Divrei Torah Blogs

Yom Kippur 5767 -A House of God

05_2006_aerial_009_1 What is it that makes a synagogue a House of God?

It’s not an impressive ark, it’s not the Ner Tamid, it’s not the stained glass or the art on the walls.

As Rabbi Goldberg pointed out at the dedication of this building nearly fifty years ago, God does not dwell in time or space, but in spiritual qualities and ideals.

Rabbi Goldberg said that this building is a “House of God” only to the extent that it reflects those ideals…and “Thus,” he said, “it is only in a limited sense that we dedicate this synagogue today.  The real dedication will come in the ensuing days and years.  Whenever men and women shall come into this place and offer a prayer of the humble heart, of the contrite heart, of the thankful heart or the broken heart, this place will then be dedicated.  Whenever men and women shall be influenced here to rise to nobler aims and loftier ideals, to higher levels of thought and conduct, this place will then be dedicated.  Whenever the men who stand here where I am now standing shall speak fearlessly and truthfully and sincerely, then this place will be dedicated and God will come to fill this place with His glory.”

For the past fifty years, you, the congregants of Congregation B’nai Israel, have done the real dedicating of this building.  You’ve come here with your hearts that at different times have been humble, contrite, thankful, and broken.  The rabbis who’ve stood at this bimah have spoken fearlessly and truthfully and sincerely, as did Rabbi Perlmutter, who spoke out for the ordaining of women as rabbis, something which was hugely controversial in its day.

This is the 50th Yom Kippur morning sermon to be presented to Congregation B’nai Israel in this building.

This will also be the last High Holiday sermon to be presented here, as next year, God willing, the congregation will be comfortably installed in a new home in Sylvania.  This is also my last High Holiday sermon to B’nai Israel, as next year, God willing, I will be comfortably installed in my new home in Israel.

As I was reflecting on the weight of all of the words of all the sermons gone by, mine and my predecessors, I was reminded of something one of my professors in rabbinical school said.  He told me that every rabbi really only has three sermons and every week we offer  a variation on those few themes.

I was thinking about it, and realized it’s true, at least for me.  In the five years I’ve been in the pulpit I’ve given over 200 sermons, yet almost all of them are riffs on three themes.  What I’m going to explore this morning is how those three themes connect.

Sermon number one is “How to improve your relationship with God.”  Sermon number two is “Israel is important.”  Sermon number three is “Be nice to other people.” 

Out of all possible sermon topics, why those three?  I never sat down and said “hmm, what three topics should I focus on in my rabbinate?”  It happened automatically.  It’s because for me those three topics summarize what Judaism is all about.  I believe that at the core, Judaism is about relationships.  In particular, it is about our relationship with God, our relationship with Israel (and by extension our fellow Jews), and our relationship with the world as a whole.

I view these three relationships we all have—with God, with Israel and our fellow Jews, and with all humanity—as three concentric circles.  Our relationship with God is the innermost one, because one’s relationship with God is intensely personal and serves as a focal point for the religious life.  Our relationship with Israel and our fellow Jews comes next as it represents the community and context within which we relate to God, and our relationship with the rest of mankind comes last, as it is the expression of the things we learn from our relationship with God and our fellow Jews.

The intensely personal nature of our relationship with God is illustrated by the wording of the opening blessing of the Amidah.  When we recite the Amidah, we say Elohai Avraham, Elohai Yitzchak, Elohai Ya’akov, God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob.  The rabbis ask why not say “God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob?”  Why take the extra words to say “God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob?”  They answer that it is because Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob each saw God differently, each had a unique relationship with God – just as we each have a unique relationship with God.

Our openness on matters of theology is one of the things that appeals to me about Judaism.  We are each encouraged to have our own relationship with God – there’s no such thing as a Jewish catechism, a book which tells you exactly what you must believe to be a good Jew.  Rabbi Fishel Pearlmutter, z”l, captured what is perhaps a common denominator in Jewish views about God when he wrote “The mature Jewish faith affirms that order prevails in the universe and agrees with Einstein that God does not play dice with the universe.”  But beyond that, our views on how God brings order to the universe are very diverse.

When I teach adult education classes about God, I always make sure to teach not only the perspective I happen to believe, but a whole range of perspectives within a Jewish framework, to help people better form their own views.  Some people believe God is very “hands off.”  The 19th century English archdeacon, William Paley, compared God to a watchmaker—once the watch is made he doesn’t mess with it much.  An updated version of “God as watchmaker” would be to say God made the Big Bang go Boom—and then took an extended vacation.  Such a God is impersonal and hands off, not much engaged with the world.

Other Jews follow the lead of Baruch Spinoza and basically see God as Nature.  The Creator is immanent in His creation – there is no transcendent Being separate from His creation.  Mordecai Kaplan, the founder of the Reconstructionist movement in Judaism, draws heavily on Spinoza in his theology, which sees God as an impersonal force in the Universe.  Kaplan said that God is simply the sum of all natural processes that allow man to become self-fulfilled.

Other Jews believe in a more personal God, a God who is concerned with every detail of our lives, and of all life.  The Talmud says there’s not a blade of grass that doesn’t have an angel whispering to it, encouraging it, “grow, grow!” 

These different views of God translate into very different ways of relating to God.  Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, one of the leading Orthodox rabbis of the 20th century, did not believe God responded to prayer – after all, God already knows everything.  So Rav Soloveitchik presumably would have seen coming to God with a bunch of requests as a waste of time.  He would say that we pray to fulfill our halachic obligation to pray, and because the liturgy is one of the ways we connect with God.  Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, on the other hand, a Chasidic rabbi, said that we should ask God for each little thing that we need, he said we should pour our hearts out to God for an hour, every day, just as we would pour our hearts out to a friend.  Clearly the Chasid has a very different view of God from the misnagid!

The important thing is not how we understand God, or how we feel about God at a particular moment.  The important thing, at least from the perspective of our tradition, is to be in a relationship with God.  Elie Wiesel said the Jew can love God or be angry at God, the Jew can even shout at
God: but what the Jew can’t do is ignore God.

We have a great need for the transcendent in our lives, for something greater than ourselves.  Our souls have a longing for God; as the Psalmist put it “As the hart longs for water streams, so does my soul long for you, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God; when shall I come and appear before God? My tears have been my bread day and night, while they continually say to me, Where is your God?”

Even though I gave a sermon on Rosh Hashanah when I said “it’s not about you,” don’t be so focused just on your personal happiness, the truth is I do believe that a relationship with God WILL make you happier, and more than that it can also make other people happier.  A relationship with God gives your life purpose and meaning.

In one of his High Holiday sermons from the late 1950s, Rabbi Goldberg said that life is often referred to as a journey.  He asked “How shall we take that journey?  As a tour or a mission?”

“A tour implies going and hopping about from place to place, aimlessly without plan or purpose…On the other hand a mission has far different implications.  It means firstly having an aim, a purpose, a definite direction.”

Two years ago on Yom Kippur I spoke on a similar theme – I spoke about the importance of finding your mission, the transcendent purpose in your life which comes from God.  I said “I believe that discovering one’s mission in life is one of the most important spiritual tasks a person can undertake.  It is an active response to the question of what is the purpose of life.”

The idea of having a mission is central to what it means to be a Jew.  The first Jew was Abraham.  There were plenty of other people in the Torah who talked to God before Abraham came along – but none of them were Jewish.  Abraham is Jewish because in the very first meeting between God and the first Jew, God gave him a mission:

“And the Lord had said to Abram, lech lecha, get out from your country, and from your family, and from your father’s house, to a land that I will show you; And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great; and you shall be a blessing.”

The very next time that Abraham talks to God, God connects Abraham’s mission to the land of Israel: “And the Lord said to Abram…Lift up now your eyes, and look from the place where you are to the north, and to the south, and to the east, and to the west; For all the land which you see, to you will I give it, and to your seed forever.”

And after all this, and after Abraham and God develop a relationship, God makes explicit his covenant with Abraham: “And when Abram was ninety nine years old, the Lord appeared to Abram, and said to him, I am the Almighty God; walk before me, and be perfect. And I will make my covenant between me and you, and will multiply you exceedingly…And I will establish my covenant between me and you and your seed after you in their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be a God to you, and to your seed after you.  And I will give to you, and to your seed after you, the land where you are a stranger, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession; and I will be their God.”

From our earliest encounters with God as a people, the land of Israel has been a part of the relationship.  Ours is the only living religion where the name of the people, Israel, is the same as the name of a piece of land.  The bond between the people Israel and the land of Israel is inseperable, as Psalm 137 describes it: “How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?    אִם-אֶשְׁכָּחֵךְ יְרוּשָׁלָם תִּשְׁכַּח יְמִינִי If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning. If I do not remember you, let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth; if I do not set Jerusalem above my highest joy.”

Our relationship with Israel unites the Jews as a people.  Jews all over the world recite their prayers in the language our ancestors spoke in that land – a language which has miraculously been revived with the settlement of Jews in our ancient homeland.  Jews all over the world turn their hearts, and their bodies, to face Israel, three times a day when we recite our prayers.

Modern Zionism had its roots in the need for a refuge for Jews, a place where we could live as masters of our own fates and free from anti-Semitism.  This is reflected in the blessing we say after eating, the birkat hamazon, where we ask God to bring oppressed Jews around the world “into the light,” into Israel.  In the last 15 years nearly a million Russian Jews have fled economic hardship and rampant anti-Semitism to settle in the Promised Land, and as I mentioned last night, Israel has been a refuge for Jews from the Arab countries, and Argentina and Ethiopia as well. 

Your contributions to the UJC have helped those Jews of Ethiopia make aliyah.  I love the story Fagie tells of how she visited a community of Ethiopian Jews in Israel, and she asked one of the women what she found most surprising about Israel.  Her answer was “I didn’t know that white people could be Jewish!”  That those two women could share that conversation is a wonderful comment on both our diversity and our unity.

In a Rosh Hashana sermon from fifty years ago, Rabbi Goldberg spoke about driving back from the cemetery and seeing the Cherry St. Bridge raised—to allow a ship flying the Israeli flag pass through! He said a shehecheyanu and said to himself, “oh if that ship could talk.”  “It tells us that Israel was tested by fire and sword and emerged triumphant.  It also tells us of Israel’s difficulties and its problems.  It has assured the survival of nearly 2 million Jews and is opening wide the gates for the many more thousands from Roumania, from the Arab countries now living in squalor and in dread of their lives.  It still hopes that Russia will permit some emigration if not today, maybe tomorrow or next year.”

But Israel is more than just a safe harbor.  If Israel was nothing but a refuge from hatred, there would be no need for Jews from America to ever make aliyah.  Israel allows us to make the fullest expression of what it means to be a Jew.  It’s not just that there are many commandments that can only be performed in Israel.  More than that it’s that Israel is the only place in the world where we can live as Jews with our work and holiday schedules automatically aligned with the Jewish calendar, where our ancient language comes alive outside of the walls of the synagogue, and where we can walk the streets and connect with our history every moment of our lives.

That connection with Israel and our traditions unites us with our fellow Jews all over the world, as the Talmud teaches kol Yisrael aravim zeh b’zeh, all of Israel is responsible for one another.  Right here in Toledo, our Jewish community extended a warm welcome to Jews seeking a new life outside the Soviet Union.  On Thursday I officiated at the funeral of one of those Jewish refugees from the Soviet Union, who came to America and found a welcome and support from the Jews of Toledo. 

But there is more to Judaism than God and Israel.  The 16th century rabbi Nachmanides says that the Book of Genesis as a whole is there to teach us that our hold on the land is conditional on our obedience to the word of God.  As Uriel Simon said in an essay, "There is a need for this warning, for clinging to the dangerous delusion that God will be on our side unconditionally, by virtue of our covenant with Him, may lead us to sin.” 

Which brings us to my third sermon, “be nice to other people.”  The Torah gives us commandments regarding our relationship with God, and the Torah gives us commandments regarding our relationships with
other people.  In parshat Vayera we read about how Abraham was in the middle of a conversation with God when three visitors showed up on his doorstep.  God broke off his conversation with God to attend to his visitors.  From this the rabbis learned the lesson that the commandments regarding other people take precedence over the commandments regarding our relationship with God.  If you had any doubt about that, it should have been dispelled when we read this morning’s Haftorah, when the prophet Isaiah said “Because you fast in strife and contention, and you strike with a wicked fist!  Your fasting today is not such as to make your voice heard on high…No, this is the fast I desire: To unlock fetters of wickedness, and untie the cords of the yoke.  To let the oppressed go free; to break off every yoke.  It is to share your bread with the hungry, and to take the wretched poor into your home.”

The story of Creation reminds us that we are all created b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God – not just Jews, but all mankind.  We should not think of ourselves as superior, for ultimately we are all related, we are all sons of Adam and daughters of Eve.  And if we were tempted to think that we only need to be nice to our fellow Jews, after the Exodus from Egypt the Torah reminds us, over and over again, to be kind to the stranger for we were strangers in the land of Egypt.  And the obligation to be kind to strangers brings us back around to where we started, with God.  Justice is Godly, Kindness is Godly, God needs us to be His expression of those traits in this world.

The importance of remembering that we must be concerned with the whole world was stated nicely by Rabbi Ungar in a Rosh Hashanah sermon many of you may recall – it’s one he gave five years ago, right after 9/11: “It is important that we pray, but directing our words and thoughts outward is not enough; we must address ourselves.  If our conversations with God—either alone or in community—do not impel us to act, they have achieved only a fraction of their potential.  Our prayers must inspire and move us to take concrete actions to help build the kind of world that we want and that God had intended for all humanity.”

Similarly, just a few months ago, while I was on vacation, Rabbi Sokobin gave a sermon where he reminded us that the important thing is not what you say, but what you do.  It’s all well and good to say that we should be righteous, or that we should work for the betterment of the world, but it doesn’t count for much if it doesn’t translate into action.

A full expression of Judaism requires attention to all three of the relationships we’ve been exploring: God, Israel, and Mankind. 

People differ in their temperaments, and some people will naturally focus on one or the other to a greater or lesser degree.  But to ignore any one of the three is to be incomplete as a Jew.

If a person’s only focus is God—if there’s no thought of Israel or mankind—there’s not much need to be Jewish.  Might as well be feel-good “New Age” spiritual.  While the Jewish path with all its rules is a powerful path toward God, it’s not the only path, and there are certainly other ways to achieve spiritual fulfillment that are less demanding. 

Then there are people whose only concern is Israel, either the land or the people.  Many secular Jews in Israel feel that living in Israel is a sufficient expression of their Judaism.  They feel they don’t need to do anything else.  But if their descendants should leave the cozy cocoon of Israel, they will stop being Jewish, for nationality alone does not make someone a Jew.  There is also something called “Humanistic Judaism,” which as near as I can figure out is basically “Judaism without God.”  Humanistic Jews celebrate the Jewish holidays as a kind of cultural thing, but remove references to God.  Needless to say, to me that seems to be ripping out the beating heart of Judaism.

God is the ultimate level of reality.  We access God through the lens of our tradition.  Judaism provides us with a unique, but not exclusive, path for connecting with God and connecting with each other. And the message we take from that connection with God and each other is the message of the prophet Isaiah that we read this morning – that what God desires most of us is that we be kind and ethical toward Her children.

Then there are people whose only concern is social action.  You don’t have to be Jewish to be concerned about other people.  Expressing your Judaism strictly through social action would be to cut your soul off from the nourishment it could receive from God and community.  And God and Israel also provide a framework which you can use to teach your moral and ethical values to your children.

The Conservative movement has a wonderful role model who demonstrates our commitment to God, Israel, and Mankind: Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, z”l, who was one of the leading professors at JTS during the 20th century.  Rabbi Heschel’s dedication to God is evident in his books like “God in Search of Man” and “The Sabbath,” and his dedication to Israel is evidenced by his book “Israel: An Echo of Eternity.”  His commitment to the rest of the world is shown by his participation in Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s march in Selma, Alabama – a time when Heschel said it felt like his feet were praying.

A complete Judaism requires commitment to all three: to God, to Israel, and to Mankind.  And this is perhaps Conservative Judaism’s greatest strength.  We believe in the importance of all three.  The Orthodox, all too often, focus on God and Israel – but not so much on the rest of the world.  The Orthodox are underrepresented in organizations concerned with charity to non-Jews or social justice.  The Reform, on the other hand, are so focused on the rest of the world they do not pay as much attention to God and Israel, considering practices that have been at the heart of Judaism for thousands of years, like observing the Sabbath or keeping kosher, to be optional.

This building, and some of the people sitting in it, have heard fifty years worth of sermons on the themes of God, Israel, and Mankind.  So why not just keep repeating the first five years’ worth over and over?

It’s because people and times change.  Some of the words that were written fifty years ago would not connect with an audience today.  We have new issues and challenges to which we must bring the light of Torah, such as how do we effectively fight terror while remaining true to our values which uphold the dignity of all Mankind.  Only 25 years ago our movement was struggling to figure out what the Torah tells us about ordaining women, and today we grapple with trying to understand the Torah of ordaining gays and lesbians.  The words I write today will be equally dated to an audience fifty years hence—they too will have new issues and new challenges.

But I am confident that fifty years from now, the rabbis of B’nai Israel will still be talking about God, they will still be talking about Israel, and they will still be talking about our responsibilities to the rest of humanity. 

Today is Yom Kippur, the day we ask God for forgiveness for our sins…and we ask for that forgiveness after having done teshuva, after regretting the missed opportunities of last year.  We all could have spent more time with God—whether in prayer, study, or just taking the time to relax on Shabbat.  We all could have done more to support Israel in a very difficult time, and we all could have done at least a little bit more to help eliminate poverty, ignorance, and hate in the world.  This year may we rededicate ourselves to work harder to improve our relationships with God, with both the land and people of Israel and with al
l Mankind.

Ribono shel olam, Master of the Universe, please forgive us the opportunities we missed in the last year.  Seal us in the book of life, and we promise to do better this year.  Bless us with many opportunities to do acts of righteousness and kindness,


Reb Barry

Barry Leff

Rabbi Barry (Baruch) Leff is a dual Israeli-American business executive, teacher, speaker and writer who divides his time between Israel and the US.

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