To listen to an audio recording of this sermon (made after the holiday), please click here.

You probably remember the story about the elderly Jewish woman listening to a lecture by a famous astronomer. The lecture was about the sun.

At one point the astronomer said, “In around six to seven billion years the Sun will exhaust all its hydrogen fuel and begin the process of stellar death. When that happens, the Sun will grow so large it will engulf planet Earth.”

Distressed, the woman interrupted the lecture, yelling out, “Wait, when will this happen?”

The astronomer replied: “Six to seven billion years from now.”

To which the woman replied, “Whew! I thought you said million.”

The central mitzvah of Rosh Hashanah is not dipping apples and honey. It isn’t eating honey cake. It isn’t getting together with your crazy relatives. Those things are all lovely and important. But they’re not what Rosh Hashanah is fundamentally about. No, at its heart, Rosh Hashanah is about listening–about remembering what it means to listen, and about listening closely to the sound of the shofar. (more…)

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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…)

Passover is the Jewish people’s most child-centered holiday. From the game of hide-and-seek during the search for hametz on the night before the seder, to the bookend game of finding the afikomen that enables the seder to conclude, children are the focus of much of the attention of the holiday. The Torah itself directs our minds to our children in the verse that forms the basis of the seder itself: “On that day tell your son, ‘I do this because of what the LORD did for me when I came out of Egypt.’” (Exodus 13:8)

The Answers We Give the Child
Of course the centerpiece of the child’s involvement in the seder is in the asking of questions. The universal custom is for the youngest child at the seder to ask the Four Questions—observing “how different is this night from all other nights!” It is not simply that we tell our children the story; the point is to engage them in a dialogue, in a night of questions and answers. Again, this gesture is commanded by the Torah, which instructs, a few verses after the one we just quoted: “”In days to come, when your son asks you, ‘What does this mean?’ say to him, ‘With a mighty hand the LORD brought us out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.’” (Exodus 13:14) The child will ask, and the child must be led to ask.

But what answer do we give? The Mishnah tells us to “begin in lowliness and conclude in praise.” The sages of the Talmud disagreed on what this meant: “Rav said: In the beginning our ancestors were idol-worshippers. Shumel said: We were slaves.” (Babylonian Talmud Pesachim 116a) The commentators on the Talmud offer different understandings of what the Talmud means, but the custom has already been well-established for many centuries: We first say “We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt…” (Shmuel’s answer) and, after several interludes, we say “In the beginning, our ancestors were idol-worshippers” (Rav’s answer).

In his code of Jewish law, the Mishneh Torah, Maimonides records the law as follows:

It is a commandment to teach one’s children, even if they did not ask, as it is stated, “And you shall tell your child.” The father teaches his son according to his intelligence. How so? If he was a child or a fool, say to him, “My son, we were all slaves–like this maidservant, or this manservant–in Egypt. And on this night, the Holy One Blessed Be He redeemed us and took us out to freedom.” And if the son is grown or wise, teach him what happened to us in Egypt, and the miracles that were done for us by Moses. All is according to the intelligence of the child…

And one must begin in lowliness and conclude in praise. How so? Begin and tell of how originally our ancestors, in the days of Terach and before him, wrongly and falsely followed after vanity and chased after idolatry. And conclude in the true worship, that God brought us near to Him and separated us from the wayward, and drew us to his uniqueness. And likewise begin and make known that we were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt, including all the evil that they did unto us; and conclude with the miracles and wonders that were done for us, and our freedom. And this is where one expounds from “My ancestor was a wandering Aramean” until he finishes the section. And all who elaborate upon the expounding of this section–this is praiseworthy. (Laws of Hametz and Matzah Ch. 7, laws 2 and 4)

In the first law, the Rambam focuses on Shmuel’s answer of “We were slaves,” and makes the educational task very concrete. If one has a slave in one’s house (and this is not the place to take up the question of Jews owning slaves), one uses the slave as a prop in the drama. Interesting the Rambam mentions that we teach our children about the works of Moses, who is of course not mentioned in the Haggadah.

In the second law, the Rambam seems to indicate that we begin with Rav’s answer, focusing on the wayward worship of our ancestors. Once that context has been laid, we can talk about slavery and liberation. But, showing his theological tendencies, the Rambam here emphasizes the overarching goal not only of the seder, but of all commandments: to know and serve the one true God.

Is there an inconsistency here? Is the Rambam contradicting himself? (more…)

For an audio recording, please click here.

There’s an old Jewish story that goes something like this: A rabbi was distressed at the lack of generosity among his congregants. So he prayed that the rich should give more charity to the poor.

“And has your prayer been answered?” asked his wife.

“Half of it was,” replied the rabbi. “The poor are willing to accept.”

As funny as the joke is, we know it wouldn’t be funny if it weren’t at least a little bit true.

There has not been a time in human history when generosity matched the need for it. The Torah reminds us of this in the book of Deuteronomy:

“For there will never cease to be needy ones in your land,” says Moses. Despite our best attempts, human beings will always be in need.

And so, says Moses, “I command you: open your hand to the poor and the needy kinsman in your land” (Deut. 15:11)

Patoach tiftach et yadcha — “Open, open your hand.” The Torah’s response to need is openness. It is generosity: The generosity of responsibility; the generosity of sacrifice; the generosity of Yom Kippur.

I would like to share with you today three stories about these themes–openness, generosity, responsibility, and sacrifice.

(more…)

For an audio recording, click here.

How many of you are familiar with the children’s stories of Frog and Toad by Arnold Lobel? Frog and Toad are favorites of my kids. I have a hunch that Lobel drew some of his inspiration for them from the stories of the city of Chelm in Jewish folklore. They are humorous and usually reveal a moral lesson by way of something a little bit absurd.

One of my favorite Frog and Toad stories is called ‘Tomorrow.’ It goes like this:

Toad woke up. “Drat,” he said. “This house is a mess. I have so much work to do.”

Frog looked through the window. “Toad, you are right,” said Frog. “It is a mess.”

Toad pulled the covers over his head. “I will do it tomorrow,” said Toad. “Today I will take life easy.”

Frog came into the house. “Toad,” said Frog, “your pants and jacket are lying on the floor.”

“Tomorrow,” said Toad from under the covers.

“Your kitchen sink is filled with dirty dishes,” said Frog.

“Tomorrow,” said Toad.

“There is dust on your chairs.”

“Tomorrow,” said Toad.

“Your windows need scrubbing,” said Frog. “Your plants need watering.”

“Tomorrow!” cried Toad. “I will do it all tomorrow!”

Toad sat on the edge of his bed.

“Blah,” said Toad. “I feel down in the dumps.”

“Why?” asked Frog.

“I am thinking about tomorrow,” said Toad. (more…)

A. Abraham

“And it came to pass after these things that God tested Abraham. And He said to him, “Abraham.” And he said, “Here I am.” And He said, “Please, take your son, your only one, the one whom you love, Isaac; and get yourself to the land of Moriah, and offer him up there as a sacrifice, on one of the mountains that I will tell you.”

What would you do? 

You are Abraham. When you were 75 years old, the voice of God came to you and told you, “Get out from your land, from your birthplace, from your father’s house and go to the land I will show you. And I will make you a great nation and I will bless you and make your name great, and it will be for a blessing.” You left behind everything because of your faith in this God, because of your trust in this God’s word. God told you that you would become a nation—that you would have land, and that you would have children. 

And after many years of waiting, you finally did have a child with your wife Sarah—miraculously so: She was 90, you were 100! You waited for years. You may have started to doubt God’s promise, but then the promise was fulfilled. You have been given everything because you sacrificed everything—you left it all behind, and you got a complete life in return. 

And now, this. Now this same God in whose word you placed your entire existence, your entire future, asks you to give it all up again. This same God, who promised you land and children and blessing and who delivered—this same God asks you to sacrifice that which you love more than anything in the world. More than that, this same God, who you yourself humbled with the words, “Will the judge of the all the earth not do justice,” this same God asks you to take the life an innocent child, a being created in God’s own image. 

What would you do?

Traditionally, this is how we read the story of the binding of Isaac, the Akedah. From the Talmud through the great medieval commentator Ramban, up through Kierkegaard in the nineteenth century and Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik in the twentieth, this has been the essential question: What would you do? Would you have the faith of Abraham? Would you do as he does? Would you speak up? Would you say no? 

 

We read this story on Rosh Hashanah because today is a day to take stock of our faith. Today is a day to examine our relationship with God. It is a day, as the Talmud says and as the Machzor echoes, when all the creatures of the earth walk past God for review. Are we up to the challenge that Abraham poses? Would we do as Abraham does? That is our question on Rosh Hashanah.

B. Isaac

But there is another way to read the Akedah. Rather than read the story from the point of view of Abraham, we can read it from the point of view of Isaac: “And it came to pass after these things that God tested Abraham,” my father. And He said to my father, “Abraham.” And my father said, “Here I am.” And He said, “Please, take your son, your only one, the one whom you love, Isaac”—please, take me!; and get yourself to the land of Moriah, and offer him up there as a sacrifice (offer ME up there as a sacrifice), on one of the mountains that I will tell you.” 

My father did not consult my mother. He did not ask me how I felt about this. But we went along. And after a while, I noticed there was no animal for the sacrifice, and so I said to him, “Abba,” and he said, “Here I am.” And I asked him, “I see that we have the fire and the wood—where’s the lamb for the sacrifice?” And my father said, “God will provide the lamb for the sacrifice, my son.” And we walked on together. And when we arrived at the place, my father took me and tied me up, and put me on top of the altar. And then my father took the knife and raised his arm. The knife was over my throat. 

You are Isaac. Your father has led you through the wilderness for three days. When you ask him what it’s all about, he misleads you. You climbed a mountain with him, and now he has tied you up and placed you atop an altar, and at this moment he has a knife extended over your throat. 

The question is not, What do you do? Physically, you are bound. You can’t do anything. Rather the question is an emotional, intellectual, and spiritual one: How do you respond? How do you feel? Confused? Terrified? Angry? Resigned? At peace? Accepting? 

 

C. Analysis

When we take the traditional view, and read the story from Abraham’s perspective, we start from the standpoint of freedom. Abraham’s Akedah is a story about choices. Abraham is not forced to do this. He is asked, as Rashi, the greatest of Torah commentators, reminds us in his comment on the tiny word נא. Note in verse 2 that God says קח נא את בנך—Please, take your son… Rashi focuses on the word נא, please, and says, “The word נא connotes a request. God said to Abraham, ‘Please take this test for me.’” Abraham performs the Akedah of his own free will. He freely chooses to listen to God’s call. 

This approach resonates with us because, as my teacher Rabbi Yitz Greenberg has said, today we are all, in effect, Jews by choice, just as Abraham was. Even if we are not converts, all of us today have the option of engaging Judaism on our own terms. There is no one forcing us to live Jewishly, or to identify as Jews at all. And so on Rosh Hashanah we ask ourselves, Will we choose this path? Will we listen to God’s voice?

But as we have seen, there is another side to the story. When we approach the Akedah from Isaac’s point of view, our questions change. Isaac’s story is not a story about choices. It does not start from the standpoint of freedom. Rather, Isaac’s story is a story about powerlessness. It is, as the very name Akedah suggests, a story about being bound. The Akedah, from Isaac’s point of view, reminds us of this truth: that we are all inheritors of our parents’ choices. We are all born into a context. We are all born into a history. We are all born into a situation over which we have no control. 

Remember my friends: Abraham left everything behind! He was a new Adam. He left his father’s house, his country, his homeland, to found something new. And so Abraham is a man of freedom, the first Jew and the first convert to Judaism. But Isaac—Isaac is very much a part of his father’s house. He is the inheritor of that house, the inheritor of his father’s new land, the inheritor of his father’s covenant with God. Abraham’s legacy has been placed on Isaac’s shoulders. Isaac is the third Jew, after Abraham and Sarah, and the first Jew by birth. 

And so the question that Isaac asks us on this Rosh Hashanah is, How will we respond? Will we go along? Will we participate? Will we take up the mantel of our forebears? Will we accept the history into which we have been born? 

 

D. Renewing the Covenant

Today, Rosh Hashanah, is the day when we renew our Covenant with God, the day when we bless God as זוכר הברית, the One who remembers the Covenant. The Covenant is a two-sided commitment, a commitment between us individually and collectively with God, to bring justice, righteousness, and holiness to the world. As partners in the Covenant, both we and God limit our choices. For His part, God agrees to sustain the world, to be a partner with humanity and with the Jewish people, to love us and to be patient with us. 

By embracing the Covenant, we commit ourselves to live by a set of moral, ethical and religious principles that acknowledge the fundamental dignity of every human being, every image of God. 

To live as Covenantal people means curbing our desire for power, by resting on Shabbat. 

It means limiting our appetite for food, by eating certain foods and not others. 

It means restraining our sexual impulses, and elevating sex to an act of love, intimacy, and dignity. 

To live as Covenantal people means seeing the poor in our midst as images of God, deserving of our respect and our sustenance. 

It means caring for our young, tending to our old, and taking care of those who are alone. 

It means speaking out against injustice and taking action to liberate the oppressed. 

 

On a global and communal level, to live as people of the Covenant is to make the world a more just place and to correct its wrongs. On a personal level, it means binding ourselves to a promise—a promise to restrain ourselves from our worst, and to inspire ourselves to our best.

Today, as we read the Akedah story and as we recommit ourselves to our Covenant, we are both Abraham and Isaac. We are Abraham because we are free to make our choice. God is asking you, God is asking us, to be God’s partner. And we are free to choose. And so we are Abraham. 

But we are also Isaac. We come here today as children of our parents and grandparents, the product of their choices and the history they created for us. We—you and I—have been burdened with a history and blessed with a birthright at the same time, just like Isaac. 

We are the next link in a chain that extends back to Elie Wiesel and Hannah Senesh, to Sigmund Freud and Albert Einstein. 

It extends further back, to Moses Mendelssohn in the nineteenth century and the Ba’al Shem Tov in the eighteenth; 

To Baruch Spinoza in seventeenth century Amsterdam and to Joseph Karo in sixteenth century Palestine. 

And it keeps going, back a thousand years to Maimonides and Rashi, and to Rabbi Akiba and to Hillel a thousand years before them;

To Ezra and Daniel, to Mordechai and Esther, 

To Isaiah, King Solomon and King David in Jerusalem; 

To Joshua in Canaan and Moses at Sinai; 

To Jacob wrestling with the angel at the River Yabbok, 

And to Isaac and to Abraham, there atop Mount Moriah on that awful silent day, this day, this Rosh Hashanah, this very moment.

Today we are all Abraham, and we are all Isaac. Today we ask ourselves, “What am I bound to? What are my commitments? Are my commitments the right ones? How can I recommit myself to the things that are really important, to myself, my family, my community, our people, our values, our Torah, our God?” 

For some of us, today truly is the start of life beyond our parents’ house, away from our hometowns, away from our native lands. It is a day of Abraham. But today is also a day of Isaac, a day when we do not start afresh—but rather a day on which we begin again, conscious of the burden of our people’s history and the profundity of its millennia of wisdom. We are both powerful and powerless at the same time. 

And so the question stands. Or, I should say, the questions. To the Abrahams in us: What will you do? God is not asking you to sacrifice your child. But the implications of your choices will have an effect on your children, and on the world all our children will inherit. What will you do? What kind of world will you build for them? What classes will you take, what activities will you be involved with, what places will you go and who will you befriend—and what picture will all those strokes ultimately paint? To the Abrahams in us, today is a day to reckon with the choices we have before us.

And to the Isaacs in us: How will you play the hand you’ve been dealt? How will you respond? How will you make time to be a responsible custodian of this amazing and unparalleled 4 millenia-old tradition? Will you make time for Torah study? Will you make time for social justice? Will you make time for prayer? Will you make time for family? As the campus rabbi, I welcome you to make time for all these things through Hillel. You are always welcome, and I and the rest of the Hillel staff, are always available to you to be a companion and a guide on your Jewish journey. How will you engage this birthright of yours? To the Isaacs in us, today is a day to reckon with the choices that have been made for us—and to respond by making our own choices.

I bless you, as I hope you will bless me, with the courage of Abraham, to be a trailblazer and a visionary; and with the passion of Isaac, to know your people’s story, and to make it your own.

לשנה טובה תכתבו ותחתמו