Todd Berman

Give God A Gift – Build A Bridge

A humble request regarding Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur sermons

It’s that time of year. Yeshivot have started, schools have or are about to begin classes, people are cooking or at least preparing menus, or thinking about preparing menus and shopping for the holidays. I literally feel the holidays in the air.

And at this very moment, many rabbis and other Jewish leaders are preparing their High Holiday sermons. I present a humble request.

Some are preparing for this beautiful and complex season by reading classics of Jewish theology emphasizing returning and repairing. Maimonides wrote what is probably the most famous work on this process called “Teshuva”. In Chapter 3 he states,

Each and every person has virtues and vices. He whose virtues exceed his vices is a just person, and he whose vices exceed his virtues is an evildoer; if both are evenly balanced, he is middling. So too a country. If the virtues of all its inhabitants exceeded their vices, it is, indeed, a just state; but if their vices exceeded, it is, indeed, a wicked state. Such is also the standard for the whole world.…

It is, therefore, necessary for every person to see himself or herself throughout the entire year as being evenly balanced between innocence and guilt, and look upon the entire world as if it is evenly balanced between innocence and guilt; thus, if he commit one sin, he will tilt himself and the whole world to the side of guilt, and be a cause of its destruction; but if he perform one righteous act, behold, he will tilt himself and the entire world to the side of virtue, and bring about his own and their salvation.

The answer to the question of how literally Maimonides and the rabbis meant these words eludes even the most carefully readers. In the mystical thought of Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin, the power to redeem is the very definition of being created in the Divine image. Indeed, even when taken as a metaphor, how awesome is the responsibility and power given to mankind of saving the world? We can build or destroy – not just ourselves but our community and the entire world.

In a way, man is thus given an opportunity and obligation to save not only himself but to give God a gift in return for His giving us life. As the great prophet Isaiah proclaims, “For thus said the LORD, The Creator of heaven who alone is God, Who formed the earth and made it, Who alone established it— He did not create it to be a wasteland, But formed it for habitation: I am the LORD, and there is none else.” (Isaiah 45:18) Building or rebuilding our world is the gift our lives can give back to God.

This Rosh HaShana, while, as tradition has it, the world begins anew, I would humbly suggest we start building – or rebuilding our ruptured Jewish and larger community. It has been a difficult year or two. Communities have been damaged by political difference and actions and words taken and spoken. Both local and international Jewish community is in dire need to repair.

In sermons and actions this month, I would like to suggest we focus on what unites and table the other, important yet difficult, discussions for another time. I turn to you:

To my caring friends and colleagues in the liberal Jewish community both here in Israel and especially in the Diaspora, I beg you to hear my request. I know that in many ways you feel the Israeli government and Orthodox Judaism has hurt you. There are many just complaints. On some we will agree and on others we will continue to struggle, but I beg you, when you address your congregations this year, emphasize the good. Build a bridge both to Israel and to the traditional community. Words hurt us as much as they hurt you. Rosh HaShana is not a time to focus on the “crimes” of others but on improving ourselves and our community. When you write and deliver your sermons, I beg you, take a moment and ask how your words and your pulpit can be used to strengthen ties to the Judaism and to other Jews. I read several sermons by liberal rabbis last year. Some were beautiful and moved me even when I read the Torah or practice Judaism in a very different way. Yet others, were harsh critiques of Israel and my Orthodox community. I’m not sure how these words could possible bring about any type of Tikkun Olam. They may have made the speaker feel vindicated and received accolades from their likeminded congregants, but I imagine they spread more hatred than hope. Is there no way to speak of a Torah of love which can serve to unite?

To my caring friends in the more Orthodox or traditional branches of Judaism here and across the seas. Please, think about trying to understand our brothers and sisters and feel their pain. We need not agree with their approach to Torah and Mitzvoth. But perhaps now is not the time to criticize and chastise. Actually, I am not sure if there ever is such a time. I am pretty sure that stirring up criticism for other movements and communities, especially during this season, serves no positive purpose. Are there ways to speak respectfully and with care. How would you feel if someone insulted your leader or prevented you from praying or marrying in a manner you see as authentic Judaism? We need to ask that question and be prepared to use the answer in a constructive way. Understanding other’s feelings doesn’t require agreeing but it does demand an act of building. When speaking, let’s remember the holiness in every person.

Left, right, Orthodox, Reform, Conservative, Religious Zionist, Chassidic, Yeshivish, non-religious, we who live in Israel and those living in other parts of the world, all of us are standing naked before the God. We are all in need of redemption. When the Shaliach Tzibur (which means “representative of the community “rather than the Latin based “Cantor” or singer) approaches the Divine during Kol Nidrei of Yom Kippur night, he announces that the community allows even sinners to join in. This is the time to invite everyone. Rabbi Yaakov Ben Sheshet suggests, that if we discount sinners from the congregation, that would push out swaths of people. (Shu”t HaRivash 172.) His words are quoted by the tradition which requires that we open the gates to even those who have sinned against the community. As King Solomon declares, “there is no righteous person who does [only] good and never sins.” (Ecclesiastes 7:20)

Too often, it seems we try to gain points or prove we are right instead of hearing the pain of others and showing that we can be kind. Rebbe Nachman expresses this powerfully:

Know, that it is necessary to judge every person as meritorious. Even if someone is entirely wicked, it is necessary to search and find in him some bit of good, that in that bit he is not wicked, and by means of this, that you find in him a bit of good, and judge him as meritorious, by means of this you raise him in truth to the side of merit, and you can return him in repentance. (Likutei Moharan 1:282)

In a beautiful song, Yosef Karduner, hauntingly encapsulates this Torah of Rebbe Nachman: “Rejoice, do not only see the bad, Rejoice, see the good. In every person there is something hidden, Search! And find the good.” A running theme in the High Holiday liturgy is turning to God and asking that despite our shortcomings He none-the-less find the good within us so that our world not be ruined but rather saved. Shouldn’t we do the same at this time for each other and all our communities?

Many have begun or will begin to recite the powerful prayers called “Selichot.” The Sephardic tradition was to begin reciting them at the beginning of the month while this Saturday night those of Ashkenazic tradition will begin. The Sephardic poem, Adon HaSelichot, resonates deeply with me.

“Master of forgiveness,
who examines hearts,
Who reveals depths,
who speaks righteousness,
We have sinned before you, have mercy on us”

In a powerful modern version of this poem, Hanan Ben Ari and EZ, musicians who travel a less than traditional path, relate to the deepest hope for each person: “what I have corrupted, help to me repair.”

At this season, perhaps, it’s time to repair the divides in our people by building bridges to each other. There is more than enough Torah and sermon material to convey that message.

About the Author
Rabbi Berman is the Associate Director at Yeshivat Eretz HaTzvi. In addition, he has held numerous posts in education from the high school level through adult education. He founded the Jewish Learning Initiative (JLI) at Brandeis University and served as rabbinic advisory to the Orthodox community there for several years. Previously, he was a RaM at Midreshet Lindenbaum where he also served as the Rav of the dormitory.
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