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ROSH HASHAHAH SERMON - 2010

So, one day Chaim goes to his Rabbi and says, “Reb Yitzchak, I’m in big trouble, my horse died.”  “I’m sorry to hear that.” “No, you don’t understand, without my horse I can’t plow my field. And if I can’t plow my field, I can’t grow my crops.  And if I can’t grow my crops, I have no food for my family.  Rabbi, my horse is dead and you have to help me.”  The Rabbi stroked his beard contemplated his next move, put on his long black coat and said to Chaim, “Come with me.” And they go to Schmuel’s house.  Now everybody knew Schmuel, but Schmuel knew no one.  And that’s because Schmuel was a loner, a wealthy loner, but a loner nonetheless who wanted no part of the synagogue and no part of the Jewish community.  So Yitzchak takes Chaim into Schmuel’s barn, which is home to 20 different horses in individual stalls. The Rabbi turns to Chaim and says, “Take your pick.”  “But Rabbi that would be stealing.”  “Never you mind, pick a horse.”  Well, if you say so.  I like that white horse over there with the brown spots.”  The Rabbi says, “My pleasure.  Help yourself.”  But Rabbi, that would be stealing.”  “Trust me, take the horse.”  Chaim takes the horse and leaves.  The Rabbi takes off his coat, lays down on the hay of the empty stall.  Five minutes later Schmuel walks in and says, “Who are you and where’s my horse?”  The Rabbi says, “I am Rabbi Yitzcak and Schmuel, I can’t thank you enough.  You have treated me so kindly, you brushed my mane, you fed me carrots, you gave me oat bran and God saw your kindness towards me and decided that I had learned my lesson.  And so God turned me back into me, Rabbi Yitzcak.”          

 

“Rabbi, what are you talking about?”  “You see Schmuel, many years ago I lusted after a woman.  I should have been studying Torah, but instead I kept on thinking impure thoughts about this woman.  So God punished me by turning me into a horse.  And then God put me into your barn.  But Schmuel because of your compassion God turned me back into me, Rabbi Yitzcak. So Schmuel, I will always be grateful.  And believe me, I’ll never have wandering eyes again!” And with that, Rabbi Yitzcak put on his coat and walked out of the barn leaving Schmuel to scratch his head in puzzlement.          

 

A week later, Schmuel goes to the general store to pick up supplies and lo and behold, there in front of the store is his white horse with brown spots, left there by Chaim who was shopping in the store.  Schmuel couldn’t believe his eyes.  He circled the horse just to be sure there was no mistake.  This was his horse and he was shocked.  Schmuel, with hesitation and trepidation, tipped toed up to the horse, looked into its eyes and whispered into the horse’s ear, “Rabbi, you did it again?”          

 

I love that story.  When Chaim is in trouble and he doesn’t know what else to do, he turns to his Rabbi, he turns to religion. For many people around the world, religion is what you turn to, when you are in trouble.   When you are on the operating table and the surgeon is about to pick up the knife, wouldn’t you say just a little prayer?  When you have sunk your life savings into a new business and it’s opening day and your future is on the line, wouldn’t you say just a little prayer?  If God forbid you’re in an airplane that suddenly loses altitude and air pressure and those oxygen masks plop down, aren’t you going to find religion real fast?  There is much truth to the old saying that there are no atheists in foxholes.  When people are in crisis, they want religion.          

 

Yet, that’s not what the studies tell us. According to the 2009 American Religious Identity Study, more and more people are turning away from formal religion.  Guess what is the fastest growing religious identity in this country?  Baptist, Methodist, Catholic?  No.  The fastest growing religious identity in this country is a category called NONE.  Not “Nuns,” but NONE. And they are not atheists or agnostic. These are people who are searching for a deeper meaning, but they are so unhappy with formal religion that they refuse to be categorized by any denominational name.  Why? Why is religion failing so miserably across the board? Well I have a couple of theories about that.  Mind you, they’re just Ira Rothstein theories.  But here they are.           Theory #1 – Religion is failing so miserably because we have some miserable people whose egos are so inflated that they truly believe that they and only they know the will of God, and so they cram their beliefs down other people’s throats.          

 

 Many years ago at the time of my brother’s Bar Mitzvah, he was attending an Orthodox Day School.  We were conservative, but there were no conservative day schools in the neighborhood.  One day, right before my brother’s Bar Mitzvah, the Rabbi in my brother’s class stands up and says, “You see Joel Rothstein over there?  His father is a Conservative Rabbi and I’m not sure the food at his Bar Mitzvah will be Kosher enough or if the service itself will be Kosher enough.  So everyone listen very carefully, do not go to Joel’s Bar Mitzvah.”  And you know what?  Some of the kids in the class were afraid to go to my brother’s Bar Mitzvah.  Now that Rabbi was free to believe that my brother’s Bar Mitzvah was illegitimate.   But he didn’t have the right to bully children into boycotting.   Maybe religion is failing in a miserable way because we have some miserable people who insist on shoving their version of their religion down other people’s throats.  Tell me what you think about this story. 

 

 One night this woman wakes up with severe chest pains.  She is a traditional Muslim who wears the Hijad, the modest dress of the Muslim woman.  She and are husband walk into the ER of the Somerset Medical Center. The attending physician hears that she has severe chest pain and says, “You need an EKG right away.”  The woman says, “My religion says it must be a woman doctor.”  “But we don’t have a female doctor on call at the moment and you need the EKG right now.”  “I don’t care if I have chest pains.  I’ll sit here in the dark with my chest pains.  Get me a woman doctor.”  One hour later, still no woman doctor.  Two hours later, still no woman doctor.  Finally, the husband drives the wife to another ER where a woman doctor is on call.  The lady is given the EKG and she ends up being okay. Oh, there’s one more thing.  Today, this woman is suing the hospital for offending her religion.   By the way, if any of you ever came to me with that question, you know what I would say?  Get the EKG.  Personally, I don’t believe that God cares who reads your EKG, as long as the doctor is capable of reading it.  I don’t think God cares if your doctor is Jewish, Muslim, Christian or Swahili, male or female.  If your chest hurts, get the EKG, because what I do believe in, is the teaching that “all life is sacred.”  This lady was free to refuse the EKG.  God gives each of us free will, but suing the hospital in the name of your religion is like cramming your religion down other people’s throats.  And speaking of cramming religion down other people’s throats, it’s been almost nine years since 9/11.  Do you remember where you were and how you felt?  9/11 was all about people who flew airplanes into buildings while screaming “Allah Akbar! – God is great!”  What they really meant was “My God is greater than your God, so you’re gonna die.”  Well, I guess God must be very proud to see what we are doing in His name.

 

One night in northern Iraq back in 2007, a group of men burst into a house and dragged away a terrified 17 year old Kurdish girl.  They tied her hands behind her back and buried her up to her chest in a pit dug in the ground.  Her screams turned into sobs as she realized there would be no mercy.  The religious rules for a stoning are specific.  The rocks must not be too small or else the person will not be hurt enough.  And the rocks must not be so large as to kill the person immediately.  And so it began.  The men found the most jagged rocks possible; not too large and not too small.  And they pounded her face, chest and shoulders.  Her cries died out as blood and spittle engulfed her upper torso.  Her agony lasted for 30 minutes and she was gone.  Why? Because it’s what they believe God wants the punishment to be, when a Kurdish non Muslim girl spends one night away from home with her Muslim boyfriend.  That is stoning in the name of God.  I cannot say how widespread such behavior is, but it’s there in many countries and it’s going on as we speak and it is all happening in the name of God.  So what is it about religion that makes people cram it down other people’s throats? 

 

This past year an Israeli woman was arrested by the Israeli police at the Western Wall for the terrible crime of what? Of holding a Torah.  Did you hear what I said?  Jewish cops arrested a Jewish woman for holding a Torah.  You can watch it on You Tube.  You’ll see a cop with a yarmulke on dragging away this lady holding a Torah, as he says to her “this is  not the custom here.” I couldn’t believe what I was seeing?  Can it be that in Israel, at the Wall, it’s a crime for a woman to hold a Torah?   And the answer is sadly, “Yes.”  Because the ultra Orthodox hold political power, they, therefore, control the Western Wall.  And they are certain that God wants only men to hold Torahs.  And they are willing to arrest others Jews in order to send the message that their brand of Judaism is superior to anyone else’s brand of Judaism.  And when you cram that down the throats of people, they are going to rebel.  If they can think for themselves, they will rebel.  This lady who was arrested for holding a Torah knew she was going to be arrested, but she said, “I don’t want to sit in the back of the bus anymore.”  And wouldn’t you know it, she has a picture of Rosa Parks hanging on the wall in her home.  You cannot make people into second class citizens and expect them to be silent.  That is not the purpose of religion.

 

Yet, for some reason our religious leaders can not see this.  Instead, they are filled with ego, certain that they and only they know God.  And so they are determined to cram “their way” down the throats of others.

 

So that is my first theory.  More and more people are less and less interested in religion because some believers are sure that God wants people to boycott Bar Mitzvahs, arrest Torah holding women and convince young people to fly airplanes into buildings, so they can kill in the name of God.  Religion is not supposed to be about stoning and lashing and arresting and boycotting.  And it’s not supposed to be about killing.  Religion is supposed to be about deepening life, not destroying life.  And maybe that’s why the largest growing religious group in this country is “none.”

 

But I also have a second theory.  My second theory as to why religion is failing so many people, is because the world is changing and religion isn’t keeping up.  Let me tell you what I mean.  I look at the world and here is what I see.   #1 – I see a noisy and chaotic world that is moving so fast, we don’t even realize how much things are changing.  In today’s world, we must work harder and longer, just to keep our heads above water.  It means that we aren’t only running around more, we are schlepping along with us a stress level that could kill an elephant.  According to the American Psychological Association, Americans spend a whopping $11.3 billion a year to cope with stress.  Tranquilizers, anti-depressants and anti-anxiety medication account for ¼ of every prescription written in the United States each year.  And while we work harder and stress more, everything around us changes.  Computer chips run faster and faster.  Almost every other month there is a new cell phone or laptop that promises to connect us to the world in a more colorful and faster way.  I was reading the other day about robotic surgery.  The surgeon used to pick up a scalpel and cut into you.  Now, he picks up a joy stick, like in some computer game, only the joy stick he’s working controls the robotic scalpel that cuts into you.  It’s not your grandmother’s world anymore.  And into this world of stress and change, we dial up the noise.  I used to have a telephone and my phone would be go ring – ring- ring.  That was it.  Now phones have one ring for a text message, a different ring for an incoming call, a different ring for an email and specialized ring tones to clue you in on who is calling.   For example, when my son calls Jill’s cell phone, some rap music erupts like a volcano from her cell phone (ba boom!)  So we are running around in this ever changing world of ours stressing about it everyday, while we are dinging and blinging and blaring.  We fill our world with perpetual noise and perpetual change and perpetual stress.  And into such a world marches religion with this very simple message – Slow Down!

 

What a radical idea.  In this world we’ve created, doesn’t someone need to say –Slow Down, don’t forget to breathe?  Look slowly into the eyes of those you love.  Look slowly out into the world and recognize and appreciate beauty wherever you can find it.  Judaism has a built in, slow down mechanism called Shabbat.  It’s all about disciplining yourself to see one day out of the week as a time to slow down, breathe deeply and put aside your stress.  Because you know what? -  When Shabbat is over, your stress will still be there.  Our fast moving world will still be there, but you will deal with it in a saner way.  All you need to do is slow down and dial down the noise level. Religion has this great message, but we haven’t figured out how to sell it. 

 

But that doesn’t mean the message is invalid.  The message is simple, yet profound.  Slow down!  Doesn’t that make sense?  (Teacher – Say it out loud.)

 

But that doesn’t mean the message isn’t valid. The message is simple, yet profound.  Slow down.  Doesn’t that make sense?  (Teacher – say it out loud)          

 

#2 – I look at the world and I see solitude.  The world is not only fast, stressful and noisy, it’s lonely.   

 

Not too long ago I was on a NYC subway.  At some point, I noticed that every single person in that subway car was plugged in, either to some kind of Ipod or radio or some contraption.  I was the only one not plugged in.  Even the homeless people were plugged in.  I said to myself, “There must be something wrong with me.”  And then I realized that not one person was talking or even looking at anyone else.  Everyone was in their own little world.  And to me that subway car symbolized a basic problem.  When so much of our lives becomes about connecting to others and to the world through mechanical devices, there gets to be a hollowness and shallowness to the experience.  There is no substitute for holding someone’s hand.  There is no substitute for giving someone a hug.  My daughter tells me that on Facebook you can give someone a ‘poke.’  That’s what they call it.  You can poke someone by somehow leaving them a message that you are thinking about them.  But notice the word – “poke.” When I grew up, a poke was what someone physically did to you to get your attention. It was physical – person to person.  But now, poking is what you do someone online.  How can that possibly be the same? We may poke someone, Tweet someone, text someone or blog, but there is no substitute for looking someone in the eye and recognizing the pain or the joy they are feeling.  If we only look into a screen, we will lose our souls.  Think about it. In this world of ours, in which more and more people connect online, do we really know each other?  Do we really care about each other?  In your life, if something goes horribly wrong, do you have someone to confide in?  Aside from someone in your family, do you have someone who will be there for you in a crisis?  Sociologists are finding that people have more and more friends on Facebook and less and less people to confide in when the chips are down.  It’s lonely out there.  And into this lonely world of ours marches religion with this message – Community is crucial!  And of all the messages that religion sells, the importance of community is the toughest one to sell. Why? It’s very simple.  Our world does not teach community and connection.  Our kids go out into the world and very quickly see that they need to be independent contractors.  They need to look out for themselves, because no one else will.  Nowadays, community is defined by our computer screens.  And for more and more people that is becoming their community.  And religion needs to confront that reality.  And we confront it with this simple message – There is no substitute for being able to look a person in the eye.  There is no substitute for the shake of a hand or a hug.  There is no substitute for hearing the sound of a person’s voice and for being in the same room or sanctuary.  In this remote and hollow world of ours, there’s nothing more important than a minyan, a community. It’s not as if God doesn’t hear your prayer if you pray alone, but there is no substitute for the combined energy that is created by a community in prayer.  And the lonelier our world becomes, the more important this message becomes. I’ve seen it over and over again.  The person who gets the most out of synagogue life, is the person who somehow someway feels connected.  Connection is emotional and spiritual, even physical.  And that’s religion’s message.  Community is crucial. The only problem is we haven’t figured out how to sell it.  But that does not make the message any less real.  Community is crucial.  In this world of ours, doesn’t that make sense?  (Teacher – say it out loud)

 

And #3 – Last but not least, I look at the world and see a society that places a premium on “stuff.”  We evaluate success by the house we live in, the car we drive and the clothes we wear.  And there is nothing sinful about possessing “stuff.”  It just gets to be a problem when our stuff possesses us and we start to feel as if we are “entitled.”

 

Not too long ago this public school teacher was describing to me how some of his 3rd and 4th graders were walking around with Blackberry’s, not cell phones, so that they could call their parents in a pinch.  I’m talking Blackberry’s.  Now it is theoretically possible that a 3rd grader may miss out on a mega business deal by not having a 24/7 connection to email.  But what concerned me was not a 3rd grader carrying a Blackberry, what concerned me was that too many kids feel they are entitled to their Blackberry’s.

 

Judaism is not against material possessions.  But what we do need to be careful about is the relationship that we create between ourselves and our possessions. We may work for something and we may earn something, but that does not mean we are entitled.   Everything we have, from our health to our wealth, is a gift.  And once we see our health and wealth in that fashion it will change our lives. And every single morning we will wake and be grateful. And once we learn to live in gratitude, the way we see the world will fundamentally change.  But in our world, too many of us say it’s mine – I deserve it – I’m entitled and I expect it NOW!  And into this world of entitlement and stuff marches religion with this message – Be grateful!  A few years ago some researchers took two separate groups of people and had one group keep a gratitude journal. Everyday they had to write down what they were grateful for.  The second group of people recorded a hassle journal, otherwise known as the kvetchers journal.  They recorded what they felt hassled them everyday.  At the end of the trial period, the researchers found that the people who kept the gratitude journal exercised more regularly, reported fewer physical illnesses or symptoms, felt better about their lives as a whole and were more optimistic about the upcoming week. When you live in gratitude, you change the way you look at the world.  Judaism has a gratitude journal, it’s called a prayer book.  Every prayer we sincerely offer is our way of expressing gratitude to God for every breath we take, for every nickel we’ve earned and for every relationship we enjoy.  And in this world that places such a premium on stuff, that’s a powerful message. Well, religion says it, but we aren’t selling it.  But that doesn’t mean it’s not a valid message.  Be grateful. Doesn’t that make sense? (Teacher – say it out loud)

 

So there you have it, Ira’s analysis as to why religion is so crucial, and yet is such a failure for so many.           

 

#1 – Religion is failing because you can’t cram it down people’s throats.  God is not a weapon.  #2 – Religion is failing, not because it doesn’t have messages, but because we haven’t been able to sell those messages.  If we can sell those messages, we will change lives.  And my guess is that by now you know those messages.  Slow down.  Community is crucial.  And be grateful.

 

This past year, religion around the world, wasn’t always at its finest.  But if we don’t tolerate religious intolerance and instead live its messages, we will make ourselves healthier and we will inject healing into the world.  So live by those messages, and if I had to choose one message over all the others it would be this – be grateful, because every breath we take is a gift.  And if we are grateful, we will make the most of every breath we take.  It is written that “to speak with gratitude is to be courteous, but to live in gratitude is to touch heaven.”

 

This year if we can only live in gratitude, not just for a minute here and there, but for long stretches of time, then maybe, just maybe we can touch a little bit of heaven here on earth.  And in this harried, hard and harsh world of ours that would be mighty fine.  May this New Year be filled with joy and health for us, for our loved ones, for our synagogue and for all good people every where.  And let us say, Amen.