Rosh Hashanah Morning Sermon 2019

Rabbi Aaron Meyer: “My rear end hurt. I had been sitting in the car for the last three hours, alternating between listening to the radio, listening to an audio book, making faces at other drivers, and trying to remember the last time I had the luxury of feeling bored when I uncovered my GPS to again check the amount of time left on the drive. Staring at the thing constantly didn’t help pass the time, and apparently neither did trying to pretend I’d forgotten it was there. The ETA still read “Forever.” I wasn’t even close…yet.

Everyone in this room knows this phenomenon. Whether you are thinking of its modern permutation, of staring at the little airplane on the 5” screen in front of you making its way at a glacial pace toward your final destination — though glacial speeds are the topic of a much-needed sermon for another day — or whether the young people in your life also have a habit of incessantly asking “are we there yet, are we there yet,” we all know from the excitement and hope of traveling to a new destination…and the challenge of not being there, yet.

Yet.” It’s actually the most powerful word I know. A single, small word that injects hope and possibility every time it is used. 

“Are we there?”

“Not yet” means we are going to get there — to our final destination, be it the soccer field or DisneyWorld. “Not yet” opens a door open instead of allowing “no” to slam it shut. 

“Yet.” It’s actually one of the most powerful words in Jewish practice. Franz Rosenzweig, a German Jewish philosopher and theologian, struggled with his place in the Jewish community throughout his youth. Attending High Holy Day services in 1913, hearing the sounding of the shofar with the clarity of a ringing bell, Rosenzweig found his way firmly back within the fold in an unusual way. He wasn’t particularly observant, but when asked if he observed this or that mitzvah, he answered “not yet.” He answered by recognizing that the future held potential not realized in the present.

“Yet.” It’s actually one of the most powerful words in Jewish philosophy. Naomi Rosenblatt, author of Wrestling with Angels, situates “yet” as the greatest opportunity for humanity. “Being created in the image of an infinite God,” she writes, “means that our spiritual potential for growth and transformation is limitless. If there is no ceiling on the concept of God, then we who are made in God’s image have infinite space to grow. We never reach the end of our potential. Never. Not in our marriages, not in our careers, not in our relationships with our children and our friends.” Not yet have we become the best we can be, she explains, because the future holds potential not realized in the present.

As we open a new chapter in the book of our lives, labeled 5780, I hope you will join me in making it the year of “yet”: in our personal lives and in the life of Temple Emanuel because this year, because we, because Temple holds potential not fully realized in the present.

On Rosh Hashanah, we are asked to reflect on the year that was. Who were we? Who are we now? Who do we want to be? Where did we fall short of being our best possible selves, and where did we have successes we need to carry forward? If your ledger looks anything like mine, this is a pretty scary proposition. When did we say things inarticulately that caused hurt to friends and colleagues? How often did we say things that were intentionally hurtful to loved ones? Where did we over-engage when we should have empowered others and where did we take the lazy way out when we could have made a difference. Al chet shechatanu — we have all wronged God and our fellow human being, and we are not the people we need to be. Yet.

“Yet” is the blessing of being human. “Yet” allows us to view ourselves — our mistakes and regrets — as missteps along our journey rather than the sum total of our identity. “Yet” allows us to leave the door open, to forever yearn to reach our highest potential, not because who we are now is bad but because we can always, always be better. It is the positive self-talk that allows us to be more than we ever imagined possible.

Imagine where you might embrace the word “yet” in the coming year. That destructive habit you are trying to kick? It’s not that you can’t, it’s that you haven’t fully committed…yet. That challenge not accomplished? Spending more time with family or friends? The slump you can’t crawl out of at work or in your romantic life? A Steeler’s win? It’s not impossible: they, you just haven’t figured it out…yet. Every single time we are presented with a challenge, we can allow a “no” to subconsciously close the door on our potential, or we can embrace the option that more is always possible. You can. You will. At least leave that door open: that’s the beauty of yet.

“Yet” is the very reason that I am here. Personally, of course, because the rabbi I have yet to become is far greater than who I am now and I’m counting on your help to get there, but also because yet — because possibility and optimism and potential — is almost tangible at Temple Emanuel. I felt yet throughout the interview process. I felt yet on Installation weekend. And I feel it today as we stand on the cusp of the year 5780.

The founding members of this synagogue realized the need for organized Jewish life in the South Hills, born of the desire to educate and inspire the next generation. For nearly 70 years it has done exactly that with tremendous success. Our collective recognition that synagogues the world over can’t continue to do what they have always done and expect to get what they have always got isn’t a critique of who we have been, or how we have been doing things, but the realization that the landscape of Jewish life and involvement has changed significantly.

The synagogue of tomorrow faces considerable challenges today. You know these challenges. Geographic mobility is increasing at a time when inherited familial commitment, compelling us to life-long relationships with our home synagogue, is decreasing. We know that the traditional markers of adulthood — home ownership, marriage and family, joining the synagogue — are being pushed later and later. In a broader American culture that has largely disowned a sense of collective responsibility in favor of radical I’m-only-for-myself individualism, transactional “what have you done for me lately” relationships with synagogues are becoming the rule rather than the exception. And maybe synagogues the movement over have taken the adults in our community for granted, seeing them as the chauffeurs for their children rather than offering compelling and engaging programming to meet their needs. I could go on…we could go on: and this is where the “yet” comes in. The “yet” at Temple Emanuel to overcome these challenges is tangible, and I’m excited to work together to actualize and realize that potential.

We will do so by ensuring that meaning and relevance are at the core of everything we do. Meaning and relevance. Abstract teachings, random historical facts, and unanchored Jewish practices? Not meaningful. Acquiring knowledge of our common Jewish narrative and historical past to build resilience in our children and ourselves? Meaningful. Furthering knowledge of our values — middot and mitzvot — to inspire moral choices and actions to fix this broken world? Meaningful. Engaging in Shabbat services and tefilah experiences not with an eye toward repetition but a focus on the the best selves we have yet to become? Meaningful. And when those meaningful experiences are relevant to life right here and now, when they immediately applicable to our lives, then we have a recipe for success. 

We will actualize and realize the palpable “yet” at Temple Emanuel by articulating and following through on a clear value proposition, a definitive answer to why people must belong to the Temple. Cultivation of conscience uniquely happens here, as does its application. In 1871, Isaac Mayer Wise, the architect of American Reform Judaism, wrote that “intelligence and conscience are the arbiter of faith.” Reform Judaism prizes both critical and reflective thinking, trying to understand not only the world in which we live but our role within that world, and gives us an unapologetic vision for our shared future born of both universal values and particularistic concerns. As Jews we must engage with words of Torah, we must engage with mitzvot

…and, to fulfill our purpose, to satisfy our conscience, we must alleviate suffering by providing hot meals prepared in the synagogue kitchen, we must translate our values into actions that work tirelessly for justice and equality, and we must work to create systemic change using every tool at our disposal including civic engagement. Cultivation of conscience, our value proposition, will be realized not through committee contemplation nor while trapped within study’s ivory tower but though the tangible external actions that we will engage as a community. 

Finally, we will meet the challenges of our day and realize our “yet” by embracing not only Jewish tradition but the Jews who practice it. This means we have an obligation to create both a more expansive definition of Jewish community and a more expansive definition of Jewish practice. With regard to community: everyone who has chosen to embrace Judaism in their lives — people who were born Jewish and continue active expressions of their faith and heritage, Jews-by-choice who meritoriously opted to engage with Judaism, and interfaith couples who have chosen a Jewish home or practice for their lives — all have equal footing here. Everyone who has chosen to embrace Judaism in their lives — people of all abilities, and sexual orientations, and gender expressions, and others who have been marginalized by the Jewish community — all have equal footing here. And with regard to practice: Our tradition is predicated on the ability to bring the highest values of 3,000 years of Jewish experience into the modern world. That can only happen when we don’t shy away from the modern world. Together we will explore how we can embrace technology to advance our mission, how we can expand the definition of Shabbat practice to include more Jews doing more Jewish things on a Jewish day, and how we can reimagine everything we do as a synagogue to meet the needs of 21st century Jews. 

We have a bit of work to do. This is where our “yet” comes in: the yet at Temple Emanuel is tangible — our future holds potential we have not yet realized in the present. I feel that sense of yet when Rabbi Locketz and our teachers retool lesson plans and the entire Torah Center to help our students and our tradition not only survive but thrive. I feel that sense of yet every time I speak with Iris Harlan and enter the ECDC classrooms to find teachers nurturing curiosity of our youngest members. I feel that sense of yet when we embrace new melodies and new musicians on Shabbat, enriching our experience, and when David Weisberg and the Temple Board meet to discuss the biggest issues of our day. I feel that sense, that embodiment, of yet in each of you as we meet, brainstorm, discuss, and vision how Temple can best meet your needs, and through those conversations come closer to its full potential in this new year. 

As we open a new chapter in the book of our lives, labeled 5780, I hope you will join me in making this the year of “yet.” Saying “yet” in our personal lives, as we continue to stretch toward our highest potential, not because who we are now is bad but because we can always, always be better. Saying “yet” in the life of Temple Emanuel, because our sacred community holds potential not fully realized in the present. There is always the possibility of improvement: that’s the beauty of yet. 

Shanah Tovah Umetukah — May this be the absolute best, sweetest year…yet.”