Yossel Make Your Mind Up
I want to share with you again one of my favorite true stories, this time in a different context. Some years ago, when I was a rabbi in Massachusetts, I was teaching a fifth grade class about the Torah. I had them all on the bima, and the Torah was unfurled.
The students were polite and attentive. But, I knew something was bothering them. I knew that it was only a matter of time before someone asked the $64,000 question: what happens if you drop the Torah? Finally, a student did ask that question. But, he asked it in a very unique way.
He said, “What if you are holding the Torah, and it starts to feel very heavy in your hands. And, you’re struggling to hold it, but gravity is pulling it down, closer and closer to the floor. It’s so heavy that you can’t stand with it any more, so as it’s pulling you down, you sink to your knees. But, heroically, you are still holding the Torah above the ground.
All along, the Torah is moving downwards, but very very slowly. And you are having trouble keeping it above the ground. After ten minutes of this very slow sinking downward, the Torah is now an inch off the ground and you are still struggling with all of your might to keep it from touching the ground, but your muscles give out, and the Torah finally does touch the ground.
There is no thud, barely a sound. The question is: ‘Did you drop the Torah?’ Or, is that last inch of movement not really considered ‘a drop.’ This is a brilliant question. And, I want to dig in to what I think is behind this question, because I think what’s behind it is something very deep in our culture.
Let’s think about what this student did. This student took the act of ‘dropping’ and he broke it down into a thousand small freeze frames. The result is that no one of these tiny little acts can really be considered ‘dropping.’
What is the up side of doing this? Well dropping the Torah is traumatic. It’s terrifying. But, if there is no such thing as ‘dropping,’ there can be no trauma. And best of all, there can be no responsibility. And, if there is no responsibility, there is no anxiety. I don’t have to worry about doing something terribly wrong, if I can’t do something terribly wrong, because I am not capable of doing anything significant. All, I can do is move the Torah one inch at a time. So, I can’t make a very big mistake.
Of course, there is also a serious downside to dissecting our lives in this way. It’s true, now we can’t be held responsible for failing. But, the price is that we’re accepting the idea that our actions are inconsequential. Is that what we really want?
Did this fifth grader understand the implications of what he was asking? I don’t know. But, I don’t think he pulled this question out of the air. The idea that nothing monumental ever happens is deeply ingrained in our culture. The Theory of Evolution teaches that life evolves in very tiny increments. The human being is the end result of a long process of billions of very small, incremental changes over time. A century after Darwin a brilliant psychologist, BF Skinner applied the evolutionary mindset to human behavior. He said if you put a rat in a cage, you can teach him to press a bar to receive a pellet of food. The next day you teach him if he wants to get the pellet, he has to stand on his hind legs.
Eventually you can teach him to dance the tango. It looks like he is choosing to dance. But actually, he is not dancing. There is no dance. There is just a chain of thousands of small acts strung together. And, none of them is meaningful.
And, Skinner said—we human beings are no different. We just do more complicated things. Whether we are doing heart surgery or proposing to our loved one, we’re not doing anything significant. Our action is just the last inch before the Torah touches the ground. Nothing is monumentally significant. Nothing eventful ever happens in life.
Why does it matter? Because, we have bought into this incrementalist view of how human beings grow. As a Conservative Rabbi I was trained to believe that spiritual growth must be gradual. The ideal Jew, I was taught, is not the committed Jew. The ideal Jew is the striving Jew, the Jew in process, the Jew who is trying to be a better Jew.
It sounds reasonable. But, I think it’s time to fundamentally rethink this model. I think this way of thinking is at the root of why we are struggling as a movement, even though I believe passionately in what our movement stands for.
For a long time, I thought that the rationale for the gradual approach to spiritual growth is practicality. We don’t want to overwhelm people. Start small. It’s good sense. But, over time, I’ve come to believe it goes much deeper than that.
Judaism teaches that there are 3 transformational events in human history. There is the Creation of the world. There is the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai. And, finally, there is the coming of the Messiah. Traditional Judaism depicts all three of these events as monumental. But, Conservative Judaism teaches that none of them are monumental and none of them are even events. All of them are evolutionary. All of them are process.
Like Creation itself, the Torah we read today is the end result of a long evolution. Not a billion years, but a thousand years. And, the Messiah? Also, not an event. It’s a process. We human beings will bring the Messiah if step by step, little by little, over thousands of years or more, we improve our behavior.
Now, what are the implications of thinking this way? Well, if everything in the universe evolves incrementally, we don’t need to concern ourselves with making big changes in our lives. By being gradualists, we are in tune with the way the universe operates.
It all sounds very sensible. Except that it isn’t true. Not everything in life is gradual. No one is born gradually. We don’t say, ‘the baby was born gradually over a period of 9 months. No, we say the baby was born at exactly 5:02 am on Tuesday.’
And, it doesn’t matter how much we know about the scientific development of our child from a fertilized embryo. It doesn’t matter, how closely we’ve been monitoring every moment of this child’s development in the womb. And, the ultrasounds are spectacular. You can see a little face in there! Still, when that baby comes into the world, we are totally shocked. Why? Why are we so surprised? What did we expect?! Because, birth is an event, not a process.
And, so is human growth. No child learns to walk gradually. Of course, they learn to crawl, they learn to stand up. But, when our child takes her first steps, it’s monumental. She cannot do it gradually. She has to let go. She has to take a leap into the unknown. And, when she let’s go, she may fall. So, there is anxiety. There is commitment to a course that could fail. But, it’s because of that risk, there is so much joy when she makes it across the room for the first time.
Of course, so much of what we do requires gradual steps. But, not everything! We do not gradually get married. It’s even questionable whether we gradually fall in love. True, relationships grow over time. Not every relationship begins with a thunderbolt. But, there is often a moment when something changes, when we take a leap.
And, that moment is huge. It’s a moment of enormous consequence. It’s what our Tradition calls a covenantal moment. It’s a decision that carries huge implications for our future. And, that decision is dramatic. It cannot be made in tiny increments.
Judaism believes in big moments, transformative moments. Don’t get me wrong. I believe in evolution. I accept that the Torah evolved over time. And, I don’t believe the Messiah is going to come riding in on a donkey and change the world. But, there is a reason our ancestors depicted Sinai as an event, not a process. They had the sense that we were on to something big. They believed the Bible would reverberate through history. That’s what they meant when they depicted God speaking to us from the smoking mountain.
And, they were right. There are moments when we leap forward, we don’t just inch forward. The American Revolution was such a moment. The birth of the State of Israel was such a moment. Israel wasn’t born gradually. It burst onto the scene of history.
It’s not that gradualism has no place in our lives. I’m a big believer in gradualism most of the time. This past year, I took on my own small challenge. I committed to getting on my exercise bike for 40 days in a row and do a minimum of one minute of exercise. My friends laughed at me. But, I know myself. And, I knew if I set the bar any higher, I would fail.
I did my one minute or more routine for 200 days in a row. But, I didn’t do much more. And, then I read that the minimum you need for exercise to do you good is 150 minutes a week. So, five weeks ago, I took a leap. I went from a minimum of 7 minutes a week to 150 as my new standard. Ask me in six months how I’m doing.
We can’t do everything gradually. Sometimes, we have to make a bigger choice. Sometimes, we have to make a fateful choice, a choice that carries with it heavier responsibility, a choice that is more consequential if we fail.
We don’t propose marriage on the first date. But, if we’re never able to make that leap, we miss out on a lot. In the interest of making things accessible, we have tried to reduce the scope of our choices. And, much of the time, that is a wise strategy.
But, in minimizing the difficulty of a choice, we run the risk of reducing its meaning. Significant lives are made by significant choices. And, significant choices always carry with them bigger commitments and weightier consequences.
I say this to you today especially because we have a big step to consider as a congregation. And, I recently came across a parable that cogently captured the decision we need to make. Rabbi Shalom Berzovsky said as follows:
“Our task on the high holidays like that of a person who is building an elaborate house on a foundation of rubble. If he doesn’t want to invest the effort to dig solid foundations, the building will not have a strong base and therefore cracks will begin to appear in the walls.
Each time, the person will have to spend a lot of money all over again to strengthen the building, but more fissures will appear and the house will always be in danger of collapse.
There is only one path before him, and that is to have the courage to destroy the whole structure of the house and to dig deep and strong foundations. On top of those foundations, he can …establish a strong building.
“And, it is the same with us,” says Berzovsky. “Each year, we introduce repair in our spiritual home, but if we have not addressed the foundations, new cracks continue to appear. Only if we have the courage to dig deeper and address the issues at the foundation itself, can we build a structure that endures forever.”
This parable really spoke to me because every year for the past several years I look up at the left hand corner of our synagogue, and there is a big crack in the wall. There is a big spot where the paint is peeling. It’s not a paint job. There are water issues. And, the minimal fix will cost millions. We have issues in our building that cannot wait any longer. They will have to be repaired. Not only this building. Our outside school building needs to be replaced.
So, we have a choice to make. We can patch up the fissure in our building. Or, we can dig deeper, and create something that will transform the Jewish life of our community for decades to come.
We have a beautiful synagogue with a very proud history. If we want to have an equally proud future, a patch is not going to do it. We are going to have to dig deeper. This synagogue was built in 1972. The leaders of our shul who built it came of age in World War 2. And, the style of the shul, the theater seating, and the high ceilings reflects the values of the American Jewish community in the 1950’s and 1960’s.
Even more importantly–the model of a synagogue with a rabbi, a cantor, an educational director and a religious school with exclusively part time teachers—this is a postwar model. And, it served us well for a long time. But, we need a new model for the future.
We are not living in 1950. Living a rich, meaningful and committed Jewish life is infinitely more challenging today than it was sixty-five years ago. We live in a very attractive culture. And, we Jews are accepted and integrated into American society on a level never seen before, ever. So, living a Jewish life today is a choice, more than at any other time in our history. And, the job of persuading the Jewish people to make that choice falls on the synagogue more than any other institution in Jewish life.
That’s why the leadership of our congregation is united in believing that it’s time for a major renovation, not just of our building but of the life that goes on in our building. We want to create a center of Jewish innovation and renewal here at Herzl Ner Tamid that will dramatically change the Jewish landscape of our community.
As I started to say two years ago, if we are successful, it will change the way we feel about being Jewish. It will revolutionize our religious school. It will transform the way we experience Shabbat and holidays in our community.
It will enable us to create a new synergy with the JCC, JDS and Camp Solomon Schechter. And, it will impact our personal lives, our faith, our family life and the way we see the world.
And, it will do one more very important thing. It will enable us to reach the Alain de Botton’s of the world. Alain de Botton is a Swiss thinker who wrote a book called Religion for Atheists. Alain’s father was Jewish, but he grew up with no religion. Nevertheless, as he grew older, he came to the idea that even for people who don’t believe, religion has a lot to offer.
One of the examples he uses is Yom Kippur. He says the idea that there is a day when people forgive each other is brilliant. It makes it easier for people to do something that is otherwise very hard. Theoretically, you could achieve the same goal without a religious ritual. But, the truth is, he says, most people just never get around to it on their own.
I wonder how many thousands of Alain de Botton’s there are out there, sensitive souls, spiritual seekers? How might our Judaism be different if they were inside the tent, instead of outside the tent? And, I’m convinced we can reach them, if we are imaginative enough.
The payoff would be enormous. But, it’s is a big job. It’s labor intensive. It requires a lot of outreach, a lot of relationship building, and tremendous creativity on our part to find the connecting point to Judaism for so many of our people who haven’t found it yet.
I believe we can reach these people. We already touch so many people. If a person is known by the company we keep, we must be doing something right. Just think of the quality of the people who have been invested in this place. Pauline Reiter chose to be president of this synagogue. Michelle Sloan loved our synagogue. Carol Maslan, Bob Zimmerman, Art Kritzer, Sam Zarkin, Manny and Al Lott invested their life’s blood here. That’s short list.They chose to be in this place. They celebrated the most important moments of their lives here, as so many of us have. And, when we lost them, this Sanctuary is the place we came to cry.
We want to touch more people, and more often. That’s why this past year we started Rhythm and Jews, our musical Friday night service, and it’s been wonderful. That’s why this coming December, Eliyahu is leading a teen trip to New York City. Those kids are going to have a Jewish experience they will never forget.
That’s why we are working with Rabbi Irwin Kula and 12 other congregations to draw on the insights of Positive Psychology—and to come up with a strategy for personal change that each of us can implement in our own lives—as a way of making next Yom Kippur even more meaningful.
We know what it feels like to fill the Sanctuary on Purim night. How can we build on that joy and excitement? We live in the Pacific Northwest. The whole area of outdoors Jewish spirituality is a brand new field. Who better than us to take advantage of this direction?
We want the lives of our people to be touched by Judaism daily—both inside and outside the synagogue. For that to happen, we will need to bring the very best rabbis and educators to our team at Herzl Ner Tamid—and, more of them than we ever dreamed of before—more than any congregation has dared dream of before. But, I guarantee, that if we do it, other congregations will follow. And the whole Jewish community, in Seattle and beyond Seattle will be grateful to us.
I do not worry about Jewish survival. We have always survived. What worries me is: will we be relevant? Will we have a compelling message to offer the world?
And, that’s why I believe that the leadership of Herzl Ner Tamid in the Jewish community is so critical. I am proud to be part of a congregation that is unwavering in its support for the State of Israel, and sends 50 people to AIPAC a year. And, I am proud that this same congregation is now in its fifth year of Muslim-Jewish dialogue. And, I would challenge anyone to find that combination anywhere else in the Jewish world.
We live in a world of increasing polarization. The world needs harmonizers. We can take pride in the fact that this congregation has been home to the Torahthon for the past decade, the only place in our city where Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist and totally secular Jews come together to study Torah. Even Limmud which is an international version of Torahthon doesn’t draw the Orthodox. They don’t come.
But, they come to Herzl-Ner Tamid. We are the bridge builders of the Jewish world. When we are strong, the whole Jewish community benefits. If we want to build on our strengths, we need to think consequentially, and not just incrementally.
And, so there are three things I’d like us all to give serious thought to doing in the coming year. First: think about making a consequential choice in our personal life this year. Have a baby. Get married. Choose a college. If those life’s decisions are not on the horizon, let’s think—is there a commitment we can make that would carry weighty consequences? Even a single step can be consequential if it fundamentally changes our direction.
Secondly, let’s each of us take a consequential step in our Jewish lives this year. Not a baby step. Do something that involves a significant commitment. Not just one minute a day on the exercise bike.
- Those who have committed to reading a chapter of Bible a day have made a big commitment. That’s 929 days, almost 3 years. That’s substantial. There’s still time to hop aboard that train.
- Make a substantial commitment to Shabbat this year. Change your Jewish eating habits in a significant way. Learn Hebrew.
- I volunteer to sit down one on one with anyone in the congregation who wants to explore how to grow Jewish and humanly in the coming year.
And, because I believe that that is what it takes—that kind of attention is what it takes to bring out the true potential in our community, I am asking us to consider making a fateful choice about the future of our congregation. And, we don’t have another five years to decide. We will have to make the decision over the next two months.
As you know, I am a big baseball fan. I have noticed that when a batter takes a half swing, the umpire says, “the batter didn’t commit.” If you take a half swing you may avoid having a strike called against you. You may avoid the embarrassment of swinging and missing completely and looking foolish. But, I guarantee this. No one ever hit the ball out of the infield with a half swing.
We are at a crossroads in Jewish life. We are at a crossroads in our congregation’s history. The needs of the Jewish people are enormous. We need to get the ball out of the infield. And, we will only be able to do that if we have the courage to take a full swing.
The choice is ours. We can patch up the wall. Or, we can build something inspiring together. Let’s make the bigger choice; let’s make the braver choice. Let’s not be afraid of dropping the Torah. A life without risk is a life without anxiety. But, it is also a life without triumph. It is a life without deep joy and meaning.
In a moment, we will honor the lives of our family and dear friends—men, women and children who made fateful choices. They came to America and started a new life. They went overseas and fought for freedom and saved democracy. They gave their hearts and souls to create the State of Israel. They lived lives of consequence.
The best way to honor their memory is to emulate their example. This coming year, let’s not just fix the cracks. Let’s build something beautiful. Let’s build something inspiring. Let’s have the courage to make a fateful choice, a covenantal choice, and show that we believe that our lives our consequential, that our decisions matter—for ourselves for our children, for our grandchildren, and for the future vitality of the Jewish people.