Tag Archives: Yom Kippur

A New Zionism: Think Globally, Thrive Locally

“A New Zionsim”: Think Globally, Thrive Locally

Yom Kippur 5772
Rabbi Rick Brody
Congregation Kol Halev
Austin, TX

So far, my sermons this season have focused on very personal themes—about our responsibilities for improving our own lives, understanding our spiritual potential and purpose, and taking action to fulfill that potential. My aim last night was to start moving the conversation towards a more communal focus, getting us to think about ourselves as part of an angelic chorus or a system of orbiting planets — in other words, a community. We do this work of repentance and atonement together, as a collective.

Today, I want to expand our consciousness of community more specifically. I want us to think about our connection to Israel — our ancient homeland and the modern Jewish state. But I’m not interested in giving political opinions about ending conflict, about Palestinian statehood, or about the changes and challenges arising from the “Arab Spring.”

Yes, these issues loom large for those who care about Israel — and the Jewish community here and elsewhere ought to be engaged in important conversations around these topics. But why? And to what end?

I spoke last night about the morning prayer, Yotzer, which ends with the hope that the Eternal will shine a new light upon Zion, and that we may all speedily merit its light. I have a more specific prayer — and that is for an enlightened or illuminated Zionism, an outlook that sees our connection to, our love for, and our support for the land and state of Israel as a way of bringing more light into the world and into our own communities. I want us to claim Zionism as our own.

As I said, this talk about Zionism will not be political. It will also avoid what many people associate with a classical Zionist perspective—the dismissal of hope for any future in the Diaspora, the urging of everyone to make aliyah, the insistence that active support for Israel must always trump any other activity or cause within our own Jewish community; what it will do is try to steer our focus on Israel back to us, to the wonderful things we are accomplishing here at Kol Halev.

In terms of veering from “classical Zionism,” it’s worth sharing the words of Professors Arnold Eisen and Michael Rosenak. In citing a 1955 book, A New Zionism, by Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, the founder of the Reconstructionist Movemement, they describe what they say “should perhaps be called the credo of American Zionism, namely that the Jewish State exists in order to help the Jewish people become”—and here they quote Kaplan—“‘a fit instrument of this-worldly salvation for every Jew, wherever he resides.’” This perspective encompasses the views of Cultural Zionism, which emphasized using the Land of Israel as the global center for revitalizing Judaism—through Hebrew language, Jewish ideas, ethics, spiritual life, the arts, and other aspects of Jewish culture. This approach ought to resonate comfortably and pleasingly to most members of Kol Halev.  My sense of who we are — and I’ll be talking more about that shortly — is very much in line with this outlook.

Now, originally, Cultural Zionism still affirmed that the most authentic expression of Jewish culture would be that which flourished inside the Land of Israel. For Solomon Schechter, another major figure in earlier American Jewish history, the flourishing center would enable Jews to live full religious lives throughout the Diaspora. Kaplan’s view—shared by other great American Jews such as Louis Brandeis—goes even further, emphasizing the fundamental importance of strong Diaspora communities in dialogue and ongoing mutual support with the Jewish communities of Israel. A symbiotic relationship is the model at work here. Kaplan’s original logo for his vision of a reconstructed approach to Judaism actually consisted of a wheel, in which Israel was the hub, and the Diaspora communities branched out as the spokes. Israel is thus a unifying force—a dynamic and primary means—helping to meet the ends of a revived Judaism. For many, especially those for whom spiritual or theological language doesn’t work, it’s an answer to the question from last night about what is your center. For some, everything revolves around Israel. For others, like in Kaplan’s vision, Israel was indeed at the center of the wheel, but the point was that the wheel itself — Jewish civilization — needs to keep moving; and to do so it requires strong spokes.

Now, as a Zionist, I do believe that there is nothing better for affecting one’s emotional or spiritual attitude towards Israel — or a more comprehensive embrace of Judaism as a whole — than an actual visit to the land itself. I lived in Israel for 2 years, but I haven’t been there at all for over 10 years now. My life seems to go on just fine, but when I think about the ways my soul is nourished and invigorated when I am there, I remember that I am missing something. I know that many of us have never been to Israel, and some might not get there. But even if we don’t, there’s a lovely vision I remember learning in Jerusalem from my teacher Rabbi Arieh Strikovsky, based on some Talmudic passages we were studying. He said that whenever we in the Diaspora walk into a synagogue, it is as if we have stepped into an embassy of Eretz Yisrael, an extension of Israeli soil itself.

To put it more vividly, the synagogue serves as a portal that transports us instantaneously back to the place where it all began, where our people first experienced that sense of comfort, unity, closeness with God. From the synagogue extends an imaginary spoke that leads us back to our original geographic hub. … So, as we are gathered here today on Yom Kippur in our prayer space, on this thriving campus filled with Jewish life, learning, and culture — we have also stepped into Tziyon, into the big tent of Zionism that has Jerusalem and the Land of Israel at its center but that stretches out to include all of us as well.

This leads me to reflect on the potential of our congregation to thrive and the connection back to Zionism: I believe that when we strengthen our own Jewish community, we participate in the larger Zionist goal—of strengthening world Jewry and our ever-evolving Jewish civilization in all its manifestations. I believe we should talk explicitly about our relationship to the land and the society that exists there, but even when we focus more provincially, we are advancing the general Zionist cause.

One way to phrase this would be to adapt the common slogan, “Think globally. / Act locally.” “Think about global Jewish excellence—see yourself as part of something greater in terms of the Jewish people. / Help bring that excellence about by making your local Jewish community thrive.” “Think Globally, Thrive Locally.” Yes, support Israel. But—and I believe this is what Kaplan was getting at—just as we don’t want to ignore Israel and focus only on our own issues, so too, if we abandon our efforts at local success—for a dynamic synagogue that provides meaningful and memorable Jewish experiences for all ages; that helps advance Jewish spirituality, education, and acts of kindness; that provides to all those seeking it the wisdom, comfort, stimulation, and feeling of belonging that are the hallmarks of our heritage—if we abandon our efforts at this kind of excellence here, then any vocal or passionate support for Israel is empty. And when we do engage in these efforts with passionate conviction, then we are living out our Zionism; we are fulfilling the same goal towards which support of Israel is directed; we’re responding to our concerns for Jewish survival—in the Land of Israel or anywhere; we are launching rockets of creative, transformative Jewish action into the social, cultural, and spiritual atmosphere—one of the most productive and lasting responses to Hamas or Hezbollah or anyone who wishes the destruction of the Jewish State. Our rockets are infinitely more powerful than theirs — for while theirs stem from hate and are launched to destroy, our stem from love and are launched to build. We are building our own little mini-Zion right here.

The original “Tziyon,” Hebrew for Zion, appears in the Book of Samuel as a fortress of the Jebusites, captured by David and renamed the City of David. The word suggests “designated spot,” or “marked place”—something a fortress certainly would be. The root letters—Tzaddi-Yud-Nun—are related to the word Tzeenah, a large shield. A fortress is a shield that people inhabit, and would almost always be elevated—on a hill or mountain—to provide the best protection for its inhabitants. Although I haven’t found any direct historical link, we can easily see a connection between the Shield of David, the magen david or Jewish star, as symbolic of Zion, the fortress-shield. The Israeli flag certainly celebrates this connection.

The more accurate root meaning of Tzaddi-Yud-Nun (the root letters of Tziyon) is “to mark.” L’tzayen is to mark or grade someone’s work or performance. A tziyun is the score or grade one receives. M’tzuyan means excellent—marked with distinction or greatness, standing out above the rest—as if high up on a hill, easily noticeable but not so easy to reach or conquer. Basically the best tziyun (grade) to hope for. Tziyon, then, Zion, is a sign or mark of greatness, of excellent achievement. A symbol. A logo. A specific place, but more than that as well. The story of Tziyon goes so much deeper than that Jebusite fortress. It became the place designated by God where the Divine Presence would dwell—the chosen or marked location that would serve as the center for all Jewish life—ritual, spiritual, political, and social. It stood for a profound encounter with holiness and the unifying of our people— no encounter being more profound, sacred, or unifying than what took place on this very day, Yom Kippur, on the Temple Mount, when the High Priest would enter the Holy of Holies, utter the Divine Name, and achieve atonement for the entire nation.

Tziyon was even as a microcosm of the entire world. Midrash, Rabbinic legend, celebrates this chosen spot as an alternate paradise or Eden, specifically as the literal center of the earth, the very point from which the rest of the world grew, the navel. It was like God’s seed—holding, in its nucleus, all the genetic information for everything that would follow. This branching out from a shared center, like Kaplan’s hub and spokes, is seen throughout the Bible, where Tziyon is used as a symbolic word for a series of concentric circles of holiness. Depending on the context, Tziyon was the Holy of Holies—the location for concentrated, tangible holiness inside the Temple; it was the Temple, radiating a creative and transforming energy atop its mountain; it was the entire Temple Mount, an impenetrable source of safety and security, available to all those who earn distinction, who—according to Jeremiah—thoroughly amend their ways, who thoroughly do justice between a person and his neighbor; it was Jerusalem, the Holy City; eventually, especially after the various exiles our people, it was the entire “Promised” Land of Israel, the Holy Land. Zion even became a short-hand for the People of Israel, all the Jewish People.

Into modern times, whether through the visual of the shield or just through the name itself, our people has used the shorthand Tziyon to encapsulate our story, our hopes, our values, our enduring strength, and our unity. Special references to Zion appear throughout our High Holiday prayers. … Zion is our logo: In one word, we affirm that we are a distinctive or distinguished people that has maintained a deep connection to a distinguished locale, where distinct religious experiences occurred and divine encounters were believed to have taken place. This is our legacy as Tziyon.

M’tzuyan, excellent, is the grade we strive for here at Kol Halev. … The heart, or center, of our entire people is the geographic Zion. But here is also a heart, a mini-center. And from it goes forth a kol, a sound, like from a shofar, or a beautiful melody or voice — the same way that, as we learn from Isaiah, Torah goes forth from Zion, the word of the Eternal from Jerusalem. Kol Halev is a miniature Zion. … And we are making a name for ourselves. We are starting to highlight what we do here so that folks will take note of us—recognizing us as a place of serious and relevant learning, meaningful celebration, exciting community-building and partnership, and redemptive kindness. Our setting—this esteemed, well-protected campus (for which we ought to be extremely grateful, never taking our safety for granted)—is marked as a place of Torah, a place of holiness.

We are blessed to have many partners with us throughout the community in this sacred endeavor of manifesting Torah in Austin. But we have our own unique kol, our own distinctive voice of Torah that flows forth from our lev, from our heart. And I’m eager to work with all of you and a growing congregation filled with enthusiastic doers and learners to increase our activities, both in number but also is depth of content. I dream of Kol Halev programming that enhances the relationship between an embrace of classical Jewish ideas, sources, and practices on the one hand, with—on the other hand—a meaningful and relevant engagement with the real-life concerns of our time, with the overarching goal of healing, of personal and communal well-being and flourishing.

How do we encapsulate this Torah that is vigorously going forth from our mini-Zion?  We have a fabulous logo of our own, an image that incorporates the ancient shield that is reminiscent of Zion. The shield surrounds a dove, a symbol of peace, that has inside of it a heart, a symbol of passionate, loving, caring, thoughtful engagement with others.

All these themes ought to guide us in the ongoing rebuilding of our congregation. The theme of rebuilding itself is a powerful one, as we remind ourselves that, like the never-ending dream of Zion, hope can always rise up out of the ashes of uncertainty. Hal reported last week that in recent months our membership has grown by 20%. Let’s keep that going. Spread the news of the Torah we’re sharing here at Kol Halev. Help us find those members of our larger community with whom our unique, soulful sound will resonate — so that they too can have a mini-Zion to be a part of.

Let me know what Torah you want to learn so that we can offer some exciting classes for adults seeking deeper engagement with Jewish ideas and knowledge.

If you’re free on Thursday mornings, consider enrolling in my class through the JCAA on New Frontiers in Jewish Theology. Have a chance to study some fascinating topics with me and other devoted seekers in an intimate setting to get a sense of what future Kol Halev classes can look and feel like.

Help us find young families who might want to enroll their children in a brand new religious school enterprise shaped by them.

Our s’lichot gathering involved the screening of a film followed by a discussion. There’s no reason we can’t create an ongoing series in which we explore movies around a variety of themes.

Be in touch with our board members and me with other ideas for social gatherings; let us know about or help us plan activities to address matters of injustice locally or globally, to offer acts of loving kindness to those in need, and of course to learn about and support Israel.

All these efforts will ensure our continued success, our score — tziyun — of excellent — m’tzuyan.

As we pray for a new light to shine upon the original Zion of our history, we also pray for it to illuminate the new Zion we create here as our contribution to a world-wide Jewish renaissance. May the strength in all the centers and all the spokes lead us into a new year of excellence. May that excellen begin with the atonement we achieve today in all synagogues, in all embassies that connect us back to the High Priest of long ago, uniting that most intimate Zion with all the miniature Zions, including Kol Halev. And may we achieve a chatimah tovah, a good seal.

Shanah tovah.

The Planetary Journey of our Spirits: Turning and Reflecting

Yom Kippur Evening 5772

The planetary journey of our spirits: turning and reflecting

Rabbi Rick Brody
Congregation Kol Halev
Austin, TX

Last week I offered two important approaches to the process of personal renewal and transformation.  One was to embrace a sense of empowerment — that the pen is in our hand and we can write our own book.  I encouraged us to think about the idea of writing our own eulogies, going back over the errors that we’ve already written in our book and finding ways to change moving forward — as we fill in the blank pages of our legacy before it’s too late. I suggested we think of this process as like being on a jury — deliberating — with God on the jury with us — about our own merits and failures.

And the second approach was about having a good attitude — seeing our responsibilities as blessings; seeing ourselves as all-stars, selected by God — because of our infinite worth — to participate in the sacred gathering of these Days of Awe. I quoted John Lennon’s “Instant Karma” — “Who on earth do you think you are? A superstar? Well, right you are. Well, we all shine on. Like the moons and the stars and the sun.” I reminded us how radiant we can be, and how we can feel that radiance — the sun on the street for the poor cripple in Tsotsi; the light reflecting off the title character in that film who just can’t see it and only sees broken glass; the call in the song “Unwritten” to “open up the dirty window” and “let the sun illuminate the words you could not find.” As I reminded us, all of our encounters with radiance can propel us to new heights, past any obstacle — whether it’s the miraculous, the mundane, or the morbid.

But there’s a little bit of a discrepancy among some of these images and lyrics. Let’s look at the idea of our being stars, of our shining on brightly. We know, scientifically, that there’s something not true about saying we shine on like the moons. Stars and suns shine, yes; but moons and planets don’t radiate their own light. What they do is very instructive for us: They reflect light. The light is not their own. They are vessels of reflection, like pieces of glass. The light comes from beyond, beyond the dirty window. We let it in. And sometimes we allow it to be obscured, to be eclipsed by another vessel that goes from being a reflector of light to a blocker of light. And sometimes we turn away from the light. So much depends on our position — or our point of view.

So, I’d like us to think about ourselves as planets. And not just because of our reflective capacity; but also because of our movement. We are travelers. We are distinct and unique entities engaged in a never-ending journey of turning.  We go round and round, attracted by the pull of something greater, something with so much more energy than we have that we find ourselves building our lives around it.  We are always moving in relation to it, yet are forced to remain at a nonnegotiable distance, at least in the visible short-term. … Although our worlds seem pretty stormy when we examine them up close, from afar it appears that we function with relative regularity and constancy.  We build lives filled with orderly, comforting routines.  On one hand, change seems difficult.  We like maintaining a rather predictable existence.  On the other hand, we realize that, like it or not, we are constantly evolving.  We don’t remain the way we were long ago, but rather continue on our journey of growth and discovery.  We are in motion.  We might wonder sometimes—or perhaps often—if we are ever really getting anywhere, but the fact remains that we are always moving—sometimes only in ways that we can perceive from a distance.  Our journey involves a daily transformation that’s so easy to overlook.  Daily, like the earth on which we live, we turn and return.  We make t’shuvah, the act of returning.

We see this cycle, this turning, with the daily rising and setting of the sun.  But that language suggests what our ancestors actually believed, that the Earth was fixed, in relation to a moving sun, rather than the opposite.  Perspective can be deceiving.  It’s so easy to focus on the movement—or supposed movement—of others, and forget or lose sight of the changes going on within ourselves.  The time then comes to look inward—to become conscious of, and to take responsibility for, personal change.  We need to become the self-conscious planet, embracing the reality of our place and our movement in the universe.  Now is that time.  This is the moment for us to see ourselves as we really are.

To gain this proper perspective of what’s happening within us, we need to step back—we need to see the big picture.  Who are we really in relation to everything and everyone else?  And from this new perspective comes another “revolution,” a different kind of turning—the turning upside down of our outlook on ourselves in the cosmic order.

We reenact on the personal level what the scientific revolution brought about in regard to our understanding of Earth—that we are a planet.  The great truth is unveiled: The universe does not revolve around us.  We are not the center of all Creation.  To go from being the point of universal convergence to being a mere traveler, making the same basic trek as countless others beings, is a revolutionary transformation.  Tomorrow, in our Ne’ilah prayers, in a moment of great humility, we will declare, “What are we?  What is the value of our lives?  Before you, God, the mighty are as nothing, the famous as if they had never been; the wise are without wisdom, the clever without reason.  For most of their deeds are worthless, and their days are like a breath.”

The fasting we engage in this Yom Kippur reinforces for us this humility.  We remember the truth that our lives are not a mere selfish pursuit for physical satisfaction and satiation.  Rather, we’re on a spiritual journey that requires that we constantly evaluate our path, assess where we’re going, and no matter what, continue to move.  Yes, we might have our own sphere of influence.  We might have our own satellites.  We might be exerting an attraction on others who consider us their center; but in the big picture we are a part of a dance of trillions, each of us in motion—each one engaged in its own orbit but around a common center much greater than ourselves.  And we do this as a community of planets. We have our own orbit, but we are not alone. …

Let’s look at one another and see the beauty of all our fellow-travelers, seeing each of us as a planet, clearly established as the only body like it—each of us drawing our circle of exploration—each of us reflecting in a unique way the light that we all share.

So, if the celestial planets are revolving around the sun, then what are we, as spiritual travelers, revolving around?  What is the gravitational power at the center of the circle we draw with our life’s travels, the point that pulls us into motion but that we can’t reach or touch?

For many throughout time, a spiritual center has been the source of nourishing light and warmth.  Even though they didn’t necessarily have their astronomy correct, the ancients were on track spiritually by emphasizing the divine-like qualities that existed within the sun: the constant, radiant source of light and warmth—and thus of life, wisdom, enlightenment—the most powerful gravitational force in our midst.  No wonder that the closest the pagans got to something resembling monotheism was worship of the sun as the premier deity.

We even see some faint remnants of this sun-worship in our own prayers, transformed to focus on an all-powerful God that exists beyond any one aspect of Creation.  In the morning yotzer prayer, we praise God for the creation of light as we behold the sun’s light with a new day—and we also express the hope that God shine a new light on Zion.  We unify the source of physical light with the source of spiritual light—the sun (and other lights in the sky) are but one example in God’s infinite display of might.

The prayer goes even further.  In the middle of it, there is a seemingly bizarre shift from a celebration of light in nature to a spiritual vision of angels encircling the Divine throne and singing praises on high.  Here’s the link:  We first identify the physical lights, the luminaries—m’orot (sun, moon, planets, and stars)—as testaments to God’s glory: Natan s’vivot uzo (God has placed them in a circle around God’s strength).  We say that they declare God’s praises.  M’orei or she’asita (the luminaries you have made) y’fa’arucha sela (they glorify you).  Essentially, we recognize that light-bearing objects are engaged in an orbit—but around God!  Regardless of the physical reality—that the planets, the physical satellites, are satellites around the Earth, the sun, or some other physical object—they are also revolving around a spiritual center that transcends the entire physical realm.  This celestial dance we observe in the physical sky—and which we know that we, on planet Earth, are a part of—is all a tribute to a non-physical power which all these objects are devotedly serving.  Enter the angels.  The prayer shifts almost imperceptibly from discussing the sun and moon that rise and set in their proper times to mentioning the “heavenly host”—s’rafim, v’ofanim, v’chayot hakodesh.  This shift from physical to spiritual allegiance turns us to Isaiah’s prophetic vision of dedicated, constant, angelic beings that repeatedly declare, “Kadosh, kadosh, kadosh (Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of Hosts).”  These angels are, essentially, a religious stand-in for the planets.

There’s actually a long history in Jewish folklore and mysticism — and in other religions as well — that celebrates a strong relationship between the planets and angels. In astrology, it was through the planets, whose paths and movements were governed by angels, that angels had influence in our world.  The planets were divine intermediaries.  They determined or foretold of human beings’ fate, while at the same time making their movements through the sky in the honorable service of God.  Their very actions were a tribute to God’s greatness.  In polytheism, of course, the planets actually represented various distinct pagan gods.

Now, if we are planets—or can see in their constancy a model for our own behavior—then so, too, do we seek to emulate the angels.  Especially on Yom Kippur.  Today, we are angels.  We shift ourselves from the physical concerns of food, comfortable clothing, physical cleanliness—and focus on spiritual purity.  We wear all white.  And we declare aloud “Baruch shem k’vod…” the words we usually say silently after the Sh’ma because they are reserved for the angels, who in their spiritual purity, declare God’s holiness in heaven.  Tonight and tomorrow, we say these words.  For this one day, we are angels. This is the day in which, by pretending we are not human but rather angelic, we ultimately get most in touch with our humanity.

And our humanity is dependent upon our recognizing our center. In religious terminology — though we each might choose to understand that center very differently — that center has been called God. Each of us needs to identify that center for ourselves—the organizing principles that enable us to keep moving, the core ideals that keep us striving and growing and in pursuit of something good and meaningful.  When we lose sight of the center, we lose our footing, we stumble; we stray in our orbits.

Most of the time we’re not angelic planets, moving along so orderly in perfect, consistent orbits. That’s a nice wish, and that’s what we’re striving for as we play that angelic role on Yom Kippur. But no, most of the time, we’re much more like the demoted, former-planet Pluto, which fell from grace in the eyes of astronomers. Why did Pluto get demoted? Because it simply didn’t exhibit the same consistent features of the much larger objects that are closer to the sun. We, too, are much smaller, much more removed from the radiance, warmth, and gravitational pull from our center. We are wayward objects with irregular motion.  We sometimes interlope into the orbits of others, like Pluto does with Neptune.

This is all, partly, I think, why so many of us identify with that little underdog chunk of ice at the far reaches of the solar system.  We find ourselves, like this dwarf-planet, terribly distanced from that illuminating center, terribly cold, and seemingly lost.  How many of us are just spinning, with no awareness of the light we can be reflecting, no understanding of what is motivating us, what is pulling us, what is the energy that has its hold on us?  Are we allowing for a relationship with that power, or are we kicking and screaming as we move along?  If the latter, then we might be upsetting—in our spiritual system—that balance that is so orderly in the planetary march of the solar system.  The Hebrew word cheit, sin, actually comes from a term in archery that means, quite plainly, missing the mark. We strayed. We erred. We were out of alignment, out of orbit. We need to realign ourselves with our center, come back from being Pluto to being Earth, positioned in just the right manner so as to promote the flourishing of life.

So, today, to be earthly is to be angelic. For this one day, we are are not mere humans or dwarf-planet ice-chunks. We transcend the physical obstacles that keep us out of orbit. We focus on turning, revolving, and evolving in an orderly fashion so that we can be hosts to life. And we do this as a community, a system, a network of fellow, well-aligned travelers, orbiting consistently yet always in motion, in relation to a spiritual center.

The miracle of Yom Kippur is that we know that God will pull us back into our rightful planetary orbit, if we are open to that realignment, if we do the work to repel the forces that detract us from our proper gravitational pull and that cut us off from the radiant light.  The spiritual reality is that we will never be banished from the community of sacred voyagers, never demoted.  Only our own lack of awareness of the center, our own turning away from the light, will throw us off.  Today is the time to reestablish that connection to the center, to look inside ourselves, find the angel within, find the light from beyond that pierces our depths and that we have the choice to reflect back out into the universe. And with that reflection of light, with that humble response to the gravitational pull that lures us towards the source of that light, we return—make t’shuvah back to our proper orbit.  May we all journey in safety and in joy, in light and in peace.