10 Things I Love About Being Jewish
I decided that I wanted to be a rabbi at the age of 11. How do I know such a specific detail? Because my dad, alav ha-shalom, thought to himself at that moment- “This is going to be important to remember,” so he made a mental note of the date. What inspires an 11 year old to think about the rabbinate? Well, I loved Hebrew School and Jewish study. Camp Ramah was a big influence. I led Junior Congregation and designed creative High Holiday services. I admired my rabbi’s engagement in social justice issues. What could be better than a vocation where I could spend my days learning and teaching something about which I was so passionate. I charted a course toward rabbinical school and never looked back.
My parents, initially, were not so supportive. With their more adult perspective, they understood the long hours and the synagogue politics that might make the rabbinate a challenging career. They suggested that perhaps I would make a great librarian or gym teacher? Yet, I persisted, and, they were- and are- ultimately very proud of my career.
As we enter into this High Holiday season, I wanted to share with you the top ten things that I love most about being Jewish. If you look around this room, you’ll see #1- the sense of community. I have a close friend who has served on many Boards of Directors, of various non-Jewish organizations as well as synagogues. She marveled at the reserve, the politeness, the professionalism of the non-Jewish boards, compared with the raucous nature of what she experienced in synagogue board rooms. Her observation was that, when you only see each other once a month, and for a limited term, you treat each other with kid gloves. When you are as enmeshed as we are, seeing your board colleagues not only at monthly meetings, but at religious school drop off and Shabbat services, at Bnai Mitzvah and shiva minyanim, year after year, you treat each other like family, not like professional colleagues.
The Jewish community is a family- for better or worse. We may make each other crazy, as family members often do, yet, we are inextricably bound together. This is not something to take for granted, especially not in the modern world of disconnection. Jane Howard wrote, “Call it a clan, call it a network, call it a tribe, call it a family. Whatever you call it, whoever you are, you need one.”
I’ll let you in on a secret. When I stand at the ark with our Bnai Mitzvah students and have the opportunity to share just a few moments of private time with our impressionable young people, one of the things that I try to impress on them is this- wherever your journey in life takes you, you will always be able to find a Jewish community with whom you will have things in common and on whom you can rely if you need help. What an incredible blessing we are to each other.
Secondly, I love the wisdom of our tradition and the values that we emphasize. We really do want to be better people and to make our world a better place, and Judaism offers us practical guidance in how to achieve these goals. There are volumes of teaching on how to develop our character, how to be kinder and more humble, how to care for the stranger and how to listen more and gossip less. We remember that every single human being is made in the image of God and must be honored. Compassion is so fundamental to the Jewish way of life that we are taught to suspect that if someone is not compassionate they are not really Jewish. I am in awe at the dedication of our Mussar students, who devote themselves to developing their own character, their soul traits. What an amazing tradition that inspires devotion to critical self-reflection.
Tzedakah, righteous giving, is a mitzvah, an obligation, not something we do if and when it makes us feel good. And, before everything else, Judaism understands the profound importance of justice- THE foundation on which society rises or falls. I admire, I love, Jewish wisdom and values.
And then there’s number 3, Shabbat, of which Ahad HaAm observed, “More than Israel has kept the Sabbath, the Sabbath has kept Israel.” I adore being a rabbi, yet, I don’t think I could sustain my work without a weekly opportunity to step out of the everyday busi-ness and cultivate a sense of holiness.
My personal Shabbat practice has evolved as I have embraced Reform Judaism. There was a time when I only drove to and from shul, yet now I am okay with driving to go biking or visit with friends and family. I still avoid commercial situations- you’ll never see me at the supermarket or the mall on Shabbat, though I might occasionally be at the airport, if necessary. I have been to the mall on Shabbat twice in the past two decades, and the frenzied environment was antithetical to my understanding of Shabbat Shalom.
My favorite thing is to have nothing on the calendar, to pray together with all of you at Temple Chai and to share Shabbat dinner with loved ones. Shabbat is a reminder of creation- God worked 6 days a week and rested on the 7th. If even God needed to rest, then how much more so do we! Creation itself was not complete until not creating was also created. Take a breath. Disconnect. Find a way to remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy- it will change your life.
Community, Jewish values and wisdom, Shabbat, and, fourth, our many beautiful traditions. To quote Tevye the Milkman, “A fiddler on the roof. Sounds crazy, no? But in our little village of Anatevka, you might say every one of us is a fiddler on the roof, trying to scratch out a pleasant, simple tune without breaking his neck. It isn’t easy. You may ask, why do we stay up here if it’s so dangerous? We stay because Anatevka is our home. And how do we keep our balance? That I can tell you in a word – tradition!”
Tevye was an Orthodox Jew, so the tradition told him how to live at every moment. As Reform Jews, we may feel closer to the words of Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, who taught that, “The tradition has a vote, but not a veto.” We take Jewish tradition seriously, and, we adapt it so that it continues to be meaningful to us in 2018. In many ways, this is more challenging than accepting every tradition as sacrosanct.
One tradition that we especially honor at Temple Chai is lashon ha-kodesh, the holiness of the Hebrew language. Through our emphasis on the holy tongue, we stay connected with Jews past and present. Even if you don’t know what the words mean, we hope that the letters and words bring comfort and joy. Somehow just looking at Hebrew moves me in a way that English just does not.
Number 5- Jewish lifecycle observances. Brises and baby namings, Bnai Mitzvah, weddings and, yes, even divorces, and the myriad of practices surrounding death and mourning- we Jews are experts at honoring milestones in our lives. When a child is born, we welcome them into the community and celebrate their Hebrew name. As that child grows and approaches adolescence, we help both the student and the family to understand that this person is becoming more independent and needs both to take on more responsibilities and enjoy more privileges.
Is there anything more joyous than a Jewish wedding? I can’t tell you how many times the event planner approaches me after a wedding to confess that, even though they may not be Jewish, they wish they could have a Jewish wedding. From the chuppah, symbolizing the open-ness of the new home, to the 7 blessings, praying for blessing each and every day for the couple, to the breaking of the glass, recognizing that love and harmony are fragile, not to mention the ketubah, expressing the commitment that the couple makes and the yichud, an opportunity for the couple to celebrate their first few moments of marriage alone with each other, the Jewish wedding is brilliant!
And when there is a loss. . . . We strive for burial as soon as possible, to help family and loved ones accept the sad reality. Then, the mourners are not left alone to fend for themselves. They are embraced by the community through the days of shiva, supported by love and prayer and food. Through the first thirty days of sheloshim and following the year of mourning, we are encouraged to gently let go and move forward, to choose life, secure in the knowledge that yizkor and yahrtzeits will provide the structure to always remember those who are gone. Jewish life cycle observances are the 5th thing that I love about being Jewish.
Sixth- Jewish spirituality and our connection to God through the path of blessings. Jewish life is grounded in a sense of gratitude and appreciation. We are so blessed, and yet our tendency is to focus on what we don’t have and forget to appreciate all the good. Judaism encourages us to say 100 blessings a day. Through the spiritual technology of the brachah, we articulate our thanks for waking up in the morning, for the ability to walk, such as we have, for the food we eat, for the clothing we wear, for the beautiful world in which we live, and even for the healthy functioning of our bodies when we go to the bathroom.
The word “Yehudi”, “Jew,” comes from the Hebrew root meaning- thankful. To be a Jew is to be thankful. Gratitude is the foundation of happiness and our tradition guides us always in the direction of gratitude.
Number 7- endless opportunities for study and a culture of learning. A friend recently told me of a person who completed a PhD in Jewish studies and reported that they now know everything. I was dumbstruck! How could any person who knows anything about Judaism claim that their learning was complete? “Until when,” asks Maimonides, “is a person obligated to study Torah?” “Until the day he dies.” I love that lifelong learning is a priority Jewish value, and I love that, whatever your area of interest- philosophy or poetry, history or Torah, ethics or architecture, there is enough richness and depth in Jewish learning to occupy a lifetime and then some.
Teaching is one of my favorite parts of being at Temple Chai- Adult Bnai Mitzvah, Torah Study, Mussar, Wise Aging. I once brought a visitor to Temple Chai and upon exiting services her immediate comment to me was, “These people LOVE to learn.” It’s a Jewish cultural value and a foundation of our Temple Chai community.
Number 7- Ritual. Judaism recognizes that we need ritual in our lives. We don’t just read, “Write them on the doorposts of your house,” and understand that as a metaphor, we literally write words of Torah on parchment paper and put a mezuzah on the doors of our homes, where they stand as a constant reminder of Jewish values and traditions. We light Shabbat candles, we shake the lulav and etrog, we taste the matzah and the bitter herbs. Yes, learning is a vital part of Judaism. And, through taste and smell, sight and touch and taste, we renew our commitment to the values that are essential to our Jewish lives. We are not only human beings, we are human doings. The eighth thing that I love- Judaism’s recognition that we need concrete reminders of the holy.
Number 9- A tradition of asking questions. The Jewish story begins with Abraham questioning God. Jacob’s name is changed from Yaakov to Yisrael, one who wrestles with God. I don’t think that I could be Jewish if I didn’t feel that I had permission, maybe even encouragement, to continually question God’s ways. The Jewish way is not, (FOLD HANDS IN PRAYER POSITION)- “Thy will be done.” The Jewish way is (RAISE FIST TOWARDS HEAVEN) to challenge God’s justice and love. Why does a Jew always answer a question with a question? Why not? It is always a joy when you approach me with, “Rabbi, I have a question.” It’s one of my favorite things about being a rabbi. Asking questions is the quintessential Jewish way, and the 9th thing I love about being Jewish.
Finally- I love that Judaism is a way of life, encompassing not only what happens in this sanctuary, not only what happens in our classrooms, but how we behave in the world. The Talmud (Shabbat 31a) imagines 4 questions that God will ask us when we are called upon to give an accounting of what we did with our precious lives. All 4 questions have one thing in common: they relate to our behavior in the world- were we honest in our business? Did we support the needs of children in our community? Did we make time for learning and did we work towards tikkun olam, towards leaving the world a better place than we found it. That is what God is depicted as caring about most, not whether or not we were Jewish scholars or spent our day in prayer. Judaism is first and foremost about how we live our lives.
To review and in conclusion, the things that I love about being Jewish are:
- Sense of Community
- Wisdom and Values
- Connection to Tradition/Hebrew
- Brilliant Life-Cycle Practices
- Closeness to God through Gratitude and Prayer
- Life Long Learning
- Appreciation of Ritual
- Questioning as a Cultural Value
- Judaism as a Way of Life
- What’s on your list? Shanah Tovah!
 “Jews are compassionate, the children of the compassionate. If a person is not compassionate, they are not of the descendants of our father Abraham.”- Beitzah 32b
 Moses Maimonides, Hilchot Talmud Torah, 1:10