Rosh Hashanah II, 5779
Siddartha Mukherjee’s life was forever changed by a phone call, as most calls are that come in at three a.m. His mother was calling to say that his father had fallen, again, and that he kept repeating his nickname and the village he grew up in. Mukherjee hung up and booked the next flight out of JFK to New Delhi. When he arrived at the neuro‑ICU, he found his father moving his head back and forth in a repetitive and automatic way; he was unresponsive to his son’s voice. The neuro resident came in, addressed him Dr. Mukherjee, as he knew who he was, and said, “Your father had extensive bleeding into his brain. And with his underlying dementia, I’m not sure how much of a recovery we can expect.” It hurt to hear the truth because he already knew it. He left that night feeling that “my father was broken.”
In his essay on this time, Mukherjee reflects on the observable nature of what has become broken and our ease in making these observations. His realization stemming from his father’s physical decline and, ultimately, his death was that seeing what works is far more difficult, that western medicine and our way of being in general shines a lot on what is broken rather than the individual pieces that make us work. He writes that when we are, “inside a well-functioning machine” we are “largely unaware of its functioning.” This is a blessing and a gift yet we accept it without a thank‑you, without reflection. He writes that he knew all “the reasons that my father had ended up in the hospital. It took me longer to ask the opposite question.”
As a doctor his training taught him to detect cracks and fissures, problematic deficiencies and dangerous abnormalities, and he learned how to treat them. But his father’s slow path towards death taught him that life and living needs to be about relishing the gifts that kept his father upright: that which is silent, and, all too often, are the undiagnosed blessings that breathe life into our bodies, creating a soul.
This essay stayed with me, its meaning clinging to my side, even though I did not yet fully understand what it meant to me, that was until the first board meeting of the year. Unlike the other meetings throughout the year, there was no discussion of balancing budgets, leaking roofs or airing grievances. Rather, this meeting was dedicated to each member sharing their CRZ story. Former board president Diane Altkorn relayed a story that, even though I had heard it before, impacted me in a new way. She spoke about how when she became president she felt she was required to come every Shabbat morning, an added obligation, but it was one she fulfilled, despite an acute sense of dread. Diane works hard and loves reading multiple newspapers and the weekend is, perhaps, the only time she could do that. But her insight several months into her presidency was that she looked forward to it and missed it when she was out of town or had to work. She wrote that when those seldom Shabbats devoid of CRZ came, she, “Missed the warm Shabbat greetings, the feeling of being part of a community, the windows into the lives of the other people.”
Diane was living the essential religious tenet and biblical notion of Na'aseh ve’Nishma—that sometimes just doing it will lead to greater meaning and that it actually takes far more courage and conviction because it cannot be seen. Na'aseh ve’Nishma is different than blind faith; Judaism offers multiple pathways into the tradition, a myriad of ways to accept community upon yourself, of buying into the people around you, and this is embedded in the rabbinic and biblical notion of doing with understanding coming later. And this brought me back Mukherjee that, for so many of us, we can name all the reasons why Judaism has broken down and does not work: we don’t believe in God, its patriarchal tradition, we have had negative experiences as an outsider, scarring Hebrew school years, esoteric texts or the seemingly overly simplistic faith that is required, to which I say, dayenu.
We could go on for hours addressing the breakdown of the health of our Judaism and Jewish experience. The beauty of emancipation and, especially of America, is that we got to choose not to do it; we left the Shtetl for a reason. We can sit around and surgically locate all the damaged tissue that keeps us from coming to shul or observing Shabbat. We can quote Marx, Freud, and many others about what is wrong with our tradition’s practices. We can look to all that we do and admire about Jewish culture, our over-representation in social Justice or politics, we kibbitz over our fondness for pastrami or joy in reading the fiction of Philip Roth. But I am here to tell you, as many of you know, five years into having this privileged view of Jewish life and Jews, I know that Diane is not the exception but the rule. The more you say Na’aseh v’Nishma, the more you trust the music of the service here that lends its name, the more hummus you share at our potlucks after Kabbalat Shabbat, and the more you dwell in the protective shelter of Judaism’s Sukkah, the better your life will be—not only your Judaism but life itself.
To Na'aseh ve’Nishma, to fully lean-into Judaism and all of its potential impact is not a one-time decision, nor can it be a short-term New Year’s resolution. To be affected by it, to absorb it into your being, you need to really live it, not with the intensity of that impossible diet but by showing up, and showing up again. It's making the spontaneous decision to keep kosher for lunch, even if dinner is treif.
This past year a group of us took on reading Abigail Pogrebin’s book about fully observing and living a Jewish year. I absolutely loved our class, which is why we are continuing to learn and experience the holidays as a group this year. But I disliked the book. It was, in a very real sense, the carbo-loading of religious observance—it was a beautiful idea, yet it was too large and it had an endpoint!
In the book Pogrebin yearns to deeply live the totality of the Jewish experience through a year of holidays. But the book begins in Elul and ends the following Elul. In order to truly have an immersive experience, it need not be constant but it does need to be consistent; it needs to be a part of you. But what she does not understand or the book misses, is that it need not be a part of your DNA, not something you grew up with or even believe in for it to be impactful—you just gotta do it and you do not need to become president in order to do it.
So much of the Jewish Law now no longer works, and those laws and texts may have stopped working as soon as they were written down. We need to stop being confused by the stuff that does not work, maybe that is the need to construct an eruv, a wall around our community or maybe we need to recognize the idea that watching a movie together with your family is actually very much a Shabbat activity. Judaism and our tradition needs of us to be a player, but a player is not someone who is literate, versed in Judaism’s ins and outs. A player is simply someone who has overcome his/her being disgruntled with the phonemes of Judaism, its individual letters and words; we need to focus on the prosody, its sound, and in their meaning, in the memories and our experiences, the smells of its final dish and not the recipe of its form.
To demonstrate, let me tell you of a Mishna long since forgotten, but, despite its obscure nature you may know. The Rabbis tell this story about a conversation between a certain Jew named Cohen and his son:
Mr Cohen's son: Dad, how come you go to shul?
Mr. Cohen: What kind of a question is that?
Mr. Cohen's son: I know you are a non-believer, an atheist, an agnostic, or whatever; so why would you go to shul?
Mr. Cohen: Goldberg goes to shul.
Mr. Cohen's Son: So what? What kind of an answer is that?
Mr. Cohen: Goldberg goes to shul to talk to God; I go to shul to talk to Goldberg!
I love that joke; it only appears silly, yet there is truth and beauty in it, and its significance has been obscured. Both Cohen and Goldberg are invested in something deeply Jewish, and I am not sure which is more important. We misunderstand that joke, even seeing it as a joke, because we have projected the wrong rubric of analysis onto Judaism, onto to the original Mishna’s. Who is to say that when the rabbis were devising their innovative idea of prayer that they were all Goldbergs? Or, even, that there were any Goldbergs? I am sure there were just as many people showing up at shul in Babylonia or Jerusalem to schmooze as there were those to commune with God. The rabbis were not looking to create a system of piety but a system of loving belonging, a practice that afforded us the windows into each other’s lives.
We have an overwhelming number of mitzvoth, in truth far more than 613. Keeping kosher is expensive and inconvenient, but so is having kids. Keeping kosher, observing the mitzvoth is a mind-set and not only a practice. But you are wrong if you think it is only about what you give and not what you receive. And I came to this insight not as a rabbi but as abba.
My wife and I are about as sleep deprived as you can be as free and privileged people. Our 5‑month-old daughter, Adira, has yet to get the sleep thing down, and it has really impacted us. And in this recent slog from the end of camp to the beginning of school, my parents, thankfully, had our nearly four-year-old, Raia, over for a sleepover. We were in the throes of sleep training, which Adira is winning; Ilyssa and I were both short-tempered and just not having an A- or even a B‑day of parenting. We were curt and impatient with Raia, unable to see past our stress and give our daughter the time and care she deserves. That night, with the extra time I had with Raia being away, I looked at the two beautiful photo albums Ilyssa had made for Raia’s upcoming birthday from when Raia was two and three, respectively.
I opened the book, and just looking at its cover photo, I was awash in the guilt of being a crummy parent that day. I thumbed from one page to the other, tears streaming, as I remembered each of those moments, many having fallen somewhere between the Neverland of long- and short-term memories. I realized as I finished looking at them, not only have we given Raia a pretty good life so far but that we need to lead with the good, seek to expand on the light-hearted joys of dressing up, mundane trips to the park, and the enduring moments that have shaped us and our child into something new and bigger. And that there also are going to be, and need to be, the bad memories; the hurt and the pain have to be there; they all work together. And this is the case with Judaism, and each of us needs to dust off Judaism’s photo album, thumb through the highlights of its experiences and truths. Begin not with the tearful pictures of when you were the only one who did not know the words to the Birkat Hamazon or when you were made to feel less-than because your in‑laws' family have two sets of dishes. Do not allow those to be the only photos you see or experiences you remember. Turn the page. Find the photos of that Seder that was not only great fun, but quietly shaped you through its conversation, both its meaning and its accents.
A photo album is tradition; it’s a meta message about having a tradition, of having the opportunity to look at something again, and to see something static while you are not. We cannot look at it in an atomistic way; it only makes sense in its totality. No single frame works on its own, and it is not supposed to. It works together—otherwise those tears or birthday candles, shank bone or that costume of a Persian queen are far less significant than when we see them within their sacred context.
The mitzvoth are repetitive, they are about realizing that life throws a lot of the same things at you and you gotta do it again and again and again for it to work its magic on you; in the end, it will. We curate what is “tradition,” but it is a construct. Tradition is and should be seen equally through the voice of Goldberg through Cohen’s voice. And to that point I call on our community to say together, Na'aseh ve’Nishma. That I will join in and not because it all works and not because I see my voice in the liturgy or because you smell your grandmother’s memory in its cooking—you may or you may not. But there is more to this whole thing than a tzimmes of words.
Na'aseh ve’Nishma is about Ruth and saying, your people will be my people. It is about staying, and the power of staying means wearing the tallit of love; and if it does not fit, working to make it fit. Na'aseh ve’Nishma is knowing that one size does not fit all, but only by joining can you sow together the materials that will fit and will allow you to say, I feel whole.
May it be a year of joining in together in song and prayer, happiness and sadness, and in making memories.
Rabbi David Minkus