Rosh Hashanah Sermon 2015/5776
Contemporary Jewish communities like to talk about how each of us is on an individual Jewish journey. In fact, this is one of my favorite metaphors for life-long engagement with Judaism. One of the many reasons that I like this idea so much is that it doesn’t limit us by saying that there is only one path toward a Jewishly fulfilled life. Instead, there are many, many paths and each one has different hurdles to overcome and different vistas to enjoy. When I think of every Jewish community that I have ever belonged to or served, this image of diverse but equally successful paths rings true.
However, even though each of us is on different paths, we are all part of the same Temple B’nai Chaim expedition and will inevitably experience similar things in our journeys. In fact, there are several places that most of us will encounter, no matter what.
Some of these commonly experienced checkpoints are beautiful vistas. Moments when we feel empowered, inspired, overwhelmed with the beauty that we’re experiencing. Moments like watching two people promise to be partners for the rest of their journeys, celebrating with B’nai Mitzvah students, and welcoming new babies into our families. Sometimes, even incredibly sad moments can be inspiring or profound- the power of those experiences only making them more beautiful and important. But, we do ourselves a disservice when we imagine that our Jewish journeys will always be easy or filled with only beautiful moments. On the way to those vistas, there are several challenging areas. And, unfortunately, many of our paths seem to take us directly through those dangerous regions. But, never fear, because this morning, we’re going to take time to identify and examine these Jewish danger zones so that when we leave this sanctuary and continue on our Jewish journeys, we’ll be prepared to expertly navigate these tricky terrains.
Danger Zone Number One: “I’m Just Reform” Ridge
This danger zone normally appears when we’re feeling tired, insecure, or overwhelmed. When pressed by someone we perceive as being more experienced in the the art of Jewish journeying, we throw up our hands and say, “I’m just Reform,” so that the other person will allow us to pass by unchallenged. Unfortunately, what many travelers don’t know is that there is a penalty incurred when we identify as JUST Reform. For every “JUST Reform” we utter, we’re forced to take several steps backward. That’s right! We actually lose ground when we fall prey to the challenge of “I’m Just Reform” Ridge. Just Reform Ridge is actually one of the most serious danger zones we’ll encounter because it forces us to choose between two diametrically opposed options: Number 1) using the wisdom of past Jewish adventurers to actively shape our individual paths or Number 2) throwing away all of our personal power and simply accepting the small and rambling path that others have left for us.
How can we successfully navigate this danger zone? It starts with a simple decision. We have to decide to stop being “JUST Reform” Jews and instead become Reform Rangers. Reform Rangers have done their homework and are fully aware of the different paths that are available to them. When they travel, they feel secure in the knowledge that they have intentionally and carefully selected the path that is best for their lives and their families. Additionally, Reform Rangers go on their journeys with great confidence because they know that Reform Judaism has filled their packs with everything that they’ll need. They’re not afraid to see what value modernity can add to their experiences, and they understand and appreciate the fact that all Reform Rangers are valued equally. Reform Rangers navigate “I’m Just Reform” Ridge with ease because they refuse to concede that they may not be worthy or qualified to seek a life of Jewish fulfillment. And, so when faced with this potential danger zone, Reform Rangers simply stride through while tipping their hats to other Jewish adventurers whose paths look much different than their own.
Danger Zone Number 2: Hebrew School Swamp
This danger zone is most likely familiar to any parents in our expedition. The entrance to this swamp is marked by a huge sign which simply says, “I hate Hebrew School! I don’t ever want to go back!” Once you’ve passed through that entrance, you’ll see a trail that looks easy enough to navigate and that promises to lead quickly through the swamp. This apparently wonderful path is marked by a weather-worn sign that reads, “I know you hate it, but you still have to go. I hated it when I went 30 years ago, and my parents still made me go. Hating Hebrew School is a rite of passage.” (It’s a pretty long sign.) I’m here to tell you that you must be vigilant and not fall for the apparent ease of this path. It may work for the next small bit of your journeys, but soon enough, you’ll be stuck back in the swamp lands with nowhere to go.
The best plan of action is actually to walk back to the entrance of the swamp and set up camp. From there, you’ll be able to look out across the swamp and see that each area has been labeled with big, bold, flashy signs with words that appear familiar but actually need to be translated in order to be understood. Fortunately, I have studied the language of Hebrew School Swamp extensively, and I am happy to share the translations of those signs with you now.
The first sign reads, “Hebrew School is Boring!” The translation of this sign is as follows, “I don’t understand why this matters. Does this matter to you? Do you use what you learned in Hebrew School?”
The second signs says simply, “I just don’t like Hebrew!” This seemingly obvious sentence can be translated as, “Is this language supposed to mean something to me? Why is it important for me to learn this? If I’m not great at Hebrew does that mean I’m not good at being Jewish?”
The third section of the swamp is one that is well traveled and is marked by a sign that reads, “I’m too busy to go to Hebrew School!” This one is extra tricky because so many travelers have assumed that it made sense as is and didn’t know that these words actually required further analysis. However, this sign’s translation is very important because, “I’m too busy to go to Hebrew School!” actually means, “I need help understanding why this is a priority. Is Judaism a priority for our family? Where else can I see that in our lives?”
The last area of Hebrew School Swamp often goes unnoticed by travelers until the year before Bar or Bat Mitzvah peak. Then, it seems to appear out of the mists and is marked by a sign that says, “I don’t believe in God, and I don’t want to have a Bar or Bat Mitzvah.” While this sign is complicated to translate, it is still possible to dig deep enough to find the message underneath. “I don’t believe in God, and I don’t want to have a Bar or Bat Mitzvah,” actually means, “I’m starting to ask serious questions about God and religion. Is is it ok to ask questions about either of these things? Is my Bar or Bat Mitzvah a test where I have to prove that I know exactly what I believe about God and exactly how I feel about Judaism?”
Translating these signs will reveal to you exactly what obstacles you’ll encounter as you navigate the swamp. However, the only successful way to pass through these areas is by using open and honest conversations to reveal the true path. As we take time to sit in our camps, we have to use the translated messages as the basis for family conversations where we share exactly what role Judaism has played in our lives. We have to approach our kids’ concerns and questions with respect and curiosity because the obstacles in their paths are as real as those in our own. We have to show our children that we value Judaism and believe that Jewish journeys go much farther than Bar and Bat Mitzvah Peak. We have to tell our children why we think it’s important for them to learn about Judaism and to pursue Jewish knowledge. Ultimately, we have to value the fact that while our children are on journeys of their own, they will travel farther and faster when we take time to address and validate both their concerns and goals. And, the only way we can do all of these things is to set aside time- not late for carpool time or multitasking time, but real, focused time- for open and honest family conversations. When we do this, we will be able to see that behind all of the obstacles, there was actually a strong and sure path. This hidden path gets stronger with each conversation that we have and with each opportunity that we take to be honest with our kids about the meaning and value that Judaism has brought to our lives.
Danger Zone Number 3: Kehillah Climb
The final potentially tricky area that we’ll be addressing today is known as “Kehillah Climb.” Kehillah Climb was so named because it requires the support of a kehillah, a community, and it is only dangerous when we attempt it on our own. It is a part of our Jewish journeys that isn’t on any map because it will just unexpectedly appear in our path. We’ll never be able to predict when we will be suddenly faced with this small mountain to climb. In fact, it’s so unpredictable that even when we think we’ve reached the top, we might find ourselves back at the base again and again. When we stand at the bottom of Kehillah Climb, it might seem like the path to the top is so narrow that we would be better off trying it alone. But, I would urge us not to be fooled into attempting this solo. Instead, the only tried and true way to reach the top of Kehillah Climb is to wait for a group on the summit to throw down a rope for you. After you secure yourself to this tether, it’s best to wait until another group of people on the ground can spread out a safety net underneath you. Since Kehillah Climb often appears when we are feeling vulnerable, it’s important for us to know that as we’re climbing, we are supported by both people who have successfully made it to the top of this challenge as well as by people who haven’t yet had to make the climb. Even with the support of our Kehillah, our community, the climb can be challenging and exhausting, but I can tell you that without our Kehillah, it would be impossible.
And so, we’re ready. We know that we can avoid the dangers of Just Reform Ridge by embracing our identities as Reform Jews and exploring the values, traditions, and beliefs that have been packed into our Reform Rangers backpacks. We know that Hebrew School Swamp can be navigated by sharing what Judaism means to us and what we hope it will mean to our children. We know that we have to be willing to dig deeply into our own Jewish commitments and model what it means to be committed to Jewish life-long learning. And, we know that is through open and honest conversations with our children that the path through Hebrew School Swamp can be discovered. And finally, we know that when faced with the crisis of Kehillah Climb, the only way that we can successfully reach the top is by relying on the support of our community who will be both our leaders and our safety nets. And so, we are ready. We have everything that we need to navigate three of the most challenging and therefore three of the most potentially rewarding pieces of our Jewish journeys. I wish us all luck as we continue, and I look forward to the next time our paths intersect.