Monday, October 2, 2017

Rosh Hashanah 5778: Hold On!

Hold On!
Erev Rosh Hashanah 5778
September 20, 2017
Rabbi Alan Cook
Sinai Temple, Champaign, Illinois

         A few weeks ago, we had a minor issue with a smoke detector in our home.  In an effort to rectify the situation, we searched through various online resources, but none seemed to provide the answer to our specific issue.  At last, I tracked down a customer service number and called the company directly.

         Then, I waited.  I was assured many times that my call was very important.  I didn’t keep track of the actual time that it took me to reach an operator, but I would estimate that it was more than twenty minutes.  The actual question that I had sought to resolve took less than a minute.

         My experience was not unique, though in fairness, most would consider it a “first-world problem.”  But a study by analytics firm Marchex estimates that Americans spend 900 million hours each year on hold on the telephone.  Divide that number by 323 billion—the approximate number of Americans, and then divide that again by the average American lifespan of 78 years.  It turns out that over the course of a lifetime, the average American will spend 43 days on hold.[1]

         Sounds infuriating, no?  Certainly, if all of that time is spent listening to Muzak, pacing the floor, and hoping that you don’t get disconnected, it’s going to grate on you after a while.  But what if being on hold is actually a positive thing?  As we enter these Yamim Nora’im, these Days of Awe, I’m going to suggest that holding—and in turn, being held—is exactly what we need to do in order to function as happy and successful individuals.  Perhaps it is exactly what God expects of us during these days of introspection and renewal.  If we could put things on hold for a moment and escape the constant swirl of activity—and often, anxiety—that surrounds us, perhaps we could get a better handle on living life according to our greatest potential.

         The first sort of holding that this season encourages us to undertake is holding ourselves to a higher standard.  This is not to say that we should be disappointed or hyper-critical about our current selves.  God embraces each of us as magnificent creatures with tremendous potential; we are holy vessels containing sparks of the divine.  But we can examine our past, make a thorough assessment of our actions and behaviors, and determine where there might be room for growth.  Such work is known in Hebrew as cheshbon ha-nefesh, taking account of one’s soul.  We recognize that we should continually be striving toward excellence.  These High Holy Days give us permission to enter the new year with a clean slate, as we each work to forge the path that will be most meaningful and fulfilling for us.  Our tradition informs us that so long as we enter into this endeavor wholeheartedly and with noble intentions, God will embrace us with love and smile on our undertakings.  So we consider: how can we be better spouses, children, parents, friends, community participants?

         When we examine our behaviors, attitudes, and actions over the past year, we may ask ourselves whether we have achieved our full potential.  We strive to improve ourselves, not just because our liturgy asks us to engage in such teshuvah, but hopefully also because we recognize that continual self-improvement is part of our moral responsibility.  If we truly hold ourselves accountable as good citizens, as good exemplars of an ethical Jewish life, then we can accomplish great things.

         When God instructed Moses about building the Aron HaKodesh—the Ark of the Covenant that the Israelites carried through the wilderness (yes, the one that Indiana Jones found in Raiders of the Lost Ark)—the instructions included the obligation to cover it with gold inside and out.[2]  With regard to this, the Talmudic sage Raba taught, “Any student whose inside is not like his [or her] outside”—in Hebrew the phrase is tocho k’varo—“is not considered a wise student.”[3]  Whatever characteristics we display to others should be matched by inner convictions.  That is the standard to which we should hold ourselves.

         I doubt that Paul Jobs went through his life aware of this Talmud teaching.  Paul Jobs was the working-class man from San Francisco who raised Steve Jobs, the co-founder of Apple Computers.  According to a biography by Walter Isaacson, much of Steve Jobs’ sense of aesthetic, for which his company became well known, was developed through his father’s influence.  Steve Jobs said, “He loved doing things right.  He even cared about the look of the parts you can’t see.”[4]  In the 1980s, when the Macintosh computer was first released, Steve Jobs decided that the circuit board needed to be redesigned to make it more attractive.  Some of the engineers protested that consumers would never see this part of the computer, but Jobs persisted, telling them “You will know.”[5]

         If the principle holds true for arks and for computers, it should hold true for us as well.  Each of us should hold ourselves to this standard, and strive to live tocho k’varo

         When I was a kid, attending Jewish pre-school and day school, one of the songs the music teacher liked to sing with us was “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands.”  Patriarchal language and anthropomorphic images of God notwithstanding, the idea that God was watching over us all and shielding us from harm certainly resonated with me.  The notion that all of us—“you and me, brother” or “you and me, sister”—were subject to the same protection was also significant.  Over time, however, my theology has evolved to a point whereby I think a more accurate lyric might be, “We’ve Got the Whole World in Our Hands.”  Personally, I feel God’s hand nurturing me and guiding me toward a proper path.  But I believe it is the community of humanity that works in partnership with God to hold this world together.    In an increasingly fractious world in which some of the loudest voices are proclaiming that we must fear and disdain those who look or think or worship or behave differently than we do, it is imperative that we engage in actions that will build bridges to connect disparate communities.  If we can learn to embrace our shared humanity, it shouldn’t be that hard to find common ground—and I’m not talking about the food co-op.

         The sages taught that a single human being was created by God “for the sake of peace among peoples.”  Thus, one may not say to another, “My heritage was greater than yours.”[6]  When we learn to look upon one another as kin—as brothers and sisters and cousins who are each creatures of God, endowed by the divine with essential worth—we move closer to peace.  We are not born with likes and dislikes; an infant does not instinctively recoil from someone who is different from her.  This is learned behavior, and thus it can be unlearned.

         Qasim Rashid was a senior in college in Chicago twelve years ago when Hurricane Katrina struck.  He emailed his professors and told them that he wished to take about ten days off from class to go assist in the relief effort in Louisiana.  One of his professors responded that Rashid would have to make a choice between this community service and graduating.  Rashid writes, “I had to get my priorities straight.  I did what any decent person would do.  So, [without] permission or money, I skipped class for two weeks and [my brother and] I drove down…to help Katrina refugees.”

         When he returned to class after an unexcused two week absence, his professor confronted him angrily, “Where were you, Mr. Rashid?”  Rashid shrugged his shoulders and responded, “Katrina.”  Nothing further was said.  Rashid received an “A” in the class, and the professor subsequently wrote one of his recommendations for law school.[7]  Rashid recognized that there are times when we can go along with the crowd, minding our own business, and there are times that require us to take a stand, to extend a hand to others and help to hold up our country.  As Houston continues to recover and rebuild following the devastation of Hurricane Harvey, as Florida and the Carribean deal with the aftermath of Hurricane Irma, and as other storms continue to develop and possibly make their impact, hopefully many more stories like Mr. Rashid’s will come to the forefront.

         This country used to be known as the great Melting Pot.  Some might argue that this moniker was applied because of cultural assimilation; certainly, some immigrants, when they arrived in this country, quickly abandoned languages, practices, foodways, and behaviors that would mark them as foreigners, “melting” instead into a generic American existence.  But I prefer to think of the Melting Pot as referring to a stew of sorts, incorporating different cultures while maintaining the distinct flavors inherent to each.  Nowadays, however, it feels that we are more of a TV dinner, with each of us upholding our own particular identities.  While the mashed potatoes make an occasional foray to intermingle with the green beans, by and large we’ve started to keep to ourselves, and I think that is to our country’s detriment.  We’re not always going to agree on every principle or ideal that our neighbors hold dear, but I believe that we must seek to move beyond those differences and engage for the sake of the greater good.  As the Youngbloods sang, “You hold the key to love and fear all in your trembling hand./ Just one key unlocks them both, it’s there at your command.”[8]  Let our hands holding other hands be part of the glue that will once again bind the American Melting Pot.  Let us use our hands to elevate the love and diminish the fear.

         Modern Judaism has enshrined the value of tikkun olam as a central tenet.  Often, it’s defined as engaging in deeds of social justice.  But the original concept actually derives from High Holy Day liturgy: l’taken olam b’malchut Shaddai—to restore the world to wholeness according to God’s initial plan.  If we can take small steps to do this, if we can heed the call of the prophet Isaiah and be “repairers of the breach,”[9] if we can learn to treat others the way we would like to be treated ourselves, then we can each lend a hand to hold the world together and bring it closer to wholeness and peace.

         And in this year of putting things on hold, we simply must find ways to hold one another—in our congregational family and in our broader community.  Look: human existence at this stage in our evolution is naturally fraught with a certain amount of anxiety and uncertainty; some people are finding that the events that have dominated the news cycles during the past year have set them particularly on edge.  We rely on our interactions with friends and neighbors to soothe our frazzled psyches.  We seek hands to hold and shoulders to lean on and the knowledge that in our most joyous moments—or in our moments of deep despair (may they be rare)—we have people to whom we can turn.

         We haven’t formally articulated it anywhere that I know of, but in joining Sinai Temple, or in simply choosing to be here for worship this evening, you became part of a sacred covenant—in Hebrew, we would call it a brit—that binds you to other members of this congregation.  We don’t experience our Judaism in a vacuum; we do so in relationship with one another.  We support one another through all of the ups and downs that the Jewish calendar, the cycle of life, and our daily existence on this planet may bring to us.

         Here’s an exercise I’d like us all to undertake right now: turn to a neighbor…not the person you came with, but somebody sitting in front of or beside you or a few seats down.  If you don’t already know each other, introduce yourself.  And then exchange handshakes, or fist bumps, or high fives, or even—as long as both parties are comfortable doing so—give each other a hug. 

         We need these interpersonal connections.  When we touch one another— whether in an embrace or in a casual manner such as a fist bump—we get a surge of oxytocin, which inspires feelings of connectedness and closeness.  Professor Kerstin Uvnas-Moberg, a professor of physiology at Uppsala University in Sweden, teaches, “Oxytocin is evolutionarily extremely important for closeness, whether it’s the bonding within a couple or feelings of familiarity in a larger group.”[10]  We hold one another, whether in a romantic relationship, a nurturing one, or a supportive act of friendship because of the biological processes that make it feel good, but also because evolution has designed us to actually require such contact.  Whether we hold each other literally, or whether we do so figuratively through words and deeds, we appreciate what it means to be welcomed and supported as an essential element in a larger family or community.

       There is a song that was very popular in NFTY, the North American Federation of Temple Youth, back when I was a teen.  It was written by Miki Gavrielov and Arik Einstein in the early 1970s and is called Ani V’Atah, which translates to “You and I.”  The lyrics state, “You and I can change the world.  You and I, and then the rest will follow.  Others have said this before, but it doesn’t matter.  You and I will change the world.”[11]  We have the opportunity in this New Year 5778 to change the world for the better: by holding ourselves accountable, by holding the fabric of the world together, and by holding our friends and neighbors in our hearts and in our arms in friendship, fellowship, and love.  By putting things on hold in this manner, may we all know a New Year filled with sweetness, happiness, and peace.

Ken Y’hi Ratzon—May this be God’s will.

[1] As reported on, February 5, 2016.  Retrieved from
[2] See Exodus 25:12
[3] BT Yoma 72b
[4] Isaacson, Walter.  Steve Jobs (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2011).
[5] As reported by Walter Isaacson in an interview for the Kalb Report, a project of George Washington University.  Retrieved from
[6] Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Sanhedrin 38a.
[7] Story posted in the Twitter feed of Qasim Rashid, Esq. (@MuslimIQ) on August 28, 2017
[8] “Get Together,” music and lyrics by Chet Powers.  Most famously released by the Youngbloods in 1967, it was originally released as “Let’s Get Together” by the Kingston Trio in June of 1964.
[9] See Isaiah 58:12
[10] As cited in “Can You Get Addicted to Cuddling?” an article on the website Modern Notion.  Retrieved on 8/20/17 from 
[11]Ani V’Atah,” lyrics by Arik Einstein, music by Miki Gavrielov.  Translation is mine.

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