Our children need to be engaged with joy, laughter, belonging, meaning and purpose. Their joy becomes our joy and we thrive.
The Jewish community was in serious trouble. Politically – outside adversaries were creating chaos. Economically – the common person, mired in poverty, complained about economic injustice perpetuated by the wealthy. Spiritually, the Jewish community was so ill informed about basic Jewish knowledge and commitment, survival seemed hopeless. Idolatry and loyalty to the gods of place they inhabited defined us. Things were so bad Jewish leadership felt despair and wept bitter tears. Does it sound familiar?
I am describing the 5th Century BCE, during the time of Ezra and Nehemiah. A small group of Jews returned from Persia, where they had gone into exile and came back to rebuild a Jerusalem that was in ruins. I imagine that had there been communal studies at that time, scholars would have predicted Judaism would fade into oblivion. These predictions seem to be part of our history as well – extending to the present moment.
So how did we survive back then? In a word – joy. Just as hope overcomes fear, joy overcomes despair. Somehow, Ezra and Nehemiah wiped away their tears, stopped lamenting, and taught something we need to recapture: The key to Jewish renewal and survival is joy.
Look at verse 9 – as Torah is being taught the people begin to weep. Ezra and Nehemiah say, “You must not mourn or weep.” Why not? While honest emotions – tears and sadness – are important, that moment needed something else. Ezra and Nehemiah knew that for Judaism to thrive – joy needed to be central. They explain at the end of verse 10 – “Do not be sad, for your rejoicing in the Lord is the source of your strength.” Joy brings strength! A thriving Jewish future needs to reclaim the message of joy!
Ezra and Nehemiah’s brilliance was that they knew they needed to shift focus. The joy they taught is not a fleeting emotion, it is a deep sense of soul expanding. Today I will explore specifics of how we create that joy and let it inform our future. The challenge of modern Judaism in general, and CBJ specifically is to stir the heart and touch the soul.
At the beginning of the Nehemiah text, the community comes together for Rosh Hashana. Why did they come? If the community was so disorganized and disconnected with Judaism, what caused them to gather?
A basic need of our humanity is to be together. Quite simply, we need each other. The Nehemiah text is about being together. At a time when technology creates solitary worlds and diminishes the opportunity for face to face connection, our need for human connection is even stronger! And what do we do when we come together? Look at verse 10 – WE EAT! –except for today until break the fast – when everyone is invited to the Chaikens. Some things never change – connections deepen over delicious food.
Ezra and Nehemiah knew that shared moments create joy. Part of Judaism’s genius is that we share the significant moments in life as a community. My most poignant personal moments take on more significance because they have been shared. Emily’s Bat Mitzvah and Ethan’s Bar Mitzvah resonate deeply because they were done together with you. When Mimi and I had health scares we felt the embrace, love, prayers and taste the chicken soup of caring community. Voicing our fears and simply being heard brought healing. Judaism thrives as it nurtures moments of connection and heart. The real measure of Judaism is how deeply we love each other. Joy is a feeling we get as people respond to us in the moment of life we experience. That is the joy Ezra and Nehemiah give to their community. That is the joy we need to nurture to create ongoing Jewish renewal.
Joy comes from feeling deeply cared for and connected – and that care extends with breadth. Did you notice in verse 10, that it is not simply the act of eating – it is sharing with those who don’t have food prepared? The day becomes holy when we extend ourselves to others beyond our immediate circle. Our souls connect, our caring makes a difference and that changes us.
A Judaism of activism that cares for those in need provides meaning that is the cornerstone of real joy. We thirst to make a difference and to make the world a better place – and as we make a difference, we change. We have been hosting Home and Hope for 16 years. It is extraordinary! Homeless families make CBJ and other religious institutions their home for a week. We get to know our guests, learn their stories, help out with the kids, prepare a warm meal. We work with a program that helps people get back on their feet. It gives us a great joy.
Caring creates a holy community. It is as simple as sending someone a card, an invitation, a call. The past several years before High Holidays, Leslie Weinstein asks me who would appreciate receiving a card that she may not know. People love receiving the cards. Each of us can do little things like that.
There is another aspect of joy in the Nehemiah text. Joy comes through learning. This is not learning like we think about connected to school with grades and material mastered – but a learning that also expands our soul. Jewish learning is about the great questions of life – Who are we? Who are we meant to be? What is the godly way? How do we elevate each moment and decision? How do we live with meaning? Learning comes alive in Nehemiah. There are leaders there to translate and explain. Then as now, Judaism is taught with love and experienced with heart.
And as this learning touches soul, it makes us thirst for more. Our voices and interpretations weave into the ancient text, our hearts are engaged and new texts emerge. Learning brings deep joy and is key to a thriving Jewish future. If this kind of learning is not part of your Jewish experience, let’s figure out how it can be. If you have experienced it, but are finding it does not fit into your busy life – use Yom Kippur as a catalyst to think where it might fit in. Relevant, meaningful, thought-provoking learning sustains us.
Ezra and Nehemiah did things differently. They were not afraid to veer from the past. You’ll hear echoes of the original teaching at Mount Sinai – Ezra taught from an elevated platform; and Torah was given on a mountain. Both happened in the context of community. But the key is the difference. At Mount Sinai, only the men were there to receive Torah. Here women are included. Ezra and Nehemiah were not afraid to shake things up. At Mount Sinai, Torah was revealed through fear and trembling – shofars blasting and mountains quaking. Here it is patiently taught and explained. Ezra and Nehemiah knew different times required different approaches. Judaism survived and thrived because of their ability to be creative. They had the chutzpah to re-interpret God – joy in God is the way to strength and meaning. That’s new!
This moment in Jewish life calls for creativity. What brings deep joy is both eternal – community, connection, caring, learning; and ever evolving. We have to walk in the footsteps of Ezra and Nehemiah embracing creativity and innovation, woven together with tradition. There are incredibly creative and innovative minds doing amazing things in the Jewish community right now.
On Erev Rosh Hashana, Bill spoke about author Anita Diamant revitalizing the practice of mikveh. A little over ten years ago, she spearheaded an effort to create Mayim Hayim in Boston– a modern mikveh. It really hit a cord. Now hundreds of people a week now go for a spiritual experience. Listen to Anita’s description of the spiritual power of mikveh: “Mikveh is the essential ritual of beginning. Immersion marks the start of married life, and life as a choosing Jew, as well as a renewed return to sex after a menstrual pause. New rabbis, doctors, and college graduates sometimes begin their careers with a mindful walk down seven steps into the water. Cancer survivors and recovering addicts on the precipice of a new month or a new year can make a fresh start in the mikveh, too.” There is a group here that goes to the ocean before the High Holidays for a mikvah experience and it is powerful. Embracing Ezra and Nehemiah’s creativity inspires us as we move forward. On Erev Rosh Hashana, Bill taught about a podcast called Judaism Unbound full of creative ideas. Together, we’ll learn and find our own path for creativity.
There is one more important detail in Nehemiah 8, I want to study with you. Go to verse 3: Ezra read from it…to the men and women and those who could understand. If the men and women are already there, who is this third category – those who could understand? Some say it is the children. Ezra and Nehemiah saw that the children could understand. They embraced the capacity for tradition to move them – and it did.
Our children need to be engaged with joy, laughter, belonging, meaning and purpose. Their joy becomes our joy and we thrive. I picture the children from Ezra and Nehemiah’s time there with every generation learning and celebrating – it must have been incredible! It’s what our children experience here, and it needs to grow.
Ask kids in this community about their experiences at Jewish overnight summer camp, or our Religious School. Ask a teen about Youth Group, or the volunteer programs they do through the Jewish community. Ask a college student about their Birthright trip. You’ll hear about amazing programs and camps. The excitement will be infectious. At summer camp – Camps Tawonga, Maccabee JCC, Newman, Ramah in Ojai and the new Ramah Galim that opened this summer in Northern California, they live Judaism every day – forming friendships that last throughout life as they belt out Hebrew songs in the dining hall and gather for havdalah under the stars. Ask and you’ll hear how they enjoy Junior Congregation, and want to come to Religious School. Rabbi Ilana shared a letter from a mother whose kids wished Religious School was every day!
My experiences as a young person are one of the reasons I am a rabbi. I remember being in 5th grader at Jewish summer camp, that nerdy boy swaying amidst the redwoods to the songs of the service and I felt connected to the people there and to something beyond. Those friendships have lasted a lifetime, and the experiences shaped me and others in profound ways. Let’s support thriving Jewish life for our children – stretching ourselves to ensure they thrive. Their success depends on us.
I understand that many have not experienced Jewish community with the joy I have described. Some of you have felt outside of community or that learning has not resonated. I imagine in Ezra and Nehemiah’s times there were many who shared similar stories. Ezra and Nehemiah reached out. Today we reach out to you. Please join in. Come and talk to us. Let us help you find your way into community. Look at all the people wearing ribbons today, which say: “Ask me About….” We have a large core of people who care deeply and partner to create a community of joy. Their arms and hearts are open.
Let’s be ambitious in setting goals for increasing and deepening connection – moving some people from no connection to some connection, and from some connection to deeper connection, and deeper connection to even deeper. Let’s embrace the shared responsibility to bring in those who are disconnected.
Go back to that moment in Ezra and Nehemiah as people gather and learn together. I think something else was happening. For some, coming together created a sense of connection to something beyond temporal existence – call it anything you want – God, the mystery which transcends realty. Jewish community opens the door to explore that aspect of our humanity. A piece of Ezra and Nehemiah and our renewal is nurturing and exploring that connection to something beyond ourselves.
The story is told of the Baal Shem Tov, who traveled from town to town and came to a small village before Yom Kippur. He asked about holiday services and was told they were led by a certain Rabbi – but the townspeople gave the Rabbi negative reviews. They complained, “He is cheerful all of the time.” Clearly these people thought the High Holidays require great solemnity. The Baal Shem Tov asked to meet the Rabbi and asked him why he was so cheerful. The Rabbi told a parable explaining that the janitor who cleaned the king’s hall sings while he cleans because he knew it was pleasing to the king. The king is God, and we are the custodian caring for God’s hall. As we sing and feel joy, it is pleasing to God.
The Baal Shem Tov said, “May my lot be with you.” As our community grows in joy, may we feel the joyful connection to each other and to God. May we invite others to this place of joy. As we each experience it, may we say at the Baal Shem Tov did: “May my lot be with you.” Gmar Tov.