Erev Rosh Hashannah Sermon 2014 / 5775
When visionaries wanted to resurrect the Hebrew language after 2000 years, they faced a significant challenge. Taking a language that had only been used for study and prayer and trying to bring it back to life was no small task. So much had changed, and there were no words for many of the things that were now part of daily existence. For example… what should they call a train? How should they refer to ice cream? or a bicycle? or an omelet? or jelly? None of these were items that had existed in Biblical or Rabbinic times.
As Eliezer ben Yehuda, one of the men responsible for the rebirth of the Hebrew language and perhaps the first person to speak Hebrew at home in almost 2000 years, wrote,
“If a language which has stopped being spoken… can return and be the spoken tongue of an individual for all necessities of his life, there is no room for doubt that it can become the spoken language of a community.”
Ben Yehudah understood that it wasn’t just about bringing Hebrew back to life… It was about bringing the Jewish community back to life, and the fact that a shared Hebrew language would help to make that possible. So he began inventing words.
rakevet (רכבת), he said, is “train”
glidah (גלידה), he decided, would be “ice cream”
bubah (בובה) became the Hebrew word for “doll”
ofanayim (אופניים) would be used for “bicycle”
And that naming process has continued.
Computer is machshev.
And, you’ll be shocked to know that, in Hebrew, the clutch of a car is referred to as “clutch.”
(I hope you are taking notes because there will be a test at the end of services.)
Ben Yehudah was successful. The Hebrew language, and along with it our community, was reborn. Each new Hebrew word is a symbol of the vitality of our people’s language, and a way for Jews to connect with one another.
The same holds true for English. Language is a living entity that changes and evolves over time. It allows us to connect to one another. New words are constantly being invented in order to address the ever-changing reality of life and to make sure that we can continue to communicate with one another. Many of these words eventually find their way into our dictionaries. On a quarterly basis, in fact, the Oxford dictionary formally adds words to the American lexicon.
Among the notable arrivals in recent years…
And, of course,
Now the words I just listed, each now an official part of the English language, are a bit obscure, to say the least. But there is one relatively new word that we all probably know. This word has been adopted by society so quickly that it is already used — and overused — by children, parents, grandparents, marketing companies, politicians and others.
This word reflects the current state of American culture perhaps better than any other. It also happens to reflect the challenge Judaism faces in the 21st century.
The word is “selfie.”
According to the Oxford dictionary, a selfie is:
“A photograph that one has taken of oneself, typically one taken with a smartphone or webcam and shared via social media:
Yes, “selfie” is now an official part of the English language. More than that, however, it is a representation of the radical individualism that has become the cornerstone of life in America today. And while I believe that this is a universal problem, it is especially troubling for those of us who are committed to the future of Judaism. For Judaism is rooted in our relationships with one another.
Judaism is about creating covenanted community… in a world of radical individualism.
In Pirke Avot, Ethics of the Fathers, we read,
Al tiros min hatzibur-
do not separate yourself from the community.
But increasingly we do just that… even as we reinforce the illusion of being together.
The Talmud tells us: Shnayim Yoshvim V’Yesh Baynehem divrei Torah – When two people sit together and words of Torah pass between them –
Shchinah Shrooyah baynahem – the Divine presence is there as well.
When there is enough of a connection between us that we can learn from one another, Judaism tells us, it is a God moment.
There is a debate in the Talmud about when the dawn begins.
“How do we know,” the rabbi asks, “when the night is over and the day has arrived?”
One student replies: Rebbe, night is over and day arrives, when you can see a house in the distance and determine if that’s your house or the house of your neighbor.
Another student responds: Night is over and day arrives when you can see an animal in the field and determine if it belongs to you or to your neighbor.
Yet a third says: Night is over and day has arrived when you can see a flower in the garden and distinguish its color.
“No, no, no” thunders the Rebbe, “Why must you see only in separations, only in distinctions, and disjunctions. No. Night is over and day arrives when you can look into the face of the person beside you and you can see that he is your brother, she is your sister. Night is over when you can see that you belong to each other. That you are one. Night has ended and day has arrived when you can see God in the face of the other.” Source
Time and time again we are taught that Judaism and Jewish spirituality are rooted in the communal experience. It is why “One Jew is no Jew.”
And it has always been that way.
One of my favorite teachings suggests that everyone should have two pockets, each containing a slip of paper. On one should be written: “I am but dust and ashes,” and on the other: “The world was created for me.” I used to understand this teaching as suggesting a balance between self-confidence and humility. These days, however, I increasingly see it as call for each of us to strike a delicate balance between the individual and the communal – between focus on the self and focus on the whole.
One colleagues suggests that,
The greatest issue facing Judaism today… is that America is shifting from a culture of Membership and Belonging to a culture of Individualism.
“The difference,” he writes, “between Membership and Individualism is a matter of identity. There is a huge difference between being able to declare “I am Jewish” and simply saying “I have Religious school on Sundays and Tuesdays just like I have Karate on Mondays and Wednesdays”…
Judaism isn’t an extracurricular activity; it is an identity, a way to view the world and our place in it. Judaism is about elevating our lives and making them meaningful.
It is why Daniel Pearl’s dying words were not “I played soccer as a kid.” They were, “I am Jewish.”
It is why, when the Romans tortured Rabbi Akiva to death, the words he uttered with his dying breath were those of the Shema as he affirmed his commitment to the values and the principals of Judaism.
Tomorrow morning I will be speaking about my time in Israel this past summer, when I felt a connection to Judaism and my Zionist self that I have not felt so intensely in quite some time.
That feeling was and is powerful and it is what I want for all of you. I want for you to be able to see how rich our tradition is and just how important and how deep our connection to one another can be.
When I came back from Israel a few people asked me if I had a good time. Without even thinking about it, I heard myself respond, “I had a profoundly meaningful time, and I’ll take ‘meaningful’ over ‘good’ any day of the week.
Since then I have been trying to determine why my experience was so meaningful. And I keep coming back to one common thread- connection.
I returned home with a deep sense of connection to new friends.
I came home with a deeper connection to the land and people of Israel.
And I came home with a renewed connection to Judaism and an appreciation for the way in which Judaism can connect me to other people and to the world.
Such connections are profoundly holy… and a gift from God.
But they are challenged in a world of self-focus.
I had an interesting experience last Saturday. I came into the sanctuary and there were two people – adults – sitting together to one side and a group of about ten thirteen year-old boys sitting in the center of the sanctuary a few rows back. (I know…. It is an image that would strike fear in most rabbis’ hearts…) Both of the adults were looking down at smartphones. I watched for a few minutes as they sat together… Alone.
The thirteen year old boys, on the other hand, had no cellphones out. Instead, they sat there speaking to one another and occasionally laughing as one of them said something funny.
The difference was striking – and profound. And I realized that I need to work to be more like those boys.
Many of us do.
Last week, Elly Silverstein, a longtime member of our community, underwent major surgery. Elly’s husband Larry called another longtime TSTI member, Rabbi Arnold Zoref, and said, “Arnie, I need a mi shebeyrach for Elly, but I don’t want it over the phone. So do me a favor and at 8PM, just about the time the mi shebeyrach is being done at temple tonight, ask your wife Gert to say one with you. We’ll be listening.”
At 8:06pm last Friday night, Larry’s phone rang. “Larry,” Arnie said, “Did you hear it?”
It wasn’t just the words of the prayer for healing that were important to Larry. It was knowing that longtime friends, people who are part of their community, were thinking of them and caring for them… connected to them even from a distance.
Our ancestors understood the need for community. It is why we pray, mourn and celebrate with a minyan of nine other people. And current research suggests that our ancestors were on to something. Because nurturing deep bonds with others actually make us happier and, according to some studies, healthier.
According to one study, strong social connection leads to a 50% increased chance of longevity. It strengthens our immune system, helps us recover from disease faster, and may even lengthen our life. People who feel more connected to others even have lower rates of anxiety and depression.
In other words, the lone-ranger mentality of “rugged individualism,” the idea that the most mature and the healthiest people are self-reliant, is simply a myth.
To quote a PBS program on the subject,
Humans are social creatures; we need social networks to survive and thrive. Even independent, self-reliant people need to connect with others. The happiest people are those with strong relationships with family and friends.
What better environment to forge and nurture those relationships than a place of shared values and commitment. A place where we have a shared history. A place that elevates human interaction to a level of holiness. A place that teaches us that serving God begins with connection to others.
Judaism is rooted in our relationships with one another.
It is about creating covenanted community… in a world of radical individualism.
I am thankful to be here welcoming the new year with all of you, and I wish you all a Shannah Tova- a Good Year.