Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Yom Kippur 5776 - Why Shabbat Matters

Yom Kippur 5776 - September 23, 2015
Rabbi Julie Pelc Adler, Congregation Am Echod in Lindenhurst

·    Let us proclaim the sacred power of this day for it is awesome and full of dread.

·    The angels in heaven rush about dismayed—they are seized with fear, with trembling.  They cry out, “Behold! The Day of Judgment!”

·    Who shall live and who shall die.
·    Who by fire and who by water.
·    Who shall be secure and who shall be troubled.
·    On Rosh HaShanah it is written and on Yom Kippur it is sealed.

Every year we return to this text penned nearly 800 years ago.  We read our lines in this divine drama where God, the Divine Judge stands on high documenting and deliberating over all that we are and all that we have been and records our fate in the Book of Life.  In these moments where we imagine ourselves standing at the precipice of fate, we become keenly aware of High Holy Days past, present, and future.  This moment becomes all of history in one breath, one note—this is all there is, this is all there ever was, this is all there ever will be.

The genius of these Ten Days of Repentance is in this dramatic resonance—this ability to connect us to the experience of the infinite.  Through this entire season, we feel truly connected to Jewish history and experience, to our ancestors thousands of years back and to our descendants thousands of years into our future.  Is it no wonder that we keep coming back, then, year after year after year?  How many experiences in our daily life connect us so poignantly to all of Jewish history?  When else do we feel this connected to the infinite?

We imagine romantically that, once upon a time, we had daily encounters with the mystery of the universe.  Once upon a time, we felt a sense of awe throughout the year.  Once upon a time, The high holy Days were not the entirety of our Jewish life, it was merely the pinnacle of it.  

BUT, the reality—the truth—is that if the High Holy Days is our CENTRAL experience with Judaism, or with the Jewish community or, for that matter, with God, then we are missing out.

A rabbi and a soap-maker once went for a walk together. The soap-maker said to the rabbi: “What good is Judaism? After thousands of years of teaching about goodness, truth, justice, and peace, after all the study of Torah, and all the fine ideals of the Prophets, look at all the trouble and misery in the world! If Judaism is so wonderful and true, why should all this be so?”
The rabbi said nothing. They continued walking, until he noticed a child playing in the gutter. The child was filthy with soot and grime. “Look at that child,” said the rabbi. “You say that soap makes people clean, but see the dirt on that youngster. What good is soap? With all the soap in the world, that child is still filthy. I wonder if soap is of any use at all.”
The soap-maker protested, and said, “But Rabbi, soap can’t do any good unless it is used!”
“Acha! Exactly!” cried the Rabbi. “So it is with Judaism. It isn’t effective unless it is applied in daily life and used!”

For Judaism to work, to be relevant in our lives, it has to be applied to our lives and on a regular basis.  While immersing ourselves in the rites and rituals, prayers and melodies of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are all well and good, what does this do for us in the middle of January?  Where is that feeling of history and meaning and connectedness throughout the rest of the year?  Judaism was never built to be a twice a year event—on the contrary, we have a stunning tradition that has the potential to bring a sense of history and meaning and connectedness to our everyday life.  

We have rites and rituals that can transform our day, our week, our entire year.  But we must be willing to use them—to apply them to our day, our week, our entire year.  And so, you ask, what are these magical rites and rituals that, supposedly, can transform my ordinary existence into a life of meaning?  How can Jewish history possibly be relevant to my regular life?  Why should I waste my time and energy on some arcane traditions—can they really make me feel connected?

The simple answer is, yes.  Through the celebration of festivals throughout the year, a plethora of traditions, and adding Shabbat into our lives, we really can find historical relevance, meaning and a feeling of being connected to each other as well as to the infinite.

The High Holy Days, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, are intense!  They have extraordinary melodies, liturgical poetry, and high drama:  each year we imagine a divine court room.  We ask the question: who shall live and who shall die!  I even love the severity of it all.  It feels very real and it connects me to my vulnerability, reminds me that I have the power to change my life, that I can push myself to make things right with anyone with whom I have tension or conflict.

But if this were the all of my Jewish life?!  

This is the hard stuff, the scary stuff, the depressing stuff.  These are the rituals we do out of guilt and, at times, out of shame.  While there is great meaning in facing our guilt and coming through the severity of tradition—there is very little joy in it—what about the fun?

Judaism was never meant to be a religion dominated by guilt and restrictions and discomfort.  We Jews are about the joy and the fun and celebration of life.  We are commanded to have glorious feasts for nearly every occasion and to even get drinking a few times a year.  We love to sing and dance and rejoice whenever possible.  We have more words in Hebrew for joy and happiness than any other emotion.

Each of our holidays - from Sukkot to Simchat Torah; Hanukkah to Purim; Passover to Shavuot; gives us the opportunity to connect with our history - but through the happiness of giving thanks and rejoicing in all that we have experienced, all that we are and all that we have.  

We have been given this amazing heritage as a gift, filled with fun and joy—let’s not limit ourselves to only the seriousness and severity any longer.  

Franz Rosenzweig, the influential 20th century Jewish theologian, argued that the point of the mitzvot and Jewish traditions are to bring us closer to God.  Therefore, he argued, if a particular Jewish practice does not bring you closer to God—does not “ring a bell” for you, don’t do it.  The catch is, however, how are you going to know if a particular mitzvah or tradition works for you unless you try it first?  

Adding something Jewish to your daily life does not have to be a completely daunting experience.  You do not have to completely overhaul your daily schedule or even your kitchen appliances all at once!

If you want to make a dramatic change, I will of course be happy to help you in any way—but living a more Jewish life does not demand that you change your life into something that looks like Orthodoxy.  Adding meaning to your every day existence can begin with the simple things:
·    Say sh’ma at night before you go to bed.
·    Or, say it in the morning, when you wake up.
·    Have a mezuzah on your door and kiss it when you leave and return to your home.
·    Make a habit of giving tzedakah—in other words, have a tzedakah box in your home and, for example, put a quarter in it every day.
·    In fact, have Jewish stuff—have a tzedakah box and Shabbat candlesticks and Jewish art.

If someone were to walk into your home, would they know you were Jewish?
·    Be thankful every day and, even try to say a blessing when you can
·    When you are at the grocery store and you have a choice to do so, buy something kosher.
·    Subscribe to a Jewish magazine or e-zine or daily e-mail (like the Forward, or the URJ’s 10 minutes of Torah, or Zeek, or Sh’ma - a Journal of Jewish Ideas)

Out of all of the traditions that you can incorporate into your life, the top one, the easiest one, quite possible the best one has got to be—Shabbat.  

Somewhere along the timeline of modern American Jewish history, Shabbat fell out of fashion.  For that matter, rest has seemed to fall out of fashion.  

Within the last couple hundred years we started thinking of Shabbat as a burden, a task, a set of laws to follow.  We let all of the technicalities associated with traditional observance cloud our vision of all that Shabbat has been and could still be.  In its most basic understanding, Shabbat is merely a day of rest and joy; our tradition has always understood that not only do we need to rest by sleeping every night, we need waking rest as well.  

Throughout the week we are workaholics;  we take orders from everyone around us;  we are obsessed with being the perfect success but more often than not, we see only how we have failed.  

Throughout the week we do and create and invent and push and drive....  But on Shabbat, we reflect.  

We rejoice in the fact that not everything is in our power and this gives us permission to let go.  We don’t have to try to be perfect.  We can rest with things as they are; we can accept ourselves as we are.

On Shabbat we focus on being instead of doing.

Shabbat is one of the greatest gifts that Judaism has brought to the human race—a time of family, a time of rest, a time of being, a time of joy.  

Yet it is a gift that we, the Jewish community, tend to put in the closet and forget about.  

I think we need to recover and reclaim Shabbat as our rightful inheritance - not because Shabbat needs us, but because we need Shabbat.

We live in a world of constant busy-ness, constant motion, constant visual and audio stimulation.  Sound bytes and emails and text messages blur past us, making it seem like life is speeding past us faster and faster.

We need to stop.  We need time to slow down, once a week, every week.  We need to look into the eyes of those we love and listen to them tell about their day, their week, their life.

It is time to bring Shabbat into our homes because Shabbat helps us maintain our sanity as well as our humanity.  

It is time to make Shabbat for ourselves as well as for our families because Shabbat brings us closer to those in our homes as well as to Jews all over the world.  

As the great Israeli author Ahad HaAm once said, “More than the people have kept the Shabbat, the Shabbat has kept the people.”

And, again, making Shabbat on a weekly basis does not mean having to overhaul your life and everything that you do.  It can mean:
·    Not picking up the mail on Saturday
·    Lighting candles on Friday night.
·    Making time for family and friends
·    Having dessert
·    Taking a nap
·    Learning something new
·    Trying something new
·    Having a glass of wine
·    Taking a walk
·    Counting your blessings

Let Shabbat transform you and your experience of the world around you.  

Make space to be rather than to do.  Make Shabbat.

Ultimately, it all comes down to the rabbi and the soap maker.  We have to use Judaism and apply it to our lives in order for it to “work”.

Don’t let the High Holy Days be the beginning and end of your Jewish experience.  

Try being and doing Jewish all year long. 

As you leave the synagogue at the end of Yom Kippur, know that you take your Judaism with you.  

Try to see the world through Jewish eyes; understand this world according to Jewish values; and care for yourself and those around you with a Jewish heart.
Embrace Judaism in your everyday life and your everyday life will be transformed into something truly sacred.

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