Thursday, August 28, 2014

The Rabbi in Elul: Some Thoughts on The Season of Repentance, and Its Effect on Rabbis, Shuls, and Jews

A Rabbi in Elul

By Rabbi David Hartley Mark

            It’s coming. It’s coming. It’s coming!
            What’s coming? Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. The World Series. The Big Enchilada. The Whole Deal. The Ganse Zach (Yiddish, “Entire Thing,” approximately, although with Yiddish, you never can seize the full meaning of a word or phrase).
I have been reading all sorts of articles, mostly online and in blogs, about the High Holy Days and what they mean to rabbis, not only in America, but All Over the World. Rabbis having Insights. Rabbis Thinking Deeply. Rabbis Giving Advice. Rabbis Performing Daily Meditation. Rabbis Reaching Out to God (or G-d, G!d, or G?d). Rabbis Blowing Shofar (on YouTube).
Online Photos of Rabbis, male and female, bearded and clean-shaven, ponytailed and head-covered, be-scarved and be-tallited, tefillined and soulful, looking eminently sincere and spiritual, or thoughtful and prayerful, and pleading, “Please follow my blog. I will be offering New Thoughts Every Single Day. You will not want to miss them.”
How can one fail to keep up with So Much Sincerity?
For me, Elul is important, too. But I don’t see all the hoopla. Yes, I do want my Jews to come back, to come home. I’m no snob. I can tell which way the wind blows. I want to see the benches filled, and hear the mighty organ of Jewish Voices responding with, “Amen,” when I or the Cantor tosses out a prayer on the Big Days.
But, (to borrow a phrase from a truly, more popular festival) why is this month different from all other months? (It is well-known, indeed statistically proven, that more Jews will attend a Passover Seder meal than attend services on the High Holies. Why? Well, what would you prefer—spend hours in services holding a prayerbook, or go to a nice, warm, friendly home to enjoy a good meal?) Why must rabbis burn the midnight computer-screen to conjure up exceptional, mind-provoking Rosh Hashana messages, to reach the Jew who hides, farthest-removed from the bosom of the Spiritual Community?
Because of Blind Pew. Remember the Infamous Pew Survey? The one that said that, every five seconds, another Jew disappears? Well, maybe not really, but close. It is true that congregations and synagogues are vanishing, or consolidating, as the Baby Boomers age, and their children themselves go on to marry (often intermarry) and have children, frequently later in life than the norm. These same Millennials are often not circumcising their children[1]; they are resisting joining congregations, or doing the same affiliating with Jewish resources that their parents and grandparents took for granted, often as a sociological reaction to anti-semitism.[2] On the contrary, we Jews have become so well-accepted in American society that marrying a Jew has become a status symbol of sorts—witness intermarriages by Caroline Kennedy, Chelsea Clinton, Drew Barrymore, and other celebrities of society and screen.
As a result, the latest cohort of Young Rabbis, fresh out of seminary and into the pulpits, is under Tremendous Pressure to Produce New Members for their congregations. And Rosh Hashana, the Season of Returning (to where? Why, to Judaism, of course) is the best time in which to do it. Autumn is the traditional season for synagogues (and churches, as well; perhaps, we may assume, mosques) to hold Open Houses, whereat they strut their stuff for prospective new members.
“Rabbi!” clamor their Temple Presidents, their Vice-Presidents in charge of Membership, and their Boards of Directors, “We have faith in you, and your abilities; that’s why we hired you, choosing you of all applicants to our congregation. You are, indeed, the Chosen One. Now, go forth—get thee out there, and find us some members! We need new congregants—they are the lifeblood of our shul. Find, especially, young Jewish families with babies—we need feeder families for our preschool. Find families who have children of elementary age—interfaith would be great; we are very accepting. Find empty-nester families; we need child-free volunteers who can come to shul on a moment’s notice, for an emergency minyan, a meeting, a broken boiler, a substitute teacher, someone who can defrost a frozen computer or kitchen deep-freeze, or rush to the supermarket for another Entenmann’s cake for the Shabbat Kiddush. Go, Rabbi, make haste, and find!”
And the rabbi, eager to please, full of love for Judaism and Jews, turns to Social Media, which is free, after all, and films themselves preaching, teaching, blowing shofar, offering sage wisdom beyond their years. They read other rabbis’ writings, check their notes from school, go online to see the thoughts and ideas of colleagues, and work hard to make the esoteric understandable. They cite Heschel and Buber and Kaplan and Borowitz; the Rebbe, the Rov, the Ari, and the Gaon; the Ran and the Rif and the Rash and Rashi, and never forget Reb Zalman; there are so, so many to read and to cite….
Or, they can go online, find some other rabbi’s thoughts and words, and copy-and-paste. (It isn’t plagiarism, if it’s done for a Holy Cause.)
And they Blog, and Facebook, and YouTube, and All the Rest, and Their Wisdom (they hope) increases and multiplies, as it is Shared by the Blogitudes.
For, in the end, what is the importance of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur?
New Beginnings. New ideas. New Jews, and Judaism.
What thoughts have I, this Elul? I recall an old Chasidic Tale—one of Elie Weisel’s—I can’t recall which Chasidic Rebbe it was, either; there are so many of them, I like to say, they all meld together into one, but I believe it was the Rizhiner, that Prince among Chasidic Rebbes, he of the golden slippers and gold-brocade outfits, who rode in a coach-and-six, and who received his Chasidim at a tisch (Rebbe’s table) laden with gold and silver plate, fit for the Sacred Service at the Holy Temple. It was he who addressed another Rebbe, much poorer of means—was it the Apter Rov? Never mind; the Rizhiner asked the Apter if he had yichus, that is, saintly ancestors; was he of noble birth, as was the Rizhiner, who could, according to some scholars in these matters, trace his lineage all the way back to King David.
“I?” asked the Apter, “I? No: my father was no king, or descendant of kings; my father was a humble tailor, and a poor one, at that.”
“But did your father teach you Torah?” queried the Rizhiner. He himself was descended from mighty scholars, even from the Baal Shem Tov, who, despite his humble mien, was renowned as learned in Torah, “What insights did your father, humble though he was, leave to you, as your yerusha, your spiritual inheritance?”
“My father?” responded the Apter, tapping his chin, “My father, the tailor? Ah!” he said, “My father left me two important sayings, which can help anyone, be they tailor or not, “’It is better to save the old, before looking for new,’ my father used to say, and, ‘As long as the candle burns, there is hope.’”
And the Rizhiner nodded his head, happy to learn such wisdom. Like the Rizhiner, I marvel at this wisdom, so cogent and useful, from the son of a tailor. Let us not be too quick to cast off the Old but still Useful in favor of what we deem to be New but Untried.
And, finally, let us never forget, that, no matter how far we believe we have fallen, as long as the Candle of Life burns—that is, for as long as we live—we are able to repent, to renew ourselves, and return to God, as better Jews, better pray-ers, better members of the Jewish (and Human) Community, and better fixers of this tired old world. Amen!

[1] That has no effect on the boy’s Jewishness, provided the mother is Jewish, even if Dad is gentile; and, I personally, believe that, regardless of Which Parent is Jewish, we ought to concern ourselves more with the remaining 85-90 years of the child’s life, and How Jewish They Will Be and Act During That Period. Outreach is key, here, but that is not within the purview of this essay.
[2] We Jews have always believed in strength in numbers: that is why the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), B’nai B’rith, American Jewish Committee, and American Jewish Congress have historically been such remarkable organizations, both as strengtheners of community and opponents of anti-semitism.