Rosh Hashanah 5778
Good Morning, and shana tova! First, I would like to thank you all for coming to our service this morning. I am Rob Ore, the President of Sinai Temple, and, on behalf of the Sinai Board of Trustees, welcome! I’d like to thank Rabbi Alan for his thoughtful sermon, our guest Cantor, Jennifer Seeger, for leading us in song, Larisa Chasanov, our pianist this morning, Larry Adelston, our guitarist, and our Music Director, Martha Alwes. Thank you to all who have participated in the service this morning, whether reading, ushering or joining in the singing and prayers. It is truly a community effort. And, finally, thanks to everyone who worked so hard setting up the sanctuary and pods last Sunday.
So, to begin my speech, I have two questions.
What are you? What are you not? These are questions all people need to ask themselves. Where does each of us draw the line between ourselves and others?
This question has many answers in many contexts, because each of us belongs to many categories. In one sense, each of us is entirely unique and so the rest of the universe is “other.” In another sense, we are all the same, a part of God’s creation, indivisible and indistinguishable from the rest, so there is no “other.”
Think about where you draw lines in your life. There are lines of species, of race, family, religion, gender, ethnicity, and citizenship. These are just the most obvious ones. The more you begin to consider this question, the more categories and lines you discover. For example, if you are a Jew, you probably also identify with one or another subcategory of Jews, like Reform, Conservative or Orthodox, and each of these has further subdivisions. If you are an American, you probably also identify with a given region, dialect, political party or philosophy. Human beings are multidimensional Venn diagrams.
We Jews have a special relationship with God as set out in the Torah. This gives us special privileges and special responsibilities. During this season, we are called upon to examine our relationship both with our Creator and with our fellow creatures.
The Days of Awe are our opportunity to examine where we fit in in all these hierarchies and categories and to examine whether our behavior this past year is consistent with who we are as people, as members of our communities and as children of God. Are we living as our moral laws direct us, or are we letting our own self-interest and ego dictate how we relate to God and Humanity?
In the book of Devarim (Deuteronomy) we are exhorted to treat the stranger as ourselves, to afford him the same rights and kindnesses we give to our own people. That challenges us to learn to see ourselves in the stranger, to try as much as possible to erase the line between us. There lies a closer connection with God.
In all the categories in which we place ourselves, we define self and other. When we see an injustice perpetrated on someone, what is our threshold for tolerating that injustice? Does it depend on how much we identify with the other person? For most of us, if something happens to a member of our family, we are more willing to help than if the same thing happened to a stranger. If I consider you to be inside my circle, I am more apt to empathize with your situation and react to adversity in your life than if I consider you to be an outsider.
This is not wrong. If we all had the capacity to cure all evils of society and help all people, then doing so selectively based on self-interest would be unconscionable, but we as humans are limited in our resources and abilities. We need to make choices in our lives. The question is, how do we navigate this difficult landscape of self and other in order to do as much as we should without doing more than we can?
I want to suggest an experiment to you. In the next week, notice how you think about people you meet. Is your first reaction a judgment of how they don’t measure up to how you want them to be? Are you focused on how they differ from you? If so, try focusing instead on what you have in common with them. When I do this experiment myself, I find that my circle expands, and I begin to treat other people with more courtesy and understanding. See what happens for you!
Our spiritual calendar is based on the cycle of Torah, which begins each year with creation. In a sense, our lives are recreated and re-energized each year at this season. How horrible it would be if we were doomed to continue our lives unchanged year after year. This renewal allows us to break the bad habits and routines we’ve fallen into over the year and remake our lives. Of course, part of this process is recognizing our habits. This is what we do symbolically when we confess our sins. We ask God to forgive us for our transgressions and accept our promise to return to righteousness. We ask that we be given this chance to reform, so that we may be written for good in the Book of Life.
Our Temple calendar is based on the same cycle. That is why we ask people at this season of the year to reconsider their relationship with—and their commitment to—their Temple family. Nothing in life is static and unchanging. Our circumstances change and so do all our relationships, including our relationship with the Temple. For this reason, it is necessary to update our commitments every year, to determine what makes sense for us.
The Temple, as a living entity, is also not static. Our congregation is constantly changing. People’s lives bring them to our community, and they look to our Temple for a spiritual home. Particularly in a university community like Champaign-Urbana, people sometimes leave to pursue opportunities elsewhere. And, unfortunately, people also die. The Temple must be able to adjust to these comings and goings and provide what its membership needs.
We ask that you, as a member of the Temple, consider how the Temple and its members fit into your life. How does the Temple serve your family’s needs, and what are you doing to make sure it continues to be a vital part of the life of this community? The Temple affords many opportunities for service. I’d like to mention just a few.
Of course, what would a President’s Rosh Hashanah speech be without a plea for financial support? The Temple does need money to support its many activities. I think our current model of membership dues accords perfectly with the season of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, and it is entirely reasonable to take up this inquiry now. We do not ask members to pay fixed dues. Rather, we ask that you determine what contributions make sense given your personal situation. This is akin to the work we do in placing our life and conduct under a magnifying glass during the Holiday season. And this is something we all need to do at this season each year, because our circumstances are continually changing. It is part of the stock-taking of our lives.
But more than just the financial, the Temple needs commitment of service from its members. This includes working on committees, joining the Board, volunteering for events, etc. There is no better way of connecting with others than joining together to accomplish a common goal.
In exploring your relationship with other people this week, why not also re-evaluate your relationship with the Temple? Is the Temple inside or outside your circle? And what about your relationship with yourself? Is the way you view yourself and your abilities a reflection of reality or of habit?
At each stage of life, we have different strengths, abilities and capacities. What is appropriate for you may not be so for anyone else. By the same token, what is appropriate for you now may not depend on what you have felt capable of in the past. We all grow and mature. Service to the Temple is a chance to develop skills you might not be aware you possess. And without making the effort, you may never know. After all, I never imagined I would be standing before you as President of the Temple, but here I am! To paraphrase Star Trek’s Guardian of Forever, “Many such journeys are possible! Let the Temple be your gateway!”
May we all enjoy a happy, healthy and productive New Year!