An old slogan in a subway car said: "Go to church... you'll feel better. Bring your troubles to church and leave them there." One of our biggest problems is that we have a surfeit of means, but we lack meaning.
We're about to share an intense ten day period, many of us probably hope that statement could be made equally by substituting "church" with "synagogue". Now, as we begin this period, what should this mean to us? Will the liturgy affect us? Will my sermons inspire you? Will our lives be transformed and made any more meaningful by this experience?
We spend much of our lives wondering how we fit in to the vastness of the universe and its history. We know we're not amoebic blobs splitting and growing, splitting and growing. We know there's more to life.
Like Alice in wonderland we carry those two mushrooms. Like Gulliver in Lulliput and Brobdinnag we see the world and its players sometimes as tiny and insignificant and other times as tremendous and frightening. As one Hassidic master has written and I shared with you in a story many years ago, we each carry with us the two statements from our tradition: For me the world was created and I am made of dust and ashes.
At one moment we marveled at the grace and grandeur of the twin towers in Manhattan and the next we trembled as we saw them and their inhabitants turned to dust.
How do we balance these two extremes? How do we find the meaning of our lives, or, how do we give our lives meaning?
At one time we Jews hoped for meaning through the salvation of resurrection - we seek immortality for ourselves. This traditional understanding was expressed in the Talmud, liturgy and folklore. All Jews have a portion in the world to come. We believed in the physical resurrection of the dead and that the Messiah would come personally riding westward over the Mount of Olives.
But there are problems with this approach. We don't know what physical state we'll have when resurrected. Do you want to be resurrected in the same physical shape you were when you died? That's not usually very appealing. Do you want to be resurrected as you were at the age of 18? Could you imagine a world filled with nothing but 18-year olds? There would be some serious problems.
Looked at a bit more dispassionately, physical resurrection is not such a good solution. Aside from that, no one we know has had first had experience of resurrection and we don't know what to expect, and, it all seems too far off... we want certainty now.
In the modern world we look for meaning, which we often identify with immortality in a variety of ways, or we avoid that "deferred gratification" by seeking meaning in other ways
So, we try to be self sufficient and seek salvation in the immediate here and now. We've found a variety of (as they say in the insurance and financial business) "vehicles". On the positive side we exercise to get that cleansed body doing Aerobics or Jazzercize (if that still exists). We throw ourselves into our families, our jobs and careers. On the negatives side, many of us get caught in cults, or drugs. Somewhere in the middle we've found a fairly safe ground and we surround ourselves with creature comforts (toys). I remember a bumper sticker that said: The one with the most toys wins!
We all take advantage of the Jewish life-cycle to heighten our personal rites of passage Birth/brit, Pidyon ha ben/bat, Bar/bat Mitzvah, Kiddushin, and Death. We know that these rituals give resonance to our lives.
Many of us hook into the calendar cycle. We come together as, for Rosh haShannah and Yom Kippur. I drove by Temple Adat Shalom on my way up here tonight. It always amazes me that people come to this event as though it was "opening night" of the baseball or opera season. We may never see you again, but you feel that being here tonight gives your life more meaning than if you did not come. We of Etz Chaim continue to gather as a congregation at the Ben-Aderet's for sukkot, We enjoy the efforts of the Bernath family who coordinates our pesach celebration. Very few of us (sadly) celebrate shavuot. On a more frequent basis, we celebrate Shabbat the purpose of which is to bring a taste, a teaser, of the messianic era at least one seventh of our time, one in every seven days. Some of us spend a little time in daily prayer and study.
These are all timely events. We can also fill our space with the symbols that make our lives meaningful.
Some of us do this by wearing (putting on our personal space) political symbols, and others wear the regalia of sports teams while still others fashion labels to remind us of who we want to be. But, candidates change, teams get bought and sold, fashions in dress come and go. We can live our lives tied to the life of the Jewish people. For example, on our person we might wear Tzitzit, as it says in the Bible all Jews should dress to be aware of the fringes of our existence. Some people wear the Kippah to remind them that there is something beyond them. Others wear some form of Jewish jewelry as a personal identifier.
In our home, we can have the various Jewish ritual objects: Shabbat candle sticks, Kiddush cup, Havdallah set, Seder plate, Chanukkiah, even items from Jewish "popular culture" such as (what was most common a half generation ago) some representation of the Chagall windows from the synagogue at the Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem.
When I was a college student, international folk dancing was very "in". I knew people who met at the "synagogue" of the folk dancers at least once a week. Balkan dancing was the most popular and you could tell that some of these "sub-urban" Los Angeles kids had converted to become Bosnian. They had the correct woven leather slippers, they had the correct sashes. Everything was in place. Some of them even learned one or another of the languages current in the "Then Yugoslavia".
At that time, I realized that your "ethnic" or "religious" identity was your own personal choice here in America. One could as easily choose to be Jewish as you could choose to be Croatian.
I chose to be Jewish. I found that looking at the world Jewishly gave my life great meaning. I know that I am part of an ancient people who has given great gifts to the world. We reach back into ancient times. Our stories tell of the ability to transform the world. I learned that everyone has the ability to look at the world through a variety of lenses. You can see that I wear glasses (spectacles). If I did not wear them, I could neither see the page from which I read, nor could I see your faces. My glasses help me make sense and give meaning to the world around me. You have seen me with sunglasses. Each time I wear sunglasses, I see the world in a slightly different manner. I could wear yellow lenses in my glasses and the world (even in the evening) would look much brighter. I could wear rose colored glasses, and the world would look, well, "rosier". I figure my regular sunglasses help me see the world more Jewishly. So, I have a pair for many of you (I can get more). I hope, that as we begin this year we will begin to see the world more Jewishly and find that looking at the world in that manner will give our lives more meaning.
As I have paraphrased from one of my teachers (Ellis Rivkin), who paraphrased it from another source: "God so loves the world, that God has given the world--through the Jewish people--a divine gift, a two-fold path (or a special set of lenses), that anyone who looks at the world through those lenses (or lives according to that path) will gain personal meaning in life, and connection to the life of the universe, an immortal process."
So, come to synagogue... you'll feel better. Bring your lives to synagogue and share them with us. We will all gain from the process.