Rosh Hashanah 5778 Day 1 – The Old and the New

Congregation Beth Israel

Rosh Hashanah Day 1 | September 21, 2017

Shanah Tovah

What a three months it has been. In many ways, it’s hard to believe that it has only been three months since so much has happened in our brief time together. Just days after arriving in Scotch Plains this June, I was here to celebrate Rabbi Nudell’s final Shabbat with the community. Then I began my official time as rabbi and we observed our first few summer Shabbatot together. On July 28th, roughly one month into my time here, my life changed forever with Micah Toby’s arrival. Eight days later, we were able to bring him into the Covenant together at his Brit Milah here on this Bimah. This past month, we have been transitioning to the “regular” routine as the school year began and we kicked off religious school and our yearly programming. And just a few days ago, we joined together for my formal installation as rabbi of our community. Now, here we stand for our first Rosh Hashanah together. All that, in only three months.

Even with all we’ve been through this summer, it still feels like we’re just getting to know each other, because well, really, we are. How much can you learn about a person in only three months?

“You can tell a lot about a person by the company they keep.” “You can tell a lot about a person by the way they treat their dog.” “You can tell a lot about a person by how they handle rainy days.” It seems like there are a lot of ways to find out about someone. But I prefer a different method. You can tell a lot about a person, by what is on their coffee table. Think about it. It’s a public place in your house to display your interests and personality. Something everyone sees as they enter your home that becomes in many ways the center of attention. So with that in mind, here is a selection of what you might find on my coffee table.

Sports Illustrated – this shouldn’t come as much of a surprise, given what many of you know about me already.

The Expectant Father – ok, this one’s a little out of date. But I’ve just updated to “The New Father.”

Game of Thrones Coasters – I guess they speak for themselves.

National Geographic – The Space Issue. Would you believe I read every word of this edition? Because I did. This is the part where I out myself as a bit of nerd. Ok, more than a bit. I love learning about all things space, whether looking at it, or traveling to it, in the past, present, or future, I’m into it. In this one issue, I read about the Google Lunar prize, Scott Kelly’s year in space, and the 40th anniversary of the Voyager satellite. And was fascinated. Did I say a “bit” of a nerd?

But I’m not done yet.

Biblical Archeology Review – For those who are unfamiliar, this is the leading magazine dedicated to Biblical Archeology. Yes, that’s a thing. The day this magazine arrives, once every two months is seriously a very exciting day for me. I love to see what the headlines are, what new discoveries were made, what new analysis there is of old finds, and most importantly, based on the ads that appear in the magazine, I love to see that I’m about 45 years younger than the typical reader. From reading this magazine, I’ve learned about the many building projects of King Herod, different theories regarding King David, and learned about the original color of the Menorah. Again, fascinating.

So what do you think of your rabbi now? Yes, I’m a person who has, shall we say, eclectic interests, and we’re really only scratching the surface here. But if I were to sum them up, I’d call it, “the old and the new.” The old, looking at history, archeology, traditional areas of study, and also the new, looking to the future, cutting-edge, innovative new ideas and discoveries.

Many times we hear that phrase, old and new, and think it’s a contradiction. How can they go together? We frequently have to choose one or the other – holding onto our past or grasping for our future. But I haven’t found this to be the case. It is in the balance of the old and new that we find so many beautiful things in life, and it’s also in this harmonization where much of our Jewish identity exists. 

Our Jewish tradition is an ancient source of wisdom – many of our foundational texts are over 1,000 years old. And still, they are full of new insights, offering new perspectives for us even today. Our texts are not static, stuck in the time they originated, but instead, we continue to delve into them, interpreting them in new ways based in modern contexts. As Pirkei Avot teaches, “Turn it and turn it again, for everything is in it.” (Pirkei Avot 5:22) In many ways, it is precisely this ability to adapt, that has enabled Judaism to survive and thrive throughout our history. At key moments in all eras, Judaism has embraced the old and the new.

Two thousand years ago, our ancestors faced an existential crisis. The Romans were attacking Jerusalem, and their victory was all but assured. A Talmudic story (Gittin 56b) recounts that leaders of the Jewish community, Rabbis Eliezer, Yehoshua, and Yochanan ben Zakkai, instituted an elaborate plan to sneak their way out of the city and come before the Roman general Vespasian. When they arrived, Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai impressed Vespasian with his knowledge, so much so that the general offered one request to the Rabbi. In this fateful moment, Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai considered his options. He could ask for the old – spare the city of Jerusalem and the Temple, let’s return to our traditional religious practices. Or he could ask for the new – let us start over somewhere else. But what did he ask for? “Give me Yavneh and its sages!” Let me build in a new place, but with our collected wisdom. Let me take our scholars, our knowledge we’ve built over the generations and create something new with it. Give me the old and the new. It was from this decision, that so many of our modern Jewish institutions were born. Synagogues grew into prominence, day schools adopted their model, and Diaspora Jewish life, in general, traces its origin to this decision of combining old and new.

Nearly 2,000 years later, the ultimate harmonization of the old and new came into being with the founding of the modern State of Israel and two of Israel’s earliest foundational thinkers relied on this dichotomy in beautiful ways.

Theodor Herzl, who many consider the father of modern Zionism, the original visionary of Israel wrote one of the primary documents of early Israel, “Altneuland.” The Old New Land. In it, he depicts his blueprint for the realization of a Jewish state as outlined in his other book, “Der Judenstadt” the Jewish state. He wrote about a land that combines the old and the new, bringing 3,000 years of heritage into a single modern state.

The book became popular and was immediately translated into Hebrew. To find an appropriate Hebrew title, the translator, Nahum Sokolow, also an early Zionist thinker, took a phrase from the Bible, the Prophet Ezekiel, that combined an archaeological term for an ancient mound, representing the old, and the Hebrew word for spring, always representing rebirth and the new. The Hebrew title for the book became so popular that it was chosen as the name for a new Jewish neighborhood being built outside of Jaffa a few years later. The book and the town’s name? Tel Aviv. Old and New.

What Herzl was for the political Zionist movement, Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak Kook was for the religious Zionist movement. Arriving in what would become Israel in 1904, Kook would eventually become the first chief Ashkenazi rabbi of the British Mandate, the precursor to the State of Israel. His religious zeal for a modern Israel worked its way into many of his philosophical writings, but also his legal and ritual outlooks. So much so, that in his introduction to the practice of Shmita, a fairly technical practice of remitting debts and letting land lay fallow every seven years, Kook explains how this practice brings meaning to us.

“It can restore a pristine freshness to our lives, not only through what is already present, albeit hidden in our souls, but also through what is being prepared to reveal itself and illuminate us by the power of our free choice to do what is good.”  (Shabbat Haaretz, Translated by Julian Sinclair, 105)

This explanation is similar to another classic Rav Kook teaching הישן יתחדש והחדש יתקדש – Renewing the old and sanctifying the new. What a beautiful vision for the modern state of Israel – renewing one of our oldest desires while at the same time creating new holiness with its founding.

We see this vision and this harmony today. Walking the ancient streets of Jerusalem, while live streaming to Instagram via the city-wide wifi, we cannot help but see these visions of the old and new coming together in in our ancient, yet modern state.

Even more locally, our identity as modern Conservative Jews draws from this theme. In its earliest forms Conservative Judaism sought to balance tradition and change, a goal we continue working towards today. Rabbi Zacharias Frankel, considered to be the ideological founder of the Conservative movement wrote in the mid-1800’s,

“Maintaining the integrity of Judaism simultaneously with progress, this is the essential problem of the present. Can we deny the difficulty of a satisfactory solution? Where is the point where the two apparent contraries can meet? What ought to be our point of departure in the attempt to reconcile essential Judaism and progress and what type of opposition may we expect to encounter? How can we assure rest for the soul so that it shall not be torn apart or be numbed by severe doubts while searching for the warm ray of faith, and yet allot to reason its right, and enable it to lend strength and lucidity to the religious feeling which springs from the emotions. The opposing elements which so seldom are in balance must be united and this is our task.” (Tradition and Change, 44)

It is this unification that has drawn me most to Conservative Judaism and my desire to work as a rabbi. To find the point where these contradictions co-exist. To, as Frankel puts it, “search for the warm ray of faith, and yet allot to reason its right.” To combine our past with our present, and work to bring it into our future.

It’s this outlook and philosophy that have led to many of the key decisions of Conservative Judaism over the past 50 years. Finding ways to modernize our observances and practices, making sure Judaism remains accessible during changing times. When Conservative synagogues began counting women in minyans, calling women to the Torah, and ordaining women as rabbis, these decisions were made to harmonize the old – the traditional views and practices – with the new – our modern understandings and imperative for egalitarianism. It’s why I’m proud today that CBI is a fully egalitarian community, honoring women alongside men with both ritual and organizational leadership roles.

This same thought process has led to greater inclusion in Jewish life for the LGBT community. Finding a way to recognize our imperative for human dignity and inherent rights to sacredness and happiness, and doing so based on important teachings and precedents set forth in our tradition. And it’s the same line of thinking that helps us in addressing the challenges of the next years. Shifting family structures, competing priorities, a changing world around us. Finding ways to approach each of these new realities with the language of the old, the grounding of tradition, but also with the perspectives and the radical inclusion of the new.

As my teacher and colleague Rabbi Aaron Alexander has written:

We Are:

Halakhically Inspired Jews

Bound by the past,
bound by the present.

Rooted in what was,
branching forward in what is.

Inspired to take obligation seriously,
obligated to take inspiration seriously.

Inspired by texts that obligate,
obligated by texts that inspire.

Can we continue to find ways of harmonizing the old and the new? Can we define ourselves by this philosophy to ensure we have a place in the changing future? These are the questions we need to ask ourselves as Conservative Jews in the 21st century.

And this can be the outlook for our own community. As we stand in this moment of transition we look both to our past, and also to our future. Abraham Lincoln once told Congress, “we cannot escape history,” and today, we do not intend to. We honor our history, we respect our history, we remain rooted in our history as has been the Jewish way for 3,000 years and the Conservative Movement’s philosophy for the last 150. But we are also not bound by our history, looking only to our past as a source of precedent and policy. Instead, just as our ancestors have always done, we look to our history for inspiration, but also to the future. How can we build on what is here while at the same time look for new inspiration and new ideas?

This is the challenge for our current moment, but also our opportunity. To define what makes our CBI community special, looking at what we have already accomplished, while also seeking areas to continue growing. In my three months here, I’ve already experienced much of what is unique about our community. Seeing so many smiling faces on a daily basis, being overwhelmed by your welcome to myself, Naomi, and of course to Micah, spending each Shabbat singing and learning together, feeling the energy of a sanctuary full of children eager for the first day of religious school, spending time with past leaders of the synagogue, architects of the community’s history, and seeing their commitment to our continued success into the future. All of these are foundational aspects of CBI and what has made this such a special community throughout our history.  Yet at the same time, each of these qualities presents an opportunity to continue our congregation’s growth and evolution. To bring in new ideas and new perspectives. To respect our traditions, but also to create new ones. To build on what is and develop into what can be. Just as we have always done throughout history, to harmonize the old and the new.

I know that this does not always come easy. I know there are bumps along the way as we navigate these outlooks together. But the end is more than worth all the means it will take to get there, to tackle our challenges, build on our successes, and chart our way into the future. This is a task no one can do alone. It is not solely for the rabbi, the cantor, the officers, or the board. It is a task for all of us. It’s not just about what I do or say as the rabbi of our congregation, but it’s about what we do together. Join me as we begin the next chapter of CBI. The Holidays will end in a few weeks, and that is when the real work begins – when as a community, we can start bringing the old and new together.

I want to close by wishing you our traditional Rosh Hashanah greeting, but with a new interpretation. “Shanah Tovah” usually means “a good year.” And certainly, that is a beautiful greeting as we stand at the start of 5778. But the word שנה in Hebrew is also from the same root as the word משנה – to change. If we read it this way, Shanah Tovah all of a sudden becomes our wishes for a good change. In many ways, this makes sense for this time of year. As we reflect on the past year and strive for moments of introspection to help us be better in the year ahead, it’s natural to wish each other thoughts for a good change. And particularly so this year. As we collectively reflect on our past and look to our future, we wish each other a Shanah Tovah, a good change. Not meaning that all change will be good, or that all that was good will be changed, but that we approach the idea of change from a good perspective, seeking to combine our traditions with our future and to harmonize the old and the new.

May this new year of 5778 be a Shanah Tovah, a good, sweet, new year, filled with the blessings of the old, and good change for the new. For us as individuals, for us as a community, for us as a people. Amen.