That You And Your Children Shall Live

Rosh Hashanah Morning 5772/2011

Rabbi Mark H. Levin, D.H.L.


I just want you to know, with all due modesty, that I am about to make a genius suggestion.  Now I know, it sounds immodest on the High Holy Days, but there's just no other word for it. I am about to explain to you how to solve the greatest problems facing North American liberal Jewry: problems that the wealthiest philanthropists of our age: Bronfman, Steinhardt, Shusterman, are spending millions to solve.  And what 's more, I am going to solve those problems without spending a penny.  That's right.  No additional funds whatsoever.  Now, wouldn't you agree? That's genius.  But first, a Jewish story.


A hundred years ago a young talmudic scholar left his Yeshiva in Minsk to travel to America.  He made a fortune in manufacturing, and years later returned to Minsk to visit his mother.  His mother hardly recognized him.  He dressed in the latest American fashion, and no longer wore his long black coat.  "Son, where's your beard?" his mother asked aghast that he would go around clean shaven. 

"No one in the United States wears a beard, Mama," he said.

"Well, at least you observe Shabbat, right?"  "Oh, mama; that's old fashioned.  No one in America observes Shabbat; everyone works. Its called Saturday."

His mother sighed.  "And the food; how is the food?"  she asked hopefully.  Now the son sounded apologetic.  "It's too much trouble keeping kosher in America, mama." 

His mother hesitated.  She looked quizical.  Very quietly she whispered, "Tell your old mother, son, you still have the results of your bris?"


If the religious problem of the last 200 years has been how to be both modern and Jewish at the same time, as expressed by the Yeshiva student turned entrepreneur who cannot return to Minsk, the new religious problem of the 21st century for liberal, North American Jews like us is: community. 


Our suburban Judaism doesn't look like our ancestors yeshiva Judaism.  But what should it look like?  Professor Jakob Petukowsky once said to me, "Judaism today is like a train station with two trains sitting in the station, one going into the Jewish world, and one going out. The problem is, no one knows which is which."


This morning I am speaking to those of you who want to have Jewish grandchildren.  I am speaking to those who want a vibrant Jewish life in Kansas City in 20 years, and want to know how to make that happen. I am talking to those of you who want a Jewish Community Center, a Jewish retirement home, a Jewish funeral home, a Hebrew Academy and a Jewish family service. In other words:  I am speaking this morning to those of you who want a fully functioning Jewish community in 20 years, just as there is now; who want to guarantee that you, your friends and your children are riding the train into Judaism and not the train out.


First, let me tell you why now.  The liberal American Jewish community is rapidly declining in size and commitment. No one knows the actual numbers. But it's clear locally, from the severe decline in overall synagogue membership, that not as many Jewish families are affiliating.  The post war baby boomers, were largely ethnically committed Jews.  We cared about the Holocaust, persecuted Jews, Jewish food, civil rights, and Israel.  No one discussed spirituality.  We never mentioned afterlife, and near death experiences hadn't yet been reported. 


But the world has changed.  Ethnic Judaism does not work in families where at least one parent did not have a Jewish childhood.  Many of you sitting here have no happy Simchat Torah childhood memories, no tales of sitting around the seder table with bubbe and zayde, no break fast stories from Yom Kippur because when you were children you were not Jewish.  And our congregational profile is duplicated all over North America. 


On the other hand, according to current surveys, and my own experience, interfaith families and families where an adult converted have a higher regard for spirituality.  Having grown up where God and faith were synonymous, those who have come to Judaism are reviving a search for the spiritual in their personal lives and their families.


This spring a Beth Torah member did a survey of our members in their fifties and sixties.  We had a 51% response rate.  Here's a few of Barry Daneman's findings:


  • Members want a deeper connection to the Beth Torah community.
  • You want Beth Torah to be a place where you can share your joys, sorrows and life-cycle events with people who know and care about you.
  • At worship services, many sometimes feel as though they don’t recognize anyone; that no one recognizes them.


Here's what we know:

Two-thirds of you come at least 6 Friday nights a year to worship.  85% of you say you enjoy Erev Shabbat worship at Beth Torah. You want a religious community.  So here's my genius solution, and I am absolutely serious:


It's in your hands:


We are the community we need: 

If we need a Jewish community to share our joys and sorrows; if we need a Jewish community to have a Jewish Family Service, Village Shalom and Hebrew Academy; if we need a religious community for our children to maintain a Jewish life:  then we are demanding from ourselves.  We don't need more programs!  We need us!  And the way we are going to get us, my radical amazing, genius idea, is that you are going to make it your habit to stop in at Beth Torah every Friday night instead of just sometimes. 


Now, notice I said "stop in," not attend.  Change your assumption about Friday nights.  From now on your assumption about Friday night is going to be:  at some point between 6:15 and 8:00 I am going to stop in at Beth Torah, now when is that going to be this week?  I am not telling you you have to come in to pray, although you may want to.  I am not telling you what time to arrive or leave.  I am saying that a Jewish community, to be a community, must show up weekly together at the same time and place, and Shabbat is that time and Beth Torah is that place.  You will see friends, and spend 15 minutes talking, and perhaps then leave.  Or maybe you'll just come late for kaddish, or to stand with a friend saying kaddish, and then go to dinner.  Maybe you'll walk through the front doors at 6:15, eat a little something, and head off for a movie.  Maybe you show up for the oneg and conversation.  I don't care.  You may even stay for worship!  You are the solution to the problem of community.  Entering Beth Torah you'll meet someone, or join a conversation, schmooze, nosh (all those good Yiddish words), then if you want to take off, you may.  And you will know that you have done your part to preserve Judaism and the Jewish community of Kansas City.  You know why?  Because you will have a good time.  There's an extraordinary energy here when there are hundreds of people milling around, praying, eating, schmoozing.  Come Sunday morning and you'll see!  You will in short order look forward to the people.  You may say the Shema, you may not.  But you will see and enjoy the people; and you will be glad to be creating community for yourself and for others.


To have a community you must be a community:  Erev Shabbat, every week; you will revolutionize North American Judaism. 

So tomorrow night is an historic event.  For the first time ever, Beth Torah and B'nai Jehudah congregations are praying together, at B'nai Jehudah, and I'm giving the sermon.  The two most active congregations in the city are collaborating, and you'll want to be there for the event.


The following Shabbat is Yom Kippur.  No problem; you'll already be here.  See how easy; that's the first two weeks right there.


The following week Wednesday night is Sukkot; that Shabbat is your first test.  Friday night, stop in.  Say hello.  Tell me you heard this sermon.  Talk with someone, nosh, then stay or leave, whichever works best.


Ok, so one week something unavoidable gets in the way.  You can't be here at all, not even for 15 minutes!  You call your friends.  You tell them, "We'll be out of town.  We'll be back next week."  Even better, you miss someone, they didn't show up.  You'll call them. Tell them you missed them.  You hope you'll see them next Shabbat.  Voila! Community!


And now, why do we really need a community?  And so here's a really sober answer:  because sometimes events in our lives turn serious, and community becomes essential. 


A small group of people have been meeting through Jewish Family Service, with one common thread:  someone they love committed suicide.  It's heartbreaking not only to hear the stories, how they could not save their loved one, a husband or child, from killing himself; but even more important for this community:  they could not find a community to support them through their grief.


Now let me explain what I mean by that.  Mostly they said, "I had no one to talk to; no one who could listen to me and understand me; no one to give me answers."  People who are grieving search for answers, but no answers satisfy.  What they,  and we, really want is someone who will take the time to truly listen to what we have to say.  They want the person they loved back; and since that is not possible, they must work through their grief, and that requires someone to listen with no personal agenda.  Where is the person I loved?  Why could I not change their action? Am I responsible? What did I do wrong?  How might I have done this better?  What do I do with myself now?


Death is very personal.  And being so intimate, we don't let just anyone in to share our grief.  Many of us don't do well with emotional vulnerability.  If you have grieved deeply you know that:  the deeper the pain the more private the experience.  We crave a person who can comfort, someone to put us at ease. 


Judaism developed a process for receiving comfort after loss:  the shiva process.  For an entire week, family and friends are supposed to come by to actively listen and console.


I was so sad to listen to all of these people who searched but found no solace.  The truth is that genuine shiva has largely disappeared from the liberal Jewish community.  Most of our people don't know how to give comfort. Therefore, many people don't want to have the shiva because they can't imagine it aiding healing.  So rather than add another burden to their lives, they have one or two evening services and that's it.  Maybe that's what you did!  But shiva is intended to facilitate, not obstruct, grieving!  So let me explain how genuine shiva historically has formed a community.


Shiva is not an evening service.  It's the seven days beginning with the day of the funeral when the mourners remain home and people come to express their concern and share themselves.  Friends are to visit and, after expressing hope for comfort for the bereaved, let him or her speak about what's on their heart.  The visitor may share positive stories of the life of the person who has died, or simply listen to the heartache the grieving person is suffering. 


The visitors bring food, because others are supposed to demonstrate sincere caring by providing for the needs of the mourners.  It has become all too common in Kansas City that the mourners feel that they must entertain: buy food, clean their home, make sure that their visitors are comfortable.  Shiva is not a social occasion.  Of course your home is not clean:  you have been visiting and caring for the person who died, or you were simply surprised and didn't have time to clean up.  You are distraught and aching inside.  It's not time to clean.  Forget how your house looks.  Let your friends clean it for you. The mourners should be thinking about more important things, like all that the deceased meant to them. 


Consolers must refrain from moralizing, or explaining why they think this loss occurred.  Ask questions about what the mourner is telling you, demonstrating that their pain matters to you, that you have taken your time to come expressly to be with them.  Perhaps go over in the afternoon to listen and share, rather than the evening before or after worship when mourners are busy.  If you didn’t know the person who died, then ask the mourner to tell you about the person’s life.  They’ll be happy to do it!


Shiva done properly builds community.  I am not sure how you will react to this:  but it must be said.


Death frightens people.  Judaism structures into our lives over many years opportunities that accustom and support us through the fear of dying, and that aid our family when we pass to the next world.  Attending shiva worship over years, how can you avoid the thought that you walk the same path? The next step is to talk with someone significant in your life about how that thought makes you feel, how the idea of dying touches you.  Most of us have never had that conversation, even with the most intimate people in our lives.  Attending shiva worship reminds us that life is short, and even though living can be so much fun, it should be taken seriously.  Life has real value and genuine priorities.  We should treasure those we love, and always remind ourselves how much they mean to us.  We should tell people we love them when they leave our presence, and say "I love you" again when they return.  Attending shiva worship reminds us over and over again, until over time we acclimate ourselves to the reality, that we walk the same path as the mourners and the deceased.  Death should never take us by surprise, no matter how unexpectedly it visits.  The bereaved have been touched deeply by life and death, and are working their way toward a new understanding of what their lives mean. What a privilege to be part of such conversations.  We should rush to attend shiva services, to attend someone's home to offer condolences and to bring comfort through presence.  We become better people; we train our own souls; and we remind ourselves to live as though every day matters, because it does, but we so easily forget.  All this we learn from bringing food to a shiva home, from engaging in conversation that is genuine, from simply being a listening ear. 


Those who had no community to share their grief:  they are our wakeup call and our teachers.  A city that has no community in which to grieve is impossibly impoverished, and must mend itself.  True intimacy means sharing your grief as well as your love, and your fear of dying.  When you start coming every Friday night, week after week, staying just 15 minutes if that's what fits, you will form lasting and meaningful, fun friendships that will help to support you when bad things happen, even to the good people you truly are.


In the cataclysmic destruction of Jerusalem nearly 2,000 years ago, Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai fled through the mountains, Jerusalem in flames behind him, Rabbi Joshua at his side in tears.  Ben Zakkai asked Joshua why he was crying.  Joshua said, "The place of Israel's atonement is in flames."  Ben Zakkai answered quoting Isaiah, "I desire love and not sacrifice."  Ben Zakkai was teaching that acts of loving kindness, gemilut chasadim, saves us from destruction.  Our people has faced and overcome destruction before.  Acts of loving kindness with Torah study saved them then. Community and acts of loving kindness will save us now. 


There was a young man, feeling the surge of wisdom of his teen years, who was certain that the old rabbi was a fool and the people just didn't realize it.  He decided to show the community just how stupid the old man was.  So he captured a bird, and saved it.  After morning worship, while the people remained, he approached the old rabbi with his hands behind him, holding the live bird.  Now the young man thought, "I will ask the rabbi a question, and if he answers one way, I will release the bird and it will fly away; and if he answers the other way, I will squeeze the life out of the bird and let it fall to the ground."  So the young man approached the rabbi and asked him, "Rabbi, rabbi, you're so wise.  Tell me, is the bird that I am holding in my hands alive or dead?"


The rabbi looked deeply into the young man's eyes.  He smiled at him, and the rabbi said in his quiet voice, "Life or death, my young friend, is in your hands." 

And so it is with you.  Life or death, the future of your Kansas City Jewish community, lies with you.  Fifteen minutes each Erev Shabbat – and the community thrives.  Consider now the Torah's command on Yom Kippur, "I have placed before you life and death, the blessing and the curse... Therefore choose life, that you and your children shall live," and decide for life.