Erev Rosh Hashanah 2012

I will never forget when I first came to the Temple for a service in May, it was just before I was supposed to start.  Rabbi Ballon and I were going to co-lead the service, IMS pilgrimage was going to be there along with other guests.  There was a full sanctuary.  I was prepared – I had done my service outline, reviewed it with Rabbi Ballon, I had checked all major commentary on that weeks parshah and even had practiced various liturgical melodies.  I was going to have a great shabbat service!

Then the surprise came – “Rabbis,”     Frank Broyals asked, “can you please answer some questions about Judaism?”

“Sure” I responded, after all I had just graduated from HUC, was just ordained, I knew all there was to know about Judaism.

“Is there still pilgrimage in Judaism?  How do you do pilgrimage?”

I stood there, taking a deep breath…oh my goodness…pilgrimage…what?  I knew about the shelosh regalim, but did not know about pilgrimage per se.  I didn’t even understand what she was asking me.  Then Rabbi Ballon answered and said we have the festivals, people make a sacred journey to Jerusalem.  But after the destruction Jews didn’t really have pilgrimage in the sense that she was asking.

I felt embarrassed that I didn’t know the answer, and promptly forgot about the whole concept until this past year. Then I realized that neither of us truly answered her question.  She was asking about how do we find the holy…that after all is what pilgrimage is about.

This year I started to think about pilgrimage again after several conversations with Christian clergy.  I have started to realize how natural it is, almost instinctual. We have an instinctual pull to find the holy.

I would like us to contemplate on the holy.

Please take a deep breath.  Have you ever heard of the monarch butterfly migration. The length of the trip exceeds the lifespan for each butterfly – who live on average two months.  These butterflies deposit eggs on their trip up north from Mexicoin the spring and return south in August.  These butterflies angle themselves according to Earth’s magnetic field and the angle of the sun.

While animals may migrate for a variety of reasons – including procreation, finding resources to eat and as a result of natural selection – humans move around also insearch of various things – food, safty, and searching for the holy.

Can you think of another type of  pilgrimage?  One who travels from their home, to a new place receive energies and go back to where they started?  What about Abraham?  Can you think of anything closer to home?

What about the heart.  Put your hand on your heart.  Feel it beating.  Imagine the blood that is in your veins going to your heart to get oxygen and being pumped out through your arteries into your extremities – into the hand that is over your heart.  It naturally went from its place of origin to get energy only to go out again.

Yet when we think about our hearts, we need to start to think about how the blood is flowing around our arteries, is it free flowing or is it having to take a rough ride over the patches of cholesterol which is starting to clog our body.  Think also of the narrow arteries, which can’t necessary allow for blood to flow.  It makes taking this pilgrimage very hard.

I want us to think of the holiday that happens immediately after Yom Kippur, just five days later is Sukkot.  When the Temple still stood in Jerusalem, this was the most important holiday.  It was the holiday when thousands of people would jam their way into Jerusalem.  Stalls would be built, accommodations were put together simply to house and feed everyone.  It was so popular, that King Herod expanded the Temple promenade simply to allow for more visitors.  It was a great pilgrimage. Once the Temple was destroyed, the journey to Jerusalem for pilgrimage stopped as well.

Imagine making this journey from Greece, carrying all of your needs with you, money to buy an animal for a sacrifice and other necessities as well as carrying an extra 20 pounds around your waste.  Imagine how hard your heart would have to work to give energy to all the parts of your body.

Today we live in a period of obesity.  Different periods of history were marked by various plagues on humanity and ours today is obesity.  When I say obesity I do not simply mean around your waste line.  I mean in every way.

We our obese physically, socially and economically.

Our physical obesity is intense.  Over 2/3rds of all Americans today are obese.  As if that is not startling enough, I believe that our economic obesity is even more problematic than our physical issues.

Economic consumption in this country is at the vary heart of how we respond to crisis, it is what we do for a past time, it is how we live our lives.  After 9/11, then president George Bush said that for us to jump start the economy we needed to go shopping.  We needed to spend money.  When the economic downturn occurred, Saks famously  ran an advertisement campaign “WANT IT!” These posters screaming “WANT IT” were all over the store, on shopping bags, at the cash register.  It was appealing to the greed that exists inside of us.  If our car is too small, replace it.  If our refrigerator door does not work, lets simply replace the entire unit.  What about “keeping up with Jones’s?” you might ask.  While I would respond that today it is “keeping up with the Kardashians”

Shopping has become our nations favorite pastime.  Simply think of the holiday rush, when people wait in lines and rush into a store, pushing others out of their way to get a new flat screen HDTV with internet capabilities and getting rid of the TV that still works because it is not the latest model.

Following World War II, when consumerism began, it was a way for families who had pulled themselves up out of the depression by working in factories to support the war effort to purchase items needed to create a house.  The concept of “More, Newer Better,” really came to be praised.  Yet research has consistently demonstrated that money does not buy happiness.  Materialism does not buy happiness.  Even the term “consumer,” creates a sense of anxiety in people.  People who place a high value on wealth, status and material items tend to be more depressed and less sociable than those who do not have those values.

“We found that irrespective of personality, in situations that activate a consumer mindset, people show the same sorts of problematic patterns in wellbeing, including negative affect and social disengagement,” says Northwestern University psychologist Galen V. Bodenhausen.[1]

This is a problem that goes beyond the personal, and now enters into the communal.

We have essentially built an entire society whose entire value is that we can never ever ever have enough.  We always need to buy things, we always need newthings.  We do not take the time to feel grateful or acknowledge what we have.  We are so anxious about our appearance, the labels on our garments, how to we look to our others.  We have failed to see and think about the type of person we want to be.  We have forgotten to be grateful for what we have and what we are able to grow.

Social obesity…how does this manifest itself?  We assume the challenge of society, our workplace, family or congregation are not because we created them.  We can easy look to blame someone else for the problem existing.  All I need to do is turn on the news and look at our politicians blaming someone else for causing the problem.  We have gotten so good at manipulating statistics and exaggerating facts to blow up problems that we have failed to address the root cause of the problem.  I can think about the debate last summer over our debt and credit rating or simply look at Congress to see how badly broken and socially obese we are.  We do not believe it is our responsibility to solve the problem.  We leave the heavy lifting to someone else, a few brave souls willing to make a sacrifice to step out.

In 2007, the entire world entered the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression.  It began with the bursting of the American housing bubbled, followed by the collapse of Lehman Brothers.  We have started to scape goat rich bankers and their crazy bonuses, to hedge-fund mangers to self-centered executives.  What about our responsibility in this?  Most of us rain up far greater debt than we were capable of carrying.  What about the idea of collective responsibility?  We have created these challenges, now we have to solve them.

On Yom Kippur we read about the scapegoat, whose received the sins of the community.  The ancient Israelites believed that sins were something physical and needed to be removed from the community. Today instead, we blame persons or groups of people scapegoating them.  Instead we need to acknowledge that within us is both the yetzer hara and the yetzer hatov – the inclination to do evil and the inclination to do good.  By recognizing our own limitations, perhaps we will less likely we able to project them onto others.

Let me bring it closer to home, than simply talking about the economy.  Please take a tour our Temple, if you did, what will you find?  You will find items piled up from last year’s Purim carnival that were not returned to the basement, boxes from the Hanukah sale, old siddurim, and old papers among other things.  Our cluttered building, with the tired looking social hall is only a mirror of our society.  It is simply a glimpse into the life patterns we struggle with in all aspects of our lives.  We can blame one person for specific problems, but it was all of us who contributed.

All of this clutter, all of this material stuff is weighing us down.

I would like to share a story with you.  One of my friends was on a pilgrimage walking.  He was traversing around 550 miles on foot to the holy site.  The longer he goes on the path, the clearer he is able to think and see the world around him.  While on the path, his knees and ankles begin to hurt him.  He slowly starts to remove items from his pack that he is carrying as he realizes that the extra weight is not only slowing him down, but it is physically hurting him and making his quest to find the sacred all that more challenging.  He is making a choice to become leaner, which ultimately allows him to find God, purified and focused.

As Jews we know the ten commandments, we value them.  We recite them liturgically three times a year.  But do we follow them?  What about the second commandment:

Second Commandment (Exodus 20:3-6): You shall have no other gods beside Me. You shall not make for yourself any graven image, nor any manner of likeness, of any thing that is heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them, nor serve them, for I, the Lord Your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation.

By placing a value on material items we are putting them before God.  We are making graven images, these graven images are the desire that we have to achieve wealth, status and to have the best.  It is our believe that we are better than someone else and therefore act recklessly. We don’t need to clean up, someone else will take care of it for us.  It is how much extra weight we have by valuing food so much, by being unable to delay gratification, that we are literally clogging ourselves up with cholesterol.

Let’s  try to come back to who we really are.  Let’s try and find a way back to ourselves, and ultimately to God by asking what is it that we value.  What kind of choices are we making?  Can we make leaner choices?  Can we make a better choice?

As we journey together to find the holy in our lives, let us start by lightening the load that we are carrying.  The simple act of coming here for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is a pilgrimage.  You have come here tonight to find the holy.  While you are here, let’s start to think about the behaviors that we do which add to our burden, be aware of it and then slowly modify.  As we shift ourselves physically, socially and economically we will also shift ourselves spiritually.

May we be able to find God, to feel God’s presence and to make decisions which lead to a healthier, happier, community.

[1] The study, conducted with colleagues Monika A. Bauer, James E. B. Wilkie, and Jung K. Kim, appears in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.

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