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Like A Bridge Over Troubled Water

Here is my Erev Rosh Hashanah Sermon dealing with the future of the Synagogue and the renewal of Faith that is needed.

This was given at Congregation Kol Ami 5773


Like a Bridge Over Trouble Waters

Shana Tova u metukah.  I wish you each a sweet and happy New Year.

Welcome home — A feeling of home Is important in Judaism because hospitality is one of the essential Jewish responsibilities.  Hospitality is making guests and friends feel comfortable in your home.  We learn this value from our Patriarchs and Matriarchs; from Abraham and Sarah who welcomed friends and strangers into their tents.   They made them feel welcome, rushed to greet them, washed their feet, provided food and shelter from the hot day’s sun.  We aren’t having feet washing ceremony tonight…but I do hope you will feel at home.  For some of you Kol Ami is your once a year stop.  You are not strangers but family.  Others of you are regulars- and some of you are brand new tonight to Kol Ami.  Welcome-Welcome home to each of you. Cantor Saltzman and I, our board of Trustees want to say: Welcome home for the holy days.

As the great Jewish teacher and hostess Dolly Levi said: “It’s good to have you back where you belong”.

Tonight you are home where you belong.  Even if you have never celebrated with Kol Ami before. You are home among the Jewish people.  Your tribe is here.  Your extended family is here.   Your people are here. Your God is here.  Judaism believes Home is the anchor, the root of our being that allows us the strength to explore and then return home in safety and in love.

No wonder the Wizard of OZ is such a powerful story… it isn’t just those sparkly ruby slippers or Judy Garland’s singing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”.   It is the knowledge-that
“There’s no place like home”.

On Rosh Hashanah and these ten days of Awe through the holiday of Sukkot, the Jewish people return each year to the home of the Jewish people…the synagogue.   The synagogue has been the central address of the Jewish people since the destruction of the Beit HaMikdash, the ancient Temple in Jerusalem.  The synagogue is our home.

Here is where we, the Jewish people encounter one another.  Here is where we the Jewish people encounter our tradition, our Torah, our values, our ethics.  Here is where we encounter God through prayer and meditation.  Here is where we have a dialogue with God.  We pray to God and God speaks to us through the Torah and Haftarah reading and if we are earnest enough God speaks to us in the still and quiet of our prayers.

In the Middle Ages the Synagogue was also a home away from home! It would shelter Jewish travelers.   People would often sleep in the shul, in wealthier communities there would be Shabbat meals.  But this is where the custom of lighting candles and reciting the kiddish in Temple began!  The synagogue is our home. And yes, a reminder of the presence of God in our midst.  The place the Shekinah dwells.

Like the ancient Beit Mikdash, the ancient Temple in Jerusalem, the Temple was the physical home of God on earth.  And the synagogue is the heir to that holy place.  And so our congregation and other holy congregation seek to be places of holiness and places of Jewish life.

Like that famous Simon and Garfunkel Song, “Like a bridge over troubled waters”.  The synagogue is the bridge that keeps us safe and dry from the tumult around us.  When chaos reigns, the synagogue is the place of tradition, and safety and home.  When troubles get you down, the synagogue is the safe place that embraces you; when you mourn, the synagogue is the place that can help renew you and when we have joys we yearn to share, the synagogue is that kehilah kedosha, that sacred community where we can do all of that-cry and laugh, question and seek answers, play as well as pray, and we do this all in the encounter of self, and community and yes, of God.

And yet the synagogue-the home of the Jewish people has been a makom kodesh, a holy place for refuge from the choppy waters of these difficult times.  And a holy place to find others of similar values and ethics. The synagogue as place of learning and living is a bridge that helps us get from here to there on the journey of life across the vast expanse of a chaotic world. The synagogue remains as the central hope and home of the Jewish people –providing a respite and a path toward resilience in these difficult times.

But sadly the synagogue is under attack these days.  It is not a physical attack here in North America as it has been in France.  But the synagogue is under spiritual attack from the inside.  The moorings of the bridge are rusty and cables on the suspension bridge are worn thin.  Neglect has undermined the foundations of our sturdy bridge, the synagogue and we risk falling into the troubled waters ourselves.

This summer while on sabbatical I studied extensively about the sustainability of the synagogue.  According to demographer Steven Cohen we are losing the battle, synagogue attendance among Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist Jews is the lowest ever! Liberal Jews are least institutionally tied to the synagogue.  We are more intermarried, and our financial charitable giving goes to a broader range of activities and less to Jewish concerns.

In generations past the synagogue was our primary recipient of charitable giving.  But not today.  I want you to think about how many fellow Jews you know that will not even be in any synagogue during the High Holy Days, let alone the rest of the year. I am sure we all can name a few!

Rosh Hashanah is a time for renewal. A new year begins tonight.  It needs to be a spiritual time to renew the holy places in ourselves and in our synagogue. Rather than just a one-time stop-we Jews have to take time to refresh, and secure the future of the synagogue that is that bridge for us and future generations.  Yes the synagogue will have to adapt to new technologies alongside ancient traditions.  But to help us reinforce the holy space inside of us –we need to have models of holy places around us and that we can enter into.—The Synagogue is that place for Jews and those who are part of our families.  As the prophet Isaiah teaches. My House shall be a house of prayer for all people!

And let’s be brutally honest with each other.  Synagogues cannot do what you want them to do without the funds to do so.  God is free, synagogues are not.   When you want the rabbi there for you, when you need a place to say kaddish.  You want the synagogue around when you have a crisis in your relationship or meet the woman of your dreams and want to marry then you need the synagogue and the rabbi and the cantor around.  When you want to study more spirituality in Judaism or celebrate a Bar Mitzvah. You want the synagogue around.  When you want moral guidance and you want to know how to navigate those choppy waters that crash against us-you want the synagogue around.  When you are grieving and you need a place to say Kaddish-you want the synagogue around.

But if you ignore it, get angry or annoyed because the synagogue asks for support then you are contributing to its demise.  But synagogues can’t endure without something else….PEOPLE! If no one is here. If it is a relic of times gone by, if it is just a museum. Then the synagogue and The Jewish people will be weakened to the point of extinction.

So what can we do to ensure the wellbeing of the synagogue.  To ensure the future of the places of Jewish gathering.  To ensure the sustainability of Kol Ami?  I know you are thinking that right now I am going to ask you all to make a pledge of money.   I will do that… or someone will later.  But I believe there is more to it than money.

I believe strongly the key to renewing the centrality of the synagogue and ensuring the strong stable future of the synagogue is the confrontation with  and rekindling of our faith.

I am not only talking about faith in God.  I am talking about faith in our People! I am talking about trust in one another.  I am talking about the hope that the Jewish civilization that was passed down to us from our ancestors and shaped now by our take in the contemporary world as our ancestor shaped Judaism in theirs, will be strong enough and resilient enough to pass to our children and future generations.  But if we let the cynicism of our times creep into our shuls and into our hearts, then the synagogue is not long for this world and the bridge that has sustained us as a people will succumb to the same choppy seas.

Faith has been harder for those of us that need proof.  Faith in something larger than ourselves, faith in one another, all seem to have been dashed into those troubled waters as well.  It is as if we wait for disappointment and then say, “I told you so.”  We assume the worst.

Rosh Hashanah is here to help us assume the best.  The best in ourselves and in our community.  The Shofar is calling you to examine your faith, and renew your Jewish spirit.  The shofar is calling you to awaken to the resilience that faith gives us.  The shofar is calling on you to strengthen the synagogue as the home of our people.  The shofar is calling you to have faith in God, faith in the goodness of humanity and your fellow Jews, faith in one’s self.

And so tonight I want to share with you three ideas about faith that I also believe will help shore up the synagogue in North Amercia, our synagogue, Kol Ami,  in addition to helping shore up our own personal spiritual journeys through this High Holy Day Season and throughout the year

There is a huge debate in Jewish philosophy the centers around the idea: Do you have to believe in God to be a good Jew?  I tell you from experience it isn’t only the philosophers like Maimonides who ask this question, its many of you!  I constantly get –Hey, Rabbi I am not religious, I am a bad Jew? Or “I don’t believe in God am I still Jewish?”  I don’t believe in God of the Bible does that make me not Jewish?  Let me say I don’t believe in the God described in the bible either—and I know I am still Jewish.

The tradition teaches variations on this idea.  For some belief in the idea of One God it is essential to being a good Jew for others it is about doing not believing. It is about acting. Do you act in Jewish ways?  Do you perform mitzvoth?  Are you ethical in your dealings?   These are the essentials of Jewish life.  For many of our sages the doing precedes the faith.

As Rabbi Chanina Ben Dosa  taught in Pirke Avot: When deeds exceed learning, learning endures, but  when learning exceeds deeds, learning does not endure. (3:12).

In other words Judaism has a bias on responsible action that we call mitzvoth!

Faith is borne out of the experiential in Judaism, not the miraculous the splitting of seas, or the burning bushes that don’t burn, but the deep and abiding experience of comforting the sick, walking with the mourner, teaching Torah to our children.  Faith in something greater than ourselves is built on a foundation of right and just action, caring and loving kindness.

But this is not the only idea when we couple just action with the teachings of the great Maimonides, Rambam advocates for belief.  You must believe in the idea of the One God he teaches.  But of course for Maimonides God is not some other being sitting on the throne of judgment.  God is the essence of the universe, pure intellect. And thus belief in God and the oneness of God is the idea that the entire faith venture is predicated on the philosophical basis of the great mind which unifies the universe.   The project of faith building then is not waiting for God to PROVE God’s existence but faith is about the unification of the self with what we call God. The Unification and development of the intellect while performing acts of kindness and responsibility in the world. This is the touchstone of a mature Jewish faith.  Faith in God. Not a separate entity –not a capricious, omnipotent Being. But the creative spark and breath of the Universe that we are a part of. And were created in the image of!

As Rabbi Jack Reimer writes; “The first kind of faith you need to bring with you for the holidays. Is faith in God. I know how hard that can be to have”; he writes, “But unless you have some conviction that there is an order and a structure to the universe that the world is not hefker, (which mean ownerless property that can be possessed by the  one who claims it), that morality is not just a matter of opinion, in short that there is a God; the service tonight and every night will be an empty show; a boring performance. Bring faith in God with you and Aleynu will be a majestic moment, the Amidah will be an intimate conversation….”


I know that when you recite the Shema prayer you will seek that Union with the godliness in all humanity and in the deep historical connections to the past and the historical connection that reach beyond in the future.   You can experience through that a sense of faith-the eternality that we pray for.

One way to think about the Divine Idea we call God—is that it is the extra push within us to persevere. Just when you think you have run out of gas, God is the reserve that gets you to the next exit.

If you can open yourself up to faith in this Jewish idea of God then you will help shore up the foundation of the synagogue as the holy place of faithful encounter with God and learning about this God.  Since this is God’s house.

The second kind of faith that will shore up our synagogue is the faith in our Jewish People.  We are scruffy sort.  We have endured so many attempts to suppress us, to murder the Jews, to isolate us.  We have a heritage of standing strong with Jews in crisis around the world and with all who suffer and are oppressed.

It is not just the explosion and rebirth of the Jewish people after the Shoa- including the birth of Israel.  But in our own lifetimes-the rescue of Soviet Jewry, and the Ethiopian Jews, and the rebirth of Jewish life in Eastern Europe.  The flourishing of Jewish life here in North America that attests to our resilience as a People.  We need to have faith in our fellow Jews that at the end of the day they will come through.  Even when we disagree about halachah, or that some Jews claim superiority over others Jews- we must have faith in the ideal of Klal Yisrael-the overarching connection and ties of the People Israel to one another.

Once there was a bookkeeper of synagogue.  She told the rabbi she wasn’t going to her Temple’s High Holy Day services anymore and she was thinking of quitting her congregation. The Rabbi concerned that something was deeply wrong pressed her a bit further.  “What could have possibly happened is something wrong with your health? “The bookkeeper replied, no I am fine –I just know too much about our Temple members who I would have to pray with and the rude behaviors they expressed.  I can’t pray with those kind of people around me. “

I think she is wrong.  There are always hypocrites.  There are always people who don’t live up to common courtesies or people who grow up without manners.  But at the High Holy Days especially we need find the room to forgive each other’s’ shortcomings.  And restore our faith in one another.  Teshuvah, repentance and forgiveness is the major theme of this time of year.  Cut each other a break. And cut yourself a break.  Because God does that for you.

That faith in one another will strengthen the Jewish people and when we gather together, like tonight we strengthen the synagogue by our presence. Even if we doubt our faith in God, we need to restore our faith in each other. We need to reach out to each other-in good times and yes, in difficult times too.  We aren’t just temple members at a temple function.  We are members of this community when we are out and about.  A hello at a restaurant or event an acknowledgement of your people. That will strengthen the synagogue, our synagogue.  Our sacred community

The third kind of faith that I believe will strengthen the bridge; the synagogue, and perhaps the most important… is faith in yourself.   In a world where we are assaulted by a daily barrage of information, of impossible airbrushed perfection, of the television show that resolves in 22 minutes, we are surrounded by the easy way.  But life isn’t easy.  It is filled with ups and downs and difficult moments.  To strengthen the bridge is to look fear in the face. And to know we can.  When you have faith in yourself, supported by faith in God and faith in your Tribe-you can breathe deeply as you step into the unknown.

Faith in yourself is not that you are already perfect-faith is that you can grow and change and be the person that you want to be.  That it is never too late to become who you dream of becoming.  That is faith in yourself.  THE POWER OF THE UNIVERSE

An ancient midrash tells of God who was trying to decide where to hide the power of the universe so that humanity would not find it and use it destructively.

One angel said, “let us hide it on top of the highest mountain” … But they decided that humanity would eventually scale the highest mountain and find this power.

Another angel said, “let us hide this power at the bottom of the sea.” … Again it was decided that humanity would eventually explore the depths of the sea.

Still a third angel suggested, “let us hide the great power of the universe in middle of the earth.” … But they realized that humanity would someday conquer that region, too.

Finally God said, “I know what to do. Let us hide the great power of the universe within the human being . They will never think to look for it there.” According to the midrash, they did hide the power of the universe within humanity, and it is still there.

Moral: Few people have ever realized that the great power of the universe lies within themselves .. that’s right … YOUR SUCCESS LIES WITHIN YOURSELF

Rosh Hashanah is the beginning of the New Year and has the potential to be the beginning of a new you.   Our tradition teaches us that the whole word is a narrow bridge-but the main principle is not to be afraid… don’t face it with fear… face it with intellect, reason, strength and heart.  Faith in yourself is necessary to make the changes that will propel your spiritual journey, For the next 3 weeks  until we dance with the Torah scrolls on Simchat Torah-we have a season of Reinvinention and a season of Resiliance.  We are here to regain faith in ourselves that we can let go of past hurts that we caused or were done to us.  That we resilient human beings can believe in ourselves once again to rebuild our inner lives and affect our outer world.

These 3 kinds of renewed faith are the keys to helping us strengthen the bridge over troubled water.  These 3 kinds of faith connect in the synagogue to help us walk into a better future.  The synagogue is the home of the Jewish people.  But if you don’t have faith in God or your people or yourself- why would you support the very institution that is the nexus of all these?  My friends we need you to support this synagogue. Many of you because of your own situations, your own doubts, your own fears have left it to a few to nurture it and yes, fund it.  But as I said earlier, the attack on the synagogue is not from without it is from within.  And if we ignore the synagogue, and we ignore the questions of our own deep spiritual explorations of faith I can assure you the struggles of synagogues in N. America will continue the downward slide.

“C’mon, I’ve got an idea.” George said to Sam.

“What is it this time? “Sam complained as the two men walked down the street. Since they retired George was always coming up with ideas to keep their days filled with activities. “Whatcha got in that bag?”

“You’ll see, “George said as he tightened his grip on the grocery bag in his arms.

“Well can you at least tell me where we’re going? Sam asked.

“We’re going to the park, “

“Count me out,” Sam said and abruptly stopped. “That park looks like a wasteland. There’s trash everywhere. Somebody needs to clean it up before anyone can think about spending any time there.”

“You’re somebody,” said George. “And I’m somebody. And I’ve got some garbage bags and gloves right here. I’ve even got some of that no-rinse hand wash stuff and snacks for later.”

“Oh great, “Sam replied sarcastically, “And why are we doing this?”
“Because this is the park in our neighborhood and if we don’t take care of it, no one else will.” Explained George, “And besides, it where we’re going to start doing Tai Chi in the mornings, stay in shape, get some fresh air.” George puffed up his chest and gave Sam a wink.

George and Sam continued on. When they arrived at the park, George pulled out the two garbage bags and handed one to Sam.

“I used to love bringing my kids here when they were young.” Said Sam. “What’s happened to this place?  He looked around at the unhinged see-saw, overturned benches, and broken swings.

“We just forgot it was here for us to enjoy.” said George.

“Here’s to reclaiming some of that old splendor,” said Sam as he opened his bag and started picking up the debris.

It is a season of renewal and reinvention.  As we join together to reinvent ourselves. Let’s join together to reinvent the synagogue-the hope of the Jewish future. Let’s return the synagogue, the bridge over troubled water to the splendor our ancestors, our grandparents; our parents knew it to be.  Let it be the hope of sustenance for you and for me.  And let us walk fearlessly together over that narrow bridge, Kol Haolam Kulo Gesher Tzar M’od, v’haikar lo l’fached.

Ken Yehi Ratzon