Wouldn’t it be great if we actually meant what we said, felt what we felt when we’re in synagogue on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
We all talk and pray about how we plan to be better people, kinder and gentler, how we see how short we fell during the past year and so intend to be different in the coming year. And we all listen and nod as the rabbi urges us to do some soul searching, to vow to correct our ways, be nicer to others, think more kindly of others, speak more kindly of others, act more kindly to others.
We all say it and probably all mean it. But we hardly ever do it.
Whether you really get into all of the ten days of awe or just get into the three days of high holy days, once those days have passed, all our good intentions, all our sweet sounding words, dripping with honey, pretty much go poof.
Sometimes they don’t even make it out of the synagogue.
I will never forget the time I was attending Kol Nidre services at my shul at the time and there was a new rabbi delivering his first Yom Kippur sermon. And so there he stood talking about how important it is to avoid gossip, how important it is not to judge others, how important it is not to speak unkindly of others.
And literally as he was speaking, and immediately after he finished speaking, everyone sitting around me was chatting about how the new rabbi didn’t speak as well as the old rabbi did, how he went on too long, how they didn’t find his words very inspiring and on and on. Doing exactly what he just told us all not to do.
Did we listen, sure, but did we hear, not so much.
And while many of us may at least make it out of the synagogue holding on to the spirit of the season, we don’t do so for very long.
I think the most impressive and wise sermon I ever heard was a few years ago when I was attending a small service located inside a house on a residential street in the Ramat Eshkol neighborhood of Jerusalem.
There got up a very distinguished looking rabbi, and he didn’t sermonize at us but talked to us. He put his elbow on the bimah, his hand resting on his chin and he just shared some thoughts, wasn’t all high and mighty, but his message certainly was.
What he said was don’t think the high holidays are going to change you. They won’t. If you’re lucky, you may feel some effect of them a day or so past Yom Kippur but that’s it. They won’t change your life, make you a new person. They won’t cause you to drop all your old and bad habits, to never utter a bad word or think a bad thought about anyone.
Be realistic, he said. Don’t aim for the moon, aim only to do one thing differently in the new year. One thing. That’s it. And he said make it a small thing, not a big thing. Because if you vow to change something major about yourself or in your life, it ain’t gonna happen. But if you commit to changing one small thing, it might.
I was very smitten by the attitude of this rabbi who himself was very religious, very learned, a very fine person. He didn’t do any guilt trips, apply any pressure, make you feel like a failure if after the high holidays you weren’t on the road to Jewish sainthood. All he asked us to do was to be a little bit more of a mensch in the new year than we were in the old.
How I wish every single Jew would have heard that rabbi, how I wish every single Jew would take his message to heart.
I’m feeling a little despairing about the state of Jews and Judaism these days, about how quick we are to judge and condemn, to label and dismiss, to jump to conclusions and to close our minds and hearts.
I recently had three encounters with three different Jews that really brought this home to me. None of them was a big deal but in a way they were very big deals for they so much typified what Jewish life is like these days.
One was when I was chatting with a new acquaintance, someone I very much liked. We met walking home from shul one Friday night. Thought we didn’t know each other, and he was a few feet ahead of me on the street, since I am now old and do not walk as fast as I used to, he stopped and turned around and introduced himself, which I thought was as nice as it is rare these days.
Seems he’s from England and so we compared what it’s like to have grown up in London in his case, in Chicago in mine. It was a nice friendly encounter. We happened to run into each other in the street a few times after that and it was always pleasant. Then one night I was sitting on a bench because well I’m old and so need to sit and catch my breath after I’ve been slowly walking for a while. He happened to walk by and so he sat down and we started to engage in the Jewish Olympic sport of schmoozing.
Inevitably we would up talking politics and inevitably we wound up talking about Trump and Bibi, but then we veered off into the early days of Israel. Bottom line is that he had some pretty harsh criticisms of David Ben-Gurion, based on exactly one book he had just read. Not happy about how Ben-Gurion had treated Yemenite Jews when they came to Israel, and Ben- Gurion’s attitude towards European Jews during the Holocaust, my British friend blurted out, “of course Ben-Gurion is a rashah.” Rashah is Hebrew for evil person. It’s a very serious charge in Jewish tradition; note that the evil son is one of the bad guys in the Passover Haggadah. Indeed tradition teaches that labeling someone a rashah is such a serious charge, that no one alive today is qualified to label someone a rashah.
And yet here was this guy labeling as a rashah the man who had more to do that any human being with the rebirth of Israel. I was not happy because to me this so typified so much of what is wrong with Judaism today. This sick need to label Jews we don’t like, Jews who aren’t exactly like us, Jews who see Judaism differently than we do, with the ugliest of names.
And then there was my Israeli cab driver. Shortly after I got into the taxi, we began naturally to talk about politics and he just matter of factly said, ‘Hillary is an anti-Semite.’ Again I was taken aback. Look while I supported Hillary, I understand why those who didn’t didn’t, I understand why people don’t like her, didn’t vote for her. But there is absolutely no evidence or reason to label her with such a serious, such an ugly name. She is not an anti-Semite at all, or evil, as some Jews during the election last year, called her. Why, please tell me, do Jews so much so quickly feel the need to call anyone we don’t like, we don’t agree with, we see things differently from, an anti-Semite?
And then I got an email from a Chicago rabbi who is super Orthodox and so doesn’t agree with the idea that Jews who are not Orthodox should have a space to call their own at the Western Wall, a place they can pray as they wish, separate and equal to the traditional prayer space right in front of the Wall.
G-d forbid, we should make it possible for all Jews to pray as they wish at the Wall, how terrible an idea. So terrible that after years of negotiations, an agreement was reached to construct an egalitarian prayer space at the Wall, but it was killed due to virulent, violent and threatening words and actions by the religious parties in Netanyahu’s government.
So anyway here’s what the Chicago rabbi wrote me. “By the way, did you see anything about the Jews for Jesus petitioning for a section at the Wall seeing the success of the Reform movement?”
That made me sick for it is such a sick attitude by some Jews toward Jews different from them. That he can’t see that Jews for Judaism and Reform Jews are very different things is nauseating. His sick view is that it would be as insane to have a space at the Wall for Reform Jews to pray as it would be to have a space for Jewish for Jesus to pray. That is how incapable Jews today are of respecting Jews not like them, accepting and loving all Jews, like them or not.
Which is why I was so tickled by a letter I got from someone named Leon Hoffman. Now you may find his letter corny and choose to mock it, dismiss it, laugh at it. But truth is I really liked it and I think it expressed a wisdom we can benefit from.
“Happy New Year should echo all year long,” he wrote. “Our world should strive to resemble the diversity of vegetable soup, where all of its ingredients (e.g., peas, carrots, corn, beans, etc.) get along well with each other. No fighting — just pleasant interaction, togetherness, and fulfillment. No competition. Just put the spoon in your mouth and enjoy it. Happy New Year.”
I know, make fun of thinking of the Jewish people as a bowl of vegetable soup, sit in the seat of the scornful and chuckle, but he’s right. How wonderful it would be if the feelings and words and thoughts we have and say during Rosh Hashanah would actually stick with us the entire year, every single day.
How wonderful it would be if we all got along well with each other, didn’t fight or judge or label or dismiss, didn’t decide Ben-Gurion is a rashah and Hillary is an anti-Semite and your neighbors are horrible and the guy who sits next to you in shul is an idiot and all Jews who are not Jews like you are not really Jews, are just like Holocaust deniers, just like Jews for Jesus.
How wonderful it would be if we just savored the beauty of Judaism and of each and every Jew, just enjoyed being part of this great religion and people, kvelled at being the brothers and sisters of so many amazing, diverse, creative, committed, passionate, caring Jews.
I wish you all a great new year, and wish, most of all, that the messages of the high holidays stick with you in some small way, every single day of the new year.