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Embracing Change

What follows is my sermon from Yom Kippur evening in which I argue that only change will ensure the Jewish people's survival.

Let me tell you about our people’s survival. It is captured by a story from nearly 2,000 years ago. It involves the events surrounding the destruction of the Temple in 70 C.E, the most catastrophic event the Jewish people ever experienced, until the twentieth century’s Holocaust. It is the story about Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai. During the siege of Jerusalem by the Romans, Yohanan was secreted out of town by his students. They carried him to the Roman general’s camp in a coffin. There he negotiated with Vespasian that Yavneh be spared so that a rabbinic academy could be established there.

Why did he need to sneak out of Jerusalem? Because his Jewish compatriots might very well have killed him. So divided were the Jewish people during those years that he feared for his life. He was a known critic of the Sadducees who stubbornly held fast to the rituals surrounding animal sacrifices. Yohanan ben Zakkai also stood against the Zealots who took up arms against the mighty Roman army. He argued that making peace was the best course of action, that accommodation with forces more powerful than our own would best ensure our survival. That is the story in a nutshell. That is also not how we tell it.

Instead, we never even visit Yavneh. On every trip to Israel, the tour guide wakes us up early in the morning so we can climb the winding snake path to Masada’s fortress. There we watch the most glorious sunrise over the mountains. The sight never fails to take my breath away.

There we glorify the events surrounding Masada’s downfall. We tell the story of how the Zealots held out for three years following the destruction of Jerusalem. When our heroes realized that the Romans would soon break through the fortress walls, because they had completed a ramp on the mountain’s opposite side, the Zealots decided to commit mass suicide rather than be taken as slaves. The Roman army arrived to find the food stores full, but all the Jews dead, save one, or perhaps two, who would tell this tale so that future generations would know it. And we continue to hail our ancestors’ heroism. We sing accolades to their bravery.

Most people know the story of Masada. Few know that of Yavneh. Masada might be more majestic, it might be more thrilling, but Yavneh is why we are still here. It is why we continue to offer our Yom Kippur prayers. We prefer to glamorize the defeated warriors. We push to the footnotes of history the compromisers. We fail to admit one generation’s traitor is history’s savior.

We persist in telling the story that glorifies martyrdom. We prefer to round out those jagged historical edges removing the fact we were so divided we wanted to kill each other. We tend to minimize the arguments and disagreements, the divisions and civil wars, the partisanship and vitriol of yesterday in favor of telling tales in which there are clear villains and heroes, even if those heroes died by their own hands. But history can only be told by those who choose life. And that path involves complicated choices, and compromises. Often, what appears radical to contemporaries, history records as decisive. What his fellow Jews saw as making a deal with evil doers, what the Zealots saw as unacceptable changes and compromises, history judges as crucial to our survival.

The Sadducees refused to change. Their system was destroyed. The Zealots fought against everyone and anyone who suggested compromise. They died. Here is a promise and prediction. The future will not look like the past. And here is the more important point. The future must not look like the past. I know. This is not a particularly revelatory observation. But if we recognize this, why do we act as if we want the future to look like the past? History suggests, or at least how history actually went down rather than how we memorialize it, that we have only one choice. Embrace the future with all its uncomfortable compromises and sometimes painful changes. Do you think Yohanan ben Zakkai thought the Roman general Vespasian was a great guy? Do you think he really wanted to sit down with this terrible man and ask him for that meager morsel of Yavneh? But that is why we are still here.

Recently I woke up from a nightmare. Here is the picture my subconscious painted. I walked into our beautiful new sanctuary and looked up at the back wall to discover that the Livestream camera had been removed. I panicked because I realized that few people would be able to join us for Shabbat services. No one would be able to sing Lecha Dodi with our cantor. No one would be able to recite the Kaddish when they joined us from Los Angeles. We don’t need to spend too much time trying to figure out part of the meaning behind this dream. I was obviously stressed out about simultaneously leading services and making sure all the tech works. But the other, and more important, piece deserves further interpretation.

More people are joining us online than are present here in the sanctuary in person. “Don’t say that out loud rabbi,” some might be saying, but when have I ever shied away from shouting the truth? Part of the reason why this is true is because of this maddening, and seemingly never ending, pandemic. But the other reason is that it is easier to join services from home than to come in person. Is it as good as being here in person? I would like to think not. Is a Broadway show better in person or on TV? When here, I would argue, it is easier to leave the world behind. Here, it is easier to connect with others. Here the distractions of home and work can be pushed aside at least for a brief hour.

Is it possible to find meaning and celebrate Shabbat or these High Holidays online? Absolutely. Let’s be honest. You can dress more casually. You can watch while you are still eating your dinner. You can relax on your comfortable, and well cushioned, couches. You can also join services at whatever time is most convenient for you. Watch Friday night services on Saturday afternoon if you like. You can fast forward through my sermon or even watch last week’s lengthy sermon at 2x speed if you like. (20 minutes become 10 minutes!) You can sit with your children and only join us for the Shema and V’Ahavta. All these are possibilities. Is this a nightmare or a dream? That choice is ours to make. And the choice seems clear. Our survival depends on being amenable to change and open to adapting to new circumstances and different realities. We must never be about saying, “It’s only good if you are here with me. It’s only good if you do what I do.” We must instead be about bringing meaning and spirituality far beyond these walls. We must be more like Yohanan ben Zakkai.

I know it's uncomfortable. I get it. Change is the stuff of nightmares. Then again change also guarantees our survival. It is the stuff of future dreams. For some these renovations, and modernizations, to our new sanctuary are unnerving. I get that it is hard, and uncomfortable, to come to the place you called home and see it changed. I get that change is hard most especially in this place. Here people want to feel the comfort of the past. But the past is imagined differently by each and every one of us. We tell it the way we want to hear it. We tell it the way we wish to glorify it. Look at how we tell the story of the Zealots rather than the more crucial tale of Yohanan ben Zakkai and his followers. We herald those who resisted change and sacrificed themselves, rather than emulating those who made the uncomfortable, but necessary, changes that guaranteed our survival. In truth, change is part of our Jewish DNA.

For the past year and a half, there has been a regular shiva minyan in my home. Either it was on Susie’s computer and for her congregation or on mine and for our congregation. My friend, Jamie Reiss z”l, who died this past year thought all this online stuff was not a good substitute for the real thing. It is an understatement to say he was a people person. And yet when he died in February, we had no choice but to gather on Zoom for shiva. And again, Zoom provided something that in person shiva could not have offered. There on my laptop was visual evidence of how many people were also touched by this loss. I was comforted by their faces. I scrolled through page after page after page. I was uplifted to see their tears up close. I noticed that people joined us from far away states and even countries.

Often, after concluding the minyan service for these Zoom shivas, I would turn off my video, but keep the audio on in case I was needed for tech support. And I would hear the most wonderful stories. I began to realize that Zoom seemed to make shiva more about the person who died. All those conversations about traffic and the weather were no longer relevant. Good riddance! Could I wrap my arms around the mourners? No. Did Zoom provide something else? Yes. More people heard these beautiful stories. More people shared touching memories. Is this change here to stay? Absolutely. Embrace it.

And yet we still teach our children as if Jewish education is about anything but change. We speak as if survival is about doing Judaism exactly as our great-grandparents did rather than taking the tradition and molding it into something different for the 21st century. We pretend our Hebrew Schools are about fashioning 21st century Jews when in truth they are too much about telling them what we want them to believe. Ask yourself these questions. Do we really want our children to think for themselves? Do we want them to look at this wonderful inheritance differently or just be perfect imitations of ourselves? Do we truly believe in education, or do we want indoctrination? I believe education must be about teaching children how to interpret their lives for themselves. It is not about parroting parent’s views and ideas but instead about forming their own notions and creating new Jewish paths. Sure, I sometimes don’t agree with every choice, but rather than judging our children’s decisions we might be better off by saying this. “I have faith in you. Learn. Make your own way.”

This tension between what true education should look like is no where more pronounced than when we talk about Israel. Let me lay out the conflict and it saddens me to say this out loud. Our youth are turning away from Israel. They no longer love Israel as prior generations of Jews did. I believe, however, we should be blaming ourselves for this problem rather than our children. When it comes to Israel, Jewish educators only want to tell the history as they imagine it, the story as it resonates in their own hearts. We only want to speak of the Israel we love and hold dear. We become crazed when our children question why we feel more attached to the suffering of Israelis than that of Palestinians. We become outraged when they say things like, “I agree with Ben & Jerry’s decision.”

But if they are going to love Israel, their love is going to look different than ours. They might not love it as much as I do. And we are going to have to figure out how to say, “I wish you felt differently but I understand. Your Jewish path is going to be different than my own.” And then we should add, “Promise me this. Go to Israel. Talk to Israelis. Become familiar with the diversity of opinion among them. And then figure out your path.” No amount of shouting is going to foster love. Now amount of saying, “What’s wrong with you?” is going to compel attachment. I am not interested in indoctrination. I believe in education.

And education is not about raising the volume of our voices, and shouting louder, when we fail to convince others of what we believe to be the correctness of our own opinions. It is not about saying, “If only these kids knew what I know or experienced what I experienced, then they would see what I see.” It is instead about presenting the facts and issues and then saying, “Let’s discuss and debate. Let’s ask, ‘What do you think?’ No opinion is off the table. No feeling is out bounds.” Of course, there is a Jewish point of view. Of course, there is my opinion. (In case you have not figured this out already, I am really opinionated.) Let’s be honest. The traditional view might not end up being my children’s view. Have more faith in them and their decision making than in agreement. Have more faith in them and the moral compass you give them than in conformity. Have faith that they can find a new way rather than the worn path of experts and elders. They are going to change things. Believe in them.

They will weave their own tapestry in the words of Torah. The Jewish tradition is not one that believes God’s words begin and end with the verses of Torah. It assumes that we take those words and interpret them and then reinterpret them for our own age and our own time.

We make them new, and current, through interpretation. In fact, the greatest praise that one can offer a darshan, a sermon giver are the words, “That was a beautiful hiddush.” In other words, that was a beautiful, novel interpretation. We praise seeing something new in these ancient words. We do not praise regurgitating old words. We make them new, again and again, with our own minds. Akiva and Rashi might very well have been greater masters, but their lives are not our lives. Each of us must interpret the Torah anew.

It is not going to be like yesterday. The future is going to be far different than the past. We have only one choice. Embrace change. Why? Because that, and that alone, will save us.

Think about a Jewish wedding and the concluding ritual of breaking a glass. It signifies that the couple are now officially married and that the dancing can begin. This custom began in Talmudic times. According to the Talmud’s own telling, Rav Ashi (or was it Mar son of Ravina) was throwing a wedding feast for his son. Apparently, some of his guests, and some of the other rabbis, were having too good of time (perhaps they had too much tequila) and were becoming quite boisterous. So, the host broke a glass to quiet them down. He reasoned that their joy should be tempered given that Jerusalem’s holy Temple was destroyed. And here is what is often forgotten. Rav Ashi lived in Babylonia, almost 300 years after Jerusalem was leveled by the Romans.

And he was still thinking about those tragic events. Now he did not say, “We must not dance.” Instead, he said, “Celebrate the present. Remember the past.” Even at this happiest of occasions, we pause to remember the past. Still, we are not bound by it. We are not encumbered by it.

How do we do recall the past that while embracing the future? That is the central question for the 21st century synagogue. The very same question Yohanan ben Zakkai faced is the question we now face. We have no choice but to embrace this essential truth. The future will not look like the past. The future must not look like the past. Nothing is going to be like it was before. And yet there will always remain imprints. There will always remain shards of broken glass that help to carry us forward.

And finally, a wish and a prayer. When we buy something, a new car or a new house, a new iPhone or even a new bike, we do not say, “Mazel tov,” but instead “Titchadeish.” Mazel tov means something is completed. Titchadeish means something new has begun. We say, “May you be renewed by this.” May you find something new, may discover some new teaching, some new meaning, some new revelation in this simplest of objects. May this thing add new meaning to your life. And so, we shout, may this renewed sanctuary grant our congregation new life. May it offer us new revelations.

I guarantee you this. We are going to be changed. I also guarantee you this. We are going to survive.