September 2010


One of the big questions of Beresheet is this: what is in and what is out? Or, put differently: who is us, and who is we?

The first chapter of Beresheet tells the story of God’s creation of Heaven and Earth in six days. One of the keywords of this chapter is “l’havdil,” to separate–from which we get the word Havdallah, the separation ceremony by which we mark the end of Shabbat. God divides constantly during the story of chapter 1, separating light from dark, waters above from waters below, and land from water. Another keyword of the chapter is “min,” or species. Grasses and trees are created according to individual species, as are animals.

All of this creates an atmosphere of order out of tohu va’vohu, the primordial chaos the Torah says existed before Creation. In order to create that order, separation is essential–one has to separate what from what, creating unique kinds and species. And in doing so, one has to decide what is in and what is out, what is part of one category and what is part of another.

This is the basic work of human beings, the foundation of language itself. We order, we categorize, we separate. If we didn’t do this, we could not have a world.

This theme of separation, of in and out, is also found in the second chapter, when Adam and Eve ultimately eat of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, and are cast out of Eden. The serpent tells Eve that, if she eats of the fruit, she will become “like God.” The great medieval interpreter Rashi comments on this phrase that, to be like God is to be “a creator of worlds.”

Up until this point, Adam and Eve have simply lived in the world–naked and unembarrassed as the Torah tells us. (Naked–with no separation from the world around them through clothing.) Without this separation, they cannot be creators, they cannot imagine the world as it might be–they can only accept it as it is. They have no imagination, no moral consciousness. When they eat from the fruit, their world is changed. They become separated from it–still in it, but out of it too: different, with a vision of what it might be. That is, they become human.

A third and final manifestation of the question of separation, of in and out, is in the Cain and Abel story. The line that stays with us from this story is after Cain kills Abel and God asks him, Where is Abel your brother? Cain responds, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” The French philsopher Vladimir Jankelevitch described the hatred of brothers as the “hatred of the almost-same.” That is, brothers–who share parents, who share chromosomes–are so alike that they sometimes feel the need to forcefully differentiate themselves, to say, “I am not you.” This is one way to read the Cain and Abel story, as the ultimate separation of otherness in the face of near-sameness. Cain wants Abel out–out of his world, and out of the world entirely.

Ultimately it is this theme that will play out over and over again throughout the book of Genesis, as the Torah asks us repeatedly, How can brothers learn to live togehter? How can we learn to separate in and out in a way that honors our differences, rather than eliminating them; that revels in diversity, instead of smothering it? How can we be in and out at the same time?

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The name of Neilah is ironic. Neilah refers to the locking of the gates. As the sun sets, the gates of the city are locked, the gates of heaven are locked. But as we will say in a few moments during the amidah, we implore God: p’tach lanu sha’ar b’et neilat sha’ar: Open the gates at the time when they would be locked.

Open. Open is the theme of Neilah, just as it has been for all of Yom Kippur. From the moment of Kol Nidrei, when we opened up by throwing off the fetters of our vows, to the viduy, when we have opened ourselves to critique, to the avodah, when we open ourselves to the historical moment of the beit hamikdash and transport ourselves there through the opening of imagination: openness has been our theme. P’tach lanu sha’ar b’et neilat sha’ar.

We stand here now, at this moment, as open as we will be all year. We sense the openness of the bride and groom on their wedding day, for this is the day of our wedding with the Ribbono shel Olam. It is the day of forgiveness, of renewal, of letting go, of being open. We stand here at Neilah tired and exhilarated, the way we stand near the end of the wedding: we don’t want it to end. As hungry as we are, as tired as we are, these are the last moments for us to be together in this special way: b’ahava v’achva, b’shalom v’reut.

Look around. This is our community. These are our brothers and sisters. These are the people to whom we are responsible. These are the people with whom we share some of the most intimate moments of our lives, the people whose joys and sorrows we share, the people who support us and comfort us. And in this minyan, we can say, these are even the people who know exactly what foods we like and don’t like.

This is a special group of people. The moment of Neilah is the beginning of the end, and the end of the beginning. It is the moment when we can be together in a unique way, in an open way, the way we are together at a wedding. We can pray for one another, we can pray for our kehilla, we can pray for our students, we can pray for klal yisrael. These prayers, uttered at this moment, are special prayers.

So let’s open the gates as they try to shut, let’s push them open and hold the moment a little longer. P’tach lanu sha’ar b’eit neilat sha’ar.

Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things

(Phillippians 4:8)
To put it mildly, it’s unusual for a rabbi to begin his Yom Kippur sermon by quoting the Christian Bible. The Torah, the High Holiday machzor, the Talmud, even the Big Book of Jewish Humor (which I’ve done). But Saint Paul? Really? Well, as we say at Hillel, we are distinctively Jewish and universally human. Chalk this up to the latter half.

But seriously folks, this is not a gratuitous quote from Paul’s Epistle to the Phillippians. Quaecumque Sunt Vera – Whatsoever things are true. These are the words on the seal of Northwestern University. They are the very motto of this place. And they come from this verse of St. Paul. “Whatsoever things are true: think on these things.”

Northwestern adopted these words as its motto in 1890. Presumably the trustees wanted Northwestern to be dedicated to truth. Harvard’s motto was veritas, truth; Yale’s was lux et veritas, light and truth. Northwestern, like other universities, was and remains about learning truth, searching for truth, knowing truth, and living by truth.

Of course we have a word for this in Hebrew, and it is emet. Emet in Hebrew is as powerful as truth is in English. The book of Deuteronomy refers to judges who “inquire, probe, and investigate thoroughly” (13:15) to arrive at truth. The Talmud goes further and determines that judges must actually perform seven separate inquiries to ascertain the truth in a case. They must check and check and check again. They must interrogate witnesses and check all the facts. They must be absolutely certain in their judgments. They must be true.

So finding the truth can be hard work. Like a science experiment or an archaeological dig, the truth is there to be discovered, and it must be measured and investigated and probed before we can be certain. In this conception, truth stands outside us, and we must use our tools of historical and scientific inquiry to find and verify it.

But there is another kind of truth, one that doesn’t stand outside us, but which emerges from within us. This is the truth of belief. This is the truth that tells us that our family and friends will be there for us when we need them. It is the truth that says we can always come home. It is the truth we experience when we tell the story of the Exodus at Pesach. It is the truth we rely on today, Yom Kippur—the truth that God will always forgive, if only we will return. (more…)

You can listen to Rabbi Josh reading this sermon by clicking here.

Kol ha-olam kulo
Gesher tzar me’od
V’ha-ikar lo lefached klal.

All the world is a very narrow bridge
And the essence is not to fear at all.

It was the early years of the nineteenth century. The Jews of eastern Europe were herded together in cities and villages throughout Poland, Ukraine, Russia—in the area known as the Pale of Settlement. The machines of factories and the ideas of modernization, which had already had such an effect in the West, were beginning to be known in the East.

Think Fiddler on the Roof. People suffered—from poverty, disease, and threats of violence. While the ideas and forces of modernity offered an escape, they also deeply challenged traditional ways of life.

In the midst of all of this, beginning in the late eighteenth century, the movement known as Hasidus, Hasidism, spread like wildfire throughout the Jewish world of Eastern Europe. Its appeal was based on its simplicity: any Jew could experience God’s presence through the joyous performance of mitzvoth. Advanced Talmudic scholarship wasn’t required, wealth wasn’t required. Simple faith, simple piety—this was all a person needed to find fulfillment and happiness in the world.

Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav was the grandson of the founder of Hasidus, the Ba’al Shem Tov. A charismatic leader and creative genius, the teachings of Rebbe Nachman’s short life have inspired seven generations of disciples since his death.

Rebbe Nachman’s teachings are brilliant in the profundity of their simplicity. He taught of the power of song to elevate the spirit. He taught that meditation and silence could be routes to revelation, even more than reciting the traditional liturgy.

But Rebbe Nachman’s most famous teaching comes to us through this song:

Kol ha-olam kulo
Gesher tzar me’od
V’ha-ikar lo lefached klal.

All the world is a very narrow bridge
And the essence is not to fear at all.

I want to reflect with you today on this song, and on the challenge of fear. Because we live in fearful times. Indeed today, more than at any time since September 11, 2001, we sense fear around us. (more…)

We got a thoroughly amazing piece of news yesterday at Northwestern Hillel: A hate group that has previously picketed us plans to do so again as Rosh Hashanah services begin on Wednesday night. This is part of a tour of theirs around the Chicago area today and tomorrow, visiting synagogues, the Israeli Consulate, and the Illinois Holocaust Museum. (I am not identifying them by name—not only because doing so would generate automatic internet spam from their supporters, but also because it would give them exactly the attention they don’t wish to have. But their name rhymes with Shmestboro Shmaptist Church.)

Yes, this news was amazing because it complicated an already very busy day in our office. But what’s even more impeccable about the timing of this incident is how it coincides with the mainstreaming of hateful religious rhetoric in American public conversation. The New York Times this morning reports on an emergency interfaith summit of religious leaders to respond to the rise in hate speech. The epidemic is epitomized in the planned burning of the Koran by a church in Florida this weekend. As Rabbi David Saperstein of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism put it, As Jews we know religious persecution. We know book burnings. Now is a time to speak up.

Rosh Hashanah is our most universal holiday. Unlike Yom Kippur, which emphasizes the unique covenant between God and the Jewish people, Rosh Hashanah focuses on God’s general covenant with humanity. The liturgy implores God to remember Noah—the father of all of humanity that remains after the flood. It refers to today as the birthday of the world. It is the anniversary of Adam’s creation, the creation of all humankind. The themes of Rosh Hashanah are general, and focus on what it means to be human, and only secondarily on what it means to be Jewish.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks has written eloquently over the last decade about what he terms the ‘dignity of difference,’ the capacity to hold, acknowledge, and celebrate our deepest differences. In one of my favorite passages from his book of the same name, Sacks asks, what would the experience of faith be like in a world in which the dignity of difference was truly enacted? ““It would be like being secure in one’s home,” he writes, “yet moved by the beauty of foreign places, knowing that they are someone else’s home, not mine, but still part of the glory of the world that is ours.” Emphatically, Sacks rejects the notion that pluralism involves surrendering our uniqueness. Adaraba—just the opposite: in order to live together, we need to do with and through what makes us different, not by erasing it. We need to be secure in our own homes—our familial homes, our communal homes, our national homes and simultaneously concerned for and engaged with the homes of others.

That is the challenge of brotherhood, which forms one of the themes of the Torah reading of Rosh Hashanah. The question asked by the story of Ishmael and Isaac, of Hagar and Sarah, is this: how can brothers get along? It is the question of Genesis, and the question of the Bible more generally: how can we recognize that we share a common ancestor while simultaneously acknowledging and accommodating each individual’s uniqueness? How can we reconcile the tension implicit in the idea that human beings are created b’tzelem elokim, in God’s image: one the one hand we are all equal, on the other we are each unique?

In the title of another of his books, Sacks puts forward his answer: The Home We Build Together. When we build a home together—not simply live next to one another as guests in someone else’s home, nor rent a home that belongs to a common landlord, but actually build a shared home—we forge a covenant. His model is the mishkan, the Tabernacle built by the ancient Israelites. Every member of the community contributed to its construction. Everyone had a stake in it. And thus it created a physical, psychological, and spiritual center for a people. And today it continues to provide a model for what a society can be. “Society is made out of the contributions of many individuals,” Sacks writes. “What they give is unimportant. That they give is essential.” The home we build together is society.

The Rosh Hashanah liturgy famously refers to three essential acts of the High Holiday season: teshuva, tefilla, u-tzedakah – repentance, prayer, and charity. Central to each of these acts is a spirit of openness. Teshuva is not possible unless we are open to critique of ourselves. We can only engage in tefilla if we are open to the presence of God in our lives. And tzedakah requires an openness, awareness, and concern for lives beyond our own, and an actual, tangible act of giving and generosity.

These are the acts of restoring and renewing our covenant—between God and Jewish people, but, particularly on Rosh Hashanah, between God and the world. Today is the birthday of the world—the whole world, and all its inhabitants. Today, and every day, our spirit of generosity begins with ourselves, our families and our communities, but ultimately extends to all of God’s creation.

It’s hard to write these words without sounding almost a little trite. But let me be clear: the challenge here is to both liberals and conservatives, to those who would reject religion altogether and those who would retreat into narrow and exclusionary religious perspectives. As Eboo Patel, founder of the Interfaith Youth Core (and a friend and colleague) has powerfully argued, this is the moment for a new approach to interfaith understanding and cooperation to emerge. We have a choice between producing a generation of religious extremists rooted in hatred, or a generation of religious peace-makers, rooted in the dignity of difference.

On this Rosh Hashanah, on this Shabbat Shuva, our choice is clear: u’vacharta ba-chayim, Let us choose good. Let us choose life. Let us drown out the hatred of the few with the openness and brotherhood of the many.