Each year, during the month of Elul and throughout the Days of Awe, Jews assemble to do something that is essentially private: To be able to reflect on our actions and our inactions of the past year, the gap between our aspirations and our behavior, between our integrity and our actuality. We look at our own failings and our own shortcomings, and yet we do that in a room filled with a thousand people. We do that magnificent music to open our hearts, with a Cantor who can fill a room with heart and soul; we do that reading the ancient words of other people. How do you search your heart while using the words that someone else wrote? And yet, we do.
And even those who drift away from the synagogue find a way to return in this season. If you were to have the opportunity on any given day of the year to simply go where you want and spend twenty-four hours introspecting, my guess is that most of us would say, "In theory that is a very good idea, but my calendar is way too full". And yet, here we return, busy calendars and all, and so many of us make time to return. Those of us who pray three times a day, or one time a week, or whenever a cousin has a Bar Mitzvah, or once a year - so many of us make time. And that's a miracle.
I want to think a little about that miracle. I want to take you back in time to the beginnings of Jewish spirit. I want you to think about what it would have been like for Abraham, wandering in the wilderness, a tribal chieftain, the head of a very large and contentious family worse even than your own. And in the wilderness, wandering through the desert, he comes upon no thing, but an idea. The sun can't be the greatest god of all, because the sun sets. And it can't be the night that replaces the sun, because the night is replaced by more daylight. It can't be the wind, it can't be the rain, it can't be the stars or the ocean. These things move and disappear; these things are ephemeral. There must be something that is the author of it all; the ground of our being. Something that words cannot describe. And so he goes to Sarah to tell her that he has realized that the oneness that we intuit in the world is beyond all words, beyond all concepts, beyond any construct that any human being can make.
And how do you tell someone that? How can you communicate an intuition that there is a oneness so great, that it embraces all of us; that it holds us all together, and that it links us one to another. The tension of the religion of Abraham, at its very core, is an experience that can never be shared, but only known directly. You encounter the Holy One, or you hear someone else talk about it. But the talking about it has as much relationship to the encounter, as reading a menu has to eating a meal. It is a very, very pale echo. And yet the history of our religion is a history of attempting to encapsulate what is beyond human control, what is beyond communication. Moshe Rabbeinu, taking us out of Egypt, brings us to the thundering mountain, and there, encountering God, he distills into words a way of living that has shaped our people ever since.
The great 9th Century Rav Saadya Gaon, taught that "we are a people by virtue of our Torah." It is the Torah that makes us Jews. And yet, you know as well as I, that you can open up a Humash (the Five Books of Moses), read it, and wonder why in the world is the Humash telling me this. How am I to encounter God in these words? Because the living essence of God is not found in any single book, not found in any single collection of words. Generation after generation, our faith has been a constant attempt to communicate what is ineffable, what can never be construed. So the prophets of Israel stood out in the public square, and they harangued the Jewish people for their shortcomings: How dare you do business on the Sabbath day? How dare you walk by the starving person and not feed them? How dare you believe that you can cheat your neighbor and then come to the temple and offer a sacrifice as though God is not repelled by your behavior? In those words, Isaiah, and Amos, and Micah spoke to our people and attempted to bring them to the brink of encounter. To place their lives somewhere where their souls could recognize what their minds could not grasp. And yet, inevitably, as much as they succeeded they also failed, and left it to a new generation to try yet again.
With the rise of rabbinic Judaism, the rabbis attempted, rather than thunderous speeches and tumultuous accusations, to attempt to look at the prosaic details of life: At what time do your recite the evening Shema? On what evening does the Seder begin? How much charity is a person allowed to give? What is the nature of the material of your clothing? In the Mishna and the Talmud, the rabbis fill pages, and pages, and pages, with holding up to visible consciousness the petty details of human life, recognizing that God is to be found not only on thunderous mountaintops, but in kitchens, in bedrooms, in playgrounds. In the place that people live their lives, there, too, is to be found the Holy One, hiding underneath the surface of our behavior, just behind our relationships. And so the rabbis direct our attention, not to the great mountain peaks of life, but to the humdrum valleys, telling us: "Look there, and you can find the encounter." And, you can. But it is also possible to read page after page of Talmud and think that you have landed on an alien planet in which people have way too much time and should be taking an honest job rather than yet bending another page, on whether carrying this object from this public courtyard into this alleyway constitutes a violation of the rabbinic extension of a biblical prohibition. There, too, the Holy One is elusive.
And so in the Medieval period, Jews attempted new ways to bring people to the brink of encounter. Thanks to our living with our Muslim brothers and sisters, we engaged in a sometimes friendly, sometimes hostile, competition about whose language was the more Godly language. The Muslims attempted to demonstrate the superiority of Arabic, which would then be a demonstration of the superiority of the Quran, by writing rhymed poetry; for the first time, beautiful, beautiful Arabic poetry in which the lines had meter and the words all rhymed at the end of the line. And, of course, we responded by saying: No, no, no. Hebrew is the far superior language, even for secular poetry. And so we wrote poems about erotic love, about wine, dance, all in the Holy tongue of Hebrew. Because our poets knew that God can be encountered in love and in partying, if you know how to look. Learning from our Muslim brothers and sisters, we realize that there were so many Jews adrift from the basic life concepts of Torah, that they needed philosophy; they needed someone to explain to them what these ideas mean and how they hold together. So brilliant minds like Rav Saadya Gaon and Rabbi Moshe Ben Maimon (Maimonides) assimilated the very best of philosophic thinking of Plato, and Aristotle, of Al-Gasali, and then translated them through Torah, so that a Torah Jew need not look outside of Judaism for coherence, for integrity, for thoughtfulness. And, indeed, these theologies can still bring us to the very border of a divine encounter. But it was Rambam who reminded us, that all philosophy can do ultimately is clear away dead ends. For leaping across the chasm where logic and reason end, you must do in a mode without words.
In the modern period we have drifted and soared in so many ways. Entranced by a world that welcomes us, offered opportunities our ancestors would never have allowed themselves to dream of, we now attend the same universities as our neighbors, participate in the same sports, participate in the same hobbies. Our lives are often indistinguishable from them. And in that openness Judaism has yet to effectively respond. What does it mean to be a Torah-centered person with your eyes open? It's relatively easy to be a Torah person while ignoring the outside world; that's not hard. But what if you do not want to ignore the outside world? What if you want to take advantage of what science has made possible for us? What if you believe that academic freedom is not only just the enemy, but also that it is the very voice of human freedom? What if you believe the Western culture is not demonic? That concepts like democracy and freedom ought to be the birthright of all human beings? To be a Jew who embraces the benefits of Western Civilization, and still cultivates a heart of Torah, living in a place where one can encounter God fresh, and alive, and in our hearts? That is the challenge of this age. And we have barely begun that fight, but the time to do so is now.
Then, as now, the Holy One lurks just beneath the surface of the reality that our eyes can see. Then, as now, there is a meaning and a purpose in life that links us one to another as brother and sister, and connects us with the rest of humankind, and the rest of Creation, in a great unity that the prophets of Israel spoke into their words, that the poets and the philosophers breathed into theirs, and that the great composers of music in the 1700s, and 1800s, and 1900s, put into the synagogue services of this High Holiday season.
My friends, I invite us to open our eyes, to join in the struggle. There was a great rabbi who met a general returning from a victorious battle. And the general bragged to him about how amazing he and his troops were in war, and the rabbi says: "Very nice. Are you ready now for the big war?" The little war is the one on the battlefield; the Great War is the war inside. Any of us who have attempted to diet, know that we diet more than once, and we do so because the Great War is ongoing. Those of us who have foresworn wandering eyes, or excessive indulgence in fill-in-the-blank-however-you-choose, know that that is a struggle we return to again, and again, and again. How many times have we promised never to speak to a loved one in that tone ever again, and then we find ourself yet again, speaking the same words in the same tone. How many times did we promise ourself to change our priorities, to set our values right, so that the way we use our precious time reflects our actual priorities rather than simply the chores that life puts in our way, again, and again, and again. The late comedian W.C. Fields said: "It's easy to quit drinking; I've done it lots of times!"
The Great War is right here, inside. And all this beautiful Judaism, our entire heritage, is a great resource to help us win that fight. It is an invitation to reorient ourselves; to turn to what is true rather than what is false; to what is timeless rather than what is ephemeral; to what is of abiding value, and what can truly save. We are not hungry for what we think we are hungry for. Our souls thirst for the Holy One. And our beautiful buildings are worthless containers, except they may remain our best hope for providing a safe space for people to, yet again, encounter the Holy. If all we do is gather to eat and drink and wear beautiful clothing, then we achieve very little. But if we return because we believe there is more to life than trampling our neighbor; there is more to life than watching the wicked triumph; that we can make a better tomorrow for ourselves and for our children; that the words of our prophets were right; that the dignity of our brothers and sisters is what is visible in God's eyes; that one can live lives that do not simply answer to biological determinism and drive but rather answer the highest aspirations of the human heart, aspirations planted by the one who created us, as we are; if we believe that with discipline, and community, and caring, and insight, we can next year gather together for Selichot, for Rosh Ha-Shanah, for Yom Kippur, for Neilah and be just a little bit better than we were before, then our synagogues (literally, "gathering together places") are the most precious places on Earth. And every synagogue where Jews gather is such a place; every Beit Midrash where holy books are opened and read, every school that trains schoolchildren or rabbis becomes such a Makom Kadosh - a Holy Place, an echo of Sinai.
Yet, it is not the place that honors the people, it is the people who honor the place. An institution is nothing but a framework for human growth. So let us all to use the next weeks and months to come home. Come home to Sinai. Come home to a receptivity in which Torah can be given anew. Come home to the truest space in your soul. Come and embrace yourself, not as the world wishes to shape you, but as God means you to be: Free and glorious, beautiful and sacred.