Rosh HaShanah Day 5777

Temple Sinai, Reno, Nevada

Good morning and welcome once again to Temple Sinai. I’m really glad to see each of you here on this first day of Rosh Hashanah. It’s a bit of a paradox, isn’t it? In here, it’s Rosh Hashanah: The New Year, the Day of Remembrance, and the Day of Judgment. But outside, it’s Monday morning. How many of you have friends and colleagues who are at work today? Raise your hands. Yes, look around. Though there’s a wonderfully large group of us here today, in fact we are in a very small minority. Looking at this from within the Jewish tradition, we may say what’s the big deal? Rosh Hashanah is precisely the time to go to Temple, be with family, make a celebratory meal, eat apples and honey, and think back on your life over the past year. But looking at us from the outside, one has to admit: what we’re doing here right now is not exactly mainstream.

I would go so far as to call this space and time counter-cultural. The Oxford Dictionary’s definition of counter-culture may as well be a definition of Judaism, to some extent: “A way of life and set of attitudes opposed to or at variance with the prevailing social norm.” Today, and for the rest of this year, I want to challenge you to embrace a counter-cultural identity and to see where it leads you in your Jewishness and in your relationship to the world.

Perhaps you don’t think of yourself as counter-cultural. I’m somewhat used to that concept because I had a very un-Orthodox upbringing. My parents are Jews who also taught mystical meditation, espoused universalism and were primarily interested in spiritual community where everyone could participate regardless of their religious background. In the 1960s counter-culture of their formative adult years, boundaries were meant to be transcended. But was their interest in spirituality a rebellion, a moving away from Judaism and into hippie culture? Or was it in fact a direct result of their already counter-cultural position in the world as Jews? Indeed, the hippie communities of the 60s and 70s were often led by and consisted of Jews: there were Buddhist Jews, known as BuJus, Sufi Jews known as JuFis, Jewish yogis, you name it.

But what they were doing was VERY Jewish, for at least 2 reasons: First, they were seeking out ways to express their spiritual yearning through a mystical, experiential approach to God. As King David cried out: “O God, You are my God, earnestly will I seek You; my soul thirsts for You, my flesh longs for You, in a dry and weary land, where no water is.“   Or as the Psalmist declares, “With my whole heart have I sought You; O let me not stray from Your commandments.”  This language of yearning for direct experience and communing with God is central to our liturgy. This longing is also what led to the rise of the spiritual, revival movement of Chasidism in a time of great persecution of Jews in Central Ukraine in the 18th Century. Today, in every movement of Judaism, Jews who express themselves Jewishly are also debating how to make Jewishness more spiritual. We identify as the people of the book who study complex Talmudic debates, but we also have a long history of working to bridge the intellect with the heart.

Second, the Jewish hippies of the sixties were expressing themselves in community. They had transformed the shtetl of old into the commune of new. They did not want to be Temple members, so they built their own communities.

So when I say that it is time for us to embrace counter-culturalism, I am not advocating for that as a goal in and of itself. Embracing your Jewishness as counter-culture means, I think, putting your values first – especially when these are values are at odds with how mainstream society operates. It also means thinking of ourselves as more than individuals and as part of a covenantal community bigger than us, a Jewish people with a unique purpose among the nations of the world.

Today’s Torah portion presents us with the first radical, counter-cultural Jew: Avraham Avinu, who we consider the first monotheist. Think about this – the FIRST monotheist. As a teenager, Avram rejected the polytheism of his parents and family. You have likely heard the midrash about the teenage Avram literally smashing the idols that his father Terach not only worshipped, but also manufactured. Terach ran a shop, the midrash says, making idols and selling them to others. So Avram smashed his father’s faith and his livelihood! This takes teenage turbulence to a whole new level. But we are meant to understand that Avram did this not out of pure rebellion, but because when he looked at the stars, the sun and the moon, he intuitively knew that these lights were not themselves gods, but creations of a single Universe created by the One God. It also helped that God spoke to him and assured him that he and his followers were on the right path.

An important counter-cultural act occurred again in the Akeidah, the binding of Isaac, which Dennis chanted today. This is a story of Avraham going through the motions of sacrificing his son to God, and then NOT actually doing it. He pauses and thinks long enough to hear the voice of an angel, or perhaps, the inner voice of HIS conscience calling out, “Avraham, Avraham,” “don’t!” “This is not who you are!” Avraham rejects the practice of child-sacrifice which, we understand, was commonplace in the culture surrounding him. The Akeidah teaches us that neither Avraham, nor the Jews after him, would sacrifice their children. Believe it or not, when you don’t sacrifice your child, it turns out they can do great things. This point is illustrated by the story of Chana, which we read this morning as well. Chana is barren and she prays earnestly to God, promising that if He gives her a child, she will bring him to the Temple and make sure that he devotes his life to God. The next year, Chana gives birth to a son whom she names Samuel, which means, I have asked for him, and some say, I have borrowed him, from God.  As promised, Chana brings him to Eli the High Priest at Shiloh and Samuel grows up to become a prophet for the people of Israel – their moral leader, and the one who anoints Saul and David as Israel’s first kings. With this juxtaposition of the Akeidah and the story of Chana, the rabbis go beyond making the point that child sacrifice isn’t Jewish: [Pause] they say, we Jews don’t die for God – we live for God.

How do we live for God? Well first we have to learn how – and we have done that for generations by studying Torah. We are, as everyone knows, the people of the book. Michael Lerner, a renewal rabbi in the Bay Area, reminds us that Jewish intellectualism was another form of Jewish counterculture. He writes, “The dominant culture of the ancient world was built around military power and sports. The Hellenistic society that had militarily conquered Judea tried to impose the gymnasium and the sports arena on Jewish society: If you like, its ‘friendly fascist’ face. … This friendly form of oppression said that to be a real man was to be a warrior or at least a sportsman, someone who was into cultivating their body. Jews fought back by rejecting Hellenistic ideas about the body. So where does a Jewish man become a man, if he can’t compete on the same grounds as the dominant culture? The answer is, he does it by becoming a scholar, a reader a texts, or a scribe, someone who can act out his prowess in the realm of written words…The debates of the Talmud…are the product of a people for whom textual debate was the only realm in which they could excel without coming into conflict with the dominant society. … After about two thousand years of practicing this kind of mind development…the intellectual skills developed enabled Jews to be successful in the intellectual, cultural, and economic pursuits that are rewarded in the modern capitalist world.”

Today, the rest of the world has caught up with the once-unique levels of Jewish literacy but Jews continue to be disproportionately represented in graduate schools and in fields like medicine, law, and academia. Today, being educated may not be countercultural but being Jewishly educated is. There is an erroneous perception that Jewish knowledge belongs to the Orthodox – learning is not Orthodox. Jewish observance and practice is an obligation for us all. A Reform rabbi of our day, the last President of the Union for Reform Judaism to which we at Temple Sinai belong, Rabbi Eric Yoffie once wrote: “… where did people get the idea that to observe Shabbat means to be Orthodox? Isaac Mayer Wise would turn over in his grave. For him, Shabbat – and this means a Reform Shabbat – was at the very heart of liberal Judaism.”

Wise had founded Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati in the 19th century, and his agitation for unionizing among rabbis led to the creation of the Central Conference of American Rabbis. This founding father of Reform Judaism insisted that Shabbat was not something only for “observant” Jews. I have spoken multiple times about the power of Shabbat and I want to reiterate that in our contemporary context, the celebration of a complete, 25 hour Shabbat is an act of counterculture and even resistance. It is resistance because it is a visible insistence that our lives are not defined by the production and consumption of commodity goods. And, it is countercultural because it asks us to ignore, for a full day, the demanding, chattering, pervasive presence of advertising, professional sports and consumerist entertainment that now even devour our “rest time.” Shabbat is an invitation to stop looking ahead and thinking about more; to organize one day a week differently, and to do things that only matter for the moment: cultivating relationships, enjoying nature, making special foods that take a bit more time to prepare. It is countercultural for us to just be, rather than think about what we can produce.

So while at first my call on you to be counter-cultural may have seemed radical, I hope you see that it is deeply rooted in Jewish values – and, that you have already taken steps towards that reality: by pursuing Jewish study and cultivating a love of learning in your children, by celebrating Shabbat, by being in community.

Seeking out and building community is at the heart of Judaism and it’s also a commandment. Pirkei Avot in the name of Rabbi Hillel teaches “al tifrosh min ha-tzibbur— do not separate from the community.” (2:4) In last week’s Torah portion, Netzavim, Moses reiterated that everyone in the community of Israel—from the hewer of wood to the draw-er of water —shares in the covenant of Adonai. Our covenantal community unites people from all socio-economic backgrounds and transcends the categories of place and time. Recall that God seals the covenant by declaring that it belongs to “everyone standing here today, as well as whoever is not here today,” (Deut. 29:13) meaning the generations that had come before and the generations yet to come. And I may not have to tell you that the idea of covenantal community, [say slowly] wherein by accepting the obligations of a reciprocal relationship with God, we also agree to look after one another—is also deeply counter-cultural in our day and age.  We live in a society where the social fabric of community between people is all but non-existent. 90% of seniors in Reno report experiencing some form of social isolation. Most people barely know and are rarely friends with their neighbors. The art of friendship for many people is becoming lost. We are tuned into social media and may know what our Facebook friends ate for lunch yesterday, and yet rarely know what’s weighing heavy on their hearts.

Creating a Jewish community is a necessary but also complicated process. In the Book of Exodus, God instructs Moses to relate the following message to the children of Israel: “You shall be to me a kingdom of ministers and a goy kadosh, a holy nation.” (Ex. 19:6) The root of kadosh, holy, also means kadesh, separate. Separateness is central to the idea of holiness in Judaism – we are a people apart, a people with a unique purpose, which by definition means a people who are different and even outside of the mainstream. In America, the discourse of the melting pot runs strong. Anyone who is perceived as different may be politely accepted on the surface, but that difference often raises eyebrows. How many of you here have experienced that suspicion from others because they did not understand or were suspicious of your Jewishness? [Raise your hands] We can no longer afford, as American Jews, to be afraid of asserting a separate and distinctive culture, religion, people and community. It is only through community that we can hope to realize our collective purpose.

But being a people apart is deeply challenging. Indeed, to assimilate means making decisions to separate from other Jews over time and choosing to take the mainstream path. Depending on the context, assimilation may mean not joining a synagogue, intermarrying and then NOT coming back with one’s spouse into an accepting Jewish community, or NOT raising children among other Jewish parents. In Jewish community, our values must inform our purpose. Temple Sinai is NOT a random social club. It is a community through which we learn, contemplate, habituate and enact Jewish values in the world. Why? In order to contribute to the world not merely as individuals but as a culture, a community and a people. It takes work, but no one ever said that being Jewish was meant to be easy!

I see more than one prescribed way of being counter-cultural as a Jew so let me leave you with a few other examples you might pursue this year:

  1. Practice Shabbat.  Come to our weekly Friday night and twice monthly Saturday morning Shabbat services. Celebrating Shabbat at home, or with your friends or Chavurah. In this regard please note that our Family Shabbat Retreat is October 28-29 at Granlibakkken Tahoe. Sign-up is live now online and closes on Yom Kippur, so please register this week.
  2. Learn. Dennis Dworkin, our new Adult Learning chair, is working on a Scholar-in-Residence in partnership with UNR. We will also host a Shabbat class on Torah through the Ages on December 3. Starting October 18 we are offering A Taste of Judaism for people who need a basics of Judaism class. Join Talmud every Wednesday. Or come to Shabbat Torah Study on the 1st and 3rd Saturday of the month.
  3. Volunteer. We have the opportunity to sponsor a refugee family this fall as a congregation. These are Syrian refugees who are being settled in Reno. We can help them to acclimate to life here, provide starter furniture, teach ESL, make employment connections and more. Please sign-up at the back of the social hall if you are interested in helping out with this. Our devoted members Jane Townely and Jeff Gingold have already volunteered to spear-head and manage the project, so you can also talk to them.
  4. Fourth, care for each other. Volunteer to bring meals to those who are ill, mourning or adjusting to parenthood.
  5. Finally, take part in our ongoing strategic planning process by signing-up to participate in a community café at They are on: Monday, October 24 @ 6:00, Tuesday, October 25 @ 6:00, Thursday, October 27 @ 6:00. You input is invaluable and your voice matters in charting our course forward.

I encourage you to discuss these possibilities today over your lunches and in the days leading up to Yom Kippur. Think about not only how and with whom you might do these things, but also the Jewish values that they represent, and other ways of manifesting these values in the coming year. May you each embrace and celebrate your counter-cultural identity as Jews and enthusiastically explore one concrete way you can act upon your values this year. May we all be written in the Book of Life for a good year. Shana tova!