Rabbi Dr. David Hartman may his memory be a blessing, recalled what it had been like for him as a pulpit rabbi. He said that his Orthodox congregants wanted him to give them “relevant” sermons, not sermons about Jewish observance, ethics, or values. Rabbi Hartman said,
“So I gave them relevant sermons. I told these Orthodox Jews that they were doomed, that they had failed to properly prepare their children to be Jews, that they were led by people without a coherent vision of Jewish life, that everything they were doing was killing Judaism and the spirit of the Jewish people, and that despite all their check-writing, hand-wringing over Israel, and pretending to be a holy congregation, they had made no effort to create true spiritual community.
“That seemed to satisfy them, because for them Judaism was all about guilt, boredom, and failure, not about immersion in a positive, healthy, Jewish life.
“Later, the President of the congregation asked me why I would choose to be the rabbi of a ‘doomed’ congregation, and I told him, ‘Because I believe in techiyas hamaysim [the resurrection of the dead].’” (1)
I guess I believe in the resurrection of the dead, too.
We are still here, and we are committed to revitalizing our congregation. Amen v’Amen!
(I don’t usually allow it, but for that you may applaud)
I don’t want to berate you about your Jewish practices, or how much money you do or don’t give, and so on, but I would like instead to talk about what it mean to live a life of holiness. And yes, there will be some overlap. I will have to speak a little bit about some things you may not practice at this point in your life, but I hope that you will at least come to understand some of what those observances are supposed to do for us, and what you might find if you choose to add them into your life.
Yom Kippur is about the possibility for change and growth, confession, teshuvah, repentance. Those are reasonably easy concepts to understand.
But Rosh Hashanah is more abstract. It’s Torah name, Yom T’ruah means Shofar Sounding Day. And we understand the Shofar sounds to be a wordless prayer…
Wordless prayer? Abstract indeed!
But at the same time the Shofar is a trumpet, and as such is an announcing tool for our coronation of God as Sovereign.
We are proclaiming that we are willing to devote our lives to the often frustrating, difficult, tedious work of continual growth as human beings, and the continual improvement of God’s world.
Rosh Hashanah is focused on prayer, and on proclaiming and accepting God’s sovereignty, and accepting God’s demand of us,
“You shall be holy for I the Lord your God and holy.”
We are here to commit ourselves to lives of holiness.
So what exactly does that mean?
Is being holy the same as being good?
In short, no.
It is difficult to talk about holiness, which is intangible, immeasurable, and elusive, and
I’m trying to use words to express what cannot be expressed in words.
Because of this challenge, we unfortunately tend to diminish holiness by talking about ethical and moral and social justice, and kindness, but that eviscerates the powerful concept of holiness.
In teaching us to “Be Holy” the Torah is trying to remind us that we are living in God’s creation, we are here to be the hands and feet of God in this world, and to do God’s work.
That is no small challenge, especially if you have doubts about God, or don’t know God’s place in your life.
Believing in God, or any kind of a “higher power” is considered by some people to be unscientific, unverifiable, unproductive and uninspiring.
On the contrary, waking up in the morning, looking in the mirror and believing that what you see is the pinnacle of of creation is the true height of arrogance, self-centeredness, delusion, and close-mindedness.
Because more important than whether or not you believe in God or at least the possibility of God, is knowing, with absolute certainty, that you are NOT God.
Though it is hard to conceive of it, this world existed long before we arrived, and will go on long after we pass from it.
So if you are not convinced that God exists, just act as if there is a God.
Pretend God exists, and live your life accordingly. It can’t hurt, it might help, and will encourage you to live a good and just life.
But neither should spiritual belief be taken to the opposite extreme.
The mayor of Istanbul stated:
All life is holy and precious, be it of humans, animals or ecology, and no person has the right to take away the right of another living being to live. (2)
Is this really what we mean by holy? Being a vegan? Letting Zika virus thrive? Not killing the termites that are eating your house?
Sorry, I’m not convinced-In fact, Hitler was a vegetarian. Our tradition points out that if we are compassionate when we should not be, we will not be compassionate when we must be. Distinctions are important.
A Peter Mayer song begins,
When I was a boy each week
On Sunday we would go to church
Pay attention to the Priest
and he would read the Holy word
and consecrate the Holy bread
and everyone would kneel and bow
Today the only difference is,
Everything is Holy now.
Everything is Holy now (3)
If everything is holy, then nothing is holy. Because holy means set apart from the ordinary.
The world is can be a wondrous and beautiful place, the existence of the world may be an ongoing miracle, but wonder and beauty are not holiness.
Earthquakes, Hurricanes, Floods, Crime, Illness and Injury are not holy.
What happened in Charlottesville was not holy. The KKK and the Nazis and the hatred we see around us are not holy. The failure to condemn evil is not holy.
If everything is holy, then nothing is set apart, and nothing is sacred..
And, indeed, as Jews we are partners with God in making this world a place where holiness is only need be distinguished from the ordinary and not from tragedy and evil as well.
So we return from what holiness is not, to seeking holiness is.
In the Torah account, God’s first creation is light, the second act is to separate that light from the darkness.
This is the message of the Havdallah ceremony that ends the Sabbath and Yom Kippur.
Havdallah means separation, we are distinguishing between light and dark, holy and ordinary, weekdays and Shabbat.
Indeed, if every day were holy, why would we even be here right now?
Why today? Why not last month? Couldn’t we celebrate all the other equally important, not any holier, not any different days? Why don’t we blow shofar every day and eat matzo and bitter herbs all year long while wearing masks and costumes?
Your wedding day does not equate with your car’s oil change day.
Attending a baby-naming is not on the same plane as attending the premier of Star Trek Discovery on Sunday night. (Not even for me.)
There are moments that are holy. We mark these with ceremony, blessings, traditional foods, music, and prayers.
“You shall keep the Sabbath, because it is holy for you.” “Six days you shall labor, but on the seventh day you shall rest;” The first half of that commandment is the six days of labor!!
There you have it, six ordinary days, one holy day. 85% of that mitzvah is the ordinary, non-holy work week.
Rabbi Rolando Matalon speaks of the importance of Shabbat in understanding holiness because we hope that it is a day can experience time differently.
85% of the time we may say “Time is money.”
On Shabbat we say, “Time is life.” And “Time is a precious gift.”
On Shabbat, Time is NOT money. On Shabbat we don’t allow daily stresses to dominate us.
I am not talking about becoming Orthodox, or giving up driving, electricity, or your computer for 24 hours.
But carving out even just a few hours of holy time on Shabbat, maybe even just for a family dinner on Friday night creates a sacred opportunity to connect others, and develop our internal lives.
Mitzvot of time create pathways, like wireless hot spots of connectivity that link us to the Divine.
Shabbat, holidays, and life cycle celebrations are holy moments, holy hot spots.
So sacred time is one piece of holiness.
Sacred space is another. The Western Wall, the entire land of Israel, and the rooms where we gather to pray, are holy spaces, as are our own homes where a mezuzah on the doorpost, designating our living space as dedicated to the service of God.
The Ark where the Torah Scrolls are kept, is a sacred space. The space where you sit, enfolded in your prayer shawl, your Tallit, is your own portable sanctuary, your own personal, portable sacred space.
More holy hot spots.
But holiness is much more significant than holy space and holy time,
Leviticus repeatedly instructs us to be holy people:
“You shall be holy for I, the Lord your God am holy.”
Time can be holy, Space and be holy, but we are obligated to be holy.
Erin Smokler and Rabbi Rolando Matalon discussed holiness in a lecture a couple of years ago, here are some of their thoughts and mine about becoming holy people.
Smokler who works with Orthodox women rabbinical students teaches, “Be holy—is aspirational, we are seeking to attain a status, it’s a project, but it is the task of a lifetime, and never really achieved. If you think you have it, you have just lost it. It cannot be achieved, it is a task and a process and a pursuit.
We are commanded to be holy because God is holy. So we could begin by asking how does God create holiness?
After the work of the first six days was complete, the Torah says,
“Then God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it God rested from all the work of creating that God had done.”
God sanctified the Sabbath by defining limits. By putting a boundary at the end of creation and declaring “Now I will stop, cease creating, and allow everything to just ‘be’ for a day.”
We too need to be willing to place and accept limits on ourselves, to create unfilled, uncluttered hours in our lives for something special and sacred to enter in. Even when we don’t know in advance what it is that will fill that time, we have to create that pause first.
This is like preparing a garden, first we have to clear away the weeds, and turn over he soil to make the space where we can plant. Whether it will be flowers or vegetables we may not have decided, but the preparation of the empty space is the same.
How can we create these empty hours in our lives? I don’t mean by sitting and meditating. I mean by under-scheduling them. By not having to be somewhere doing something ‘productive.’
Then, how do we use that time to create holy hot spots? Meals with friends, reading, walks in nature, even attending services.
Smokler likewise suggests communal prayer and song, wordless melodies, and instrumental music to name a few.
Personal, private prayer, can also create holy hot spots. Hopefully having a prayer habit can help clear away distractions and the demands of the daily life to create moments for holiness to enter.
Developing positive character traits, or “middot,” and enhancing our relationships, creates ever more of these connections.
These are all ways to build community and cultivate personal transformation
Chesed, caring others, can also allow emergence of kedusha, or holiness.
Through doing mitzvot, and through righteous and just living, we create holy hot spots.
The more hot spots, the more connectivity, and the more bandwidth.
Living holy lives means actively cultivating transcendence, that is, getting past our limited physical reality and reaching toward the reality of God who is unlimited in time or in space.
Rabbi Matalon questions if this is even possible for us in today’s world.
We are caught in a prevailing Western culture of individualism, we are constantly barraged with the message that “it’s all about me.”
If God doesn’t give me what I want, that means God doesn’t exist and I have no use for religion either.
We are surrounded by an environment of excessive consumption, vulgarity, and selfishness, others exist to serve me, the world is here to serve my desires.
There is a prevailing impatience, and an expectation of instant gratification.
People want quick fixes, Now now, now, and they are demanding more and more.
Furthermore we have internet platforms that promote utilitarian relationships, we network to find people who will be useful to us. We are urged to ask what can we get out of connecting with this other person. We are training people to ask what can I get from this relationship, networking, clients, career contacts, political alliances, etc
This is what Martin Buber called relating to others as I-it, as objects,
when we should be relating to them as equally valuable and important persons, Relationships of I-Thou.
Ironically, It’s pretty hard to detach from all of that and still remain committed to improving the world.
So our attempt to do honest spiritual work is to row against these raging currents.
There is no self-concern in God when we truly are at ONE, in order to attain such a level of holiness we need to transcend the boundaries of SELF, and train ourselves to truly connect with God and with others.
How do we find the time to connect to what is beyond time?
Rather let’s ask ourselves, “How do we make the time?” and how do we use our time?
And how do we do this in the life of our Jewish community?
We join our efforts to our the synagogue community not just for entertaining talks, or to hear David’s lovely music, or to train our kids for a bat or bar mitzvah, but to encourage ourselves and others to do the work that will allow all of us to transcend our “Selfs.”
The authentic Jewish path is not the Ultra Orthodox response of withdrawing from the world to isolate ourselves in a community where we don’t have to face the challenges of the 21st century.
Nor is our path to abandon our traditions and assimilate into Western popular culture accepting unquestioned liberal values in the place of authentic Judaism.
Ours must be the center path of moderation, of living in two civilization, partaking of the finest of each, but setting aside the which should properly be rejected.
The book, Alcoholics Anonymous addresses the need for balance between living without God and living only for a supernatural God:
Those of us who have spent much time in the world of spiritual make-believe have eventually seen the childishness of it. This dream world has been replaced by a great sense of purpose, accompanied by a growing consciousness of the power of God in our lives. We have come to believe God would like us to keep our heads in the clouds with the Divine, but that our feet ought to be firmly planted on earth. That is where our fellow travelers are, and that is where our work must be done. These are the realities for us. We have found nothing incompatible between a powerful spiritual experience and a life of sane and happy usefulness. (4)
May your holy hot spots keep you in in constant connectivity with what truly matters, and may God bless us all to live inspired and inspiring lives in the New Year. L’shana Tova!
1 Rabbi Larry Pinsker
2 Quoted by Debora Steinmetz in a talk on holiness at Drisha Institute
3 IBID (Kadir Topbaş)
4 Alcoholics Anonymous Book