Friday, September 13, 2013
Journeying Together On A Path To Holiness© - Rosh Hashanah Sermon, Day 1, 5774/2013
Journeying Together On A Path To Holiness©
Rosh Hashanah Sermon, Day 1, 5774/2013
Rabbi David Baum, Congregation Shaarei Kodesh
There was something that happened a couple of week’s ago that changed my view of how I see the world.
Our congregation’s board held it’s first ever retreat, and part of the board retreat involved creating a new vision statement for our congregation. Let me begin by saying how talented our board is. They came up with some great adjectives to describe our community, and finally, we had our statement – Congregation Shaarei Kodesh – Journeying together…they loved it, all smiles and nods, on a path…still loving it, smiles all around…to holiness.
And the room fell silent – blank stares, and some frowns. And a couple board members, and let me say, I love them dearly, they are such amazing people, said something that really got me thinking:
“I don’t know rabbi, I feel uncomfortable with that word.”
What word? Journey, path?
You know, the H- word, Holy
Let me get a show of hands, who else in here feels ‘uncomfortable’ with the H- word?
So what should a rabbi say?
I said, “Folks, we have a serious problem, because the word holy in Hebrew is Kodesh, and it’s in our name, Shaarei Kodesh, Gates of Holiness. So we would have to change all our letterhead – can you imagine the costs? And we’ll have to change our signs, that will cost another couple thousand, and have to re-brand ourselves, and of course, we’d have to come up with a different name! That would take countless hours, but you know what, if we REALLY wanted to, we could do it.
But, I continued, we have an even bigger problem. Being holy is a big part of the Torah. In fact, it’s the Jewish people’s vision statement, found in Leviticus 19:2
Kedoshim Tihu Ki Kadosh Ani Adonai Eloheichem!
You all SHALL be HOLY for I the Lord Your God am HOLY.
And that we can’t change, not for any amount of money or time.
It’s who we are, it’s like telling a human being, do you really have to breathe?
So why do we feel this way? Quite frankly, I think we have a holiness problem; we feel so uncomfortable with the idea of being holy.
What does it mean to be holy?
Being Kadosh means to go beyond the letter of the law, to follow laws, but also to be ethical
Being Kadosh means to raise up
I want us to be raised up, I want us to be holy, but the truth is, we weren’t born that way, and just because we are Jews doesn’t meant that we are necessarily holy all the time. Maybe that’s why we don’t like the H-word – because, most of the time, we don’t feel feel holy.
The truth is, I mistranslated Kedoshim Tihu, in fact, most translations have it wrong. It isn’t you SHALL be HOLY, it’s you MUST be HOLY.
God is reaching out to us, demanding us, begging us to BECOME HOLY!
So how can you become holy this year? Well, holiness is a journey; it’s something we strive toward.
As humans, we have the potential to BE holy, but we must look for holy moments – moments that seem to call out to us to raise ourselves up to another level.
Getting back to the H word, why do we feel uncomfortable with it?
When we say that word, we think of meditating monks in a monastery. We think of priests who live a life of celibacy, or we think of great rabbis with long beards who sit and study all day,
In other words, you don’t see you.
Don’t worry, you’re not alone!
I want to tell you one of the most meaningful stories I’ve ever heard about a great Jewish scholar who got holiness wrong and his name was Martin Buber.
Martin Buber, a famous German Jewish scholar who lived in Germany before and after World War I, was in his room meditating and praying, and he was in the zone, having what he thought was a Kadosh moment, and then, there was a knock on his front door. Just like that, he lost this spiritual moment, so you could probably imagine that he wasn’t too happy. Who was at his door? A was a young man who had been a student and a friend, who had to speak with Buber. Martin Buber was popular among young men of the ‘Lost Generation’, young veterans of World War I who were emotionally and spiritually scarred by the conflict. These young men would read his books, write to him often, and some would visit him looking for answers.
Buber was polite with the young man, even friendly, but was also hoping to soon get back to his meditations. The two spoke for a short time and then the young man leaves. Buber never saw him again and he later learned from a mutual friend that the young man had taken his own life.
Buber learned from this friend that the man had come to him that day with a need to understand his life, but Buber had not recognized the young man's need at the time because he had been concerned to get back upstairs to his prayers and meditation – because that is what he thought God wanted of him – to be holy. He had been polite and friendly, but had not been fully present in the way that one person can be present with another, in such a way that you sense the questions and concerns of the other even before they themselves are aware of what their questions are. It was from this interaction that Martin Buber was inspired to write one of the most influential books of the 20th century – Ich unt Du – or as we know it today I and Thou.
Buber said, "Ever since then, I have given up the sacred. Or rather it has given me up. I know now no fullness but each mortal hour's fullness of presence and mystery.”
The Mystery, he says, was no longer "out there" for him, but was instead to be found in the present moment with the present person, in the present world.
Buber was mostly correct – the mystery of the divine was not to be found in books, or meditating alone on a mountain top, but in God’s image, his fellow man, like the young soldier who came into his room that day.
The sacred, or the holy, didn’t give up on Buber – the holy came into his office and he couldn’t see it!
We’ve all had those moments – when someone approaches us and we just aren’t fully there. I had this moment the other day. My best friend just got married in Australia, but our family could not attend, and it was difficult for me to get a hold of him. So he called me, and I asked him to tell me about the Chuppah, but to tell you the truth, I wasn’t there with my full heart because I was thinking about other things, mainly, this sermon, and you know what, he deserved more. I called him to apologize and I realized something:
Holiness isn’t allowing people into your life; holiness is entering into their lives.
That’s what Buber taught me – it’s about approaching others because they deserve it. You may think that what you are doing is more important, but giving someone your attention might be more important, and it will help you become HOLY.
Have you ever heard the term, Betzelem Elohim – I know, we rabbis throw it around a lot, it’s from the book of Genesis – all humans were created in God’s image.
Becoming Kodesh, Becoming holy is seeing the divine presence in another and yourself.
Will you do something courageous for me right now? Turn to the person to your next to you and look into their eyes.
Ok, what’s the first thing you did? You smiled, that’s where the staring game from – we smile because we get nervous – it’s not easy to look God in the face. Looking into someone’s eyes, anyone’s eyes, is an AWESOME experience. It’s as close to looking at God as we humans can get to see the divine image.
Remember when I told you that each person is made in God’s image? It’s nice to say, but sometimes, it’s hard to act upon.
There is a condition that we have grown accustomed to: loneliness.
Maimonides wrote what I think is one of the saddest laws in rabbinic literature: if you are at a Passover Seder alone, then you have to ask the four questions to yourself. Can you think of anything sadder than being at a Seder alone? It just doesn’t seem Jewish to me! As God said to Adam, 2:18“It is not good for man to be alone; I will make a fitting helper for him.” That’s why God created Eve, another human, so Adam didn’t have to live life alone.
How can we become KADOSH? We have to keep our eyes and ears open for those special Kadosh moments, and we have to seize them!
Tomorrow, we are going to read about the greatest test that a human go through when Abraham was tested in the Akedah; but you want a real test of how to act holy? Fly on an airplane, especially with children and do it with a smile on your face and without a negative thought in your head about those crying kids.
Airplanes can show the best, and the worst of us.
The yelling, the screaming, we are in a rush, we don’t want to miss our flight, we have to sit in little seats with no leg room, and everything costs extra!
The best time is when, after that long process of getting on the plane, you are about to take off. There is no reason why anyone in their right mind would want to go back to the gate, it’s our biggest fear (well, of course, there is another fear, which I’m sure all of you can guess) and yet, there was a story of when the whole airplane agreed to do just that, to put all of their lives on hold, to miss important meetings, to have their loved ones wait for them at the gate with flowers, all for one reason. The reason? It wasn’t for money, or prizes, it was for a little girl who was made in God’s image.
As we think about being lonely, airplanes can be very lonely places even though so many people surround you. Let’s be honest, we try and get through it as quickly and painlessly as possible, with very little speaking to other passengers. Never have I been more tempted to be meaner than at an airport, and in an airplane, everyone’s cramped in and not happy. At airplanes and airports, we usually feel like we are on our own.
But that wasn’t the case with El Al flight 007 from Tel Aviv to New York. On this flight, there were 30 kids, cancer patients, who were going to spend a summer at a medical treatment camp called Camp Simcha. The trip was organized by an organization called Chai Lifelines. At the last minute, the organizer of the trip noticed only 29 passports, there was one missing the passport of Inbar Chomsky. She made it onto the plane, but the airline made Inbar get off the plane. As they were literally about to take off, the children in tears, one of the counselors finally found Inbar's passport in another little girls bag.
So what would you think if heard they were turning around? Is there an engine failure, is there a terrorist threat? How many passengers had loved ones waiting for them, how many would miss important business meetings if they had to turn around?
But the whole plane, the passengers, the pilot and staff, the El Al organization all agreed: we are going to turn around and bring Inbar back on the flight.
The flight was delayed for hours, and I’m sure some passengers lost some business, and many were inconvenienced, and El Al might have perpetuated its nickname, Every Landing Always Late,– but they took hold of that Kadosh moment for one little girl. And when she boarded the plane, everyone erupted in applause and tears.
When they thought about that little girl, they didn’t seen an inconvenience, they saw the divine image, and then, they looked at each other, and they did something truly divine, truly holy, something that really didn’t logically make sense!
By going back for this girl, the whole plane said: we are with you, you are not alone! Rather than lift themselves up, they lifted that little girl up, and together they all became holier!
And how do you think it all happened? One or two people had to make that decision to do something to raise everyone else up, and it started a chain reaction. They became holy…together, just like God told us, Kedoshim Tihu – You all MUST BE HOLY.
So, as we stand here today, on the first day of the New Year, I want you to do a couple of things.
I want you to take the mitzvah of Bikkur Holim, visiting the sick or helping them, seriously. Of course, I want you to visit your friends and family who are sick, but not all sicknesses are as transparent. Sometimes, we are stricken with the illness of loneliness. Simone Weil (Vay), a French philosopher once wrote, “Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.”
1. Learn from Martin Buber’s mistake: when someone approaches you, and they are lonely, listen to them, don’t just let them into your heart, enter into their heart. Disconnect yourself from distraction, and if need be, turn off your phone! When you speak with them, let them know that for that moment, they are the most important person in the world. When you speak to others, be more aware of the divine spark within them.
a. In this way, you keep your eyes and ears open for Kadosh moments.
2. Raise others up – learn from the people on that plane – if you sacrifice just a little, you can raise someone up.
a. Have you ever had a moment where you think of someone going through a tough time and say to yourself, I’ll call them later, and then forget? In this New Year, when you have that thought, drop what you are doing and give them a call, and don’t text, call.
b. If you are used to texting, maybe you should hand write a note telling them that you support them - it can make all the difference, and taking them out for coffee can change someone’s life.
c. Go to a shiva home this year, but don’t just do it to check it off your mitzvah list without any kavanah. Even if you don’t know the person, sit with the mourner, and don’t talk, just listen. Enter into their lives even if it is painful for those moments, because by the simple act of listening, you can raise them up from their despair.
d. You might be sacrificing your time, but you’ll be getting paid back in holy moments that cannot be measured.
3. Finally, don’t give up on being holy, embrace it. Embrace being present with those who reach out to you, talk to them more, laugh with them more, cry with them more. You won't only help them raise up, you will raise yourself up to heights you could never have imagined.
We live in a time when being holy may not be the coolest things, and it's not the easiest thing, but it's something that we all MUST do.
My prayer for you in this New Year:
When you see someone’s heart open, don’t run away from it, but run to it with a full heart.
My prayer for all of you to be like that plane load of people – when we can come together and agree that we need to help the powerless because they can help lift us up to higher levels!
I pray for Kodesh moments, together, moments when that divine spark shines so bright, in ourselves and those around us, when we can proudly look ourselves in the mirror and see the image of God staring back at us, with a big content smile as if to say, thank you for becoming who you were always meant to be.
To our board, today I thank you for embracing holiness, because this congregation truly is journeying TOGETHER on a path to holiness, because holiness isn’t for rabbis and philosophers alone, it’s for all of us, remember those words: Kedoshim Tihu – You all MUST be holy.
Embrace each other, embrace God, embrace the moments, and in that way, you will embrace the Holy in this new year.