What’s the Point?
A Call for Responsibility in a post-Shoah, pre-Climate Change World
Rabbi Josh Feigelson
Kol Sasson Congregation
Rosh Hashanah 5775

I. The Abyss
You of course remember the story of the two Jews sitting on a park bench, discussing the fate of their people.

“How miserable is our lot,” said one. “Pogroms, plagues, quotas, discrimination, Hitler, the Klan… Sometimes I think we’d be getter off if we’d never been born.”

“Sure,” said his friend. “But who has that much luck—maybe one in fifty thousand?”

(Big Book of Jewish Humor, p. 61, for those following along.)

I was having lunch last week with a friend. And like one of those jokes about old Jewish men sitting on a park bench in Minsk, we found ourselves feeling pretty despondent about the state of the world. Israel and Gaza, ISIS and the West, Russia and the West, climate change and our very existence—as the old punchline goes, “Look who thinks he’s a nothing.”

My friend noted that what’s so troubling is that the nature of our challenges feels so enormous, unsolvable even. As one writer observed recently, the bitter irony seems to be that our capacity to solve our problems is inversely proportional to the size of the problem: just when we need ways to make communal decisions the most, our decision-making systems seem to be the most broken.

So it leads many of us to a sense of despair, a sense that we’re running out of time, that we’re not going to solve these problems. And on any day, but especially on Rosh Hashanah, despair leads us to ask ourselves, “What’s the point?”

What’s the point, I find myself wondering, in teaching or writing, in posting on Facebook, in voting?

What’s the point in having and raising children, in paying tens of thousands of dollars a year in day school tuition?

What’s the point in attending a Kol Sasson committee meeting?

What’s the point in all that cooking, in fasting on Yom Kippur, in putting up the sukkah, in keeping 3 sets of 3-day Yom Tovs over the next month?

I mean, it’s nice and all, and I certainly feel responsible for my kids and our community and the things and people I was reared to respect. But if the oceans are going to rise, and Manhattan is going to be under water, and all of southern Florida will need to be relocated, and our crops won’t grow, and God knows what diseases will be unleashed as the permafrost melts in Siberia… Well, seriously, what’s the point?

Part of me wants to apologize for being a downer. But I would feel dishonest not naming the abyss that I, and so many others, feel us staring into. And let’s face it: today is Rosh Hashanah. Today, we tell ourselves, we’re on trial for our lives. So maybe, just maybe, we should get serious about that, let it really sink in, and force ourselves to stare into that abyss ahead.

Yet that leads us to the question of the hour: Why are we here, in this room? On this day of our reacclaiming God as our sovereign, how do we understand what’s going on? Because it seems pretty hard to make God the ruler over a world in such lousy shape.

(more…)

**Note: the blog post is PG. The video clip is not.

As Jonah (11) and I were driving to school this morning, we came up with an idea for the seder that I thought was a good one to share. One kids activity I’ve seen in various haggadot is to invite children to interview the grownups about the Exodus, as though they were news reporters covering the event. Given the preponderance of sports media in our home, Jonah and I played with the idea of making it specifically a sports interview (with the requisite sports interview answers by athletes). For example:

REPORTER: Moses, you’ve just won the Ten Plagues contest! How does it feel?

MOSES: Well Al, it feels really special, of course. I mean, we’ve been working at this for a long time, and to see this moment come true–well, it’s just something we’re going to remember for years and years, I’m sure. I imagine my grandkids–heck, maybe even their grandkids–will be talking about this one.

REPORTER: This was really an amazing victory. Tell me about your game plan taking on the Egyptians.

MOSES: Well, you know, we just wanted to stick with what got us here, you know? Focus on the fundamentals, work together as a team, believe in each other. The Egyptians are an amazing squad, with a really oppressive defense. We just had to be patient, take the opportunities when they came our way. And, you know, have faith.

REPORTER: In the first half, it looked like you might get an early victory. What happened after the fifth plague?

MOSES: Well, it was definitely looking good those first few plagues. I mean, after the blood and the frogs, we figured Pharaoh was ready to cave. But, as I said, they’re a tenacious bunch, and it seems like they just really stiffened their resolve and bore down on their game plan even more. So we knew we were in for a long struggle.

REPORTER: Let’s talk about that tenth plague. Take us inside your thought process on that one.

MOSES: Well, you know, that was the scariest of the whole bunch. I mean, we felt like we just had to huddle up and let the Good Lord do the work. We established good protection for our team, and then the play just took its course. I wouldn’t exactly call it a Hail Mary or anything, but… It was a real test of our resolve.

REPORTER: So you’ve got this championship under your belt. What’s the next step?

MOSES: Well, Al, we just want to take it one step at a time. There are still more majors to win: the Sinai championships are coming up, and after that the Canaan marathon. So we’ve got our work cut out for us. But I just think, with this team, anything is possible. And at the end of the day, I just really want to say that I thank God–I mean, God was really on our side in this one.

REPORTER: Thanks Moses, and congratulations again on the championship. Best of luck to you and the Israelites.

MOSES: Thanks Al.

REPORTER: Moses, on winning the Ten Plagues championship over Pharaoh and the Egyptians. An instant classic, isn’t it Heather? Back to you in the studio.

I. The Shofar Through a Baby’s Eyes

For the past month, my children have heard the sound of the shofar every morning. This is part of the ritual of our home and of our people, to begin sounding the shofar on the first day of Elul. The practice has multiple rationales: first and foremost, to help us awaken to the teshuva we need to begin, to remind us that so great is the work of teshuva that we can’t wait until Rosh Hashanah to start, but must prepare and begin ahead of time. Second, for shofar-blowers, it’s training camp: time to get our facial muscles and our lungs in shape so that we can sound all 100 kolot at kickoff.

In our home, shofar blowing during Elul serves both these purposes. But this year, with the presence of a new baby in our family, tekiat shofar during Elul has taken on an additional element. As many of us know, but as we also may need to be reminded, a nine-month old baby like our son Toby is a perfect shofar listener. Every morning as I take out the shofar, Toby, sitting there in our living room, begins to smile and wave his arms and shout in anticipation. He loves the sound of the shofar. He loves it so much that when I’m finished with a tekia-shevarim-terua-tekia, he gives a “Ha!” which clearly signals “Again!” He lights up from the sound of the shofar, and were it not for my own limitations of endurance and time, I would blow the shofar all day, just to see the excitement it arouses in him.

It’s the season of confession, so I’m going to confess. Despite all the shofar blowing, despite the fact that I’m highly conscious of the month of Elul, despite the fact that I have a gorgeous shofar that took me years of shopping to find, I have a hard time getting nearly as excited about the shofar as Toby. I’ve given drashot about what the shofar is supposed to do, what its sounds are supposed to represent, what intention we should have when we hear it. But, honestly, most of those words really don’t work for me. To me, the teruah or the shevarim doesn’t sound like a cry; the tekiah doesn’t sound like the blast of the trumpets at a coronation. When I hear the shofar, I’m not moved to cry, I’m not moved to feel God’s majesty. Perhaps, and I shudder to say it, I’m not moved.

II. What Does Music Mean?

Many of you know that I was a musician growing up. I played the tuba. I majored in music in college, and I conducted an orchestra there too. Playing a brass instrument is good physical training for shofar blowing, of course. But I’ve also come to realize that musical thinking is good training for shofar listening too.

One of the biggest issues in music history is the relationship between sound and meaning. Does wordless music convey a meaning? Take the opening notes of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, notes we all know: G-G-G-Eb. What do those notes say? Some might say they convey a sense of foreboding, opening an entire movement of heavy-sounding C minor. Or maybe they’re about power, as the orchestra plays those notes loudly and in unison. Or perhaps they’re saying something about inevitability, as the whole movement that comes after those four notes simply and ingeniously builds on and modifies the four-note motif in a way that seems almost predetermined, as though the piece couldn’t have unfolded any other way.

The question of what those notes mean is a classic question. But what if the question of meaning is the wrong question to ask? What if G-G-G-Eb doesn’t mean anything? My philosopher rebbe, Vladimir Jankelevitch, wrote about this. “We declare that music shall be, like all other languages, the bearer of meaning and an instrument of communication,” Jankelevitch observes. When we decide that music means something, we suggest that “it explains certain ideas, or suggests certain sentiments, or describes landscapes or things, or narrates events.”

“Under these circumstances,” Jankelevitch says, “one is led to ask whether our ears, far from being organs of hearing, are not rather more the cause of our deafness.” What does Jankelevitch mean? He means that, in being so invested in the idea that these sounds communicate meaning like some kind of prose essay, we are, ironically, becoming deaf to what’s really going on. This is music. It’s a collection of sounds. It isn’t prose, and we shouldn’t think of it that way.

If we’re going to look for a kind of language to compare music to, poetry might be best. Poetry, like art, and like music, isn’t about communicating a meaning through symbol as much as it’s about allowing ourselves to enter a different kind of way of being in the world. The point of all the piyutim we recite during the Yamim Noraim isn’t to make us bored, and it’s not to earn a reward for reciting every word. The point is, as Jankelevitch says about the Psalms, to arouse in us “religious obsession.” The point is to put us in a state of mind and heart and body in which we can be, in which we can be in the presence of God.

A couple of weeks ago, our kehilla had the pleasure of learning with Samuel Klein, a student at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah. During a limmud Shabbat afternoon, Sam asked us to think about and then share with each other a prayer from the machzor that is particularly evocative for us. And I was amazed, and yet wholly unsurprised, to find that the vast majority of people named a prayer not on account of the meaning of its words, but because of the power of its melody. The tunes for Avinu Malkenu or Ki Anu Amecha, the melodies of Unetaneh Tokef and Mareh Kohein—these are the things we remember. They are what make the High Holidays for us. They’re so powerful that, if we don’t hear them, we might even feel like the Yamim Noraim didn’t happen.

Now that isn’t to say that the words aren’t important. They are. Mi yichyeh umi yamut, uteshuva utefilla utzedakah maavirin at roah hagezerah, aseh imanu chesed v’hoshienu—these are powerful words, and they have powerful effects. Yet the music seems to resonate even more for us. The music taps something deeper inside our brains, farther inside our hearts. The music, which has no meaning. The music, which we don’t think about, but simply experience.

III. The Limits of Language

You may be familiar with the Talmudic story of Moshe ascending on high to find God sitting and affixing crowns to the letters of the Torah. Moshe asks God, Ribbono shel olam, Master of the Universe, why are you doing this? God ultimately shows Moshe the image of Rabbi Akiva, who, 1,000 years after Moshe’s death, interprets even the crowns of the letters into Torah. This leads Moshe to ask, “Ribbono shel  olam, you have such a man, and yet you give the Torah through me. Why?” God answers in a seemingly thunderous tone: shtok, kach alah b’machashava l’fanai; Be silent! This is how the idea came to me!

In many readings of this story, God’s answer is understood as a rebuke to Moshe for asking too many questions. I read it less as a rebuke than as a statement to Moshe that there are things that God simply can’t explain. Rebbe Nachman of Bratslav offers a wonderful variation on this theme: Shtok, be silent, kach aleh b’machshava l’fanai, And through silence, ascend to the level of my thought. For Rebbe Nachman, the point of the story is that Moshe and God can only go so far with language. At a certain point, God can’t communicate through words, and Moshe has to get past words if he wants to understand God. They—we—have to find another way of communing beyond, or perhaps before, communication.

Rebbe Nachman, of course, was one of the Jewish people’s greatest creators and teachers of and about niggun. He wouldn’t have been surprised by our conversation at the limmud a few weeks ago. Of course, he would say, the melodies have a greater effect on you than the words do! The melodies are vastly more powerful than the words. Wordless sounds—the notes of a niggun, the blast of a shofar, the cry of a baby—take us where words cannot, into the realms before and beyond language, the higher and deeper places.

Vayehi kol hashofar holech v’hazek me’od; Moshe yidaber v’haelohim ya’aneinu b’kol: And the voice of the shofar grew louder and louder; Moses spoke and God answered him in a voice. The moment when not only Moshe, but every Jew, heard the voice of God was a moment not of speech, but of sound. Sound that was intense. Sound that was intimate. Sound that went beyond what words could express, and tapped a deeper part of our souls. The Torah was given, not in words, but in black and white fire, in lightning that was audible, in thunder we could see. God spoke to us in an ineffable, inexpressible way.

To ask what the meaning of that moment was, what the sounds meant, is to ask the wrong question. It’s not about meaning. It’s not about symbol. It’s both before and beyond those things. Ultimately, I would suggest, the experience of the shofar is simply about listening and opening ourselves to hear. “Just pay attention,” writes Mary Oliver about prayer.

this isn’t

a contest but the doorway

into thanks, and a silence in which

another voice may speak.

And so I return to the image of my 9-month old son, who is quite literally pre-verbal. Toby isn’t applying labels to the world. He isn’t yet giving names to things, sorting them, dividing them. Those will all come by next Rosh Hashanah. But right now, at this delicious and wonderful moment, he is old enough—and young enough—to be genuinely moved by the experience of hearing the shofar. I can’t tell you what’s going on in his mind or his soul. All I can tell you is that something powerful happens when I blow the shofar for him in the morning.

And I can tell you that every morning, as I gaze into the pure joy on his face, the radiance of his tzelem elokim, I grow more attuned to the presence of God. My infant son is teaching me, as I hope he can teach us all, to let go of what I’m supposed to hear in the shofar, and instead simply experience its voice.

Ketiva v’chatima tova, May we all be inscribed and sealed for a year of listening and hearing, of looking and discovering, of beholding God’s presence and God’s image in the world.

We don’t normally think of teshuva when we think of Pesach. We associate teshuva with Elul, with Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Pesach, by contrast, we associate with she’elot, questions. As the Mishnah says, v’kan ha-ben shoel et aviv, here the child asks his father. My Pesach preparation in the last few years has focused a lot on those questions—the kinds of questions we ask and the way we ask them. And I think many people take this opportunity to focus on the power of questioning: the way questions break down assumptions, open up possibilities, and thus reflect some basic ideas we have about freedom. To be free is to be able to question.

Answers: Reducing Anxiety

But this year I find myself thinking about answers, teshuvot. Answers are as complicated as questions. On one level, we think of answers as stopping that which questions start, as when a student solves the answer to a problem on her math homework. Answers like this can feel tremendously satisfying, because they reduce our anxiety. The moment of answering is a moment of stabilizing something that was previously unstable, closing a hole that was previously open.

On another level, just as answers can create islands in the waterways opened by questions, they are only oases—they demand further questions. Think of a chess match. White moves, and in so doing asks a question of black: What will you do now? Then black moves, and asks the same question of white. The players repeat this question-and-answer back and forth, and each answer becomes a question, each question an answer, until checkmate: the unanswerable question.

Both these models are evoked in Rabbi Elazar’s instruction in Pirkei Avot: Da mah lehashiv l’apikoros, Know how to answer a heretic (Avot  2:14). The heretic and the believer are not engaged in a dialogue in which they are both searching for something in common. The answer here is weapon, a sword to parry the thrust of the questioner—and the hole he could open by using it. It carries the satisfying sense of argumentation, where questions and answers score points on the way to a victory or defeat.

Question-and-answer as game is one kind of dialogue, most familiar to us as debate, or perhaps witty banter. Humor is also in this family. All of these variants of question-and-answer depend on the parties maintaining a certain distance, from which they can launch their arrows and raise their shields. If they draw too close, the questions-and-answer dialogue would take on a different form: not that of repartee or verbal duel, but of a more intimate conversation.

Question-and-Answer as Intimate Conversation

The goal of this more intimate variety is not to score points or keep the conversation going for the sake of the game, but to commune, to understand and be understood. This is a very different kind of question-and-answer. Here questions may not demand answers, but might simply linger. And answers may not stabilize an unstable situation, but rather seek to be heard and appreciated.

“If you see your fellow Israelite’s ox or sheep straying, do not ignore it but hashev tashiv lo, be sure to take it back to its owner. If they do not live near you or if you do not know who owns it, take it home with you and keep it ad drosh achikha oto, until they come looking for it, v’hashevoto lo, then give it back. Do the same if you find their donkey or cloak or l’chol avedat achicha asher tovad mimenu,  anything else they have lost. Do not ignore it.” (Deuteronomy 22:1-3)

Rebbe Nachman of Breslov reads this passage to refer to the process of teshuva: We lose parts of our souls as we go through life, and the work of the righteous is to help restore, l’hashiv, those lost pieces of us to ourselves (or, our selves). The language of soul repair fits well with the spirit of the High Holidays. But it also informs our understanding of the she’ela u-teshuva of Pesach: in asking and answering, we are restoring parts of ourselves, and restoring parts of our interlocutors to themselves.

This is further reflected in the language of avedah, that which is lost. Arami oved avi, begins the central Torah text of the Haggadah (Deuteronomy 26). The Mishnah instructs us to expound, doresh, on this short history of the Jewish people’s journey to Egypt, their enslavement there, and their liberation by God. These first words are Rabbinically interpreted as either “My ancestor was a wandering Aramean,” in which case it refers to Jacob, or “An Aramean sought to destroy my ancestor,” in which case it refers to Laban. The language of oved is derived from the same root, ABD, as the word avedah, a lost object—or a lost part of the soul, in Rebbe Nachman’s expansive understanding. And according to the verse in Deuteronomy, the teshuva can only happen ad drosh achikha, when we demand it.

What Kind of Answers Do We Seek?

If a teshuva is not simply a move in a game, but rather the process of restoring the lost part of ourselves, that which makes us oved, wandering, then the questions and answers in which we engage on Seder night are not simply about satisfying curiosity about this or that rule, or the historical reason for this or that custom. Our process of she’ela u-teshuva is about something far deeper, something that emerges from our own derisha, what we demand of ourselves, our interlocutors, and the Torah. Through our question-and-answer, we recognize that each of us is also an oved, there is something out there for which we must search. And each of us is able to offer teshuva, to help recover the part of us that is missing. This happens through a process of derisha and midrash.

“See, I will send the prophet Elijah to you before that great and dreadful day of the Lord comes. v’heshiv lev avot al banaim, v’lev banim al avotam: He will turn the hearts of the parents to their children, and the hearts of the children to their parents; or else I will come and strike the land with total destruction.” These closing verses of the book of Malachi are the culmination of the haftarah for Shabbat Hagadol, the Shabbat immediately before Pesach. The teshuva of our seder conversation is this teshuva: not merely questions and answers about facts (as in the most common question: Is this kosher for Passover?), or questions and answers to score points (“Do you know how many times the Torah instructs us to remember we were slaves in Egypt? Let me show you what I know.”), but questions and answers that reflect and propel the relationship of parents and children, and of the ultimate Parent with all children. This is teshuva not merely as answer, but more as return, reply, response—evoking the sense of responsibility we have toward one another as members of the covenant. This the teshuva that Pesach demands of us.

Chag kasher v’sameach, and may we all be blessed with genuine she’elot u-teshuvot this Pesach.

A few weeks ago our son Micah couldn’t sleep. So after a fitful hour of tossing and turning, he finally came downstairs and lay down on the sofa. And of course he was asleep within seconds. Half an hour later I picked him up to carry him back upstairs to his bed. At 7 years old, Micah is reaching the point where I can no longer comfortably carry him. (Okay, I couldn’t really do it comfortably at 6 either.) But, perhaps sensing precisely that this was likely one of my last opportunities to carry the sleeping child who for the last seven years has been my youngest, I made an extra effort to carry him instead of asking him to walk up on his own. We made it to the top of the stairs, and I put him in his bed.

There is something about sleeping children: we look at them and see innocence, we pick them up and feel protective and intimate. I remember moments when my children were younger, holding them in a rocking chair, willing myself to remember the feeling of the moment, sensing just how ephemeral it was. To hold a child, to carry a sleeping toddler to bed, is one of the great tender moments of life, overflowing with a feeling of generosity. We sense the holy in such moments.

I find myself thinking about children, and about carrying, on this Yom Kippur.

When we think of children and holidays, we usually think of Pesach. Of course, Pesach is a child-centered holiday, with its games and questions, its special foods and many meals. The youngest child asks the Four Questions; the cleverest child negotiates the best deal for returning the afikomen. Many a Jewish parent has carried a sleeping child from the couch to the bedroom at the end of the seder.

Not so Yom Kippur. Unlike Pesach, Yom Kippur is a quintessentially non-child-centered holiday. Parents of young children are challenged to figure out what to do with their kids on Yom Kippur, because Yom Kippur is made for adults: there is no meal, there are no stories, no games, no question-and-answer. Even when the grownups aren’t in shul, fasting makes them low-energy and not particularly available to children. Likewise the substance of Yom Kippur is for grownups. The concept of teshuva is a hard one for children to engage. To think about teshuva requires a long view, an ability to be self-reflective, to take in the scope of one’s actions in the past year, and to judge oneself. While children can grasp the idea of being sorry and granting forgiveness, the fullness of the idea of teshuva isn’t something to expect of a 7-year old.

Yet on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur our metaphors are frequently parental: k’rachem av al banim, ken terachem aleinu: As a father has mercy on his children, so may You have mercy on us. Or the many times we say avinu malkeinu, our father, our king. Or consider Rabbi Akiva’s famous words at the end of the Mishnah in Yoma: “Who purifies you? Your father in heaven!” This is language unique to the High Holidays. At Pesach we refer to Hashem as God, and ourselves as God’s servants. On Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, alongside the image of God as king and ruler, we evoke a different relationship, that of parent and child.

The language of carrying is also central on these days. In our selichot we repeatedly refer to God the way God describes Godself: nosei avon, the one who carries sin. We draw this language from two accounts in the Torah: God’s forgiveness after the sin of the Golden Calf, and God’s second act of forgiveness after the sin of the spies. In both instances, God refers to Godself as the one who carries sin.

The language of carrying is also evoked in the verse from Micah that we read in our Haftarah Yom Kippur afternoon, and in the central sacrificial act of Yom Kippur, the confession of Israel’s sins on the head of the se’ir l’azazel, the scapegoat: “The goat will carry on itself all their sins to a remote place.”

The midrash reminds us of the earliest episode when this language is used. It comes in the story of Cain. Just after Cain has killed his brother Hevel, God famously asks him, “Where is Hevel your brother?” And Cain responds, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” God tells Cain that his brother’s blood is crying out from the earth, and condemns Cain to be a wander, na v’nad, in the midst of the earth.

But, says the midrash, Cain prays.

Rabbi Eliezer said: See how great is the power of prayer. If it cannot transform everything, it at least transforms half. Cain stood over Hevel his brother and killed him. The decree went out against him: “Na v’nad, a wanderer you will be in the earth.” Immediately Cain stood and confessed before the Holy Blessed One, saying, “My sin is too great to carry.” He said, Master of the Universe, you carry the entire world, but my sin you will not carry? Did you not write, “Who bears sin and passes over wrongdoing?”  Forgive my sin, for it is great! Immediately he found mercy before the Holy Blessed One, who took away the Na part of the decree, for it is written, “And he lived in the land of Nod.” From here you learn how great is prayer before the Holy Blessed One. (Deut. Rabba 8:1)

Cain’s plaintive words in this midrash are striking. Helpless, overcome, he cries out to God: My sin is too great to bear. The burden is too heavy. I can’t carry it. And then he reminds God that God is the ultimate carrier: the one who is sovel, who bears the burdens of the world; the one who is nosei avon, who carries sin away. Cain does not ask God to carry him: just the opposite, Cain will have to carry himself. But God agrees to carry his sin, to lessen the severity of the decree. Cain will not have to carry the burden of both his own life and the sin he has committed. God grants forgiveness, God carries away Cain’s sin, and his burden is eased.

This is an adult moment. Cain’s forgiveness does not mean he recovers his childlike innocence. The very next verse of the story tells us as much: “And Cain knew his wife, and she became pregnant and gave birth to Hanoch.” Immediately after his forgiveness, Cain finds a place to live, the land of Nod, and engages in the most basic definition of biological maturity, reproduction. He then has a son whose name signifies education. Cain does not become a child again. He becomes an adult, doing adult things, taking adult responsibilities. He finds a place to live. He has a child. He teaches his child. In just a few verses, Cain transforms from the teenager who kills his brother and shirks responsibility into a responsible adult who has children and educates them.

Yet the touchstone for this assumption of adulthood is an ironic twist. In order to become a fully responsible adult, Cain has to first surrender himself to God. He has to let go of the power he thinks he has–the power he has just proven, the power to kill–and acknowledge that in the presence of God, in the presence of ultimate conscience, ultimate judgment, he is powerless. In surrendering his power, Cain in effect becomes a small child again: the small child who is powerless, who is utterly dependent. The small child who cannot fight off sleep. The small child who needs us to carry him. This powerless small child is precisely the being that evokes our sympathy, our rachmanus, our tender love.

Cain is not a child, and his moment of returning to a child’s state is not permanent, but temporary. Through this moment of throwing himself on God’s mercy, of acknowledging his powerlessness, Cain is transformed. He is forgiven. He is redeemed. He grows up. By allowing God to carry his sin, and by begging God to carry it, Cain becomes capable of carrying himself.

There’s a famous Christian poem about a person having a dream of walking on the beach, looking back on the footprints of the journey. Sometimes there were two sets of footprints, those of God and the person walking. Sometimes there were only one. As the poem famously puts it, “During your times of trial and suffering, when you see only one set of footprints, it was then that I carried you.”

I think we too easily resist this kind of language in Judaism. We’re more fond of intellectual arguments and text-heavy formulations of symbolism and signification. In the Modern Orthodox community, in particular, we tend to over-intellectualize the experience of the High Holidays. In doing so, we too often miss the core experience, the basic move that this time is about. It is about allowing ourselves to be carried.

Yom Kippur is about enabling God to forgive us of our sins, those accretions that build up in our adult lives of power. To be an adult is to be a bar da’at, one who knows. The old maxim goes that knowledge is power, but it is not simply an aphorism. To know is to be powerful. That’s what it means to be an adult, to have agency and to exercise it. But as the story of Cain poignantly illustrates, our knowledge, our power, the very thing that makes us tzelem elokim, can be used to dominate, to control, even to kill. That is the inherent dilemma of power. The corruptions that knowledge and power engender, those are our sins.

The great possibility of teshuva on Yom Kippur is to acknowledge those corruptions, and then to allow God to carry them away. It is about returning, for a moment, to being a child–not with a child’s innocence, but with a child’s capacity for surrendering. It is about giving up our da’at for a moment, liberating ourselves from the false trappings of our knowledge and power, and allowing ourselves to be ultimately powerless–on this day, this Shabbat shabbaton.

The other night, I took Micah and Jonah to their first night baseball game. Jonah caught a foul ball. The Tigers held off the White Sox. We stayed until the end. When we got home after 11 p.m., Micah threw himself on the couch and began to fall asleep. This time I looked at him and knew that I couldn’t carry him. He’s too big now, and I’m no weightlifter. I had to rouse him and help him walk up the stairs on his own two feet.

As we experience this Yom Kippur, I pray that we can all find the emotional and spiritual place where we can let ourselves be carried. Where we can stop being adults so fearful of losing power, and remember what it is to be a child who trusts in her parents to carry her.
Gemar chatima tova.

I delivered this dvar Torah this past Shabbat at Kol Sasson congregation in Skokie, IL.

 

I. Stumbling On Big Questions

In 2005, four weeks after I received semikha, two weeks after our second son was born, my wife Natalie and I moved to Evanston. As the new rabbi at Northwestern Hillel, there were many things to do, many people to meet. But the biggest thing to do, programmatically anyway, was prepare for the High Holidays.

Like many campuses, Northwestern has an area where theater groups, political groups, fraternities and sororities hang big painted sheets to announce their upcoming events: “Party at Sig Ep Saturday night!” or “Shakespeare’s A Winter’s Tale, Thursday to Sunday in Shanley.” So to publicize the High Holidays, I figured we could hang a painted sheet, something like, “Yom Kippur, Wednesday. Repent!”

But a funny thing happened on the way to Yom Kippur. We realized two things: First, we could afford to make something slightly nicer than a painted sheet. So we printed an 8-foot by 3-foot banner at Kinkos. Second, instead of making a statement, we could ask a question.

Statements and announcements, it seemed to me, could linger in the air and easily be ignored. A question, by contrast, enters into the mind. You can’t walk by a question, a good question, and ignore it with the same ease that you ignore a statement. The old TV ad is a perfect case in point. “It’s 10 pm: do you know where your children are?” is far more evocative than “It’s 10 pm. Make sure your kids are safe.”

So we made a banner that asked what we thought was the basic question of the High Holidays: What will you do better this year? Underneath we wrote, Experience the High Holidays, and we listed the website for Hillel.

It turned out that this banner, created in my first weeks as a rabbi on campus, would be the seed of a much larger project, one that has influenced my professional career and my approach to education, leadership, community, and spiritual life. A little over a year ago, I left Northwestern Hillel to lead the national development of Ask Big Questions, which this year will be active on over 20 campuses, training over 100 students in the skills of text-centered reflective community conversation, and reaching tens of thousands of people from various walks of life in-person, online, and in print.

As we journey through this Elul, I want to go back to that Elul seven years ago. Here we are again in Elul. Here we are again, preparing for the High Holidays. Here we are again, a full shemitta cycle later, with the chance to discover, or rediscover, some Big Questions.

(more…)

It has been a slow summer for my blogging. That’s because most of my writing energy has been going into my qualifying exams and now my dissertation prospectus. So my apologies if you’ve missed getting something from me every week. But this is probably how it’s gonna be for a while.

My dissertation is taking shape, and it surrounds Yitz Greenberg (who I know is a reader of the blog; not many doctoral candidates can say that!). In 1993, the Jewish intellectual historian Steven Katz wrote that Yitz was the most influential thinker in American Jewish life over the past two decades. Katz argued that Yitz’s work through CLAL and his various other pluralistic educational endeavors changed the way Federation and communal leaders thought of themselves and related to Jewish learning and tradition. Yitz helped to create a new kind of discourse in American Jewish life, where today it is not unusual for Federation meetings to include a dvar Torah or for communal leaders to study Jewish texts. Yitz’s influence can be felt every time someone deploys the idea of “tzelem elokim,” humans created in God’s image, or talks about Covenant as an organizing concept in Jewish thought. Yitz did not invent these terms, but he made them into powerful teachings that spoke to a wide audience across denominations. I share Katz’s assessment: there aren’t many figures who have been as influential across so many communities.

Within the Orthodox community, of course, ‘Yitz Greenberg’ means something very different. For nearly fifty years, Yitz has become a marker in the Modern Orthodox zeitgeist, denoting an alternative might-have-been to what mainstream Orthodoxy became. To both his supporters and his foes, Yitz represented something powerful–to his supporters, powerfully inspiring; to his foes, powerfully threatening.

One of the distinguishing features of Yitz’s biography and thought is that he is an historian. This is significant for a number of reasons. As Alan Brill has observed, most of the major figures of Modern Orthodoxy in the 1950s and 60s worked in philosophy: Most notably, of course, Rav Soloveitchik, but also figures like Samuel Belkin, Eliezer Berkovitz, Norman Lamm, Walter Wurzburger, and Sol Roth. Emanuel Rackman was a lawyer and wrote his PhD at Columbia on law, and his approach to Modern Orthodoxy–which was, in its day, an even more powerful challenge than Yitz’s–was through law and halakha.

Unlike these other figures, Yitz’s PhD was in American history (on Teddy Roosevelt and the American labor movement), and his teaching appointment at YU in 1959 was to teach just that. Within a few years, and particularly after his sabbatical in Israel in 1960-61, he taught modern Jewish history as well, and was among the first people to teach about the history of the Holocaust. Yitz was a very popular professor, and not only because of his charisma. There was something striking in his approach to history. He didn’t teach the past as dead. He taught it as living. Similar to what I wrote a blog post last year about Daniel Sperber, this represents a different approach to history than we often think of as the norm, one which doesn’t see nearly as firm a split between ‘history’ and ‘memory’ as Yosef Yerushalmi’s Zakhor might argue. For Yitz, history represented something we learn from for the sake of our own lives. This enabled him to talk about even Biblical criticism, one of the most challenging areas not only for Orthodoxy, but even Conservative Judaism in the 1950s. The problem of academic Biblical critics, he taught, was not that they excavated the Bible, but that they ruled out the possibility that humans could have a relationship with God. Biblical criticism could show how humans in their time and place responded to God, and that could then inform us today about how we should do the same.

This approach to history thus had two compelling features: It made the past come alive, and it made the present a continuous flow from that past. Listen to what Yitz’s students at YU or Yavneh in the 1960s said about him, and this is what comes through. It led to Yitz’s calls for major halakhic adaptation and innovation, not only in internal Jewish areas like conversion or egalitarianism, but strikingly in the realm of American politics (social welfare legislation, civil rights, anti-Vietnam war, etc.). Yitz’s work as an historian made him unique within Orthodoxy, and beyond Orthodoxy as well. He is not an historian who lets the past simply live in the past.

I would argue that for many Orthodox Jews it is this challenge that is so difficult. Orthodoxy (a term which demands a great deal of excavation itself) has successfully encountered modern science, modern philosophy, and modern culture, and proved able. There are great examples of Orthodox scientists, philosophers, thinkers, writers, and performers. But the realm of modernity in which it has had the most difficult challenge is history, particularly Biblical history, but also history that challenges the saintliness of great figures of the past. That is why Yitz was, and remains, simultaneously inspiring and threatening–he was willing to embrace such histories without reducing the past to a purely man-made affair. As Yerushalmi argues, modern historiography is built on the idea that there is a radical break from the past, one that enables us to stand and gaze objectively at it. Yitz agrees with this, but then makes the dialectical move of saying, There is no break: we are the inheritors of that past, and the past demands our action in the present.For Orthodoxy, this is a significant challenge.

But why? As we approach Tisha b’Av, I think we see an answer. Tisha b’Av was a holiday that Rav Soloveitchik took very seriously. All day he would recite Kinnot and teach about them (a tradition which Rabbi J.J. Schacter now admirably continues). For the Rav, the halakha generated a requirement to feel the magnitude of the hurban (destruction), to feel God’s absence. And for Jews, as so many Jewish philosophers have told us, God’s presence or absence is felt primarily in history. Our narrative as a people is built on the idea of God intervening in history. Yet Tisha b’Av marks the first–sadly not the last–cataclysmic moment when God seemingly wasn’t there, when God hid Godself and allowed the destruction to happen. Though the challenge of God’s presence or absence is one we encounter every day through our prayers and performance of mitzvot, on many days we can go through the motions, or we can focus on the celebratory aspects in which we enjoy feeling the presence of God (a bris, a wedding, Shabbos dinner, holidays). Tisha b’Av, however, is the day of God’s absence, a day when the problem of Jewish history and its meaning for our individual and collective relationship with God is most forcefully expressed. The observances of Tisha b’Av are made meaningful not through joy, but through feeling the absence of God, longing for God’s return, and committing ourselves to bringing it about.

But then we come out of Tisha b’Av, and we don’t really have to deal with God in history any more–or so we tell ourselves. We can focus on our performance of mitzvot, we can feel God’s presence in other ways. Tisha b’Av can exist on its own, and we can be happy on any day when we don’t have to say Tachanun. We can engage ‘modernity’ through science and philosophy and culture, and we can avoid the challenge of confronting the question of God’s role in history. (I save the question of Israel and history for another time; this blog post is already long enough, and my focus is on American Judaism.)

Yitz Greenberg’s challenge to Orthodoxy, and to American Jewry, was not to put our heads in the sand. The elephant in the room is God’s place in history. Modern historiography had already made this a challenge; the Holocaust made it inescapable. And yet, 40 years after Yitz left Yeshiva University, the challenge is one with which we have yet to fully come to terms.

Shabbat shalom.

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