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Rabbi Josh KatzanRosh Hashanah Day 1—September 21, 2017
Rabbi Joshua Katzan

Be the Light

Q: How many Jewish Grandmothers does it take to change a light bulb?
A: None.  It’s OK, I’ll just sit in the dark...

Dr. Freud has been gone a long time, so I will resist the psychoanalysis of this joke and what he might say about Jews and guilt.  But I will say this: maybe a little guilt isn’t such a bad thing?  Our proverbial Grandmother is sitting in the dark and, you know, maybe it is our faultMaybe it wouldn’t kill us to pay a little attention?  Our Grandmother is sitting in the dark, and someone has to change the bulbs
Rosh Hashanah is about checking in.  It’s about doing a cheshbon hanefesh, a personal ethical and spiritual accounting as individuals and as a community, and committing ourselves to changing the bulbs to bring more and better light into our lives and to our world.  And boy, do we need it.
As so many of us feel, our world seems to be growing darker.  It feels different, somehow.  It feels worse.  Each of us can identify places in our lives and the life of our nation where we perceive a growing lack of light, of burning out bulbs, and of a world slipping into deeper darkness.  Today, it feels as though we need these holidays and each other more than ever before.  
It should be simple, but bringing light is a tough job.  It can feel like as quickly as we put fresh bulbs in, others are working as hard to take them out.  The futility of it all can cause us to feel pangs of despair.  Despair erodes our fortitude to standing up for our hopes and ideals, and would undermine our courage to change.  However, the great R. Abraham Joshua Heschel teaches us, “Remember that there is a meaning beyond absurdity. Be sure that every little deed counts, that every word has power.  Never forget that you can still do your share to redeem the world in spite of all absurdities and frustrations and disappointments.”  Absurdity in abundance, but every deed counts.  Every deed makes a difference.
One of the unique challenges we’re facing today is a growing sense of distance between one another.  Ironically, this is in part a consequence of being so overwhelmingly electronically connected.  We have more ways to communicate with more people than ever before in human history, and yet we are retreating into echo-chambers of like-minded voices, and like-minded partisan news sources, and able to hear each other less.  Apparently, being connected is not the same as closeness
And, alas, so much of our face to face time has been replaced by Facebook.  Phone calls have been replaced with texting.  Interviews with politicians have been replaced with messages condensed into 140 characters or less.  We have more frequent communications, but fewer conversations.  I fear we are experiencing a diminished sense of humanity and forgetting how to talk with one another.  And this, more than anything, is helping to make our world a little darker.
And this reminds us of the plague of Darkness, choshech, against the Egyptians.  As we read in Exodus, “Darkness descended upon all the land of Egypt for three days.  People could not see one another... but the Israelites enjoyed light in their communities.”  A darkness so thick they could no longer see one another.  To not “see” one another is also to not “know” one another, and not “be known” by another.  This is intensely isolating and creates a sense of loneliness.  It feels like that is slowly encroaching upon us.
“But the Israelites enjoyed light in their dwellings.” 
The Prophet Isaiah proclaimed the people Israel to be “A light unto the Nations, Ohr L’goyim.”  Isaiah 42:6-7 “I created you, and appointed you a covenant people, a light to the nations, opening eyes deprived of light, rescuing prisoners from confinement, from the dungeon those who sit in darkness.”  But how??
My friends, our tradition holds many insights to living an enlightening existence, secrets to changing the bulbs and turning on the lights, but I will explore just a few:

  1. Be a mensch;
  2. Pluralistic thinking is good;
  3. Pursue justice;
  4. Be charitable; give more tzedakkah
  5. Show up more often.  Spend more time with family and community;

1) Be a mensch.  The great psychologist and survivor of Auschweitz, Victor Frankel, nailed it when he wrote in his epic book, “Man’s Search for Meaning,” that there are only two races in the world: the decent and the indecent.  Be decent.  Be a mensch.  Take the high road, hold your tongue, breathe and think before reacting in anger, and do the right thing even if no one is watching.  To be a real mensch, is as well to replace the misguided bumper sticker that emphasizes committing “random acts of kindness,” with a more true principle: “commit regular and intentional acts of decency.”  Our decency should be reliable, not random.  With every intentional act of decency, dignity is brought to life, and another twist is given to a new bulb.
2) Pluralistic thinking is the basis of Judaism and what makes Judaism a great tradition.  We have not only survived, but flourished because we have welcomed multiple points of view and made an art of machloket l’shem shamayim, argument “for the sake of heaven.” This is to say that our tradition is predicated on fierce argument with the sole agenda of refining understanding, over reducing to a singular agreement.  This means we learn to focus more on the ideas than the personalities offering them.  This means we examine the credibility of an idea, and raise objections based on evidence with a sincere drive to get to truth.  It also means we pursue having multiple views at the same table.  Even if some ideas appear repugnant, there is no harm in discussion.  If the idea is bad, it will remain bad.  For some tolerating multiple points of view is very difficult.  But being able to tolerate the annoying person or the annoying idea is a key to growing up ourselves.  Holding on in these moments increase and restore a sense of humanity, and that brings us closer to being able to listen and hear one another through the darkness.  This is part of what brought light to the homes of the Israelites when the world outside was plagued with darkness.  Let’s prefer to pursue persuasion over isolation.  Listening to one another helps the world get brighter.
3) A radical and foundational concept in our Torah is “Tzedek, tzedek tirdof, Justice, justice shall you pursue.” The mitzvah to not take bribes, to have fair weights and measures, to not defraud one another, to not withhold the wages of a worker even over night, to not privilege either the rich or the poor in judgment, and to not bear false witness are the pillars of what hold up a society over the waters of collapse. 
There are many societies in the world that will never become great because they are overwhelmingly corrupt.  For example, Russia has never been great because they have for too long been committed to propaganda over truth (ironically their government newspaper is called “Pravda,” meaning “Truth”), and account over 30% of their GDP as bribes.  In many Arab countries outrageous conspiracy theories run rampant because their governments and regimes essentially outlaw the discussion of facts.  Opinions are free, and many of their newspapers are rich with opinions, but they may not brush up against fact.  Once you take facts out of the equation, you accelerate decline.  This is an intolerable corruption.  It may sound obvious to us, but that is because despite our being flawed, the United States has, arguably until very recently, been dedicated to facts over opinion, even if there is argument over what the most credible facts are.  Thankfully, as a society we still find bribery and miscarriage of justice repugnant, but we’re ever at risk of having this erode.  It starts with each of us: Pursue justice in your personal life, as a society, and make your pursuit of justice just.  Justice adds tremendous wattage to the light we would bring.
4) A fuel of justice is money, resources, and the time we can offer as tzedakkah, and being charitable in general, and something each of us can offer.  Twice daily we read in the first paragraph of the Shema, “And you shall love the Lord your God with all you heart, with all your soul/body, and with all your me’odecha/resources.  We are to love God with our money.  This concept was developed beautifully in an excellent book titled, “The Soul of Money: Transforming Your Relationship with Money and Life,” by author and master fundraiser Lynn Twist.  She describes two basic models of attitude toward money that reflect and shape who are as people.  The scarcity model is the disposition that we don’t have enough and that more is better. This model of scarcity, which many of us float into at some point in life, is a kind of insatiable black hole of want. Twist does a decent job describing how this leads to deeper darkness within a person’s being, because of its primal self-centeredness. 
The alternative, is the sufficiency model of relationship with money.  In this state of being, a person sees not only themselves, but how s/he is connected to the larger landscape of humanity and the world, and looks at resources with a sense of responsibility toward the whole.  It is altogether liberating to the heart and soul when we find ourselves thinking more of what others need and how we can help with what we have. As she puts it,
“Money is like water. It can be a conduit for commitment, a currency of love. Money moving in the direction of our highest commitments nourishes our world and ourselves. What you appreciate appreciates. When you make a difference with what you have, it expands. Collaboration creates prosperity. True abundance flows from enough; never from more. Money carries our intention. If we use it with integrity, then it carries integrity forward. Know the flow—take responsibility for the way your money moves in the world. Let your soul inform your money and your money express your soul. Access your assets—not only money but also your own character and capabilities, your relationships and other non-money resources.” 
This could read like a beautiful midrash on the meaning of the Shema paragraph on how to love God with our money.
We are stewards of our planet and the wellbeing of our fellow humans.  To address the needs of the needy with our resources change the lives of the people being served, and also changes us.  The ideal is 10% of our net income.  Giving helps to keep other people’s lights on
5) Possibly the most important practice on this list that helps to renew, heal, and replenish relationship with others is a basic aspect of Jewish tradition: committing to showing up and spending time together.  I can think of no better way to do this than to participate in creating and celebrating Shabbat meals as a single, as a family, and as a community.  The framework and task is simple: make plans to have people over for a meal, and frame the meal with the sweet ritual of candles, of kiddush, and blessings over the food.  Make a few l’chayims, and recognize moments in the life of the people around you, and elevate those moments with a blessing.   Shabbat is the excuse to get people together and to share that rarest of commodities in life: time.  Real time.  Face to face time, without the intrusion of people receiving and writing texts, as this is not only rude, it diminishes the holiness of your time shared together.  (The etiquette of spending time with each other without the intrusion of cell phones and texting needs to be a sermon unto itself that I not only intend to write, but need to listen to as well.  I’m not above texting while out to a meal with a friend.  This is a problem for many of us, particularly our children, and we need to address it.) The conversations, the stories, the discussions had around a leisurely meal redeem and fulfill a primal need to connect with others, to know others, and to feel known by them.  Shabbat has transformed more souls and inspired more meaning than any other practice or moment in Judaism. 
An albeit extreme but inspiring example of this is in a story the Washington Post ran a year ago about a brilliant, charismatic White Supremacist named Derek Black.  Having been groomed to take on a leadership role in the white supremacist movement, his parents confidently sent him to a University in Florida not fearing the intellectual pollution often found at universities.  There, he, somewhat ironically, was invited by an orthodox Jewish colleague to Shabbat dinner.  And he loved it.  Derek fast became a regular at these meals, loving the conversation, the food, and the time he spent with this little community of Jews who welcomed him with open arms, challenged him intellectually, and accepted him fully.  It is a fascinating story how this group handled it when it was revealed who Derek was, and what he’d been writing on White Power blogs for years.  They made the decision to keep inviting him and did not bring up his blogging or his past.  Little by little, the humanizing time and conversation he shared with this group of young Jews influenced a paradigm shift for this white supremacist leader, and he utterly transformed and gave up on all his hate, and gave up on the movement.  Derek left the movement despite the ostracism and threats he received from virtually everyone he’d known, including his own family.  Showing up and spending time together around a Shabbat table is humanizing, healing, and brings “light into our dwellings.” 
Our tradition is an enlightening one.  It seeks to cultivate meaningful relationships and make people, society, and life better.  Like our Grandmother, we are perpetually dissatisfied with the state of affairs in the world.  We rebel against darkness and have prescriptions for doing the work that would change everything, despite the difficulty.   Our “Grandmother” has very high expectations of us.
So, now I ask: how many Jews does it take to change the light bulbs in this world?  The answer is clear:  All of us.  Shannah Tovah, u’metukah. 

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