A View from the Nile to Charlottesville

Rosh HaShanah I, 5778

Over the summer my focus had been on thinking about Rodfei Zedek’s unique qualities and what makes us stand out in a synagogue landscape that is rapidly getting smaller.  How we have been able to adapt thoughtfully and with purpose, and then, how would I convey that today.  I had been writing something, somewhere, between an appeal and a Jerry McGuire‑esqe revisiting of our mission statement.  But then Charlottesville happened.  My summer’s work needed to be discarded because that was not what we needed to hear; it was not simply that Nazis marched on American soil nor was it so affecting simply because we are Jews.  What was arresting about seeing this profound symbol of blindness and hate, was that it was the culminating event in a year of disruption and disunity—something like that had been percolating, that fear had crested above the surface far more than we have experienced in recent memory, and for some of us, ever.

I realized that this is not a year where we can close our doors, feeling pride and satisfaction in our accomplishments.  We need to reflect on our uniqueness and figure out how our gifts can make the places we call home, better.  How each of us can walk out of this sanctuary and make our synagogue, our neighborhood and, finally, our country more whole.

The only place to start is with the Torah: what light can it shine on our dark time?

What is the essential command of the Torah or its most pivotal moment?  Is it the command to keep Kosher, the command that perhaps most signifies our distinctiveness and our holy separation?  Is it the command to know One God or when we fully embraced that Revelation at Mt. Sinai?  Perhaps it is the most numerous command and oft-repeated line in the Torah, not to oppress the stranger because we were once strangers?  That is a good list, but I think those are, actually, too specific, too narrow, it provides too much space to wriggle out of their grasp.  Right now, what is speaking to me precedes anything on that list—it comes at the beginning of the second chapter of Exodus when Pharaoh declared the death of all male Hebrew babies.

In response to this edict, Moses’ Mother placed him in the Nile River hoping that he will be seen and saved.  But we need to realize a few things; we need to fill in the glaring blank spaces in between those words and what comes after them.  First, Moses’ mother would not have placed him in the Nile because, as bible scholar Nahum Sarna points out, the Nile was filled with crocodiles and no one would have gone in there—she most likely placed him in a nearby rivulet or tributary.  Second, we need to assume she not only placed him in a strategic place but that she could not have been the only mother willing to take this daring step to save her child—there had to have been others.

Next, we see Pharaoh’s daughter who has gone down to the river to bathe and notices a baby in the basket.  This is the last thing we need to take note of, which is, that she probably bathed there or nearby every day.  “Look,” she says to her maids, I see a Hebrew baby and he is crying.

This is the first and only time in the whole Torah where this word for cry, bocheh, is used to refer to a baby:  Maybe it was baby Moses crying and that is what drew her attention.  But I don’t think so.  The subject of that word might have literally have been Moses, but the Torah is challenging us with a wink,:  the tears were her own, the tears of failing to see all the babies before that moment.  The tears of her tragic failures, the tears that kept her from seeing herself and then seeing beyond herself.  Those tears allowed her to see.  The temporary blurring of her vision was what allowed her to see the world she was born into and transcend it, move to make it and herself better.

That is the mitzvah we need to fulfil today, and remember, mitzvah does not mean a good deed, something nice; it is an obligation.  Rosh Hashanah, Judaism and the Torah are commanding us to see:  to see each other and the world.  We fail this basic command every day, whether it is not looking but seeing past a homeless beggar or even a neighbor, denying them an essential piece of their humanity.  The daughter of the Egyptian King is showing us that the way to save the world is to fully see it (!!).  But before we can see anything or make sense of what is in front of us, we have to see ourselves.  It seems basic, perhaps overly simplistic, but loving your neighbor is impossible if you do not love yourself, if you do not love those close to you and before you can love, you must see.

I want to begin by looking at ourselves as Rodfei Zedek—who are we and what we do we see in each other?  We are a Conservative Synagogue, which means we are Egalitarian, and for me, that is an indispensable value.  It means living the founding principle of the movement of Tradition and Change; we need to have reverence for what came before us yet we need to be brave enough to honor that history by moving it and ourselves, forward.

Being a Conservative synagogue compels us to remember that the tradition is bigger than our solitary attempt at finding meaning, while recognizing that without that search we are missing the mark.  And we must know that change need not happen at the expense of tradition nor do we need to eschew tradition in order to be innovative.

We are our own definition of Conservative.  That means that the legal and ritual framework of the synagogue is informed by the tradition yet is guided by who we are and how we live out our Jewish identity.  That means we may violate a traditional norm of Jewish practice, of halacha, but we do it with intention, we may violate some textual understanding of Shabbat or another community’s translation of that text but not out of defiance or to be irreverent but to bring the tradition closer to our lives.  We need to own that, be proud of our approach to the tradition, and then, our distinct Judaism, will begin to impact other communities beyond our own.

Anytime there is change it can be scary, it can feel like an abrupt undoing of the past but that is not how it has or is being done here.  We need those whose place is found in the sanctuary and those whose who find sanctuary in the atrium or social hall.  We need those who are disruptive and those who are an anchor, those who value innovation and those who value maintenance.

A synagogue is a place to ground us in the tradition, it is a place where we come to live in that tradition and impact its future.  It is where we come to pray and where we come to learn. It is where we come to eat and where we take our children so that they can learn about their tradition.  It is where our children bring us, knowingly or not, so that they can teach us, so they can impact our relationship to the tradition, to affirm that their voices count and we must show them that they do not only by using ours but asking them for theirs.  Synagogue is where we pray with instruments while sitting in a circle in one room and in fixed pews facing the Aron Kodesh in another—and where both are right.  We need to continue to be comfortable with the idea of two, or more, truths existing in one place.

The synagogue cannot and should not be synonymous with God.  I said last year and have not changed my feeling that you do not need to believe in God to be Jewish.  This synagogue needs to be your home if you come here to pray or if you come here to schmooze, if you come here looking for God or if you are searching for a place to get past that limiting understanding of being “religious.”

We need to be comfortable about living with these tensions, living with what in too many other places feel like dueling needs or dueling micro communities that compromise the future rather than enabling it.  We cannot succumb to short-sightedness, of seeing other voices as threatening your voice rather than allowing both to be heard more clearly.  That is how synagogues close their doors, by viewing different programs and different programmers not as increasing activity and invigorating but as scary, as a threat.  We have been above that here; and while that work is never complete, we should be proud of it and of our trajectory.

I hope you can see the shift I am trying to make, that this sermon is only, marginally, about us in this room—I am using Rodfei Zedek as a guise to talk about our country.  We need to use our tribal and familial instincts to ground ourselves but we must, then, pivot outward.  We need to use our synagogue as a stabilizing force and then we will serve as an example for others of how to be the lighthouse steering a lost country back to the harbor.

And this leads to the essential word that we need to define here at Rodfei Zedek but ultimately, as Americans, and that is community.  What does community mean, locally, if a synagogue is where we pray, eat, and learn?  Community is where we expand the reach of the particular; it is where we live out the 613 mitzvoth.  It is where we show up to be the 10th at a minyan; it is where we bring the pickles that everyone loves to a potluck; it is showing up to a shiva and showing up to a book reading.  It is shoveling dirt on the grave of someone you never met and whispering into the ear of the person sitting next to you during services to help them with the choreography in a way that elicits comfort rather than shame.  It is about seeing a person and not only their beliefs; it is about seeing the person you identify with or those you love with all your heart while being able to look into the heart of those you do not.

We have many different people in this room and many more reasons for having come today.  In this room we have legacy members of Rodfei Zedek, those who sit with grandparents and great-grandchildren.  Some you may be sitting in seats where an entire section used to be taken up by those who share your last name—I am thankful to you for maintaining your connection to Rodfei Zedek, especially for those of you that no longer live in or around Hyde Park.  Also, in this room we have people who came on their own; maybe a friend you knew in Chicago told you about it, or perhaps you found it through Akiba Schechter, Minyan Katan, the Jewish Enrichment Center, or Google.  Thank you for making this your home and bettering this home, making it accessible to the ever-shifting group of “new people,” while maintaining the intrinsic awareness that everyone in here, at one point, was new.

We also have people who are trying this out, seeing if Rodfei Zedek fits their religious, communal or social needs, and I hope it does.  Some of you are students—here for the first time, and whose footprint will leave only a brief, momentary mark in the carpet you are sitting on now.  I hope you will be like many of the former students in this room and stay.

Rodfei Zedek has weathered the storms that come with a long history and its rising waters.  We know and live by the principle that a community is built and sustained by people—not by money, not by buildings, and certainly not by adhering to one translation of our history and its tradition.  We are a true community because we see the people who fill it, never allowing ourselves to see past our fellow members, knowing that, most likely, it is not prayer or tradition that keeps us here but each other.

We are all different.  We all yearn for integrity but often fall short, and that is ok.  We need to recognize that we are all on a quest for connection and that search will lead to a greater awareness of ourselves.  And that search will create communities with porous gateways rather than solid walls.  If we can perfect ourselves, as individuals living in a community, then the open doors we have created through own transformation, will then allow the light to be fully seen by those out at sea.  We have and are doing that here.  But our ever improving vision needs to move beyond these walls.

This has been a year of struggle and we have seen much ugliness in our country.  It has been a year of discord and new vocabulary, whether freshly minted or newly aware.  It was a year of privilege and intersectionality, of echo-chambers and a new normal.  Alt‑right and alt‑left.  Anti‑Semitism, while never new, hit the refresh button, and revealed its well concealed sources.  It was a year where we blindly allowed differences to become pronounced, magnified and, ultimately, feared.

Fear causes blindness, forcing us to see difference as limiting; we forget that vision opens a portal to understanding those differences.  We need to name and be comfortable with our differences so that our similarities are easier to see, so that the best pieces of our inner selves are most easily revealed.  We must fully see ourselves.  We must fully see our family.  We must fully see our community, the ones we are active in but also the ones we choose not to be a part of or even the ones we have been restricted from.

Sometimes the particularism of beginning with ourselves feels uncomfortable—resist that instinct.  It is natural; Abraham did not bring a stranger up the mountain, nor did he bring Ishmael, he brought who was closest to him (J. Posner).  If there is anything we must gain from that overwhelming story, it is that our love and care begins as a near-sighted act but must progress to that which is in the distance, on the horizon of our vision.  This is not a new idea, it is within us and it is embedded within the Torah:  what was the name of the mountain where God led Abraham to: har-ha-moriah—the mountain of seeing.

I started with Moses, so let me end with him.  The Rabbis tell a story that when Moses fled Egypt to the desert after having killed the taskmaster, he came upon a burning bush that was not being consumed.  The Midrash-the story our Rabbis tell is that Moses was not the only one to see the Burning Bush, that he did not have some divine vision or skills.  But rather, he was the only one who stopped long enough to see that the bush was not consumed.  (The word for bush/sneh, with the identical letters, is play on the word Sinai.)  Moses’ stopping long enough to see that God existed in this bush allowed for him and eventually all of us, to be free.

Rosh Hashanah commemorates creation and calls us to honor that moment when the world was perfect and all were equal.  This holiday challenges us to leave here not as better Jews, not merely to seek a greater awareness of Judaism or our synagogue, but that our Judaism places us on the path towards being fully human.  Our goal today, our mitzvah, is that we must see each other, and like an eclipse, seeing each other in our totality will allow us to walk out of here as better people, then and only then, will our neighborhoods be fuller and our communities richer.

Close your eyes and look at yourself- really look… now open them and look around, see who we are…and now, hopefully, we have corrected our vision, carried out a divine task that requires far more than special glasses.  If we can do this, and continue to take in what is truly in front of us, our reward will not be a momentary sense of beauty but the eternal gift of an enduring community, of seeing the divine in those around us and in ourselves.

May it be a year of health, happiness and clear-vision for all of us. Shanah Tovah.

Rabbi David Minkus

The Pulpit Shelf