Et La’asot Ladonai: Now Is a Time for Action

This sermon, Et La’asot Ladonai: Now Is a Time for Action, was shared by Rabbi Robert Nosanchuk on Erev Rosh Hashanah,  September 15, 2023. You can also listen/watch the video here of  Rabbi Nosanchuk sharing sermon. 

Nearly everywhere you look in Judaism you find the message life is traveled on a linear path. A meditation we’ll read later tonight begins: “Birth is a beginning and death is the destination. But life is a journey, a sacred pilgrimage made stage by stage.” Rabbi Alvin Fine’s words pick up where scripture left off. For one of the things that gave the Biblical Israelites their forward momentum were the Torah’s instructions for imbuing righteous conduct into all of the 525,600 minutes we get between Rosh Hashanah celebrations. Most of those minutes are spent doing mundane tasks. But holidays demand we pause from labor. They act as containers holding a wide array of practices and traditions. Leviticus describes today only as the 1st day of the seventh month, a day of blowing horns. But that is the point departure for melodies that distinguish today. Our temples seek to teach us everything we need to know to observe holidays including whether it is socially acceptable to dip your apple slice more than once into a bowl of honey.

Jewish art, liturgy and philosophy build on this idea of life’s linearity. Why? Because it is soothing. Just as comforting is the image Harry Chapin drew in his folk song “all my life’s a circle.” I am a fan of interpreting our traditions as simply as possible. But Rosh Hashanah also begins ten days of awe and dread. Today we admit the truth. Tonight I confess we made this idea up! That life is linear or cyclical or predictable is a human invention, even as social scientists, educators, economic advisors, clergy and experts of many disciplines convey this idea as gospel.

Author Bruce Feiler, first known for books describing his journey in the footsteps of Abraham, recently upended that theory of life’s linearity. In his book, Life is in the Transitions (New York, NY: Penguin Books, 2020), he went so far as to say that the linear life is “dead.” Feiler explained that most moderns don’t see the shape of their life as a circle or straight line. Rather than seeing a linear stage-by-stage roadmap, he says it is “a complex swirl of celebrations, setbacks, triumphs and rebirths [occurring] across the full span of our years.”

I heard an interview with Feiler about mastering the array of changes life throws at us often in a chaotic or disordered fashion. He makes a persuasive case. But it is also destabilizing!. What’s a congregational rabbi to do with the argument that the linear life is dead? Though I embrace anti-establishment points of view, it turns out I have a pretty establishment job. Every place I’ve ever worked organizes according to the theory that individuals move in linear progression through foreseen life stages.

Belief in a linear life path is a big part of the house Rabbi Brickner built. I am proud of our house and the values we’ve held long before we arrived in Beachwood. It’s been a positive to see life as a sacred pilgrimage. That got us here. But tonight I’m going to say something that is tough on your ears: what got us here won’t get us there.

The core promise we make in the Jewish faith is to take-leave from everything we once knew. God’s call to Abraham commands a path-breaking adventure taking us far outside our comfort zones. We can no longer lay to rest singing the same rhythmic lullabies our ancestors used to rock us to sleep.

New days arise. When they do, new songs be written. Rosh Hashanah calls us back to creation, beckoning us to: Begin. Innovate. Redeem. Write. Draw. Paint. When we take the time to be creative and paint the shape of our lives, it turns out looking a lot more like a Pollack than a Picasso. This leads me to say Bruce Feiler may be right. The year ahead will be just as complex and jagged edged as last year.

How can we as a community respond to the complexities of life changing shape? The first answer is: we must avoid standing in one place, immobile and in shock. Neither can we retreat or just carry on about how much better we remember it used to be. That strategy is what nearly destroyed our people in the wilderness. So what do we do?

I say: Lech Lachem. Get moving. All of you! Living in covenant means leaving our comfort zones and walking with intention. As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. taught, we must “take our first step in faith. You don’t have to see the whole staircase. Just take the first step.“ (Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Let Nobody Turn Us Around: Voices on Resistance, Reform, and Renewal: An African American Anthology)

Personally, Dr. King’s words have held me together when unforeseen developments changed my life’s trajectory. At such times, I know my faith isn’t perfect. I must allow myself to express my fear of that first step. But I can’t dwell on that feeling. Ultimately I must choose the step I want to take and have faith that it is the right call, regardless of whether it follows a linear path.

I’m looking right now at a congregation I’ve known since 2009. I’ve walked with you as you encountered hope, promise. struggle, learning, adventure, challenge, falling down, getting up, healing, caregiving, dying, renewing. I wish I could tell you such activities will always come in that order or even come one at a time. But I’d be lying. We’ve all seen setbacks cut in line ahead of deserved triumphs. Disease, disability, economic hardship, and abuse, such wreckage often is thrown at decent, honest and pure-hearted individuals, stealing from them the dream of growing older with us. That nightmarish unfairness leaving us trembling, and we are no less shaken than was Jacob in the Torah. Jacob awoke in Genesis from an inspiring dream of a ramp from the ground to the heavens. God promised him blessings he couldn’t possibly have predicted. Why? Because unprecedented things happen! It’s our choice whether to believe things are fated or being controlled secretly…or admit like Jacob that we just don’t know how life works or where God dwells.

As your rabbi, I’ve had to admit over the last few years: I didn’t have in my possession a playbook to handle the jagged-edged, mixed-up, disordered chaos that has touched us along with every synagogue in town. I honestly regret that I hadn’t paid careful enough attention. Because it was long before the lockdowns of the pandemic that our faith institutions nationwide were looking at major cultural change. Setbacks, triumphs, celebrations and comebacks…we’d handled those before. That’s why we pivoted as well as we did during the onset of COVID-19.

What we did not address for at least a decade previous to 2020 were the signs of resistance in our town to people joining or belonging to temple life. There were whole populations who’d previously been joiners on auto-pilot.

Now that we are emerging from the tight grip of the pandemic and the scarcity of spiritual experiences has lessened, I have been renewing conversations with young people I’ve mentored over my rabbinical career. What they confide is that they feel weighed down in Jewish life by what they see as an oppressive debt our institutions have racked up long before they were alive. Many of this generation’s Jewish young adults look back at the shape of their Jewish lives and find it uninspired. We as Jewish leaders knew that what had the most powerful impact on them were retreats and immersive experiences at camp or in Israel, anywhere in the world without chalkboards and desks and classrooms. But that didn’t stop us from putting 90% of our attention on classroom learning. After high school many of our young people tell me they feel invisible to Jewish organizations unless they are victimized by antisemitism or only when they are beginning a path to start their own family.

What I’m trying to say is that many young people feel taken for granted by their synagogues. The reason is: they are! This is hardly the first time a rabbi has stood before you sharing troubling issues to send the message that we have to allow for change or that we can do better. But tonight I’m going one step further. I’m saying we must do better and be the drivers of change! I’m not using strong rhetoric to grab your attention. I’m doing so because the stakes are high and the change I’m witnessing doesn’t have a simple straight-forward precedent.

Think with me tonight. When we last celebrated Rosh Hashanah facing Euclid Avenue in Cleveland, it was 1956! I’m truly grateful we’ve gathered here at the iconic Severance Hall. But we aren’t here to wax nostalgic for the avenue we once walked to temple. We’re here because of trauma! We are here because a dangerous fire scorched and smoked up our home. On April 13 in mid-afternoon, an electrical fire which could not have been foreseen, traumatized our community. Under black billowing clouds of soot and smoke, every person at temple emerged safely.

But that doesn’t tell the whole story. Another dimension of April 13 was hearing from interfaith leaders, public safety and fire personnel, and civic officials. Another part of the story is when leaders of a neighboring temple offered to shelter our Torahs and offered companionship in prayer the next night. Their support was only the beginning of the way leaders of our Reform Jewish movement showed up in our time of need.

I hadn’t even left temple grounds before hearing from the most prominent figures in Reform Jewish life offering their presence and insight when what was previously unforeseen erupted and smoked up our sanctuary, social hall, chapel, atrium, auditorium and kitchen. Rabbi Rick Jacobs, President of our Union for Reform Judaism, spoke to me gently that night of something we’d learned together just weeks earlier at a synagogue conference in Dallas. Amidst all the future-planning within a January, 2023, conference, the clearest lesson our temple team took away from Dallas was that as elegant as are our temple buildings, we are more than the sum of a building’s parts.

In other words, Jews must get over our edifice complex! It is timely now to ask: what would be possible for synagogues in Cleveland if there were fewer structures to maintain and secure? What if we took resources that have maintained multiple facilities and instead placed our priority on synagogue abilities to catalyze transformation in

Jewish lives? What if we could collaborate to a greater extent with educators, staff and clergy of other communities, expand our Torah to provide more meaning, depth, relevance to our community’s endeavor to build a more just world?

These are all weighty questions. Answering them counts on recognizing that transformation doesn’t automatically follow a Rosh Hashanah shofar blast. Nor is transformation just about addressing the needs of a crisis that torches your home. Transformation happens when you have a vision, take time and bring together many diverse people together to turn their shared dreams into reality. That’s transformation!

More than 180 years ago, the vision and time invested by 19 immigrants from Untsleben, Bavaria, drove them to establish our temple. They created Anshe Chesed so people could be buried Jewishly even before any of them had died. Why? Because they knew life doesn’t move stage by stage. They knew that people die young and their families need support. Institutions had be formed to provide bring loving kindness to bear. Those same institutions would decline down the path of their future if they wound up taking the needs of people in the present day for granted.

This knowledge is what guided our temple’s playbook when we lived on Eagle Street and on Skovill Avenue. It’s how Judaism was transformed and our community vastly expanded at 82nd and Euclid, before anyone predicted that one day Jews might live in Beachwood. Mainly what we’ve learned throughout history is that the playbook for transforming Jewish lives is portable. It’s something we take with us. The ancient mishkan, the tabernacle in which the Israelites gathered in the ancient world, they carried it on their backs while traveling. The same spirit is evident in the 40+ kids who volunteer every Sunday in strengthening our religious school. They carry our younger children on their backs. Hundreds of our Anshe Chesed families over the last 12 years have also joined thousands of others in carrying our Jewish commitment to justice on their backs into the churches, mosques and allied institutions of Greater Cleveland Congregations founded in 2011 by our Rabbi Josh Caruso. Our path in Jewish life goes where we go, and often to places previous generations never thought we’d go. That’s the truth. It’s a hard lesson to hold. But I know that especially during this past couple years, our temple leaders have tried to consider how to make our community thrive, and not just stay open. They have been trying to envision the needs that will arise in a Jewish future beyond what our eyes can currently touch.

This week our Board President Michele Krantz sent you a proposal and asked you to reflect on our your willingness to go after transformation of Jewish life. The proposal is to go into partnership with another temple, and build an entirely new entity poised to transform lives. It’s a big dream! But please realize its basis is that our leaders and the leaders of The Temple-Tifereth Israel realize: we are living in a new day and it is now the time for a new song, one that celebrates two history making temples making history together!

Do not fear that this visionary proposed change from our lay leaders manifested as a consequence from the emergency of the April fire. No. These proposals have been in dialogue and discussion, research and intention, for a great deal of time. What Michele Krantz shared with you is not being forced by any tragic circumstance. Rather, it is evidence that two strong temples could uniquely catalyze great vibrance, and relevance!

No matter what path our leaders elect to take, I’m as proud as all get-out to serve as rabbi in a community unwilling to slow-walk into its future just whistling a happy tune, pretending the culture hasn’t changed and the rules we thought were eternal have been re-written. The spirit of our leaders echoes a verse I adore in Psalm 119.

The verse, Psalm 119:126 has two parts. One part says Heferu Toratecha. This short phrase conveys that the teachings then thought to be in force had been circumvented. In other words, the rules had changed.. But just when one might begin to despair, we remember the Psalm adds: Et La’asot Ladonai. These words mean: now is a time for action! Now is a time for doing!

Et La’asot Ladonai, when wreckage is thrown in our path, what do we do? We imitate God. Or if God is not our Rock, then we look to humanism and remember our ancestors who took creative, redemptive, and revelatory action when the moment called for it.

Et La’asot Ladonai, our ancestors said. There is no time to sit and stew. Et La’asot Ladonai. They declared: this is a moment to build and climb a ramp to the heavens. New heights can be reached. But not if we don’t have our young people as co-creators of that ramp and co-climbers toward the heavens. I can tell you what young people tell me, which is that all they want from us to be “in” for building a ramp to the heavens is a commitment to Jewish life that is deep, just, honest, true and relevant.

Et La’asot Ladonai writes the Psalmist. I hear in these words the loud and clear message: Jews do not retreat. We do not travel backwards. We scout the best path to travel even if we don’t recognize the map to our destination.

In our history, Et la’asot ladonai was the basis our sages used to commit to publish in writing the Mishnah which had previously been passed down only through oral storytelling. Et La’asot Ladonai was the rationale of our Jewish community when we translated our law books, prayerbooks and commentaries into the vernacular language Jews speak every day.

Et La’asot Ladonai, communities have needed to transform in modern life, so that at our temple, we could welcome people of all genders, races and nationalities, and people outside of Judaism who’ve joined together with their partners in fashioning Jewish homes, to know they share the same hearth that warms them as everyone else. Et La’asot Ladonai! Now is a time for action, and there’s a lot of action and change to contemplate.

I imagine many of you have heard over the years that Jews are not always known to be thrilled about the proposal of change. Many respond with incredulity, hyperbole, and drama. Some give “I quit” ultimatums out like they cost nothing to the community.

But we won’t that route. We won’t do things just because they are proposed, and we won’t stand still. We won’t retreat or lead backwards. But neither will we ignore the growing indifference permeating our Jewish culture or the resentment growing between generations in the Jewish community. And why must we refuse all these temptations? Why? Because although the linear life is dead, what is very much alive is our imagination, determination and resolve is to lead a movement focused on progress. We will get unstuck from the places we’ve felt stuck because the Jewish promise has always been to travel across borders and to get out of comfort zones.

It is not enough to want to make change. As far back as the expedition that Abraham took in response to God’s commission, Jews have needed to take action to fulfill their part in the covenant. For us too, it will be required in the months and years ahead to reinforce our desire for change by forming new plans and new habits that sustain an inspired path. In Hebrew, the word for consistency is “ikviyut” and for habit, it’s “hergel.” The root of ikviyut is “ekev” (heel) and the root of hergel is “regel” (foot). These two words carry a lesson. To get from where we are to the place we want to go, we’ll have to plant our feet and heels into the ground firmly. Consistent determined action will get us going! Picking up our feet and moving both heel and foot, that’s how people move. That’s how we got across an impossible body of water, traveling behind a humble Israelite named Nachshon to aim for the land of promise, hope and holiness. We got to that land by building the consistent habit of walking the earth with determination, grit and direction.

Consistent habits in Judaism are passed down in our faith. We can be the generation that habitually partners with those who will come after us, l’dor vador, from generation to generation. Together with them, we can protect the chain of our tradition. We can be the ones who recognized that the rules that used to apply have changed. The jig is up, and the laws we thought were in force have been circumvented. When that happens, we say Et La’asot Ladonai: Now is the time for action. Let’s get busy doing what needs to be done, grateful to be alive, humbly using every energy we have down to our lips to only praise God’s name.

Rabbi Robert Nosanchuk