Sign In Forgot Password

Yom Kippur Sermon

Authenticity (Yizkor, Yom Kippur 5780)

Last month, when dropping one of my children off at the airport, I saw a man leaning against the wall, on what I assumed was a scheduled break, puffing out enormous clouds of smoke. The device he held was a little bigger than a cell phone and it seemed to be a vaping device. It was one of those moments when I say to myself that there is no way that such a thing is really good for anyone.

For several years now, it has seemed that Juul and similar vaporized nicotine products had solved all the problems of smoking – i.e., no bad smell, no health risks - just the joy of nicotine without the downside. It turns out that was a false assumption. We are now learning that there are no real short cuts to smoking safety.

In the past 10 years our economy and lifestyle have been upended by a whole series of products and services that likewise seemed like they fundamentally changed life. [Then came the long-term research.] It turns out though that there are really very few such shortcuts.

We thought WE Work was going to change the nature of office spaces, but in the last week it appears that the company's success is another house of cards.

Theranos was going to revolutionize how blood tests work. That turned out to be a hoax.

Even Uber and Lyft, and Amazon are artificially cheap. Uber and Lyft are both subsidizing significant portions of their customers’ rides. Amazon lost 800 million dollars on Prime same day deliveries. One day the party will be over and we will have to pay the real cost of services.

There is a surprising phenomenon on YouTube, Pinterest, and Instagram. People are spending hours viewing do-it-yourself projects, but never actually starting their own. They scroll through beautifully decorated rooms to escape their own living spaces. There is apparently an internet phenomenon of people watching bedtime routines, many with thousands or even millions of views on YouTube. Gurus of sleep prep demonstrate their bedtime routines involving organic eucalyptus exfoliating wash and herbal tea in perfectly detailed bedrooms. Meanwhile, the viewers are eating Chinese take-out in unmade beds. The exercise was a total escape - pure vicarious living. Lest we pick on such delusions as extremes, let’s remember that every Sunday, 22 million people who need exercise spend four hours watching 22 men who don’t.

It seems like everywhere I turn, there is a new authenticity problem.

Are you aware that there is a corner of the online gaming world where people pay real money to open imaginary loot boxes? They give their characters imaginary clothes, or even just a celebratory phrase that emerges from the loot box. When I say people are paying real money for this, I mean it is estimated that it will be a 50-billion-dollar part of the video game industry by 2022.

Every time we go to Israel one of my daughters gives us a detailed list of the varieties of Doritos we need to bring back. You should know that there is only one food in the world that can excite the dopamine receptors of flavor with the same magnitude as Cheetos or Doritos: it is Cheeze-It. Did you know that a UK court found that Pringles cannot be taxed as potato chips, because they are less than 50% potato. These are synthetically-manipulated foods that are designed to deliver pleasure beyond nature's wildest capabilities. These foods represen a shortcut to pleasure, a less-than-authentic version of something good for us that has been manipulated by science to take the short path to our taste buds and excite us for all the wrong reasons.

The first Doritos were marketed in 1968, a little more than fifty years ago. Yet, the problem of authenticity dates back 3,000 years. It manifested in no less auspicious a place than the centere of Jewish worship. It was the time of the prophet Isaiah and the place was the Temple.

Why, when we fasted, did You not see? When we starved our bodies, did You pay no heed? Because on your fast day You see to your business and oppress all your labourers!

 

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; When you see the naked, clothe him; And not to ignore your own kin.

The problem in the days of Isaiah was that the ritual itself had become what Holden Caulfield (from Catcher in the Rye) would have called “phony.” The fast, the ritual, were all a production, but the essential values that Gd was looking to achieve through the fast were entirely lost.

As a community, as an institution, and as individuals this is one of the most important lessons we can ever internalize. We all know that we have strayed from the authenticity that the Torah demands of us. We know we have not always been true to the values we hold dear. This is the day to remind yourself of where you want to be, and be honest with how far you have strayed.

This self-reflection is appropriate for a synagogue as well. Unfortunately, there are times when the institution losses sight of its mission. There is a story told about this synagogue, where an individual asked if there were less expensive seats for the High Holidays. One of the financial stalwarts of the synagogue said, “yes we have cheaper seats.” He then proceeded to take this individual down to the washroom. I hope that story is not true. Even if the details are skewed, that kind deviation from authenticity in this synagogue happens. It happened in the days of Isiah when he had to remind them to share your bread with the hungry, And to take the wretched poor into your home. And it has probably happened in every generation since that bold prophet spoke the words of this morning’s haftorah.

Rav Yitchak Hutner lived an incredible life. He was a student of Rav Kook and himself only barely escaped the Chevron massacre. When he returned from Israel, he went to study philosophy at the University of Berlin, where he met both Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchic - who would become the head of Yeshiva University - and Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, who would become the Lubavitcher Rebbe. Rav Hutner was also once on a plane hijacked by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine during the Dawson’s Field hijackings in the 70s.

Rav Hutner says the operation of Yom Kippur is different from all other days of the year. On all other days that we ask for forgiveness, we may gain the acceptance of another person, or even Gd’s acknowledgement that we have done something wrong. On Yom Kippur, on the other hand, we seek purity. The driving word is before Hashem you will be purified. Rav Hutner continues to press this idea. In his explanation of the most common words of the prayer, the ones we will say over and over again tonight at Neilah as we did last night.

Hashem. Hashem, kel Rachum v'chanun.

Every one of the words in this formula that was given to Moshe after the golden calf is an attribute - a disposition, if you will. Slow to anger, patient, kind, abundantly kind, abiding of sin, abiding of negligence, and cleansing. However, the first two words are just Gd’s name said twice. The four-letter name of Gd also known as Shem Havayah, the name referring to existence. Rav Hutner says that this name is essentially not translatable, it has no synonym. The essential meaning is that it is the root of existence. The reason that Rav Hutner says that it is not translatable is because the process of Teshuva is to return to the most authentic part of you, the part that has no adjuncts, fillers, makeup, artificial flavors, or preservatives. It is the most essential root of all. Teshuva is meant to strike what is pure.

Perhaps a mental model of what Rav Hutner is referring to is the mikveh. When people go into the mikveh, they enter with no separation between themselves and the water around them - not a wedding ring, not nail polish, not even a bandage. When you enter that space, it is your most authentic self.

One of my colleagues said that for Rav Hutner Yom Kippur is the only real day of the year, the only authentic day. It is the only day when we stop pretending.

I think the world, our world, needs Yom Kippur more than any other holiday. We need to get back to things that are more authentic to our lives. We need to get away from believing that loot boxes in video games are real rewards. Away from using YouTube videos to imagine the life we would like to live. Away from living our lives and worse – dreaming our dreams - through characters brought to us by Sony, Disney, Amazon, and Netflix.

I think there is little in this world that is as authentic as the experiences we have with those who we love. There are few things that are as foundational as the experience of making the charoset with your grandmother; or as delivering the food to a shiva house with your mother; or arguing the meaning of the rabbi's sermon with your siblings at Rosh Hashanah lunch; or rolling up your sleeves to do the fundraising with your mother for a Tzedakah that you are passionate about; or the first trip to Israel with your family.

I have a special collection of records that people give me when they clean out their zayde’s home. They are Yossele Rosenblatt records. My great-grandfather was an especially popular cantor in that generation.

My grandfather was less famous, but in my estimation more important. He spoke 20 languages fluently. He translated the greatest works of medieval Jewish philosophy from Judeo-Arabic to English. I was always jealous of my older cousins who had the privilege of studying Talmud with him on Shabbat afternoons.

I remember, the one and only time I was able to study chumash and Rashi with him. It only happened once because he passed away almost without warning when I was 11. That memory no longer captures what we studied. I remember only the book we were studying. Yet, that it happened at all remains a precious memory. It is formative, authentic, and my connection to him in this way is the very definition for me of authenticity. Unfortunately, it is the only memory I have of that experience, because my grandfather passed away suddenly the night after my older brother’s Bar Mitzvah.

There is another authentic memory I have of that time, and it is of being a pallbearer at that same grandfather’s funeral. I remember thinking that he was going to wake up. He had died in his sleep, and I was sure they just had not woken him properly. I remember the rain, and the mud on my shoes, and the horrible feeling of guilt I developed because I did not know what to do with the mud as it collected on the carpet of the limo on the ride home. Those are the memories that connect me to some of the most authentic feelings of my life.

Please don’t discount this rabbi’s story for being about a person who had a grandfather who was a rabbi, because I have more memories from my mother’s mother. She had a tiny fraction of the scholarly background of my grandfather, but had everything that the Torah speaks of when it says do not abandon the Torah of your mothers. She survived polio, was all of 4’8” inches tall, and taught us all to love the Jewish calendar with the food and warmth she brought to it. She was also an extremely devout woman. She had real faith in Gd and in the traditions that she safeguarded.

There is no virtual substitute for watching your parents invite a total stranger into your home for the seder. There is no substitute for watching your family care for the aging friend of your grandmother as if she were a member of your own family. There is no virtual substitute for saying shema with your own children every night. This is why the Torah tells us “you shall teach them to your children, every day, every night, and when you go out on your way.” It has to be real, physical, authentic, and regular.

There is no video screen equivalent to lifting a bag of rice for the food bank. There is no substitute for taking children to the Unity Shabbat following the slaying of 11 Jews in the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh. There is no substitute for knowing how to sing the tunes in shul and hearing others sing them with you.

I will tell you another of my authentic experiences. On Rosh Hashanah I sat next to what might have been the best davening in the room. There was a young boy here, Rabbi Glatt’s son. Rabbi Glatt is the cantor who leads shacharit. I glanced over during the shemona esrei, the silent devotion, and the boy’s prayer book was wet with with tears.

I know what the Hebrew means, I know the bible references, I know the rabbinic explanations, and I can tell you that bringing oneself authentically to that kind of moment is hard. The previous night, I saw that the same young man had cue cards. I glanced at them. One quoted the line in every single High Holiday shemoneh esrei: uvchen, tzaddikim yismichu, vyirahu - the righteous should be glad, and awestruck, the upright shall be delighted, the Hasidim, the pious, should sign loudly. These lines are fundamentally about a pure perception of Gd. This young man had written on his card that we should strive to be righteous, pious, such that we would be welcome in the company of true Tzaddikim.

I could not look into his heart, but I imagine that here is an 11-year-old boy whose heroes are not Drake or James Charles. His heroes are those who have dedicated their lives to Torah and those who have dedicated their lives to charity and helping others. I imagine his tears are tears of longing to grow up to be like them. Those are real tears, authentic. And they belong to an 11-year-old. His strength of prayer does not come from knowing the words but from a real authentic home environment where those values are lived.

It is authentic to share your prayers with your children as your parents shared theirs with you. It is authentic to say today that we are lighting the shabbat candles and we are going to say Tehillim psalms and the prayer for healing for cousin Gertie as she goes through chemotherapy.

We may live in a world where everything is changing, where having a phone that reads your fingerprint on the lock screen is old news. We live in a world were compact discs are relegated to the prehistoric age, and cassette tapes to the mesolithic period.

However, those who came before us lived in different times with different parameters. Science made technological innovations possible, but the science of body and mind also tells us that such innovations do not matter. The most important technological question is, “how does the human operate in a human world? We don’t need the science of 2019 to tell what the Torah told us in the beginning: we need authentic, tangible, real experiences. Let’s continue in that spirit…

 

Three Shofrot (Yom Kippur 5780)

You may wonder, do Rabbis take sermon requests?

Over the past few weeks I have received numerous suggestions about topics. Some say, “rabbi you have to talk about antisemitism.” Others’ messages come with an attached article or video. One such video dealt with antisemitism and artificial intelligence…

What is artificial in artificial intelligence? Artificial Intelligence is defined as the simulation of human intelligence. It is artificially human. Machine thinking is meant to approximate the way the human brain works. However, artificial intelligence is more like a mirror of human intelligence, because artificial intelligence works by learning from the human inputs it experiences thousands of times over.

One of the easiest ways to see artificial intelligence at work is in the Google search bar. There was a time, several years ago, when anyone who entered the words, “are Jews…” would find that Google auto-filled the completion of that question as, “are Jews evil?” - in the same way it auto-fills the words “are bees” to ask, “are bees endangered?” If you allow the search of “are Jews evil?” to progress, Google presents you with a full list of websites that answer in the affirmative. Yes, it will tell you, we are evil. How is it possible that the search bar of Google, a company co-founded by Sergey Brin - a Jew of Russian descent – auto-fills antisemitism?

The answer is simple: artificial intelligence learns how most people who enter the phrase ‘are Jews’ actually finish the sentence. It is a scary thought that there is enough active antisemitism on the web to teach the computer to be racist. The mirror of the human mind that is artificial intelligence is not showing a pretty picture.

Google has since disciplined its adolescent computer. It changed the algorithm to avoid auto-filling Jewish-related searches with hateful conclusions. For now… However, prominent news about Israel - such as when Israeli singer Netta won the Eurovision competition - still triggers enough hateful searches to throw off Google. People take advantage of the increase in searches to get ahead of the new algorithm. Eleven Jews were shot dead in Squirrel Hill Pittsburgh because of the fear that they were globalists hatching a plot to overthrow the white majority with an immigrant invasion. That fear is engineered by right-wing and left-wing antisemites who manipulate public opinion by manipulating the search engines and social media platforms.

Only six days ago, the Daily Mail reported one of the most severe cases of bullying one could imagine. It was a harrowing photograph of a Melbourne park in which a 12-year-old Jewish boy is seen on his knees kissing the shoe of a Muslim boy, allegedly after a group 12 and 13-year-olds threatened him with violence.

Here at home, in Ontario: a student posted a sign in a school hallway alleging that Israel harvests Palestinians’ organs for human testing. In the Vaughan suburb of Toronto: antisemitic graffiti with the phrases "watch yourself" and " we watch" along with a swastika was spray-painted on the front of a home. Across Canada hate crimes in general are abating, but not those against Jews. Antisemitism is holding steady, even here in tolerant Canada.

This undeniable problem surrounds us. Many people said to me this year, “rabbi you need to speak about antisemitism!”

Frankly, I have so little to say on the subject. I have trouble getting inside the mind of an antisemite, and have little desire to do so. I also categorically reject the construct. High Holiday sermons are about how we can change ourselves, and how we can be better. The moment one marries the idea of our community’s need to be better with antisemitism, one gives the haters credibility; it suggests that somehow if we, Jews, behaved better there would be less antisemitism.

Antisemites don’t get a voice in this room. As I have said before, I loathe it when people define my Judaism by the criteria of who Hitler would have sent to the gas chamber. Why in the world would we give him a vote? Hitler is not entitled to an opinion on how we live. The Stormfront is not entitled to influence Jewish behavior, and Jeremy Corbyn does not have a say in how Israel defends itself.

So, I found myself with little to say on this subject, until I came across a sermon delivered by Chief Rabbi of Israel Avraham Yitchak HaKohen Kook in the old city of Jerusalem in 1933. Rabbi Kook was speaking in the wake of events that no one could have fully understood at the time. The Nazis had come to power in Germany six month earlier, in March of ‘33. They had formed the Gestapo and had burned Jewish and other German books en masse on the campuses of German universities on the 10th of May. 133 days later Rabbi Kook got up to speak in the Churvah Synagogue of the Old City of Jerusalem. During the same period of time, the nascent yishuv of the Jews in Israel absorbed 30,000 central European Jews, who brought much needed expertise to the land of Israel. One of the Jews who attended the sermon was Rabbi Eliezer Eliner, a Latvian Jew who memorialized the sermon and the event itself. He described the alleyways that surrounded the Churvah Synagogue as filled with Jews wearing the traditional Rosh Hashanah clothing of a multitude of nations and people from all corners of the earth who had ascended every stairway in the surrounding courtyard just to hear Rav Kook. The Sephardic Jews apparently would bow their heads and take Rav Kook’s hand and kiss it like a Sefer Torah as the Chief Rabbi passed by. The Arabs who saw this were apparently astounded by the scene. The cantor did not extend the prayers that morning, because it was so crowded in the pews, aisles, and alleyways.

After the Torah reading, Rav Kook began to speak.

There are three types of shofars that may be blown on Rosh Hashanah. The optimal shofar is the horn of a ram. If a ram's horn is not available, then the horn of any kosher animal other than a cow may be used. And if a kosher shofar is not available, then one may blow on the horn of any animal, even one which is not kosher. When using a horn from a non-kosher animal, however, no blessing is recited.

These three shofars of Rosh Hashanah correspond to three "Shofars of Redemption," three Divine calls summoning the Jewish people to be redeemed and to redeem their land.

The preferred Shofar of Redemption is the Divine call that awakens and inspires the people with holy motivations, through faith in Gd and the unique mission of the people of Israel. This elevated awakening corresponds to the ram's horn, a horn that recalls Abraham's supreme love of God and dedication in Akeidat Yitzchak, the Binding of Isaac. ... It is for this "great shofar," an awakening of spiritual greatness and idealism, that we fervently pray.

There exists a second Shofar of Redemption, a less optimal form of awakening. This shofar calls out to the Jewish people to return to their homeland, to the land where our ancestors, our prophets and our kings, once lived. It beckons us to live as a free people, to raise our families in a Jewish country and a Jewish culture. This is a kosher shofar, albeit not a great shofar like the first type of awakening. We may still recite a bracha over this shofar.

There is, however, a third type of shofar. (At this point in the sermon, Rav Kook burst out in tears.) The least desirable shofar comes from the horn of an unclean animal. This shofar corresponds to the wake-up call that comes from the persecutions of anti-Semitic nations, warning the Jews to escape while they still can and flee to their own land. Enemies force the Jewish people to be redeemed, blasting the trumpets of war, bombarding them with deafening threats of harassment and torment, giving them no respite. The shofar of unclean beasts is thus transformed into a Shofar of Redemption.

Then came Rav Kook’s lament:

Whoever failed to hear the calls of the first two shofars will be forced to listen to the call of this last shofar. Over this shofar, however, no blessing is recited. "One does not recite a blessing over a cup of affliction" (Berachot 51b). (from Rabbi Chanan Morrison, Silver from the Land of Israel -his translation of Mo'adei HaRe'iyah, pp. 67-70)
 

Those are strong words. Rabbi Kook believed that Gd had a destiny for the Jewish people. Rav Kook more than any other figure I know had a profound ability to see the very best in people. It was he who saw the greatness of contemporary Jewish art while all of his colleagues criticized the Betzalel Institute. It was he who saw great Jewish strength in the secular Jewish community even as many of his colleagues decried their lack of faith. Rav Kook very much believed that the Jewish people needed to be called to Israel to fulfill their positive potential. However, if they failed to hear that call, then Gd would call them by means of antisemitism.

Remember that Rabbi Kook uttered these words six years before Krystallnacht. I wonder if Rabbi Kook would have been able to deliver this sermon in 1940, 1944, or 1948. We will never know; Rav Kook passed away less than two years later.

However, I find in his words a very relevant lesson today. To speak in a more modern but less eloquent metaphor: antisemitism is the Red Bull [energy drink] of Jewish life. It makes you feel Jewishly awake, but does nothing to address the underlying exhaustion. We need to face it; there is not a corner of Jewish life that has not been intensely colored by the Holocaust. From the Yeshiva study halls of Bnei Brak to the March of the Living, we have all used the Holocaust as an occasional booster shot to our Jewish existence.

I think there are a lot of rabbis who know that the return of antisemitism is good for business. It brings Jews back the pews and gets gelt into the pushkah. That is not the kind of Judaism that I want to build. Rabbi Shlomo Twersky, a Chassidic master of the 21st century, said that earlier generations used to strive for greatness, and in our generation we only speak of not slipping away.

Today is Yom Kippur. It is a day of confessions. I am guilty of this or that sin. I have stood before you and made the argument that you should do this mitzvah or that mitzvah so that the Jewish community does not disappear. Rabbis greater than I have made this argument on all sorts of levels, including those who advocate the most extreme forms of cultural isolation, lest their children or grandchildren assimilate. And, of course, there are those of us who preach to the bottom line; at least marry Jewish.

We have been aiming too low. Rav Kook is telling us that if antisemitism is what brings you back, then you are aiming too low. We have something beautiful, special, magical here. We should not be aiming low.
 

Today is the culmination of the ten days of repentance. It is a time that we behave differently. Instead we act as if we are trying to fool Gd. We try not to gossip this week. We get up earlier for services. There are those of us who walk to shul - but only this week. As well, we all fast for the next 25 hours and pretend like we are angels, beings who live outside of physical needs. You could ask, who are you fooling? Gd knows that you will go back to driving next Shabbat, to gossiping on Thursday, to eating tomorrow night. So, what is the point?

The point is that we discover that we can aim high. We can expect more from ourselves. We don’t have to settle for the person we are resigned to being. We have the power to be better, to dream bigger and higher, and more be generous, and more disciplined.

The most depressing thing in the world is to be around people with no dreams, with no aspirations, with no desire to make things better. Rav Kook is sharing a vision with the Jews gathered in the streets of the old city; we can build a country, a home that is called to a high purpose. It is called by a desire to live with the ideals of the Torah, by a strong sense of comradery for one another.

I started by talking about antisemitism, and moved away from it. However, I don’t mean to make light of the need to fight it. Antisemitism is like waterproofing. Homeowners must do it, but it does not make a house into a home.

So, I may have started with antisemitism, but I want to finish by asking you to dream with me. Take this day to think, to dream, to aim high. What does your best Jewish year look like? Do you master Hebrew? Do you learn to Daven with the same serenity as a run in the endowment lands? Do you make your family’s hobby giving, hosting others for Shabbat? Are you the one to start a viral Torah study group in this community, or the person who learns how to read the Torah or the Megillah?

Maybe it is time for us to ensure that our spiritual and educational vision transcends mere survival. That means that merely marrying Jewish is too low a bar. Our vision must reach beyond survival to embrace a positive outlook that defines and inspires us on its own terms, not in a call-and-response with antisemitism.  We can and should hear the inspiring sounds of the shofar of optimism, of Sinai, and the inherent optimism that was always a part of the bold shofar that declares the beginning of the Age of Redemption.

Thu, 14 November 2019 16 Cheshvan 5780