For the text of Rabbi Brown's remarks, click here.
A few weeks ago, Amy and I were incredibly proud to stand here and marvel as our daughter was called to Torah for the first time.
The emotions transported us back to the Creation moments of our family. Like it was yesterday, I can see in my mind’s eye the first time I ever looked at Siona in 2006. I remember how my brain literally couldn’t compute the magic of how it was that another person had just entered the room with us. That day, I thought I knew everything about Creation: that it was about beginnings. Siona had arrived. Her life had begun. That was all there was to it.
In the four years that followed, I learned that parenting wasn’t just about creating a family. There were diapers to be changed, clothes to be purchased, and the occasional disciplining to be done.
Then Avi was born in 2010.
As fate would have it, Amy, two day old Avi, and I wound up being released from the hospital at 9:30 on a Saturday morning, which was perfect timing for me to make it to the Bat Mitzvah I was expected to officiate at 10 that day.
I wept during that Bat Mitzvah. And I’m sure that was mostly from exhaustion and the paternal hormones coursing through my body. But part of me wept because I thought those Bat Mitzvah parents were the luckiest people in the world. That their work as creators - as parents - was somehow complete because they had raised this lovely teenager, who was well-positioned to go and do good things in the world. 13 seemed so far from my four year old and my newborn, that part of me ludicrously presumed that parents finished their work by the time 13 came along.
It’s taken me a while, but I’ve finally accepted that Creation doesn’t just happen once. It isn’t just a beginning. It’s something that’s renewed over and over again. Every single day.
That’s a lesson that seems particularly apt on Rosh HaShanah, when we celebrate Creation and the birthday of the world.
Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik wrote: “The Creator of the world diminished the image […] of creation […] to leave something for man […] to do […] If a person wishes to attain the rank of holiness, he must become a creator of worlds.”
Being a Creator is about so much more than having a family. As Soloveitchik puts it, we should aspire to create entire worlds.
So: on this anniversary of Creation, let’s give thought to how we might Create in the coming year. We’ll think about what it means to create, and re-create, ourselves. Then we’ll move into the creating we can do in the concentric circles that we occupy: namely our synagogue community, and our larger world.
Let’s begin with the question of creating ourselves.
We are in search of a way of life that lets us start over. I’m not fated to be the person I was one year ago, or ten, or the person my parents wanted me to be three decades ago. This is the moment when we can change. We can change how we treat others. We can apologize to the sibling or friend we stopped speaking to. We can forgive the partner who disappoints us in ways big and small. And we can forgive ourselves.
The essence of this work is teshuvah or repentance, but the Hebrew term literally means “to return.”
The question is: return to what?
The rabbis of the Talmud, reflecting on Adam and Eve’s decision to eat of the forbidden fruit, suggest that Eve and Adam had become estranged from themselves…and so it was easy for them to brazenly eat of the tree. Teshuvah, then, is about seeking and finding the parts of ourselves that we lost last year.
The late Debbie Friedman, noted Jewish musician and teacher, put it this way: “Teshuvah is about recognizing who we are as pure souls. When the High Holidays come around, […] we must take the time to come back to who we were before we learned about danger and the need for self-protection. At the cost of abandoning our inner essence […] most of us have chosen to protect ourselves with walls and barriers. Often, these not only keep dangers out, they also keep joy out, they keep our selves out. Teshuvah is coming home to the truest self, to “I’m sorry I hurt you. I wasn’t myself.””
Teshuvah, however, isn’t just about returning to the essence of ourselves. It’s also about creating something entirely new.
As Soloveitchik notes: “Repentance […] is an act of creation—self-creation. The severing of one’s […] previous “I,” and the creation of a new “I,” possessor of a new consciousness, a new heart and spirit, […] this is the meaning of that repentance…”
The community we seek to create at Scarsdale Synagogue Temples Tremont and Emanu-El is a natural extension of the work we are called to do on ourselves. Just as we take this season to consider the choices we’ve made in our personal lives, we do the same here at our synagogue.
Over the last year, we built stronger connections with one another. We saw it as you supported each other during seasons of loss, and moments of joy. We saw it in our Adult Learning last year, when a group of us studied theology by way of sharing our own personal stories. We saw that same presence in the support group that Nancy Klein facilitated for us last year, and the one that Sharon Picard has just kicked off around grandparenting, both growing out of our larger Mental Health project last year. In short: our congregation becomes stronger when we’re present for one another.
We also reached out to local neighbors last year. Temple members did vital hesed (lovingkindness) work by adopting an immigrant family, feeding the hungry as part of our Interfaith Food Bank, and we’ve re-shaped Friday mornings here with “Feel Good Fridays” our successful weekly community service opportunity. And in an attempt to address larger national root causes of suffering, a group of our teens and Women of SSTTE leaders each had the chance to travel to Washington and lobby Congress under the auspices of our Movement’s Religious Action Center.
All the while, our lay leadership has been hard at work planting seeds for our future by finalizing a Strategic Plan that will guide us all forward in the years ahead.
The work on our sanctuary renovation project might be less apparent.
During two previous High Holiday seasons, I stood before you and observed that this sanctuary is inconsistent with the core values of our congregation, particularly regarding our belief in inclusion. The persistence of these dangerous steps and our lack of an ADA compliant ramp to the bimah are, in my opinion, deeply troubling.
The good news is: the renovation project is now ready to move full steam ahead!
Our work on this front is inspired by Exodus 35, which contains essential details about the building of the mishkan or Tent. The chapter opens: “Vayakheil Moshe et kol adat bnei yisraeil” - Moses gathered the entire Israelite community together.
Why does the Biblical Author emphasize that Moses brought everyone together?
Malbim, of 19th century Russia, writes that the building project re-affirmed the unity and purpose of the entire congregation of Israelites. The Tent wasn’t just meant for some. It was for everyone. That’s why Moses brought everyone together…so they could be reminded of the covenantal bonds that linked them together.
That’s the sanctuary we dream of too - one that welcomes every single person into our midst.
As we celebrate this moment, I want to acknowledge Past Presidents Donna Vitale Ruskin and Joel Wagman, and our current Temple President Karen Chapro. Each devoted a portion of their presidencies to this critical project.
Thanks also go to Steve Kessner and Ron Binday for their faithful volunteerism and counsel. They were instrumental in guiding us through this preparation phase with our architecture and design work. We are so appreciative of their leadership.
As we move to execute on our plans, I’m delighted to let you know that former Board member David Goldman has agreed to chair the design and construction team. And past President Donna Vitale Ruskin and former Board member and Executive Director Gary Katz have agreed to co-chair our capital campaign. You can see drawings on display in the lobby to give you a taste of what’s coming.
Most of all: I want to thank each and every one of you who took time last year to come to the community conversations where we heard your important input about what sacred space means to you. Time and again, we heard that you wanted a sanctuary that was accessible and revitalized, with movable seating configurations that would enable us to see one another while we pray. At the same time - you didn’t envision a project that would re-build our sacred space from the ground up. We heard you, and we have labored to faithfully offer up a design concept that reflects our shared vision of inclusion and relationality.
We can make this dream a reality by joining together, each one offering as our hearts move us, like our ancestors of old, to create a sanctuary…indeed…to create a synagogue community…that reflects the very best of our values, founded on inclusivity and welcome.
Of course Rosh HaShanah doesn’t just inspire us to create ourselves anew, and create our congregation and its sacred space. The holiday also invites us to think about what it means to be a creator of our fragile world and its climate.
My earliest memory of global warming was in elementary school. My grandparents lived in North Jersey. To get there, we used to take the Turnpike. I remember distractedly staring at the oil refineries and the pollution they spewed into the atmosphere near Newark Airport.
I would ask my parents about it. I don’t remember their answers, but I do remember the apathy that came from my accepting…that it was just the way of the world.
I’ve been jolted out of that apathy because Siona and Avi are asking the same questions I did - about the same pollution from the same refineries, when we drive south…this time to visit their grandparents.
I won’t use this time to overwhelm you with the scientific evidence that cries out to us. The earth is dying on our watch. I’ll just share the lede paragraph from the Times story about the new United Nations report issued this week by its Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change: “Climate change is heating the oceans and altering their chemistry so dramatically that it is threatening seafood supplies, fueling cyclones and floods and posing profound risks to the hundreds of millions of people living along the coasts…”
This is the reason that teens and so many others around the world are demonstrating. They’re distressed about our failure to address this crisis. And they are right to protest.
It would be easy to blame this on our politicians, particularly those who absurdly refute the science of climate change. Shame on this current administration and others in power for misleading so many.
But this isn’t just about our politicians. It’s about all of us.
As we learned earlier, creating begins with teshuvah. The first step of teshuva is to admit our wrongdoing. And so, this confessional from Rabbi Daniel Nevins:
Eternal God, You created the heavens and earth in love. […] We were created amidst a clean and pure world, but it is now degraded […] Not on our own merits do we beseech You, for we have sinned, we have wasted, we have caused vast damage. For the sin of filling the sea and land with filth and garbage; for the sin of destroying species […]; and for the sin of laying bare the forests […] Please, God, [forgive us and] open our eyes that we might see the splendor of Your creation.”
Teshuvah isn’t just about bringing a prayerful intention to change. It also requires action.
As a first step, Rabbi Arthur Waskow teaches that we must consciously shift our language. He would urge us to stop using the word “environment” and replace it with the Hebrew word adamah (literally meaning “earth” or “ground”). Environment is “out there,” far from here. It might not have anything to do with me. But adamah is here. This piece of the planet is being affected by what I do.
Waskow goes on to note that the word for human being is adam. Adam, humanity, is literally embedded in the word adamah. One indelibly impacts the other.
Here in the synagogue, we have just recently formed a “Green Committee” to assess how we can do a better job here in our building of reducing our carbon footprint, and being a role model to those around us. Board Member Bev Picker has graciously agreed to chair this effort. If you are interested in joining, please be in touch with her Bev or Rabbi Glickman.
As for taking responsibility for our individual carbon footprints, we should begin by knowing how big that footprint is. In a few days, we’ll be sending a useful link to a UN calculator that also invites users to make a small donation to offset one’s footprint.
I’ll also challenge you in the year ahead to learn more about how the food we eat and clothes we buy affect our planet. Making more sustainable choices will create our world for the better.
Hayom Harat Olam proclaims our machzor. Today, on Rosh HaShanah, worlds are born anew. We have the capacity to heal, and bring new life, and ultimately to re-create ourselves, our congregation, and our adamah.
What a blessing it is to be part of a Tradition that affirms that life is about creating and re-creating over and over again. Ma’seh vreishit - the work of creation - is never complete. We’re never done. Like parenthood, it never stops. But as the rabbis teach us in the Talmud: Lo alecha ha’mlacha ligmor…it’s not upon us to do all of the work ourselves - but neither are we free to walk away from it. May we enter 5780 refreshed and reinvigorated, and inspired to create anew in the year ahead. Keyn Yhi Ratzon. May this be God’s will.