Rabbi Fine was hired by Temple of Aaron in 2012 to be their Assistant Rabbi and in 2014 was promoted to Associate Rabbi and acting Head Rabbi. In 2017 he officially became the Senior Rabbi. Temple of Aaron is a staple in St. Paul Minnesota with a rich 100+ history. ToA prides itself on innovated yet a traditional approach to Jewish rituals, spirituality, and learning. ToA is 800+ family Conservative synagogue and a proud member of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, a former affiliate of Big Tent Judaism and participant in the Life & Legacy Project of the Grinspoon Foundation. TUSY (Temple of Aaron USY) is the chapter where USY began and was proud to be the 2016 EMTZA Region Chapter of the Year.
This Week’s Sermon: Nitzavim Before Rosh Hashanah
There are several places that have spiritual meaning for me, above and beyond every day prayer. Places where I go, not only physically, but in my head as I pray. My spot at the Jewish Theological Seminary where I davened every morning. This little nook near the Lake at Camp Ramah. The basketball court near where I grew up. Ohel Nechama, the synagogue I pray at in Jerusalem. These places create a comfortable moment for me, to conjure up spirituality and intent as I look to or search for God. When the words on the page are not enough. When holiness seems distant.
We, Temple of Aaron and the Jewish people, are about to embark on the High Holiday season. A time on the calendar blocked off for many as a moment. That moment, of course, varies but it still holds as a time in life of potential for great awareness and heightened connection to the Divine.
In this week’s parsha, Nitzavim, we read:
אַתֶּם נִצָּבִים הַיּוֹם כֻּלְּכֶם לִפְנֵי ה’ אֱלֹֽקְיכֶם רָֽאשֵׁיכֶם שִׁבְטֵיכֶם זִקְנֵיכֶם וְשֹׁטְרֵיכֶם כֹּל אִישׁ יִשְׂרָאֵֽל
“Carefully follow the terms of this covenant, so that you may prosper in everything you do. All of you are standing today in the presence of the Lord your God—your leaders and chief men, your elders and officials, and all the other men of Israel, together with your children and your wives, and the foreigners living in your camps who chop your wood and carry your water. You are standing here in order to enter into a covenant with the Lord your God, a covenant the Lord is making with you this day and sealing with an oath.”
This is to suggest that the connection to God, the covenant of Judaism, is open to all peoples. It is not gender specific, it holds as much height for our leaders as it does for our workers, it is for all ages. Rebbe Nachman of Breslov states, “Moses gathered ALL the people, for he was able to illumine every single Jew.”
How appropriate to read Parashat Nitzavim on the Shabbat before the Holidays, a parsha asking all of us to come together to be a part of something larger. To reengage in the convent that is the Jewish people through prayer As Rebbe Nachman continues, “The Torah lists ten types of people…this teaches us the importance of unity, for all Jews, from the greatest to the smallest, must join together so their prayers can ascend on high. Standing means prayer.”
And yet, while all here we are different. Moses was careful to name the ten types of people, so that all of us could see ourselves somewhere in the group. A part of us as a part of the whole. We bring our idiosyncrasy with us and find meaning, as an individual as a part of the greater Jewish community.
This week there was a story in the Wall Street Journal about interesting, different, and unique rituals going on during the High Holidays and whether or not they were sustainable. I was actually interviewed for the article, although not quoted. Shayndi Raice writes, “For 2,000 years, Jews have spent Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, in a synagogue abstaining from food and drink, fervently praying and beseeching God to forgive their sins. This year, some rabbis, eager to woo younger people to High Holiday services, are holding programs in a beer garden, replacing deep bows with goat yoga and celebrating the end of the season with glow sticks in a mosh pit.”
We, at Temple of Aaron, are not foreign to unconventional attempts in services from musicians to disco balls to alternative learning to the case of the moving Shtender (gasp). But, there is, a sense of tradition that the vast majority of congregants want for calm, ease, tradition and connection. As someone who appreciates innovation in tefillah, I too prefer a traditional fallback as my constant.
Rabbis take sides in Raice’s article. “For the millennial generation, walking into a synagogue can feel like a Civil War re-enactment,” said Rabbi Dan Ain, who started a Rosh Hashana service called Bowl Hashanah at the Brooklyn Bowl, a music venue and bowling alley in Williamsburg, N.Y…. To older or more traditional Jews, this is nothing but a “shanda”… ‘It is a solemn time of year, and to dispense with the solemnity is to do violence to the very essence of the days,’ said Rabbi Avi Shafran, director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America in New York.”
The article continues, “Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, Congregations are fighting back by taking services to beaches and parks…Young Jews aren’t ‘joiners,’ and Judaism needs to meet these young people where they are. Still, Rabbi Jacobs said he has a tough time imagining Yom Kippur in a bar. [Quote] ‘In my openness and creativity, there are certain places on Yom Kippur where I just can’t quite imagine the type of spiritual experience that I would be searching for.’”
Raice notes one more thing, “Last year, goat yoga was added—where participants do yoga with real animals—to a traditional Yom Kippur service that recounts the story of the High Priest in the ancient Jewish Temple in Jerusalem sacrificing two goats as an act of communal atonement.” Folks, the High Holidays now includes an optional goat yoga. And to me, this might be where I draw a line. But for others, maybe it was a powerful moment. I want to believe it was. And then I think to myself…goats…doing yoga.
כִּי הַמִּצְוָה הַזֹּאת אֲשֶׁר אָֽנֹכִי מְצַוְּךָ הַיּוֹם לֹֽא־נִפְלֵאת הִוא מִמְּךָ וְלֹֽא־רְחֹקָה הִֽוא
“Now what I am commanding you today is not too difficult for you or beyond your reach. It is not up in heaven, so that you have to ask, “Who will ascend into heaven to get it and proclaim it to us so we may obey it?” Nor is it beyond the sea, so that you have to ask, “Who will cross the sea to get it and proclaim it to us so we may obey it?” No, the word is very near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart so you may obey it.”
Has Judaism become so detached from its origin, so uninviting, so archaic that we need goat yoga on Yom Kippur? Or is that the point? That we would be willing to challenge ourselves, to push ourselves, to be so desperate in the pursuit of holiness that we will place a goat on our backs for downward facing…goat? The parsha teaches, as I just read “It is not too difficult or beyond your reach.”
This Shabbos, as we enter the Holidays very soon, my suggestion, my ask, my spiritual advice is to not believe that holiness is too far away. Whether that means finding time, space, words, ideas that you connect with. Maybe leave the page for a moment. Maybe leave the synagogue for a moment. Maybe stare at something new or reflect differently. Find a way to make this holiday within your reach. For me, I drift to places. I find the lake or my seat or my spot. I will, a few times during the service allow my mind to wonder to those places to conjure up a connection to something greater than myself. That allows me, as the Parsha says, to ascend. To use the holidays as that marker of meaning. We do not need to physically be at bowling alleys or beaches. We don’t need rigidness or disco balls. It does not matter where the cantor stands or how many unfunny jokes the rabbi attempts. We certainly do not need goats. We need ourselves. Our mindsets. Our desire to be more, do more, and a willingness to act.
Shabbat Shalom and Shana Tova U’Metukah