April 12, 2024 -

Faith, Community and Fast Food: Rabbi Robert Nosanchuk on Yom Kippur 2014

This blog post on “If Not Now, When?” the interactive blog of Anshe Chesed Fairmount Temple is excerpted from the remarks of Rabbi Robert Nosanchuk as a sermon at the Yom Kippur congregation and contemporary worship services on Friday, October 3 and Saturday, October 4, 2014 at Anshe Chesed Fairmount Temple. We encourage you to share this post with friends by email, to make comments below, and to post it to social media sites like Facebook or Twitter. We wish to engender a discussion about the meaning of prayer and community.

Believe it or not, this is my fifth High Holy Days as your rabbi. In the years since I joined Anshe Chesed, a flood of people have shared with me personal links on the chain of our temple’s long history.

There are memories of social action; times when our synagogue served as a launching pad for Tikkun Olam locally and nationally. There are wonderful memories of life cycle events, when you celebrated big moments in your lives in these sacred halls. And there are memories of YPC, of family programs, of Mitzvah Days, of adult and family trips to Israel, of retreats and parent-child Hebrew classrooms, of commemorations in honor of Dr. King, and of the last decade or so of our popular Kabbalat Shabbat services, wherein so many of our members truly participate and sing together with Cantor and our band and make Shabbat a reality in our lives. It is really clear there is a unique spark of blessing in this place, and I love being your rabbi.

Now is a heady time….visions abound and hopes are high. We are growing this community again, and new members are finding this temple to be welcoming and are discovering the relevance of learning for all ages. So with all of these folks coming here… who enjoy calling Fairmount Temple their home, I was thinking: maybe just maybe we should franchise!

Yeah, that’s it. We’ve got game. We’ve got a share in the market. We should set up a Fairmount Temple franchise, at one of our local strip malls! Actually, I saw a potential site at a vacant Solon restaurant where there used to be a Kentucky Fried Chicken, which would be great, because then we could be the first temple in the country to call our worship finger-licking good! What do you think? Would you drive thru for a few minutes of time in a bottle-neck of traffic just to grab some holiness on-the-go from your favorite synagogue? Would you come? Would you enjoy? Would you really pray if your temple were a drive-thru franchise at a strip mall near you?

Although this notion of taking our prayer lives into the market-place may seem implausible, I’m sure you don’t think I’m the first Jewish leader to come up with it. The folks at Chabad have had drive-thru bracha booths for years, where any Jew can pull up and daven mincha or lay tefillin. The chazzan or the rebbe invites you to take one or two steps into a Jewishly decorated RV and when you get there you say a bracha together. They call these RV’s mitzvah mobiles and they’ve been driving them across the world for a couple of decades.

A while back I learned that a California church picked up on Chabad’s mobile prayer trend, and opened a drive-up prayer booth at a strip mall for busy suburbanites to pause, pray and reflect amidst their daily running of errands. On NPR I listened to a Pastor as she leaned into a parishioner’s mini-van and prayed for God to bless the family in it. She asked God to give them an understanding of how they might reach God in their lives.

Apparently, she and the other leaders of her church have slow days and fast days at the old photo-mart where they now meet the masses and offer them hope for salvation. They talk about bringing the word of God to people right where they are. “This is as real as it gets,” she  says, while peaking her head out the photo-mart window, and then she asks the reporter: “Could there be a better place?”  The answer I was thinking was, “Of course there’s a better place!”

Of course there is a place holding more potential to inspire faith than our cars, our automatic or stick-driven isolation tanks pulled up drive-thru style outside an old photo-mat. Our worship in this sacred space, this elegant sanctuary where so many precious memories are invested helps to prove it! There are better places to pray than our cars, although it is not as though Judaism finds anything wrong with looking for God amidst our daily doings. We know from our Talmud that as Jews we are instructed to find 100 things to offer blessings upon each day. 100 blessings! That’s not easy for Jews to do. For you have all read the story of our Exodus from Egypt. Don’t you think that 100 kvetches and moans each day would have come easier to the Jews?

Nevertheless our rabbis sought to look at even the most mundane of our daily activities as an opportunity to share prayers of praise, petition or thanksgiving.Still I’d have to bet that the rabbis of old would shriek if they saw our prayer services repackaged as a kind of take-out order from God made inside our cars and outside a space we don’t even enter, a place of virtual isolation, where we can press the gas and move on at a moment’s notice.

But  friends, believe it or not- in a way that church in California is right! Their prayer booth at the local strip mall do meet Americans precisely where we are. We are – for many hours a day- in our cars! A recent study showed that with our carpool responsibilities, our grocery-store runs and our drives to grandma’s house, on average, we in Cleveland spend 38 hours a year stuck in traffic. 38 hours!

It’s twice that amount in major communities such as Washington, D.C. or Los Angeles! Can you imagine doing all that sitting in traffic in one sit? For many of us, it feels as though all we do is drive from one place to the next. In Jewish terms, our cars have thus become the modern day version of the ancient mishkan, moveable tents of refuge and holiness. We travel in them toward a promised land.

But our journey through the modern wilderness comes again to a standstill on in the pick-up line that forms every couple of days outside American synagogues. There many of us, hundreds of us sit like we are in the drive-thru lane outside Taco Bell. We sit outside temple, many of us on our cell-phones, catching up on emails and awaiting our little packages, the children and grandchildren in our lives, to emerge from the drive-thru with fresh inspiration from their classes, choir practices, tutoring sessions and youth group programs. Because of this phenomenon, though we are hardly aware of it, it seems that most of us are setting aside our own hunger for a meaningful relationship with our faith and prayer and culture to satiate a pre-packaged take-out version of Jewish practice, no different from any other experience of American consumerism. This is a sad fact of modern life- and it is a recipe that will leave us no more satisfied than we are when we eat on the run from Burger King or Arby’s.

Now when did all this happen? Why is it such a difficult challenge for the Jewish people? And what does mean to those of us who seek a strong connection to our faith and prayer life, by standing together with our community?

My rabbinical school classmate Rabbi Bradley Solmsen, who today directs the youth engagement efforts of our Reform movement, shared a story years ago at the Hebrew Union College chapel that I think will help illustrate the issue. The story is about his grandmother entering a McDonalds only once in her lifetime.  It seems that Bradley’s grandmother proudly marched up to the counter where the young man in his Mickey D’s visor greeted this elderly lady and asked her whether he could take her order. She stood there and pondered all of the choices on the menu, taking a bit of time. “Yes, young man,” she replied. I would like to order one hamburger, medium-rare.” This poor grandma didn’t realize that in McDonalds she was asking for too much!

Perhaps it is also asking too much to ask community members in the drive thru lines of life to come in to the synagogue and dine with us, lest our Reform synagogues become places where billions are served and no one is nourished. Bradley says: “When we eat fast food…it is not as much that we are satisfied… We are not filled with nutrients or wholesome ingredients…. nor are we calmed and soothed by the atmosphere. Rather, we shove, as quickly as possible, pre-packaged pre-frozen assembly line product into our mouths and race out the door before the napkin hits our lap….In the end the food barely even touches our lips and it doesn’t necessarily even have taste.” Bradley further indicted the fast food experience with the ironic curse of Tractate Shabbat 33a in the Babylonian Talmud where it says, VDever Uvtzoraat Ba, Uvnei Adam Ochleen Venan Svei-een. This means, “pestilence and famine shall come. People will eat- but they will not be satisfied.” That is precisely the curse our synagogues want to avoid!

Here at our temple we want to make your prayer experience worth getting out of your cars. That is why over the coming months you will see how every Shabbat service, morning or evening, whether led by our clergy on our own, or together with religious school students or other lay leaders, whether at a Bar Mitzvah or at our Shabbat morning minyan… each of these experiences is designed to bring the Sabbath into your lives in an immediate and relevant, uplifting way. We believe that worship in this temple ought to be a meaningful response to the longing in our hearts for beauty, serenity and inspiration to improve the world. Even greater than that, we hope that your prayer life at our temple will be- in its own way- transformative, nothing less than a pathway of discovery, connection, meaning and observance for us and for God.

Friends, what I’m trying to say is that ours is not simply a place to be fed, we want to dine here. Anshe Chesed is not a fast food chain, nor should we be. Zeh Ha-makom asah Adonai, this is sacred community, a place of God’s doing! Our desire is that the worship we share on Shabbat and holidays be the antithesis of fast food. For in our temple, we don’t order what we want and leave. Instead we find out what we crave and we stay and cook a meal together.

We seek to make a connection with one another over a glass of wine at a Shabbat reception, to share special blessings each week to mark the milestonesin our members lives, and we come here to connect with what clergy and guest teachers, leaders and activists offer as truth from our free pulpit. For ultimately what we are up to is nothing less than the reversal of the loneliness and anomie of the modern life commute. Here we want to help you make a real connection with other human beings. We want you to agree and disagree with what is taught from our bimah. But to never doubt that it will be deeply relevant, purposeful and contain loving kindness at its core.

What I am telling you is not really a secret. You know it. Before I ever joined this temple, you had told your rabbinical search committee you wanted worship here to be raised to new heights of inspiration and joy. That’s one of the things that made me move here. I imagined us collaborating together without guilt or fear, in making the sanctuary or the chapel a place where we can be real and true, a setting where social action, education and worship are tied them together like the tzitzit are tied on a tallis, in strong and meaningful bonds.

At temple I am not only a rabbi. I am a fellow Jew and I am on an expedition. Over time and after years of patient and challenging work I pray for God to bear witness to a more honest and soulful faith to be born in my heart. What I’m trying to say is– I am here to aspire. At temple if our worship works when we all aspire together. At the instant we speak we “become the words we say. There will be no deception, no ego to defend, no manufactured self. We will speak from the heart, and we will trivialize prayer if we see it as a shopping list of requests. Prayer is carved out time, the moments in which we allow ourselves… to look at the world not as an unending chain of little trials and triumphs, but a chance to see as largely as we can. The time of prayer is when we can say to God, “This is what matters the most.” (Barry Holtz, Finding Our Way: Jewish Texts and the Lives We Lead Today, (New York: Schocken Books, 1990, p. 110.)

These last words I have just shared on the meaning of prayer were written by Dr. Barry Holtz, a teacher at the Conservative Movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary. But guess what? No matter how many years he teaches that lesson, no matter how many times I preach it at our temple, there is no way for a rabbi or cantor or temple leader to lean into the rolled down window of your lives and break through to the part of you that aspires to honest soulful faith. Faith does not come quickly nor formulaically. It is elusive, and “speaking from the heart” doesn’t always mean invoking the same script. Expression to God of what matters most means getting out of the isolated and privatized spaces of our lives and entering the halls of our community.

Of course many in the broader Jewish community disagree with this premise. In discussions with other colleagues I find myself often criticized for not presenting a careful and systematic and reasoned Jewish theology concerning the efficacy of prayer and God’s power to hear it. But faith and theology are to me, very different creatures and I’m not nearly as concerned with who is listening to prayer as I am the impact it has on the person whose soul and heart are praying.

My experience tells me that as a people, we are in search and in need, and one of the things we most need…is each other. If I cannot bring myself to pray the way you can on this holiday, than at least you will be present for me, here in our place of worship, here where I can listen to your voice utter in praise that which I can only aspire to speak tonight. Here neither you nor I are anonymous drive-thru customers lined up outside a fast-food restaurant. Here we are cooks in a kitchen of Jewish meaning.

This feeling of mutuality between the people who are praying and leading is central to my vision of what it means to live a vibrant and  relevant Reform Judaism. It is precisely what I believe God, if there is a God, wants of me. But explaining how that works is not always coherent. It is not like theology which is systematized and reasoned. To me, faith is not certain exactly what it wants but it knows there is a craving, in our hearts and our souls and in our kishkes and it knows it is true and honest.

Reverend Fredrick Buechner writes that “faith is homesickness. It is a lump in the throat.  It is less a position on than a movement toward. Faith is waiting, journeying through space and time…If someone were to come up and ask me to talk about my faith, it is exactly a journey that I would talk about- the ups and downs, the dreams, the odd moments, the intuitions.  I would talk about the occasional sense I have that life is not just a series of events causing other events as haphazardly as a break shot in pool causes the billiard balls to careen off in all directions. But that life has a plot the way a novel has a plot, that events are somehow leading somewhere.” (Fredrick Buechner, The Clown in the Belfry: Writings on Faith and Fiction, NY: HarperCollins Publishers, 1992)

Jews do this by stopping on days like Yom Kippur to check our bearings. We stop and question whether we have been directing our hearts to open to others or whether we’ve been driving our lives autopilot to or by or past our community. It is somewhat counter-intuitive. But somehow amidst the tumult of the High Holy Days, the busy parking lots outside the temple, the outpourings of blessing during worship, all the whispers and the gurgles in our belly, all the choreography of the service together with the yawns and the distractions of sitting in the sanctuary or the chapel or auditorium with hundreds of others, we are somehow inspired today.

This inspiration can enable us to listen for what Jewish tradition calls the kol dmama daka, the “still, small voice” within us. That voice speaks to us about our faith. It tells us that tomorrow can be different from today. The still, small voice is a voice of the Unforeseen and therefore it doesn’t matter that it is still and small because its impact can be grand and vast. It tells us of our insights and struggles, our aspirations and our regrets, and it speaks in language we can understand, so we can take action.

Where you may ask, can you take all the things the “still, small voice” tells you to do? Again, Zeh Ha-makom Asah Adonai, bring your aspirations here, to this holy community. For here we worship together. And here we reflect and struggle openly. We your clergy want to reflect and struggle with you about the meaning of prayer in your lives.’ For reflecting together and dreaming about what we might yet accomplish is something we must do with one another, candidly and patiently as congregation and clergy.

To be this temple’s spiritual leader for not just five years but for fifteen or twenty five, I’ll need to know more personally about your spirituality and faith and you’ll need to know more about mine. We’ll need to have confidence and trust in one another, and this expresses a truth I can’t emphasize enough- to reach the heights of which we dream: we need each other.

For united as a community, rabbis, cantor, congregation, searching and aspiring, we can live out in our efforts the most humble words of prayer in our whole service: that the words of our mouths and the meditations of our heart, be accepted. So may it be, now and always, Amen.