Below you'll find my Erev Yom Kippur Sermon. I hope you find it meaningful.
There’s a famous story of a rabbi watching a tightrope walker performing his acrobatic act between two very tall buildings. The rabbi watched him from his place on the street for a long time, over an hour, until some passersby asked the rabbi why he was staring at this acrobat, rather than doing something ‘important’.
The rabbi looked at them and said, “I’m absolutely amazed by this man. How does he do it?” So the rabbi waited for the acrobat to come down from his high wire, approached him and said, “I’ve been watching you for hours. It’s amazing that anyone would devote themselves to something like this. What’s your secret: how do you not fall?” The tightrope walker thought for a moment and said: “there is no trick to this. I can only look in front of me and go forward. If I think about what’s behind me, I’ll slip and fall. If I think about the rope, or my balance, or falling, I’ll fall. If I think about the money I’m earning, I’ll lose my concentration, and fall. I can only look ahead and move one step at a time toward my goal. It is in that way that I survive.”
This is my fourth Rosh Hashanah here at Congregation Beth Emeth. It’s also my 10th High Holidays since my ordination as a rabbi at the Plum St. Temple in Cincinnati. (I know, I’m surprised too.) And as this anniversary approached I began to think more and more about what I’d learned, about what it meant for me to be here. And as I thought about my time here, I thought more and more about the story of the tightrope walker. For the rabbinate—really, all of life—is a kind of tightrope, a kind of acrobatic act, and while the stakes are a lot lower—for most of us, failure in an activity doesn’t mean literally breaking our necks!—there is still that sense of trying to maintain my balance, at least for me.
So, permit me to spend a little time working through the words of the rabbi as a way of sharing my learning, how I understand us, what I’ve learned in this place, four high holidays on.
First: you can’t think about what’s behind. You and I know how hard this is to do. We live all our lives looking over our shoulders, living in retrospect. One of my first rabbinic conferences I stopped by the table where my parents and their friends, my dad’s classmates were dining. It quickly occurred to me that they were swapping jokes and stories that were seemingly unchanged from my dad’s ordination. In that moment, they were a bunch of rabbinic students hanging out in the Bumming Room (yes, that was the name of the room, and it was actually named after a guy named Bumming, I’m not making this up). A few years later I was at a different conference, and I discovered that my classmates and I were swapping stories and jokes that dated back to my ordination.
We think backwards. Just think of your home, the mementos from places you’ve traveled, photos from family vacations. Marisa and I are ‘stuff’ people: we are surrounded by things and have attachment to things that remind us of this or that gathering or moment in our lives. On top of that, I have an excellent memory, which means that when we ask Elishai to make a pile of toys he wants to donate, he dutifully picks up stuff he doesn’t play with anymore, unremorsefully, while I muse on who gave him that toy car, the first time he played with that puzzle.
While it’s wonderful to reminisce, and sometimes quite important to remember (we are commanded to do so repeatedly in Torah), it’s also true that memory or history can hold us back, keep us from walking across the tightrope. We fetishize our past, and if you don’t believe me, look at any Norman Rockwell piece, or ask my father about the contents of his father’s furniture store that we inherited, including the fire extinguisher, a giant, dusty red thing, which sat in our garage ready to be used for 30 years. I can assure you that no matter how much my father loved my grandfather, that fire extinguisher was not going to do a whole lot of good when the need arose. To paraphrase our prayerbook: the past can only tell us who we were, it cannot tell us who we are meant to be. And as Jews—Reform Jews especially—it is our task to move forward, to progress, to not be satisfied with what was. Therefore, the pictures of the confirmation classes on our walls are meaningful not only because they allow past generations of students to muse over their youth and ill-thought-out hairstyles, but because they inspire future generations as well. The chair from the old Washington Street Temple Bimah found new life, first as the Twinning Chair and now as our Kisei Eliahu, our Elijah’s chair for brises and baby namings; but in between those uses it sat unloved and unattended in a storage area. It is good to lovingly remember the old sanctuary, but to cast the new one as lacking while failing to remember how the heater noisily interrupted every bar mitzvah (when it worked at all) is an act of idol worship. The past is a helpful guide, but only when it inspires us to move forward, not when it holds us back.
Second: you can’t think about the rope, the balance, or the possibility of falling. The devil, we are told, is in the details, and too be sure we spend a lot of time going over the details of every little thing in our lives and in this congregation. And details are a necessary and important part of our lives. It’s hard to get through our days on banal generalities, though apparently it is possible to run for office on them. One year, here at the high holidays, I got confused as to which Torah was rolled to the right section. It was brought out, placed on this lectern, the Torah readers brought up…and suddenly we realized we were staring at a lovely bit of Torah that would have been perfect for some other holiday. Thankfully Cantor Stanton swapped scrolls while I stalled, explaining the portion ad nauseum, and probably most people didn’t notice, but it was a reminder of the importance of details.
That said, we can get ourselves lost in the details as well. Years ago I did a wedding for a young couple who looked and felt radiant: they were so excited to begin this life stage together, so excited to be celebrating with family and friends—until the bride noticed she had spilled the tiniest drop of something on the bodice of her her ivory dress. It was nearly invisible to the naked eye—you had to look at it with an electron microscope to notice it—but like George’s sweater with the red dot from Seinfeld, she couldn’t take her eyes off of it. And of course, this was right before the processional, literally moments from when we were supposed to walk beneath the chuppah. “Rabbi” she wailed, “My dress is ruined! What do I do?” At which I looked at her, smiled, put her hand in the hand of her groom and said, “sweetie, you go out there and get married.” That one, unnoticeable detail was about to ruin her ability to have any sense of perspective, and as a result ruin her wedding day. Instead, she moved forward, and two kids and many sleepless nights later, she and her groom are still happily together, her stained dress sitting in a closet, a good punchline at family get togethers.
Details are important, details are necessary, but they must not be used as a drag on our hopes or aspirations. So often we hear the question, “how are we going to do X?” be it a project, a program, a course, a service. “How are we going to publicize, and deal with this detail, and this safety concern, and this piece and that piece?” To borrow the title of a book, the answer to how is yes. If attention to detail—talk of the rope, the height, the balance—stymies, encourages passive behavior, or blame, or compels us to undermine someone’s efforts for whatever reason, then we need to rethink our efforts and our commitments to each other. But if we can say, “we will find a solution to these issues and we will move forward together”, then we restore balance for ourselves and each other.
Third and finally: one step at a time. It sounds both a lot slower and a lot easier than you might think. This year we bid farewell to Neil Armstrong, a person who took what was, seemingly, an easy step—he merely walked backwards off a ladder. Never mind that the ladder led to the lander “Eagle” and it took 3 days traveling through space to be able to take that step! But Armstrong himself never liked being called the first man to step on the moon; he much preferred to be the first person the land on the moon, to steer the spacecraft safely upon lunar soil, always the test pilot.
And of course, before he could steer the craft that led to the step, there was the trip itself, the launch, the hours and days and months and years testing and re-testing equipment, experimenting, training pilots and astronauts, calculating courses and trajectories and planning, planning, planning. It was never one small step, or a giant leap; it was always hundreds of thousands of pieces culminating in that triumphant moment. There were plenty of reasons not to go ahead. NASA couldn’t be certain of what would happen, whether the equipment would work, whether there was enough fuel. Despite the rose-colored hue of history, there was NOT general consensus in the US that we should spend that kind of money on this adventure. At any point, a politician could have pulled funding, an astronaut could have pulled out of the program due to an appreciation of his own mortality, or, as John Glenn called it, that pile of ‘low bids’ could have just exploded. And yet, the leadership, the scientists, the pilots, the engineers all had the vision to move forward, to take those thousands of tasks upon themselves so Armstrong could take his giant leap.
Life is an adventure, and putting one foot in front of the other takes effort and a willingness to take risks. Just as every step the tightrope walker takes could be his last, so too every action we take is a choice with consequences; once we choose one path, the other disappears from our view. Just as Armstrong’s Giant Leap was really the culmination of all kinds of other activity, so too are our lives and our actions, our choices; one built upon the other.
So, what are the implications in terms of congregational life? First, it means that, while we respect our history, we are not beholden to it. With deep appreciation for what those who came before us did, we must chart our own course in order to create meaningful community. Otherwise, we’re a museum, a fossil. Second, it means that we must be willing to take risks, to be willing to experiment, to make mistakes, to be forgiving of those mistakes, and work together to work out the details. Nothing emerges fully formed, like Athena from Zeus’ head; it requires real effort, and working together to create the kind of community we want. Finally, we must have the vision in order to move forward, even if moving forward is hard, even if moving forward isn’t always popular.
How do we do this? We do it together. As you may have noticed, you received a sticker, or have seen car magnets or other paraphernalia with the Beth Emeth Crown and the word “B’yachad”, which means Together. Congregational life is different from the high-wire act in one respect; we don’t take it alone. We do it in community, but community is more than just paying a fee (though there are some who may feel that is enough already!). it means making a commitment to your fellow congregants to meaningfully engage, regardless of age, gender or experience. It doesn’t matter if you’ve always been Jewish or have come to Judaism but recently, or have not yet chosen Judaism. It doesn’t matter if you are my son’s age or my father’s age or my grandmother’s age. It doesn’t matter if your life is busy now, or was busy with the life of the synagogue before. It doesn’t matter if you’ve belonged to this congregation for a month or a hundred years. What matters is that we are here, all of us. Our leadership has a vision, one that I share: of intergenerational programming, bringing us all together in learning, in social justice, in tzedakah, in community, in worship and sharing our lives together. That means experimenting with different kinds of programming and asking people to step forward out of their comfort zones. It means remembering our history and our tradition but moving forward to answer the needs of today for our congregants of all ages and backgrounds. It means moving forward aware of the details but not stymied by them. It means having a spirit of adventure about our Judaism, about this congregation and our place within it. No tricks, no gimmicks; just keeping our balance moving one foot in front of the other. Because, as my teacher Michael Walzer reminds all of us in Mishkan T’fillah: wherever you live, it is probably Egypt;, that there is a better place… a promised land; “the way to the land is through the wilderness.” And There is no way to get from here to there Except by joining together and marching. B’yachad, all of us marching together. May this be God’s will, may this be our action, Amen!