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I Have A Guitar: A Rosh Hashanah Sermon

I’m not sure how many of you know this about me, but I have a guitar. It’s a really beautiful guitar, and I’ve actually had it for more than 10 years. In the past decade or so, I have driven my beautiful guitar from Memphis to Middlebury and then back to Memphis agai n. I brought it to Cincinnati, took it to my student pulpit in Muncie, Indiana, and even brought it with me to Utica, Mississippi for my summer as the student rabbi of Jacobs Camp. And then, a little less than two and a half years ago, I packed up my guitar, and I drove it from Cincinnati to Ridgefield, Connecticut. All told, my guitar and I have traveled some five thousand, three hundred, and ninety-eight miles together.

I’d like to tell you a little bit about how I came to have my guitar. You see, in the summer between high school and college, I begged my parents to get me a guitar because I had already decided that I wanted to become a rabbi, and everyone knows that the coolest rabbis are guitar-playing rabbis. Added to that, my family is full of musicians. My mom attended college on a music scholarship and played both the clarinet and the classical guitar. My sisters are both percussionists, former officers of our school’s band, and successful electric guitar noodlers. And, then there’s my dad. He plays the guitar miraculously well. Whether he’s rocking out to Elvis songs- remember that we’re from Memphis- or playing spiritual music for our congregation back home, his guitar fills whatever space he’s in with such beautiful music. So, you see, music has always been important to my family. Everywhere I looked I saw people who were moved by and moving people with their music. All of this convinced me that my future as an inspirational, guitar-playing rabbi was, to put it simply, destined.

But, as long as I’m sharing with you, I should probably tell you that I can’t play this beautiful, well-travelled guitar… at all. I’m pretty good at the G chord and can often make a D sound somewhat like it’s supposed to sound. But, that is pretty much the sum total of what I can do with my guitar. At different times in my relationship with the instrument, I have had slightly better skills, but my abilities have never progressed to the point where I have ever felt confident enough to actually play anything in front of anyone else.

Every time I look at my guitar I feel a combination of emotions. First, I am inspired. Maybe today will be the day that I pick it up and something connects. Or, maybe this will be the time when I actually commit to learning the instrument. Inevitably though, I also feel annoyance. Why is it that some of my friends know how to play so well without seeming to work on it at all? Why is this so hard for me? Why haven’t I been able to learn how to play my guitar in the decade that it has been a part of my life?

The answer to that question is both simple and profound. The reason that I don’t know how to play my guitar is because I never practice. Even when I was taking lessons in college, I didn’t spend any time practicing. I love the idea of playing the guitar. I am entranced by the prospect of producing music that could be the soundtrack to important moments in my own and in others’ spiritual lives. But, I really dislike feeling like a beginner. I am immediately disheartened when I try to play a song and find myself only able to produce the lowest quality of sounds, never mind music. The idea of practicing while sounding so unaccomplished is not appealing to me at all. Knowing that my lack of abilities stems from my unwillingness to put the time and effort into mastering this instrument means that my relationship with my guitar is conflicted at best.

Now, for those of you who have ever heard a sermon before, I bet that you will have already anticipated that while the story that I have just shared with you is true, in this sermon, the guitar is both a guitar and a metaphor.

Many of us inherited our Judaism from our families. We saw our parents and grandparents connect meaningfully with their Jewish faith and their Jewish communities and assumed that our relationships with our religion were part of our destinies. We’ve packed up and moved our Judaism through the many stages of our lives hoping that each transition would be the time when we finally learned everything that we needed to know in order to fully connect.

We believe and trust that Judaism has the power and the ability to provide the soundtrack, the context, the narrative for our lives and for our families’ lives. We are entranced by the idea that the texts, traditions, ethics, and more could shape and provide meaning for even the most mundane moments. And, yet, we often fail to actually spend the time and energy required to connect ourselves to this potential source of meaning.

All too frequently, in today’s world, religious people - and I say religious because I truly do not think this phenomenon is limited to Jewish communities- place religion at the bottom of our lists of priorities. The energy that we give to our religion and religious communities is whatever we have left after we deal with the things that we consider to be mandatory. We struggle to help our families prioritize religious school over other activities, as if the value that comes from spending time developing our Jewish identities is comparable to the value that comes from soccer, lacrosse, or basketball practice.

When we look at our calendars, the idea of blocking off time for Shabbat- time when we could turn off our phones and actually connect with one another- seems like an imposition or even an impossibility. When asked to contribute to our community, we’re often happy to write a check but reluctant to volunteer our time. I say all of this without judgement. I understand. Many of us are exhausted by the lives that we’re living and see religion as yet another burden to bear.

But, allotting only the least amount, whatever is left over, to our religious lives is not fair to Judaism or to ourselves. When we fail to spend the necessary time developing our religious identities and interests, we are condemning ourselves to approaching each new, religious experience as novices. That means that for many of us, each service, class, or community program that we attend feels overwhelming- as if we were somehow mistaken for intermediate or advanced Jewish souls when we still need the extra guidance that comes from being a beginner. This model of behavior means that we almost never move past experiencing Judaism in a passive way.

For most of Jewish history, religion was not ONE component of life; it was the underpinning of EVERY aspect of life. Judaism was not experienced; it was lived. With practice comes confidence and knowledge. For those who spend time developing their Jewish skills, the religion is flexible and enticing. Each new moment that we experience can be complemented by Jewish ritual, knowledge, culture, and more. And, when we have moved past the beginning stages of Jewish skills, we know enough to be able to improvise meaningfully in unexpected moments.

I’d like for each of us to take a minute to think of something that we are amazing at. Maybe you’re a skilled lawyer, nurse, piano player, skateboarder, yoga practitioner, dancer, or teacher. Now think of the first class that you took in that subject or the first time you tried that hobby. I am willing to bet that at the beginning of your journey toward excellence there was a period of time when you were truly terrible- where every attempt that you made ended in an unsatisfying way. I am also willing to bet that the path from being terrible to feeling amazing, empowered, and excited about your skill was paved with diligence and practice.

Now, I want us to take another minute and think of how much time we devote to developing the skills and knowledge that will help us live as fulfilled Jewish people and families. How often are we willing to try something new when one Jewish path doesn't work out? How much of ourselves do we devote to exploring and developing our religious identities?

The good news is that this is Rosh Hashanah, the beginning of the new year, and the perfect time to make a commitment to ourselves and our families to spend more time becoming more Jewishly engaged. Some of us might be struggling to think of what our first steps toward this goal should be. I think some of this feeling- of being stuck or bewildered- comes from the idea that Judaism is separate from our regular lives. As we sit here today, we may not be able to completely answer the question of who we will be as our most fulfilled Jewish selves, but if we strive for self-awareness, we should be able to come up with some ideas for our first steps.

  • For example-- if you have a stack of non-fiction books on your bedside table, why not start your quest for a more fulfilled Jewish life by coming to an adult education class on Jewish history?

  • If you’re a homebody who appreciates the quieter moments, why not decide to add a single Jewish ritual- like lighting the candles on Friday night- to your routine and then track whether the ritual feels more meaningful as time goes by.

  • If you’re a musician who enjoys spending downtime playing with friends, why not join our religious school band, offer to play music during services, or even just start investigating the wide variety of Jewish music that exists today?

Connecting to Judaism is not a passive activity. Belonging to a Jewish community is not a passive way of life. And, when we approach our tradition passively, we’re essentially carrying a guitar from place to place while blaming it for our continued inability to play. We owe it to ourselves to be active participants in our Jewish lives. We owe it to ourselves to connect meaningfully with other like-minded people who will populate our lives with strength, support, and love.

We live in a world where and in a time when the paths to an engaged and meaningful Jewish life are plentiful. As a liberal Jewish community, we have rejected the idea that Jewish observance can only look like one thing, and that means that each of us has the ability to look at the wide variety of meaningful Jewish opportunities that are available to us and decide for ourselves which path we want to follow.

On this Rosh Hashanah, I pray that all of us recommit to developing our Jewish skills. No matter what our current level of ability and connection, we can always improve. Just think of the beautiful music that we will be able to play together!

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