October 4, 2023 -
Did you see Aly Raisman’s gymnastic floor routine in the Olympics? For us especially at temple, with Aly being a child from a sister synagogue in Newton, Massachusetts, seeing her exalt and show her capabilities was especially uplifting. Hava Nagila – indeed! Come let us raise up our hearts. Hava N’ranana – Come let us raise our voices in delight! She honored our country and Jewish hearts around the world by performing her incredible gymnastic feats to the song we all know, Hava Nagila, conveying pure Jewish joy! It was amazing to see. Yet, I also want to point out, could break a different way, if we don’t watch out for our misgivings about what our own personal challenges.
Sure, we want to see Aly Raisman’s amazing achievement as a sign of what is possible. Yet so often I hear people see great athletic talent and say that it makes them reluctant to try out their own physical prowess lest their talents not measure up to Olympic glory.
I hear it from Jews in our community all the time. I didn’t get down my Bubbie’s kreplach recipe, so how can my kreplach measure up? I might as well not even offer to host the upcoming holiday, as who’d think highly of what recipe I can make. I didn’t have time to go get new groceries, so how can I make a Shabbat dinner. After all, who’ll find it inspiring to see Shabbat candles aglow over some spaghetti and salad I can whip up, like I did Tuesday night? It is a steep slope- but too many of us slide right down from the mount of exaltation to the valley of rationalization. And yea, when we walk through the valley, we fear that we’ll fall, we’ll fail, and so why even try to climb so high in the first place?
Rabbi Harold Kushner in his book How Good Do I Have To Be? indicates that over the years he saw the same pattern over and again in synagogue life: “Somebody did something wrong and someone else in their family responded by withdrawing love.” So he wrote a book to reflect on how Jewish tradition emphasizes that God does not stop loving us when our score doesn’t earn Olympic gold. Rather, our rabbis developed a tradition to show mercy and a path of repentance to us, especially when we’ve committed an error. The path of teshuvah is the home-base of Jewish living, not something that only certain people go through. So we have made a gross error in judgment if just because we can’t compose music like Marvin Hamlisch, we never lay our hands on a piano or a keyboard. Or if just because we can’t remember any song but the ones we learned in Jewish preschool, we fail to let our voices raise up in Shabbat zemirot, in songs that bring a smile and levity to our Friday table.
Indeed, Aly Raisman taught us as much this week. She showed us that if you can’t find anything else to the aspirations of the Jewish people, then just do what you like to do, your favorite sport or game, and play Hava Nagila in the background!
Cantor Sager tells me that it is no surprise that I’m thinking this week of this struggle to help Jews stay confident in their ability to strive toward fulfilling tradition. In this week’s Torah portion, Ekev, we are shown how to build our aspirations simply. In Chapter 10 of Deuteronomy we read: Mah Adonai Elohecha Sho’el Me’im-cha? What does the Eternal your God ask of you? Only this- honor God and walk in God’s ways. I like this idea, particularly the instruction of Torah that if we are looking for a path to reach our highest aspirations, then we’d do best to just look forward, and Lalechet b’chol d’rochav, keep on walking, walking forward in God’s ways.
-A person I know recently said to me and all her friends that she wants to live a longer life. She wants to feel more fit and see more things. She’s starting small, by taking walks and getting her body moving out in the earth.
-Another person I know is hurting because he thinks he feels alone and hurt by someone close to him. He is scared because he realizes his marriage is over and because it is not something he has been willing to acknowledge. So just saying it out loud is a beginning for him, just admitting it in the open. And this I believe will help him navigate his next steps.
Lalechet b’drochav. Just keep walking, just keep moving and tradition teaches we’ll find the next part of the sidewalk or the part of the journey where we’ll walk more dangerously on the shoulder of the rode where cars whizz by. But if we keep walking, we’ll find our destination.
Rabbi Caruso, in considering this teacing recently pointed out to me the Torah image of Jacob’s ladder. As you know, this occurs back in Genesis at a time when Jacob really needs something to break his way. He lays his ahead upon stones to rest, and suddenly he sees before him this ladder reaching from the ground nearby him all the way to the heavens. What could be a more aspiration-oriented image than such a magnificent ladder? For after all, the ladder touches the same ground we are walking on, and aspires to draw near to the Most High and elevated place in the universe!
I loved that idea, and then realized that the rungs on the ladder teach us something as well. For who is it that actually climbs the ladder in Jacob’s dream? Does Jacob go on the ladder? No! The ones in his dream that ascend and descend the ladder are malachim, God’s angels. I like to define malachim as individuals that are doing just exactly what God wants them to do. But in Torah we learn that even the angels need rungs on the ladder. Even angels need to take steps to help them climb up and down in their fulfillment of God’s purpose.
This means to me that when you ask even an angel, a malach, God’s messenger, to do a crowd-pleasing, judge-impressing, worthy job, say on the gymnastic floor mats in London, England, what will she find out? That no matter how much of God’s purpose and energy rushes through her veins, she’s got to take the routine step-by-step, and learn how it by trying and falling, and then getting back up, just like Aly Raisman learned it. Even an angel needs rungs on the ladder, so who are we to expect that our path to the most high achievement will come by skipping over some of the rungs on the ladder.
Friends, I’ve got to admit. This is a tough message to both talk and walk. We rabbis get caught up in the same mess of thinking that if we just set our minds to it, we can skip the rungs on the ladder and leap right up into a messy situation armed only with our good intentions and more than a single dollop of self-righteousness. But I need help teasing out a plan just like any other person on the spiritual roadside. It’s why you hear me seeking out guidance from my colleagues, and why I need your help as well.
For I look out at so many gathered at our Kabbalat Shabbat worship. So many of of our members began coming to this special service, unsure of whether it would develop into a tradition that was personal and enriching for them. They may have come at first because a friend asked you to keep them company, or because you heard from the Cantor about the great music. Let’s face it: a few of them come for the cookies out in the lobby, or the sweet feeling you feel once you tried it.
I’ve got a question for you, especially those who’ve been coming to Kabbalat Shabbat for awhile. What’s the next rung on the ladder you are climbing? Where will you go to next? This is not something that another person, even a rabbi can tell you. You’ve got a whole array of choices for figuring out your next rung, your next plan. You can read the temple bulletin or the Cleveland Jewish News, or ask the friends with whom you work out at the J. You can read the High Holy Day prayer book or the weekly Torah portion or even the recipe book of our temple sisterhood. But it is yours to figure out a next adventure, a new aspiration that will help you continue climbing. But do me a favor, don’t keep it a secret. Do tell. Tell me and tell your kids and grandkids. When you know what’s next, or if I can help you see what could be next, do tell!
For what does Jewish tradition ask of you, only this: keep walking. Keep going. And one day I promise you’ll feel the urge to raise your arms up in triumph expressing your happiness about an accomplishment you’d have been hard-pressed to predict you could do. Then I hope you’ll hear your people near and far sing along with you, Hava Nagila, Come – let us rejoice! Hava N’ranana, Come, let us raise our voices in song!