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Rabbi Marc E. Berkson<br/> - Rosh Hashanah Eve - 2010/5771

Rosh Hashanah Eve–5771

Let’s see-where was I when we last gathered like this-oh yes, a story, but this time, unlike last year, not my story.  For this story-and for much of my sermon-I am in debt to my colleague Rabbi Elliott Strom of Congregation Shir Ami of Bucks County outside of Philadelphia.  The story takes us back to the Soviet Union of the Cold War era when a Communist apparatchik in charge of a number of factories came to visit the United States at the height of our industrial might.  In the midst of a factory tour, he hears a whistle blow and then watches the workers stream off the factory floor.  Surprised, he shouts out, “Hurry–stop them before they all leave!”   With a smile, the American factory owner calmly responds, “Ah, don’t worry.  That was just the lunch whistle-they will all return.”  And, as you can guess, just as he said, when the whistle sounded an hour later, all the workers returned.  Amazed, the apparatchik exclaims, “I’ll take a bunch of those whistles!”

The shofar is, if you will, our whistle.  Long before the rise of labor law, long after the fall of the Soviet Union, we heard its sound, we hear its sound at this time of year and Jews everywhere come back to the synagogue.  And we Jews of Emanu-El B’ne Jeshurun, we return to this place.  It is a phenomenon over which I have long marveled.  What is it that brings out Jews in such numbers?  Is it, like the Communist apparatchik thought regarding the whistle, the shofar itself?  A desire to hear all the words of the rabbi’s sermon?  A deep theological calling to recite all the words in the prayer book?  A spiritual yearning to affirm God’s presence?  Or can the reason only be known to God as reflected in the blessing said upon seeing a large number of Jews gathered together-Blessed are You, Eternal our God, Ruler of the Universe, hacham ha-razim, the knower of secrets?

It is true.  We each have our own stories with our own sins and successes, our own fears and our failures, our simchas and our tzuris.  But what brings us out in such numbers this day, as the shofar is sounded, is our yearning to share them, our desire to be in relationship, our hunger to connect.   For how well we know that is it not good for one to be alone.

These are the High Holy Days, are they not.  So maybe it is the “Hi” Holy Days, our chance to say “hi” to so many people we have not seen in a while.  The founder of modern sociology-and the son and grandson of rabbis-Emil Durkheim, posited that the first and most important role of religion was not to connect people to God but to connect people to each other.  As Goldberg answered his kid when asked why, since he was an avowed atheist, he went to synagogue every day, “Nu, Cohen goes to talk with God; I go to talk with Cohen.”   We are here tonight to say “hi,” to talk with each other, to tell our stories, to connect.

And how hard we work at connecting-these days often juggling our Iphones with our Blackberrys, speaking to someone through the ever present Bluetooth while texting someone else with our thumbs on our keypads, keeping up with friends on Facebook and through Skype.  Still, even in the midst of all this networking, how we yearn for a place where we can sit down with each other.  How else explain the rapid rise of Foursquare-an electronic way-geosocial networking to be correct–to let people know where we will be so that they can connect with us?

Yet contemporary sociologists have long lamented the loss of informal public gathering places, places for people to connect, places like the post office, the drug store, the coffee shop, the tavern.  Each was, as sociologist Ray Oldenberg explains in his study entitled The Great Good Place, a third place where, to use the lyrics with which the old television show Cheers began, “everyone knows your name.”  Why a third place?  Oldenberg’s first place is the home where we live our domestic lives; his second place is work where we are defined by what we do; and that third place, perhaps best understood here by folks of a certain age here as Riegelman’s-or the soda fountain at Riegelman’s over a soda.   It was kind of like a tavern without the alcohol, yet still a place where, informally, community could be built.

But Riegelman’s is gone-along with so many other third places–as are all those neighborhoods which gave them birth.  True, folks like Howard Schultz stepped with Starbucks which, as Schultz himself has explained, is not as much in the coffee business as it is in the community business.  Bookstores, at least those which remain, have added cafes and comfy seats and big tables.  Ultimately, they make us feel good so that they can, appropriately, make money.  Oldenberg’s classic study lists other third places-cafes, coffee shops, bars, hair salons and hangouts.  But if that third place is a gathering place away from home and away from work where we come to meet friends and mingle with strangers, a place where social capital and community is built, why not this place?  Unlike Starbucks, we are surely not in the coffee business.  But think how we build connections, community.  To pray, Cohen, the believer, needs nine others.  He needs Goldberg, the atheist.  Berkson, the rabbi, needs Greenberg, the agnostic.  Rosenberg, the left-winger, needs Levin, the right-winger.  To study, one must acquire a teacher-who then becomes a friend.  Together, they pour over texts bringing ancient commentators like Rashi and Maimonides into the current discussion.  Our Shabbat Morning Study Minyan is a community-one with Rashi and Maimonides as members.

The connections continue with our small groups which meet in this place all year round-from our Adult Havurah to YOFEE, from Anshe Mitzvah to Yiddish, from Brotherhood to Women of Emanu-El, from Book Club to the Knitting Circle to the Writers’ Roundtable, from our Choir to the men of a certain age who assemble here every Friday morning, from our artists to those who simply gather in our lounge on our comfy seats and at our big tables over coffee and tea.   For them, for us, this becomes not only a third place but, in Rabbi Strom’s words, a sacred third place.  Those various smaller groups are part of this large congregation tonight.

And we are all here tonight to say hi, to connect.  We have relationships we have neglected, others we have damaged with our behavior.  So another blessing.  Upon seeing someone we have not seen for many years, we exclaim, “Blessed are You, O Eternal, mechayei ha-meiteem, Who brings the dead to life.”  I always understood this to mean that in experiencing relationships we thought long dead, our full beings resonate in giving praise to the One who helped such a resurrection occur.  But Rabbi Harold Kushner understands this on a much deeper lever.  Maybe it is not the relationship that has been brought back to life.  Maybe it is you.  In his words, “You have been less fully alive…without the gift of human companionship this friend represents.”  In restoring the relationship, you are restored.  That is true teshuva, true repentance.  In seeking connection in this sacred third place, we can become our true selves.

Yet more.  For we seek connection with something more than ourselves.  And perhaps that is also why we are all here tonight.  We have survived another year-and that we celebrate.  Not only is today the birthday of the word; because it is the birthday of the world, it is also our birthday.  On this day, 5771 years ago, humankind was born.  And where do we celebrate birthdays-here, in our sacred third place, of course.  But we yearn for something more than a Cherry Coke at Riegelman’s or a muffin and cappuccino at Stone Creek.  For Durkheim knew that once people, connected with each other, together could invoke the feeling of being in the presence of God.

No, we will not be singing Happy Birthday tomorrow.  Instead, after the great shofar is sounded, we will be singing words which date back centuries, words which tell us that on this day of the world’s birth, we stand before God seeking judgment and compassion and mercy.  And there will be so many other words, words that connect our separate souls with so many others souls and with God.  These words are words of tefillah, words of prayer, words seeking connection with something beyond ourselves.   Note how many of our words of tefillah are in the collective first person plural connecting us through time and space.  No, Goldberg does not have to believe in God to offer these words of prayer.  Still, in this sacred third place, Goldberg might be open to receiving.  For prayer works when the pray-er is transformed.  In the words of English novelist and poet George Meredith which we read in our siddurim, “Who rise from prayer better persons, their prayer is answered. ”

We come to this sacred third place to say “hi,” and then, through teshuva, through our connections with others, to connect once more with our own soul.  We come to this sacred place to celebrate and then, through tefillah, through our connections with others, to connect with God.  And yet…and yet…there is one more connection we seek.  Shnear Zalman, the Hasidic master and founder of Habad, was once imprisoned.  And the warden of the prison decided to engage him in a debate about the Bible.  Noted the warden to Shnear Zalman, “Your Bible just does not make sense to me.  When Adam sins, he hides.  And God asks Adam, ‘Where are you?’  If God knows everything, how could God ask such a question?”

The rabbi thought momentarily and then asked his jailor, “Do you think the Bible speaks to every person in every generation and not just to Adam?”

“I guess so,” came the jailor’s response.

“So,” noted Shneur Zalman, “it is as if God were speaking to you.  God is saying to you, ‘You are 44 years old.  What are you doing with your life?  Where are you?”

Ayeka?  Where are you?  Now, the question may come up at Border’s or at Boswell’s; it may be discussed over latte at Fiddleheads or at Café 1505.   The more likely question, however, would be something along the lines of “where are the blueberry muffins?”  But in this sacred third place, we will hear the haunting words; the searing chant.  Today it is written; on Yom Kippur it will be sealed.  Who shall live and who shall die; who shall see ripe age and who shall not; who shall perish by fire and who by water; who by hunger and who by thirst; who shall be secure and who shall be troubled.   We know of the uncertainties of life in a world where inexplicably unfair things can happen.  Some of us have lost a spouse, a sibling, a child.  Debbie and I lost a mother.  Floods ravaged so many this year–even here– yet we can only begin to imagine the devastation in Pakistan.  And we, where are we?

You should know the final connection, then, we seek here this Rosh Hashanah.  Teshuvah, repentance; tefillah, prayer; …tzedakah, righteous giving.  God needs us, we need each other.  We give because we do not own; all we have we hold in trust for God.  In fact, tzedakah is just as reciprocal as teshuva and tefilla.  So we come to this sacred third place to ask “where are we” and then, through our connections with others, to make this the world God and we all desire.  In short, we come to find our way.  Where are you-what are you doing?

Are you preparing food every week to feed the hungry at the Guest House?  As you sharing in Tikkun Ha-Ir as we strive to build a better Milwaukee?  Will you participate in our Muslim-Jewish dialogue as we seek ways to bring people together?  Might you reach out to our sister congregation in Simferopol as we help them create Jewish life there?  Will you share through ARZA and our trips to Israel in the ongoing life of the Jewish state?  Could you, through your generosity and creativity, assist us as we strive to develop a new programming to address hunger systemically in Milwaukee through the generous bequest of Louise Salinsky?

I know, we all know, the many challenges third places face-and, yes, the many challenges this sacred third place faces.  The economic stress of the past two years will continue; the demographic limitations will not ease.  But what is crucial for all third places remains just as crucial for this sacred third place-that those many smaller groups build the social capital and the web of connections which allow the shofar to be sounded for all of us to gather and, thus, we need to find ways to support these smaller groups; that creating those many connections takes trust and understanding; and that our resources of time and of talent and of funding be creatively put to work.

Look at all we have done-the building of this beautiful building which we dedicated just one year ago; the education of countless generations of Jews; the leadership this congregation has provided for Milwaukee, for Milwaukee’s Jews, and for the Reform movement for now 155 years.  And look at all the faces which surround you, the connections which weave us all together in congregation.

So one more story many of us have heard in different forms; the story Rabbi Strom also told.  A young child, having trouble putting together a jigsaw puzzle of the globe, turned to his mother for help.  And the secret the mother shared?  Flip the jigsaw pieces over to find the picture of a single human face.  Put that face together and you will have completed the globe.  Look at the faces around you, make the connections through teshuva, through tefilla, through tzedakah, and once again, Emanu-El, God will be with us.

– Rabbi Marc E. Berkson

Sat, September 23 2023 8 Tishrei 5784