This piece is part of a Joseph Meyerhoff Center for Jewish Experience series of sermons contributed by Hillel Directors for the 5775 High Holidays.
In 1919, at the age of 36, the German-Jewish writer Franz Kafka wrote a letter to his father, trying to explain why their relationship had been and was a difficult one. One of the subjects he addresses in the letter is what has been dubbed his “Father’s Bourgeois Judaism.” See if this sounds familiar to any of you:
“On four days in the year we went to the synagogue, where you were, to say the least, closer to the indifferent than to those who took it seriously, [you] patiently went through the prayers by way of formality, [you] sometimes amazed me by being able to show me in the prayer book the passage that was being said at the moment, and for the rest, so long as I was in the synagogue (and that was the main thing) I was allowed to hang about wherever I liked. And so I yawned and dozed through the many hours (I don’t think I was ever again so bored, except later at dancing lessons) and did my best to enjoy the few little bits of variety there, as, for instance, when the Ark of the Covenant was opened…And so there was the religious material that was handed to me, to which may be added at most the outstretched hand pointing to ‘the sons of the millionaire Fuchs,’ who were in the synagogue with their father at high holidays.
It sounds familiar to me, every bit of it. It is always amazing when a childhood memory of the early 1900s can be the same as a childhood memory of the 1980s. If this sounds like your childhood memory of synagogue, then know that you are in good company.
So what are we doing here?
Is this our father’s Judaism?
Are we being dragged along to synagogue, even if our parents are not actually in attendance with us today? Are we as bored as we would be at dancing lessons?
And what will we be doing tomorrow morning, when we go through the ancient prayers and melodies of Rosh Hashanah, affirming God as our King and asking for forgiveness, asking to be inscribed in the book of life for a another year, and pledging that our own efforts in prayer, charity and good deeds will be renewed? Will we be praying in an authentic way, from our hearts, whether or not the words in the prayer book help us to do that? Will we be aligning ourselves with the ancient origins of a holiday that came in the fall, the time of the harvest, when things begin to die off outside, giving us a chance to turn inward and tend to the harvest of our inner lives? Will we enter the metaphors of subject and King, of child and father, of defendant and judge? Will we allow ourselves to play a part in the elaborate drama of the Rosh Hashanah service, or will we keep ourselves apart from it, reading the responsive reading by rote, and slipping back into the habits of our parent’s Judaism?
I want to be clear. Although Kafka’s critique of his father’s Judaism was scathing and, I suspect, right on, it is not a critique of all Judaism. It is not even a critique of the synagogue service per se, but rather it critiques the way his father related to that service, the way he showed up and just went through the motions. That is not what Judaism, or any religion, has to be about.
But this depends on you.
This depends on you making an effort to have your own relationship to Judaism. It depends on you taking the opportunity that you have in these few hours of services today and tomorrow, to start again. To think of something new that you want to incubate in yourself for the New Year. To think about how you are going to do teshuvah— the Hebrew word for return. This word is sometimes translated as repentance, but it really means turning around. Doing an about-face. Changing what needs to be changed, and doing things differently.
Along this line of thinking, there is a challenge and an opportunity that I want to raise up for this coming Jewish year, the year of 5775. This is a shmita, or sabbatical year in the Jewish calendar. The origins of the shmita year are from the Torah, where it instructs people to leave the land barren every seven years. We read in Exodus chapter 23: verses 10-11
“For six years you are to sow your land and to gather in its produce, but in the seventh, you are to let it go and to let it be, that the needy of your people may eat, and what remains, the wildlife of the field shall eat. Do thus with your vineyard, with your olive-grove.
And again, in Leviticus 25:3-6:
“For six years you are to sow your field, for six years you are to prune your vineyard, then you are to gather in its produce, but in the seventh year there shall be a Sabbath of Sabbath-ceasing for the land (sometimes translated as a Sabbath of complete rest), a Sabbath to the Lord: your field you are not to sow, your vineyard you are not to prune, the aftergrowth of your harvest you are not to harvest, the grapes of your consecrated-vines you are not to amass; a Sabbath of Sabbath-ceasing shall there be for the land!”
The land must rest. We have to give the land a break—it requires its own Shabbat. Humans are supposed to rest every 7 days, on Saturday at the end of the week, and the land is supposed to rest every 7 years.
There are a lot more references to the sabbatical year in the Torah, each with their own nuance. But for the sake of background today, these verses are a good start.
The big question, now that we know about the shmita year beginning, right now, this evening with the start of 5775, is: what does that have to do with us?
The simple answer is: nothing.
The laws of shmita only apply to the land of Israel, which is defined in very specific terms in the Bible, and even today in Israel there are many legal loopholes that help people still grow food during the shmita year in Israel. If you are traveling in Israel sometime this year (and Birthright registration is still open!), you may notice in the market that some fruits and vegetables are marked so that you know if they are grown in Israel or imported from elsewhere, but otherwise even there you might not notice it. So why do I bring it up?
I bring it up, because the idea of shmita, even if it is not halakhically (which means according to Jewish law) observed by Jews outside of Israel, is still applicable to our lives today. In fact, it is essential for this moment in time. This is a moment in time, when we are facing grave difficulties for the planet earth and every animal population, including humans, who are living on it. And if you don’t think so, just listen to or read the news for a couple of days in a row. The idea of turning, of starting anew, of changing our ways, has never seemed so urgent before, on a global scale. And the global begins with the personal. For us, this year, it can begin with using the concept of shmita — the concept of rest for the land and ourselves, and release of debt to create a more equitable society, to examine our own behaviors and beliefs and see what we want to change.
Last year around this time, my father-in-law gave me a book written by a colleague of his at MIT. The book, by John Ehrenfeld, who started the MIT Program on Technology, Business and the Environment in the mid-1980s, is called “Flourishing: A Frank Conversation about Sustainability.” This book addresses the state of sustainability in business, and raises the stakes by arguing that sustainability is not enough—what we need is a paradigm shift in how we understand the world. We need to move from a society that focuses on and values consuming, to a society that focuses on and values flourishing.
How does John Ehrenfeld define flourishing? He writes in his book:
“Flourishing is the realization of a sense of completeness, independent (my emphasis) of our immediate material context. Flourishing is not some permanent state but must be continually generated. The world is always moving forward, and those domains of our lives that have been momentarily satisfied will require attention again and again. But the emptiness associated with our constant striving to ‘satisfy’ insatiable needs is not present. Flourishing is the result of acting out of caring for oneself, other human beings, the rest of the ‘real, material’ world, and also for the out-of–the-world, that is the spiritual or transcendental world. Attending to these four domains of care is what makes us distinctly human. It means tending to family, for example, according to an authentic, self-conscious sense of what matters over time. Completion of one’s actions in any domain is not an absolute end, but a state in a never-ending pursuit of flourishing.”
He goes on to argue that we should not be focusing on sustainability—the effort to sustain the lifestyles and ways of doing business that we have right now, and which are not working for us—but rather we should focus on developing a paradigm of sustainability-as-flourishing, where we reorient ourselves to do things differently, in a way that works for every part of our lives and the lives of everyone on the planet.
These are lofty ideas and goals, so let’s bring it down to earth a bit, and continue to explore the question I posed at the beginning of this talk:
What are we doing here?
I want to share a piece of an article written by a current Harvard undergraduate, Ben Sobel, for the Harvard alumni magazine. He describes a common exchange amongst undergraduates at Harvard:
“’How was your weekend?’
Ben goes on to say that “In these conversations, it doesn’t matter whether the weekend was good or bad, as long as it was productive. On campus, what I was achieving didn’t matter, as long as I was achieving.”
Now, I don’t know if this is a conversation that would be heard on Lehigh’s campus, but I suspect that the sentiment is similar. The reason I bring it up now, is because of something else the author goes on to write. He says of his first years at Harvard: “I never spent any time alone with myself, in part because I had conditioned myself to view such activity as a shameful waste of time, and in part because I was profoundly unsettled by the ‘larger uncertainties’ that surfaced whenever I spent time inside my head.”
Rabbi David Ingber of congregation Romemu in New York City puts it well in a sermon he wrote, that is quoted in the Shmita Sourcebook, put out by the Jewish Environmental Organization Hazon. Rabbi Ingber writes:
“Something miraculous happens when we stop. We get to experience the power that nature knows called dormancy. Dormancy, that which is holding; the heartbeat that rests; the hibernating animals, all of winter; waiting and waiting...There are seeds inside each and every one of us, inside this culture, that cannot emerge because we do not know that dormancy does not mean death, resting does not mean disappearing. What keeps us from stopping is that we are terrified of resting. We are afraid of the imaginative terrible things we will feel in the quiet. We fear that when we stop, even for a moment, the sheer enormity of our lives will overwhelm us. Our outspoken and unspoken fears, they speed up our lives. Like a stone being thrown over a lake, we've learned to skip so we don’t get too wet, and we are terrified that if we let the stone fall, we will disappear. And so we think that our speed will save us from the void. We dance around the security that is offered from touching what is underneath the speed. Can we let go of the obsession of finishing what can’t be finished?”
This is what observing shmita, even if we are not literally farmers resting our fields for the year, can help us with. We can apply the concept of slowing down, stopping, and resting to our own lives. I realize that this is anathema to the normal mode of the college student, who is so busy they can never stop or slow down. But I want you to think of this not only for this moment in your life—when you CAN make time to stop and reflect—coming to Rosh Hashanah services is just one example of that—but also think of this in the arc of your whole life, and how you want to live it.
What are we doing here?
We are here tonight, to take that first step.
We are here to pray individually, and together, for a year of renewal and the courage to change.
We are here to stop, to take a look at what surfaces when we stop, and to be with it.
We are here to dedicate ourselves to caring for all the people and lives of this planet.
We are not here to just go through the motions. We are not here to practice our parent’s Judaism.
We are here to practice our own Judaism. It is our job to take these traditions and do them in a way that works for us. It is our job to make them authentic and relevant, and to use them in ways that allow us to reflect, to renew and to change. I invite you to an ongoing conversation about how we can do this, individually and as a community.
And so I hope that this work of reflection has begun for you so far this Rosh Hashanah.
If it has not yet begun, let it begin now.
Rabbi Danielle Stillman is the Director of Lehigh University Hillel.