Yom Kippur Sermon 5774 — A Home For Passionate Judaism

September 14, 2013
By bethmordecai
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Yom Kippur Sermon 5774 — A Home For Passionate Judaism

Rabbi Ari Saks

Congregation Beth Mordecai

Yom Kippur Sermon 5774 (September 14, 2013)*

Standing behind the doors of the closed ballroom in one of the finer hotels in Spokane, Washington, I nervously prepared myself for one of the scariest, most vulnerable moments in my 17 years of life…running for Religious Education Vice President of Pinwheel USY, the local region of United Synagogue Youth. My hands sweaty, my heart in my stomach, I opened the doors and did this…cue Mordecai Ben David music…That’s right, I danced into a room full of teenagers rocking out to Mordecai Ben David’s classical religious single, “Moshiach, Moshiach, Moshiach! (or Messiah, Messiah, Messiah!)” Though I don’t remember exactly what I said – I probably blacked out after that embarrassing entrance!(JOKE) – you can probably guess the thrust of my speech given the introduction I just demonstrated for you. Judaism can be fun, prayer can be fun; it doesn’t just have to be empty words on a page but rather a meaningful experience that we can get into and really enjoy. Now I don’t remember exactly the reaction that came afterwards, but at the most it was muted applause. Then my challenger came forward and without much pomp and circumstance came up to the podium, hit the mic once or twice and said the five most perfect words he could have said: “I will make services shorter.” APPLAUSE! Over the years I think it’s turned into a standing ovation (JOKE!). After saying to myself “why didn’t I think of that,” I remember feeling my heart drop back into my stomach, much like the anxiety I was feeling before I entered the room. Only this time it wasn’t the fear of making myself vulnerable, it was the reality that I made myself vulnerable by letting the Jewish passion in my heart be truly seen, and the response was “we want shorter services.”

The debate that took place that Election Day when I was 17 continues to echo today as we sit here for Yom Kippur services over 14 years later. The debate echoes in the calculus that each of us makes in deciding how much we need to give to our community, and how much we are willing to give to our community. For most of us the answer lies somewhere in between, at a sweet spot where we feel comfortable in that we are fulfilling our duty as Jews to be a part of our community but that we don’t get so involved that it changes who we are or changes our priorities.  In many ways, this process is like setting a budget. We normally think of a budget in terms of how much money we allot for a certain program or activity, but in addition to money, a budget can also be a helpful metaphor for the time and energy we allot to our participation in the community – OK, I will come to services but only stay until Yizkor; OK, I’m going to give to the annual campaign, but that’s all I’ll give for the year; OK, I will make some phone calls but I don’t want to do them every time a phone call needs to be made; OK, I will take a leadership role but I’m not going to be at the rabbi’s beck and call.  Setting a budget for ourselves and realizing other people have budgets is critical to finding a balance in our lives, whether it’s in our community, in our professional lives, or in our personal lives. I am no exception to this balancing act. I know that every moment longer I speak is another moment longer until you are able to go home, and I recognize that you have a certain budget of patience for the length of services, that while It may be fun to dance and sing at times we just need to get to Adon Olam. I also know that a balanced budget is essential for my personal life. As you can probably tell from the story above, and from the “few” times I sing, dance, and clap during services, I have a lot of energy for this job, and at times it can be difficult for me to take a day off. But I try, I try to find a time to turn off the phone, and not look at my email, to say I’ve reached my budget of how much I’ve spent and I need to stop. And as a soon to be father, I am keenly aware of just how much more important this balance is going to be.

Yet the funny thing about a budget is that while it’s important to set aside benchmarks for how much we are willing to give, spend, or offer of ourselves over the course of the year, things change. Priorities change. If a budget is set in stone before we start using it, how will we know if it’s right for us? If a budget tells us we only have a certain amount of room to grow, what happens when we outgrow that amount? What happens when we really ignite our passion but our budget tells us that it’s time to put out the flame?

This tension embedded in being budget conscious – in our time, energy, and money – is an ancient one, so ancient that it appears in our Torah. In chapter 25 of the book of Exodus, God instructs Moses to tell the children of Israel to offer aterumah, a gift, to be given to God. The instruction is simple enough: דבר אל בני ישראל ויקחו לי תרומה – Tell the Israelites to give me a gift. However, there appears a curious phrase at the end of this statement:

מאת כל איש אשר ידבנו לבו תקחו את תרומתי – You shall accepts gifts for Me from every person whose heart so moves him

This phrase is curious because it seems unnecessary. God has already said that the Israelites should give God a gift. Why is there an extraneous line saying that it should come from every person whose heart so moves him?  Does it mean that if our hearts are moved we should give more than what we need to give? Or on the flip side, does it mean that if our hearts aren’t moved to give gifts that we don’thave to give at all? I think one way to look at these phrases is through the metaphor of a budget. The first line – “Tell the Israelites to give me a gift” – is an acknowledgement that we have to make a budget for generous contributions. Our society, our community, our lives could not operate if we aren’t generous  and this text reminds us that no matter how much or how little we are willing to give, we still need to give something, and a budget for those gifts helps us fulfill that obligation. However, the second line – You shall accept gifts for Me from every person whose heart so moves him – teaches us something different. If the first line indicates that what we give is dictated by our budget when we don’t know how much to give, the second line indicates that what we give in our budgetshould be dictated by the ways in which a person’s heart moves him or her, or as the Hebrew says אשר ידבנו לבו.

Understanding the meaning of אשר ידבנו לבו – that which his heart moves him – is critical to understanding the force of this passage in how we give to our community, and to do that I am going to bring in two “relatively” modern rabbis to help explain it.   Rabbi Maharam Alsheich, a 16th century rabbi from Turkey, wrote a commentary on the Torah and dealt specifically with this phrase of אשר ידבנו לבו. He says that that when the Torah speaks of a person’s heart moving him to give, it’s speaking about the experience of נגע יראת אלקים, the experience of feeling a touch of the fear of God in his heart and out of that feeling he wants to give tz’dakah. That phrase, the fear of God (or in Hebrew יראת אלקים), is a difficult one to unpack, which is why I need to bring in the second rabbi, Rav Avraham Yitzhak HaKohen Kook, an early 20th century rabbi who was the first chief rabbi of Israel, to help explain it in the context of our original passage. Rav Kook teaches that being touched by a moment of יראת אלקים, of the fear of God, is a moment which gives your soul strength and courage of conviction because you are filled with knowledge of God and lofty aspirations that lights your soul with an אש קודש, a holy fire. In other words, your heart is moved because your soul has become inflamed with a deep spiritual desire to do something positive, to make a difference, or to put it simply to have a passion.

My vision for our community, a vision that has grown broader and deeper since the days of singing Moshiach, Moshiach in USY, is that we make Beth Mordecai a home for passionate Judaism. All of us feel something, that spark that wants to connect to something more, a spark that may be small but has the potential like the initial embers in a firepit to burst into a bright and powerful flame, heating our soul with an unquenchable desire to connect to ourselves, to each other, and to God. It’s a flame that not only gives off heat but sustenance so that we may feel at times that all we need to live is the energy from that flame. As we say in the immortal words of the Ashrei prayer, פותח את ידך ומשביע לכל חי רצון – Open your hand to us, God and [You shall] satisfy all of the needs of the living. My father once shared with me a story that has stuck with me about his Jewish passion. It’s a story about the time he was studying in Israel and went to the Kotel, the Western Wall, for the end of Yom Kippur. He didn’t recall the prayers, he didn’t share what was going through his mind in those final moments before the fast ended, all he shared was that once the fast ended…he stayed, and danced. Now I don’t know if he danced for a few minutes or if it was a couple of hours, but the important point was that he wasn’t looking at the clock to know when the fast ended, he wasn’t wondering what kind of bagel he was about to eat, in fact he probably wasn’t thinking much at all. He was embraced by the flame of his Jewish passion, surrounded by a community who shared his passion, a passion that ran deep, a passion that gave him an ability to connect with something greater than himself.

Rabbi Elie Kaunfer, a contemporary rabbi I admire who helped start an egailitarian minyan called Hadar on the Upper West Side, wrote in his book Empowered Judaism that he thinks it’s possible to create an experience that is so positive you don’t even look at your watch. And I can speak from experience having attended some of those High Holiday services at Hadar that it is possible to get so deep, so engulfed in the flames of Jewish worship and Jewish religious experience, that you lose track of time. That being said, I recognize that not all of us are going to have that same passion for davening, for Jewish worship experience, even for Jewish learning. I understand that for some of us we will always give our gifts to Jewish ritual and Jewish learning by how much we need to give and nothing more. And that’s OK. But, that doesn’t mean that we don’t have a Jewish passion! It just means that each of our Jewish passions looks differently; each is born out of our unique Torah and if we explore that unique Torah deeply, if we really look into the unique life experience that we carry with us every day we can discover our Jewish passions that are like the embers of a flame lying at the bottom of the firepit waiting for the oxygen it needs to burst forth. I know those passions are there because I’ve already seen them in our community. I’ve seen that passion in a member who went on a USY program in her youth and fell in love with being around Jewish people in a meaningful community and has a passion for bringing people together to connect with and care for one another in our community; I’ve seen that passion in a member who, through the years, has religiously reminded our leadership that we are not just a community for the sake of having a community, but that we have an obligation as a religious institution to be an ethical community; I’ve seen that passion in a member who grew up Orthodox and brought with him a passion for making a minyan, which has also turned into a passion to getting more people involved and connected as a community in whatever way works for them; and I’ve seen that passion in a member who never forgot that she was one of the first bat mitzvahs in this congregation and despite her physical distance from our synagogue is willing to sacrifice her precious free time so that we can celebrate more bar and bat mitzvahs together in our community.

There are so many stories I’ve heard from your unique Torah this past year that I know without a single doubt, that each of you, each of us, has a Jewish passion waiting to be shared. Remember the story from my unique Torah that I shared at the beginning; the one about my election campaign, in which I sang and danced while my challenger promised shorter services? Well, I won that election, and I’d like to believe that I won partly because everyone felt a similar spark, a flicker of Jewish passion, in their souls. For some of us, that passion is just an ember, for others it’s a bursting flame, and for many of us it’s probably somewhere in the middle. It can be difficult, vulnerable even, to allow that passion, that flame to grow because we don’t know where it will go or how it will be received, which is why we often create a budget for how far we’re willing to let it growMy challenge though for each of us, is that instead of letting a budget determine how much our passion can be lit, let our passion determine how big our budget should be. Of course there will be times when we have to turn off our phones, not look at our email, and turn away from our community. There will be times when we will stop singing and dancing to make services shorter. That’s all a part of having a balanced budget, of having the right mix between how much we need to give and how much we’re willing to give. But if we allow ourselves the possibility to be moved by impassioned pleas, much like we’re about to receive from our President Norman Silverstein, if we give ourselves the opportunity to give oxygen to the spark lit in our souls, if we give ourselves the freedom to sing and dance our heart out, there’s no telling how bright the flame can be for our Jewish Home for the Soul, a Home for Passionate Judaism.

*Note: The High Holiday sermon for “Yom Kippur 5774” was delivered extemporaneously off of notes. This copy was the written draft used to create those notes. As such, the actual delivery of the sermon did not match word for word with this written draft.

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