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Rosh Hashanah Sermon

Dear All,

Attached please find the two Rosh Hashanah Drashot / sermons. I would like to especially thank Dr. Terry Neiman for his generous and wise assistance in editing these presentations.

Shana Tova.

Questions we need to ask

The Nobel prize winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman is fond of saying that people don’t always ask the questions that need to be asked. They ask the questions that they know how to answer.

Most of us wake up every morning with some variation of one question whispering meekly in the back of our mind: “am I a good person?” The only reason that question whispers meekly is because we are really afraid that we might answer, “not really” or, “I used to be.”

The question has thousands of permutations. Am I worthy of her love? Have I earned my parents’ approval? Can I be popular? The relevance of those questions is timelessly locked into today.  Today is the Day of Judgment – Yom Ha’Din.  If there is any question on the table it is: Am I a good person?

Remember that Kahneman said people ask the questions that they can answer, NOT the ones that need to be asked. If we really want the answer to the question, am I a good person? then we have to be strong enough to confront potentially disappointing news, strong enough to hear no, or not yet. We are often just too scared to ask that question so we look for easier, safer questions to ask. As author David Brooks says in The Second Mountain: A Quest for Moral Life, “we look for all sorts of status markers as replacements for the question of who we really are, such school labels, job titles…”

The mother of all status markers is wealth. People have been using that as a meterstick for personal quality for millennia. As Tevye the milkman famously sang in If I Were a Rich Man:

The most important men in town will come to fawn on me
They will ask me to advise them,
Like a Solomon the Wise
"If you please, Reb Tevye?"
"Pardon me, Reb Tevye?"
Posing problems that would cross a rabbi's eyes
And it won't make one bit of difference
If I answer right or wrong
When you're rich they think you really know.

The song speaks to the underlying assumption that wealth gives a status that lends credibility, wisdom – if you’re rich, then you must be good. Of course, there is more than a hint of irony in the song, yet ,money is an even worse meterstick than it was in Tevye’s day.

For one, governments have decoupled convertibility of currency to gold. Canada abandoned the gold standard in 1929. So, who cares about this nerdy economics? You should care, because these moves greatly increased the supply of money in the economy and also removed any tethering of the value of a dollar to a concrete standard. We Canadians well appreciate how arbitrary the metric of a dollar can be. When you look at charts of exchange rates between our dollar and the US dollar between 1950 and 1970, the dollars are essentially at par. After 1971 the graph goes all over the place. How well does that measure an hour of our best effort? Think about this. Two weeks ago when the Saudi oil fields were bombed the Canadian dollar became more valuable – but the value of an hour of your labor did not change a cent.

When I was born, 48 years ago, Gilligan’s Island was popular on TV and one of the characters was the millionaire. He was sort of a unique identifier, a special position, a celebrity of sorts. There were approximately 150,000 millionaires in the United States – 0.1% of the people. Today, even adjusted for inflation, there are about 100 times that number – more than 6 percent.  It turns out that millionaires are just not that exceptional – as depressing as that is to say.  

That news is even worse, because wealth has inverted from being a status marker to an albatross of guilt. Rachel Sherman, who is a professor of Psychology at the New School for Social Research, wrote a book called Uneasy Street: The Anxieties of Affluence. It is based on a series of interviews with high net-worth people living in Manhattan. To me, the most interesting aspect of the book is the insight Sherman has into the power of guilt that is associated with wealth. She reports that there is a general sense that people feel that they do not deserve the wealth they currently possess and that they need to balance that sense of guilt by volunteering for worthy causes. The wealthy that Sherman surveyed spoke of overcoming the guilt of buying another handbag, or of being able to live without a budget. They often spoke more of a moral need for awareness of what others don’t have, than of a sense of charity. What drips from every page of her book is that none of these individuals mistakes wealth for self-worth, no one believes the status symbols acquired through wealth translate into any self-worth.

If money is not the answer, maybe friendship is. So, we turn to each other for validation. Few of us are really comfortable being so direct as to ask, “do you think I am a good person?” However, I have little doubt that we seek reinforcement of our sense of self-worth in our friendships. We sought a way to know that our friends appreciate and value us, and some software engineer gave us the like button. Now we have a completely distorted, highly quantitative way of tracking exactly how liked we are. Yet, nothing better articulates the self-contradiction of humanity than the like button. Yet the Royal Society for Public Health in the UK found that there is no feature of online information technology more harmful than the like button. Apparently, people actually hate the like button more than they hate spam!!

Humans are a highly visually-oriented species. We learn so much through our eyes. We have neurons called mirror neurons that teach us to mimic the gestures and actions of those we see. Enormous sections of our brains are designed for visual processing.  In the language of the Torah, seeing is equivalent to understanding. Seeing a truth is equivalent to adopting an inherent value. We are told that at the foot of Sinai  all of the people saw the voice of Gd. It does not mean the voice was visible, but that it was internalized. Gd says, “see I put before you this blessing.”  The Torah knew before there were brain scans that seeing and understanding are often surrogates for each other.

So, as we visually evaluate the world, as we apply our most natural meterstick - i.e., our vision - what do we see? We see images and screens. 

Ask yourself how many people you see on screen vs the number you see in person. That means all the people that you see on Facebook, Instagram, the Colbert show, on Netflix, on bus stop ads, and in the fashion magazines in the doctor’s waiting room.  There is an argument to be made that we see more virtual people than real people. While researchers can use their surveys to debate this, I can tell you that 15% of internet bandwidth is used for Netflix alone. That figure does not even include YouTube or Facebook. Regardless of the accuracy of the statistics, we are watching a lot of made up, photoshopped, and image-corrected people. And then, of course, we look in the mirror and discover ourselves wanting. And it is because we are asking the wrong questions, because our metrics are calibrated by the wrong scales.

Brooks argues that we look to find out who we are in the status of a job title. That may even be a more fitting measure of self-worth than wealth and social media. Who could argue that the Director of a Jewish social or community service does not spend her time in an activity of high worth? Who would argue that our school teachers are not in a profession that reflects real worth?  It is in this area – the status of the work we do, as measured by the job’s title - that so many new graduates of university find themselves yearning for a profession of meaning and worth. Yet they are finding it hard to match their values with gainful employment. The bestselling poet David Whyte writes poetry for the corporate world. His collection is titled The Heart Aroused: Poetry and the Preservation of the Soul in Corporate America. Whyte writes that, “work is a place you can lose yourself more easily than find yourself.” 

What actually surprises me most is where many of us confess that we refuse to find self-worth. I cannot tell you how many of you come to speak to me, or feel otherwise compelled to make the following confession: Rabbi, you have to understand that I am not religious.

Frankly, I am not ready to accept that statement, because, pardon me, I don’t think you mean it. What I think you mean by “Rabbi, I am not religious” is, rather, “Rabbi, I am not observant of all the commandments...yet.”

Religious is a funny word. It can mean many things, but, underneath all its concepts of religion is the sense that there is an existence beyond the surface of it all, an inner world, a realm where you answer to Gd on the very question, “am I worthy?” By Your (capital Y) standards Gd, by Your meterstick of holiness, do I live up to being a good person? And it is a measure that controls for each of our particular skills, challenges, education, temperament, etc.

Perhaps this idea is even more powerfully stated in the negative. If you really mean it when you declare that you are not religious, then you are saying that you believe there is no internal or spiritual measure of self-worth. It means that you believe there need be no exercise of looking up at the Creator of the Universe and saying, “I am doing the best I can with what You gave me.” Or, perhaps, “I know I can do better with what You gave me.” It means that you believe not in the Divine or in the soul. It means that you believe there is no need to nurture that soul.

I want to share a prayer with you. It was said silently in the first moments of today’s service. You will find it on the middle of page 184. It is a simple articulation of the fact that there is a soul inside you that you [must] value. That soul is entrusted to you, on long-term loan. It’s strong but fragile. The prayer’s words are:

My Gd, the soul you placed within me is pure. You created it, You fashioned it, You breathed it into me. You Safeguard it within me… As long as the soul is within me, I gratefully thank You, Hashem, Gd of my ancestors, master of all creation, lord of all souls.

A few weeks ago, while preparing my presentation for the Seudah Shelishit, the third meal of Shabbat, I came across an interpretation of the Gerer Rebbe that made my jaw drop so hard, I can’t believe I did not break some teeth. The Chassidic world is subdivided into the followers of different rabbis, or as pronounced in the Chassidic world Rebbes. The largest Chassidic group in Poland before the Holocaust was that of the Gerrer Rebbe who had 100,000 followers. Today, there may be almost that many living in Israel. The Gerrer branch of the Chassidim comes from the House of Kotsk - known for an unwavering quest for truth.

In 1875, The Gerer Rebbe was expounding on the words of the Torah that instruct one not to take a bribe. Here, he reminds us that bribes pervert justice, because even a learned judge has limited understanding of the material world. He claims that we approach it with simple eyes. However, the רק הסתכלות הפנימיות בשכל האדם. נקראים עינים מחוכמים. והשוחד יעור עיני חכמים הללו. דיא קליגע אויגען: Only the inward gaze of a person with wisdom will yield truth.  The inward eye is where enlightenment is to be found.

Again, these words made my jaw hit the floor. First of all, it runs contrary to my practice and how I have negotiated the world for 48 years. I have trusted the externalities more. I started life as a scientist; I look for the empirical. I am interested in what social scientists can define and neuroscientists can map. I frankly have an unhealthy relationship with the news and the veracity of what it reports. I look outside to define my world. How dare the Rebbe ask me to look inside? Then I realized that the Rebbe of Gur is referring to a subtle but powerful concept. Throughout his writings he identifies a spark of Gd that is planted within each of us. It is the light you feel when you hand out food at the food bank. It is the light you feel when you know that your donation helped keep a disabled person from addiction. It is that light that you feel when you read Jonathan Sacks and you say to yourself, “yes, yes…that is what I am about, just like he said.” It is that light that you feel when we sing Hatikvah with 1000 people strong at the end of Yom Kippur, or when you come to a rousing Kabbalat Shabbat. It is that feeling that you get when you spread out the food for the Seder that will feed four generations of your family and a couple of near strangers. It is the part of you that knows when you are growing. It is the part of you that is thirsty for knowledge, and thirsty to understand Gd and your fellow humans that Gd created. The Gerer Rebbe is saying you need to use an inward measuring stick, the one that responds to the aforementioned moments, the one that resonates with more transcendent values.

We recite over and over today that Hashem should write us into the Book of Life. In our minds we conjure an image of Hashem in a Harry Potter-like library with old leather-bound volumes and parchment paper with a quill writing us into this book or that. The Koshniter Maggid - who was a 3rd-generation Chassidic master – wrote, “that book is not in Heaven it is in you.” Are you writing yourself into a Book of Life? Or, are you letting everything else around you write the book of your life? Is your paycheck, or what’s on your business card, or Instagram, or Donald Trump, or Justin Trudeau, or Avigdor Liberman, or the stock market, or your golf game, writing your book of life, or are you writing it yourself?  

Today is the day to return to what the Torah calls your Pneimius, your inner meterstick. You need to realize that your very existence is a miracle of multiple dimensions, and that Hashem put [you, you, you, and] you here for a reason. In this room, now, as painful as it may be, we must turn to Gd and ask, am I doing with my soul what is good, and right? Am I giving it my all?

Rabbi Tzadok Hakohen of Lublin wrote that just as you have to believe in Gd, you also have to believe that Hashem has a purpose for you. Individually, he put you here for a specific reason. Gd literally delights when you fulfill that purpose. I think that a lot of us suffer not from the failure to believe in Gd but in the failure to believe that Gd has a reason for us. Let the shofar banish that thought, because Gd put you here for a reason.

I return to the prayer

My Gd, the soul you placed within me is pure. You created it, You fashioned it, You breathed it into me. You Safeguard it within me… As long as the soul is within me, I gratefully thank You, Hashem, Gd of my ancestors, master of all creation, lord of all souls.

We need to switch to measuring our souls.  Your soul. You will not find it fine food, except when that food is shared or given to another.  Your soul will find no delight in how your decorate your home, except when you welcome in guests in need of a good friend, You will not be nurtured by anything you can see in your mirror, except for the smile that brings cheer to someone else’s day.  The question of are we good people, has both its question and its answers, may the Shofar give us the courage to ask.


Coming Home

In 1651 Thomas Hobbs’ Leviathan famously described life as “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”

For us, Hobbs was wrong about short, because modern healthcare has doubled life expectancy since his time.

We are no longer all poor. The lower middle class today lives with greater luxury than the kings of Hobbes’ time ever did – think central heating and air conditioning and indoor plumbing – not to mention WiFi.

Nasty and brutish today? Okay, well ... yes, if you count social media and politics.

Solitary remains a particularly vexing problem. Last year I spent a day describing the problem of loneliness and its effects on mental health.  This year, I want to spend a little time on the mechanism of that malady.  If you please, it is the how of loneliness.

Maybe the best place to begin this story is the second time the word lonely appears in the Bible; it is in the story of our forefather Jacob. Jacob is a twin, a competitive one at that. He is born grasping at the heel of his brother. He remains a person close to home. He is in fact known as ‘complete man, a dweller of tents’. We could certainly understand this to mean he found his equilibrium at home, by his parents’ side. At his mother’s instruction he solicits a blessing from his father, albeit while adopting the persona of his brother. This ruptures his family life. Jacob must flee the anger of his twin brother. He remains on his own for 21 years. He returns with a large family, many children, and finds himself at the banks of a river ready to confront his once-livid brother.

According to one commentary attributed to the grandchildren of Rashi (Hadar Zekenim of Ba’ale Hatosafot) Jacob went into avoidance mode. He was ill-prepared to return to his family. He was afraid of the confrontation with his brother, so he sought to return by some clandestine path, sneaking back into his homeland. And the Torah says, ויותר יעקב לבדו ויאבק איש עמו עד עלות השחר. It was a moment of profound loneliness and it came about because Jacob was not ready to come home.

At this moment of loneliness Jacob wrestles with what the rabbis describe as the angel of his brother Esav – who refuses to let him go. As the sun rises the angel gives up the fight, but Jacob refuses to end the quarrel empty-handed. He demands a blessing from the angel of Esav. The angel gives him a new name – Israel – meaning because you wrestle with men and Gd and you overcome.

The angel gave him permission to come home. He promised Jacob that the return home would be successful.

David Brooks in his recent book The Second Mountain, makes a profound observation. Every single one of us takes a journey from we to me. We all start out in a womb. We all start with the embrace of a mother, of a parent. As we grow and age, we seek independence. Yet, for all the individuation, individuality, personal space, individual accomplishments we seek, we forget how much we need a home, and we need a together space. Our ability to go from a we to a me is built on the attachment bond formed by the embrace of a parent.

There were a couple of exceptionally cold-hearted scientists who explored just how important the attachment to a parent could be. Rene Spitz and Harry Harlow explored the question of what would happen if one began life as me instead of we.

Using methods of isolation and maternal deprivation, Harlow explored the importance of we to an infant rhesus monkey. He deprived these monkeys of any physical contact or comfort from a mother or even another primate. The infant rhesus monkeys were taken away from their mothers and raised in a laboratory setting, with some infants placed in separate cages away from any peers or a parent. The socially-isolated monkeys began to demonstrate disturbing behavior: staring blankly, circling their cages, and engaging in self-mutilation, they had trouble interacting with their peers or finding any social success when they were reintroduced to a healthy group.

Harlow, wanted to see the prolonged effects of this kind of isolation. After having raised female rhesus monkeys in isolation he had them impregnated and discovered that a monkey that is raised in isolation will also neglect its own child! It means that the illness of being a me alone in these monkeys became a hereditary malady.

Sadly, a similar set of experiments was done by Rene Spitz in the 1940s which determined that children who were not held or touched by a parent or nurse had trouble achieving basic developmental milestones such as talking or walking by age three. Without starting life as a we the me cannot thrive. It would seem an imperative that finding ways to be attached to others is an essential part of human life.

The movement from me to we is not only a biological need, it is the foundation of Teshuva as explained by Rabbi Avaraham Yitzhak Hakohen Kook

Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak HaKohem Kook was the first Chief Rabbi of Israel. He was brilliant, encyclopedic in his knowledge, and creative. In his work on repentance, Orot HaTeshuvah he articulates the Harlow principle in relation to repentance. The goal of repentance, says Rabbi Kook, is independent of any sin. The very moment you were created, you were separated from Gd. The Hebrew word for creation is barah, which is the same as the word brah, which means outside.

A portion of you glazed over just now, because Hebrew is not in your comfort zone. So, let's do the same in English. The word exist actually comes from the word exit. It is a merger of the word exit and the word is. When you exist, you become distinct, separate, apart, you live outside. Rav Kook says Teshuava or repentance is about a return, a coming home, the movement of the me in each of us to be part of a we with Hashem.

What that means about Teshuvah and repentance is that it is fundamentally a journey of return. It is an admission that your independence in and of itself is not sufficient. Independence renders you incomplete. In terms of Gd, this means that we are always trying to return to a connection to Gd, to reattach the bond, to become ever closer.

This same model is true on a social level. I got this insight from one of the modern students of Rav Kook - Rabbi Yair Amos Sharkee. Rabbi Sharkee identifies that the mitzvas of Teshuvah and the promised return of the Jewish people to Israel after the exile are written in the same paragraph of the Torah, one which we read only two days ago. 

וְשַׁבְתָּ עַד-יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, וְשָׁמַעְתָּ בְקֹלוֹ, כְּכֹל אֲשֶׁר-אָנֹכִי מְצַוְּךָ, הַיּוֹם:  אַתָּה וּבָנֶיךָ, בְּכָל-לְבָבְךָ וּבְכָל-נַפְשֶׁךָ.  ג וְשָׁב יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ אֶת-שְׁבוּתְךָ, וְרִחֲמֶךָ; וְשָׁב, וְקִבֶּצְךָ מִכָּל-הָעַמִּים, אֲשֶׁר הֱפִיצְךָ יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, שָׁמָּה.  ד אִם-יִהְיֶה נִדַּחֲךָ, בִּקְצֵה הַשָּׁמָיִם--מִשָּׁם, יְקַבֶּצְךָ יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, וּמִשָּׁם, יִקָּחֶךָ.

And you shall return to Hashem your Gd and you and your children heed His commandments with all your heart and soul...And Hashem your Gd will bring you home and be merciful on you. And he will bring you back in love, he will bring you back from all the peoples among which you were scattered, even if your outcasts are at the ends of the Earth. From there Hashem your Gd will gather you and bring you to the land that your ancestors possessed .

Rabbi Sharkee is uncovering the plain meaning of the text, that, in addition to the personal Teshuvah repentance in which people return to Hashem and the Mitzvot, there is also a national return to our homeland. He then makes a bold claim; the greatest repentance phenomenon in the history of the Jewish people is not the Chabad movement, it is not the Lakewood Yeshiva, it is not in the social progress in the days of Solomon, or repentance campaign of King Josiah, or the achievements of the students of Maimonides. The greatest mass or national act of repentance and return is the establishment of the modern State of Israel. Not because of any particular political or nationalistic idea, but because it represents the greatest return of the Jewish people to home.

What made that return possible? On the one hand it was the fact that the rest of the world made it known clearly how unwanted Jews were in their lands, the Kishenev Pogrom, the Final Solution and the anti-Jewish riots of Baghdad and Aleppo to name only a few highlights. There was no question that Jews needed an Israel. At the same time, it was also clear that this nascent state, surrounded by hostile Arab countries needed Jews. Even today it remains clear that Israel needs Jews and so there is a Law of Return.  

I am aware that what I have said here is a sweeping simplification, but also aware that this simplification speaks much truth. The State of Israel could flourish because Jews everywhere knew they needed Israel and Israel knew it needed Jews. The family understood it needed a home, and the home knew it needed the family. The Jewish nation stated its principles in the Law of Return, it let the entire Jewish population of the world know that they were welcome to be a part. Rav Sharkee can say it is the greatest phenomon ever because the majority of the world’s Jews live in a country that did not exist 100 years ago, in a land that had a quota on the number of Jews allowed to settle. The Jewish population in Israel has grown almost 100-fold in those 100 years.

Getting back to Jacob…  He stayed away from his home for 21 years. He did not return until Gd came to him in a dream and told him it was time to come back. He did not return until Gd said to him “your name is Israel” – meaning, yes, you struggle, but you are able. Gd told Jacob that he was worthy. All those years it is quite possible that Jacob did not believe in the blessing that his father gave him. He did not believe he had earned the right to come home.  

I just wonder. Maybe we all have a little of the insecurity of Jacob and we don’t have the reassurance of Gd telling us in a dream, “you need to go home, your home needs you.” I believe everyone needs to be needed, everyone needs to have a place. 

Here, now, I want to play the role that Gd played in this story and let you know. We need you. I believe today Jews, on an individual level, do not know how much their communities need them. Individuals are not good at articulating how important it is for them to be embraced by their tribe. It is hard to figure out exactly where you fit, or should fit in a room that seats a thousand.

When I think about the single greatest asset of this synagogue, I do not think of the value of our property, or of our cemetery holdings. I do not think of myself or of the staff as our greatest asset. There is only one thing it is us – you are our human capital. First of all, there is a mighty difference between how this synagogue feels when you are here and how it feels when you are not. This is our home and there is really only one way to decorate it – with people.  

In May of this year we held a dinner to recognize all of the Holocaust survivors in our community. There were many wonderful things about that event, but the most magical among them was that it felt like a big family reunion. People had a strong sense that they belonged to something larger, broader than themselves. Children of the second generation understood that they represented their parents Z”L in preserving a relationship to the survivors. It was a return to an era, a golden age in the social history of this community. It was a return to a time when people felt that they had a place and a purpose.

It is that sense of family and belonging that we have to rebuild and preserve here. You need it, I need it, our children need it. 

This holiday is about Teshuvah as repentance. And I am telling you on the shoulders of Rabbi Kook and Rabbi Sharkee that repentance is about rebuilding your home. And there are some signs of profound Teshuavah amongst the people in this room. There are some octogenarians who designed a program that should be the envy of everything else we do. The senior singles program is designed and run and promoted by a small group of people who wanted to make a home in the community for their cohort.

There are some youth in our community who are driving fantastic innovation in everything from getting food to the hungry to bringing Torah to the St. George’s School. There is a group of our best and most accomplished professionals worrying about how we bring more Torah study to our community.

My daughter said I should give another drasha about how the shul is disappearing and Vancouver is in danger of becoming another Winnipeg. I told her I am not doing that. I am not here to scare the community. She wanted me to tell you the house is falling. I say that it is not falling, but we have some renovation and redecorating to do – metaphorically speaking. I want to stay positive about our house.

This is your home – our home. It is the foundation of your identity and your heritage and you have to value it, and treat it as such.

If you do nothing else, please make sure you come here at least once a week for a class, a service, a project. Yesterday, I talked about how you measure your worth. One simple metric: how much have you visited our home – Schara Tzedeck? Less than once a week is not enough.

This is your house, you need to build and maintain it. What are you doing to be a builder?  Did you help build the food couch? Did you organize or attend a class? Did you work with Rabbi Wilchfort, Rabbi Berger, Rachael Lewinski, Rabbi Federgrun, Howie Kalner, of Juleen Axler to make our youth, seniors, Shabbat, Sukkot or Purim programming better?

This year our educational theme is going to be about leadership and personal initiative. In short, it is going to explore how we can transform ourselves from 700 me-s into a more effective we. It is going to be about how we can all be builders of our beautiful home.

The shofar calls to us now. It calls us to return.

Wed, 27 May 2020 4 Sivan 5780