Rosh Hashanah Morning 5783
There is a famous Jewish story. Honi the Circle Drawer, a kind of Jewish magic-worker, living in the times of the Roman Empire, sees an old man hard at work, digging in the dirt. What are you doing? Asks Honi. I am planting a tree, says the old man. What kind? Asks Honi. A Carob Tree answers the old man. Ḥoni said to him: This tree, after how many years will it bear fruit? The man said to him: It will not produce fruit until seventy years have passed. Ḥoni said to him: but you are an old man! You are not going to live another seventy years! Do you expect to benefit from this tree? The old man said to him: I have grown up and found a world full of carob trees. Who planted them? Just as my ancestors planted for me, I too am planting for my descendants.
We love to tell this story, we Jews. You have probably encountered it before: in a class, a sermon, program or book. And we can see why we love it. It speaks to so many of our Jewish values. It is a story about honoring the elderly and honoring future generations. It is a story about building for the future and caring for the world today. It is a story so profoundly about what it means to create the kind of world we think our descendants ought to live in—even if we ourselves do not get to see it or benefit from it. So much of our sense of what it means to be Jewish is about doing work that we may derive no benefit from, planting trees whose fruit we may never eat, but someone will, and that is all that matters. In so many ways it contradicts the surface layer of our Torah portion this morning, as Abraham very nearly sacrifices his future—our future—as he binds his son Isaac on the mountain of Moriah. I think part of what repels us about the Akedah and also fascinates us is how much it contradicts the instincts in the story about Honi and the Carob tree. As Jews we are always looking toward the future, not just the past or the present. As Reform Jews especially we lean into the prophetic ideals of Judaism—that there is, as Michael Walzer wrote, a better place, a promise land. That the winding way to that promise passes through the wilderness, and that we can get there, or if not us, our children. And that we can get there together. That we are called to always be planting carob trees, literally and figuratively, for a future we can only hope comes to pass. It is what we as Jews do.
So we protest and lobby against injustices and for a better society. We lift up the voices of those whose voices are too often silenced—the needy and dispossessed, the poor and the refugee. We include those who have been cast out because they were different, those who are treated as strangers, because we know what it means to be a stranger. And we teach. We teach our children: vishinantim l’vanecha. We model the kind of behavior we want to see. We teach them about our holidays and our prayers and the values that are associated with them. We teach them to lift their own voices up, to say when something is wrong, and to create space for those who are different and might have something to teach them. We try to show them—and anyone else who will listen—that the world does not need to be hard, does not need to sacrifice them on an altar. That the world, as the poet Maggie Smith writes, does not need to be half-terrible. That in fact, “This place could be beautiful, right? You could make this place beautiful.”
We could make this place beautiful. In days of old, the Tabernacle, and later the Temple in Jerusalem, stood as a model for a beautiful world, a world of justice, inclusion, and peace. A world where everyone saw the oneness of God, and that we are all created in God’s image. Of course, the Temple is long gone, and as much as many of us love a good barbecue, I doubt any of us would be enthusiastic for a return to what is described in those particular chapters in Leviticus. (Anyone else have Leviticus 6 as a bar mitzvah portion? Fun, right?). But the model moved elsewhere. The rabbis called the table a ‘mikdash m’at,’ a small sanctuary. We could model that beautiful world in our own homes—through prayer, through acts of charity, through honest conversation and learning—from our tradition and each other. That model moved to our synagogues, places where we gather and create sacred community. Of course we can create it in other places—in fact, isn’t that the point? To remember that everywhere—the parking lot of the JCC, the supermarket, the auto repair shop, the ballot box, the classroom—these are all places of sacred community as well? So we model sacred community in these spaces, model how we are supposed to behave with one another, model how we are supposed to live with one another, not just so that we can be better Jews in the sanctuary, but so that we can be better human beings in the world. So that we can plant carob trees for the next generation.
We could leave it up to everyone knowing what they are supposed to do. After all, we are taught at Yom Kippur that the Torah isn’t so difficult—it’s not in heaven, but in each of us. We could leave it up to chance, to assuming that everyone has the same expectations, the same reaction to things, the same experience of the world. We could. But we will not. First of all, we are Jews; when was the last time we left something unsaid, something undiscussed? When was the last time we left well enough alone? And more than that, we know that our experiences are not the same, nor are our experiences. We are here in our myriad, beautiful diversity: of opinion, race, ethnicity, background, political affiliation, age, ability, gender, length of membership, sexuality, and even religion. But we are all here, and if we really want this place to be that model of what the world should be, if we really want to teach our values, if we really want to plant carob trees, we must be intentional about who we are and what we are about.
Which is why I am so grateful for the work members of our congregation are doing toward creating our own congregational ethics code, work I wanted to start back in 2020, but as with all things, the pandemic robbed us of our energy and ability to do that kind of meaningful work. David Margolies, along with a mix of board members and non-board members, including experts on ethics, have been crafting an ethics policy for the congregation that is appropriate, thoughtful, meaningful, and perhaps most of all, Jewish. We are grateful for his work, along with Ellen Caspar-Johnson, Sharie Eng, Aaron Kupchik, and Jeff Margolies. I hope you have heard of of this code, or Guide, have read it (you can find it on the front page of our website), or even participated in one of the focus group conversations the committee has been hosting to both educate the congregation and solicit feedback. Some of the feedback that has come up repeatedly is a question, why do we need an ethics code, or a guide? Is something wrong? Did something happen? And that perspective is completely understandable given the news in the world, especially the Jewish world the last couple of years. We have read about the various arms of the Reform movement: The Hebrew Union College, The Central Conference of American Rabbis and the Union for Reform Judaism—all engaging in internal investigations and reviewing their systems and processes after accusations of unethical behavior, first, among professors and staff at the college, and then elsewhere, many in the past, but not all, with each now trying to put policies in place to make sure these problems don’t manifest again. Similarly, we have seen the Conservative movement rocked by allegations of abuse at their Ramah camps and in USY. And we have read about various prominent rabbis lose their positions due to bullying and toxic workplace behavior. So it is understandable that we might be reacting to that, trying to get ahead of things.
Thankfully, that is not the point of this work. We are, blessedly, not reacting to anything internal or external. Thanks to previous generations of leadership, we have had solid Human Resource policies in place protecting employees, volunteers, and students, to protect them from abuse and mistreatment. We have an HR committee that works closely with staff not only on ethical concerns and creating a safe work environment but also growth and celebration. We require background checks for anyone working with children, and have for years—yes, even beloved volunteers who have been doing the work for ages. And our executive director, Jon Yulish, is always looking in the non-profit world and consulting with experts to see what other best practices we should put into place. Cantor Pellen, Moret Eliana Hall, Mr. Yulish, and I are all beholden to the ethics codes of our professional organizations, and we take them seriously.
So that is not the point of the Taskforce’s work. Instead, the work has been focused on the idea of being intentional about our behavior and our relationship with one another in this building and in our programming, with the hope that it extends to the world around us. As a Reform Movement document from the URJ explains: “… a written code of ethics also reinforces the community’s values and positively influences individuals’ behavior. Individuals who expressly know and understand the community’s expectations are more likely to act according to those standards and to make responsible decisions.” And “…Reminding people of the sacred nature of the community and informing partners of acceptable standards of individual behavior.”
That is, it is not enough to say, “I’m in a synagogue so I know how to behave here.” Having a document that explicitly states our values and intentions for all to see—not only congregants of all ages, but guests and visitors as well—will help all of us keep these values at the forefront of our thoughts, and make sure nothing is left to chance. No one should have any doubt how we as a congregation want each of us to treat one another and to be treated. And if we are being honest, sometimes, many of us have walked out of here with doubts. About whether we were really heard by a fellow congregant or respected for who we are. Whether we felt safe sharing about our lived experiences or thought we would become fodder for the rumor mill. Whether we are seen as full Jews, full members, or full participants in any way. There should be no doubt, but sometimes there is. And most of the time it is not because anyone has done anything intentionally wrong. We are not villains, tying one another to train tracks while cackling and twirling moustaches. And if you are, hey, it is okay, we do not judge. But seriously, most of the time when there has been an offense, the offender does not realize it; they thought their comment was innocuous. And sometimes the offended does not say anything, but stews in their feeling bad, because how can you say to someone, ‘hey, what you said was offensive’ without making them feel ‘defensive’? That is one of the challenges of today, isn’t it? That when we try to call someone in, correcting behavior without dismissing the person, we may worry about calling someone out, which might feel great in the moment, but rarely solves anything.
So, that is the point of our ethics code: to provide guidance and thoughtfulness about what all of us, each of us should not only expect, but aspire to in our relationships at Beth Emeth. The Code gives us a shared set of goals, rooted in Torah and our tradition, about what meaningful interaction should look like. It is meant to be an aspirational document, inviting us to live up to our highest values, even when we are not exactly feeling it. It invites us to recognize that all of us are created in the divine image, to treat one another with respect and dignity, recognizing our myriad diversity, physical, intellectual, and spiritual. It invites us to create a space that is safe and peaceful, but not at the exclusion of that diversity, and to guide our disagreements to be Leshem shamayim, for the sake of heaven, and to work actively toward justice, inclusion, and integrity. Not just in our collective action, but in our interpersonal interactions as well: standing in line at the cookout, chatting with friends as you enter services, the quick conversation on a Sunday morning near the gift shop, that all-important catch-up in the parking lot.
I will not read the whole code here: It has been shared and will continue to be shared, with more opportunities to discuss, before a board vote. Again, I encourage you to read it; it’s on the website and even in the hallway as you pass through. We will be discussing in more detail tomorrow at our Second Day Rosh Hashanah lunchtime program as well, with an eye toward not only presenting these values but living into them, modeling them, as well, as lofty as they are. Because for this to be a living document, we need to engage with it in meaningful ways. I urge you to participate if you have not, to thank the members of the committee for their hard work and thoughtfulness, to engage in the process, to learn and to see these values as speaking to you, both in your interactions here and elsewhere.
Rabbi Israel Salanter used to tell his congregation that, when they were making decisions, to imagine themselves on the day of Yom Kippur. How would they choose on that day? Similarly, if we take the code and its values seriously, I will hope we would find ourselves living those values not just when we are in this building, but when we are out and about as well. Because we know that when we do, we are planting trees for the future, a future that is more peaceful, more sustainable, more inclusive, more respectful, and loving; a world that is more just. Others planted before us; so we must keep planting. Others fought and protested and advocated before us, so we must continue to do so, lifting up our voices and the voices of the vulnerable. Others taught before us, so we must teach, in our words, our actions, and our behavior. So that this world can be the world we want it to be, the kind of world we hope for our children and grandchildren and all those who walk this world with us and will walk it for generations to come. The kind of world God knows it can become. May we see ourselves in this work, in this code, and plant the seeds for a better world. Amen.