Monday, September 14, 2015

Rosh Hashanah Day 2 5776- The Puzzle of Community

Rosh Hashanah Day 2  - September 15, 2015
Rabbi Julie Pelc Adler, Congregation Am Echod in Lindenhurst
Shana Tova.

It’s the 2nd Day of Rosh Hashanah today, and, as is the case in many, many communities, we’re a much smaller group.  And I think there’s the tendency to want to look around the room and cast suspicion on those who make choices different than our own. 

But it’s impossible to know another’s life, another’s reality, another’s choices.  Here we are. 

And, in truth, it’s the diversity in our community that creates strength.  It’s not about everyone doing the same thing at the same time - or believing the same thing, or making the same choices. 

In many ways, a diverse community is like a jigsaw puzzle.  If you’ve ever tried to piece together a large jigsaw puzzle, then you know.

The pieces in a big puzzle are a multitude of shapes and colors: red and yellow and blue and green and white and black and brown.

Some have bits of red and yellow. Some have bits of yellow and blue. Some have yellow and red and brown. Some pieces share colors and others are completely distinct. But when all the pieces are finally placed together, a singular picture is created.

The sum of all of 1000 or 500 (or sometimes only 10!) pieces create a whole.
All together, they create one image.  


If only the same could be said for the Jewish people today!
Instead, the Jewish community is divided on so many issues, and it sometimes seems that the rhetoric has never been as ugly as it is now.

The Jerusalem Talmud tells us “Just as no two physical appearances are the same, similarly, no two opinions are the same.” The expression “two Jews, three opinions" comes from somewhere...

Our tradition teaches us about machloket l’shem shamayim, a dispute for Heaven’s sake.

Our tradition also teaches that Eilu v'eilu divrei Elokim chaim (these and these are the words of the living God) or, all opinions are the words of God.

Our tradition trusts that many opinions can exist at the same time on a particular subject. Our most popular commentator Rashi nearly always interpreted verses in the Torah differently than his colleague, Ibn Ezra.  

The Talmud is a multi volume book which is full of argumentation. Our tradition seems to encourage - no, champion! - differences of opinion.

But these cherished differences can only remain part of a unified puzzle if each looks to the other with respect (and even reverence).  Listening to those with whom you disagree and hearing the voice of God takes work; it takes patience; it takes a keen sense of perspective; it takes humility.

And there is far too little of this kind of reverent listening happening in the Jewish world today.

Let’s review a few of the larger issues that are currently dividing the Jewish people.

The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action on Iran.  Is it a good deal or a bad deal for America, for Israel, for the global community? As in every synagogue this morning, there are people sitting in this room who are passionately in favor and those who are passionately opposed to the deal.
And then there’s Israel. And American Politics.

We could stand here all morning and list the many topics about which the Jewish people are currently divided and subdivided. But, instead, I want to ask you to take a leap with me.

Imagine that we are all jigsaw puzzle pieces that can fit together to create one image.  Try to imagine that there is something that could unite us, something that could gather up those seemingly disparate puzzle pieces and place them carefully, deliberately, back together.

This might seem crazy, but I think there’s actually something that could bring us back together.  It’s something accessible to each and every one of us.  It isn’t expensive, it isn’t something only available to the elite among us.

The thing that can unite us is prayer.

Each of us, to the best of our ability, can pray. We don’t even need this machzor to do it. All of us can pray. Individually, or in groups of ten people, in gatherings like this, and gatherings ten times the size, we can pray.  

Prayer is not something that other people do,  it is not reserved for Jews who look a certain way or who speak a certain way.

I hope that since you are here on the second day of Rosh Hashanah, you believe that too.

In an article last year, Andrew W.K., who answers an advice column in the Village Voice, received this question:

Hey, Andrew.
….I'm going to make this short and to the point. My older brother was diagnosed with cancer last week. My whole family is...trying to deal with the news. Everyone is trying to find different ways to help, but something my grandmother said has really got me angry. She said we should all just "pray for my brother," like prayer would actually save his life. Just thinking about it now makes my fists clench with frustration. We need to actively help my brother and do actual things to save him, not kneeling on the ground and mumbling superstitious nonsense. I got into a fight with my grandmother and the rest of my family about this and now I feel worse than ever. I need to get them to see that praying and religious mumbo jumbo doesn't help. How do I explain this to them?
Thanks for reading this, Not Gonna Pray

Andrew’s response was as follows-

Dear Not Gonna Pray, …
I'm deeply sorry to hear about your brother's diagnosis. I'm sending you my thoughts, and my heart goes out to your brother and your whole family. Guess what? That was me praying for you. I think the idea of "praying" is a lot less complicated, a lot more powerful, and a little different than you may realize. In fact, I'll bet you're already praying all the time and just don't realize it.

(and then he goes on)

I remember the first time reading the article and wanting Andrew W.K. (Jewish or not) to be one of my Rabbis. There was so much wisdom in his words. Andrew believed, like I believe, that prayer is not only about the words in the prayer book.

It can’t be, in fact, because every published prayer book is different.  And as you know, there are even countless alternatives for specifically Jewish prayer books just for the High Holidays. 

One might think that there’s only one way to pray, only one set of correct prayers, and only one way to sing each song.  But we know this to be untrue. 

Some prayer books include much more poetry. Some have gender neutral language. Some include illustrations, more Hebrew, or fewer English readings. It does not really matter because whether we open our prayer books or not, we can unite by our prayers.  

We may have walked into this Sanctuary with polarizing ideas about the outside world. Some of us might have entered without knowing a single word of Hebrew.

In spite of that, because we are all here, we can unite together with our prayers, and become one community this morning.

In the Talmud, Rabbi Eliezer said:

If a person prays only according to the exact fixed prayer and adds nothing from his own mind, his prayer is not considered proper. (Brachot 28a).

Already two thousand years ago the rabbis understood the importance of praying with the book closed, but with the heart and mind open.

Wherever our thoughts go today with private requests - moments of gratitude, expressions of anger or grief or loss -  if we direct these thoughts to God, then we will all pray together.

The prayers that we have received from our ancestors are important and set the tone for the solemnity of starting a new year. It is very powerful to say the words our ancestors have recited for generations.  The prayer book tries to give language to that which we feel but cannot express.

The ancient rabbis knew we were human beings with hearts and souls and personal yearnings and desires. They taught us to value both keva —the fixed structure of the liturgy -  and also kavana, the spontaneous, unscripted prayers in our hearts.  Both are integral to Jewish prayer. When we pray, both are necessary.

From where I stand, I see a rainbow of people sitting in the pews.  And this rainbow isn’t just about the color of our skin, or our clothing.  We are all different from one another: we have diverse interests, concerns, passions, fears and areas of expertise.

The person sitting next you might differ from you in their political beliefs, religious practice, or educational background.  But you have something in common with your neighbor. You both can pray; you both can talk to God. You can thank God or you can tell God how angry and sad and lonely you are.  Everyone can partake in that.

Prayer is for all of us. This morning we connect ourselves to every other Jew who is praying today and who has ever prayed.

So, certainly during the rest of the service today - but, perhaps even more so - throughout the next 10 days and for the rest of the year (!!), I invite you to try to pray.

If the words on the page don’t work for you, talk to God however you can. Use your heart. Use your soul. Leave your chair and stand in a corner if you need more space. Talk to God. Ask. Thank. Acknowledge. Praise.

We can all do it.

Our souls and our thoughts will reach God together. And for a brief moment on Rosh Hashanah, when God is looking very closely at each person, we will be seen together, as one.

Shana tova.

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