Remembering For Life, Being Remembered for Life

Erev Rosh Hashanah Sermon 5780

By Rabbi Ora Nitkin-Kaner

Rabbi Ora Nitkin-Kaner

Why are we here?

I don’t mean that in the sense of why do we exist – although, of all the times to ask that question, Rosh HaShanah would be a reasonable one. But you can relax. I’m not thinking quite that meta. 

I mean, why are we here, in this building, this evening? Where does Rosh HaShanah come from?

In Chapter 23 of Leviticus, we find God saying to Moses: “Speak to the Israelite people and say to them: ‘These are My fixed times, the fixed times of the Lord, which you shall proclaim as sacred occasions.’” Essentially, God is saying: “Here’s the Jewish calendar.” The first holiday listed is Passover, then Shavuot, then Rosh HaShanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot. And each of these sacred occasions is accompanied by a verse or two on how to observe it. 

For Rosh HaShanah, it is written: “On the first day of the month, you shall observe a day of rest, a memorial proclaimed with the blowing of the shofar, a holy convocation” (Leviticus 23:24).

So we know when Rosh HaShanah is supposed to take place – the first of the month of Tishrei. And we know it’s meant to be a holy day, which means, no work. And we know it’s meant to be a day of remembering – a “zichron” – announced by a shofar.  

What are we supposed to remember?

The simplest answer, of course, is that we’re supposed to remember the past year. Rosh HaShanah opens up the ten Days of Awe, during which we recall, reflect, and repent, so that we don’t repeat our missed marks from the past year.

But we’re not the only ones remembering on this holiday. God is also remembering.

During services tomorrow, we’ll sing: “Zokhrenu l’hayyim” – God, remember us for life and inscribe us in the Book of Life. And we’ll add, “Zocher yetsurav…” – God of Mercy, remember all your creations with compassion. 

Based on how many times in the Rosh HaShanah liturgy we ask God to remember our deeds and judge us for good, it seems like we’re not convinced it’s a sure thing. So as an added strategy, we also ask God to remember that we have a relationship that goes way back. 

We begin the Rosh HaShanah Amidah with, “Baruch Atah Adonai Eloheinu ve’Elohai avoteinu ve’imoteinu…” – “Blessed are You, Holy One, God of our ancestors, God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, Leah.” And then throughout the Amidah we repeatedly refer to God as “Elohainu v’Elohai avoteinu v’imoteinu” – Our God and God of our ancestors – and ask God to go easy on us based on the merit of their good deeds. 

On the surface, this strategy seems not unreasonable. To be a little glib, you could call it cosmic nepotism. We’re saying to God, “Hey, you knew my great great great etc. grandfather… he was a good guy. So I’m probably a good guy, too, no?”

But thinking about it more deeply, this a strategy based on a flawed premise. Because if you’ve ever read more than one or two chapters of Genesis alone, you’ve realized that our biblical ancestors had profoundly messy and morally complicated lives. 

On Rosh HaShanah alone, we read plenty of examples of our ancestors’ misdeeds. 

The Torah reading for the first day of Rosh HaShanah is the story of how Sarah orders Abraham to cast out Hagar and her son Ishmael. Abraham is troubled, but he listens to Sarah. So Hagar and Ishmael are sent out into the desert with just a little bread and water. They survive only because God intervenes to save them. 

And the Torah reading on the second day of Rosh HaShanah? That’s the story of Akedat Yitzchak, of the near-murder of Isaac. Abraham listens to what he believes is the voice of God, telling him to sacrifice his and Sarah’s child. Abraham and Isaac journey to Mount Moriah, and Abraham binds Isaac and places him on an altar and is about to cut Isaac’s throat, and then an angel intervenes to save them. 

In both of these stories as they appear in our Torah, there’s no acknowledgement of misdeed. There’s no apology. And there’s no recompense.

And Abraham and Sarah were just the first of our complicated ancestors. Their children, and their children’s children, and on and on through the generations, morally missed the mark again and again. Our biblical ancestor fought amongst themselves. They stole land and birthrights. They lied, and cheated, and sold siblings into slavery.

So why do we remind God of our connection to these ancestors when we pray on Rosh HaShanah? Couldn’t this actually backfire? 

Here’s the thing: We don’t know the impact of reminding God of our ancestors, because we don’t know God – God is inherently unknowable. We have no idea what it means for God to remember us, or our ancestors. 

What we do know, though, is our own experience of remembering. 

We know how it feels to remember our flawed ancestors. And it can be hard to be reminded of this complicated legacy and the fact that it’s a part of our cannon.

So what we do with this flawed family tree? How do we sit with these difficult ancestors?

Well, Jews throughout history have been trying to figure this out. I would say these efforts typically fall into one of the 3 categories.

The first category is a kind of apologetics, reframing our ancestor’s actions as unequivocally positive. This is something the rabbis of the Talmud did often. To them, Abraham wasn’t a man who almost murdered his son; Abraham was a God-fearing person who somehow knew all along that he’d never actually be allowed to go through with it. And Sarah, abusive towards Hagar? According to the rabbis, Sarah was morally unblemished (Bereshit Rabbah 58:1). She only wanted what was best for her son.

This drive to reframe, to say that what seems bad is actually morally unobjectionable, is older than the Torah itself. It goes back to earliest human history, and is rooted in the youngest, most tender places of our collective and individual psyches. In psychological terms, we could say that this drive comes from the child self, who needs the parent, on whom they’re reliant, to be completely good and blameless. Rather than finding our ancestors at fault, we twist the stories and ourselves into knots in order to see them as only good.

The second tendency is to look at the stories of our ancestors and focus only on their sins. Many Jews throughout history have done just that – have said “look at these flawed characters” or “look at this abusive God.” And based on the painful moral ambiguity of our inherited stories, some have said: “I want none of this.” And have walked away from God, or from Jewish practice, or from Jewish community.

You could say that this second tendency is rooted in the collective teenage psyche. It’s the need to push away from home. It’s the need to individuate, find independence, and critique the status quo so that we can emerge into a fuller perspective on the world and our place within it.

So. The first option aligns with the needs of the child-self: My people are actually good. The second option aligns with the teenage self: My people are actually bad.

And the third option? The third comes from the integrated or adult psyche. From that vantage point, we look back at our ancestors and their misdeeds. At the teshuvah they did manage. And at what they left undone. We notice how flawed they were. And also, how hard they were trying. And finally, we notice that there is much for us learn: from their values, from their mistakes, from their stories.

You may have gathered, by now, that this doesn’t only apply to Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, Leah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob. This isn’t just about our distant ancestors. It also applies to our own more recent ancestors. Even the ones still with us – the family we called earlier today to wish a Shanah Tova to, or the ones we visited this past summer, or last year.

For me, this time of year – this time of remembering ancestors – brings back memories of my own grandfather, the way he shuffled down the synagogue aisle on Rosh HaShanah, the way his hand, shaking with Parkinsons, felt in mine as I helped him to his seat. I remember his sweet smile, his playful personality. 

I remember my grandmother making kugel for us for the holiday meal, a sweet noodle kugel with raisins, and my grandfather sprinkling extra sugar on top, the shaking of his hands helping to spread the sugar evenly. 

I remember standing next to my father in shul on Yom Kippur, and how he draped his tallit over my sister and I during the priestly blessing, and how protected and safe I felt. 

And, in my remembering, I also remember how my father, who didn’t like his rabbi, would sit in the front row during Rosh HaShanah services and blatantly read a book during the rabbi’s sermon. And I remember how my grandmother would greet us with suffocating hugs when we came over for dinner, her anxious love permeating everything.

On Rosh HaShanah, we remember. Our distant ancestors, and the ones closer.

And as we remember, we also choose. Do we recall only the good, and cover over the bad? Do we remember only the bad, and forget the good? Or can we remember with compassion and moral clarity, with a gentle eye on the course of history and how it shaped our ancestors and us? 

In our liturgy, we sing again and again, “Zochreinu lechayyim” – remember us for life. How can we remember in a way that enlivens us? How can we remember the ways our ancestors missed the mark, but still know that we have arrows to string and release in the direction of love? How can we remember so that the memories are more lesson than burden? How can we remember, for life?

This whole sermon, I’ve been talking about remembering the past. But the reality is that one day, we, too, will become ancestors. At some point, we will no longer be doing the remembering. We will be the ones remembered, by our children, grandchildren, nieces, nephews, friends, colleagues, students, all whose lives we’ve touched. 

What might we do with the knowledge that we will one day be remembered?

I want to close by sharing with you the inspiration for this evening’s sermon. A few weeks ago, I was sitting in my office with Sam Ball, a young congregant whose bar mitzvah is coming up in November. We were reading Sam’s Torah portion, Lech Lecha. Lech Lecha recounts how a pregnant Hagar ran away from home because of how badly Sarah treated her.

As we read through the story of Sarah and Abraham and their mistreatment of Hagar, Sam said to me: “Abraham and Sarah really should’ve thought about what their descendants would think of them.”

On Rosh HaShanah, we remember. To reshape and reframe the old stories so that they enliven us. And, Sam reminded me and us that we are at our best when we also remember that we are accountable to the future, when we live holding the question, “Who do my descendants need me to become?” 

We too will become ancestors one day. And the way we live our lives will be a lesson for generations to come.

My simple blessing for us, as we enter this holiday of remembering: May we remember, for life. May we act this coming year in such a way as to inscribe ourselves in the Book of Life. And when the time comes, may we be remembered, for life. And let us say, Amen.

Letter from Rabbi Ora

My dear community,

By now, I’m sure you’ve heard the devastating news of the Islamophobic terror attacks in Christchurch, New Zealand.

This morning, I sat down with community rabbis to write the following letter, which we sent to Imam Abdullah Al-Mahmudi of the Islamic Center of Ann Arbor:

“Our hearts are breaking. When we woke this morning to the news of the terror attacks against Muslim worshippers in New Zealand, the first thing we thought of was the Ann Arbor Muslim Community. White supremacy, whether in Christchurch, Ann Arbor, or anywhere else in this world is a threat to us all. The murder of innocents, especially in prayer, is a terrible affront to humanity.

“As a Jewish community, we express our grief and moral outrage over this Islamophobic act of terror in New Zealand—the murder of 49 innocents in prayer.

“Both the Muslim and Jewish traditions believe that whoever destroys a single life is considered to have destroyed the entire world; and whoever saves a single life is considered to have saved the entire world. (Surah 5:32, Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5)

“We recognize that last night, whole worlds were lost. We hold you in our hearts, and grieve alongside you.”

In response to the news of the shootings, a colleague of mine, Rafael Shimunov, wrote: ‘When you kill someone praying, you are killing them at the moment they closed their eyes, turned their back to the door, tuned out every sound and decided that this will be the moment they will trust the rest of humanity the most.’

This afternoon, I will be standing outside the Islamic Center of Ann Arbor as our Muslim brothers and sisters attend Jumu’ah, Friday prayer, along with Rabbi Josh Whinston, Rav Nadav Caine, Reb Elliot Ginsburg, and members of their communities. Please: if you’re able, join us, to remind those grieving that they can continue to trust the rest of humanity.

Holding you, and holding onto hope for a Shabbat of shalom,

Rabbi Ora

Welcome New Members Ella August and Joe Eisenberg!

Ella and Joe on vacation with Joe’s daughters (Ella’s stepdaughters), Thea and Sophie.

New member Ella August writes:

Joe and I had our first “real” conversation while waiting for our faculty meeting to begin at the University of Michigan School of Public Health eight years ago. Neither of us had been early to a faculty meeting before or after that day so we figure it must have been fate. We had served on a committee together and had passed in the hallway but hadn’t actually had a one-on-one conversation before this particular faculty meeting.

Joe has two children: Thea, a student at Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Oregon, and Sophie, 23, who lives in Napa, California. They return home for summer vacations and visits.

Joe grew up in a nice Jewish family in the San Fernando Valley and then lived in Northern California for many years before relocating to Michigan. I am a Michigan native and am still mentoring Joe on how to be Midwestern. I think he’s starting to catch on.

I am an aspiring Jew, working with Rabbi Ora on conversion. Things I love about Judaism: the focus on community, the home-based practices (what I sometimes call the “do-it-yourself spirit”), the holidays, and the questions. Things I love about Jewish people: their sense of humor, their sense of community, their focus on education and family, and their Yiddish expressions.

Things Joe loves about Judaism: a sense of community and tradition, and a focus on education that continually questions our practices and beliefs. Joe takes great delight in cooking for the Jewish holidays and is constantly exploring cuisines ranging from Eastern European to Middle Eastern. His latest challenge is creating the perfect falafel: crispy on the outside, tender on the inside.

Joe and I run and snowshoe trails together, eat delicious meals in all corners of the world, and enjoy entertaining at our home. You can often find us at Argus Farm Stop, Zingerman’s Deli, or Spencer restaurant, on North Campus admiring the art sculptures, or running through the Arb, Bluffs Nature Area, or Bird Hills.

Reconstructionist “Virtual Bet Midrash”

jewish_recon_logo_0Jewish Reconstructionist Communities (JRC), the Reconstructionist movement’s umbrella organization, is offering a new distance learning opportunity that individuals all over the country can participate in. The “Virtual Bet Midrash” (Virtual House of Study) is a series of learning sessions taught by leaders in the Reconstructionist movement. Each session is presented using a conference call format, and subsequently made available as a recording. The series runs from February through April 2015. The next teaching will be February 19, “Jewish Prayer in a Time of Eco-Crisis,” taught by Rabbi Josh Jacobs-Velde. Rabbi Jacobs-Velde is the co-founder of ZMANIM (www.zmanim-seasons.org), an organization that explores and celebrates connections between Judaism and the natural world. For a full listing of the sessions and to register, go to Virtual Bet Midrash.

Getting together with a friend may be a fun way to study. If you do decide to take part, let me (Clare) know; we’d love to have you write a blog post about the session or the series!

Interfaith Musical Chairs: Learning About Our Religious Community

By Ellen Dannin

Ellen-Dannins-candlesticks3On Sunday afternoon, January 11, I was one of about 30 people – each of whom was leading a small circle of up to 4 people in an introduction to one of Ann Arbor’s religions. It was part of an event sponsored by the Interfaith Council of Washtenaw County and the dynamics were a bit like speed dating. The person leading each group got twenty minutes to provide information about the religion to the rest of the circle. Proselytizing was forbidden. Giving people information and bringing in some item that is important to the religion was encouraged.

My personal information focused on lighting shabbat candles on the candlesticks that my great-grandmother brought with her when she left Turkey in 1915.

The item I brought was my personal copy of the Reconstructonist siddur. I showed people how it reflected values important to Reconstructionist Judaism — in particular, the high priority we place upon inclusiveness. Our siddur lets people be on the same page literally and figuratively. It invites us all to participate, even if we cannot read Hebrew. It gives us ways to be creative with services. On many pages it provides information that increases our knowledge and enhances our practice. And it is a beautiful book with lovely and creative images. In short, it is a perfect example of hiddur mitzvah — expanding on and beautifying each mitzvah.