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Peter J. Rubinstein
Torah at the Core (Rosh HaShanah 5764)

Peter J. Rubinstein  |  September 26, 2003

Just before Moses died, he spent his days walking among the people.

A midrash tells the story: Moses stood as unbent as any man of one hundred twenty years. Leaning upon his staff, he strode from tribe to tribe and blessed each of the twelve tribes according to their history and his vision of their future. And when he completed his blessing of a tribe, Moses lingered among the people so that he could speak to each individual personally. One by one, Moses faced each person. His eyes fixed upon them. His hands rested upon their shoulders and Moses blessed them: every woman and man, each boy and girl in turn. To each a proper blessing for that person alone.

And then each of the Israelites, having been blessed by Moses, blessed him in return. One by one a dying man and the people exchanged words of blessing and hope.

To imprint that moment on our memory, Moses then sat in front of the people to write thirteen individual Torah scrolls, a scroll to be carried by each of the twelve tribes as they crossed the River Jordan to their promised land. The one remaining scroll was put in an ark forever at the front of all the people, there to remain as a reminder of their blessings, as testimony to their covenant with God, as an impetus for their mission to bring Torah to all humankind.

From Moses’ hands then to our hands now, the Torah has been passed down. Held by our ancestors to their bosoms at times of joy and of tragedy, sometimes at the cost of life itself, the Torah has been protected and guarded, carried across oceans and saved from flames of destruction. This Torah has been transmitted through the generations and is still, to this day, handed from grandparent to parent and from parent to child every Shabbat on this pulpit and in synagogues throughout this world. In one of the truly great miracles of all human history, the unbroken chain of Jewish life continues.

We live as a people because Torah lives and Torah lives because we live. Torah and the Jewish people: soul and body joined together. At our beginning God called us into existence to be the vehicle for bringing Torah to the world. Our birth was in the wilderness. Our purpose was born at Mount Sinai.

Yes, we are, we will always be proud defenders of the State of Israel. We are a nation! Yes, we are, we will always be bold and vigilant protectors of Jewish life. Yes, we are a people! We owe that to our ancestors and to ourselves. We owe that to our future. But at the heart of the Jewish people beats our Jewish faith and at the heart of the Jewish faith pulses Torah. For Jews, faith begins with Torah and Torah is sustained by study.

We are obligated by our tradition to honor our parents. We are commanded to pursue acts of love and kindness, to welcome the stranger, to console the bereaved. We hold these Jewish values with pride. But chief among these mitzvot is “hashkamat bayt ha-midrash scharit v’aravit”—“to daily attend the house of study, to occupy ourselves with the pursuit of Jewish knowledge and wisdom,” to keep Jewish learning alive.

La’asok b’divrey Torah” is what the blessing says, to be engaged in the words of Torah.  “Talmud Torah k’neged kulam”— “Study of Torah is greater than all other pursuits.” It is that commitment that I fear is slipping off the screen of Jewish intention. We have strengthened ourselves to defend against the enemies that would do us damage from without. Now let us strengthen ourselves to defend against an emptiness within. While we are diligent in pursuing the best of moral standards, we are indolent in studying the source of those standards. Too often, at our best, we operate with a thirteen year old’s knowledge of Judaism because that was the last time we opened a book.

Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of our reform congregational organization, pointed out to our entire Reform movement that “too many of us can name the mother of Jesus, but not the mother of Moses”—by the way, her name was Yocheved—“we know the author of Das Kapital, but not the author of the Guide for the Perplexed”—by the way, it is Maimonides. And when we do study, we too often have been satisfied with a kind of learning that is largely cosmetic and which, if you were remarkably stupid, would be edifying. But of course we are not remarkably stupid: we are remarkably smart and hungry for the intellectual splendor and the deep humanity of our heritage.

“And why is this so important?” Yoffie asks. “Because Torah study is the motor which drives Jewish life and whenever communities neglect it, they have already started on the road to decline. Because you do not wake up one morning and say: ‘I’m not going to be Jewish anymore.’ Disengagement from Judaism is a process, and it always begins when we turn our back on the study of Torah.”

We are at our best when we open our books for help in answering the questions we put to ourselves: What do we believe about God? What is our claim on the land of Israel? What has our faith taught us about life after this life? Why is there tragedy and evil in the world? What should I do about my frail aging parent who is entering the abyss of dementia? What are proper reasons for going to war?

These are the questions which touch us. These are the questions about which we care. And these are the questions over which our ancestors struggled. It behooves to us gain wisdom from our past and their struggle.

Study and learning is the Jewish way. Wrestling with ideas is the Jewish way. Engaging ourselves with the words of Torah is the Jewish way.

So, today, this Rosh Hashanah, we proclaim a beginning. We proclaim that Central Synagogue, that you and I now raise ourselves anew with intense commitment to learning. We are a place of learning for all people of all ages, a place of learning for children and their parents together and for adults by themselves, a synagogue with a serious and concentrated focus on the study of our heritage and our books.

We believe that a child learns the import of Jewish learning only when parents reflect the import of Jewish learning. We believe that every Jewish adult, with or without children in the religious school, has the ability, and needs the tools, with which to learn.

We believe that just as we have built so much together, now we will build our Jewish intellects.

So from here on in, nothing will happen within the walls of this synagogue not laced with education. This is our dedication. This is our commitment. This is how it will happen:

I) Communications

We will no longer pick up a publication of this congregation without finding therein a Jewish text. We may ignore it but we also may read it. We will find Jewish texts in the Mitzvah Day brochure, on our stationery, in our bulletins. Past generations gathered wisdom. We will benefit from their wisdom as we study their insights into the matters of life and faith. We takes these texts seriously. We can learn in unexpected ways and at unplanned moments.

II) When You Enter

We will never enter the walls of our synagogue anymore without learning opportunities. We will find teachings posted next to the elevators in the community house. Quotes from Jewish sources will be on the announcement board outside our building. Every function and meeting of this congregation will begin with learning. And if we are successful, you will not rely on clergy alone to teach. Every one of our b’nei mitzvah delivers a d’rash, an exposition from their perspective on the Torah portion which they had studied and which they read when they become a bar/bat mitzvah. We learn from these thirteen year olds. We will learn from you. The model for Jewish learning is discussion and debate across the study desk in which we are all equals debating and wrestling over the words of Torah. It is not possible for any of us to know “the Truth.” It is only possible for us to search for truth together.

III) Classes

We are offering classes that allow you to enter the door of Jewish learning. Whether or not you have ever studied Torah or Talmud before, join one of our Torah or Talmud classes. There is a place for you at the table.

There will be monthly learning sessions explaining the liturgy before Shabbat services. There is a sheet which you can take on your way out which lists the learning opportunities in this congregation and the community. Take it. Put it up over your desk, on your refrigerator, and commit yourself to taking the first step.

IV) Theme of Reform Judaism

This year we are focusing on Reform Judaism as our organizing theme for adult learning. We will emphasize basic material and the fundamentals of Jewish thought and practice from the perspective of liberal Judaism. For that is what we are. We are liberal Reform Jews. We are authentic Jews. We should know what that means and be proud and knowledgeable and anchored in Reform Judaism. We need to be comfortable in explaining our faith to Jews and non-Jews alike. We will learn why we worship as we do, why we observe the way we do, why we approach our God as we do, why we understand Torah as we do.

We launch the theme for this year next Friday evening. During Shabbat service, Rabbi David Ellenson, the eminent scholar and wonderful speaker and most decent man, president of our seminary, the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, will speak about “Reform Judaism: Past Currents, Present Realities, Future Directions.”

Next Shabbat, the Shabbat between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, is Shabbat Shuvah, the Sabbath of Return. Let Shabbat Shuvah signal our return to Jewish learning.

V) Read a Book

And if you cannot attend a class and if you do not enter this building, then read a book on a Jewish subject. Pick up a volume that engages you. Build your knowledge on a solid foundation. We have put together a reading list of twelve basic volumes, one a month. Pick up a copy of that list as you leave. Find an expanded reading list along with the list of all our learning programs on our website. And if there is a special area about which you want to learn and you do not know what to read, call us for guidance. Our clergy and staff are committed to helping you on your journey of Jewish growth.

VI) Torah Study

I urge you to also take hold again of Torah for yourself. Read one chapter of the Torah a week. Read a chapter from each week’s Torah portion or read chapters in order beginning with any of the five books of the Torah. Read Torah. Mull over Torah. Argue with Torah. But have Torah in your life. Use a volume that provides footnotes and commentary like the Plaut commentary that is in the pews in front of you. It will help you study on your own if that is what you choose to do. And if you don’t have an English copy of the Torah at home, buy one. We have them in the shop across the street. And if you need help in buying or finding an inviting translation, let us know and we’ll help. That is how committed we are.

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