Congregation B'nai Israel

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Finding the Balance Between the Universal and the Practical

Rabbi Evan Schultz                                                                   Yom Kippur 5779
Finding the Balance Between the Universal and the Particular

Morning ascends over the desert. As the sun pokes through the crevices of the mountains, and the dusty winds begin to ripple through the walls of the tents, twelve flags slowly begin to rise up above the camps beneath. Young children, still squinty eyed from their slumber, look up at the great and proud flags, each one adorned with particular colors and symbols, representing the unique spirit and nature of the tribe that dwelled below. According to midrash, the tribe of Reuben carried a red flag, with mandrake flowers. Simeon, a green flag, with buildings of the city of Shechem. Levi, a red, white and black flag, with the High Priest’s breastplate, and Judah, a sky blue banner with a lion. Issachar represented by the sun and the moon, Zebulun a ship, Dan a snake, Naphtali a deer, and Asher an olive tree.

These unique banners billowed above twelve unique and distinct camps, twelve tribes amongst one nation of Israelites encamped together. It was in Numbers chapter 2 that God ordained to the people, that they be encamped “each person by his flag, according to the insignia of his ancestor’s house, at a distance surrounding the Tent of Meeting shall they encamp” For the ancient Israelites the tribe was their world. God warned them not to venture out, to live the words of the covenant forged at Sinai.  You shall have no gods but me. Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy. Life was inside the camp. God dwelled amongst them in the Mishkan, within the Tent of Meeting situated in the center of all the tribes.

And then God instructed the Israelites to look outside their camp. To open their eyes see the suffering around them. That there are those who are hungry, the vulnerable, the orphan and widow, the impoverished and the stranger. You were once strangers, you once cried out in pain as strangers in Egypt, and I heard your voice. Do not turn a blind eye to the great suffering in the world, to those whose voices call out to you for help and for sustenance. May you be a light to those around you, may you never forget the most vulnerable in your midst, may you always extend an arm and your heart outside of your camp to act justly in this world.

These two vignettes from our biblical tradition evoke a sacred tension that many of us carry each day and have carried throughout the course of history. This Jewish pull between what we often refer to as the universal and the particular, how much we engage within the camp, as opposed to outside of it, it is a question of how much we engage our tribal side, flags raised high above our camp. How greatly we distinguish ourselves as a Jewish people and perform uniquely Jewish acts, versus how much we wish to extend outward our hands with a universal message and mission of justice that connects us to all of humanity. To be human is in many ways to yearn for both:  universalism is an extended feeling of kinship with all humanity, and particularism is a natural tendency to feel most at home with those who share a common bond. To be Jewish is to sit with the awareness that God commanded us to do both. And there are only so many hours in the day.

This tension is especially present on the High Holy Days, in the very liturgy we recite and sing on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Rabbi Danny Zemel of Temple Micah, one of my mentors and now colleague of our former intern Rabbi Stephanie Crawley in Washington, DC teaches, that “Rosh Hashanah is spectacularly universal, celebrating, as it does, the creation of the universe and the birth of humanity. Its concerns are the possibility and potential of life – all life. The scriptural readings give us Abraham, “the father of a multitude of nations.” They introduce Sarah and Hagar, Isaac and Ishmael. The primary liturgical texts celebrate ‘the day of the worlds conception’ and God who is passionate for life. The dominant sound is the blast of the shofar – no knowledge of a particular language is required to understand the call of the horn. Yom Kippur too evokes a powerful universal disposition. The uniform is all white. The diet is fasting. The universal God is judge, and the ultimate aim is universal human redemption – “All the world shall come to serve Thee.”  

The High Holy Days, too, offer the other side of the equation, the particular, the reminder of God’s covenant with the Jewish people. Rabbi Zemel writes, “we are reminded on this day of our [distinctively] Jewish obligation to remember that humanity is created in the image of God, that we are each part of a greater whole, and that Genesis signals a universal covenant with all humankind. It is the particularistic Jewish celebration of a particularistic Jewish New Year that heralds the birth of the universal family of humankind.”

We are too reminded on this day of our collective responsibility towards one another as Jews. We not only atone for our own sins and misgivings, but for all those sins committed by those gathered together today. Ashamnu, bagadnu, we have done wrong, we have missed the mark. We are drawn to one another, we apologize for the acts of the person sitting down the row from us, we are community in its deepest sense, a tribe, traveling together through the desert, beholden to one another on this most sacred of days.

Our Holy Days remind us that like many of the opposing poles that we often negotiate within Judaism, we are tasked with  finding a sense of equilibrium and balance between the universal and the particular. In one hand we hold on to our distinct characteristics as a Jewish people while at the same time we extend our arms to our neighbors in hopes of building a world more deeply infused with universal goodness, kindness, and mutual understanding. Hillel underscores finding this balance in his famous words, “if i am not for myself, who will be for me, if i am only for me, then what would I be?”

As a Jew living In 21st century America, I think about Hillel’s words often, as a Rabbi in a vibrant Reform congregation, finding that balance can be complicated, and in reality, tipping towards a greater embrace of the universal. In an age in which the world feels fractured and divided, rightly so many feel that there is an urgency like never before to reach out to our neighbors, to engage in deep and powerful interfaith work, social justice initiatives, poverty campaigns, environmental work, and our most recent voter registration campaigns. We have seen new faces walk through our doors, excited and ready to engage, for example, in our organizing work with CONECT, Congregations Organized for a New Connecticut, or participate in one of our mitzvah mornings, where we engage in social action projects in and around Bridgeport. At B’nai Israel and across the Reform Movement I think our congregations have answered God’s call to justice, we hear the voices and the cries of the needy, in an extraordinary and powerful way, and we are always looking for ways to do more.

But all of this offers us a challenge as well. Commitments to social justice and welcoming all through our doors are meant to be one side of the scale, balanced with Jewish living and Jewish community.I think back to God’s charge to us in the desert, to both hear the cries of the stranger, and to engage in the sacred work of the Mishkan. We have an important question on our hands as liberal Jews, so committed to the work of tikkun olam and social justice, we must ask ourselves, where does the Jewish piece fit in? What relevance does study and prayer, ritual and Jewish acts play in our lives? How do we bring the same passion to worship and Shabbat that we do to feeding the hungry and advocating for common sense gun laws?

This question has sat deeply with me since my return from this year’s URJ Biennial in Boston this past December. While one could find inspiring Jewish learning, ritual, music, and conversation, the dominant call throughout biennial was from speakers like Reverend William Barber and his Poor Peoples Campaign, and Senator Elizabeth Warren and Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker towards a greater commitment to social justice, equality, and civility towards our neighbors.

Rabbi Jeff Salkin, an author and rabbi in Florida, echoed some of these feelings in an article published the day after the biennial, about his experience in Boston. “Any number of my colleagues walked away from the biennial convention,” he writes, “and they asked themselves that old Peggy Lee question: “Is that all there is?”

The “that” is social justice. Reform Judaism’s emphasis on social justice is an essential part of its identity.

But, taken to extremes, and privileging that commitment above everything else, it reminds us of another piece of our classical Reform legacy — that the essence of Judaism is ethics, and therefore, social justice, which is ethics writ large. That allowed us to think that we are just like everyone else — or, at least, like all other good people. Except, to quote that old Levy’s rye bread ad: You don’t have to be Jewish to be ethical.

Nor, to care about racism, gun control, etc. For, if Jews were to suddenly disappear from those causes, those causes would still survive. But, if we stopped caring about Shabbat, the search for kedusha (holiness), prayer, and Jewish literacy — what, then, would happen to the Jewish people, and to Judaism?  Social activism is virtuous. But, it requires no specific Jewish skills. Not a word of Hebrew. What does this say about the curriculum of Reform Jewish life? We love to quote Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who, at Selma, said that he was “praying with his feet.” But, that morning, Heschel had already prayed — with a siddur.”

In this fractured and often divided world, so much can feel imbalanced. My remarks this morning are in no way meant to temper or lessen the crucial importance of our social justice work, nor are they meant to incur any guilt about anyone’s level of practice or participation at the synagogue, but rather a larger question about how we as a whole, and how each of us individually negotiate God’s biblical call to us in an intentional and thoughtful way in the world in which we live. A question about how who we are at our core, what we hold on to and how we reimagine our Jewishness and unique Jewish practice, our tribal selves, so to speak, while at the same time engaging in the universal work that holds so much meaning for us and that cries to us from the pages of Deuteronomy.

And we have found meaningful and beautiful ways to do this. In following Rabbi Salkin’s Heschel example, back in March before we took a busload of B’nai Israel congregants to the March for our Lives rally for common sense gun legislation, we encourage participants to come to 8am services to pray from the siddur before we prayed with our feet. And as our group stood on the rally grounds, we went around the circle and shared why this matters to us, why we feel that as Jews, this is so important to show up at gatherings such as this one. For all who gathered there, it felt as though we struck that balance, we turned within, heard the voices of the members of our camp, offered prayer for strength and for God to be with us, before we turned towards the state capitol and raised our voices together.

On this Yom Kippur, on this day when we so deeply engage with the many facets of our truest selves, both individually and as a community, may God give us strength to hear the divine call, to find meaning and beauty and depth in the words of the ancient covenant received at Sinai, to engage in the Jewish project in a way that speaks to us in the here and now, and may we too, raise our voices and extend our hands, living the words of Deuteronomy to hear the cries of the vulnerable and the pleas of the hungry. May we find home both within the camp, and outside of it. May we share a deep kinship with our neighbors and with the members of this sacred B’nai Israel community.  May we find a sense of balance in a seemingly imbalanced world. May we each and every day hear God’s call to us as we embrace our unique destiny and mission in this world as a community and as a people. Shanah Tovah.