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Grow Your Judaism (RH2 5775)

Rosh Hashanah, Day 2, is actually a misnomer. The rabbis of the Talmud called the two days of Rosh Hashanah, Yom Arichta, One Long Day. This was before we doubled all our holidays outside of Israel, back then only Rosh Hashanah was two days long. This is what led to the custom of eating a new fruit on the eve of the second day to give ourselves a reason to say the Shehechiyanu prayer again as we do on the first night. But the rabbis also provided a different Torah reading and Haftarah for the second day. Today we read the Akedah, the Binding of Isaac, one of the most difficult and troubling texts of the entire Torah. God tests Abraham asking him to sacrifice is son, Isaac. Abraham prepares to comply and God is forced to send an angle to stop him before he kills his son. As a father, I can't image taking the life of one of my children for any reason, not even at the request of God. Traditional commentators praise Abraham for his faithful obedience to God, but more recent commentators are more critical of Abraham's choices.

Life is filled with choices both small and insignificant as well as momentous. It is the choices we make that determine the course of our lives. Each of us for one reason or another has chosen to be here today. I salute you for your choice, which is a very Jewish choice. I want you to stop for a moment and think about what brought you here today, what motivated you to come here. We know that there are people who do not chose to attend on the second day, we know that there are people who don't join synagogues or attend High Holy Day services. We know that there are people who join more liberal congregations where the service is 90 minutes long. Yet here we are with our four hour mostly Hebrew service and here you are in attendance, so why? For me, it is my love of tradition and my connection to the Jewish people. It is very meaningful to me to know that as I am here today, so too are there Jews the world over in synagogues reciting the same prayers. And it is a connection to my ancestors, while neither my parents nor my grandparent would have been found in a service as traditional as ours, I am confident that somewhere in our family tree there were Jews who attended a service like ours. But more than anything else is my commitment to our community, knowing that I am part of a Kehilla, a congregation of worshipers, who chose to come together for prayer. I feel it not only today, but also on Shabbat and even when only a minyan worth of us gathers for a weekday service. We are a community.

The next question I ask isn't so much about this service per se, but rather why be a part of a Conservative congregation? What makes us Conservative Jews? More and more Jews are choosing not to affiliate and of those who do affiliate less of them chose our brand of Judaism. So why be here? I admit I often ask myself that very question. I grew up in the Reform movement; I was ordained as a Reconstructionist rabbi before joining the Rabbinical Assembly as a part of the Conservative movement. On some level I am more committed to being Jewish than to any particular brand, I simply do what works for me and our style of Judaism works for me. The commitment to Social Justice that was at the core of my Reform upbringing is an important part of my Judaism, but was not sufficiently connected to ritual to satisfy me. Reconstructionism's intellectual honesty appeals to me, but did not touch my soul. In Conservative Judaism I have found a blend of commitment to values and rituals that appeals to me both intellectually and emotionally.

Back in the 1980s, Conservative Judaism sought articulate what it is that we stand for, since most people simply thought of us as not-Reform and not-Orthodox. We released a statement of principles known as Emet Ve'Emunah, which means "Truth and Faith." What I found remarkable about the booklet was that it did not try to tell us what Conservative Jews believe, our beliefs are all over the place. It did not try to tell us what to do, we are the Big Tent movement and our practices vary widely. The part that has stuck with me all these years was the last section entitled, "The Ideal Conservative Jew"; it listed three characteristics.

First, the ideal Conservative Jew is a willing Jew – we are here because we chose to be, we are willing to recognize that a commitment to observing mitzvot is a central tenant of our Judaism. Second, the ideal CJ is a learning Jew – we understand that we have a rich and full tradition and that gaining a better understanding of it is a lifelong endeavor. Finally, the ideal CJ is a striving Jew – we do not pretend to know everything, nor do we pretend to do everything, but we understand that Jewish growth is essential. In the final words of the document, "Complacency is the mother of stagnation and the antithesis of Conservative Judaism. Given our changing world, finality and certainty are illusory at best, destructive at worst. Rather than claiming to have found a goal at the end of the road, the ideal Conservative Jew is a traveler walking purposefully towards "God's holy mountain." (p. 45)

The challenge that each of us faces is carving out time to actively be Jewish. At this year's Rabbinical Assembly convention I learned about a program called Chai Mitzvah that I'm bringing to us this year. Once a month, on the last Monday, we will gather to learn together a subject that is being covered by Chai Mitzvah groups across the country. Each participant picks one thing to study beyond what we do together, picks one ritual or spiritual practice to do each month and chooses a social action project to do. The idea is to grow your Judaism, but just a little bit. You might say, I'd like to but my life is too busy. So let me share with you a Shlomo Carlebach story about three young rabbis in Russia in the late 1700s that I learned about from my colleague Susan Grossman

It was a very hard time for Jews in Russia. If Russian officials needed money, they often would arrest a Jew and hold him for ransom. That is exactly what happened when the police chief in Mezerich realized he was about to be caught for embezzling. He quickly had to find a lot of money, ten thousand rubles.

There were two Jewish orphans in town, a boy and a girl. The Jewish community had joined together to raise them. They spent so much time together that they fell in love and, when they came of age, sought to marry. The Jewish community agreed to sponsor their wedding.

Mezerich was small enough that the police chief knew of the wedding and how precious the orphans were to the Jewish community. What did he do? On the morning of the wedding, he arrested the young groom and told the leaders of the Jewish community that if they wanted to see the groom again, they had to bring him ten thousand rubles by evening.

The leaders asked everyone to bring anything of value to help: a cow or sheep, feather pillows, a silver spoon, furniture, even pots and pans. But Mezerich was a poor community. When they totaled everything they had collected, it was worth maybe 500 rubles. It was nowhere near enough. Gevalt, what could they do?!

There were three friends in town, young men who would someday become famous rebbes: Reb Mendele (Vitebsk), Reb Levi Yitzhak of Berdichev, and Reb Schneur Zalman of Liadi.

Reb Schneur Zalman knew there was a very rich man in town. The only problem was this man had left the Jewish community. You see in Russia at that time, it was very hard to be successful if you were a Jew. So Zev decided he would no longer be a Jew. He stopped going to synagogue. He stopped giving to Jewish charities. He cut his hair and shaved his beard. He looked and acted like any other Russian. And he became very successful, very rich.

Reb Schneur Zalman decided to ask Zev for help. When his friends offered to accompany him, Reb Schneur Zalman made them promise not to say a word, just nod and smile to whatever he said, and they agreed.

The first miracle occurred at the front door. Even though he had many servants, Zev answered the door himself. He was so surprised to see three rabbis at his door that he didn't slam it in their faces. That is when Reb Schneur Zalman spoke: "Forgive us. We wouldn't normally have the audacity to disturb you but we have no choice. A young boy's wedding is supposed to be tonight. He is an orphan. The police arrested him and won't release him unless we raise ten thousand rubles."

Zev got tears in his eyes. "This is a heartbreaking story. Certainly, I will help." He went into his office and came back with one lousy, filthy penny, which he had kept around his office for "an emergency."

The two friends wanted to jump down Zev's throat, but Reb Schneur Zalman gave them a sharp look to remind them of their promise. Then he took Zev's hand and said, "Thank you so much. You don't know what you have done for this boy. I bless you that God should give you the strength to do more good deeds like this in your lifetime."

The three young men began to walk away. They had barely gone down the block when Zev called them back. They hurried back and Zev fished into his pocket and gave them another penny. The two friends wanted to scream, but Reb Schneur Zalman again took Zev's hand, blessed him, and said, "Thank you so much. Surely God will reward you for what you have done for the orphans."

Again the three turned to leave. Again Zev called them back and offered them a penny. This went on for quite a while. Each time, Reb Schneur Zalman thanked Zev for his gift as if it were the most significant gift in the world. Soon the pennies turned into rubles, then hundreds, then thousands until finally they had the ten thousand rubles they needed. The three young men thanked Zev most profoundly and hurried to the police station to free the groom. Of course, Zev was the guest of honor at the wedding.

Later that night, the two friends asked Reb Schneur Zalman how he knew what to do. This is what he answered: "Spiritually, Zev had the strength to give only one penny, but no one would take it. My accepting that first penny gave him the strength to give yet one more. The more he let go, the more he wanted to give, until finally he became so strong – like Father Avraham - that he was able to give us the full ten thousand rubles."

In telling this story, Reb Shlomo Carlebach would explain: "...'Sometimes one person gets angry at another one for doing so little good, not realizing that – alas – the other one lacks the strength to do more.' It is up to us to welcome their little deeds of charity as a way of opening up the gates for them to give much more."

One good deed, even a small good deed, can lead to another and another. As our Sages taught, mitzvah gorreret mitzvah, one mitzvah generates another."

So often we stop ourselves from doing one good deed, one mitzvah, because we don't have the strength to do more. Because we think someone will judge us harshly for not doing more.

We don't do Shabbat because we don't have the koach, the strength, to make chicken soup with matzah balls each week like our grandmothers did. But just maybe lighting Shabbat candles and eating take out is what we can do, and that is significant.

We don't get involved because we don't have the koach, the strength, after being stretched thin between work, home and family. But just maybe smiling and talking to a person we don't know in the hallway during services or on a Sunday morning during Religious School is something we can do, and that is significant.

If I were to borrow a famous line from another Jewish holiday I would say, Dayenu, it is enough. I am giving you permission to do just that one mitzvah. To just light Shabbat candles once a month. To help make someone feel welcome by saying "hi." To give just one penny to our Annual Appeal if you never gave before or if your situation is such that you don't have more to give; or to do something considerate for a loved one.

I want you to know that that one mitzvah, that one good deed is, gevalt, a blessing. When it is added to the scales of our deeds by which Heaven's judgment is determined, your one good deed, your one mitzvah, could tip the entire scales of the world toward zechut, towards merit and save us, the Jewish People, maybe even the world. Your one good deed can be the most significant gift in the world! And God will reward you for it! You never know how much good one good deed can do, especially if that one good deed finds a positive reception. So join us for Chai Mitzvah Mondays or simply pick a mitzvah and do it, it'll be good for your soul.

And let me wish you a Shanah Tovah, a Good New Year; a year of learning and a year of growth. And let us all say, Amen!

Mon, August 10 2020 20 Av 5780