Teaching the Torah of Our Lives. Yom Kippur Evening Sermon. September 13, Tishri Rabbi Andy Gordon

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1 Teaching the Torah of Our Lives Yom Kippur Evening Sermon September 13, Tishri 5774 Rabbi Andy Gordon Every parent has a story about the arrival of a child. I d like to share a little bit of my story. As many of you know, my family was formed through adoption. Brian and I waited months without hearing any news, when finally, the phone rang this past January informing us that the due date was only a week away. Most couples have months to prepare; we had only days. Like all parents-to-be, we rushed around buying bottles and clothes and even a crib. And like all parents, we had many questions and fears about the future. In the waiting room, I wondered: Would I be a good father? Would I learn to love this little guy who wasn t biologically related to me? What stories would I share with him about this day about his birth parents about his identity? As the nurse arrived with this tiny newborn and put Caleb into my arms for the first time, all of these questions vanished. Something changed the instant we became a family. We are now linked to one another: I am a father, a role model, and one of his most important teachers. I now have the responsibility: to share the stories of our past and teach the values and ethics of our Torah. Our tradition instructs us to teach our children. We Jews are known as the People of the Book and it is our Torah that is the foundational text of our religion. For 1

2 generations, our people have studied its words week after week, year after year, and allowed the ideals found inside this sacred text to infuse our very being. As the next link in this very long chain of tradition, we are called to teach our children the Torah of our lives. The rabbis teach: that we stand on the shoulders of the giants that came before us. Our ancestors are a link to our past; they bequeathed ethics and values that continue to impact our lives. But, Judaism also believes that the Torah of the present is just as important, if not more significant, than the teachings of the past. Each of us has a voice; each of us has stories to share; each of has us our own Torah to teach. Rabbi Lawrence Kushner shares this story: Once, before Yom Kippur he met with a group of nursery school children. He gave them a tour of the Sanctuary pointing out the Menorah, the Eternal Light, and the Ark. As he was about to open the doors of the ark, he asked the children to share what they thought was inside. One child who had probably watched too many game shows, exclaimed A Brand New Car. Another, a budding nihilist believed that the ark was empty. A child with an older sister shared that she thought there was an old book back there. But, it was the last child who shared the perfect answer, believing we would find a large mirror. Rabbi Kushner explains that this answer is closest to the truth. The Torah reflects back to us the stories of our lives. When we study the Torah, we open up a door to our own life experience and reflect back a little bit of who we are and who we wish to become. These stories did not just happen long ago; they continue to happen in our lives today. Yes, the Torah is our people s history, but the Torah also speaks to the complexity of our human relationships. Our ancestors were good people who cared about the 2

3 world around them, but like all of us, they sometimes were jealous, worked too hard, lost their temper. Our ancestors were in loving relationships and raised children who carried on their tradition, but like all of us they sometimes said things they did not mean, made bad decisions, and were hurtful to those they cared about most. We don t read the Torah to search for perfection or to find the unobtainable. We study the Torah because we see ourselves in these stories. We aren t perfect either: the challenges our ancestors faced and the mistakes they made, sound all too familiar to us. Not only can we find ourselves on the pages of the Torah, but each of us possesses knowledge that can be shared with the world. Judaism has always believed that the Torah is much more than the Five Books of Moses. Each generation teaches their Torah, which is built upon the ethics and values that were passed down to them. The Torah we teach is just valid, as the lessons taught by the ancient rabbis or the verses we study each week at synagogue. But in order to teach, we must appreciate the traditions of our past and learn from those who came before us. Abraham Joshua Heschel reminds us that, the best learning tool is not a textbook, but a text teacher. All of us are text teachers, teachers of Torah. It doesn t matter if you are new to Judaism and still learning about our tradition, it doesn t matter if you struggle with the Hebrew, if you are young, or even young at heart. Each one of us can teach our Torah. This past year, on Yom HaShaoah, I was again reminded of the impact that each person can make in our lives. I sat in this sanctuary and listened to the words and stories taught by my teachers that day, many of our sixth grade students. These students had spent weeks learning about the Holocaust with Abbie and Richard Laskey. 3

4 At the service that evening, they shared the deeply moving stories of the survivors, the victims, and the righteous gentiles. These students did not just tell the stories of the past, they took these stories on as their own. Our sixth graders, whether consciously or unconsciously, taught me that the stories of the past must become our stories of the present. The only way for us to Never Forget is to make these stories our own and make sure that they leave an imprint on our souls. What happens if we forget? What happens if we fail to share not only the Torah of the past, but also the Torah of the present? If we break the bonds that have held us together for thousands of years, if we ignore the Torah inside, then our voice is silent to the world s problems. If we forget, then another genocide happens! If we forget, then the values we care about most: justice, righteousness, and loving kindness, vanish from the conversation. If we fail to share our Torah, then the next generation has no foundation on which to stand, no place for them to teach their Torah. Sometimes, it s easy to forget the impact that Torah can have on our lives; sometimes we forget the reason why we are here this evening. As a student rabbi in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, I had one of those experiences. Every other week, I met with a young teenager who was preparing for his Bar Mitzvah. This teen was incredibly smart, a good kid, but he just didn t want to become Bar Mitzvah. He pushed me to help him understand why he should stand in front of the congregation, lead the service, chant from the Torah. The answer I gave was something like this, maybe it sounds familiar: I was a Bar Mitzvah. We want you to become a Bar Mitzvah because that s what Jews do. This, of course, wasn t the answer he needed to hear. 4

5 I thought that the best way forward would be to study his Torah portion together. But, Oy Vey, this poor boy had Tazria/Metzora: a whole Torah portion discussing skin disease and leprosy. If only he had the Creation story, or Noah s Ark, or even one of the stories about Abraham and Sarah, perhaps we could find something insightful to discuss. Skin disease? How would this story be relevant to him or convince him to become a Bar Mitzvah? Together we began to study his Torah portion: we learned that when a person showed signs of skin disease he would go and see the Cohen, the Temple priest. If the person was unclean, if he had skin disease, the priest would remove him from family and friends for seven days if not longer! The infected person was required to tear his clothes and yell out at the top his lungs: Unclean! Unclean, to any passersby. This was one of the most challenging portions in the entire Torah. We don t follow these rules now, they seem irrelevant to our lives, and even more they are insensitive and harsh to the person who is infected. Is this the Torah we want to teach? Just when I felt there was nothing left to say or do, the Bar Mitzvah student turned to me and said, I disagree with the Torah. He believed that what the Cohenim did was wrong. They should have found a place for this person; they should not have turned him away. He said, I try to be as welcoming as possible to my friends, even the ones who are different from me. I don t want to be a bully, like that Cohen. At that moment, this Bar Mitzvah student discovered his Torah. He realized that he possessed a Torah of his very own and he needed to share these teachings with the world. We can disagree with our tradition, as long as we bring our Torah, our values, our teaching into the conversation. 5

6 That is what becoming a Bar or Bat Mitzvah is all about; that is why we study Torah together. Our tradition might not be perfect, we might disagree with some of the actions of our ancient brethren, but our Torah, pushes us to live an ethical life, a life filled with Jewish values. It reminds us that as a Jew, we are responsible to make our world a better place, a whole place, a holy place. But first, we must share our Torah. Seven months ago, I held Caleb in my arms for the first time and everything changed. I am now a father and one of his most important teachers. I have so much Torah that I want to pass on to Caleb. I want to teach him about his people, about his religious traditions, and about his family. But, most importantly, I want Caleb to realize that he has so much Torah to teach. His Torah is just as valuable as the ancient traditions of our past. His Torah can inspire him to transform our broken, shattered world into something beautiful. The 613 th commandment, the last of our Jewish responsibilities, teaches that each of us must write a Torah. Each one of us must compose a Torah of our very own. We have the capacity to create Torah, to share memories, to teach our values. We possess so many stories and lessons that we can pass on to our children and grandchildren, to our parents, our siblings, and our friends. Our stories, our teachings, our Torah impact not only us, but the entire world around us as well. Study our tradition; find yourself in the text; discover your Torah within; and share your Torah with our world. Shana Tova! 6

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