories of destruction and violence.  But we often fall into the trap of making it about this stuff.  In the same way, we often make Judaism about the guilt and fasting and long services that make up this time of year.  Sadly we do the same thing to Judaism with our kids and Hebrew School.  What does Judaism become?  Sunday morning:  the early morning rise for Hebrew School when everyone else is sleeping in; a boring seder at aunt Linda’s that they have to go to; today’s service;  tomorrow; Yom Kippur.  Don’t get me wrong – these days are powerful and necessary – but they, in and of themselves, do not define what Judaism is.

I think back to Jonah’s question: “Dad, is Israel only about broken and sad things?”  Is Judaism all about sitting in synagogue all day and confessing our sins?  Is it about getting up too early on Sunday and missing cartoons and being bored? I know that the answer is “no” – it is so much more than this. But, if YOU don’t know this – more importantly if our kids don’t know this – why should they bother?  I wouldn’t.  There are lots of other options out there that seem a lot more enticing, more uplifiting.

Sadly, the statistics teach us that more and more Jewish children grow up to become adults who don’t really want to bother maintaining a connection to their Judaism.  And given what we teach them and their limited exposure to Judaism – I get it!

Some of the ultra-orthodox Jewish group that exists these days are growing because they are committed to showing Jews all the good stuff in Judaism.  The spirituality and joy and beauty.  Liberal Judaism needs to follow their lead.

And we start by reminding ourselves that we need to be here today because we want to be – not because we are afraid that our absence will result in us not being written in the Book of Life.

We need to be here today because it renews and rejuvenates our soul – our very essence and we need to transmit this to our kids.

We need to teach the positive aspects of Judaism to our children.  The more we do this, the more our kids will want to be connected.

This year, as a result of Jonah’s question, I am committed to giving you all the tools needed to discover or re-discover the incredible stuff, the beautiful stuff, the mystical stuff, the awe-inspiring, life changing in a really good way stuff that is Judaism.  It is all right here and I want us to focus on it together.

But I need you – particularly the adults in the room – to take a bold step and commit to learning and growing with me.  Don’t allow these Days of Awe to be the end of Judaism for you this year.  If you do that, you have walked right into the trap.  And you will do nothing to secure our future.

Instead – continue the journey AFTER Yom Kippur.  Commit to attending Adult Ed – we have so much to offer this year.  Join us for Adult Torah School on Sunday mornings.  Take a Hebrew Class and connect with the language of our people.  Join Hillary Tescher on Thursdays for our new Contemporary Issues lunch group.  Sign up to be part of the Ramat Shalom ACTS program and literally roll up your sleeves and improve the world.  Make yourself come to Shabbat services on a regular basis.  Experience the power of the Shabbat melodies and allow yourself be a part of a community that truly cares about each other.  Join us for dinner on Sukkot.  Dance with us on Simchat Torah.  Light the Chanukiyah with us on Chanukah.  Dress up and laugh, drink and be merry with us on Purim.  Toss frogs around the room at our synagogue’s 2nd seder.  Sing the songs of Israel on Yom HaHatzmaut and see how many blintzes you can eat on Shavuot.  Maybe even journey with us to Israel and experience the power of the land next summer.

And – on top of all of this – promise us all that you will share the energy, the dancing and music, the feelings of belonging and community with the children in your life.  Show them that Judaism is not just the Days of Awe. It is not just about ruins and scary things.  No – far from it.  Judaism is beautiful and we have an obligation to bring that beauty to all Jews – especially our kids.

So today, I hope that you will pledge to get involved and work with me to insure that our children and grandchildren will know the awesome side of Judaism.  Commit to remaining connected this year.  Hang around long after the folding walls have returned to their closed position.  Better yet, maybe enough of you will be so inspired that the walls will need to be opened more often!  Ken Yehi Ratzon, may it be God’s will.

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