My Erev Rosh Hashanah Sermon 2018

Hi. … How’s it going?… Happy New Year! … Yeah, that’s all I got.  I mean, if I say any more, I’m sure I’m going to offend someone and that’s probably not a great way to start the new year by offending people.  Oh, my God!  I probably already did offend someone.  I mean, that was a pretty casual beginning and being casual on Rosh Hashanah just isn’t done.  Maybe I should just cut my losses and stop here.  But then again, if I stop now then I’ll get complaints that I didn’t speak long enough or go in depth enough.  No, I had better just soldier on and continue.

Nice services so far, huh?  I mean, Randy just brings such soul to the music and has such a presence here on the bimah.  I really love the way the music makes me feel when he’s singing.  Wait. … Stop. … No, that’s not a safe topic either.  I have observed often enought that the only music that’s any good is the music you grew up with and there is too wide an age range here for there to be any one good musical setting for us.  Did you know that cantors actually have a term for settings that people generally accept as ‘traditional’.  They call them Mi Sinai, or having been given by God at Mt. Sinai with the Torah.  For example, the Shema that we sing most frequently, not during the High Holy Days, of course, but during the rest of the year, was written by Cantor Solomon Sulzer in Vienna in the late 1800’s, which I am reasonably sure is not even remotely close to the events at Mt. Sinai in either time or location.  But there you go, it’s traditional, so it’s Mi Sinai. 

I’ve never understood it, this devotion to one musical setting or even one style of music.  When I was in college, my friend Andy was going through my cd collection and he turned to me.  “You’ve got Beethoven, Pink Floyd, Benny Goodman, and The Talking Heads,” he said. “That’s just wrong.”  But why?  Different kinds of music make me feel different kinds of ways.  Symphonic music makes me feel majestic and transported.  Rock music makes me feel happy.  Show tunes make me laugh and cry.  Rap makes me feel… psychotic and murderous.  I mean, I never said I liked all music.  But I couldn’t imagine only ever listening to one kind of music.  And I can’t imagine only one setting for prayer, either.  But if it’s Mi Sinai, we really can’t mess with it, can we.

Hmmm… Wasn’t it insanely hot this summer?  The first week of camp while I was there, the highs were over 105 degrees every day.  It was so hot on that Friday, 110 degrees, that we had to have Friday night services in the pool, just to make it bearable.  With the heat this summer and Hurricane Harvey last year, it seems like the weather is just… Nope… Nope… The weather isn’t a safe topic any more.  All y’all will just assume I’m talking about climate change. 

That’s it!  I give up.  We just … can’t seem to talk to each other anymore.  It’s just so hard.  Why do we automatically assume the worst about people, or what they’re saying, or what their intentions are?  I’ve travelled all over the world and people have generally been really nice.  We have to get past this.  We have to learn to listen to each other again.

It’s a central tenet of Judaism, you know, listening.  Shema Yisrael — listen up, O Israel!  Most often it’s translated as Hear O Israel, but I don’t think that works well enough because one can definitely hear things without listening to them.  No, you have to go to Deuteronomy 27:9 to get the full impact of the statement: Haskeit u’shema.  Be silent and hear.  To truly listen, one must first be silent.  I’m not speaking about a situation where two people are talking, yelling, shouting at the same time like they’re on a cable news program.  Being silent is not only about not to talking over people, although you shouldn’t talk over people either.  Rather, it is about silencing our own inner dialogs.

I am not a New Yorker anymore, but I am from New York and in New York, conversation is engaged in as a full contact, competitive sport.  It took me a long time not to jump on the end of other people’s sentences as is normal in New York.  It is also normal in New York, while the other person is speaking, to spend your time coming up with counter arguments.  This is the inner dialog you must first silence in order to truly listen. 

Listening is about understanding the other person, understanding what they are saying and even what they are not saying.  When I do premarital counseling, I often have to teach active listening.  Yes, listening is very active, not at all passive.  When you are actively listening, you try to understand what the other person has meant or implied.  And when the other person has finished speaking you then repeat back to them what you understood them to mean and then ask: is that what you meant?  It might take several tries before you have listened and understood.  How many times have you been in an argument that has gone round and around seemingly without end?  Most of the time it is because neither has truly understood the other.  Truly listening means understanding, not necessarily agreeing, but understanding.  To be heard and understood, to truly listen to someone, is one of the greatest gifts we can give them.

There is a famous story in the Talmud of an argument that went round and around.  It comes in Tractate Bava Metzia 59b and is called The Oven of Akhnai.  In this story Rabbi Eliezer is arguing with all the other sages over whether an oven made of circular clay rings with sand between the rings could be subject to impurity.  The sages argued that even though the oven came in pieces it was a unified whole and could become impure.  Rabbi Eliezer argued that the oven was in pieces separated by sand so it couldn’t become impure, but he couldn’t convince them.  Rabbi Eliezer resorted to miracles and a Heavenly voice even declared that Rabbi Eliezer was always right, but they were unconvinced.  Rabbi Yehoshua declared: “lo bashamayim hi,” the Torah is not in Heaven and You, God, gave it to us to decide and we have decided the oven to be impure.  God laughed approvingly declaring that My children have defeated Me using My own Torah against Me.  Usually that’s where we end the story because it looks good for us rabbis.  But that’s not where it ends. 

The sages burnt everything that Rabbi Eliezer declared to be pure and excommunicated him.  When Rabbi Eliezer found out he had been excommunicated, the entire world was affected with one third of all the olives, the wheat  harvest, and the barley harvest being destroyed.  Whatever Rabbi Eliezer looked at was burned and destroyed.  Both sides in the argument went much too far using scorched earth tactics.  And all of it was over a disagreement about the purity of a type of oven.

It doesn’t have to be this way.  Elsewhere in the Talmud, Tractate Eruvin 13b, we are told of an argument between the Houses of Hillel and Shammai.  “For three years, the House of Hillel and the House of Shammai argued.  One said, ‘The law is according to our position,’ and the other said, ‘The law is according to our position.’  A heavenly voice spoke: “Eilu v’eilu d’varim Elohim Chayim: These and those are the words of the living God, but the law is according to the House of Hillel.”  A question was raised: Since the heavenly voice declared: “Both these and those are the words of the Living God,” why was the law established to follow the opinion of Hillel?  It is because the students of Hillel were kind and gracious.  They taught their own ideas as well as the ideas from the students of Shammai.  Furthermore, they even taught Shammai’s opinions first.”

For years Hillel and Shammai argued with each other without being able to come to a resolution between themselves.  But they were kind, they were civil, they studied and even taught the other’s positions, and they listened.  They listened because they knew both sides were arguing for the sake of Heaven, a cause greater than themselves, a cause they both held dear.

We need to be able to talk to each other again.  We need to listen.  There is so much noise and tumult in this world today.  It’s like Elijah speaking to God in First Kings, Chapter 19:  “And lo, the Eternal passed by.  There was a great and mighty wind, splitting mountains and shattering rocks by the power of the Eternal; but the Eternal was not in the wind.  After the wind — an earthquake; but the Eternal was not in the earthquake.  After the earthquake — fire; but the Eternal was not in the fire.  And after the fire — a still small voice.”  Elijah didn’t find God in shattering winds, earthquakes or fires, but by listening to the still, small voice.  We need to stop making whirlwinds and conflagrations that shake us to our foundations and we need to listen, truly listen to each other again.  And when we disagree, and you know that we will, we should do so respectfully, listening with understanding, and knowing that we are arguing for the sake of Heaven.  Then we too may hear the still, small voice.

Good Yontev.