Lead Me Into the Mystery – Rabbi Joshua L. Caruso, Yom Kippur 5773

In rabbinical school, we had a wonderful Talmud professor named Michael Chernick – we liked him because he was not your typical seminary teacher. He was impolitic, unpolished, but surprisingly aware of what we rabbis-to-be were experiencing – he had our number. And there were times when he departed from the expected course of study to tell us a story. Here’s one that has remained with me:

When he first started teaching at the seminary there was a cadre of students who were so smart and so talented that they really did not need to continue in the rabbinical school program. He continued on to say that this particular group of scholars was so advanced, so bright, and so wise that they just should have been ordained right away. Rabbi Chernick shared this story early on in our first year of study with him, and afterwards, my classmates and I were incredulous, looking at each other and wondering how on earth a rabbinical student could be so advanced that she could merit early ordination. And then, almost at once, we all realized that the good professor had seized a teaching moment. The people he was speaking of were rabbinical students who behaved as if their collective experiences up until admission into rabbinical school (e.g., background in temple youth group leadership, experience as junior-year abroad students in Israel, and their matriculation in Religion classes in undergraduate school) were sufficient and ample preparation for the rabbinate. As a result, they came to school with a swagger, thinking the required classes they had to take were merely a formality. They already knew it all; had it all together.

Rabbi Chernick’s story about his former students served as a cautionary tale. My teacher’s not so subtle message taught us that we should consider and imagine the many things we don’t know, and have yet to learn. I took it as a directive to boldly move forward into the unknown, as if to say, “Lead me into the Mystery”, a liturgical piece in our daily prayer book[1]. Lead me into the mystery of the life I have yet to live. Lead me into the mystery, so I can learn from others. Lead me into the mystery, to summon the courage to grow.

As the bright sheen of Rosh Hashanah wears off, Yom Kippur reminds us of the gravity of our days, and the inescapable immortality ahead. Everything born must die, and, as the liturgy so elegantly declares, “we are like grass that withers, a fading flower…” As autumn takes hold, I check myself in the mirror to see the remnant of youth in front of me, and peek in a little closer at my graying temples; a sure reminder of life’s relentless progression. I know I’m not alone; we are all aging; young, old, and middle-aged. While Yom Kippur reminds us of how much we have lost in the past year – loved ones, strength of spirit, will power, a job, health coverage – Rabbi Alan Lew teaches that the one thing that grows with us in life is wisdom[2] – but this wisdom does not surface without tests, challenges, of who we are and what we believe we can do.

A couple of years ago, the Mandel JCC advertised a mini-triathlon (15 minutes of swimming; then, a frantic 10-minute break to change from swim trunks to shorts; 20 minutes of spinning on a cycle; then, an unacceptable 5-minute break to catch a small breath; finally, 20 minutes of track running). That first year I accomplished a third of the triathlon; I only ran the track, joining temple staff members to do the swimming and spinning. The next year I decided to do the whole thing myself. I trained and trained, aiming to get faster and pushing myself. I specifically remember the swimming, and the press to improve my time. I remember using muscles I had not called upon in years, and the primal ache I felt every time I climbed out of the pool. When I first began training, I imagined I was back in old Mr. Wroble’s swimming class; the one I took when I was a kid during summers on Shelter Island in New York.

In the pool at the JCC, my periphery often caught all of the other swimmers in the adjacent lanes; they seemed to be gliding and charging past me, while I appeared to be moving as if anchored to a block of cement. Every time my mind wandered and I peered out at the others, I managed to refocus, reminded of the breathing and kicking exercises I learned as a kid. After a few weeks of training, the mechanics of swinging my arms around, regulating my breathing, and kicking my legs in rhythm opened me up to discover an ability I never believed I could muster – an element I had not known existed within me. For practically my whole life, I had signed off from swimming, deciding that it was best to put my efforts into physical activities I knew I could do well; ones that did not challenge me but on which I could always fall back. Living inside my own body for over four decades, I was surprised to find a depth of possibility emerging from physical maturity – and yet, I felt like a child learning something new; swimming in a new sea of possibility. I will tell you that after all of that training in the pool I am still not a very good swimmer, but I captured something much more important than excellence in aquatics – I let go of an old and antiquated belief about personal limitations.  With that first entry into the cold and strange pool, I let go and said, “Lead me into the mystery”.

The mystery begins when we walk through doorways that separate despair from hope, and disappointment from possibility. Passing through thresholds can leave the irredeemable moments of the past where they should be left– in the past. Yom Kippur is such a doorway, and today we stand before it. When we enter, we carry the baggage of the past, but we conclude Yom Kippur with Neila – in joy and with possibility, punctuated with a blast of the shofar. And the first thing we are commanded to do after Yom Kippur (after eating, of course) is to build a sukkah – a life-embracing act. We walk through one doorway, and enter into a new season of joy. Doorways can be triggers for change.

The Quarterly Journal of Experiential Psychology[3] submits that the mere act of walking through a doorway triggers a switch in our brain, and serves as an “event boundary”. The study revealed that when memories are stored in the brain, they are lost when we pass through a doorway; the memories are less accessible. The memory is no longer at the forefront of our minds. How is it that we can forget a task that we seeded in our brains two minutes ago, and yet we remember (and maintain) ancient and outdated ideas of who we are and what we are capable of? Wouldn’t it be a neat trick if we could cross through a doorway and lose the memory of everything that holds us back?

On this Day of Atonement, we not only ask forgiveness for the ways in which we erred in our actions, but we ask forgiveness for our inaction. When did we allow fear and indifference to stymie our courage? When did we accept our limitations instead of pushing through them? When did we shy away from the open door simply because we were afraid to step through?

I thought about all of these things when I first approached temple leadership about the prospect of going on sabbatical, marking my first ten years here at Fairmount Temple. I am so grateful to share in this amazing congregation with all of you. I love our temple for its rich history and dedication to issues of social concern. I love our temple because of its commitment to learning and intellectual rigor. And I love Fairmount Temple, because you have welcomed my passion for our faith and for living out the prophetic call to do our part in repairing this world. I am grateful for the trust you have invested with me. Thank you for giving me the privilege of being your rabbi.

Dayenu…that would be enough. But I also enjoy raising my children in Greater Cleveland, surrounded by loving extended family. Moreover, it’s so darned convenient to be a Jew here! One must make an effort to leave the cozy confines of the eastern suburbs (I always bring my passport when I plan to cross the Cuyahoga!). As I took note of this, it became increasingly clear that I have lived in places where Judaism has always come easy. Perhaps, I thought, I have taken it for granted.

Raised in New York City, it seemed like – Jewish or not – everyone had a basic understanding of Judaism. Moreover, I was under the illusion that all of America knew what a Jew looked like, and that every community had its fair share of Jewish inhabitants.

This myth was shattered in my third year of rabbinical school.  I was given the chance to serve Sha’are Shalom, a small community of 35 families. Nestled in Charles County – a good 45 minutes south of DC – the congregation had its hands full just to survive. I would visit once a month, riding along the Amtrak Northeast Corridor Line. A congregant would pick me up in New Carrollton, and get me settled at their home, where I would lodge. As any urban-dwelling native New Yorker can attest, the feeling of being away from the city (and not having taxi cabs available at the ready) left me anxious. As I rode in that train, I certainly had the feeling I was being led “into the mystery”.

The small congregation rented out a church on Friday nights and Saturday mornings. I remember leading little more than a minyan of Jews in prayer in one of the larger rooms the church used as a classroom. At my first time leading prayer, I bowed reverently for the Barechu prayer, only to be greeted upon my rising by a poster that read, “Jesus Loves You” (‘Note to self’, I voiced internally, ‘temporarily remove the ‘Jesus’ poster before the next prayer service’). It was then that I realized I wasn’t in Kansas (or New York) anymore. “Jews in Church” stories notwithstanding, I discovered a community with an overflowing generosity of spirit. At Sha’are Shalom, religious school was taught by volunteers who acquired the teacher’s edition of the Hebrew primer to learn how to teach it. The oneg Shabbat desserts were homemade and potluck and supporting the fund raiser meant selling kosher hot dogs at local fairs. The big fundraising push was for the building fund. Everyone contributed – even the kids, donating money from their piggy banks. It took the community more than ten years, but they finally got their temple built. I was honored to attend the dedication ceremony. The tallis I wear today is a handmade gift made by one of the temple founders.

While this temple community was inspirational for all it did to support itself – I found myself transformed by it – using cognitive muscles I did not even know I had. My favorite memories were not necessarily during services; they were the Shabbat meals I spent with these families and the late night conversations with founding members of the temple. It was there that I understood what it meant to want something so much that it becomes a center of your life, a core piece of who you are. Every brownie baked for an oneg, every dime saved by a five year old, and every community member who learned Hebrew (and even how to chant) so another verse of Torah could be read proved to me that building community required more than a well-groomed synagogue, a well-appointed staff, and a caterer who provided a delicious oneg each week. While I would never have labeled myself as one of those “know-it-all” students Rabbi Chernick referenced, I certainly had no idea what Jewish America looked like.

How many more Jewish communities in America are like Sha’are Shalom? Moreover, how does one summon up the resolve to maintain Jewish life when there are few people or resources to support it? While I can intuit some of the answers to these questions, I can also imagine that there will be answers I will only be able to find when I sit in living rooms, in synagogues, and open spaces where Jews come together to keep their faith going. I want to learn how they summon the humility and courage to forge on when communities have a dearth of Jews, or when traditional Jewish living is not an option. And maybe in the process I will discover how Judaism in America has been sustained, and how these lessons can inform my work back here in Beachwood. There are the doorways I seek to traverse, and THIS is the aim of my upcoming sabbatical.

Lead me into the mystery…from Waldorf, Maryland to the Deep South, where The Goldring/Woldenberg Institute for Southern Jewish Living (ISJL) supports over one hundred congregations in thirteen states that are too small to survive on their own (including Hattiesburg, Mississippi, where Rabbi Lelyveld, of blessed memory, bravely registered African-Americans to vote). These communities share a complex history when juxtaposed with the civil rights struggle in the south and the exodus of Jews to bigger cities with greater opportunity. The Institute will pair me with one these congregations where I will preach and teach and spend Shabbat with congregational families.  In areas with few Jews how do communities promote Jewish living when there are few resources available to them?

Lead me into the mystery…from the Jewish South to the Gulf Coast, where Rabbi Bob Lowey is the spiritual leader of Gates of Prayer congregation in Metairie, Louisiana – a suburb of New Orleans. Rabbi Loewy’s congregational membership was heavily impacted by the floods caused by Hurricane Katrina. He speaks about how his community rebounded from the episode, and the unlikely connection his Reform congregation made with an Orthodox community. Reform and Orthodox rabbis who helped each other, hand-in-hand, recover from the floods. Now, the two congregations are neighbors; sharing the experience of bringing Judaism to the greater Jewish community. I wonder how a community recovers when a whole city is brought down to its knees. What role did Judaism play in the recovery, and what lessons were learned?

Lead me into the mystery…from the Crescent City to the California Institution for Women in Corona, CA, where Rabbi Moshe Halfon, brother of our member, Ellen Halfon, serves as its chaplain. Female Jewish inmates can choose to be part of a program called, “Restorative Justice”, which seeks to heal the long-lasting wounds borne from alcohol and drug addiction, and of making bad choices. Ever since Rabbi Halfon told me about his work, I have been curious to better understand how Jews who are incarcerated can relate to the timeless Jewish value of freedom. I wonder what it will feel like to move through the prison hallways and doors. How can one experience a captive existence and still be hopeful about the future?

In all these places, Jewish leaders have taken bold steps to move through the doorway of age-old self-perceptions and institutional expectations in order to move into the mystery. It is in the mystery where Judaism grows and evolves – and survives! So too it is with each one of us. It is time to limber up, to stretch those unused muscles, to resolve those unfulfilled resolutions.

I look forward to sharing everything I learn with our community back here in Beachwood, and to lead you with a renewed heart. I also invite your sharing of the unique doorways you stand before in your life. I invite you to send me a note or tell me in person as you move into the mystery yourselves.

The shofar calls us to summon the courage to propel ourselves forward with both humility and courage; humility to make the deep dive into areas we never believed we’d go, and courage to push on through. Let us walk through the doorway of Yom Kippur together, into repentance, into spiritual sustenance, into the mystery that will take us to that next place of discovery and growth.


[1] Mishkan Tefila Prayer Book, P. 457

[2] This Is Real And You Are Completely Unprepared, Lew, Alan – P. 225