Rosh HaShanah Drash: 9.20.2020

By Avi Soifer

In a time of crisis: “Don’t just stand there, do something!”—A response, I think from Truah: Don’t just do something, stand there. I think of the ancient religions of Mesopotamia: “[T]he sign of the god or goddess is the capacity to raise the hand to the ear and hear what another is saying.” I think of Rabbi Heschel and the need to be attuned to hear “the silent sigh.” George Hudes, in a drash several years ago, compared hearing to seeing—to George, hearing as “the most intimate and powerful language of hope.” And there is the old philosopher’s chestnut: “If a tree falls in the forest and no one hears it, did it make a sound?” Sadly, we know that even if it didn’t make a sound, that tree and countless others may very well make a raging forest fire.

Listening and Standing Up:

Take your time to stand there and listen, and do so with care and attention to nuance, and then act. And grasp the obligation to be an upstander, rather than a bystander. Do something, even if it is out of the ordinary, even if it is not neutral. Still, do it with care for others: with kindness.

Sof Ma’arav coalesces important little things, and Rabbi Rosalind fits right in. Sof Maʻarav coalesces summer camp and the Dali Lama, differences, but with group spirit, with Sandy as the ultimate camp counselor. I think of Sid’s recent drash: stories and memory equal identity; and we are a nation of storytellers, often with a humorous twist, even if it is bittersweet.

Zoom and a pandemic, or a pundemic, for example:

  1. Tell a quarantine joke, but you’ll have to wait 2 weeks to get it—and there will be a test.
  2. Only inside jokes.
  3. Quaranteens in 2033.

Alyssa MasorThere are Neo-Hasidic tales— Alyssa Masor, wrote a Columbia University PhD thesis about “Neo-Hasidic Tales” in 2013. Yiddish writer I.L. Peretz wrote “And Maybe Even Higher” 120 years ago, while Peretz was imprisoned for three months for giving an unauthorized talk to workers.

Then we have the Nemirover Rebbe, who would disappear every year during the Yomim Noraim, the High Holidays. His followers were sure he went to heaven to battle Satan over all their sins. But then a dubious Litvak came to town. Litvaks I.L. Peretz Portrait in black and whitewere thought to cram their heads full of Talmud and explicit text, leaving people with their mouths open, but they were said to lack appreciation for ethics. Just after ma’ariv on Rosh Hashanah, this Litvak sneaks into the Rebbe’s house and lies under his bed. Towards morning, as the household gradually awakens, the Rebbe lies in bed and groans for over an hour: “To hear the Rebbe’s groan would dissolve you in pity. But a Litvak’s heart is made of iron.” So he lies there, and finally the Rebbe arises, washes and prays, and gets out a bundle of peasants’ clothes. The Rebbe puts on the clothes, with a big rope in the pocket of the coat, and he grabs an axe on the way out of the kitchen. You can guess what follows: He chops down a tree, cuts up the wood so it is small enough to fit in a stove, and goes to the broken-down house of a lonely widow. He claims to be selling wood, but she has no money. The Rebbe speaks in peasant dialect, says his name is Vasil, and that she need not pay him immediately because he knows she will be good for the six groshen. She doubts, but he says, “What?  I have faith in you for the six groshen, but you don’t have enough faith in God that He will arrange?” He sets the fire and says the correct penitential prayers, with a groan. And the wise-guy Litvak stays and becomes a Nemirover Hasid himself. One of the Hasidim tells others that when the Rebbe disappears each morning on the Yomim Noraim, he goes to heaven. The Litvak says, quietly, “And maybe even higher.”

I. L. Peretz illustrated image on the cover of PaknTreger MagazineThinking about this story:

It reminds us of the critique of Hasidim at the time: that they had too much faith in the Rebbe, in miracles, in dynastic succession, that there was too much drinking, and oppression of women. This is reminiscent of the Protestant attack on the Catholic Church during the Reformation.

Lessons here?

Trust in the Rebbe, even if he is not doing what the rules say—social justice is trump (and I use that phrase with care). There is no magical realism here as there is in Sid’s great stories in his new book. After all, Walter O’Malley really was the Satan, for moving the Dodgers out of Brooklyn.

Cover ot Avi Soifer's book, The Company We KeepI reflect on Justice Ginsburg here, and about my book, Law and the Company We Keep, and concerns for the community from 25 years ago. When is a community not a cult, or an oppressive multinational corporation? As Frederic Maitland says: “[C]ollectively… is the smudgiest word in the English language.” And, in Bob Goldman’s second book, lovingly and posthumously published by Judy last year, Bob emphasizes a “richer sense of self” of the sort that one could find in Ancient Israel, one that tethers a person to the group’s future. Bob in turn connected this to Albert Einstein’s theory of time, and in timely fashion to the Jewish concept of olam. 

Franz Kafka wearing a bowler hatWithin Jewish communities, of course, there have traditionally been arguments, schisms, and worse. Often they involved personalities; sometimes they revolved around core arguments such as whether redemption could or could not be hastened through human agency. Bob Goldman quoted Kafka, however, noting that “The Messiah will come only when he is no longer necessary.” And Einstein believed that “We cannot stand aside and let God do it.” We are lucky, fortunate, blessed to have some room and some protection for our own little, eccentric, and beloved community. On remembrance: I think of the Baal Shem Tov’s words about redemption. But Kafka says, “Even the past has to be earned.” Heschel says, in “On Linking the Generations:” “The authentic individual is neither an end nor a beginning but a link between ages, both memory and expectations….To us, recollection is a holy act; we sanctify the present by remembering the past. To us Jews, the essence of faith is memory. To believe is to remember.” Yet there is a wonderful Midrash: God had to issue a recall for the world to return to his shop, because he forgot to include the ability to forget.

Thinking of MJB and our own crucial intangibles:

How wonderful it has always been to see Sandy’s welcome to newcomers; Hefcibah and Matt helping Marv to his seat when he arrives; the give and take while setting up the kiddush; gossip, but my mother’s “character analysis;” the personalized shabbat shalom; the minuet of cars waiting or not in the parking lot and the conversations en route. But, undaunted, we persevere via Zoom (Golly, Golly): Just since July 4th, for example, we have enjoyed talks by Hefcibah and Naomi about leadership, zealousness, and the problematic role of Ha’shem. Malka moved everyone present—even via Zoom—with her thanks to our community in the context of her crossing of thresholds, and Beah underscored simple caring as a storied basic distinction between heaven, and the less appealing destination. Marc Flitter and Dan Lev illustrated the intriguing intersection of the brain and the psyche, respectively aided, by Greggele’s brilliant teaching of Talmudic reasoning and Dan’s inspiring introduction of mystical thought. And Sid recently made what many of us thought to be a profound connection between storytelling and memory to help create Jewish identity.

Portrait of Leonard J. (Liebel) Fein in black and whiteLeibel Fein says: “We are the tribe that discovered the universal God, but chose to remain a tribe.” We live “where particularism and universalism intersect.” And Leibel characteristically went on to say, “Never again is, after all, an insufficient slogan. It tells us what to avoid, but not what to embrace.” But here is what Leibel wrote in response to the ending of U’ntaneh Tokef: “I am moved by this prayer perhaps more than by any other, but I will not accept its concluding words. Yes, the grass withers and yes the flowers fade and yes the cloud dissolves … but that dream does not vanish. What it comes down to is intentionality, to remain what we have always been, a stiff-necked people that despite the mayhem, dares to speak truth to power, to preserve the capacity for indignation. Not to allow the dream to vanish, but to breathe life into it, to nurture it and to make sure that new seed has been planted, new dreamers have been raised up.” Stella and Shmulik and hope, for example. “And along the way,” Leibel added, “to make sure to feed the hungry and clothe the naked, to visit the sick and comfort the bereaved, to dispense justice in the gates of the city, to be gracious to the stranger in our midst, and always to seek peace; to repair the breach. These are all that we have …that will perhaps defeat the evil decree.” In Isaiah 51:7, we read, Not a book, but “a voice, a Torah within the heart.” And Yehuda Amichai tells us, “I assert with absolute faith that prayers preceded God. / Prayers created God. / God created humans. / Humans create prayers that create God who creates humanity.”

On the Paradox Of Paradise

In 1948, Rabbi Goldfarb identified the core challenge to be: “Can we attain a healthy, mature outlook on religion? The answer depends on the use of our eyes to behold the affirmation of God in the world of nature and to hearken to the divine reverberations within our own soul.” Goldfarb says: “Not I/Thou but We/Thou”—collective consciousness, after Heschel.

Sally Morgan reminded us of the commandment against group hate in her parshah: “Do not despise the Egyptian, because you were a stranger in his land.” She mentioned, quoting Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, that Jews have been subjected to racism more and longer than any other people.

That’s Sof—and that’s The Sof.

L’Shana Tovah ticatevuh v’tichateymuh!

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