The following is a sermon given on Yom Kippur of 5781, September 27, 2020 You can also watch it here.
I woke up nervous and excited this morning. I’m just so excited and nervous about life and excited about the future.
Excited and nervous about all the possibilities that are in my life.
Excited and nervous because the holidays are finally here.
Excited and nervous because I am doing something right now that I have never done before.
And we are all going through this together. This global pandemic has changed all of us, permanently. Every Jewish institution – every temple, every minyan, every school, every camp has been challenged and changed in the world we are living in. We don’t yet know how exactly it has changed us, but we know we have been changed. Which is so nerve racking, but also so very exciting.
When I think about change at this level, I think about art.
Art is the highest expression of change. Every artist takes something from the world, whether its canvas, paint, stone, wood or sound and changes it. The artist manipulates those elements of inspiration, and creates beauty, creates music, creates a masterpiece, creates life. My favorite contemporary artist who does this so well is Israeli Sigalit Landau.
Her work sits in the most important museums in the world. She became famous because she decided to use the salinization process of the Dead Sea to transform everyday objects into crystalline sculptures. Her most famous piece is known as the “salt dress” where she submerged a full length victorian dress in the Dead Sea for a year and photographed how it shifted form into glimmering salt-covered masterpiece. Over that year, the dress transformed and hardened, turning from burgundy to white as salt crystals began to stick to the fabric. When asked about her work, she said that art is a bridgemaker, always looking for new materials that connect the past to the future. Her “salt dress” is perhaps the best example of an ancient storied sea, put together with a historical object that when combined, created something entirely new and beautiful.
Landu takes inspirational elements of the past and makes a future.
That’s what I want to speak with you about tonight. About the future, and the incredible moment that we are in right now. We are now entering a new, permanent epoch in Jewish life. This global pandemic has changed all of us, permanently. We don’t yet know how exactly it has changed us, but we know we have been changed. Which is so nerve racking, but also so very exciting.
This is not the first time we’ve had to change permanently. We changed in the eighth century before the common era when Asyirian Empire came and burned down the Northern Kingdom, A hundred and fifty years later we changed again radically when the Babylonians sacked Jerusalem. Then again seventy years later we returned and built a new temple and a new city. Six hundred years later the Roman Legion came and sacked Jerusalem. Then two thousand years later we came out of the ghetto. A hundred and fifty years more and we were forced back in, pushed into the tofets of Auschwitz. In just a few years we went for the edge of destruction to the birth of redemption when we came home for the third time, building the State of Israel.
Each of these periods of changes, however, produced immaculate forms of art, and new forms of Jewish life. In the old kingdoms, no one knew what it meant to go into exile, but prophets like Amos and Hosea in the north and Jeremiah and Ezekial still wrote beautifully of a life unknown. And during the Roman siege, when the Temple was burned, no one knew what a post-Temple Judaism would like, but the rabbis took up the pen and crafted the Mishnah, Midrash, and Talmud forming Jewish life.
In the modern period, new forms of Jewish expression rose with philosophy, music and art. New cultural institutions built, new synagogues rose. Even in the Shoah, there was art. Words of Torah written and buried, poetry scribbled wrappers, drawings made on the bottoms of bunks. And with the rebirth of a nation, Elezier Ben Yehudah took a language that had not been heard on the streets for a thousand years and crafted something new from the old. More words will be written in Hebrew this coming week, than in the entirety of Jewish life since the fall of the Temple until 1881. The city of Tel Aviv, gets its name from two places. The word “Tel” is an ancient hill where layer upon layer of fallen civilization can be found. The word “Aviv” means the awakening of springtime evoking the verdant fecundity of the newness of life. Tel Aviv is the name given to a city that means to stake a claim springing forth; something new from the old.
This is the craft of Jewish life. To take what was, reshape and refold it, and create it anew. The ancient rabbis believed that God created the world out of nothing, “yesh mi ein,” but in reality God took what existed in the world before creation and fashioned order. Rather than “yesh mi ein,” God created “yesh mi yesh” to craft something out of something else.
Today’s global challenge might be different in kind but not in substance. We stand at another turning, another epoch in Jewish life. No one has lived in our contemporary world before we have, no one before has been so connected globally, no one before has had the world at their fingertips. No one has lived the Jewish life that we live now. And it is our turn to submit ourselves to the sacred artistry of crafting something from something else. So I’m nervous, but also really excited. I want you to be too. Because this moment right now, tonight is the night that we can all become artists by using the best of the past to fuel the future.
There are three powerful ideas of what it takes to craft our future as a Jewish community that I’m going to speak about tonight. All of them are endemic to our past, but like Landau’s “salt dress” speak to us through our ancient history to create the bridge to the future. And all are found in the life and story of the central character of Yom Kippur, Aaron the High Priest.
Who was Aaron? The first time we meet Aaron is when Moses has already fled Egypt to a place called Midian. Until that time, the reader didn’t know that Moses had had a brother. We knew he had a sister, Miriam, who saw his basket float down the river (Exodus 2:4). In fact, Aaron doesn’t appear until God comes out of the burning bush and tells Moses to go down to Egypt to free the slaves. In that moment, we find Moses famously negotiating with God about his mission. God tells him to go down to Egypt and Moses demure saying, “Bi Adonai shelach-na biyad tishlah” “Please, O Lord, send someone else.” (Exodus 4:13) Only then did God say, “Send your brother, Aaron the Levite, He I know speaks easily. Even now, he is setting out to meet you.” (Exodus 4:14).
sEven now he is setting out to meet you.
Where did Aaron come from? He seems to have only showed up at the very moment when history was changing as a new epoch of Jewish life was being formed. When God said “Go” Moses said, “no” but it was Aaron who was already on his way.
Even now he is setting out to meet you.
No one could imagine the future as a free Jew. For hundreds of years Jews were slaves, locked into a singular life, but Aaron, felt differently. While he didn’t know the details, he knew he had to move. To act. To take a step. And then another. Moses demurred. Moses waited. Aaron set out. He acted.
And that’s the first piece of the puzzle. Act, don’t react.
For generations, Jewish life in America has been built on reaction. Reaction to our own immigration and assimilation. Reaction to our own near-annihilation and self-determination. Reaction to suburbanization, new urbanization. Reaction to a growing Jewish populace and declining Jewish engagement.
Reaction. Reaction Reaction. In each case, those who acted boldly, those who were already stepping out, were the ones that shaped the Jewish future. Whether it was Amos, Isaiah or Jerimiah, Rabbi Yokhanan Ben Zakai, Rabbi Akiva, or Solomon Shechter, or Kaplan or Heshel, or Schulweis, they chose not only reacting to the world, but chose to act upon it. To move. To step. To already be on the way.
The future is in the hands of the bold.
The future belongs to those who get up and go, those who are already on the way. We as a Jewish community can simply react to this pandemic and move a few things online, reach out through phone calls, etc. which we have done amazingly. Or we can understand what this moment truly calls for. A moment that is truly monumental, and one that will not allow us to simply take small strides. We must act boldly. Instead of reacting to life around us we must be like Aaron and be proactive and create the future that is ahead of us.
We must create. We must act. We must already be on our way.
No one knew that we could travel the entire world in hours, until someone or some people discovered how and then created machines that could do it. No one knew how to connect people globally with a push of a button until someone created it. No one knew how to put the entire world in your pocket, until someone discovered how and then created it. The very present we live in feels like the background of how we live was created by the people of the past who acted boldly and crafted their future. So the question is not can we create futures, but whose future do we want to live in? Will we live in a world dreamed up by someone else, or in a world that is manifested by our own dreams?
The future is in the hands of the bold.
The second necessary attitude is the idea that we must boldly risk failure. The extraordinary artist and strategist Debbie Millman spoke at San Jose State University a few years ago and said, “If you imagine less, less will be what you undoubtedly deserve.” Far from being Pollyanna advice, Millman’s words of advice track what psychologists know about our mindset for success. If you don’t imagine a future, even one that might fail, you will never have a future.
When the Israelites were freed from Egypt and made it across the desert to Mt. Sinai, they encamped at the foot of the mountain and waited. And waited. And waited. After forty days, the people got tired of waiting and pressed upon Aaron to make a Golden Calf. And he did. Aaron’s first attempt at creating the future of the Jewish people in their new epoch was a total failure. The bold liberator became the cowering idolator. At the very moment when the covenant was about to be delivered from the mountaintop, Aaron broke faith and stepped away from the relationship with God. His boldness led to failure.
In the book of proverbs it states, “The righteous fall seven times and will rise, while the wicked are tripped up by one mistake.” (Prov. 24:16) What King Solomon is teaching is that those who are truly good, those who want to build a future, those whose story of themselves is one of success, are those that will fall seven times.
Fall because you tried and are not ready.
Fall because you held back when you should have let go.
Fall because you said something you shouldn’t have.
Fall because you made a bad decision.
Fall because you embarrassed your partner.
Fall because you embarrassed yourself.
Fall because you broke a promise.
Falling only becomes failing if you don’t get back up. The weak stay down. The bold rise.
Futures are born out of failure. Bob Dylan lost his high school talent competition to a tap dancer, Michael Jordan was cut by his high school basketball team. Oprah Winfrey was cut from her first co-anchoring position in Chicago. Failure shows us our limits and how to break through them, how to change to succeed.
Once Aaron faced his failure, once we pushed through his limits, he created again. According to the rabbis, Aaron moved from his greatest failure to his greatest success. In place of a calf, he built a temple. In place of an idol, he built up a priesthood. In place of the idolatrous, “every person as for THEMselves,” of that moment in Exodus, he gave us the spirit of Leviticus, saying “Love your neighbor AS yourself.” (Lev. 19:18)
Through failing and falling you can rise to your greatest success.
At this new epoch of Jewish life, we too must boldy risk failure. We have to make bold moves to craft the future, risk changing how we pray and how we learn. We must risk how we express Jewish identity. We must risk pushing past our limits of who to include. Without failing, without falling, we can never rise. Because if we imagine less, then less is what we deserve.
And the future is in the hands of the bold.
Before we get too revolutionary, we need to understand the third idea of how to approach this new epoch of Jewish life. In fact it’s probably the most important of all.
In every epoch, the visionaries, the prophets, the thinkers, the rabbis, the artists, have used our Jewish past to fuel the future. Again here, we turn to Aaron’s life and why this day, Yom Kippur, is so holy.
On the very first Yom Kippur, Aaron, now grown to see a nation freed and to see the sin of the golden calf – Aaron, now older in years, stands in the outer court of the Mishkan, puts on special clothes and goes to the holy altar “to make atonement on behalf of himself and the nation. “(Lev. 16:16) Aaron, the former slave, liberator and idolator, now comes before God and stands in the most singular of places on Yom Kippur, 3,114 years ago today.
In that very moment, he boldly brought everything with him. He brought his shame and sin. He brought his history. His family. His failure and his success. Everything.
And he lit a fire on the altar and burned it up – but not away.
The fire that Aaron created upon the altar on that first Yom Kippur allowed him to use the past as kindling to light up the future. In doing so, Aaron sets himself free. Sets his family free. Sets everyone free. We were never truly free from Egypt until that moment, until the community was ready to use its past to craft its future.
The depth of Yom Kippur, the process of teshuva itself, is to take our past and use it as fuel for the future.
Our Torah, our community and our values, are all there as the primal elements to craft the next version of Jewish life. They are sacred, they deserve to be placed at the center of Jewish life. Because they are so important and so sacred, they are the medium that must be used by the next generation to craft a holy and sacred life.
Jews of younger generations have changing attitudes about what it means to belong. What it means to connect, how to be Jewish, act Jewish and live Jewish. Many of these younger Jews are eager to learn. We, their parents, have been successful in teaching them about Judaism, but they, like Aaron, want to take what we have taught them and create something with them.
They, like Aaron, want to burn up the past, but not burn it away. They want to use the past as the fuel for the future. We cannot be afraid to invest in the ideas of the next generation because we are afraid of the kind of Judaism that might emerge. We cannot let the past be an anchor to weigh them down when we can use the past as an altar and help the next generation soar.
The Talmud teaches, quoting Isaiah, וְכָל־בָּנַ֖יִךְ לִמּוּדֵ֣י יְהוָ֑ה וְרַ֖ב שְׁל֥וֹם בָּנָֽיִךְ׃ , “The children learn of the LORD then great shall be the peace of the children.” The Talmud continues, Do not read the verse as banaich, rather boneich, builders. Meaning – the children, the next generation that has learned of the LORD are the builders of shalom – peace.
The question is no longer just what should we want to hold onto from the past, but what from the past can be the fuel for the future. We can use our long history, tradition, its maxims, its mitzvot, its incredible rituals, and its most powerful notions of justice to create Jewish life anew. If you are involved in Jewish life, find a young person that inspires you, invest in her. If you are a leader whether professional or volunteer, take the risk by finding the bold ones and give them space to create.
Because the future is in the hands of the bold.
Aaron was an artist. He knew he needed to act and not react. To risk everything including utter failure, so that he could rise. And to not ignore the past, but to use it as the primary colors to create a new Jewish life. That is what artists do. They take the world as it has been presented to them, and create the world anew.
What this moment in Jewish history calls for is what it called for at every turning point. Vision. Risk. Boldness. And above all the creative act of taking something that was and forming something new. The task is daunting but we shall not be daunted. We don’t know exactly how to do it yet, but we have millennia of experience and permission to try. We must already be on the way.
Let us go from holy time to another, as the Talmud reminds us, from holy place to the next, from strength to strength. Let us build now, what is next in Jewish life, together. Every time we have faced this moment, we have created Jewish life anew, For the future has always been and will always be in the hands of the bold.
Gmar Hatima Tova