Erev Rosh Hashanah - Bruce Ives
Good Yontif. When I was growing up my mom had a good friend named Sue Lahm. Sue was what you would call a “theatre person” – and by that I mean she was funny and colorful and wonderfully creative. Sue never made it to Broadway, her stage was the annual Cincinnati JCC Spring Musical – an opportunity for song and satire. I was too young to remember most of her plays, but I will never forget her masterpiece – “A Tsoris Line”. You remember the premise of A Chorus Line – young singers and dancers sharing their life stories as they audition for a musical. Sue re-cast it just a bit – a week before the High Holidays the Rabbi falls down the stairs and breaks both legs – they need to audition a replacement quickly. You can imagine where it goes from there, I’ll just cut to the final scene where in a surprise twist the director casts the temple president for the role. “Why”, asks a congregant, “he can’t sing, he can’t act, and no one really likes him very much”. “I know, I know”, replies the Director, “but he already thinks he is the Rabbi anyway so why not just let him do it”.
This, my friends, is not an issue at Beth Am. I know my role and am very happy with it. It is not my job to preach, rather at this time of year it is my duty, it is our duty to reflect. So let me share tonight a few writings that I turn to from time to time when I think about how I should engage with the people around me, with my community and my congregation.
The first goes back to an address from my high school headmaster, the Reverend Edward Gleason. He was speaking to 400 prep school students about what it means to be elite, primarily because most were very uncomfortable with that label (and some were far too comfortable). Here’s what he said:
“It is not a matter of being assigned status on the basis that the world understands status. It is the challenge, opportunity and responsibility to respond to the world as givers in terms of what we have and what we have been given. It is the opportunity to serve, the opportunity to make our lives matter, the opportunity to be certain that the world can and will be a better place because we have lived in it and been loved for who we are.”
Maybe it’s a bit preachy -- he was a preacher after all, but it teaches an important message – recasting the privilege that so many of us in this room share – from an indicator of status to an obligation to serve and an opportunity to give back. I find it as insightful today as it was 40 years ago, maybe even more so as conversations about elites and privilege abound in our national dialogue and local communities. For me, it’s a concise and constant reminder to align my privilege with priorities that matter.
The second writing is a little more personal. It comes from a New Age spiritualist, and while I’m certainly an Old Testament kind of guy, the message struck a chord. Here’s what the passage had to say:
“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, 'Who am I to be brilliant, … talented, fabulous?' Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won't feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It's not just in some of us; it's in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence … liberates others.”
It’s touchy feely, I know, but it touches on something that holds a lot of people back, myself included. Fear and self-doubt, masquerading as humility -- certainly understandable. But by refraining from engaging more fully in the world around us we limit ourselves and deprive our communities of the gifts we have to share – and we all have gifts to share.
Finally, even if we accept the obligation of service and overcome self-doubt – one question remains – what exactly are we supposed to do?
Here I find the best advice from an ancient source – a 3 bullet point mission statement that the prophet Micah put in his powerpoint presentation to the Israelites:
“With what shall I approach the Eternal,
Do homage to God on high?
Shall I approach God with burnt offerings,
with calves a year old?
7 Will God be pleased with thousands of rams,
with myriad streams of oil?
Shall I give my first-born for my transgression,
the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?”
8 God has told you what is good;
and what the Eternal requires of you
Only to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?
If that sounds vaguely familiar it should – Micah took the last part directly from the Beth Am mission statement (or maybe it was the other way around).
Three steps, easy to remember, but hard to do. If we are honest with ourselves, we have to realize that the work of doing justice begins at home. We need to challenge ourselves, what actions are we prepared to take, what sacrifices are we willing to make. Can we overcome the arrogance and indifference that come with privilege – to open our eyes and strive every day to treat the people who work for us and with us with fairness and kindness. It’s not as easy as it sounds, nor is it easy to find the time to do justice in the larger community, unless we choose to make it a priority and to make the time. We live in a world that is sorely in need of our skills, so opportunities to serve abound.
And if you are struggling to find a way to engage, have I got a deal for you. Congregation Beth Am. Join us as we seek to do justice when we stand in solidarity with other communities of faith to fight discrimination, when we work to provide affordable, high-quality pre-school for every child in California, and as we sponsor local refugee families – our newest neighbors. Help us to love kindness as we deliver meals to those who are ill or homebound through our Mitzvah Meals and Chicken Soupers programs, as we visit the elders in our community through Yad L’Yad, as we volunteer with our kids to serve a monthly breakfast to homeless families. Walk humbly with our God by sharing an hour of Shabbat peace with your family and community at Friday night services, join the over-caffeinated and enthusiastic crowd at our weekly Torah Study or Talmud classes, or try out “Jewish Spiritual Paths”, our new confirmation class for adults – because why should our kids get to have all the fun?
So many ways to engage in our mission – and we have a great new way to support that mission. You can help Beth Am to fulfill its promise for years to come by volunteering to support our new campaign – From Strength to Strength. Through this effort we will build our endowment so we can lower financial barriers to engagement for our members. We will engage new members by funding innovative programs for the next generation while making our campus more accessible for all congregants today. And we’ll invest in our most precious resource, our beloved clergy, with housing assistance to enable them to remain engaged with all of us. We have set ambitious goals for the campaign, our largest ever, and we have great momentum thanks to early donors on the Board and from clergy and congregants who have stepped up at all levels with the most generous donations they have ever made to Beth Am. As the campaign moves forward we can all engage to insure a strong foundation for the future health and growth of our congregation.
Thanks for your patience and your attention. I can hear the voice of Sue Lahm calling the cue for the closing number. Her script would probably end with something short and pith – like the words of encouragement I found recently on a refrigerator magnet that said: Try to be the person your dog thinks you are. Instead I’ll just leave you with this brief re-cap of the messages I take away from the writings that inspire me:
Accept the obligation and responsibility of service that flows from our position of privilege
Avoid the trap of self-doubt, don’t play small, that does not serve God or our community
Engage in a way that harnesses your passion and leverages your talents to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with our God.
I wish you all a time of meaningful reflection in these days of Awe, and a very sweet new year. Shana Tovah.