To Wrestle and to Dream – Rosh Hashanah 2017

Posted on September 24, 2017

The song consists of only six simple words: six words sung over and over again.

But those words have been sung at such significant moments.

– in the life of the State of Israel when the existence of the state lay in the balance.

– by Jews in the former Soviet Union who sang them, quietly at first and then more loudly and defiantly as the years went along.

– at bar and bat mitzvah and wedding parties as guests twirl around in a hora.

And, three weeks from tonight, on Simchat Torah, we will sing them out with pride outside the synagogue so that everyone will hear.

Six short words.

Sung over and over again.

Place after place, time after time, year after year.

Please join in singing them with me.

Am Yisrael Hai. Od Avinu Hai.

The people of Israel, The Jewish people live.

They are words of exultation and joy celebrating that our people’s glorious past, as important as it is, has led to something more critical: a present and, God willing, a strong future. And, now more than ever, we need to sing those words and embrace those words and live that promise.

I only translated the first phrase Am Yisrael Hai. That phrase we understand.

But, what do we make of the second phrase?

Od Avinu Hai. Our father still lives.

What does this mean? Who is “our father” that is being referred to?

Look it up and you’ll very likely find the explanation that “our father” refers to God.

But, it does not.

Avinu, “our father”, in this phrase does not refer to God. It refers to the patriarch Jacob, our patriarch, who was also known as Israel.

The phrase is a reference to a Talmudic text. In the Talmudic tractate of Ta’anit, we read that Rabbi Yochanan said something very strange: “Our father Jacob never died”.

Rabbi Nachman answered him bluntly: “So why did they waste time eulogizing, embalming and burying him?

Rabbi Yochanan responded metaphorically: “There is a verse in the prophet Jeremiah which compares Jacob, Israel, to his descendants. So, as long as his descendants remain alive, Jacob, Israel, remains alive”.

Thus, am Yisrael hai, od avinu hai.

The people of Israel live and therefore, our father, Jacob, Israel lives.

We keep Jacob alive when we, as a people, stay alive.

That’s what the song says.

At least the way we sing it.

But, I disagree.

I think the song, and Rabbi Yochanan, have it backwards.

We do not keep Jacob alive.

Jacob keeps us alive.

It is only if we keep the spirit of our patriarch alive that our people’s future, at least its meaningful and vital future, will be assured.

We can only live meaningfully as Jews if we truly live as the descendants of Israel.

This is my thirtieth Rosh Hashana on this bima. Twenty-nine years ago this Rosh Hashana, I delivered my first two High Holy Day sermons at Beth Israel and I still believe deeply in the message of those sermons.

I spoke that year about Jacob, Israel, and the two aspects of his life that should define who we are as Jews.

On the first day, I spoke about Israel the wrestler. On the second day, I spoke about Jacob the dreamer.

Jacob, our father, was given the name Israel, the one who “wrestles with God”, when he struggled with an angel on a dark lonely night. He serves as a model for us to always wrestle with the world, to confront difficult questions in the name of our tradition and faith, to not be satisfied with simple answers to complex issues or reduce Judaism to a children’s game.

And Jacob, our father who dreamed of a ladder rising to heaven is also a model for us. He calls on us to set our sights higher, to rise above the disappointments and cynicism of today to believe in and work for a better tomorrow for us and for the world.

As long as we keep Jacob alive, as long as we keep wrestling, as long as we keep dreaming, our people will truly stay alive.

That was my message on Rosh Hashana 1988 and it is my message today.

However, in my first moments as rabbi here, I didn’t want to be specific about which issues we should be wrestling with. I had to get to know the congregation and the congregation had to get to know me before I went too deeply into specifics. So, I spoke more in generalities.

That was wise then.

But, today, I want to go far beyond the generalities and speak about four issues which I have been wrestling with for years and which I believe we, as Jews must wrestle with now and in the future, here and throughout our Jewish world.

There are so many issues to choose from but I have chosen four, representative of different aspects of what it means to be a Jew.

Four issues that are worthy of wrestling with.

First, and this one is the proverbial elephant in the room, I have been wrestling with the issue of rising Anti-Semitism throughout the world and here at home. I have steadfastly maintained optimism regarding our nation and the safety it provides for us as Jews and I still trust in the safety and security of our peoples in this nation despite recent trends. I still trust in the political and judicial systems and the good will of the majority of Americans.

But, even I have begun to wonder in ways I never thought I ever would. When I entered rabbinical school Anti Semitism was, for the most part, far away and back then. Not any more. Hatred of Jews seems to be much more common and we must confront it and must accept its deepening reality.

We must protect ourselves.

We must be vigilant.

But, I believe that as we wrestle with our fears, we must keep two thoughts in mind. First, we can not become insular and care only for ourselves. We need to continue to be involved in community efforts, to know our neighbors, to share their fears and concerns, to build alliances and to be part of the American society. We must respond and join hands and stand up and speak out when anyone in this nation is targeted.

And secondly, we can not teach our children that our Jewish identity is wrapped up in potential victimhood. No matter how much we may fear, we need to concentrate on making Judaism mean something elevating and sanctifying in our lives, not just a flag waving identification in defiance of a hate-filled world. How we balance our needs for self-preservation with a determined effort to deepen our appreciation for Jewish learning, for spirituality, for observance of the mitzvot is absolutely one of the most important struggles we face.

On a completely different subject, I believe we must wrestle with scientific advancement and new scientific realities, particularly in the area of the life sciences.

For more than 10 years, I have been involved in two different groups comprised of scientists and faith leaders. We have met monthly to explore and wrestle with questions concerning the intersection of faith and science.

During many of our sessions, we discussed new techniques and discoveries in the life sciences: the human genome and genetic therapies, advances in medical treatments, theories concerning genetic basis of human behavior and so many more. These discussions eventually brought us to questions concerning what it means to be a human being, and what, if any, limitations there should be to scientific exploration and human experimentation.

These fascinating discussions about scientific progress have not diminished my belief in God as creator. Rather, the discussions have deepened that belief. Every new piece of scientific information I have been exposed to has made me believe even more in the purposeful creation of the human being and as evidence of the divine.

And, at the same time, I have marveled at the intellectual curiosity and dedication of scientists to reveal and better understand so much of what makes human beings and the world work.

But, the question that comes up again and again for me is how do we remain appropriately humble as human beings, holding firm to our values and our ethics and recognizing that we are not all powerful while at the same time taking advantage of procedures and discoveries which can enhance or extend or better explain our lives. And, how do we decide when to say that progress can be dangerous: just because we can do something, is it necessarily good for us and for the world to do it?

I believe that thoughtful Jews must actively engage in questions such as these. We need to wrestle with what it means to be a thinking, creative human being while still believing in the divine and in the essential importance of the soul.

Thirdly, Jews and especially Conservative Jews have to wrestle more seriously with the reality of intermarriage.

Currently, the Rabbinical Assembly of the Conservative movement prohibits rabbis from officiating at interfaith marriage ceremonies. I respect the authority of my rabbinic organization and will not do so.

But, like many of my colleagues, I have been wrestling with this issue for years and, as some of you have heard me imply in the past, my thinking has gradually been changing.

I believe without question that the sharing of a religious faith and identity is a great advantage in a marriage and I do believe our future would be significantly more secure if we find ways to lower the rate of interfaith marriage among Jews.

I believe that without question but I also see the world changing and synagogues changing.

We have made many changes here at Beth Israel over the last 30 years as we have wrestled with the reality of intermarriage. We now welcome all family members as members of the shul. We have begun to say mazal tov and to announce interfaith marriages in our bulletin. We will, within the halachic standards of our Torah service, perform an aufruf for an interfaith couple should the couple desire it.

I consider these all to be positive changes.

But, as a Conservative synagogue, we can’t make one critical change: the rabbi can’t stand with the couple and bring the spiritual element to the sacred moment they begin their married life.

So, I have wrestled with this reality for years and I have come to the conclusion that the status quo is wrong.

Let me tell you why.

Let me ask rhetorical questions. Once an interfaith marriage becomes a reality in your family, how many of you have chosen not to embrace the future family member who is not Jewish? How many of you have not done your best to make that individual feel welcome in your family? How many of you considered doing what Jews used to do and sit shiva for the one who intermarries?

I don’t even have to wait for answers. I know what most of you would say because you’ve told me and you’ve shown me.

As parents, as grandparents, you do what you should do and what I’ve told you to do if you have asked: you reach out and embrace.

And you hope that your friends and extended family do the same.

So, why should the only person that alienates a Jew and his or her beloved be the one person who could most effectively serve as a positive influence in their feelings about communal Jewish spiritual life?

Why is it the rabbi who has to be the bad guy?

When an interfaith couple approaches a rabbi because they sincerely want him or her to officiate, we should be able to say yes.

We shouldn’t sign a traditional ketubah. We shouldn’t have the language of kiddushin, halachic marriage said under the huppah. We shouldn’t say all of the sheva brachot, the 7 wedding blessings. I believe we shouldn’t co-officiate with a clergy of a different faith. But, after all of the “no’s” we could work out something beautiful and spiritual and we need to.

I honestly have no idea how this will affect us demographically or sociologically. Time would tell. But, I believe it is the right thing to do.

Finally, let me bring up one final issue.

We need to keep wrestling with issues facing the State of Israel.

Let me be absolutely clear although I sincerely hope you don’t need me to tell you how I feel after all these years.

There is no wrestling with the question of the legitimacy of Israel.

There is no wrestling with the question of the importance of Israel to our lives as Jews.

There is no wrestling with the sacred responsibility Israel has to ensure the security of her people given terrorism and threats the nation faces.

There is no wrestling with the pride we should feel at the thrilling accomplishments of the state in 70 short years.

Those are givens.

But, if we think that we can ensure a love of Israel among Jews of future generations by merely repeating those well-rehearsed givens while stifling questions and dissent about critical issues, we are wrong.

We teach our children to be actively engaged in ethical, political and philosophical questions of all kinds here at home and then we rush to close off debate when it comes to Israel. And, while it is true that we need to remember and account for the difference between living on the front lines in Israel and living on the sidelines in the Diaspora, how Israel acts does matter to all of us.

And so, we must wrestle with the difficult questions.

How do we react to the exclusion of and discrimination against non-Orthodox Judaism which is often accompanied by horrendous libelous speech by government officials?

How do we speak out against the terrible disruption of daily life of Palestinians in the West Bank and Bedouin in the Negev beyond any legitimate security demands?

How do we respond to events in the holy city of Jerusalem when, instead of being a place of dreams, the holy city becomes the setting for an extremist form of triumphant nationalism which denigrates the humanity of the other?

How do we reconcile our justifiable pride at the democratic ideal of Israel with the increasing limits placed on freedom of expression and protest?

Before you criticize me for raising these issues, and I know some of you will, talk to young Jews about what they’re thinking.

We do our children and, I believe, Israel, no favor if we stop wrestling with these and so many other issues and doing so openly and respectfully as a sign of love and concern. I would rather our young people hear those questions from those who love and support Israel rather than from other people in other settings.

And, if we consider Israel to be our spiritual home, not just our political home, rabbis must be role models for wrestling with these issues.

That is and always has been the role of a rabbi.

Four areas of wrestling. And there are so many more that I have been wrestling with.

What is the meaning of prayer in today’s world?

Should we make changes in our Shabbat observance to account for the different pace of life today or do we need the “Temple in time” as Heschel called Shabbat even more deeply today?

How should we respond philosophically and ritually to deeper and more complicated questions of gender identification that are being raised throughout our society?

And, the most important question: what do we do about the eighth day of Pesach?

These and so many other questions need to be wrestled with and we can not accept simple answers.

But, Jacob didn’t only wrestle. He dreamed as well and we sometimes have to stop wrestling in the night and take time to dream in broad daylight as well.

Let me tell you a story again. I’ve told it many times.

During my first year in Ann Arbor, I was invited to speak to a class of 13 year olds at the humanistic Jewish Cultural School. I was asked this question by one of the children:

“I’m a secular Jew. You’re a religious Jew. Is there anything we both can believe in?”

I thought for a while and said that there certainly is.

I said that every Jew has to believe that the story human beings are writing in this world will have a happy ending. Every Jew has to believe that the world can be perfected. Every Jew has to believe with perfect faith that there will come a time when all of our precious, most glorious, most impossible dreams, actually come true.

Im lo machar az machratyaim as the song says: If not tomorrow, then the day after.

We must believe.

More than forty years ago, I decided to become a rabbi for three practical reasons and one more general reason. First, I wanted to study and teach Torah. Second, I wanted a career that would enable me to work directly with people. Third, I wanted to find a job which would permit me more easily to live a deeply satisfying personally meaningful spiritual life as an observant Jew on my own terms.

As the song says: “Two out of three ain’t bad.”

But, seriously, I also chose to become a rabbi for a more conceptual reason.

I chose to become a rabbi because I am an optimist, an idealist and a dreamer and I really do believe that this world is worth believing in and dreaming for and that Judaism as a faith can help the world be redeemed.

And that hasn’t changed.

So, even as we wrestle and question and debate and struggle, we must continue to imagine that ladder leading ever upwards with us, each and every succeeding generation, climbing one step further up.

As a Jew, I refuse to give up on my dreams.

As a Jew, I refuse to give up on the world.

Sometimes, I feel like I’ve wrestled too long and just want things to be simple.

Sometimes, I feel like being a dreamer is for children or fools.

We all feel that way sometimes.

But, when that cynicism surfaces, I think we should close our eyes and imagine that our father Jacob comes along and taps us on the shoulder and says: “without my inspiration, the Jewish people will not stay alive or at least, their lives won’t be as meaningful. Wrestle and dream, just like I did and our people will flourish and our future will be even better than our past”.

So, that’ brings me back the beginning.

Six simple words. We sing them so loudly.

But we don’t sing them correctly.

We don’t keep Jacob alive, Jacob, Israel, the wrestler and dreamer, keeps us alive.

So join with me once again in singing that simple song. But, this time let’s sing it the right way: the other way around.

Od Avinu Hai, Am Yisrael Hai.

Let us proclaim that as long as our father, Jacob, lives and inspires our hearts and minds, we will live a meaningful existence as Jews and our people will truly live.

If our father lives, we will live as well.