Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Rosh Hashanah Evening 5769 - Under the Mishkan

This is our new Shabbat prayerbook, Mishkan T’fillah. The first Reform Movement prayerbook in over 25 years, we again have a prayerbook that unites the Reform Movement with a standard liturgy. Many people were involved in the creation of our in-house prayerbooks, Shabbat M’nucha and Shabbat Kedushah. Personally and as a congregation we owe them a great deal of thanks. Their creativity, spirituality and hard work brought worship at Temple Beth Zion into the late 20th/early 21st centuries.

We are also grateful to those who generously provided us with the means to acquire our copies of Mishkan T’fillah and to make sure that our upcoming B’nei Mitzvah students will each have their own copy from which to study and pray.

The title of the prayer-book, Mishkan T’fillah, translates to: Tabernacle or Dwelling Place of Prayer. Forty-two years ago, the membership of Temple Beth Zion built this sanctuary to be just that - a place where our TBZ extended family comes together to dwell in prayer - to focus on prayer - to understand that a congregation that prays together evolves into a community of caring.

As we wandered through the desert, there were several names for the sanctuary they built. HaMishkan - the dwelling place, the place where Moses and our ancestors experienced God; Mishkan Ha’eidut - the tabernacle of witness, a place of witnessing not only the presence of God but a court, a place to settle disputes; Ohel Mo’ed - the tent of coming together to meet God and learn the values that enable us to live together and the rules, the practical application of the values.

These names represent pieces of a puzzle that together define what it means to be a congregation, a community. For the ancient Israelites, the Mishkan literally and figuratively transformed our ancestral families into a holy nation.

What does it take to be a true community? Why did the Israelites believe that the Mishkan, the center of their community was the place where God dwelled and where Moses spoke with God? Two words - TRUST and HOPE. Trust that the motivation of those in our community, entrusted with our financial future, entrusted with our safety, entrusted with helping us teach our young and care for our elderly lies in a commitment to do what is good and right and does not violate our trust. Hope that when our trust is misplaced, we can still redeem our community and ourselves.

An Eastern European story: A farmer with serious financial problems bought a mule from another farmer for $100. The seller agreed to deliver the mule the next day. However, on the next day the seller drove up and said, "Sorry, but I have some bad news: The mule died."
"Well, then, just give me my money back," said the buyer.
"Can't do that. I spent it already," the seller replied.
"OK, then. Just unload the mule," said the buyer.
The seller inquired, "What are you going to do with a dead mule?"
"I'm going to raffle him off."
The incredulous seller said, "You can't raffle off a dead mule!"
"Sure I can. I just won't tell anybody he's dead."
A month later, the two met and the farmer who sold the dead mule asked the buyer, "Whatever happened with that dead mule?"
"I raffled him off just like I said I would. I sold 500 tickets at $2 a piece and made a profit of $898."
"Didn't anyone complain?" the incredulous seller asked.
The smug buyer replied, “Just the guy who won, so I gave him his two dollars back."

This story is obviously illustrative of what we have learned the past several weeks, that those we trusted with our financial futures often simply raffled off dead mules. (I know I have learned more about the workings of credit markets, stock markets, investment markets and insurance markets than I ever thought possible.) But this tale teaches a deeper lesson. Once we someone betrays our trust, it becomes easier for us to betray the trust of others.

In Leviticus, God commands us to act in holiness is by using honest weights and measures, paying people when their wages are due and not oppressing those who need to borrow funds to survive. Clearly, the trust in our economic systems has caused a rip in the Mishkan of our community.

This year our Mishkan has also been rent open by breeches by those entrusted with our safety. We have seen a Governor fall and threats to our country’s safety ignored while those whom we trust to protect us worry about shoe laces while not inspecting cargo containers and assault weapon and armor piercing bullets remain legal on our streets. Part of the tear was sewn closed by miscarriages of justice in our community undone and reopened by news of new exonerating evidence being ignored by others.

Our trust in the commitment of our schools to put our children's’ education first and for our seniors to be protected was severely damaged by self serving avarice. Resources poorly allocated. Personal ego thrusting aside fairness and equity.

These past months, this past year could leave us cynical and misanthropic. But as Jews, especially at this time of year, we know that we have the ability to commit ourselves to changing our world, repairing the defects that have been inflicted upon our Mishkan.

For we Jews are experts in hope! Not the generalized hope of which both Senators McCain and Obama speak. But rather, for us hope consists of the knowledge that our communal Teshuvah consists of more than feeling bad about our active and passive failings. Teshuvah is the expression of our hope that we CAN change ourselves and our world. For us hope motivates us to not only hem the ragged edges and sew the holes in our Mishkan, in our community but make it stronger and sturdier, working to ensure the Mishkan will never again be damaged.

The use of the first person plural used in our High Holy Day liturgy of responsibility for the problems in our world reinforces our understanding of the truth that sin in our community only exists because WE allow it to continue. As Jews Rabbi Tarphon’s teaching of 1800 years ago underlies our hope and our responsibility to reach out and change the world: “It is not incumbent upon you to finish the work but neither are you exempt from it!” It is incumbent on each of us, infused with a measure of hope, to work for the day when we and the whole world realize that we rise and fall together. Our true teshuvah and deep belief in hope infuse within each of us the knowledge that our success does not come from stepping on the backs of others but rather from understanding that even when, maybe especially when it looks the bleakest, we all work to repair the Mishkan together.

We all know that we cannot wait for others, even God to fix our world. In the wake of Katrina, Rita, Gustav, Ike and now Kyle, this classic story embodies a renewed poignancy.

Once there was a pious man who had never sinned sitting in a rowboat in the middle of the lake. The boat springs a leak and begins to sink. And so the man begins to pray: “Sovereign of Mercy, I have been your loyal servant my whole life, please save me.” Just then another boat comes by and throws the man a life buoy. “Grab the rope and we will save you!” “No,” the man replied. “God will save me.”

Time passes and the water is up to his waist. “Ruler of all” he prays, “I have been your loyal servant my whole life, please save me.” Just then a helicopter came by and lowered a ladder. “Grab the ladder and climb up and we will save you!” “No,” the man replied. “God will save me.”

The rowboat continues to sink and the man is submerged up to his neck. And so he prays one more time: “You in whom I place all my trust, I have been your faithful servant. I have lived a life free of sin. I have resisted temptation after temptation. Please God, save me.” Another boat comes by and threw yet another buoy. “Please grab the buoy and we will take you to safety.” “No,” the man replied. “God will save me.”

At that moment, the boat sinks and the man drowns. Suddenly he finds himself before God and the throne of judgement. “God” he cries. All my life I served you and lived a pure life. In my time of need I called to you and you let me die. Why God? Why?”

God looks and the man and replies: “I gave you three chances. I sent two boats and a helicopter.”

Living a life of hope means asking for the wisdom and strength to do what we must to repair our Mishkan. We cannot wait for others to do the work for us. Our Jewish communal values of , אל תפרוש את עצמך מן הציבור - Do not separate oneself from the community, צדקה, גמילות חסדים and of course תקווה demand we to work to repair our Mishkan through our votes, our participation and our dollars. We look to God for strength and inspiration, but we look to ourselves and each other to grab onto the rope, pull ourselves into the boat and row together.

A story quoted in Gates of Prayer, the last Reform prayer-book, that I have not found in Mishkan T’fillah:
Rabbi Chayim of Tsanz used to tell this parable: A man, wandering lost in the forest for several days, finally encountered another. He called out: Brother, show me the way out of this forest!. The man replied: Brother, I too am lost. I can only tell you this: the ways I have tried lead nowhere; they have only led me astray. Take my hand and let us search for the way together. Rabbi Chayim would add: So iti s with us. When we go our separate ways, we may go astray; let us join hands and look for the way together.
May we take each other’s hands and walk through the forest together.

Kein Y’hi Ratzon - So may it be God’s will.

Shanah Tovah.

1 comment:

  1. I had the pleasure of hearing Rabbi H deliver this sermon and amazed that I recall almost all of it in its entirety.

    As a lifelong "traditional" Reform congregant I find the new prayer book to be both challenging and relevant.

    Rabbi H both challenges and supports his congregants as this sermon illustrates so clearly. It's message is one which should be examined and heeded.