Friday, September 13, 2013

The Most Valuable Gifts We Can Give - Kol Nidrei 5774

Charles Francis Adams, the 19th century political figure and diplomat, was a grandson of this nation’s second president, John Adams, and the son of the sixth president, John Quincy Adams. Charles Adams kept a diary. One day he entered: "Went fishing today--a day wasted." His young son, Henry Brooks Adams, also kept a diary. On that same day, young Henry made this entry: "Went fishing with my father -- the most wonderful day of my life!"

Sometimes, the smallest gifts in life are the biggest. Among the greatest gifts that we can give anybody else is our time.

Last week, on the second day of Rosh Hashanah, we read from the Torah the story of the Aqedah, the Binding of Isaac, among the best-known stories in the Pentateuch. Brief recap: God commands Abraham to take his beloved son Isaac to Mt. Moriah, which will later be the location of the Temple in Jerusalem, and to offer Isaac up as a fiery sacrificial offering to God. We will leave aside the great theological challenges posed by this story to focus on a phrase which is repeated twice in the Torah’s narrative: “Vayelekhu sheneihem yahdav,” meaning, “the two of them walked together.” It’s a three-day trip from Beersheva to Jerusalem, and Abraham and Isaac walk the whole way (Rashi, by the way, suggests that Abraham’s Subaru was in the shop). We are left to wonder what they said to each other during these three days; the Torah doesn’t tell us.

Abraham had three days on which to puzzle over God’s confounding command to sacrifice his beloved son Isaac. But Isaac got to spend three solid days hiking with his father, seemingly unaware of what awaits him on Mt. Moriah. Three days of talking, of walking together and enjoying the scenery, of singing and swapping jokes and checking out pretty flowers or funny-looking insects along the way. Perhaps, like little Henry Adams, Isaac had the most wonderful time of his life.

I am fortunate in that my workplace (i.e. Temple Israel) and my daughter’s school are both within easy walking distance from our house, and so almost every day, as often as I can, I walk her to school in the morning and back again at the end of the day. It’s four tenths of a mile, about ten minutes each way. We talk about school, of course, but also friends, and we identify plants and birds, we notice the trash that we find along the way and sometimes collect it, and we occasionally discuss complex subjects (for a six-year-old) such as work and death and human relationships. We sometimes smugly pat ourselves on the back for getting a little extra exercise and sparing the atmosphere a few extra carbon dioxide molecules.  Sometimes we sing; this past Tuesday morning we sang Woody Guthrie’s classic, “This Land Is Your Land,” followed by a rousing rendition of the first few lines of Kol Nidrei.

Twenty minutes each school day, multiplied by roughly 150 days, is 3000 minutes. That’s 50 hours of time over the course of a single school year.

I hope that someday my daughter will look back on these times and understand that this time spent with her father was invaluable. And maybe she’ll make a special effort, if she can, to spend a few quality minutes with her son or daughter every day.

Time is a simple gift that cannot be bought. It is among a short list of gifts that we can give to each other and the world that are worth more than anything available at Costco or spending time with those you love, spending time performing deeds of hesed, charitable acts for those in need, and improving the condition of your soul by seeking holy moments in Jewish ritual.

None of these acts yields a financial return on investment. But they are all of infinite value; the time we give to others and to God is the holiest kind of time that there is. These simple gifts are returned to us many times over - in personal satisfaction, in the joy that comes with helping others and repairing the world, in the overall benefit to society, in the inner peace that comes from engaging with the Divine.

Our time is the greatest gift we can give to others. And what is the greatest gift that you can give to yourself? Torah.

You might have heard recently about a small fracas in the Jewish world over a video that “went viral” a few weeks back. It was a dance routine from the bar mitzvah of a boy who is now among Dallas, Texas’ best-known Jewish residents, a 13-year-old named Sam Horowitz. Who has seen it? In the video, Mr. Horowitz is shown dancing in a professionally-choreographed number with a bevy of scantily-clad women, interspersed with occasional shots of the “audience,” i.e. the friends and family of the Horowitzes. At least one rabbi, Rabbi David Wolpe of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles, took to the opinion pages of a national newspaper, the Washington Post, to excoriate this video and all it stands for, arguing that such ostentatious and sexualized displays not only cheapen the  bar mitzvah, but also threaten the idea of bar mitzvah as a sacred rite of passage.

I’m not going to do that, because it’s too easy, and not necessarily fair to the young Mr. Horowitz. It’s also worth pointing out that Sam Horowitz raised $36,000 for the Ben Yakir Youth Village in Israel, an enrichment program for 120 immigrants to Israel, mostly Ethiopian boys aged 12-18. You see, Sam declined traditional bar mitzvah gifts, instead encouraging his guests to make donations to this charity.

Judaism is not an ascetic tradition. On the contrary, we are instructed to enjoy the fruits of God’s Creation. There are no Jewish orders of celibate monks, at least for the last 2,000 years. We do not take vows of poverty or silence (not that any Jewish person could actually be silent for very long anyway). We are created to enjoy life, and live according to the principles of the Torah such that they are enjoyable, and not burdensome.

Nonetheless, it may be necessary on occasion to distinguish what is important and valuable from what is merely a distraction. Bar mitzvah, for example, is important and valuable as an acknowledgment of a young person’s stepping up to inherit the mantle of Torah, our primary Jewish legacy. It’s about being called to the Torah as a Jewish woman or man, and demonstrating in the context of the larger community that this child is now one of us, ready to be welcomed and counted as an integral member in the ancient line of Jewish adults. While we may quibble about whether Sam Horowitz’s dance number was appropriate, we cannot deny that he has acted on a lesson from the Torah in an unusually generous way.

The gift of Torah is the most valuable gift that we have; our ancestors took it with them wherever they went for centuries, as I mentioned on Rosh Hashanah. But it is also a gift that we can continue to give to ourselves, and it will continue to give back. Bar mitzvah is not the end of Jewish life; it is really only the beginning of the odyssey of intellectual and spiritual development known as adulthood.

Right now, our stomachs are full, and we are facing a full 25 hours without food and drink. Feels easy right now, right? This time tomorrow will be a wee bit more challenging.

Yes, one of the principles of Yom Kippur is, ve-initem et nafshoteikhem, you shall afflict your souls (Numbers 29:7). This is a day on which we should suffer in order to be cleansed; a little pain and misery keeps us human, reminds us of God and our role in the world in taking care of those in need.  Hardship makes us grow, builds character.  If we are blessed with comfort, this self-imposed day of hardship should expand our perspective.

But the goal is not to fast for the sake of suffering. Rather, the goal is self-improvement. (It is traditional to say tzom qal, have an easy fast; a better thing to greet fellow Jews with on YK is, “Have a meaningful fast.”)

What keeps us coming back to the synagogue, year after year? Many of us who come on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are not necessarily regular synagogue-goers during the rest of the year (although I might remind you that you’re always welcome to join us here at Temple Israel for the second-holiest day of the year, Shabbat, or at any other time to engage in more holy moments).

But the essential mitzvah of Jewish life, the one thread that ties everything together, the item that the ancient rabbis declared that God wants from us the most is not prayer. It’s not kashrut or Shabbat or fasting on YK or hearing the shofar or eating matzah or even honoring our parents or circumcising our sons or being fruitful and multiplying.

The one thing God wants the most from us is to learn. It’s learning. Learning Torah, that is, the Torah itself and all of the centuries of commentary and discussion and argument that come with it. And Yom Kippur, like every other day of the year, is a day on which we learn.

If there was one message I would want all of us to take home with us from our experience here this evening and tomorrow, it would be that Yom Kippur teaches us simplicity. When we afflict our souls, when we deny ourselves physical comforts, we learn humility, we learn to separate our needs vs. our wants. We learn to distinguish food for sustenance vs. food for comfort or boredom or social purposes.  We learn about our own strength of will and empathy for those who truly live in fear of starvation.

But rabbi, you might be thinking, what about forgiveness? What about sin? What about teshuvah / repentance? What about second chances? Tzedaqah?

Yes, all those things are integral to this day. But the message I think that we can all take home this evening, after the shofar sounds at 7:49 PM, is the following: focus on the essentials, the simplest gifts. Spend more time on the relationships with the people you love. Don’t worry about work when you’re out fishing with your child (literally or figuratively). Look for the ways in which we can apply the Torah’s lessons to our lives today.

What do we learn from Yom Kippur? Simplicity. By not eating, or bathing, and by avoiding pleasures of the flesh, and wearing leather shoes, we achieve a simple state, a state in which we may approach God and ask for forgiveness. What should we take away from these 25 hours of self-denial? That true wealth is measured in time that we invest in others, in improving our world, in volunteering, in learning the valuable ancient lessons that our tradition offers. Think about those things this day, and perhaps we will all return to them next week, next month, and throughout the coming year.

Our relationships with God, with all the people around us, and particularly those in need, are these essential things. These outweigh all other things on this day and every day. Simple.

We will read in tomorrow morning’s haftarah from the Book of Isaiah about the kind of fast that God wants from us on this day, and the kind of fast that God does not want. Isaiah tells us that God does not want a meaningless fast, one that is accomplished just to prove that you can do it, that does not enter your soul and help you make the necessary adjustments. On the contrary, the kind of fast that God wants is the one that reminds us of our duties to each other (Isaiah 58:6-7):

הֲלוֹא זֶה, צוֹם אֶבְחָרֵהוּ--פַּתֵּחַ חַרְצֻבּוֹת רֶשַׁע, הַתֵּר אֲגֻדּוֹת מוֹטָה; וְשַׁלַּח רְצוּצִים חָפְשִׁים, וְכָל-מוֹטָה תְּנַתֵּקוּ.
הֲלוֹא פָרֹס לָרָעֵב לַחְמֶךָ, וַעֲנִיִּים מְרוּדִים תָּבִיא בָיִת:  כִּי-תִרְאֶה עָרֹם וְכִסִּיתוֹ, וּמִבְּשָׂרְךָ לֹא תִתְעַלָּם.
No, this is the fast I desire:
To unlock fetters of wickedness,
And untie the cords of the yoke
To let the oppressed go free;
To break off every yoke.
It is to share your bread with the hungry,
And to take the wretched poor into your home;
When you see the naked, to clothe him,
And not to ignore your own kin.

On this day of simplicity, Isaiah reminds us that we fast to remind ourselves to work for good in this world, to reach out a hand to those in need, to pull them up from homelessness and hunger and oppression. Such a simple, straightforward idea, and yet one which we routinely ignore in favor of, as Ecclesiastes puts it, “striving after vanity.”

I am going to conclude by quoting what I have often referred to as my favorite passage in the siddur / prayerbook. Every day, three times a day, we offer our thanks to God with the following:
וְעַל נִסֶּיךָ שֶׁבְּכָל יום עִמָּנוּ. וְעַל נִפְלְאותֶיךָ וְטובותֶיךָ שֶׁבְּכָל עֵת. עֶרֶב וָבקֶר וְצָהֳרָיִם:
… for Your miracles that accompany us each day, and for Your wonders and Your gifts that are with us each moment, evening, morning, and noon.

These gifts, the simplest gifts, are the greatest miracles we can offer. That’s not just God’s work; we make those daily and hourly miracles happen. Every time we make an effort to reach out to somebody who needs a hand; every time that we opt for meaning over substance; every time we put effort into building better relationships with the ones that we love. Those are little, daily miracles that you can create.

I said this once in a sermon over the summer, but it’s so appropriate that I need to say it again:

How do we know that God is a benevolent force in our lives? Because God, in creating humans in the Divine image, gave us the ability to work together, with and for each other, for the benefit of humanity. We can reach out to others in need. Therein lies our own divinity; we have the God-given ability to effect change, to give the simplest gifts to ourselves and to others. It’s up to us to act on that ability.

Tzom mashma’uti. Have a meaningful fast.

Rabbi Seth Adelson
(Originally delivered at Temple Israel of Great Neck, Kol Nidrei, 9/13/2013.)

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