Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Remember What it Means to Be Jewish

Shacharit L'rosh Hashanah 5775

[Manny tells his jokes …]  This is precisely why the Torah tells us, again and again, zachor, remember. Zachor, remember, is ever-present in the Jewish tradition. It is not just our obligation to remember those who have died, but also to remember the stories about our ancestors; it is what creates Jewish memory.
The stories about Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and Sarah and Rachel, and Joseph and Moses, and Miriam and Ruth remind us that their lives are intertwined with ours. We are Jewish, but sometimes we forget what it means. Every year, at the beginning of the year, we are commanded to read the story of Abraham’s near-sacrifice of Isaac, the Akedah, and to remember. The story of Abraham and Isaac on Mount Moriah is about our common memory.
As a matter of fact, the only connection between the Akedah, “the binding of Isaac,” and Rosh Hashanah is through memory. The midrash relates the reading of the Akedah on Rosh Hashanah to the idea of zakhor, remember. It becomes explicit in the liturgy during the sounding of the Shofar. The second series of Shofar blows are called zichronot, “memories.” We read in the Midrash:
Said the Holy One [to Abraham], "[...] In the future Isaac's descendants will certainly sin before Me, and on Rosh Hashanah I shall judge them. If they want Me to find some merit for them and remember the binding of Isaac, let them sound this shofar before Me." Abraham said to Him, "What is a shofar?'" He said to him, "Look around you." Immediately, "his eyes fell upon a ram caught in the thicket by its horns" (Gen. 22:13)."
Following the teachings of this midrash, Zikhronot concludes with the words, "Blessed are You, O Lord, who remembers the covenant." It refers to the covenant between God and Abraham and Isaac, at the end of the Akedah.
Rabbi Reuven Hammer, a Conservative rabbi who writes and lectures about Jewish prayer, teaches,
“When Rosh Hashanah comes, it is upon the children of Isaac to sound that horn and thus "remind" God of their merit.”
This midrash presupposes our active participation, for we are the descendants of Isaac. We need to remember that we are Jewish. In order to do the remembering, we hold Rosh Hashanah services and blow the shofar. The burden of carrying forward the memory of our people is on us. I’d suggest that Rosh Hashanah is called yom hazikaron, “day of remembrance,” because on this day, many Jews remember what it means to be Jewish.
My messages about Jewish memory could not have happened without the help of Hayyim Yersushalmi’s precious book Zakhor. It is an academic book, but I highly recommend it.
But before we delve deeper into this matter, I want to make a distinction between history and memory, with the help of Harold Bloom, the great Jewish thinker. Bloom, quoting Hannah Arendt writes:
“[...] Greek historiography, like Greek poetry, is concerned with greatness: “Through history men almost became the equals of nature, and only those events, deeds, or words that rose by themselves to the ever-present challenge of the natural universe were what we would call historical.” Against this historiography was Jewish memory, based “upon the altogether different teaching of the Hebrews, who always held that life itself is sacred, more sacred than anything else in the world, and that man is the supreme being on earth.”
In other words, history teaches us ONLY about the greatest events of the past, that is about what happened and, hopefully, why it happened. Memory, on the other hand, teaches us WHO we are and what we value most. That is why, when you come to services we read the stories we do. Abraham and Isaac were not “great heroes,” they did not embark on great adventures, or defeat terrifying monsters or dragons. Instead, they shared some very difficult moments together. Abraham and Isaac went up a mountain and had a transformative experience. Remembering their story teaches us what it means to be Jewish.
The Akedah teaches us that holding fast to the centrality of human life is not easy, even for avraham avinu, “our father Abraham.” We read about his struggles; we consider what he put his wife and son through, in order to follow his religious beliefs. It makes us wonder how we would have acted? We feel for Abraham; we approve and disapprove of his actions, like a good family member would.
But why do we HAVE to read it every year? Is it not enough for us to read the stories at home? Our sages knew that memory could be tricky; that we tend to remember things selectively, and that we need some help in building up our common memory. The Talmud talks about memory and what problems it engenders through a parable:
“To what is this like? To a man who was travelling on the road when he encountered a wolf and escaped from it, and he went along relating the affair of the wolf. He then encountered a lion and escaped from it, and went along relating the affair of the lion. He then encountered a snake and escaped from it, whereupon he forgot the two previous incidents and went along relating the affair of the snake. So it is with Israel. The latter troubles make them forget the earlier ones.”(TB Berakhot 13a).
We, as a people, tend to have a short-term memory. The latest problem becomes THE defining problem. It is natural, of course, to remember the latest things and judge everything by what happened last. It is natural but it is not wise.
Our tradition envisions that we Jews will remember our Judaism by doing Jewish things. Unfortunately, many of us remember our Jewish identity only when we hear the latest Anti-Semitic outburst or Anti-Israel diatribe.
It seems to me that many of us have a lot of time to read about the Anti-Jewish episodes around the world, but very little time to learn about our own tradition. It troubles me that many of us have an uncanny tendency to read reports that confirm what we already know: There are people out there who hate Jews. There is nothing new or newsworthy about it. On this yom hazikaron, this “day of remembrance,” we are reminded that being Jewish is more than remembering the latest anti-Jewish incident, or anti-Israel demonstration.
In a recent article titled “Why Literally Everyone in the World Hates the Jews, and What To Do About It,” published in the online magazine, Tablet, professor David Mikics reviews two new books about Anti Semitism by a couple of well known Jewish historians. I’m only interested in his conclusion. Mikics writes:
“[…] both Nirenberg and Goldhagen, [...] miss out on a central, if sometimes troubling, aspect of Jewish history—the way Jews react to what the world thinks about them. Perhaps the most basic lesson from the grim continuing history of anti-Semitism is that anti-Semites don’t get to say what the Jew is.
Here in Fort Wayne, we have been very active in the past year doing our part in combating anti Israel rhetoric, and we should continue the good work as a united Jewish community. But, defending Israel should not define us. Although it is important to combat Anti-Semitism, it should not be the driving force behind our Jewish identity.
We learn what it means to be Jewish not by reading and reacting to frightening news reports, but rather by dedicating time to study Torah, in the broadest sense of the term. Remember: We rabbis have really two sermons, “come to services more often,” which I gave yesterday, and “study more,” our topic for today!
But seriously, every week I receive many, many emails about all the anti-Israeli propaganda out there. But rarely does anyone ask me, a rabbi, about Torah; or ask me to teach a class about Jewish philosophy, ethics, history. Sometimes, it seems that the non-Jews are more interested in learning about Judaism than the Jews themselves.
Our adult education committee works hard throughout the year to bring us learning opportunities. We try to offer a variety of topics, at different times of the year, but we struggle. We lack a core group of committed adult learners who are willing to dedicate a couple of hours a week to study Torah. To the best of my knowledge, Reform Judaism has never given up studying Torah. On the contrary, unlike traditional Judaism, we are called upon to make “informed” decisions about our Jewish practice. This implies that we get “informed,” and not watching CNN, MSNBC or FoxNews. Jewish learning happens with other Jews, in community, together.
I don’t want to “beat around the bushes,” as I see it, a congregation that does not value learning does not have much of a Jewish future. I know that there is a long list of reasons why we cannot come together to study Torah: Maybe we don’t like the rabbi, or the topic, or the time it meets, the place it meets … but again, it’s a matter of priorities. I am asking you that in the coming year you take a second look at your priorities. I don’t see how we can continue to have any Jewish learning together if the future looks just like the past year. How can the New Year bring us to a more meaningful place in our lives so we will study together? Learning together strengthens develops our Jewish memory, and strengthens our Jewish identity.
Celebrating our Jewish identity is important because we are the heirs of values that are worth preserving: The pursuit of justice for all and the centrality of human life, created in the Divine image. All other Jewish values and practices derive from these two values.

Our own Jewish learning is what allow us to determine what it means to be Jewish; we cannot, and should not, let others determine it for us. It is here, in the synagogue, where for thousands of years Jews have learned what a Jew is, by re-reading the collective memory of our people as it is found in the Torah, and discussing its meaning. In the year ahead, may we resolve to build up our common memory and our shared values through learning and study. May the love and knowledge of  Your Torah return, Oh God, to our congregation. Hashivenu Adonai, Help us, Oh God, to return to study and Torah, venashuvah, and we will return. We pray, O God, chadesh yamenu kekedem, and renew in our own days the lover for your Torah of truth, justice and peace.

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