Family, Memory and the New Year

Shanah Tovah to all of you in our JCP Community here in New York and in our broader Jewish community. We have learned so much in these past months about human resilience, quiet acts of monumental heroism, and an overwhelming desire to remain connected to each other in the most trying of times.

The challenges before us on this particular New Year are both unique to this year and also have the feeling of being greater than us, greater than one generation, greater than any single moment in time.

As we begin these High Holy Days, let’s do so in the spirit of peace and reconciliation; in the quietude of reflection and in the urgent insistence on taking action to build a better world.

With gratitude to our leadership for their stalwart and inspiring generosity; and with enormous pride in our teachers and staff and new rabbi who have brought us through to this moment, I wish you all a Sweet New Year of good health, prosperity, and peace.

And now, some thoughts on this Rosh Hashanah to help us focus on the big picture of a very big day, the start of a ten day journey of reflection toward a new path forward for ourselves, our families, our community and our world.

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During my first year of rabbinical school, alone in the library late one afternoon, I met Rabbi Bernie Zlotowitz, of blessed memory, who was ensconced in his own meditation and study of a variety of texts. We started chatting. He asked what I was going to do for my first High Holy Days sermon and I admitted no small amount of trepidation. Why did you get into this racket? he asked. To teach, I said. So teach, he said.

Good advice. Do what you know. Do what you feel best about. Do it well. And do it over and over again.

Bernie went to retrieve an article he had written and published in an academic journal. He wanted to make the claim that the scriptural readings for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur were chosen by the rabbis to structure a polemical argument in relationship to Christianity, which by the Middle Ages, when much of the ritual for the holy days was codified and printed, was the dominant system under which most Jews lived.

The notion of faith systems colliding with each other, borrowing from each other, and regrettably and tragically going to war against each other is a story as old as the hills. Not to mention at times a story that is inexcusably embarrassing in its lack of regard for practicing the love and peace all faiths are meant to practice.

Under the best circumstances, of course, argumentation and disagreement are carried out “for the sake of Heaven,” that is to say for the purposes of unifying our understanding of the Divine around a shared purpose, like peace, justice or compassion. Every faith system demands its adherents to practice these ideas through concrete action. And while we may have many paths from which to choose, we can be confident enough in our own identities to debate finer points in the broader marketplace of ideas. Jews, Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Sikhs, Atheists and Agnostics surely share a belief in peace, justice and compassion. We just tell different stories for how we get there. Like Google Maps, I guess, there are different routes to the same place. Arrival times altered by a mere minute or two, but in the context of Eternity, does it really matter?

Thus, Rabban Gamliel, an early sage in the Greco-Roman period, decreed that at the Passover Seder one must explain to the table the meaning of “Pesach, Matzah and Maror” by holding up each to the table and teaching very directly and very clearly what they are: The Pesach is the lamb our ancestors sacrificed when they left Egypt; the Matzah is the bread of haste, baked quickly to facilitate our Exodus; and the Maror is the bitter herb of the slave labor under which we suffered. This educational act is so fundamental to Jewish understanding that small children learn these ideas right alongside songs about hammers and work and frogs and shaking angry fingers at imagined pharaohs in Jewish classrooms around the world each year.

By one small tilt of the lens one can see that Rabban Gamliel is saying what these objects are NOT: Here, the lamb is not Jesus, the “lamb of God”; the Matzah is not a wafering offering of the Eucharist; and the Maror is not his bitter suffering on the cross for the world. They are our stories, our symbols. And while they may have other meanings for others, memory requires that they maintain their force by an eternal bind to our sacred history.

This is what scholars refer to as polemical literature. It is meant to convey a certain argument; even censor out some ways of thinking while codifying others. And I think this is most fundamentally done because our personal stories matter; our individual experiences of the world are unique to our existence and the ability and dignity to tell them is what makes us feel, well, special.

So one can imagine that Rabban Gamliel is concerned that a nascent Christianity is going to appropriate symbols of Judaism for its new narrative and so he builds a rhetorical fence as if to say that these three things are still what they are. We use them to tell our story our way and that matters because the story we share also says that each of us are “made in the Divine Image,” each unique, no one inherently better than the other. Each of us is radically individual while bound together with others, a family perhaps, a whole, with shared origins, texts, songs, language, music, food, geography, calendar, history and values.

Back in the library Bernie made his point. Consider the writings for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, he said. Same thing. Sarah, miracle birth; Abraham, sacrifice of Isaac; Jonah in the belly of the whale for three days before being “resurrected” back onto the land.

It was a clever argument and, in the context of learning for pure learning’s sake, it’s a great lesson to address in interfaith dialogues. It’s a good time.

Roots have always fascinated me. The act of excavating our minds and our stories to uncover lost truths remains one of the most exciting aspects of being alive. And I dare say that the structure of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is also an invitation into the invaluable experience of going to our origin stories year in and year out precisely at a moment where we celebrate not just the New Year, but the Creation of the Universe in all its beauty, wonder and awe; the diversity of its life forms; and our own responsibility to cherish, to care for, to tend to this world we inhabit.

But what is interesting is that our readings for Rosh Hashanah are not about the Creation but rather are about the origins of Abraham and Sarah’s Jewish family.

Prior to meeting these first Jews, God creates the universe. And with a specific order in mind. Light. Darkness. Good. Evil. Every plant, every animal for land, air and ocean. God then creates free will, choice and human agency.

And to be clear, none of the first several characters in the Biblical narrative are Jews. They are forms, memes even, in order to illustrate a unified vision for what the human actually is. Adam and Eve eat from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, introducing morality. They are expelled from the garden, demonstrating that there are consequences to our actions. Cain and Abel introduce rivalry, anger, envy, spite and murder. Noah, so very human, runs away from the call to serve. He hides, like we often do. And the Tower of Babel argues that there are limits to the human project. We will only ever get so high. Or, as God would eventually say to Moses, “No one shall see my face and live.”

And so in this way, I’d like to suggest that what precedes the story of Abraham and Sarah in Genesis is a kind of pre-historical origin story which celebrates what unites all of humankind. And with Abraham and Sarah on the scene, we are invited into “our” story; to our particular and peculiar ways of doing things that make us Jews unique among the other families of the earth.

“On Rosh Hashanah it is written; on Yom Kippur it is sealed.” Our deeds are recorded. Our deeds are addressed in the Heavenly Court. Our fate is sealed. Who will live and who will die? Who will be written into the Book of Life for another year?

Terrifying way to start a year, isn’t it? I guess it helps explain why we are among the smaller religions on the planet.

But consider for a moment the following structure:

Rosh Hashanah is a time for making our accounting first from the place of origins. We all come from somewhere. Good families, bad families. Healthy families, dysfunctional families. Families that carry wounds and traumas and triumphs and successes lightly or as a heavy load but a multitude of experiences nevertheless. Abraham and Sarah’s struggle with pregnancy; Hagar’s relative ease in giving birth to Ishmael; Ishmael’s mistreatment of Isaac and Sarah’s defensive move to banish Hagar and Ishmael. This could not have been an easy home to inhabit. Or immediately following this episode, Abraham answers a call from God to sacrifice Isaac. Father and son say very little to one another and if we read the text closely, they never speak again, though Abraham arranges Isaac to marry Rebekah and Isaac and Ishmael are reunited at their father Abraham’s funeral.

There is conflict and pain and hurt and there is time, and healing and even reconciliation. That’s how families operate. Love can cause pain, even lasting pain; but love can, in the end, redeem. Sacrifice hurts; sacrifice requires choice and consequence; but the work required in any act of sacrifice has a co-equal reaction perhaps best summarized by the phrase, “No pain, no gain.”

To get to justice, to get to peace, to get to compassion, one must work, work, and work some more.

It’s a hard message but it’s true. And in many ways for many people, those first lessons are wrought in the warmth of the fire of family life. For while it is surely true that each of us “comes from somewhere,” it is also true that each of us is going somewhere, too.

On Rosh Hashanah we are entering holy time, sacred space, familiar and familial narratives that tell us who we are right now but also push us to strive for a continual unfolding of who we are yet to become. Our family stories are not who we are but they are the shared place from which we came. Going back to the beginning of the year is not so much an act of wiping the slate clean as it is a return to a familiar place with a new beginning.

What have I learned in the last year? How have I grown? How have I not? And what wisdom will I move forward with in the New Year ahead?

In the last half year of obsessive hand-washing, sanitizing and mask wearing, it certainly is a temptation to want to wipe the slate clean, isn’t it? Vote him in. Vote him out. Start over. Reset.

Nope.

We Jews, as well as anyone, know the power of memory, the deep roots of the past, and the moral responsibility to remember and never forget. And just as Rosh Hashanah is meant to be the day the universe came into existence, Rosh Hashanah is also a Yom Hazikaron — a day of remembrance.

Whether it is the alarming news that a dangerously high percentage of young Americans lack a serious understanding of the Holocaust; or the mind-bending and potentially history altering peace treaties between Israel and a growing number of Arab nations; we Jews know that memory of what once was can always guide us toward a path illuminated by the aspirations of what can be.

And as Americans at this critical juncture in our history, we can tell this story, too. Memory matters. It matters when we “say their names”; it matters when women in forced detention get involuntary hysterectomies and we are aware as Americans and Jews of having been subjected to human experimentation; it matters when we see that this pandemic doesn’t care about your faith or gender or the color of your skin but it does attack those most vulnerable among us, like “the poor, the stranger, the widow and the orphans” of Scripture whom we are commanded to care for because we, in our history, were once so vulnerable when we were slaves in Egypt. For an empathic world, for a just world, for a world at peace, history and memory are the necessary signposts, to guide us along the way.

History and memory are our hope. And just as Abraham and Sarah were challenged, in building their family, to be a light unto the nations, so too might we American Jews offer a vision forward for a nation so brutally torn over partisan politics, racial injustice, anti-Semitism, regional conflict, class warfare. Oh, to wipe the slate clean indeed.

But unfortunately, that is not an option. Old habits are not the only things that die hard. So too does memory; acquired from experience or learned from books, we take the past into us in various ways and then, like new seeds, plant new life, nurture and grow it.

One scholar, David Roskies, makes the case that the rabbinic approach to history is to implode it, “to cut it down to a manageable size.” And in so doing, to emphasize the collective over the individual, the family over the self, the nation over rank divisions.

There is much wisdom here. Honoring and respecting what was — in our families or in the broader collective — as the new possible emerges. But simultaneously never forgetting, even that which is most painful, in order to develop and sequence into the future a DNA of justice, freedom and compassion for every human being on earth.

So around our tables, on Zoom and with loved ones, we celebrate on Rosh Hashanah the awe and wonder and messiness and craziness of what it means to be a Jewish family, however that is defined. We see ourselves in its mirror for a flash while knowing with full hearts that the Source of Living Water, the flow of life is ever-changing, never the same, forever new.

On Rosh Hashanah we remember not to forget where we come from; and on Yom Kippur, in ten days, we declare as solitary and unique individuals in the collective prayers of the whole, that we have chosen a new direction, a new way, predicated on the old, that insists on the redeeming values of love and peace.

Gmar Hatimah Tovah.

May you be written and sealed into the Book of Life for another year of well-being, blessing, good health and peace.

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