A friend of ours tells the story of when his son, Kevin, was in the first grade. One day his teacher asked the class “What is the color of apples?” Most of the children answered red. A few said green. But Kevin raised is hand and said, “white.” The teacher tried to explain that apples can be red, and apples can be green and apples can sometimes even be golden, but never white. Kevin, however, was quite insistent that apples were white. After a rather exasperating “discussion” with the teacher, Kevin finally shrugged and simply said, “Look inside.”
Now that is what we mean by the Jewish expression, a “yiddishe kup!” It’s a compliment that one Jew gives to another as praise for cleverness or wisdom, or perhaps the ability to look at the world from a new and fresh perspective. I heard that expression several times over the summer – particularly by older Jews when speaking about Vice President Al Gore. They were either saying he has a “yiddishe kup,” for picking Joe Lieberman as his running mate, or he needed a “yiddishe kup,” so he picked Joe Lieberman as his running mate!
Either way, Gore chose and the next day the front page of the New York Post read in giant letters: IT’S A MIRACLE, and Joe Lieberman suddenly became the most famous Jew in America.
But Lieberman’s nomination isn’t a miracle. It reflects a reality that has emerged perhaps so slowly, so steadily over the past 50 years that we Jews seem to have been the last to notice. It was as if we were caught off guard by how totally integrated, affluent and influential we have become in America.
Yet Lieberman’s barrier-shattering nomination has been like a collective wake-up call, allowing us to look around the American social landscape and realize that the evidence of our full arrival in American life has already been everywhere – right before our eyes. In business, the media, the arts, medicine, science, academia, the justice system and every level of local, state and national politics.
But little Kevin said it best: “Look inside.” For what made this nomination truly remarkable, is that Lieberman was picked because of who he is inside. As a publicly practicing Jew, he represents an embodiment of the spiritual and religious values that our country seems to feel it so badly needs. Now that is something both to take pride in and to live up to. I believe that what people have responded to is their craving for integrity, their hunger for authentic spiritual values, their unquenchable thirst for a life of purpose that can nourish their souls. And didn’t you all feel it? With Lieberman’s nomination, it was as if the eyes of all America suddenly turned to each and every one of us with a haunting, unspoken question – what values can a practicing Jew bring to the arena of public life that could make a difference in what we stand for, or how we conduct government, or how we treat one another in the America of tomorrow?
And as we celebrate 50 years of Kehillat Israel this year, we need to take Kevin’s advice to heart, and we need to “look inside.” We need to have the courage to ask ourselves what difference it makes whether or not we are practicing Jews, or for that matter practicing Christians, or practicing any form of spiritual discipline?
What difference does it make whether or not as Jews we belong to this or any other synagogue? What difference does it make if we light candles on Friday night, or tell the story of the Exodus around a Passover table, or have a Brit. milah or naming ceremony when our babies are born, or send our children to religious school, or study as adults in KI’s Jewish Learning Institute?
Will it make us a better human being? Will it give us guidance or inspiration to be better parents? Better friends? Better colleagues? Better spouses or loving partners?
If I didn’t believe that with every fiber of my being – I would resign from this congregation and walk away from the rabbinate. But I do believe it, because I feel it, I see it, I experience it nearly every single day of my life.
I spent four months on sabbatical this year away from our congregation and community. Nine countries and forty-five books later, I had spent a lot of time thinking about what gives meaning to my life. I want to share with you a few of the lessons I learned on this personal spiritual journey and what they taught me about the spiritual direction toward which I want to lead Kehillat Israel as well.
The first lesson was in Costa Rica, as I officiated at the Bar Mitzvah of 13-year old Eduardo Lev. Both his parents are native Costa Ricans, his father grew up attending the local Orthodox Jewish day school and his mother grew up Catholic. She fell in love with Alejandro, and like so many of you, she eventually found her way to Judaism.
There I was leading a Shabbat morning service with a room full of Spanish speaking Jews who form this growing, vibrant Central American Jewish community. And as Eduardo chanted from the Torah that morning in Costa Rica, I knew that one of our B’nai Mitzvah was chanting the exact same portion here in Pacific Palisades.
I felt what it means to be part of this remarkable trans-national civilization called “the Jewish people.” I felt the power of 4,000 years – those words, first carved in stone on the mountain, then etched lovingly one letter at a time into ancient scrolls of parchment – shema yisrael – kehoshim tehiyu – “listen Israel – BE HOLY, BE HOLY.”
In Kevin’s words – “Look inside.” Find Holiness and a sense of belonging in rituals of our people – the songs, the prayers, the teachings, the values – in Hebrew, or Spanish, or English – the voice of the sacred echoing for yet another generation. And then I learned from small children in Amboseli, Kenya, in a tiny village with huts made of mud and straw and dung, that happiness is not a function of what you have, but of who you have. Having someone in your life that makes you feel loved, important, valuable transcends physical things. These kids were literally dirt poor, but they smiled, they laughed, and they played in the dirt with joy as Didi sang them silly songs incorporating their hard-to-pronounce Maasai names.
Squealing with delight, they would call out – “Bye bye Didi…Bye bye Didi” and laugh some more.
Flies in their faces, filth on their scant clothing, but joy and laughter in their hearts and lives. The adults as well, smiling, welcoming us into their homes, their tiny mud huts, their very lives. At one with the world, in harmony with their surroundings – “look inside,” “look inside,” – we who had so much could learn so much.
And I learned a lesson from the waiters, waitresses and busboys in the Table Bay Hotel in Cape Town, South Africa. We stayed there for a week. On the morning we were leaving a group of them came over to say goodbye and added, “You, two we are going to miss.” “Why us?” we asked, thinking about all the hundreds of guests that pass through the hotel each week.
“Because,” they answered, “ most people don’t even speak to us, other than to order. We’re invisible to most of the guests, most of the time. But not to you.”
Now, maybe it was just that Didi had spent the morning taking pictures of each of them with a Polaroid and giving them the picture as a present (as she had been doing throughout the world for the entire four months of the sabbatical – especially with children everywhere), but I believe the lesson was much deeper and more profound than that. It was an echo of the famous statement of philosopher William James who early in this century wrote, “The deepest principle of human nature, is the craving to be appreciated.” And that truth is the same today as when he first spoke those words.
To really experience being seen by another human being – feeling profoundly that who you are matters to someone else is one of the most precious gifts we can give to another human being. That is what making a synagogue holy is all about as well. For I’m not the synagogue and neither is Rabbi Lewart or Cantor Frenkel or the rest of the professional staff.
You are the synagogue. You are the community. It’s what you do when someone walks through our doors for the first time that matters most. Whether you smile at strangers, whether you extend the hand in fellowship, whether you join a Havurah and make others welcome, whether you carry our values to the homeless shelters and the nursing homes, the hospital beds and the mentoring programs.
That is what this season is all about. To look inside, to see what we are really made of; to let go of our past failures, our unfulfilled promises; our forgotten vows. To ask ourselves the hard questions that really matter. What does it mean to “be holy?” And then to participate in synagogue life, or Jewish communal life because this is a place where holiness matters – where what we do really can make a difference – in our lives, in other’s lives.
In a former era, the synagogue was primarily a safe ethnic haven in the midst of an otherwise foreign and perhaps even hostile world. But not any more – if nothing else, Joe Lieberman has reminded us of that.
So let’s “look inside” this year – the 50th Anniversary Year of Kehillat Israel. Kevin had it right all along. KI at 50 isn’t about our award winning building, as spectacular as that is. Look inside – it’s the sum total of hundreds of individual lives touched in thousands of individual ways large and small.
Who is KI at 50? We are people from all walks of life; all economic brackets rich and poor; we are traditional married couples with and without kids, singles, single parents, gay and lesbian couples, inter-faith and inter-racial families, nearly 50% of us with no child in any of our schools, simply pursuing our own personal spiritual paths; we are 850 or so households that represent the full diversity of American Jewish life – and we are proud to be an inclusive, open, non-judgmental and hopefully inspiring spiritual center of your lives.
On the first day of our new Sunday program a mother said to me, “My son Michael is going to a new private school this year which he really likes. But I couldn’t believe how incredibly excited he was to be coming here to religious school this morning. He was literally jumping out of his skin with the excitement of being back with his Jewish friends again. This is really his most important community.”
Frankly, Michael doesn’t really care that much about the Jewish education part – it’s the community that matters. Michael’s friends are here. Michael’s family is here. Michael’s life is here. And I want Michael to find holiness here as well. The legend is told about an elderly man in the final days of his life, lying in bed alone. He awakens to see a large group of people clustered around his bed. Their faces are loving, but oh so sad. Confused, the old man smiles weakly and whispers, “You look so familiar. Are you childhood friends come to say good-bye?”
Moving closer, the tallest figure gently grasps the old man’s hand and replies, “Yes, we are your best and oldest friends, but long ago you abandoned us. For we are the unfulfilled promises of your youth. We are the unrealized hopes, dreams and plans that you once felt deeply in your heart, but never pursued. We are the unique talents that you never developed, the special gifts you never discovered. Old friend, I am afraid that we have not come to comfort you, but to die with you.” Find your own passions this year. Discover your own talents this year. Choose to make a difference this year. Find your own path to holiness this year. Be part of something grander, something nobler, something more inspiring than you ever have before this year. And all you really have to do to find it, is look