Erev Rosh Hashanah Sermon 5779: “40 Year Reunion”

Erev RH Sermon:  “40 year reunion”

Rabbi Aviva Bass

Temple Sinai 5779

            While sitting in the waiting room for her first appointment with a new dentist, a woman noticed his DDS diploma, which had his entire name.  Suddenly, she remembered a tall, handsome, dark-haired boy with the same name who had been in her high school class 40 years previously.  She wondered to herself if this could be the same guy she had had a secret crush on so long ago.  But when she saw him, she quickly discarded that thought.  The man that stood before her was a balding, gray-haired man with deep wrinkles in his face.  Surveying him, she thought to herself, “This man is way too old to have been my classmate.”  After he examined her teeth, she inquired where he had attended high school.  When he mentioned her alma mater, she asked what year it had been, and sure enough it was the same year she had graduated.  So the patient said to her new dentist, “You were in my class!”  She was shocked and dismayed when he looked at HER askew and asked, “What did you teach?”

            I think many of us can relate to that joke.  I myself cannot believe it has been three decades now since I graduated high school and that I will be attending my own 30 year reunion next month!

For us as Jews, we are now facing our annual reunion—and for us, here at Temple Sinai, our 40th such reunion.  Just as we look at ourselves in the mirror before attending a reunion it is appropriate for us to look at ourselves as a congregation now with a critical eye.  And although I did not know you at your inception 40 years ago, as I look out at all my Temple Sinai family and friends, I am here to tell you, you’re looking good!

Forty is a significant number in Jewish tradition.  Not only is it the number of days and nights of Noah’s flood; and the number of days and nights for Moses to come down the mountain with the Torah; it is also the number of years of the Israelites’ desert wanderings, the number of se’ah’s (a measure of volume of a liquid) of water needed to make a kosher mikvah, or ritual bath; and the age at which the Talmud relates that a person acquires greater wisdom (Avot 5:26).  After leading the Israelites through the desert for 40 years, Moses said to them, “G-d has given you a heart to know, and eyes to see, and ears to hear until this day.” (Deut 29:3-4).  From this, it is interpreted that it took the Jewish people 40 years to reach a deep level of understanding.

So here we are at Temple Sinai, now gathered at the 40th Rosh Hashanah service in this congregation’s existence.  The number 40 represents transition, change, a renewal, and a new beginning.  So, as we turn the page in the Book of Life of this community, what do we see?  To what should be aspire as we begin this 40th year together?

Rabbi Shaina Bacharach notes in her sermon on “Relational Judaism” that synagogue membership has changed in the last several decades.  According to Ron Wolfson’s book by the same title, Relational Judaism, people are not looking to affiliate with a congregation because of its beautiful synagogue or its programming, or even its dynamic rabbi.  What attracts people to a congregation and keeps them affiliated with that congregation is nothing more or less than the relationships that are built there.  You can offer the best programming, most wonderful speakers, and even great free food at gatherings, but if people do not feel connected to the other members of the synagogue, they will not remain.

Here at Temple Sinai, we have just experienced an influx of new members, whom we are eager to learn from and to integrate into our synagogue life.  We also want to connect our more long-standing members to one another in new and different ways. How well we are doing in that endeavor may be gauged by how we answer three questions posed many centuries by our sage Hillel in Pirke Avot.  He said, “If I am not for myself, who will I be?  If I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?”

The first part of that quote, “If I am not for myself, who will I be?” is unfortunately where many Jews stop in their self-examination these days.  When deciding whether to join a congregation, many people ask the same question that they ask themselves for whether they should join a gym or a social club.  “What’s in it for me?”  If they perceive that their initial investment in time, energy, and/or finances exceeds the benefit they believe they can measure, they choose not to affiliate.  However, what many Jews today fail to recognize is the second part of this three-part question:  “If I am only for myself, what am I?”

This is the crux of a measure of a congregation.  This is the relational aspect that Wolfson writes about in his book.  This is the part of synagogue life that draws people in and makes them want to remain.  Do we feel connected to one another?

Before I answer that question, I would like to remind us all that, for the millennia of Jewish tradition and history, this is the time when we need to be self-aware and to make amends with all those we have wronged and to try to learn from our mistakes to improve for the coming year.  On Rosh Hashanah, it is a time to be painfully honest about where we are and what we need to improve. I, myself, take this time to do my own heshbon hanefesh, to look critically at myself and to try to make amends with those whom I have wronged through the sometimes difficult process of teshuvah, repentance or return.  And let me take this time to say publically that I apologize for anything I may have done, any tasks I may have overlooked, any words I spoke or words I omitted that may have hurt anyone in the community during the past year. I invite anyone who is feeling any lingering resentment or hard feelings to come to me in the next week between RH and YK and let me know so that I may complete the process of teshuvah with you and we may begin a new slate together for the New Year.

The concept of gentle rebuke is actually a part of the process of enabling others to make teshuvah, not only during this time of the year, but all year round.  Most of us associate rebuke with something parents do with their children, but it is actually perhaps just as meaningful, when done correctly, with adults.  It is not only a task reserved for rabbis and their congregations.  Adults may engage in what is called tochecha, or gentle rebuke, with one another.  I am sure you are familiar with the verse from the Torah in Leviticus 19:18, “Love your neighbor as yourself.”  However, we do not often look as closely at the verse prior to that one, Lev. 19:17, which states, “You shall not hate your brother or your sister in your heart.  You shall surely rebuke your fellow, but you shall not bear a sin on his account.”  And then the next verse begins, “You shall neither take revenge from nor bear a grudge against the members of your people; you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

Each part of those two verses could take an entire sermon of explanation, but suffice it to say, not keeping grudges about something someone has done to you or to someone else is an important prerequisite to loving your neighbor.  And in order not to bear those grudges, we sometimes must call one another to account.

The manner in which we do this is specified by our rabbinic tradition.  We may only offer rebuke to another individual under certain circumstances.  It must be done privately, and in a manner in which the individual can hear—for instance, done gently and with care, and so the person can fully understand and take in this criticism without becoming so defensive that she cannot learn the lesson she might learn from this rebuke.  And it may only be done if we have reasonable assurance that the person is capable of understanding it and learning from it.

So, I offer this gentle rebuke not to any individual of this congregation, but to all of us as a whole.  And I hope that you will take it in the manner in which it is meant, as gentle and loving rebuke because I love you as your rabbi.  I understand that many of you are not congregants, or have just joined our congregation, but this is something for all of us to keep in mind for the future in the upcoming year.

Sometimes, we drop the ball as a congregation.  This is true of every congregation just as it is with every individual. On the whole, this is a very friendly and caring congregation, and I see many of you who are congregants here at Temple Sinai welcoming new members as new friends  and supporting one another a great deal of the time.  It is one of the reasons I love Temple Sinai.  We usually live up to our mission in being welcoming to all and supporting of one another.  Yet sometimes, as your rabbi, I have witnessed times of disconnection.  For instance, recently one of our members was bereaved and was sitting shiva, and, although the shiva times had been properly advertised, we did not have a minyan, ten adult Jews present in order to say the Mourner’s Kaddish.  As your rabbi, I was saddened and ashamed.  When some of our congregants were told about it, they often asked who the bereaved members were—they did not know these other members.  That, in and of itself is a shame—we are not that large a congregation, and I think we should endeavor to get to know one another.  But more importantly, it should not matter.  As Jews, we are obligated to help to make a minyan for other Jews who are bereaved, whether we know them or not. Even whether we belong to the same congregation or not.  If a minyan is scheduled and we are asked to attend, we should make every effort to be there.  Of course, sometimes it is not possible to do so.  But whenever our own circumstances allow, we need to be there for one another, as part of the Jewish value, “Kol Yisrael Arevim Zeh Bazeh,”  “All Israel are responsible for one another.” We need to be one another’s support and to count on the support of our Jewish community.  As to the shiva in this member family’s home, the next evening, I personally reached out to members who came along with their friends to the shiva home, and we no longer had this problem. This is an example of what we need to improve. We need to do better not to drop the ball on supporting even one member of our community in the coming year.

But the good news is that this year, I have seen more good done in our community by our congregation than I had in the previous two years of my tenure here thus far.  Our social action committee is one of the most active committees of our temple, and we are doing good work—whether it is making and distributing PB and J sandwiches to the hungry in Delray or teaming up with other interfaith organizations to help the homeless to obtain free showers—Temple Sinai is out there and doing great work.  And you make me proud to be your rabbi.

The final part of Hillel’s quote is “If not now, when?”  If you are not yet a member of Temple Sinai, or if you are a member but have not yet gotten involved, now is the time.  Today’s world is not conducive to good interpersonal relationships.  Heck, if I can have an entire conversation with one of my family members without one or both of us staring at a screen, I consider that a tremendous success.  We are more interconnected to the rest of the world than ever before; and yet we are more isolated by means of the same technology.

And yet, human beings are more in need of connection than anything else.  I recently read about a psychology experiment in which the subjects were asked to play a computer game with what they thought were two other people.  Electrodes were attached to their heads to measure brain waves.  Then, suddenly, the computer switched things so that it seemed like the other two people were playing with each other but leaving the subject out.  Even though it was only a computer game, the subjects became increasingly upset.  Their brainwaves showed a reaction to being left out which was equivalent to the brain reaction of someone denied food.   The conclusion of the experiment was that people denied other people have as hard a time being alone as people denied food. The article went on to say that Maslow was wrong in his hierarchy of human needs. At the base on the human hierarchy of needs is not food and water. At the base of the human hierarchy needs is other people. People are social creations. On the most fundamental level, people need people to live.

In the coming months, you will learn about new initiatives here at Temple Sinai—there will be more chavurot, or friendship groups for socializing and learning, and opportunities to volunteer with various committees, as well as to come to events, such as our 40th Anniversary Party gathering to occur in the spring.  Please watch for those details about that event, which will be forthcoming in the coming months.  I hope that you will avail yourselves of every opportunity to make friends, to meet new people, and to engage with each other in the sacred task of community building.

So to sum up my assessment of Temple Sinai at this critical stage of our history:  The state of our congregation is strong!  As we enter this New Year of 5779, may we continue to build and strengthen our connections with one another, with our congregation and with our wider community.  May we inspire, educate, and support one another, so that our next 40 years are even more successful than the last 40 have been.  Kein Y’hi Ratzon, May this be G-d’s will, and may we partner with G-d to enable it to happen.

L’shanah Tovah Tikateivu!  May Temple Sinai be written and sealed in the Book of Life for a wonderful New Year in 5779.