Rosh Hashanah 5782: Why This Matters

RH 5782 Why This Matters

When my kids were younger they had this toy called an etch-a-sketch. It’s got a red square and two white knobs that when turned create lines and pictures.  And with a shake or two the whole picture gets erased.  My kids loved it, and loved drawing flowers and clouds and houses – although you couldn’t really tell that they were flowers and clouds and houses, but hey I’m a dad so I smiled at them and then they would give it a good shake and say, “look aba, all gone!”  

I can’t help but thinking about it as I looking back at 2020 and how hard it was –  with overflowing hospitals, with nurses and doctors exhausted, with empty streets, and with families missing birthdays, anniversaries graduations, bar and bat mitzvahs  I really thought that 2020, with all these images, could have written into an etch-a-sketch.  And when we got to this moment in 2021, and celebrated the High Holidays together we could just shake it off. Not to totally erase the past, but to erase the parts that are holding us back, the parts that weigh on us like a heavy yoke.  I, like many of you, wanted to pick up last year and give it a good shake and say, “look it’s all gone.”

But we couldn’t. In some parts of the country hospitals are overflowing,  families are canceling plans again and we’re here broadcasting this service. And while I know hundreds of you are online watching, I also know we have to name the disappointment that we feel at this moment. I wanted to celebrate with all of you one last time as your rabbi. I’m sure you wanted to be with me too. 

The truth is, this disappointment we feel is part of the long term crisis that is COVID. 

All crises bring up questions. I started my rabbinate in crisis. It was August 2005, and Hurricane Katrina came on shore, destroying an area larger than Great Britain in the Southern US. I remember flying in and seeing from the airplane window the iconic blue tarps spread across rooftop after rooftop. I remember the first night I slept on the floor of a church since the congregation’s building was destroyed in the storm.  I later remember sleeping in a FEMA trailer in the driveway of the Perry’s home just outside of town so I could teach Hebrew School the next morning.  And as I sat with these families, bruised but not broken, they asked me questions, “How do I rebuild my house?”  “Where was God in the storm?” or “How do I recover what I lost?”  It can take days or months or even years to recover, but in a short-term crisis like Katrina, the question most people are asked are about resiliency.  “How do I get through this?”  

Just as I began my rabbinate in crisis, now as I stand here before you on my last High Holidays presiding over services at VBS we are in crisis again. But COVID is different.  While we are learning more, getting more people vaccinated, for some, this virus feels like a new hurricane everyday.  This is not a short-term, “How do I get through this” crisis.  COVID has given us a long-term crisis, maybe even a permanent crisis.  

When I sit with families now, they don’t ask the same questions families asked in Mississippi. They don’t ask “how do I get through this.”  Instead, they ask “What am I doing with my life? “Are these really the friends I want to be with?” “Is this the job I want?” “Is LA the city that’s right for me?”  “Does any of this matter?”  

Many folks are answering these questions.  People are quitting their jobs at unprecedented rates and employers are having a hard time bringing people back into the workforce. With remote work, Americans are moving around the country so quickly that housing can’t keep up.  A quarter of Americans have started new hobbies.  America is changing rapidly, because this crisis is bringing up different kinds of questions. 

Short-term crises bring up questions of endurance.  Long-term crises bring up questions of existence.  

At the beginning of COVID, I called hundreds of congregants to check in.  And one, a former member, said to me that they decided to pull their kids from our Hebrew School because we were going virtual and that they were going to leave the community as members.  I asked them why, and he said to me, “I don’t get anything out of it, synagogue is irrelevant to our lives. All I wanted to do was to put my kid in school to meet other Jews.”  To him, the synagogue is supplemental, but not essential.  There’s no nexus in his mind between what his no connection between the physical architecture of this place and the spiritual architecture of his life. 

He’s not alone. As evidenced by the overabundance of Jews who choose not to affiliate. For most Jews the synagogue is irrelevant.  It has no credibility. Synagogues, even as large as ours, seem small and parochial – petty in its concerns and its internecine politics.  And so in this long term crisis, he, like so many others, returns to the central question.  

“Why does this matter?

And so, I want to spend some time with you today, my last high holidays with you in this capacity as your rabbi talking about synagogue matters.

What do you think a synagogue is?  Never let it be said that it’s a country club.  We don’t have a tennis court or require collared shirts or promise escape with a good drink and nice round of golf.  Country clubs are for people to look and play nice and have a good time.  There’s nothing wrong with that.  Country clubs and synagogues serve different purposes.We’re not here because of the beautiful clubhouse or the beautiful people. Although all of you are beautiful to me.   That’s not our project, that’s not our art and that’s not what motivated you to join and that’s not why I became a rabbi either, to play with perfect people.   

If you’re perfect you don’t need a synagogue. 

If you’ve never felt shame or guilt or had a bad day.  

If you’ve never felt that you’ve messed up or that if you’ve never been embarrassed yourself or others. 

If you’ve never been sad or had your heart broken, or your soul broken you don’t need a synagogue. 

If your life is perfect and your bank account is perfect and your GPA is perfect and your house is perfect and your vacation home is perfect and your children are perfect and you’ve never been afraid because you’re perfect and you’ve never been angry because you’ve perfect and you’ve never been sad because you’re perfect then you don’t need us. 

But if you’ve ever wanted to grow and learn.  If you’ve ever wanted to change your life.  If you felt pushed out because you’re different, if you’ve ever searched for deeper meaning and purpose.  If you’ve ever wanted to connect to eternity, to infinity, to the long past or the bold future of our people,  then we have a place for you here, in synagogue, then you need us, and we need you, to be transformed and to transform others.   

Because the essential function of a synagogue is transformation.  

Did you know that the very first collective action Jews ever undertook in history as an entire nation was to build a synagogue? After hundreds of years of slavery, of witnessing the ten plagues,of watchng the sea split and thundering clouds at Mt. Sinai, the Jewish nation had never done anything for themselves. God redeemed them. God revealed the Torah to them, but in those miracles, the Israelites were always acted upon instead of being their own actors until they built the Mishkan, the Tabernacle. 

Imagine the transformative moment where a slave stone mason was given a hammer and an anvil and asked to get to work, not for a despotic Pharoah, but for himself.  Imagine the seamstress, being given a spindle and a thread and being told, “sister, spin for us a world of beauty, make for yourself a mantle of splendor.”  How much courage did it take to take a nation of slaves, trained to build monuments and palaces for another nation’s ego, finally given the chance to build their own destiny?

The Mishkan was the first time we as a people took responsibility for our own Jewish lives.  It was in the building of the Mishkan, where we showed ourselves and the world that we were no longer slaves, but artists.  Using the power of our dreams to forge our realities.  It was the opposite moment of COVID, where our spiritual architecture of our lives is manifested in the physical architecture of a community.   It’s not just a building but the expression of religious transformation itself.  That’s what the first  synagogue was and what a synagogue should be.

That is the essence of synagogue.  To be a community that is intentional and transforms souls.  

Take my friend Jack, for example, when I first came to VBS for example, he came into my office and asked me if I could help teach him to lead services.  He’s a powerful CEO. He grew up knowing yiddish but no Hebrew and as he found more time in his life he wanted to learn the prayers.  There might a thousand reasons why he wanted to learn, but most important was the fact that he wanted to learn.  Of course, I said to him and now, Jack knows the prayers and can actually lead them when asked.  We transformed his life. 

I think of Diane, who during this pandemic had nobody to talk to living all by herself and through our war on isolation received a daily phone call from Frances, one of our volunteers.  She let us know that it was sometimes the only contact she had with anyone else that day.  It’s just one hour on the phone but to her it was a holy hour.  We transformed her life. 

Judaism understands that society is built on broken slag, and in the face of that brokenness the psalmist writes, “The rock the masons reject we set as our foundation stone.” (Ps 118:22)  Last spring our Day School had a drive through celebration in the parking lot.  And as the sun was going down a red car pulled up.  I could tell right away that someone lived in that car.  The woman driving pulled into a space and after the event was over, I walked over to her and we chatted.  It turns out she grew up in Valley and had a bat mitzvah at a shul not far from VBS.  She went to camp Ramah and LA Hebrew High. She became a nurse, a wife and a mother, but because of the abuse by her husband and the trauma of her life, she started using drugs and lost her job and eventually lost her kids and fell out on the streets.  

The reason she came here, she told me, is because she saw the star on Ventura blvd and our name “Valley Beth Shalom.”  She pulled into our parking lot because as she drove the valley as a woman abused, and experiencing homelessness with nowhere to go, she saw our name and thought “that’s a place that cares about people like me.”  

She was rejected by society, tossed out, thrown out like trash.  And she came here.   What others throw away like trash, we see as sacred fragments. Again from the psalms, “God raises the poor from the dust, lifting the needy from the trash heap to set them with the great ones of God’s people ” (Psalm 113:7-8)  All of our heroes are broken people.  Moses stuttered, Esther was an orphan, Ruth was a widow and a Moabite, Aaron was an idolater, Joseph betrayed his father and his brothers. Every one of them were at least as flawed, as broken, as messed up  human beings as you and I, but because they are the created in God’s image, like you and me, they are brought to the center of our story and transformed by the covenant into redeemers, liberators and saviors.  It just so happens that a few members of our shul saw me talking to her in the parking lot and were worried about me.  They came over and I explained the situation.  And immediately they sprung into action.  We gave her food from our food bank, and we found her housing and services that very night. 

It is here, in synagogue, where our intellectual force meets our moral force to use our collective force to do good in the world.  It’s here where God’s love for us resonates as our love of the vulnerable, the poor, the refugee and crushed. 

It is through our work of learning and teaching, of loving and caring, of fighting for justice for all that we perform the highest form of spiritual art.  We take the broken and make it whole.  We take the lost and help them become found.  We take the empty and make them full. We take the bent over, the crushed, the sad, and the rejected and we set them as our foundation stones.”  (Ps 118:22)

And in doing so, we show the world that love has power.  That meaning can be sought.  That sins can be forgiven.  That purpose can be found.  In Meaning that no matter what the sin, No matter how far someone has strayed, God sees the spark of goodness in you, the very one given to you at Creation, and that goodness can awaken within you to help build a home for God.  In essence, synagogues transform lives and souls and by doing so prove that God exists.

In the psalm for the season we read, “One thing I ask of the LORD, only that do I seek: to live in the house of the LORD all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the LORD, to frequent God’s temple.” (Psalm 27:4).  I don’t know about this one.  That’s the one thing I’d ask of God?  If I met God face to face and that’s what I ask for?  To sit in a shul all day, everyday? That’s way too much and I’m a rabbi. What if I get a week off and go to Hawaii? What if I just want to sleep in?  “All the days of my life?”  Come on, that’s a lot of days. 

But then I was thinking about it.  What other Jewish place that we build in this world, give a home “all the days of our lives?” besides a synagogue.  What other Jewish organization is never done with making you better?  Schools don’t do that.  

Camps don’t do that. 

Agencies don’t do that. 

As lovely as they are, students come and go.  Campers come and go.  Clients come and go. Only synagogues are forever institutions. Only here can you be loved and supported from the moment of your first breath to the moment of your last. “To live in the house of the LORD all the days of my life, “ To live in a shul is to bear witness to God’s presence, all the days of your life. 

The greatest danger coming out of this pandemic will not be further variants of COVID, nor the condition of the economy or the stock market, but the condition of your soul. We might be winning the biological battle, but so many people are losing the inner battle. And while many of us are disappointed and move and find new jobs and move to new cities, God reminds us that the Divine is always there, in this house ready to transform you into your best self.  Ever since that first time the Israelite slave took up the hammer and became an artist, synagogues have transformed lives by sharing kindness and love, justice and meaning helping you to transform your sadness into joy, your guilt into comfort, your brokenness into wholeness, and injustice into justice.  That is why synagogues matter and will always matter, “all the days of my life.”  

It has been a privilege to be your rabbi and to watch thousands of soul transformations. 

I love you very, very much. 

Shannah Tova. 

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