Open the Door: Doors on Our Jewish Identity

 

Is it a professional hazard, or personal interest, or a bit of both? I am not sure. However, I watch a lot of Jewish YouTube videos. People send them to me in emails and messages, they are found in the scrolling on my Facebook page, and sometimes I seek them out for a program, lesson or sermon. Several years back, around this very time of year, I was sent a Rosh Hashanah YouTube video made by Jewish Impact Films.

Scene one: shows a young man seeking to open his garage door with an automatic door-opener, attached to the sun- visor of his car. He tries and tries, but the garage door refuses to budge. He then takes the door-opener off the sun- visor, pushes the button in the car, out of the car, shakes it while pressing the button, in vain attempts for the garage door to open. Humorously, he tries licking it, banging it on top of his head, and makes noises of frustration. Finally, with a countenance of despondence he seems to be giving up hope.

Scene two: The young man notices a second car pulling into the driveway. In this car, a traditionally dressed Hasid in black garb takes out his Shofar, blows a multi-note Shevarim, and the garage door miraculously opens!

Scene Three: The Hasid drives by the frustrated man, gives him a nod and a thumbs-up. The young man looks perplexed, but gives an acknowledging grateful nod back.

The YouTube flashes then to a caption… “These High Holy Days stick with what works.”

Next scene: the young man is blowing a Tekiah on a large Shofar to open the trunk of his car and smiling with joy at his success!

A banner ends the short movie with the saying “Shofar, So Good.”[1]

Our Shofar Service is one of the highlights of the our Machzor. It is divided into several captions preceding scenes.

Malchuyot, Sovreignty.

Zichronot, Remembrances.

Shofarot, Shofar Blasts.

Each caption is an existential door opening a scene of High Holy Day reflection and prayers, culminating with a Shofar blast, a door-opening reminder to link our reflections and intentions into the scenes of our own life.

malchuyot-is-god-king

Scene One. Malchuyot. This is the door that opens our relationship to God. The Shofar blast calls us to pay attention to God’s divinity or divine power. This is part of the construct of authority in the ancient world.

A parable from our tradition tells of a King who enters a province and asks: “May I be your King?” The people respond: “What have you done for us that we should have you rule over us?” What did the King do?  He built a city wall, he provided the infrastructure for a water supply, and he fought wars in their defense. Then when the King asked for a second time: “May I be your King?” the people responded “Yes!”

Likewise, the parable concludes: God brought the Israelites out of Egypt, divided the sea for them, sent down manna for them, brought up a well of water for them, provided them with quail to eat, and fought a war with Amalek on their behalf. Thus, when God asked: “May I be your King?” the people responded “Yes!”[2]

Our Malchuyot  prayers ask us to accept a hierarchical relationship with an infallible, divine sovereign who controls all. Yet in most modern countries today, kings and queens are symbolic, or have limited powers. In England, Queen Elizabeth does not dictate laws, Queen Margerethe of Denmark has her role limited by the country’s constitution, as does King Abdullah of Jordan. Moderns balk at a supreme authoritarian construct. It brings discomfort, and is discordant with our conceptions of relationships both human and Divine. Thus, the Shofar calls of Malchuyot are, for many of us, jarring on this day.

Yet there is also opportunity in dissonance. The calls of the Shofar can be reconfigured as the door-opener to struggle with our relationship with the Holy One, and what it means for our lives. As I often teach, we are called Israel, God-wrestlers, for a reason. Let the Shofar calls of Scene One, impel us to question and wrestle with God, like our ancestor Jacob, who famously wrestled with a being Divine.

The first Tekiah of Malchuyot begs us ask the question of ourselves: What is our relationship with God?

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Scene Two is Zichronot, the scene of our service that arouses our historical memory. Our prayers have us reflect on Jewish history. The relationships of God with Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob, Leah and Rachel are evoked. We consider how Moses, and David, and the prophets connected and spoke to the Holy One, and how they evolved their understanding of Judaism and God, through history.

Our Zichronot reflections should have us ask how we are connected to the Jewish story l’dor v’dor, from generation to generation?

At this very moment, my brother and sister-in-law are taking my nephew Jake on a pre-Bar Mitzvah trip to Poland, England and Israe,l to research his Jewish family roots. With a written explanation of the origins of my father’s family, dating back to the time of the Inquisition in Spain, he will relate to his ancestors by viewing a large Kiddush cup once donated to the London Great Synagogue in the early 1800’s, and take part in the search for a Torah that was gifted by my family there.

He will view the denization papers given to my family by King George III, and visit the graves of our ancestors centuries old, and ancestors not-so-old. Including a great-great uncle who was a pilot in the English air-force and downed in World War Two.

Jake will learn details of the lives of his Polish family through letters now featured in the Jewish Museum in Poland, found in the attic of his Australian grandfather, the Polish correspondents who perished too-soon in the Holocaust.

He will visit the Diaspora Museum in Tel Aviv, where pictures of my mother’s Egyptian family are on display – a Seder in Egypt before their 1956 exile.

The prayers of Zichronot, are the door opener asking us to consider making our own connection to Jewish history, theological or actual, whether it be an old or recent, whether it be mythical or documented. The Shofar calls us to consider our rapport to the chain of tradition from its beginning, to our day, and how we can work to continue that chain of tradition in the generations beyond us.

The second set of Shofar calls, Zichronot ,ask us: What stories and history do you wish to perpetuate into the future of Judaism, to ensure that Jewish life is rooted in the past, but remains relevant for today?

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Our final scene, Scene Three, is Shofarot, the call to us to return to Jewish revelation and Jewish practice, part of the process in bringing about redemption.  As Reform Jews, we are asked to consider the Covenant and the Mitzvot, the gamut of Jewish tradition, and work to shape Jewish lives of meaning and relevancy for ourselves, our families, our communities, so that we can look back with a sense of fulfillment.

This requires attention. This requires intention.

“A knock on the door and a man selling Shofars…”[3] begins a story by my friend Mitch Chefitz.

The salesman says to Gabriella, the girl who answers the door: “I have Shofars to sell and Shofars to trade. One to make your strong. One to make you pleasing. One to make you wise. One to draw you out of the world.”

“How much?” asks Gabriella who had just received seven dollars and seven cents for her seventh birthday.

“Seven dollars and seven cents.”

“That’s good then because that’s all I have,” she replies. “Give me a Shofar to make me strong.” And she hands over the money, for what else is she to do with such a strange amount?

The next day Gabriella tries to blow the Shofar and not a peep. But day after day she tries again and again, different angles, different breaths, and eventually eek! A sound is made. Slowly steadily she expands her strength to blow and eventually a squeak becomes a Tekiah! A Teruah! A Shevarim! A Tekiah Gedolah!

As Gabriella grows, her lungs become stronger and stronger from her Shofar blowing. It enables her to become an athlete that can run the field like the wind itself. At seventeen she has a party where she blows out the candles with one breath.

Then, a knock at the door. The man selling Shofars is on the other side. “I have Shofars to sell and Shofars to trade. One to make your strong. One to make you pleasing. One to make you wise. One to draw you out of the world.”

“I remember you,” says Gabriella, “you have not changed.

“But you have changed,” said the man. “You have grown up nicely.”

“So how much to buy a Shofar?” asks Gabriella.

“More than you can spend,” said the man, “but you could trade.”

“Well, I have had this one to make me strong for a long time, so I’ll swap it for one to make me pleasing.”

Gabriella does not try the new Shofar right away, after all she had her blowing technique down! But when she gets around to picking it up, she hears that she had underestimated how difficult a new Shofar could be.

She practices and practices, day after day after day. She finally learns to sound a sweet Tekiah, Teruah, Shevarim and Tekiah Gedolah. She even learns how to fashion her lips to play different notes to create sweet melody. People are fascinated by her skill and come from far and wide to hear the mistress of the Shofar!

She keeps this Shofar safe and clean. Thinking one day soon, she might swap it for another, and learn yet a new skill.

Ten years pass. But the Shofar salesman does not come.

Twenty years pass. But the salesman does not come.

Thirty years pass. A knock at the door.  The man selling Shofars on the other side.

“I have Shofars to sell and Shofars to trade. One to make your strong. One to make you pleasing. One to make you wise. One to draw you out of the world.”

“I expected you to be back years ago,” Gabriella said, “I am ready to trade, I have been keeping this Shofar in good shape for you. This time I want the Shofar to make me wise.”

“Sure,” said the Shofar salesman. “But this Shofar comes with a task! You will need to paint its inside.”

Not so hard, thinks Gabriella. I will just fill the Shofar with paint. And she agrees.

When she finally looks at her new Shofar, she notices it is almost closed at the mouthpiece. She pours in blue paint, but it just slides right out, the horn on the inside still clear of color. The paint store suggests she try different colors, different types of paints, different techniques. Nothing works.

She went to consult a scientist who suggests multiple experiments.

She went to a biologist who examined the horns DNA.

She sought out a mathematician at a college who taught her calculus.

But nothing could teach her how to paint the Shofar with color. She went to all types of teachers looking to learn the answer. Along the way she learned cosmology, relativity, string theory, chemistry, literature and so much more.

Decade after decade passed, and at age ninety-seven, after gathering much wisdom, and trying in vain to color her Shofar, a realization came to her in a flash.

She held the small tip of the Shofar to her mouth. Even a large breath would be too much. Gentle. Gentle. She sighed a sigh through the small opening. Slowly, steadily, her heart and soul, streamed into the horn to color it with her spirit. The Shofar proclaimed more than a sound. It called out understanding and redemption. Love and acceptance. Grace and beauty.

At that very moment, the salesman of Shofars appeared. “You reached me,” he said. “I have Shofars to sell and Shofars to trade. One to make your strong. One to make you pleasing. One to make you wise. One to draw you out of the world.”

“I am happy to see you, said Gabriella, “I am ready to trade up…”

And she held out her Shofar for the next one.

In Scene Three, Shofarot, we are called to shape our Jewish lives through strengthening Jewish skills, by making Jewish life pleasing, by learning Jewish teachings, to create a long-lived Jewish life.  The Shofar calls out to us to recommit ourselves to Jewish doing and knowledge. The Shofar calls of Shofarot, are the door-opener for you to question, what should you be doing to create that Jewish life around you?

With each blast of the Shofar service, we are reminded of the existential choices that form the key elements of our Jewish existence.

In the YouTube short film, the Shofar is blown by a Hasid and opened the garage door. “These High Holy Days stick with what works,” proclaimed the caption. The Shofar is the door-opener that calls to us to ask the questions, to figure out what will work in our modern Jewish lives:

Malchuyot – how do we shape our relationship with the Holy One?

Zichronot – how do we connect ourselves, and generations to come, to Jewish history?

Shofarot –  how do we connect our lives meaningfully to Jewish doing and knowledge?

The Shofar miraculously opens the doors of these important questions for us. We choose whether the Tekiah, Teruah, Shevarim, Tekiah Gedolah, will resound inside of us, speaks to us at this season, if they will be “Shofar, so good,” Shofar calls for good.

[1] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W_r27mrH1MU

[2] Mekhilta de-Rabbi Ishmael, Tractate Bahodesh, Chapter 5.

[3] “Gabriel’s Horn” from the Curse of Blessings by Mitchell Chefitz. It was suggested by the author to use Shofar rather than horn. I have changed the child to a girl for my sense of providing some gender balance to this sermon.

Where is the Hand of God?

Hands

And we ask: Where’s the hand of God? …When Freddie Gray dies in police custody from a spinal cord injury.

And we ask: Where’s the hand of God?… as the death toll in Nepal exceeds 4000, and the injury told beyond 7,500.

And we ask: Where’s the hand of God?… as protestors become violent on the streets of Baltimore, less than an hour away.

And we ask: Where’s the hand of God?… as a teenage girl being attacked by amorous men is thrown from a bus to her death.

And we ask: Where’s the hand of God? … as the young die of diseases not cured.

And we ask: Where’s the hand of God? … when things go awry in our lives or those of our friends.

And we ask: Where’s the hand of God? … when natural disaster wreaks havocs on lives.

And we ask: Where’s the hand of God? … when our environment succumbs to vulnerabilities.

Where’s the hand of God?

The easiest way to answer when bad things happen is in the negative…  for we recognize  intuitively where the metaphorical hand of God is not.

God is not in the violence, God is not in the hate, God is not in the earth’s tremors or the earth’s winds, God is not in the lust, God is not in the ego that does not venture beyond id, God is not in power struggles, God is not in the politics that play with people’s lives, God is not in bad things that happen to us, others or the world.

Where is then the hand of God to be found? Such a deep question with so many complex answers.

One answer –

The hand of God is in our tears, in our compassion, in our caring. When we are moved by the troubles of others, when we empathize with the pathos of their suffering, when we pray for them in our hearts, we manifest the love of God into the universe. When we love our neighbors as ourselves we bring the hand of God into this world. When we weep, so does God.

One answer –

The hand of God is in our movement towards action – when we make a donation to help our brothers and sisters, when we work for equality for all peoples whatever their skin color, when we sponsor research, when we comfort the mourner and feed the hungry, when we raise awareness, and address society’s ills. We become God’s partners, God’s hands in repairing the world.

One answer –

The hand of God cradles us with love so that we can endure what is beyond endurance. When we let the spirit of God support us and know that there is life beyond pain, endurance beyond suffering, and that through will and support there is nothing we cannot forebear. We feel the hand of God on our shoulders, the touch of God in our hearts.

One answer –

The hand of God is in  in the path of goodness. God is found in universal values of peace, justice, love, compassion, equality, humanity. When we manifest the positive into our environment God’s presence is strengthened for us and for others. God’s hand’s hover over all of us like a parent blesses a child.

One answer –

The hand of God is felt in community that comes together and is there for each other. It is in the prayers they lift up with one voice. It is in the discussions of the holy that happen in their midst. It is in the study and the struggles that they share. God’s hand links each of their hands as they journey in life.

One answer –

The hand of God is in radical amazement when we know that miracles abound. As beautiful as a sunrise and as glorious as an ocean vista. They can be found in the little small details of existence– the fact that our hearts beat and our eyes open in the morning, the little bud on a tree in spring or the fact that water sits at the base of our cups. The sky is blue. The trees are green. The hand of God is in all of creation – if we choose to widen our eyes clearly enough we can feel.

When we ask: Where is the hand of God as we confront all that goes awry, it is too easy to forget in the randomness of existence, that so much of our world works, that is right and good and wonderful, where God is to be found.

Our ancestors believed that God had a strong hand and a mighty arm. Limited by their understanding of the world and the inadequacy of words, they spoke of God in human terms. We too have words unable to express the wonders of the Spirit that Unites us all, but just because the one that is Yod-Hey-Vav-Hey, the One that is Becoming is beyond our grasp, does not mean that we are cannot recognize or see or feel or intuit  the touch of God in the universe and in our souls.

When we ask – Where is the hand of God? The answer is by necessity beyond our reach but at the same time able to be known. God’s metaphorical hand is as real as an ever present touch in our hearts and souls and minds.