The following is the sermon I gave to Valley Beth Shalom, Rosh Hashanah 5780 – Sep. 30, 2019 The video of the sermon can be seen here.
One of the great privileges of my job as a rabbi is that I get to teach and mentor over a hundred young people. Every Tuesday morning I teach theology to rabbinical students at the American Jewish University. Every Tuesday afternoon I teach prayers to seventh graders. Every Tuesday night I do current events with 10th graders. Once a month, I train young professionals who want to expand their leadership in the city through the Jewish Federation’s Rautenberg New Leaders Project. Quartley, I work with the Emerging Leaders Cohort, a group of about 30 young members of our community who love Valley Beth Shalom so much that they were willing to commit themselves to our leadership pipeline. I love working with the young, not just because they have so much energy. Not just because they give me insight into what’s cool, or what to listen to, or what NOT to wear, but because they have something that many of us lost. Something that I want to think about deeply with you on this holy day.
These young people I work with and so many others I see, have a sense of the new. They come to the world and to their Judaism with new eyes. Everything is new. The younger you are, the adage goes, the newer things are. Have you ever seen the world through the eyes of the young?
Like on an airplane. When the young want to touch every button and look out every window. Or when they want to play with the tray table, much to the chagrin of the business traveler. Or when my son, whose now seven, was a baby he was allergic to everything. No matter what we tried to feed him, he would get sick. After about a year the allergies subsided, so Sarah and I decided on his birthday to give him a chocolate cupcake. He’d never had chocolate before. We put a bib on him in his little high chair and put the cupcake in front of him. He looked at it like it was from another planet. This poor kid had no idea what it was. We had to to nudge him to get him to give it a try. Finally, he picked it up and with his chubby little hand and took a bite. It was then, he look he gave us I’ll never forget. First, came the surprise: What a wonderful, sweet delicious thing. He ate the cupcake with his whole body, I mean it was everywhere. It’s so new!
And then came the second look, the one that truly burned into my soul. Indignation. He couldn’t speak yet, but I know this is what he said. “How come you’ve been holding back on me all this time?!” “I’ve been sticking to mush, peas, potatoes, and carrots, what in the name of God is this?” “Where has this been?” I’ll never forget that.
This is the magic of the new, to be full of wonder, and surprise.
You’ve all had new experiences, like the first night you slept in a place that is not your childhood bedroom. Or the first time someone who is not related to you held your hand. The first time your spouse or partner said, “I love you.”
That is the feeling of the new. It ‘s exhilarating, it’s scary, and it’s awesome.
That is the feeling and the experience I want to focus with you on today. This idea of the new. The idea of the future -experienced so freely by the young. Rosh Hashanah is all about the new. Hayom Harat Olam, today is the birthday of the world. Hayom, today is a day to celebrate the New Year where we praise creation, and commit ourselves to the future. Hayom, today, is the New Year which brings new possibilities.
However, some of us will never step into our future because we live only in the past. Some of us are running from our past but will never turn to look for the future because we are too afraid to find what might be there. And as a community, some of us let the shadows of the past eclipse the light of tomorrow. But today,hayom, we can bring an end to that. We are going to move from the old to the new, and from the past to the future. Are you ready to go there with me?
We Jews worry. We don’t need a whole sermon about it, because we already how to worry. Just ask how many people are coming for break-fast next week and you can see the blood pressure rise. We worry all the time, and about the future especially. We fear that our children just won’t have it a good as we do. We fear that the world they are coming into is violent and hot. Most of all we fear our own disappearance, that every generation is the last generation. We have reason to fear because that is true. Every generation of Jews is the last generation if we let it be.
But, often in our worry about the Jewish future we also fear the new. We fear new forms of living Jewishly. We fear new forms of Jewish identity. We fear new forms of belonging. And so we let our fear grow and grip us. We let our fear transform our skepticism into cynicism. And our optimism into pessimism. Our fear transforms our memory into nostalgia. A feeling of longing for the past because the future is too scary.
When I was a kid, I made the mistake of taking four years of Latin. I thought I was being so smart by learning this dead language. “It will help you learn all the romance languages,” they said. “It will give you better SAT scores, they said.”
When traveling my friends can speak french in France, Spanish in Mexico, and German in Germany. Me, well, I could translate the Catholic mass for you. Or perhaps you would like to here Seneca’s orations in the original? How about Caesar’s war journal? I can do that.
But asking where the grocery store is? No. Ordering food in a restaurant?
How does one order a burrito in Latin exactly?
Da mihi burrito, si placet tibi by the way. (Took me an hour to figure that out.)
What I did learn in Latin class, is how the Romans understood history. My Latin teachers were enamored with the Romans because they built roads and they loved the Greeks because they built democracy and I could think to say, “well it wasn’t so good for my people.”
There once was a famous Greek poet named Hesiod. He is considered the first historian by the way. He came up with this idea that once upon a time, a long time ago, human beings lived in harmony with nature and with the gods. Hesiod coined the term, the “Golden Age.” The Golden Age was when we lived in peace. The Golden Age is when we had the greatest knowledge. The Golden Age is when we accomplished great things. Each age that came after it was just not as good as that first Golden Age. You had your Silver Age, and your Bronze Age, your Heroic Age, and finally the Iron Age -which is the contemporary time we all live in. Hesiod thought that the Iron Age was the worst of them all, calling it “Dark filled with toil and sorrow.” (Ages of Man) Oh how good would it be to go back to the Golden Age.
We are taught over and over and over again in Western culture that when we fear the future and when we can’t quite get to the new, our answer is to go backwards. Remember the good old days! Life was simpler! Go back to the way things were! Don’t ever change! Hold onto the past! The present is just too dark. We are too burned by each other. Our lives are too hard. Traffic is terrible. The future is too uncertain it is too scary. So let’s go back to the past.
The greatest expression of the Jewish imagination of this idea was found in the words of Rabbi Moses Shreiber, known as the Hatam Sofer. He was considered one of the most authoritative Rabbi in Europe. He hated the new and feared the future. He bridled at anything that would change the way Jews practiced Judaism and wrote, “chadash asur min haTorah, The new is forbidden by the Torah” Nothing new was aloud. The Torah prohibits innovation. All that matters is the past. All that matters is living for yesterday, and not for tomorrow.
What’s worse than forbidding the new, is saying that it’s not possible. Famously, King Solomon said, “There is nothing new under the sun.” (Ecl. 1:9). He was an old man when he wrote that. After living a wonderful life, learning everything there is to know, sharing in the riches of prosperity, and reigning over the largest Jewish territory ever in the history of the world, Solomon leaves us with this little line. “There is nothing new under the sun. “
Solomon was wrong. Maybe he was having a bad day. Maybe he forgot his privilege. Maybe he was tired of worrying about the future. How could a man with so much success, with all of his wisdom leave us with this as his last word? When he says that there is nothing new under the sun, it sounds like a great tweet – quippy and destructive all at the same time. But in writing that there is “nothing new under the sun,” he consigns us to the past. He destroys the possibility of tomorrow. With all his great wisdom, he destroys wisdom itself.
Why build a house or have a child if nothing new is possible? Why start a business, or educate children if the future is closed? Why should you fight, or dream or struggle if all we live in is an Iron age?
If we allow our nostalgia to enslave our present than there is no future. If we forbid the future all we live for is the past. If we do not embrace the possibility of the new, then we will only hold onto the old.
If you are cynical then you will see the whole world as cynical. If you believe the world is dark, you will become the darkness. If you look out at the world and all you see is meaninglessness then you will live your life without meaning. If you surrender yourself to the past, you are never free to explore your future. If you only long for the good old days, then you have no good days ahead.
Do not build your view of reality on someone who says the future is meaningless. Do not build your future on the cynic, or someone who is given up the future itself.
Do not build your life on the darkness.
Do not build your life on the empty complaints of an irascible old man, no matter how powerful he is.
Instead, we need to tell a different story. Not one that puts the golden age into the past. Not one that says that we live in a dark and sorrowful world. Not one that pines after the good old days or forbids the new. We need to tell a different story, a better story, a story is rooted in the past, but whose conclusion is yet to be written. We need to tell our story. The Jewish story. The story of you. The story of me. The story of us together.
It begins in a place called Midian. Moses, after growing up in Pharaoh’s palace has a confrontation with a taskmaster. He runs away into the desert so very afraid that the authorities will catch him for protecting a Hebrew slave.
He hides himself as a shepherd. What was once the prince of Egypt is now a lowly shepherd boy. Moses ran away from his past hoping that he would make his life all over again. He puts on different clothes and takes on a different title. He hides in plain site. One day, according the midrash, he was following a lost sheep up a mountain and noticed for the first time a bush burning on the apex. He had never seen it before. For years now he had run past this very spot with the sheep, but suddenly there it was. He turned to it, the Torah says, and when he turned for the first time saw the light upon the mountain. (Ex. 3:1-4)
The rabbis say that this fire had been burning from the time of creation, but no one had seen it before. It’s always been there, glowing like a beacon for thousands of years, but no one had turned to see it, until Moses did.
Some of you know this story because you are this story. Some of you here are running everyday away from your past – from a childhood you’d rather forget. From abuse, from bullies, from your own addiction and depression. There are some of you here that have made real mistakes in your life. Some of you cover up your past with the clothes of a new life. Hiding in plain sight.
I know some of you are terrified because your past haunts you. And now that we live in a time when everyone wants to point out our worst moment of our past and tell us that we are nothing more than our worst moments, we are so afraid of the new, because it just might look like the old.
I know this about you as a rabbi, but so does God. God does not leave us in the dark. God’s light has always been there. If you turn to it, God’s light is there. If you look for it, God’s light is there. The new is there waiting for you. It always has been, eternally. All you need to do is turn towards the future.
Moses came to terms with something inside himself and he turned and he saw it. When God spoke and said that Moses had to go back to the land so that he can free those still trapped in Egypt, Moses asked God the most daring of questions. He says, “When I came to them and say that God of your ancestors has sent me to you, and they ask me “What is God’s name?” what shall I say?” God replied, “Eyheh Asher Eyheh…This is what you should say. Ehyeh sent me to you.” (Ex. 3:13)
Many translations read God’s response to mean, ‘I am what I am.’ Some thinkers translate God’s name to mean ‘I am the One who is’. These are deeply significant mistranslations because they tell us nothing we don’t already know. We already know that what is in the world. The Heberew phrase does teach us something new. It’s not in the present tense. The Hebrew literally means, ‘I will be what I will be.” God’s name is in the future tense. If we fail to understand this, we will miss the very gift that Judaism brings to the world.
Moses says, “It is the God of my ancestors that liberates me”, but God says, “No! It’s not enough to hold onto the past. The past can give you comfort but it cannot liberate you. The past gives you grounding but it cannot make you soar. The past shapes our present, but it cannot make our future. The past cannot bring us up from the darkness nor can it break the chains!”
“Tell them,” God says, “Tell them Ehyeh sent you!” Tell them the future sent you. So that you may free the slave, help the poor, reach toward the light and to go into the new which you have never experienced, but have only dreamed.
“Eyheh Asher Eyheh.” Sent you.
That is the name of our God.
God’s name is the future.
God’s gift to us, is Judaism’s gift to the world. Never before has a culture said that your tomorrows don’t not have to look like your yesterdays. Never before has anyone said what is enslaving you today, can be broken tomorrow. Your golden age is ahead of you, not behind you. Your greatest accomplishments, are still to come. It does not matter who you’ve been before or what has been done to you or the choices you’ve made, if you make the turn, if you choose to see the light, if you go into the new, you can leave it behind.
When you step out of the past and into the future you can be redeemed. When you step out of yesterday and into tomorrow, you step into redemption. And Just like Moses, when you turn towards the light and see the new, you step into God’s territory.
God’s name is the future.
We are created in the image of God, which means that we are created for the future. However, we’ve collectively lost this sense of the new. For many years we have collectively felt that the goal of the Amrican synagogue in theTwentieth Century was survivorship. We built a community in order to maintain what was because we were haunted by the past. We were afraid for our future.
We needed to survive. Whether it was to preserve ourselves against assimilation in the early generations or to ensure continuity in the later generations, we designed, built, and funded communities in order to hold onto the past. We built our community on memory, our institutions on memory, and for generations now, our entire Jewish lives out of memory. Our walls are adorned with the names of the dead. We say Yizkor four times a year. We light candles in memory, we fast in memory, we pray in memory.
There are good reasons for doing so. The past has incredible value in Jewish life the past is the source of authenticity and authority. It shapes us and authors our values. We educate our children to know from where they come. We are taught to remember, so we teach them to remember.
Remember that God created the world. Remember the oppression of Pharaoh. Remember the Exodus from Egypt. Remember being a stranger. Remember the gile of Amalek. Remember the ovens of Auschwitz. Remember, Remember, Remember, Remember!
Remembrance, we are told over and over again is part of being a Jew.
But, and please remember this: Everytime the Torah says, “Remember” it proceeds a new creative action. Remember God’s creation, so we must create shabbat. Remember the Exodus, so you too must free those who are bound up in the chains of oppression. Remember being a poor stranger, so that we do not allow the poor and the homeless to suffer. Remember the gile of Amalek. You must erase the guile from your midst. Remember Asuschwitz, so that you create a vibrant Jewish life.
Remember, Remember, Remember, Remember, Remember, Remember, Remember :Remember the past but do not live in the past!
Go into the new!
If we only struggle against what haunts our past, we will have no energy to fight for our future. If we allow ourselves to be hunted by shadows generations on, we will never chase the dawn.
We cannot get to the new, until you stop fearing it. We cannot step boldly into the future by only looking in the rearview mirror. None of us can become the person we long to be if we only hold on to the person we used to be.
We cannot just remember the past to survive, we must use memory so that we might thrive. The old shapes, but we must not let it control the new. The past gives content, but not form to the future.
It is the role of every generation of Jews to grapple with the ideas of what it means to be Jewish. And it is the role of the synagogue to help Jews with those conversations. Today, we are experiencing another generational shift in Jewish life. These young Jews take their Judaism seriously but express it very differently than you and I. They see Judaism as the paint, and the clay, and the stone of their lives, but not the canvas. Today there is an emerging type of Jew who wants to be a fully active partner in the creation of Jewish life. Not to be told what to do, or how things should be, but to be guided by wisdom and tradition for them to make their own ritual, art, and Jewish culture. The contemporary Jewish psyche is one of self-expression and creativity not obedience. They want to craft their own Jewish path. These younger Jews I encounter, hundreds of them, are experimenting more and more with ritual and identity and what it means to be Jewish. Jewish institutions need to take note. We need to take note.
We have spent so much time obsessed with assimilation and continuity – ideas that fear the future, that we are not ready for it now that it has finally arrived. The future is here and if all we listen to is the commanding voice of the past, we cannot hear the voices of the future. There are new commentaries that are being written,new songs sung, new dances danced, new art made every day. There is a Jewish future that is being created with or without us.
The synagogue,our home and the spiritual home for Jews for thousands of years stands at a turning point right now. There are more Jewish creatives today than ever in the history of the world. More art, more books, more poems, more songs are written now than ever before. But those creatives don’t see the synagogue as the place to make express their Jewish spirit. Our prayers do not speak to their hearts. Our programs do not captures their spiritual imaginations. They don’t see themselves here. If we want to step into the future, we have let go of our fear what the future will look like. We not only have to turn towards the new. We have to design, fund and build our community on it.
Where the purpose of the synagogue before was about preserving the past, the purpose now is to step into the future. To use the old to go into the new. To touch the spirit and help those who are running from their past to see the light of their own future. We must guide the spirit of every person who comes in our doors or engages with us online towards their own spiritual expression. This needs to be our mission, to step into tomorrow, into the new, into God’s territory.
My goal as rabbi, is to use the past to create the future. Spiritual leadership is its most powerful when it sets the spirit free. To use the wisdom of the past to help every Jew who wishes to unleash their spiritual future. I do not know what it will look like, but that is the most beautiful part about the future. We cannot predict it but we can create it.
This is not a policy proposal. It is a theological proposal. It is an ideological, sociological, and psychological proposal.
When new ideas proposed, we should say ‘yes’ before we say ‘no.’ When new songs are sung, we should say ‘yes,’ before we say ‘no.’ Wherever creativity is found inside the Jewish spirit, say ‘yes’ before say ‘no.’ We already have the ‘no’. The only way to get to the future, is to go after the ‘yes.’
Do not fear the future. Take heart from the last phrase of the last line of the last song of every service. From the Adon Olam, Adonai Li’ V’lo Ira. The last message given to every Jew before going out into the world. “I have no fear for God is with me.” Take heart when facing the future. Have courage. Be strong. Do not fear the new, for God is with us. Do not fear, take heart, for the young are ready. Do not fear what might come next, because the future is already out there. Do not fear, have courage, because these young Jews care, believe, create, and build what they love. Do not fear the future, because God’s name is the future.
Every melody you have ever heard, every sermon taught, every word of Torah from this bima or others was written by someone. Every song we sing is the product of the creativity of a Jewish mind. Ohr Hadash, Shir Hadash, to step into the new we must create a new light and a new song. We gave the world the idea of the future. It’s time we use this wonderful gift for ourselves. Tomorrow will not look like yesterday, but Hayom, today, on this day of creation and of new possibility let us embrace the new. Let us go into the future without fear. The young are ready. They are already creating the future because they are the future. God is with them, as God is with us, because God’s name is the future. Let us be bold. Let us be creative. Let us go into tomorrow, for when we step into the new- we step into God’s territory.