The Most Religous Book in Your Home

28 Apr
April 28, 2014

A little girl in our Early Childhood Center experienced a major breakthrough in her life when she learned to tie her own shoes. Instead of excitement, however, she began to cry.

When her mother asked, “Why are you crying?”

She answered, “I have to tie my shoes.”

So her mom said, “You just learned how. It isn’t that hard, is it?”

“I know,” she wailed, “but now I’m going to have to do it for the rest of my life.”

The Reverend Billy Graham tells the story of a recently baptized Christian who wrote to him with the question: “I know I’m going to Heaven when I die, but what does God want me to do in the meantime?” Well, there you have it right from the start: “What does God want me to do in the meantime, because I know I’m going to have to do it for the rest of my life.” In a sense that’s why we are here today in the first place. To figure out the answer to that very question. “What does God want me to do in the meantime with the rest of my life?”

“Who shall live and who shall die?” are certainly weighty and awesome questions that fill our High Holy Day liturgy – but how we live and who we are when we die are even more powerful. “Who shall live and who shall die” is after all a rhetorical question – because all of us who live will one day die. It’s not whether, it’s only when. And so the question that always matters most – is what will our legacy be when the dying comes around?

So today I want to begin with a Rosh Hashana quiz. It consists of only one question and here it is: “What is the most religious book in your home?” What one book in your home reveals the most about who you are, your values, your character, the principles upon which you base your life?

Well if you were a professor of English literature you might say, ”The Complete Works of Shakespeare,” since his remarkable writing captures the full range of human emotion, desire, pathos, and longing. You might say as many do, that all of these emotions combined in the drama of the human spirit really represent what it means to be “religious.”

And those of you who are addicted to watching “The Cooking Channel” (I won’t have you raise your hands), might say a cookbook is the most religious book in your home. That nourishing the human body is directly related to nourishing the human spirit – or perhaps merely that it’s the most religious because like around our house any time I threaten to cook something, Didi gets down on her knees and prays.

Of course you might expect, being a rabbi and all, that I would naturally say the Bible or the prayer book is the most religious book in your home.

But it’s not. Without question, the most religious book in your home, is your CHECKBOOK. To know the religion of your friend, or your family, or yourself – simply study your checkbook carefully. Perhaps nothing reflects your values more.

When I say your checkbook reflects your “religion,” I mean it reflects the things that matter most to you in your life and the values you live by, more than any other book in your home. Your checkbook is like your personal Torah. And what the sages of the Talmud said about the Torah could be said about your checkbook as well: “Turn it, turn it, turn it, for everything is in it.”

After all, the reason the phrase, “Put your money where your mouth is” is so famous is because it reflects a simple but profound truth that is understood by even the most common popular wisdom. If you want to know what someone is really committed to, listen to the advice of Deep Throat from long ago: follow the money. Words are cheap and easy and plentiful. Any of you (which is probably most of you) who have ever tried to get someone to support a cause you care about know that their willingness to reach into their pocket to write the check tells you more about their true values than all the heartfelt confessions in the world.

So go home today after services and study your checkbook stubs or your Quicken register and see how your philanthropic reality measures up to your personal spiritual self-image. Your checkbook is a kind of spreadsheet of life – how many checks did you write this year to support those who are most vulnerable in our society? To house the homeless, feed the hungry, comfort the bereaved?

How many checks did you write to support the Jewish community? The Jewish Federation? Israel? And to strengthen this very congregation and help us continue to make a difference in the lives of thousands of men, women and children every year? Money, quite frankly is a mirror to our souls. And we often use money as a direct expression of our deepest sense of self.

Jews give. They always have. In the Talmud Rabbi Eleazer says, “He who gives Tzedakah to charity is regarded as though he has filled the entire world with kindness.” And Jews have always taken this opportunity seriously and our responsibilities to the larger society as well. Though Jews in America represent only a little over 2% of the population, they represent 18% of all giving in America, nearly $6 billion.

And as we look to the future, an enormous transfer of wealth is expected in this country during the next several decades. Eight to ten trillion dollars will be passed down from Americans over the age of 50 to their children and their grandchildren, creating the largest transfer of wealth in the nation’s history.

This windfall from the WWII generation that scraped and saved to build businesses, and acquire stocks, bonds, and real estate will transform 5 million average Americans into millionaires. What they do with that money will ultimately tell the tale of their values, and the value that their religion holds in their lives as well.

Perhaps that is why so many congregations use this time at the High Holy Days to encourage the mitzvah of giving and plead that since your checkbook will reflect your values more than any other book you will write, that you reflect those values in support for what the synagogue stands for.

Some of you remember that we, too, used to have a High Holy Day appeal from the bimah on Kol Nidre every year – with pledge cards and everything. But shortly after I came to KI I insisted that we stop. I couldn’t stand breaking the spiritual mood of the High Holy Days to ask for money for the synagogue. So I convinced the board to try it another way.

I had faith that if we sent out a letter to the congregation telling them that since no one likes appeals on the High Holy Days if they would support the synagogue by sending in a check before the holidays in sufficient amount to match our goal for the annual appeal, we would skip the unpleasant fundraising during services – we did, they did, and we have done that ever since. Of course sometimes it takes a few letters to get there.

But the Talmud says, Im ain kemah ain Torah – “Without money there would be no Torah.” And after 20 years of the privilege of building this incredible congregation with all of you, I understand exactly what they meant by that 2,000 year old wisdom.

When I came 20 years ago we were less than 250 families, with an old, funky building. As we grew we took a giant leap of faith and began a process that would eventually raise millions of dollars and build the beautiful, award-winning synagogue and sanctuary we have today.

Now we have grown to over 1,000 families and our services, classes, and programs, serve over 600 kids in our religious school, 160 kids in our Early Childhood and Parenting Center, over 3,000 individuals in the KI family. And believe it or not that translates into all of us serving an additional 15,000+ extended family and friends a year. And though I still am not willing to raise money for the synagogue during services, I’m no longer afraid to speak the truth about what it really costs us to be who we are today. What does it cost to touch so many lives each year in the hundreds and thousands of ways both large and small that make us all so proud to be part of this remarkable KI family?

Most people are astounded when they learn that it costs us $150,000 merely to provide these High Holy Day services for four days a year. $150,000.

And most people are taken aback when they learn that it costs us nearly 4 1/2 million dollars every single year to operate our synagogue to provide the spiritual, educational, social, and communal services and programs that we do. The counseling, births, bar and bat mitzvahs, weddings, funerals, visits and support to those in the hospital, Havurot, hundreds of classes for adults and kids each year and on and on.

Because most people fall victim to what I now call the Howie Mandel Syndrome. Those who shared the fabulous “Rejoice at Royce” event last year will recall his tongue in cheek comment about how thrilled he was to be able to give his time and talent to help raise money for the poor Jews of the Palisades. Everyone laughed, and I cringed.

Because Howie’s humor merely perpetuated the stereotype, reinforced the sadly untrue misperception that all Jews rich especially if they go to synagogue in the Palisades. Of course we are blessed with many members with considerable financial means – thank God. Only because of them, because of the generosity of so many of you are we able to serve the real needs of our community and not the myth.

What are the real needs? Fact #1 – Those of you who donate to KI beyond minimum dues and are part of our annual Mitzvah Circle of giving are the only reason we have the ability every single year to subsidize 1/3 of our congregation who in fact can’t afford the minimum dues. Over 300 families, a thousand individuals are able to be members of KI and be part of the Jewish community because others of you are willing to give.

Fact #2 – 200 children in our religious school are able to get a Jewish education, to have a bar or bat mitzvah and go on to Confirmation and participate in our youth programs and youth groups only because you subsidize the Jewish educational experience that their parents otherwise couldn’t afford to give them. Because you give.

Without us and our policy, rare among synagogues that I have insisted upon for the past 20 years – that no one is ever turned away from membership at KI because of inability to pay. That no child is ever denied a Jewish education because of inability to pay. Your giving makes that possible, or not.

And we do that quietly and without fanfare year in and year out. Without a degrading committee, without tax forms or proof – but with quiet discretion, open hearts, a willing embrace – living the ancient rabbinic dictum Kol yisrael aravim zeh lezeh, “All the Jewish people are responsible for one another.”

That is the real KI. In spite of Howie Mandel’s joke. And for those 300 families, the 1,000 men, women and children who are able to be part of KI and Jewish life with dignity – it’s no joke at all.

My dream is a synagogue that is financially self-sufficient – where we don’t have to sweat and worry and scramble and spend endless energy and endless hours every single year to raise the $350,000 it takes beyond dues and fees just to provide all we do and continue to be the kind of synagogue we can be proud of. $350,000 a year – beyond dues, beyond fees. 350,000 worries for us – year in and year out.

And we still have a $3 million mortgage which requires almost $300,000 a year to service. It’s time for us to own our own spiritual home and retire that mortgage before the balloon hits us and we have begun talking to some of you in the congregation about this already.

I’m not a money person. I still can’t seem to balance my checkbook, even with Quicken. But I know that my dream for KI’s financial self-sufficiency will only happen when we build an endowment sufficient to generate those crucial funds every year automatically. Do you know that the top 10 endowed universities have over $78 billion dollars? We only need a $10 million endowment to do it. Let me know if you’re willing to make that happen.

And that dream will only happen when those of you who love KI and who we are and what we have meant in the life of your family make KI part of your own planned giving – putting KI in your will, or naming us on a life insurance policy or making KI part of your living trust – and thereby helping us to insure that when the next generation of Jews are in need, we will still be here for them as well.

Hmmm, for not wanting to raise money on the High Holy Days, I seem to have gotten a bit carried away with the Talmud’s dilemma of Kemah and Torah – that tension between the world of Torah and its spiritual teachings and the necessity of financial support to make Torah possible.

If Torah teaches us anything, it is certainly that we need to separate our net worth from our self worth. To remember that each of us is created in God’s image, whether rich or poor, whether the resources we have to give are financial or spiritual, our money or our time. And sometimes it is the gift of self which is the most powerful, most meaningful, the most precious of all.

Because my ultimate vision for KI isn’t about money. Money is merely that which is necessary to allow what really matters most to take place. And what matters most is a synagogue that is able to be an intimate part of your life – to touch your family, your children, your friends at moments of your greatest need.

I remember 35 years ago when I was in rabbinic school. An older rabbi was celebrating his 25th year with his congregation and after the celebration he shared with me the following words of advice:

“They gave me this wonderful dinner,” he said, “and honored me for my 25 years. And throughout the dinner, one by one people would come up to me and say, “Rabbi, I remember the day I got married –and you were there…” “Rabbi, I remember my child’s bat mitzvah,and you were there…” “Rabbi, I remember when I was in the hospital and scared of what might happen, and you were there…” “Rabbi, I remember when my life was falling apart and my wife and I were struggling with our relationship and family traumas, and you were there…” “Rabbi, I remember having to face the nightmare of when my precious child died, and you were there…”

That is what matters,” this older, wiser rabbi told me. That is what a synagogue is really all about. In joys and sorrow, to celebrate together and to mourn together. To learn about life and its meaning as children and wrestle with ultimate questions of life as adults. To sing and pray and be silent with each other. To give each other strength, and hope, and faith, and comfort, and inspiration.

It is to feel rooted by thousands of years of Jewish wisdom and ritual and tradition and to reach for the stars and embrace the future with faith together.

It’s about being there for one another in all those precious and powerful moments. That is why we have synagogues in the fist place. And that is my ultimate vision for KI for the next decade as your rabbi.

A place to be together, to remind ourselves that when we join together we really do make a difference in each other’s lives, in our children’s lives, in our own lives. We have a unique synagogue. It is a sacred community in which we can create a power together that can transform lives – our lives, and the lives of those most in need, most vulnerable in our society as well. But only if we do it together.

The question I leave you with today is this: “What will your legacy be when the dying comes around?” And my challenge to you is this: Be known for what you allocate not what you accumulate. Be known for what you allocate not what you accumulate.

We at KI have the privilege of partnering this year in creating a pilot Jewish educational program for our Auerbach Religious School called, “Menschlekeit Matters” with the Josephson Institute of Ethics. Michael Josephson and his family are members of KI. In his beautiful poem entitled, “What Will Matter,” Michael once wrote: “…How will the value of your days be measured? What will matter is not what you bought but what you built, not what you got but what you gave. What will matter is not your success but your significance.”

“Living a life that matters doesn’t happen by accident. It’s not a matter of circumstances but of choice. Choose to live a life that matters.”

And that, my friends, is why we’re here – to remember to choose a life that matters. To remember that when we use our money consistent with our soul’s deepest dreams and highest aspirations it connects us to the whole of life, the soul of life, rather than separating us from others. That is the ultimate prosperity, and it is available to everyone, whether you have massive resources or moderate means. Using money as a direct expression of our deepest sense of self is to transform our abundance into a powerful, miraculous thing, indeed.

Humanitarian Lynn Twist concludes her inspiring book, The Soul of Money with these words: “I challenge you to imbue your money with soul – your soul – and let it stand for who you are, your love, your heart, your word, and your humanity.”

So be known for what you allocate, not what you accumulate – and this year choose a life that matters.

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