Monday, September 17, 2012

Rosh Hashana morning 5773

 Rosh Hashana Morning 5773
Avinu Malkeinu: a deeper meaning
Temple Beth Jacob of Newburgh
Rabbi Larry Freedman

There are always so many ideas, so many things to talk about for our High Holiday sermons.  When I was new at this I panicked that I wouldn’t have any idea what to speak on.  Now I find ideas throughout the year and jot them down.  I still have to compose the thing but at least I don’t panic.

This past year, however, I kept getting called back to the basics.  Over the year, as I spoke with people and taught various classes, it seemed that while everybody is confident in being Jewish, not everyone is confident in depth of knowledge.  It’s as though we all have a little shmear of Judaism in our lives.  It adds some flavor but we only know the surface.  We’re eating the cream cheese.  We’ve got no bagel.  So this year, I want to give you a bagel.  But not just any bagel.  Not those fluffy 500 calories offenses found in a supermarkets or  -shudder- Pepperidge Farm.  I’m talking about a bagel bagel.    The dough is allowed to ferment overnight, it’s boiled and then baked, it’s reasonable in size, it is almost crusty on the outside and soft on the inside and it tastes like Hester Street.  Frankly, so few of us have had a proper bagel we hardly would know it if we found one.  But a real bagel is rich and engaging with a bit of tang and something that can carry you through the day.  It connects you to your heritage and it transports you for a moment as you crunch through the top and enter into the mysteries of the center.

Shall I push this metaphor further?  No?  So let’s get on with it.  Let me offer you a real Jewish bagel and let me call it Avinu Malkeinu.

Avinu Malkeinu is a highlight of the High Holidays.  It would hardly seem like Rosh Hashana if we didn’t sing it.  The melody is anticipated and the waltz rhythm is comforting.  That’s the shmear.  But what do the words mean?  What is this poem saying?

We start with Avinu Malkeinu.  Our father, our king.  It starts with an intentional contrast of image.  We think of God as father.  Stern, perhaps, but loving. A father wants to see you succeed. Of course, our father-avinu- also tends to be more amenable when we behave better.  Our Father is always more giving and forgiving to God’s children when we are nice, when we are kind, when we do what we should do.  Be immature, act cruelly, flout reasonable rules and God has to punish.  I will be disinclined to do what YOU want, says God, when you show no interest in doing what I need.

Our king.  A king is something different.  A king can be concerned but aloof.  A king must worry about the needs of all the people, not just one.  A king must be strong and, at times, severe.  A king holds power and we must carefully and respectfully appeal to that power and hope. Total authority.  And if you do right then malkeinu will do right by you even beyond customary kingly protection.

What do we do when we appeal to our father, our king?  We engage all of these attitudes at once:  indulgent and aloof; worried about you and worried about everyone else.  Who will respond when we sing avinu malkeinu.  Will it be daddy who’s arms we run into?  Will it be the king who is busy with other things?  It is a crazy, scary moment filled with uncertainty.  Avinu malkeinu, hear our voice?  That’s a simple thing for a father to do but a king?  Avinu malkeinu we have sinned before you.  A father might -with love- forgive but are you sure you want to admit sin to a king?  Avinu malkeinu, make an end to sickness, war and famine.  Such a demand we make!  A father can comfort us when these things happen but a king has the power to decree change and we demand from our king to do so!

As you read Avinu Malkeinu, think of a father figure.  Imagine a king.  How would each respond to our petition? Think of a time you asked for something from your father.  How did that feel?  Think of a time you asked for something or even demanded something from someone who held power over you.  How did that feel?  Tap in to those feelings.  Remember those feelings and bring them to Avinu Malkeinu.  Put yourself in the imagery, sing it as if you really were in front of your father or your king.  It is a scary, loving, bold, submissive poem.  It is awash in emotion and contrasting feelings.  If you can truly give yourself over to the imagery, that will be quite a moment.

And what of changing the gender?  Having gender neutral God language is a major issue in Reform Judaism and a serious theological effort.  The reason for this is that by assigning God a gender we limit our imaginations of what God can be.  If we can remove gender from God then we open our minds to a myriad of other ideas about what God is.  We allow for more sophistication.  That’s why referring to God as a “she” is no more helpful than he and “he or she” is just silly and “it” also limits us.

Most of the time, most anywhere, I am careful about my gender neutrality.  I don’t want my ability to ponder God to be sidelined by grammar.  But here, on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, I do engage in imagery so powerful that to change it does injustice to the effect of the prayer.  In this case, an attempt to free my mind by changing the words would do serious damage to a larger theological point found in the specific poetic word choices.  To paraphrase a beer commercial, I don’t always think of God in male terms, but when I do, I do so with Avinu Malkeinu.

Avinu Malkeinu in its original form has 44 verses.  We tend to read nine or ten at a time.  We’ve removed the section where we demand God say yes to our prayers for the sake of our martyrs.  We’ve removed the line where we ask avinu malkeinu to take revenge on our enemies.  Clearly this prayer was developed during a rough period in our history.  We’ve taken out the parts that are close to repetitious. We’ve also taken out the more agrarian requests like asking for our storehouses to be filled and fill our hands with blessing with good crops and such.  Even with these edits, the repetitious plea after plea after plea, the grinding groveling, we understand the level to which we have lowered ourselves before our father, our king.

Where did it come from, this wildly popular poem?  It’s origin is found in the Talmud,[1] in a discussion about fast days in case of drought. 
Here’s the Talmud text. 
"Rabbi Eliezer once went before the ark [to conduct the service on a public fast day] and recited twenty-four blessings [of the prayer for rain] and was not answered. Rabbi Akiva went [before the ark] after him and said, 'Our Father, our King - we have no king other than You! Our Father, our King - for Your sake have compassion for us!' It then started raining.
"The rabbis started speaking unfavorably [about Rabbi Eliezer]. A Heavenly voice emerged and declared, 'Not because this one [Rabbi Akiva] is greater than this one [Rabbi Eliezer], but because this one ma’avir midotav and this one does not ma’avir midotav.'" (Ta'anit 25b)

Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Akiva offer dueling blessings to get God to give rain.  Eliezer is ignored.  Akiva’s prayers cause the rain.  The people naturally think Eliezer doesn’t have the stuff and they start talking him down but God’s voice corrects them.  It’s not that Rabbi Eliezer is bad.  It’s just that Rabbi Akiva is so good and what makes him good is that he ma’avir midotav.  And what does that mean?  It’s translated as having “forbearance” or “being humble” but it means more.

Ma’avir means to pass as in take a pass on, skip over.  A midah is a measure, a quantity, characteristic, a dimension, an attribute.  What did Akiva do that was so great?  He skipped over a characteristic, an attribute he has.  And what was that attribute?  It seems that Eliezer was very strict in his understand of Jewish law.  He demanded strict compliance.  Akiva was more easy going.  He was humble in that he didn’t assume he was absolutely, positively correct and that humility allowed him to be reasonable in his rulings.  He had forbearance in that he could tolerate things done right if just less strict.  Of course, Akiva knew how to be strict.  Maybe he even wanted to be strict.  Maybe he wanted to run around and yell at people and be full of himself and throw his weight around.  He was the great Akiva after all.  Maybe deep down inside, Akiva was an egomaniac.  But he passed on that characteristic.  He let it go.

Sometimes someone does something to you and you just want to answer with a sharp retort, you want to attack back.  Maybe you have an attribute that really is a part of you but it’s not the best attribute.  Having negative qualities isn’t a sin.  It’s acting on them that gets you in trouble.  But if you can ma’avir al midotav, if you can let it go, fail to indulge the negative, take a pass on responding with mean-spiritedness, that makes you a great person.  That makes you worthy of being emulated.

Avinu Malkeinu evolved from a story about a rabbi who was listened to because he was able to tamp down his less than stellar ways.  Rosh Hashana is a day not to ask God to forgive you just because.  Rosh Hashana is a day to start asking God to forgive you because you can show that you are taking a pass on the poorer characteristics you, me, we all have.  You know what you do that isn’t good.  You know when passion gets the better of you.  You know when you lose it.  If you can get a handle on that, if you can take a pass on it and choose a better way, that is something God pays attention to.  It’s not about being perfect.  It’s about working on being better than you were last year.  Turn the negative into a positive.

But wait there’s more.  The Chasidic rabbis amplified this attitude with their own story on the story.
A story is told of a certain chasid who each year would give his rebbe a portion of his income, and each year his business prospered. Once he came to see the rebbe and found that he had left. He heard that the rebbe had gone to meet with his own mentor, the Chozeh of Lublin. The chasid was startled to hear that his rebbe has his own rebbe. He therefore decided that rather than giving a portion of his earnings to his rebbe, the Chozeh's student, he would transfer the funds directly to the Chozeh himself. After all, as his rebbe's rebbe, wasn't the Chozeh more worthy?

From that point on, the chasid's earnings began to dwindle as his business deteriorated. He went to the Chozeh of Lublin and asked why this happened, to which the Chozeh responded, "So long as you weren't so fussy about whom you donated the money to, God wasn't so fussy about whether or not you deserved your earnings. The moment you started carefully considering to whom you would prefer to give, then the Almighty likewise began carefully examining if there are others more deserving of the money than you."[2]

An amazing story because, OMG, it’s a story by chasids that suggests a Jew shouldn’t be too uptight about things --- but that’s a different sermon.

For our purposes, the story teaches this:  Avinu Malkeinu, we ask for this and this and this and this.  Please, understand that we aren’t perfect, we make mistakes.  Can’t You just give us a little slack?  And God is saying, my children, my subjects, you are rude and uptight and strict and intense with your own friends and family.  You are so short tempered with other human beings just like you!  You know how hard it is to be perfect and yet tear down your fellow human beings at any chance when they don’t live up to a standard you yourself can’t attain.  You gossip and judge people just like you.  I’ll tell you what, God says, you start going easy on your own friends and family, and I’ll start to go easy on you.  You judge less harshly with them, I will judge less harshly with you.  Avinu Malkeinu can be a chance to show God how we have taken a pass on the less flattering characteristics we all have. It is a chance to say:  See how I have lightened up with those I care for? See how I don’t judge as much?  See how I am turning crabbiness into niceness, turning a short temper into patience, turning the bad into the good?  So you, God, please do the same for us.  Accept our prayers, forgive us.  Follow our lead, God.  As we don’t judge, please You don’t judge.  Avinu Malkeinu, our father, our king, we are learning to be good.  Won’t you be good in return?  One prayer.  Three approaches.  That’s some bagel. A As we add the melodic shmear, we’ll ponder the complexity of going before our father or a king.  We’ll acknowledge our participation in the list of sins and work to remove them from our selves by next year and we implore God to go easy on us since we are trying so hard.  A good and thoughtful new year to us all.

[1] tractate Ta’anit

Erev Rosh Hashana 5773

Rosh Hashana evening 5773

Why are we here?
Temple Beth Jacob of Newburgh
Rabbi Larry Freedman

Shana tova u’metukah.  A good and sweet new year to you all.  You look good.  All dressed up, ready for a new year.  It’s nice to be back in this room.  It’s like visiting an old friend. I’m glad we are here though I look forward to being completely over there at 290 North Street as soon as possible.  We are planning a fun afternoon in the sukkah in a couple of weeks to give you all the best and latest update of the progress of our joint campus.  I hope to see you then, October 7th at 11:30 AM.
But until we gather there, I want to ask why did we gather here?

What are we doing here?  Why do we all come together like this every year?  We enter into prayer to a God we barely address the rest of the year.  We enter into very complex liturgy whose words span centuries carrying the hopes and fears of Jews centuries, millennia gone by and yet we barely engage the simpler and more uplifting Shabbat tefillot.  We come here as modern people only to use pre-modern poetry in order to make sense of a post-modern world.  What are we doing here?

One thing we are supposed to be doing is to be honest with ourselves.  So let me ask you to be honest with yourself.  Answer honestly to yourself why you are here.  Just because?  Tradition?  Because someone else asked you?  Because the person you are sitting next to cares about this so you come along?  For the kids?  For the grandkids?  For your parents?  For your grandparents?  To hear the music?  To use the music as a way of meditating on the themes of the Yamim Noraim?  To consider the meaning of prayers?  To hear the sermon?  To pray?  To reach out to God?  To atone for your sins?  Guilt?  Something else, perhaps?  Or perhaps you have no idea.

One reason I like to be here is the celebration Rosh Hashana brings.  It’s a new year, a new start.  It’s a celebration of another chance to do good things and we celebrate with family and friends.  We have a big meal and go on a hike and take a break from the world, all dressed up to think about the possibilities to come.  That is the great theme of Rosh Hashana.  If that is not your experience, you’re not doing it right.  Leave the all day dourness to Yom Kippur.  This is a fun day.  Okay, so sitting in synagogue may not be “fun” but it should be uplifting.  It should be.  Your friends are here, the music is good, a sense of continuity is felt.  And you get to think about yourself; to focus just on you.  You are thinking about what you’ve done wrong, sure, but also what you would like to do this year.  What is coming up this year?  What are your goals for this year?  What do you look forward to this year?  This is the story of Rosh Hashana.  The liturgy is just the wrapping on the gift of a new year.  (The music is the bow.)
Unfortunately, that wrapping is a machzor (the High Holiday prayerbook) that may not speak to us.  I will tell you that the Reform Movement is working hard on a new machzor.  We are going to test out one section of it as part of real world piloting process on Yom Kippur.  The editors are getting very creative in their attempts to retain the traditional sound of the High Holidays but use a more modern way to impart the themes of the holidays.  It will be good to get your feedback from the experience.  Until then, however, we have our current machzor which is good but, for me, gets bogged down with a vision of God I struggle with.

In the machzor, we approach God in a very personal way, as though God is a being in direct contact with us.  This is the way the authors of the prayers imagined God.  But this imminent God concept is hard for me.  For others, it is just right.  Many people love an imminent God.  But me, not so much.  I find I relate better to a transcendent God, a larger force or presence or even a mystical notion of God-as-everything.  That’s what stirs my soul.  I return to the machzor as a metaphor, a guide, a path really, to get me to the themes of the day.  I’m not too literal about it so when I say the words and address prayers to the imminent God, I know in my heart, I have the kavannah in my head, that I am using those finite words as a path to something infinite.

The problem I have with the imminent God is its specificity. The more specific the definition of God, the less I can believe. Those who are absolutely certain what God is, they leave me cold.  The more sure of God, the less impressed I am by their evidence.  However, the less evidence I am given, the more sure I feel, the less clear the definition, the more I can embrace it.   I enjoy the ideas of those who seek a sense of something larger than themselves, who spin a poetry that moves from the concrete to the abstract. They themselves are never really sure what God is and that lack of knowing makes me know.  It is the abstract that I find moving because it is the abstract where this human brain can try to comprehend that which exists on a plane far beyond our human awareness.

And that is why for me, this day does not bog down with words I can’t understand.  This day is an evolved pathway to something larger than myself and something I need.  I need a chance to think about myself and how I behave and I need language that will help me do that.  Sometimes I cling to the ancient words.  But sometimes there are modern poems that help as well. 
The editors of the new machzor found this poem and tried it out in a test version.  It is a modern prayer entitled T’filat Ha-derech which is also the name of the very old and traditional prayer for the traveler, for someone on the road.  It’s by Varda ben-Chur.

Let’s investigate this poem.  The start could not be more traditional:  elohai.  My God.  How many times do we look to God and begin meekly, “My God, please hear me.”  And how many times do we have no actual prayerful interaction in mind but just yell out, exasperated “My God!”  We could begin this poem in this way, “My God!  Save me from these drivers!”  It is a plea, a gasp, an exhortation to no one in particular when we get frustrated.  We say, “Lord, these people are getting on my nerves” and we find ourselves needing language that will lead us to a higher power because, lordy, lordy, lordy, the powers down here are not saving me from crazy drivers.

My God, protect me from the drivers who pass on the right.  Sometimes we come here and we seek support for the little things.  Sometimes we turn to God not to help us cure cancer, not to help us end war but to help us get through the day when someone passes on the right, when someone throws an unintended insult, when someone does pretty much anything that drives us crazy.  I am just trying to make my way down the road and these road rage crazies curse me?  They curse me?  They put my life at risk!  The nerve!  In the car, with the radio on, moving at a quick clip, there’s little time for reflection.  Something goes wrong, blame the other guy.  

And then there is the finish to the poem when we are not in the car.  The radio is not on.  We are moving at a slow thoughtful pace.  Rosh Hashana is here.  A celebration with family and friends and a chance, a welcome chance if we do it right, to think of our own actions.  We turn to God directly, or we turn to God as a path to our souls and, if we are brave, we get to the heart of it.  My God, today is not about You keeping them from me.  Today is about me and about being honest about me and if You have any grace and mercy, and if I have any honesty at all, you will save them from my curses.

By the end of the poem we know, we know, that if they can be the problem, I can be the problem, too.  If they can be caustic, I can be caustic, too.  And bottom line, I don’t know where those other drivers are but I know where I am.  I am right here.  And I need to take responsibility for myself.  My God, save them from my curses, too.  My God, lead me to understand something about myself.  My God, let me not worry over the literal words of my prayers.  Just let me speak to something, anything, in order to have the dialogue I need to be true to myself.  Let this night and tomorrow morning be the chance, the rare chance I have, to be honest so I can be the best I can be.