Erev Rosh Hashana 5778
Temple Beth Jacob of Newburgh
Rabbi Larry Freedman
We are back again. It’s good to see everyone. It’s great to see everyone. Truly it is. Everyone is back to get a little religion, get that spiritual tune up. The music, the fellowship, the Akeidah. The dinner with friends and family. It’s all there. And the rabbi’s sermons. Let’s not forget that. My sermons… I try to be eclectic. I don’t want to be repetitive and drone on about the same old thing. Of course, some themes can’t be avoided for example that Rosh Hashana is a chance for renewal, to take stock. It is a time of celebrating another year’s fresh start and a chance to change our ways. Then come the intermediate days of teshuva and finally Yom Kippur where we atone for sins, throw ourselves on the mercy of the Heavenly court and pray for forgiveness. Spoiler alert: we always get it but the exercise is still very worthwhile. Putting ourselves through the paces is the important part. Stretching our spiritual muscles remembering we are connected to others is the important part.
The themes of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur are always the same and they never fail to inspire and uplift. Community gathering to celebrate a fresh slate and meditate on how to be a better person? Nothing better. And it all comes with good music so, you know, it’s a win-win.
Over the summer I listened to a podcast, Radio Lab that offered a positive take on the infamous Seven Deadly Sins and as I listened, I thought, now that’s a Rosh Hashana theme! Could we talk, on this eve of reflection, how we need to sin more? Let’s try it. Let’s talk about Pope Gregory’s list codified in the year 590. Let’s see what we can do.
Gluttony. Typically that speaks to eating, drinking more than you need. It is about consuming more than your fair share. It could be about finishing the whole bag of chips but gluttony could be more like blithely buying too much food in the supermarket and then after it goes a bit squishy tossing it out wasting money and all the resources it took to get the food. It could be about leaving the AC on to keep the house cool while everyone is out for the day at work or school. That’s gluttony; such a waste of resources for no reason other than that we don’t care to pay attention and can’t be bothered to adjust the thermostat.
But gluttony could be passion as well, excitement for the things we consume, anticipation of the great taste, the good flavors. That could be a good thing. Let’s just add to that gluttony some awareness. Perhaps we should indulge our gluttony with mindfulness. Before we shove the pumpkin pie in our mouth, because we just can’t wait, we can say a little bracha, say a little blessing. Motzie can do or the more particular borei minei mezonot, just something to acknowledge the food, the people who brought it to you, the wonder of the earth that produces food. A brief pause to offer a blessing as we indulge is better than not paying attention at all and treating the food as simple fuel. Gluttony isn’t so bad if we temper it with a blessing, if we temper it by knowing how blessed we are.
Wrath is anger leading towards fury. Losing your cool is never good. Going off the rails is never good but a little righteous fury we could use more of. Why aren’t we furious at those who are working to limit access to the voting booth, a direct attack on our democracy? Why aren’t we furious at our country’s lack of leadership to combat global warming? We, all of us here, have experienced the effects of climate change. We have all experienced a change in weather patterns up here. The massive hurricanes we’ve seen down south are something new but also predicted. We all know this. There can be no issue farther from partisanship than working to bring the temperature down, or at least not to let it rise further. One day, Miami, Venice and Wall Street will be under water. Why are we not furious about that? These are issues that affect us all, that hurt us all equally. We need a bit more wrath to challenge the naysayers and the slow pace of doing something.
Envy is an easy one. Too much envy is always a problem. Too much envy and you forget how to count your blessings and be satisfied but lack of envy keeps us from working hard. It leads us to settle. A little envy is good if it motivates us to work hard towards the goal. That’s especially good advice for kids. Are you envious of that nice house, those nice vacations other people have? Well then, do something about it. Get good grades, use college to find your passion and use that passion to fuel you to a good paying job. Envy can give us a goal. Envy can show us a better way. Envy can get us off the couch. A warning: too much envy can just make you depressed so watch the dosage. You only need a little envy to keep you from settling and keep you leaning forward.
Lust. Now, on Yom Kippur, there ought not to be any lust. No eating, no drinking, no wearing leather since it was seen as a luxury, no anointing which today usually means perfumes, another sign of luxury, and no, well, you know, lust. But today is not Yom Kippur, now is it? A little lust is not the worst thing, now is it? Here, perhaps I’ll leave the kids with their envy and speak to the adults in the room. For those in long, long, so very long term commitments, sometimes, I’m not talking about you, of course, but sometimes the passion can seep from the physical aspects of a relationship. When I was a kid, I remember seeing tv commercials for “beautiful Mt. Airy Lodge.” Do you remember it? That bit of jingle in still in my head. I understood the allure of the tennis and the skiing and the hiking. But why would anyone want a small swimming pool in their hotel room? An actual mini pool that two people could get in right there in the room. I kept imagining the room would smell like chlorine. I did not understand.
But I grew to understand. There is something that happens with the stress of raising kids, paying bills, getting work done that causes couples to start missing what is kindly called that “certain spark” but what I would call lust. Healthy relationships require trust and kindness. They require faith in one’s partner and a sense of humor to let things go. And they require lust. Lust is where we find the physical expression of the emotional intensity couples enjoy. It’s never good to let that fade. A little lust in a committed relationship can be a very good thing.
Greed has its place as well. I’m not willing to go the full Gordon Gecko and tell you that greed is good but greed might have a role if it makes us demand what should rightfully be ours. Over in Israel, at the Kotel, a plan was hatched and agreed upon to create a worship space along the Western Wall just south of the plaza in an area called Robinson’s Arch. That was two years ago. Design work was supposed to be done with construction starting as soon as possible. Then the Netanyahu government cancelled it. Now, on the one hand, the wonder of Israel is so great, the very idea of a place where Jews live as the majority creating an organic Jewish culture is so magnificent that a place to pray near a wall is hardly a major thing. Indeed, the way the ultra-Orthodox venerate the wall, the way they are over the top about it turns off many Jews. It is a retaining wall of the grand square where the Temple once stood. Given that we don’t want to rebuild the Temple and return to offering animals, most Jews have no interest in the wall with any messianic ferver. We go for the history, for a personal spiritual moment, to see it for ourselves but we’re not that committed to the Wall as sacred. There is so much Jewish creativity and moving spiritual moments away from the kotel, why should I even care? Let’s just leave the Kotel to the ultra-Orthodox.
And yet, I’m greedy. I’m greedy! I want what I want. Israel, the Land of Israel and the State of Israel make a claim on Jews worldwide. We are all part of what happens there and I just refuse to let a small group of religious fanatics dictate how I and my community should pray. I want what I want and I want the State of Israel to either acknowledge that the Kotel plaza is not supposed to be an ultra-Orthodox synagogue which it currently is or give me a space that is not an ultra-Orthodox synagogue, a place where I don’t have to be hassled and where I can gather and sing and pray as I wish with whomever I wish. Yes, I’m greedy about that. I want what I want. I’m not interested in logic or counter arguments. I’m not interested in parliamentary politics. I want what I want. I want the State of Israel to treat me and all non-Orthodox Jews with respect. Well, I want the State of Israel to treat everyone who lives in Israel with respect but given the reason for Israel’s existence, I especially want my expression of Judaism respected. That’s what I want. I’m greedy about it. End of story.
Pride is the next one. How did pride ever get to be one of seven? We teach school children to take pride in themselves lest their self-esteem suffer. We take pride in our nation’s extensions of civil protection and liberty to the underserved, the minority, the oppressed. We even have parades celebrating that word. How did it become a sin? Like all of the others, too much pride becomes a problem. Another word for the sin of pride is vanity. Vanity is pride run amuck. To express pride as a statement of equality, as an insistence for respect, as a positive sense of self, these are all good because they point to us as proud members of a larger community. Pride, overblown, becomes vanity, where self-regard comes at the expense of others, when our pride denigrates others, when our pride is used to put others down. That is why we are talking about two very different things when we talk about gay pride and white pride. Same word. Two very different meanings. One uplifts, the other demeans.
I think our community, our Jewish community at large and our Temple Beth Jacob community right here could use a little more pride. We always could use the type of pride that causes us to stand tall. We could always use a shot in the arm to bolster our self-image. It’s hard being a small minority. It can be tough being the only one. One of the goals of Temple Beth Jacob is to support your Jewish sense of self, to help you feel good about being part of a 4000 year tradition and enable you to feel really good about keeping that going here in this little outpost of the Jewish people on the Hudson River. And for those who have joined us via marriage, you get some pride, too, in this community you are part of. You should take sustenance from the community as well.
This is my tenth year here and while I’m proud of this place, I worry about getting too repetitive, too routine. I worry that what we are doing here doesn’t really help in promoting your pride. This is especially true for those with children off to college. So much of our focus has been on the children. What does Temple Beth Jacob offer you, the adults? What does Judaism offer the adults? A few months ago I heard Abigail Pogrebin speak. She wrote a book called, plainly, “My Jewish Year: 18 Holidays, One Wondering Jew.” She spent a year deeply exploring every Jewish holiday, fast, and commemoration. She wanted to see if there was any meaning in them. Surprise! There was. Another surprise, she did indeed add to her Jewish repertoire but selectively. She didn’t become Orthodox but she did find more pride and more understanding of who she is and how she lives her life. I’m going to put together a chance for us to meet and read the book over the year to see if we can learn from her journey, to see if we can find meaning in our Jewish calendar in our own lives. I want to see if we can build up even more pride, especially for those who aren’t sure, now that the children are grown. Stay tuned.
I conclude with a plea for sloth. We all could use just a wee bit of sloth in our lives. We all live in a world where we complain how busy we are, how fast things go. Not me, though. I love the fast paced world. You don’t like being texted about every little thing all the time? Did you prefer when you had to wait for a letter to arrive with your response taking another week? Not me. I love the instantaneous. I love that I was able to text people from Tanzania a few years back. I love that I can send you a photo right away. I love it all. And I love it because I control it. Six days a week I say bring it on. One day a week, I’m a sloth. “Oh, I’m so sorry, I didn’t see that email you sent. When did you send it? Saturday? Yeah, then, no.”
There are things that need immediacy and there are things that don’t. There are six days where it’s a mitzvah to work hard and then there is Shabbat where it’s a mitzvah to chill out. No doubt, many of you are thinking that your life, the way you live can’t incorporate Shabbat. That’s because some of you think of Shabbat as in the Orthodox world. Some of you never had any sense of Shabbat growing up and you’re nervous about starting now. And then some of you just have no imagination.
Come on! Imagine with me. I’m not talking about being Orthodox. When I was a student in Los Angeles, people asked me if I drove on Shabbat. I answered, “How else would I get to the beach?” Shabbat isn’t about “not doing” things. Shabbat is about doing other things. Indulge your inner sloth, slow down a little. If you did the laundry on Sunday, if you paid the bills on Sunday, if you went to the supermarket on Sunday, what would you do on Shabbat? I won’t be so forward as to suggest Shabbat morning tefillot although we do have that twice a month and it is refreshing… I’m just saying…
No. No distractions. Let’s just stick to this question. If you indulged your inner sloth, put off the chores until Sunday, what would you do on Shabbat? Hang out with your kids? Call your mother? Read a book? Sit on the porch and do nothing? Organize your closet? What? Some people find that relaxing.
If you were brave enough to control your life and take care of what must be done before or after Shabbat, imagine what could you do with those 24 hours. Go to your daughter’s game? Catch your son’s concert? Walk around Storm King? Take a train to the city? Take a nap? Imagine, just imagine letting the inner sloth out and taking a nap. Ooh, or binge watch that show you’ve been meaning to watch. Sigh….
The gift of Shabbat is there for you if you want. Dinner with family and friends. Bake or buy a challah. Candles set the mood and 24 glorious hours await you. And it’s all there for you if and only if you are willing to take control of your life and engage in some holy, sacred slothfulness.
All of these sins aren’t truly sins, in the end. Maybe the early Church saw them that way but Jews have a different take on sin. We see these things more as seven facets of the human condition. They are us and we can use those seven conditions to engage life in a profoundly positive way. And, yes, if we are not careful, we can abuse those seven and do great damage with them so be sure to handle with care. But you should handle them. Indulge them. With balance but indulge them.
As we enter in to these Ten Days of Repentance, as we enter in to these ten days of reflection, thinking about our lives, what has gone well, what has not, let’s think about where we indulged too much and also, which of these seven we might want to engage a bit more this year.
Shana Tova. A very good and sweet and thoughtful year to us all.