In Search of the Palace – Rosh Hashanah Day 1

Seek out God when He is to be found! -declares the prophet. (Yeshayahu 55:6) – “these are the ten days between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur,” rejoin the rabbis. (Rosh HaShanah 18a)

There is a parable, originally told by Rabbi Nachman of Breslov:  Once upon a time, there was a prosperous kingdom. The people lived lives full of activity and exuberance. They sang together joyfully at their celebrations and cheerfully helped neighbors in need. Some devoted themselves to study and became profoundly wise. Some devoted themselves to making a positive difference and improved the lives of all. Some provided food, drink, and social media and created large networks of friends. All of them loved and respected their king very much and he had been king for a very long time. The king lived in a fabulous palace on a beautiful estate in the middle of the kingdom. The palace was hospitable and lively. The people frequently visited the palace. They could hike to the palace on an intricate system of interlocking pathways which connected themselves with each other and with the palace and the king. It was even more impressive than Biltmore House & Gardens. With even better restaurants. They could stroll the grounds and they could tour the magnificent rooms. They could even hope for an audience with the king.

Over time, no one was really quite sure exactly when or how, but a sad darkness overcame the kingdom. A great storm of dislocation tore through the land. There was terrible flooding and political tumult. There was fake news. The earth shook too, and valleys became hills and hills became valleys. There were rising seas and raging wildfires. Even a pandemic. Gradually, the storm blew over and the weather calmed. The people struggled to clear their own paths and tried to clear the paths to their neighbors but found imposing obstacles of debris. They began to wonder, “What about the palace? Where is the king?” The people decided that they should pave over the problems and reconnect to each other and to their king. Some set out on a path that they remembered but found it untraversable. Others remembered a different path and tried to find it. But, it too, proved blocked with hindrances and unforeseen changes. The people took out their GPS devices and lo, they found that the old pathways did not necessarily lead anymore to each other or to the palace. Former roads led to a dead-end or to the wrong place. Or a path might wind back upon itself. The people grew anxious and discouraged. Some tried very hard to push through on the old paths, only to weary of the effort and to consider giving up. Others stopped trying altogether and some began to doubt even if there ever was a king and a palace. For some, the loss of hope was an alienation of the mind; their hope might be easily restored. Others were affected by an alienation of the heart, and it would be much harder to restore their faith. A teacher said, “I can help. There is a palace and there is a king. As much as we yearn to find our king, our king yearns to be restored to us. Even if the king seems distant, we don’t have to be distant from one another. Our problem is the old paths no longer lead to where we must go. Therefore, we must blaze new paths to reconnect with each other. We’ll consult those who remember the palace and the king and listen carefully as they describe what was, what they have experienced, and learned, and what they know. We’ll enlist those who possess a keen sense of direction and sharp instincts and are in tune with how things are. It is okay to be uncertain. Some of the new paths may seem strange. They may seem like the wrong direction. We must try them anyway and not give up trying. Some directions may prove to be wrong. When that happens, we will not let ourselves feel too discouraged, and we will resist bickering and mean-spirited criticism. Rather, we will adjust our direction. In the end, we will find the palace. And in the palace, we will find our king.”

The central theme and focus of the Rosh Hashanah- Yom Kippur season is Teshuvah. Teshuvah, the word we use for “repentance,” comes from a root meaning “return” and “change.” Heraclitus pointed out, “You can’t step in the same stream twice.” With the world around us constantly in flux, it’s often necessary to blaze new paths to reach former destinations.

Teshuvah is the reset button for one’s life direction. Teshuvah is the reset button for our Jewish GPS. Forging a life pathway can be hard, but Teshuva cannot happen without a new direction and change.

We pray in the plural yet today is also intensely personal. I’ve been on my own journey to the palace of the king. I have experienced my own sense of dislocation. I grew up in the Conservative Movement where I behaved uncooperatively in Hebrew school, played folded paper table football with Alan Silverman, tormented my teachers (please forgive me, Barbara Lewin!), and was generally bored in services. It is entirely possible that the fact of my having become a rabbi is evidence of the existence of a God of justice. Or at least a God with a sense of humor.

My recollection is that my attitude began to shift as a teenager. 3 stories of my grandfather

Elderly respected shofar blowerer – community leadership is more about relationships and trust than expertise.

Moses & Monotheism book – religion is much more interesting once you realize you can’t just take it at face value.

“Honor your father” doesn’t mean never disagree. It means disagree respectfully, but by all means, disagree! Disagreement isn’t in and of itself disrespect.

In college, I read the Autobiography of Malcolm X. The book talks a lot about oppression, identity and solidarity. It occurred to me that I, too, was part of a people who canonized their own story of having been enslaved and then liberated as a sacred text. I began to think with more maturity about issues of identity, solidarity and intentional community.

Following graduation, I attended the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, where I identified with the creative and broad-minded approach to Judaism, but felt disappointed by the lack of attention to the primary texts of Judaism. When I first visited the school, I was struck by an announcement during lunch made by one of the senior students that they would be organizing a Mincha service against nuclear power in the context of a larger protest. This appealed to me at the time much more than the signature Jewish spiritual experience of my youth, Responsive Reading. I decided to enroll. While on a required year of study in Israel, based upon my admiration for Orthodoxy’s undeniable success in cultivating intentional communities (as opposed to just “congregations”), and encouraged by my liberal arts education to favor primary texts over secondary sources, I switched to an Orthodox yeshiva. I earned my ordination, or smicha, from the Chief Rabbinate of the State of Israel a few years later.

I find that people are often curious why I left Orthodoxy. We all face our roadblocks in life and understand the need to overcome them. I ran into a few obstacles that gave me pause as to the rightness of my direction. My synagogue pushed out a new member who had earned their reproach by marrying a non-Jewish woman. Against my recommendation, they insisted that he not be allowed to lead services even on his father’s yahrzeit. This experience pitted the path of tradition against the path of the heart for me and prompted me to reflect that we may need to reconcile with ourselves and each other before we may hope to reconcile with God. I found my path further confounded by a few members of the local ultra-Orthodox community. I declined to sign a petition being circulated amongst Orthodox rabbis in my area asking the state legislature not to permit Gay marriage. Later, I learned from a friend that a second petition was being circulated to revoke my rabbinic ordination because I had refused to resign from the board of rabbis in protest after we were joined by a gay colleague. I began to realize that my life, earnest though it was, might be the consequence of not following the path I needed to take. I realized that meant that on the inside I had left Orthodox Judaism. I’ve kept my enthusiasm for traditional, text-based Jewish learning and my commitment to prioritizing community building. The comment, 3 Jews = 5 opinions is often meant as self-deprecating Jewish humor. To me, it’s come to represent the spirit that drives Jewish life. A teacher of mine once defined a “Jew” as “someone of a different opinion.” For me, there’s nothing more exciting or inspiring in Judaism than the robust exchange of ideas. It seems this makes CBI an ideal spiritual home for me.

We each must find our paths in life. There are paths to be blazed to each other and paths to be blazed in search of God. Who knows that these are not all one and the same path? There lies within each of us a story of how it happened; each heart beats who I have been and where I need to be. Congregation Beth Israel is a synagogue forging its own path. As it is written, “We are an independent egalitarian Jewish community, rediscovering ourselves every day. We love pot-lucks, swapping stories and kids in the sanctuary. Sometimes we sing off-key. We learn and laugh together, celebrate and care for each other.” We are a kehilah kedosha, a holy community. Together we will find what leads to the precious and enduring and what is revealed to be merely a detour along the way. We will find our home. We will join God in this beautiful palace.


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