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September 15, 2015

Life Frames of Reference (Rosh HaShanah 5776)

Peter J. Rubinstein

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It’s been just over a year since I stepped aside as senior rabbi of this great congregation, and this is the first time I’ve given a sermon from this pulpit since then. It feels a little bit like stretching one’s atrophied sermonic muscles. 

I’m so grateful to our senior rabbi, Angela Buchdahl, for this opportunity, but most of all for the respect and for the honor she has afforded me as rabbi emeritus. I’m also grateful to my clergy and professional colleagues who have greeted me and extended hands of friendship, no matter where I’ve been during this past year.  I also want to make note of the incomparable lay leadership of this congregation, who demonstrate that friendship transcends title or position.

But especially when I walked around and saw all of you—it is in fact being with you that feels like coming home. And I’m aware of that. And perhaps that’s part of the background for this sermon.  Because prior to leaving this congregation, I had contemplated what it would mean personally to remove the title and the mantle of senior rabbi.  With us today are my good friends Eli and Bonnie Herscher; Eli stepped aside just in June as the senior rabbi at Stephen Wise Temple in Los Angeles.  We were talking a little bit about what it meant to give up mantle and title.

But upon reflection, I realize that life changes can be unsettling without being upsetting and can be vigorously disquieting without being disruptive.

Among the benefits of this new chapter is that I have had the opportunity over this past year to consider the broad sweep of all our journeys, no matter what our age or life circumstance, as we move through our personal transitions and challenges and opportunities.

David Johnson, a good friend whom I met through my work at Auburn Theological Seminary, told me of a day he spent at a survival training center in an aircraft ditching course. There he learned what to do if you have the unfortunate experience of going down over water—not a happy way to spend a day.

He recounted the story of a Marine, one of eleven who had survived a helicopter crash in the ocean. This Marine had blacked out when the helicopter hit the water and broke his back. When he regained consciousness, the helicopter was sinking and he was completely disoriented underwater.

Two things saved him.  One was a small pocket of air from which he was able to take some breath.  The second was that he had memorized the details of the inside of the cabin of that helicopter, and as he awoke, he found the handles of the large machine gun, which he knew would lead to the cargo door.  Through that cargo door, he knew he could pull himself to safety, and he did, and survived.

I have been thinking about such reference points.  For the Marine, that machine gun was a reference point, as was the cargo door.  I’ve been thinking of guideposts, those that have provided me with stability when I’ve been confronted by confounding dilemmas with no simple solutions.

As I prepared this sermon, I felt a significant compulsion to pause, to consider some fundamental beliefs and principles, reference points that have been helpful in tumultuous and confusing times of decision or upset.

For me, these are the three upon which I realize I’ve most significantly counted:

1. We are never alone.
2. Nothing is forever.
3. Personal character takes work.

Firstly, I am convinced that we are never alone.  For me, it is a matter of faith and ritual.

Some of us grew up with faith in our homes as children, some with ritual, and maybe some of us who had both discussions and practices in their homes, and there may be some who had none of it.  Ritual connects us to Jewish life across time: from the past to the future, and also to Jewish life around the globe.

Growing up in my family’s proudly Reform Jewish household, my family celebrated the Shabbat always at home on Friday night—it was a mandate. We had dinners together, lit candles, blessed the wine and the challah. As a parent, I replicated my childhood family observance, adding one more part of the tradition, that being the blessing of my sons, always with their heads on my shoulder, holding them when they were small enough to hold, and now, needing them to bend over a great deal to adjust to my shoulder’s height when we’re together.

That Shabbat ritual anchored my week as a child and anchored my week as a parent raising children. It continues to anchor my week even now: when by ourselves, Kerry and I will put our arms around each other and hold each other as we chant the blessings.

And as I do that with her, I remember my parents, of blessed memory, and I most dearly think about my grandchildren who now, despite the guilt I’ve tried to impart, live across the country and I feel lovingly embraced by these generations and connected to Jews past and future.

Ritual—you and I being here this morning—binds us to Jewish life. We are a people that transcend time and transcend geography. As a result none of us, none of us is ever alone. We are not alone when we reach beyond ourselves. We are not alone when we care about the hundreds of thousands of wandering homeless refugees around this world, remembering that almost all of us are descended from refugees.

We are not alone when we care for and about Jews in Paris suffering the sting of anti-Semitism, especially this past year—when they hurt, we hurt. We care about Jews in Poland trying to reignite Jewish life there—when they rebuild upon memory, we stand shoulder to shoulder with them. We care when Jews in Israel worry about the future and wellbeing of their homeland and society—when they worry, we may worry even more. The Talmud teaches kol Yisrael arevim zeh bazeh—all Israel is responsible for one another; and we are. (Shevuot 39a)

Intended to embody Jewish peoplehood worldwide, this year fourteen communities, from Sidney, Australia, in the east to Honolulu in the west, passed a New Year blessing through every continent and across every time zone in which there was Jewish habitation.  It was a celebration of Rosh HaShanah, the kind of celebration that for the first time could bind us through technology to each other so that none of us was ever celebrating alone.

Each community passed on the blessing to the next time zone and to the community there with these words: “May we move the world with our commitment and our voice. May those you love live in health and may there be wellbeing within your communities and peace in your cities.” This blessing was an exquisite expression that we are all linked together around the world as part of the Jewish people.  [Read more: 92Y #NewYearPrayer]

Every ritual, every selfless act of decency that emanates from a Jewish sensitivity implanted in us from the beginning of our Jewish life connects us so indelibly, so powerfully to the miracle of a timeless and global Jewish family.

I also believe we are not alone because we are a people of God. My firm belief is that God is with us and that if we permit it, we will never be alone. I’ve previously shared with you my daily prayer, the last line of the Adon Olam: “God is with me and I will not be afraid.”

There were moments this past year when it was that belief and those words alone that strengthened me to take one more step… and one more step after that. These were the moments when I was reeling from disorientation and that reference point saved me. I was so certain that I was not alone, even when I was by myself.

I certainly feel that when I place my hand upon the Torah, which each of us will have the opportunity to do on Yom Kippur afternoon.

Returning the Torah to the ark, we intone the verses from Proverbs: “Eitz chayim hi lamachazikim bahIt is a tree of life to them that take hold of her.”

In their context, though, these verses do not refer particularly to the Torah but to matters of mercy, truth, understanding, and wisdom: the building blocks of a good life, a worthwhile and purposeful life, a life that is content because we know we’ve done our best and when we do our best, we will never be alone.

If the Torah “is a tree of life,” then I imagine that each of us is a unique leaf on the branches of that tree: fragile, each one of us alone, but connected and nourished, and together with each other we form the magnificent canopy of Jewish life. With our Torah, with our people, and with our God, we never need be alone. That is a point of reference.

My second frame of reference is that nothing is forever—at least in our lifetime.

This is not a dour elegy on life, but rather a hopeful retrenching of our assumptions. Both in our own lives and certainly as a matter of history in international affairs, nothing is “forever.” In the international realm, consider—those of us who are old enough—to remember the past assumed truism that the U.S. would never, ever have diplomatic relations with either Cuba or Russia. And how things have changed.

The belief that international and national circumstances and interests will remain static, to believe that time stands still and time is not fluid, is a denial of history—a perspective that I think would be helpful, whatever your passion, concerning the so called “Iran deal.”

In human life too there is little that is forever, except, I believe, Jewish existence, well-founded love, and some very rare, special friendships. 

And I hope that hatred and anger also need not be forever.

Sadly, I have seen in the lives of congregants the terrible result of the determination of siblings, parents, and children who avowed and kept their oath never to speak to each other again.

Often, the passage of time erodes that ragged sharpness of familial hatred, but not always. Family members go to their graves without a further exchange of words or reconciliation, as it was with Abraham and Isaac, who never spoke to each other again after the Akeidah, the horror of what happened on that mountain.

Those of you who read Oliver Sacks’s reflection on Shabbat in the New York Times may remember that after spending several months in Israel on a kibbutz in 1955, Sacks, who died just over two weeks ago, decided to never go back to Israel, despite the fact that many close cousins from his London days had made aliyah following the Holocaust.

But in 2014, just short of sixty years later, Oliver Sacks heard that his cousin Marjorie, his mother’s medical protégée, was nearing death. And so he called her in Jerusalem to say farewell, he thought. But in a rather unexpectedly strong voice, Marjorie implored Oliver, “I don’t intend to die now. I will be having my hundredth birthday on June 18. Will you come?”

Without a thought, Sacks said, “Yes, of course!” reversing his sixty-year-old pledge, “never again” to go to Israel. For Sacks, the concept of “never” became impermanent.

We would do well to pay mind to the prophetic assessment from the well crafted verses in Ecclesiastes, which many of you know by heart: “To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heavens; a time to embrace, and a time to push away; a time to keep silent, and then again a time to talk; a time to love, and yes, indeed, perhaps, a time to hate.”

But clearly, according to Ecclesiastes, none of it is forever.  It may have its season, but it will pass.

There are seasons to our lives. Each one of these passing seasons is both irreplaceable and especially formative. In the counting of years, whether short or long, our desire is to be able to make decisions that will give us some power over the circumstances and quality of our life, especially as we age. But life necessitates humility in embracing our mortality, because there are limits to our control over our destiny.

In his precious and poignant book Being Mortal, Atul Gawande memorializes what we will all experience and ultimately understand as we get older:

We want to be respected and in control of the decision we can still make. We don’t want to sacrifice loyalties or who we are. We are taught never to accept limitations but we need to come to terms with the limitations that can’t simply be pushed away without illusions or ill-conceived hopes.

This congregation, beginning in January, is going to have a program on planning as one gets older, end-of-life planning, run by Rabbi Lev-Cohen.  It is something that I think we all need to be part of.  [RSVP for a lecture on Being Mortal on October 20]

Along with faith, understanding that nothing is forever has increasingly become—and this is not said with sadness—a frame of reference for me. The verse “to everything there is a time and a season, to every purpose under the heavens…” invites us to embrace the limitations to our power over destiny and above all, implores us to be humble in confronting any tendency toward arrogance. 

It helps me accept, as difficult as it is for me to admit, that I don’t know everything and that I may not be correct when I think I know what others should be doing. An awareness of mortality provides us with a kinder point of reference in judging everyone else as we pause to take measure of ourselves.

Lastly, the third frame of reference for me is that personal character takes work.  For me, this has been the most challenging guidepost to articulate, and perhaps the most essential.

Personal character is the lens through which each of us deliberately makes our decisions. Personal character defines the moral degree of our principles. It defines how we choose to live our lives and how closely our behavior, even in the smallest way, is aligned with our principles and the person we want to be.

Just as our parents were sometimes examples of what we didn’t want to be, our traditional texts are also primers for the appraisal and building of personal character, often by negative example.

Just think of it.  We learn from Abraham that that obsessive faith can be murderous, and that lying can compromise our selves and our spouses and our families. In the way of personal character, Abraham was flawed. As was his grandson Jacob, who stole the birthright and blessing that legitimately belonged to his twin brother. And Joseph, the egotist, who set himself above brothers, speaking evil of them to their father, currying favor for himself.  And Moses: impatient, spending almost no time with his family, so intent was he on being in front of the people.

For me the wonder of the Torah is its piercing honesty about human frailty, and then its ensuing mandate that we must all behave better in spite of ourselves.

We are not born of impeccable virtue. We are built of what Kant calls the “crooked timber of humanity.”  The Torah’s legends and stories mobilize us to do better, be kinder, reflect more deeply, and recognize that, in David Brooks’s words, “we all have dappled souls.”

In his wonderful book The Road to Character, Brooks differentiates between “résumé virtues” and “eulogy virtues.”  As a rabbi and writer of eulogies, I well know the difference. But you know what? So do you.

Résumé virtues are the skills that we “bring to the job market,” and that we talk about when we’re in public gatherings, about the successes that we have earned by virtue of what we can do. But “eulogy virtues,” the things that are talked about from this pulpit at funerals, are deeper, more profound, more memorable. In Brooks’s words, they are the virtues that “exist at the core of your being—whether you are kind, brave, honest or faithful, what kind of relationships you formed.”  In Faulkner’s words, they are the “eternal verities.”

In this season of my life, I find myself often measuring my own character, having fully recognized and accepted my struggle with the “crooked timber” of my humanity.

Especially during this season, but throughout the year, it is essential to pause for one’s own self-audit. For me, ashamedly, I came to realize there were times that I hurt people unintentionally with sarcasm in my humor.  It pained me so deeply, that if ever I could replay a tape, it is those moments I could do again.  And those moments when I indicated to my family and to you and to others that I really wasn’t listening when I kept glancing at the screen of my phone, telling them that they were not as important as some other piece of business.

I know there were times when I didn’t respond when my family needed me because I was so focused on career and success and on probably less important responsibility. And ego—what a trap that can be.

I want my behavior to be aligned with the principles that are precious to me. The thing is that we all struggle with the hope that our descent into the “valley of humility” will finally lead us to the ascent of character.

We all want to be better, behave better, do better; otherwise, we wouldn’t be here today.  Ultimately we hope to depend on our character and humility and moral constitution to shape our behavior, moving us ever closer to the image of the person we want to be in every circumstance, to have our principles and even those small indications of behavior fully aligned.

The prophet Micah hoped for us that we “do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with God.” (Micah 6:8)

Those words of Micah were the quote that accompanied my photo in my high school yearbook. I guess I chose them&mdasdh;which makes me presume that what Micah wanted of us was always my intellectual desire. But at this time of my life, it has become even more my constant passion, the third of my guideposts, my points of reference.

I can’t tell you that these three are the ones you should have.  That’s up to you.  Each of us needs to define our own reference points to determine our life choices, the way we react to others, and the way we want others to think about us.

Those eulogy virtues that God willing will be far in the future spoken about. 

But for me, those guideposts are:

I’m never alone—It is a tree of life.

Nothing is forever—To everything there is a season.

Personal character takes work—Do justly and walk humbly with God.

Whatever reference points you choose for yourself, I personally wish for you a most meaningful venture in the year ahead.

I would pray for all of us that we be noble in our visions, strong in our character, and loving of ourselves with all the blemishes—only we know what they are.  I would hope that along the way, we find our own way in what we hope is a good, if not much better, New Year.

In that journey, in that search, may we all be blessed.