A Royal Preacher - Yom Kippur 2015 / 5776
Thursday, 01 October 2015 | 18 Tishri, 5776
A Royal Preacher - Yom Kippur 2015
Rabbi Ralph Genende
“The greatest danger for most of us lies not in setting our aim too high and falling short, but in setting it too low and reaching it.” Michelangelo
Blogger, Amy Jalapeno once said: “My dearest Time, how you have shaped and transformed me. Your breath caressed the skin of my soul and brought to life countless connections ,you sculpted an elegant beauty inside me”. Yes, time tempers our soul, finesses our personalities.
We’re also shaped by the people we meet, that inspirational teacher, that charismatic leader, that inimitable friend, that extraordinary parent or sibling.
And we’re transformed by the ideas we encounter, the books we read, the words that insinuate their way into our hearts and minds becoming our mottos, our defining marks, our leitmotifs.
Plato: “Books give a soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination and life to everything”. Our rabbis: Words that wind their way from the heart, work their way into other hearts. דברים היוצאים מן הלב נכנסים ללב
If there’s one book, one sermon that shaped my life, curled into my soul and perhaps inspired me to become a rabbi it’s Rabbi Norman Lamm’s 1970’s classic ‘The Royal Reach’. It’s also-even after all these years - an electrifying speech on the essence of Yom Kippur. Dr Lamm, leading Modern Orthodox Rabbi, writer and scholar and former Chancellor of Yeshiva University; based his drasha on a quote from the poet Robert Browning and an original and creative reading of Psalm 27, that psalm we recite twice a day from the beginning of Elul, a month before Rosh Hashana until the end of Sukkot.
In Psalm 27, you find the poignant, powerful and supposedly deep spiritual request of King David: אחת שאלתי ... שבתי בבית ה כל ימי חיי. One thing I ask of Hashem, one thing that I yearn for, that I may sit or live in the house of God all the days of my life”.
Now if you consider what David is asking for, you’ll realize it’s not a very religious or humble request but in fact very chutzpadik. Rabbi Abba bar Kahana in the Talmud comments that David was in fact asking for one very big thing – מלכות שאל– he wanted the kingdom of Israel to always be his. In other words, this is about the ‘Game of Thrones’, power and politics, not piety and prayer.
It’s a chutzpah because David’s life was one of intrigue and staying alive despite your enemies. Everywhere he turned they were out to get him. You would have thought a humble prayer for safety and security would be most appropriate: “God just give me bread, a roof over my head and save me from my enemies”.
Yet, says Lamm, these are not the prayers of David. Caught in an almost hopeless situation, David has a vision that transcends the battlefield. And this is what Rabbi Abba meant: David did not pray like a beggar. He didn’t limit himself to the petty needs of the hour. Rather, “Malchut Shaal”. He asked like a king, he prayed like a sovereign. He was bold and undaunted in his perspective.
“Ah!” says Browning, “but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?”
David had a Royal Reach, a regal appetite, a kingly hunger for greatness.
And the question that confronts us tonight on this rare day of truth and clarity is: how do we define our goals and ambitions? How do we pray-like beggars and small minded souls or like aristocrats of the spirit?
Now while I don’t believe you just need to “follow your dreams” in order to achieve greatness – you after all need to be realistic, a healthy questioning even scepticism of the intellect should accompany the optimism of the will. None the less too many of us are afraid to think big and act great. We limit our horizons. We cramp our growth.
Abraham Maslow, father of motivational psychology suggested that we fear our highest possibilities; that we’re afraid to become what we glimpse of ourselves in those charged or peak moments in our lives. We thrill to and simultaneously shiver with fear at the image of our awesome potential.
He called it the Jonah complex and it’s not by chance that Jonah is one of the central characters of Yom Kippur. Tomorrow afternoon we will read the entire ‘Book of Jonah’.
Jonah is the polar opposite of David. When David is called, he in effect, says “Here I am”. When Jonah is summoned, he says “Why me?” He literally runs away from his destiny, gets on the first boat out of Jaffa and hides in his cabin when the storm is raging around him. Jonah tried desperately to evade his calling, to escape the vocation that he was best suited for.
He only succeeds because of God’s grace and so in his solitary confinement in the dark interior of the whale, he realizes that he has been sabotaging himself, substituting mediocrity and conformity for excellency.
Sometimes we have to go down into the depths to discover what we are truly capable of .Rabbi Norman Lamm writes about this in his marvellous work called Faith and Doubt where he reminds us that having real faith means developing the capacity to live with doubt and acknowledging when you fail.
He found himself in this position just when he was ready to retire honourably from YU. At 85 he then led by example by admitting that as President he had failed to report allegations of sexual abuse made against members of his staff .He said that despite his best intentions at the time, “I now recognise that I was wrong, my actions did not measure up”. Let us too learn the lessons from the Royal Commission into Child Sexual Abuse and ensure that we never again treat victims as pariahs ,that we recognise their acute shame and pain, acknowledge the damaging practises and cover up by the leadership at Yeshiva and Adass, address the systemic problems across too many of our communal organisations (lack of transparency, complaint procedures etc)
As Rabbi Moshe Gutnick put it - When any religious institution forgets that its ultimate purpose is to serve the individual-and instead it is prepared to sacrifice the individual for the sake of the institution –that is when everything goes wrong. It doesn’t matter which institution or religion it is. The terminology may be different. The doctrine and dogma may be different. But the disease is the same. When leaders forget that they are there to serve the people and instead when challenged they circle the wagons in order to protect the ‘institution’ they have failed their G-d and abused their purpose.
Let us begin to deal with the unspoken problems of pornography and over sexualisation of our society .And learn to better protect our vulnerable kids from predatory abuse. Our community is seen as a model and exemplar in so many areas in Australia ranging from age care to social activism .Let’s aim to be the best example of facing head-on the scourge of domestic abuse, the dreadful abuse of kids and the terrible trauma of too many women at the hands of men.
Maslow would ask his students: Why can’t you be like Plato? Or rewrite Plato and be better? You think it’s a crazy fantasy? A delusion? You’re weak and limited and he was bright and perfect: Don’t you realize that Plato must have felt just the same way about himself but he went ahead anyway, overriding his doubts about himself…
Zusia, great Chassidic teacher would say to himself- OK so you say you can’t be like Abraham or Moses – but Zusia can you be Zusia? Can you be the best, most excellent version of yourself?
Self-doubt like arrogance is human and both are obstacles to the greatness we’re capable of .Change like growth is never easy – you fight to hold on and you fight to let go. It’s been said that it’s your attitude not your amplitude that determines your altitude .Well today on Yom Kippur we all should aspire to an awesome altitude –לעלא ולעלא.
So let’s set our personal and Jewish goals as high as we can imagine .What’s to stop you from becoming a more serious or more literate Jew in the new year? What’s to prevent you from becoming a more active or aware member of your community? Why hold back your Jewish aspirations? There are so many varied ways in our Melbourne community you can express your Jewishness from shiurim to song, art to sport, social justice to security.
There is so much we can offer you at Caulfield Shul. You choose and we’ll open the door for you! Just spend a few moments looking at that card on your seat and do something with it .We are aiming ridiculously high at Caulfield Shul-our dreams are to completely refashion our facilities to match our dynamic activities. It’s a mammoth undertaking but no bigger than those whose original vision built this place. We are convinced that together we can do it and for those 20 or so families who have already pledged to help start the process we say thank you for believing, thank you for beginning!
Chutzpah ,aiming high demands creativity and ingenuity. Let me illustrate this :An old retiree became very bored and decided to open a medical clinic. He put up a sign outside that said, “Dr Geezer’s Clinic. Get your treatment for $500. If not cured, get back $1000.”Doctor “Young”, who was positive that this old geezer knew nothing about medicine, thought this would be a great opportunity to get $1,000, so he went to Dr Geezer’s clinic.
“Dr Geezer,” he tells him, “ I’ve lost all taste in my mouth. Can you please help me?”
“Sure” he replies, “Nurse, please bring medicine from box 22 and put 3 drops in Dr Young’s mouth.”
“Yuck! This is petrol!”
“Congratulations!” says the old guy, “ You’ve gotten your taste back. That’ll be $500”.
A very annoyed Doctor Young goes back after a couple of days of figuring out how to recover his money.
He says to the old man: “I’ve lost my memory. I can’t remember anything”.
“Nurse, please bring medicine from box 22 and put 3 drops in the patient’s mouth”.
“Oh no you don’t, that’s petrol”.
“Congratulations! You got your memory back. That’ll be $500.”
Dr Young, after having lost $1000, leaves angrily and comes back after several more days and says: “My eyesight has become weak. I can hardly see!”
To which doctor Geezer responds: “Well, I don’t have any medicine for that, so here’s your $1000 back.”
“Hey ”,says Young , “this is only $500’’.
“Mazeltov! You’ve got your vision back !That’ll be $500’’
Now that’s chutzpah !But seriously, a regal reach should characterise our aspirations for our Jewish community as well. We shouldn’t just strive for continuity but for eternity. It’s time to unshackle ourselves from crimped conventionality when it comes to intermarriage. At a time when everyone knows somebody whose marrying out, when we are fractured and bleeding, when young Jews are simply opting out and walking away, we need to be bold even outrageous in our efforts. We need to break the Chareidi stranglehold on conversion in Israel and abroad. I value the Chareidi passion and absolute commitment to God and Torah but why should this small percentage hold us all hostage? Why should they impose their forbiddingly stringent standards for acceptability and conversion on all of us?
We don’t have to just take things for the way they are. Thanks to social media ,in an age of popular empowerment and the democratisation of authority, you need to let your voices be heard. If you want change be agents for change!
It’s time for our shules to stop punishing people for marrying out and to find ways of bringing them in. Just as we need to reach out to would-be-converts with love and understanding, so we need to reach out to those who have moved away and welcome them in with warmth and empathy.
And as I said on Rosh Hashanah we also need to be daring and fearless in helping GLBTI Jews in our Orthodox and religious communities. Rabbi Benny Lau has so movingly articulated it:
ארון זה מוות
בית זה חיים
“A closet is death; a home, a family, a community is life”.
So let’s not tolerate the gay jokes and racist slurs at the Shabbat table. Let’s remember the greatest curse is isolation – this is an issue of Pikuah Nefesh. And just as we welcome more women into the Turnbull cabinet, so should we welcome more women into our religious leadership.
We are fighting here for the continuity of a Judaism of openness and democracy, of gender equality and inclusion. If we fail we will have to answer to future generations for our monumental failure. It’s a challenge not just for the religiously committed but for you and me: Do you want your grandchildren to be Jewish? And how and what kind of Jewish?
And we need the same kind of courage to acknowledge the silent shame of Jews who feel they don’t belong because they don’t have the right bank balance or because they are single or single parents or because their kids weren’t part of the 98th percentile in their VCE. We have a large number of Jewish families living in poverty; elderly people in isolation or on the outskirts of our community. Let’s reach out to them too with care and compassion, thoughtfulness and consideration.
“One thing I ask” אחת שאלתי As a twenty year old Norman Lamm gave me the strength and power to ask more of life than I dreamt I was capable of. Sometimes you just have to know when to pose the question. Perhaps Moshe was never healed of his speech impediment because he didn’t ask God to…
At a graduation address, CEO of Willis Group Holdings Joseph Plumeri asked students whether they heard of this big building in Chicago called the Sears Tower. Of course they all had. He reminded them that it’s the tallest building in the Western Hemisphere. And then he shared with them how some years before he told people that he was going to rename it the Willis Tower.
People laughed at him, telling him it’s impossible. The name Sears had been there since 1973. “Who are you to come along and change the name?” they said to him.
He told them that Sears hadn’t been in the building since 1993. He then met with the owner of the building which was 20% vacant and said, “I need 2% of the space.” He negotiated the price and when the owner asked, “Do we have a deal?” he told him, “Almost, except for one small thing. You need a new name, a vibrant name, a name that signifies the future, not the past. I want to change it.”
“When we dedicated that building”, “Joseph Plumeri said, concluding his speech, “I was on the evening news with Brian Williams and he said to me, “, Joe, after so many years it was called the Sears Tower, how did you get them to change the name to Willis? And I looked into the camera and I said -“I asked”. שאלתי
So on this day and during this hour when we hold the two greatest gifts in our hands: Time and Life, let’s be sure that we act boldly and wisely, that we ask like kings and act like princes that our reach exceeds our grasp or what’s a heaven for?