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“A Judaism of Enthusiasm!,” Rabbi Zecher’s Shabbat Awakenings

October 14, 2022 | 19 Tishrei 5783

Welcome again to Shabbat Awakenings, a weekly reflection as we move toward Shabbat and Simchat Torah, which begins Sunday evening. This week I share with you my sermon I offered on Rosh Hashanah eve this year. You can listen to it as a podcast here.

It’s hard to get excited about punctuation. It’s a topic that doesn’t usually engender much enjoyment. But when it comes to the exclamation point, there’s a lot to get excited about. We use an exclamation point to convey our optimistic enthusiasm! (exclamation point!) Though not everyone. F. Scott Fitzgerald insisted, “Cut out those exclamation marks” because “using an exclamation mark is like laughing at your own joke.” (Period)

I always laugh at my own jokes.

700 years ago, the exclamation point entered usage as a note of admiration. We might say it was the first emoji happy face. It is just what you want to use when you recommend something you love, like a restaurant, school or camp, or summer vacation destination. Yes! “You must go there. It’s the best vacation we’ve ever had!” “I loved that book. You should definitely read it!”

It means you believe in the value of what you promote and want to share with another.

When we care deeply about something, we become passionate about letting others know. Our strong beliefs and positive attitudes call upon a very human impulse to express to others what is important to us.

By doing so, we help bring others into meaningful encounters and experiences that is a beautiful gift we can offer one another.

We might say that our ancestors, Abraham and Sarah, were the first of our people to express enthusiasm for what they were doing and how they were living.

Abraham and Sarah lived an unremarkable life until God’s called to Abram, telling him to Go forth Lech Lecha to a different place.

Most people would have opted for civilization like Mesopotamia, but God sent Abram on the opposite path to alter his fate and lay out his destiny. His name would become great. Many descendants would issue forth from him. And he would bring blessing.

In ancient times, leaving the security of home was perilous. Heeding God’s instruction, Abraham and Sarah set out into the unknown and discovered a different kind of life that became the very foundation of Judaism.

But they did not keep it to themselves.

The Midrash tells us that Abraham and Sarah were so enthusiastic about their discovery—of something greater than any one person that led them to act with generosity, kindness, and justice—that they wanted to share it. In this way they went from being separate individuals on a singular journey, to being part of a greater whole by bringing others in.[i]

The Torah tells us that they acquired souls Nefesh ashar asu which the rabbis understood as bringing others in to a way of understanding and acting in the world. We are descendants of those souls.

And thousands of years later here we are today, online and onsite, all of us who are part of this Jewish orbit, drawn to Judaism, inheritors of their legacy; committed to living lives of meaning and purpose inspired by Jewish teachings of ethical and righteous behavior that impact a greater good.

What is it about Judaism that like Abraham and Sarah, we love being Jewish and can express that positivity with others?

It comes from an appreciation that the essence of Judaism is to nurture and strengthen our inner lives, our spiritual selves, so that we can enact values of righteousness and compassion, justice and kindness.

It is the recognition that we have a roadmap to a life filled with purpose and meaning to live our best selves.

Judaism sits at the corner where grace, love, and compassion meet justice and righteousness, informed by deep learning and inquiry.

This is the sacred work we do on these holidays. We explore and examine within, and though all of us are far from perfect, we reach in to pull out that vitality and strength we each possess.

We do this through our work in social justice. Tikkun Olam, repairing the world recognizes that our actions today affect those who come after us. Whether it is the earth itself or those who reside on it, we have an obligation to take care; our actions positively impact the future.

Through the structure of our community; we become guarantors that all our descendants matter and our influence today makes all the difference.

Now, you may think, she’s a rabbi. She has to love being Jewish. That is her job. This is true and what is also true is: I don’t just love being Jewish because I am a rabbi. I became a rabbi because I love being Jewish. I am here and we are here because Judaism is the answer to the questions: How do we find meaning in our own lives? And how might we affect the lives of others?

So, let’s celebrate our religious tradition in ways that inspire us and others to appreciate what we have?

It is time to reject whatever gloomy world view of Judaism and being Jewish we may have. Yes, it’s sometimes hard to be a Jew. Hence the Jewish joke about the pessimist who says that things can’t get any worse but the optimist chimes in “Sure it can!”

We have good reason to complain and to worry. The Jewish people have faced nearly insurmountable challenges of exile, expulsion, and extinction. Just when we thought it couldn’t get any worse, it actually, truly did.

And then, when things improved for us in the second half of the 20th century in America, as Jews became acculturated and assimilated and increasingly successful, surveys predicted our demise not because of persecution, but because of our success.

In 1964, Look magazine published an article entitled, “The Vanishing American Jew” citing data that intermarriage would wreak havoc on the Jewish people. Seven years later Look went bankrupt and ceased publication. The Jewish population has since increased by 30%.

And let me say: To those who have joined in celebrating Jewish life because you love someone who is Jewish. You belong and are beloved. You have helped us all to learn to love ourselves. You are part of this Jewish orbit even as you may practice your own religious tradition.

To all of us, data tell us that more people are associating with synagogues and other institutions, finding community and significance in being involved and belonging. More and more we seek out what is positive and worthy in the resources of Jewish tradition.

Imprinted forever in our lives are the memories of the last two years. In March 2020, when the world was closing down, synagogues were opening up even wider and were serving as the bedrock of community strength. In a time when isolation and separation threatened every aspect of our lives, we were right there.

We have heard from many people that Temple Israel, in particular, saved them from loneliness and despair and created a vibrant venue for life. In those early days, our religious school served as a life line for many parents, not to mention the kids—though they may not have appreciated it in the same way.

We are not the “ever-dying” people, but rather the “ever-living” ones. We have prevailed in times of pandemics, pogroms, and tragedy. Strength and tenacity have coursed through time and space to ensure not just the survival of Judaism and the Jewish people, but a new splendor and dimension thriving in this moment, in this life.

As this holiday season teaches us, we are nurtured from the inside out. Our minds, our souls, our hearts grow stronger as we connect to one another and help each other.

We are also nurtured by the way Judaism marks moments in time with rituals that provide that bridge life’s many transitions from the moment we enter this world until our last breath here on earth. Each step along the way, Judaism takes our hand and guides us with meaning.

So, I ask each of us here tonight to consider what it might mean to share a confident outlook of being Jewish. Not on street corners or handing out pamphlets or traveling to distant countries to imprint a religious tradition on others we do not know.

Rather, I ask us to share the positivity that reflects our lived experience as part of this Jewish community.

To simply share our enthusiasm.

We are the purveyors of optimism, the carriers of a precious legacy that will help secure a brighter future for those who engage in our synagogue and beyond. It is a way for others to know the power and beauty of Judaism.

Let’s allow our positive experiences of what Judaism has meant to us, to lift us up as those who follow in Abraham and Sarah’s footsteps. Let’s share how Judaism enriches our lives.

All of us together create a grand bond of connection. We become stronger as a Jewish community when we express and share its beauty.

I opened my remarks tonight by speaking about the exclamation point. I’ll conclude by talking about another grammatical phenomenon known as an interrobang, a question mark and an exclamation point together.

As we explore Judaism and its meaning in our lives, we do so with curiosity, with interest, and wonder that spur us to ask many questions. And at the same time, we lift up and to celebrate how fortunate we are that Judaism helps us to experience meaningful and worthy lives.

To question and to exclaim is my invitation tonight to lead us to declare and to share Judaism with a rousing exclamation point.

“Judaism!” “Yes!”

[i] Bereshit Rabbah 39,14, Onkeles, Sanhedrin 99b

Shabbat Shalom!

  • If you are in town, come join us for Qabbalat Shabbat with plenty of singing, learning, praying, thinking, and some treats to eat and drink. If you’re unable to join onsite, please join on Zoom, on Facebook Live, or stream on our website. Let’s celebrate together.
  • If you are participating onsite, stay for Sushi in the Sukkah with Chaverim@TI immediately after services. This is the kickoff event for Chaverim@TI, a new TI Circle bringing adults together through events and gatherings
  • Tot Rock Shabbat gathers online at 5:00 p.m.
  • A delightful Torah Study begins at 9:00 a.m. We begin with a short service and Torah reading and then jump into a provocative discussion. To join the conversation interactively, access Zoom. You can also watch on Temple Israel’s website or Facebook page.
  • Thank Goodness its Shabbat will gather onsite at 10:00 a.m.
  • Gather online for Havdalah at 8:00 p.m. Our weekly Havdalah ritual is a lay-led experience. Stop by, say hello, catch up from the week, and say goodbye to Shabbat together. Join on Zoom.
  • Our celebration of Simchat Torah begins Sunday. Food and celebration for all ages will be onsite at 4:30 p.m. Yizkor will be held in Slater lounge and on zoom at 5:00 p.m. At 5:30 p.m. Erev Simchat Torah: An Immersive Torah Experience, with Temple Israel’s unique Torah-Cam. Onsite and Online. We will end our evening with dinner and dancing on Nessel Way onsite.
  • Community-wide Simchat Torah Festival Service and Yizkor, celebratory and engaging study session, and Oneg. Onsite and Online at 10:00 a.m.
  • 10:00 a.m. the Village gathers for Simchat Torah celebration. Please register for this celebration.

Rabbi Elaine Zecher