October 8, 2019
I am about to do something highly controversial. This may make some of you uncomfortable. You might even want to walk out. On the holiest night of the year, as many of us begin a 25-hour fast, I am going to tell a story about cake.
Since we’ve only been fasting for an hour, I think we can handle it. But please forgive me if this offends you, and I’ll forgive you if your stomach rumbles during the sermon!
Here goes: As Yossel prepared set off for a new life in America, his mother handed him a tightly wrapped packet, saying: “Treasure this, Yossel. It is the gift of my heart to you and your descendants, who I may never see.”
Yossel put the packet in his jacket pocket, and carried it with him to the New World. He missed his mother, especially her holiday meals, and the delicious apple cake she was known for. But he worked hard to make a life for himself, the gift from his mother, still wrapped in its protective paper, always holding a prominent place in his humble home.
When his daughter was growing up, Yossel told her stories about his mother, how she made holidays so special, and how he longed for the sweetness of her apple cake, which no one had been able to replicate. When his daughter left home, he gave her the paper-wrapped gift and told her, “Treasure this, keep it safe, and pass it on to the next generation.”
His daughter crafted a wooden box to protect the treasure, and kept it on her mantle. When her own children were little, she’d tell them stories about her father and her grandmother, whom she had never met, and how she had made holiday celebrations so special, and how much her father had loved apple cake, though none was ever quite as good as his mother’s.
When her son left home, she gave him the wooden box, told him to treasure it, protect it, and pass it on to the next generation. Her son did quite well for himself, and he decorated the box with silver filigree and set it on his own mantle.
He’d share the stories of his mother, his grandfather, and his great-grandmother’s apple cake with his children, gesturing to the beautiful box and promising that the treasure would someday be theirs. But his children grew impatient. One day, they climbed up on a chair, opened the box, and peeled back the paper. What do you think they found? (Say it with me!)
That’s right: they found raisins, a few crumbs, and, by this point, hundred-year-old dried apple slices. It’s a miracle they didn’t find bugs or mold. Underneath the wreckage, they discovered a grease-stained recipe, now barely readable, and a note, “From my heart to yours, enjoy this cake on your journey, and treasure this recipe, and share it with my descendants.”
I heard this story from Michelle Shapiro Abraham, URJ Youth’s Director of Learning and Innovation, on Reform Judaism’s Stories We Tell podcast. I could not get it out of my head, and it took me awhile to figure out why.
As a rabbi, I am often tasked with preserving our traditions and passing them on to the next generation. It is as if, when I was ordained, Rabbi Ellenson handed me that same tightly wrapped packet and told me to guard it with my life.
Often, this is a joy. I love celebrating Shabbat together and guiding us through the holidays; walking individuals and families through the life-cycle, and introducing learners of all ages and experiences to texts that inspire and surprise them. I believe that the Jewish tradition has wisdom and beauty to offer us at every phase of life, and that it calls us to improve ourselves and to build a better world.
But what I might have once envisioned as a simple, quiet life of teaching Torah and leading prayer, offering counsel and moral leadership, now also includes responding to the urgent call to save Judaism, and Jewish institutions, from certain destruction.
The organized Jewish community seems to be in a constant state of panic. The days in which families moved to the neighborhood and instantly joined synagogues are behind us, and not just in Elkins Park. Generational shifts in attitudes about institutions, as well as fluctuations in the economy, make it harder for both households and institutions to make ends meet. Many of the seats in the synagogues our ancestors so lovingly built sit empty, as unaffiliated Jews are reported to roam the earth, getting all their Jewish content off the Internet, and their spirituality at SoulCycle.
Arriving in many communities as a young(er/ish) rabbi, the unspoken question is: Can you save us? Can you keep Judaism, and particularly synagogues, alive for the next generation? But if we are to move forward, we need to collectively ask ourselves a different question: What is the essence of what we trying to save, and what is simply the decorative box and the layers of packing paper around what really matters?
Years ago, Rabbi Lawrence Kushner wrote a beautiful essay about Jewish communal life called “The Tent Peg Business,” which he recently updated with help from his daughter, Rabbi Noa Kushner, who runs a start-up Jewish community called “The Kitchen,” for unaffiliated Jews in San Francisco. Each of them made use of different packaging to convey the treasures of Judaism, but they are in alignment about what those treasures are.
They write: “Jews need one another, and therefore congregations, to do primary religious acts that they should not, and probably cannot do alone. Doing primary religious acts is the only way we have of growing as Jews” (Kushner 4).
What are these primary religious acts? For this, we go all the way back to the 2nd century, to Pirke Avot, the ethical teachings of our ancestors. This is a verse we recite when we carry the Torah, and a song we teach to our children. Al shlosha d’varim ha-olam omed. “On three things the world stands…” Al ha-Torah—on study—al ha-avodah—on prayer—v’al gemilut chasadim—and on acts of lovingkindness (Pirke Avot 1:2).
If the world stands on these three things, these three things stand on us, and on the communities we have built for the purpose of enacting them. You can’t be Jewish by yourself. We rely on each other to help us make a minyan on Shabbat, and to argue with us during Torah study. We need each other to stand in solidarity as we fight for justice, to give a hearty mazal tov at a simcha, and to lean on in times grief.
If these primary religious acts are the raisins and the dried apples, the sugar and the flour, we as a community are the eggs that hold it all together. Everything else is simply the wrapping paper, the wooden box, and the silver filigree.
But sometimes, we become so focused on preserving our traditions, and the institutions we’ve built to contain them, that we forget to actually take our traditions out and USE them. Like our grandparents, who lived their entire lives with plastic slipcovers on the furniture, or kept the good silver and the wedding china in a padded case at the top of the hall closet, in case the queen came to visit.
We are good at building containers, decorating them, keeping them safe, and handing them lovingly down to the next generation. We find ourselves distraught if our treasures are not at the center of their lives. We worry that one day they will be lost altogether.
But if we don’t open the packet and read the recipe, if we never chop the apples or sift the flour, all we will pass down to the next generation is crumbs.
So, what does it look like to read the recipe?
To read the recipe is to recognize that the synagogue is not only a place of gathering with other Jews, nor is it only a place to teach our children to be Jewish. The synagogue is a place to engage deeply with Judaism, to wrestle with Torah, and seek out a higher spiritual plane through prayer. It is a place to build a community that celebrates together, and supports each other in times of need.
To read the recipe is to recognize that the Jewish tradition offers us a set of structures designed to help us live a holy life. Shabbat is one of the best examples of this. Each week, we are offered the opportunity to take a step back from the hectic world and reconnect with whatever it is that matters to us. How can we be better about seizing that opportunity?
When someone first begins to practice Judaism, I encourage them, not only to observe Shabbat at home, but also to pick one Shabbat service each month and mark it on the calendar, so that they’ll always go, whether that’s the age-appropriate service for their children, or joining the “regulars” at our Shabbat morning service and Torah study. I don’t do this out of any sense that one “has to” attend a certain number of Shabbat services to be Jewish. I do this because of the countless times that people have told me after a Shabbat service, “That was so nice. I wish I could make myself do this more often!” And also because, if we don’t make an effort to set aside Shabbat, we will lose all of the gifts this day of rest has to offer.
To read the recipe is also to recognize that our engagement with Judaism extends beyond the walls of the synagogue. These rituals were meant to be practiced “at home and on our way.”
If you’ve seen Fiddler on the Roof, you know that “there’s a blessing for everything.” But blessings are not only a means of slyly wishing ill on the czar and his subordinates. Our tradition provides us with a framework to show gratitude throughout our daily routine. There are blessings for the gift of waking up, for the food that nourishes us, and for the children who bring joy to our lives. There is even a blessing for going to the bathroom, because even the most basic functions of our bodies are a miracle.
How might learning a few of these blessings, and reciting them at the appropriate times and places, make us more mindful, and help us to cultivate a more grateful heart?
To read the recipe is to show up for one another, not because we are friends, but because we are part of a community. The mourning rites of Kaddish and shiva are yet another gift that Judaism gives to us, rituals designed to hold our hands as we walk through the valley of the shadow of death. I was distressed when, a few times this year, a family in mourning confided in me that they were worried they might not have a minyan to say Kaddish with them. No one who makes the considerable effort to be a part of a Jewish community in this day and age should ever have that worry. It is our responsibility as members of this community to do that worrying for them, and to be there, without being asked, when they need us most.
To read the recipe is to recognize that the Jewish tradition has something to say about how we live in the world. This is the basis for our new Confirmation program, where students on the OYR Corridor are learning to wrestle with contemporary issues through the lens of the Jewish tradition of argument and debate, and our people’s long history of pursuing social justice.
To read the recipe is to teach our young people how to navigate the world, and their Jewish lives, without us, so that they can build a meaningful Jewish future for themselves, even if it looks different than the boxes we have handed to them.
To read the recipe is, to recognize that a mitzvah is not a “good deed” or that thing with a “bar,” but a sacred obligation we take upon ourselves for the purpose of living a holy life. The Rabbis Kushner write that,
“Mitzvot cannot be regarded from behind a screen or held at a polite distance…. This practice cannot be for display only, and it cannot be solely for educational purposes. It needs to be because we believe that Jewish religious experiences can transform: they can change lives, make meaning, and invest people in the world” (Kushner 5).
After all, if we do not believe that Judaism’s teachings and traditions can transform our lives for the better, what exactly is it that we are trying to save?
Yossel and his family thought that the treasure they were passing down was an object to put on the mantle, looked at but not touched. The treasure was actually something that takes up no space and cannot ever be destroyed, but only if we become so familiar with it that it becomes a part of us.
What might happen once we master that recipe? We might make some small changes, to better suit our needs today. We might add new spices or cut down on the sugar or make them gluten-free or turn them into muffins that fit into the cupholders of the minivan. (Okay, now I’m getting hungry).
Because that is what Judaism requires of us today: not to keep our traditions safe in a hermetically sealed box, but to engage with them, so that we can reshape them to meet the needs of this time and place, so that the next generation might learn from us how to do the same.
A 2013 Pew Research Report revealed that, only 47 percent of American Reform Jews fast on Yom Kippur. No judgment (that makes me feel better about the apple cake metaphor). But among that same group of Jews, 76% participated in a Passover seder. This might be because Passover is a big family meal that doesn’t require affiliation. But it might also be because the seder speaks to the kind of Jews we are, and the kind of Jews we want to be.
The seder’s message of hope and liberation is eternally relevant. And the seder is infinitely customizable and leaves room for creativity (Rabbi Mike Uram, RAIL Meeting 9/5/19). It can be adapted to any kind of space. No one stands over our shoulders to tell us we’re doing it wrong (unless we are attempting our mother-in-law’s brisket recipe).
Putting a seder together is much harder than sitting here passively in a worship service. It requires us to engage in the very “choice through knowledge” that the Reform movement celebrates, but that often seems like way too much effort.
But the fact that the overwhelming majority of us still choose to participate in a seder, or even lead one, means that we are clearly not afraid of taking ownership of our Jewish customs, learning about them, and turning them into something that speaks to who we are as Jews today. Where else might we take the Passover seder approach?
As I was writing this sermon, I asked some of my colleagues what Jewish customs might benefit from being taken out of the box and put to use more often. My colleague, Rabbi Andrea London, shared with me this teaching, “There’s a particular mitzvah that’s our soul’s mitzvah to do. Help people find that one.”
If you resolve to change anything in your life this year, I hope it will be to seek out your soul’s mitzvah. I offer myself as a guide in that process. Likewise, I hope that, together as a community, we can discover, or re-discover, the mitzvot that are Kol Ami’s mitzvot to do.
Each of us has that little wrapped packet in our breast pocket. It’s time to take it out, unwrap it, and read what’s written on the recipe card.
Throughout my career, I have been asked, implicitly and explicitly, whether I can save Judaism, and keep it alive for the next generation. And the honest answer is, no, I can’t. Not by myself. But together, we can save our Jewish traditions, if we are prepared to engage with them, wrestle with them, and make them our own.
And if we are able to do this, we will be able to do this anywhere. Because if we really know the recipe, it won’t matter what kind of box we keep it in. We might not need a box for it at all. It will be, as tomorrow’s Torah portion says, “In our mouths and in our hearts, to do it” (Deut. 30:14).
Because if we really know the recipe, it won’t be difficult to carry our Judaism into the future. It’ll be a piece of cake.
Rabbi Leah Berkowitz