yom kippur 5776 learning from our students

“Who is wise? The one who learns from all people.” These High Holidays
we have learned from a plumber on Erev Rosh Hashana, from the synagogue’s
custodians Joe, Dennis, and Gilbert on Rosh Hashana Day, from Jack Coulter and
the greatest generation on Rosh Hashana, and last night on Kol Nidre we got into
an imaginary time machine and learned from the clergy that served this
congregation in the 1960s, Rabbi Harold Schulweis and Cantor Simon Cohen. It is
only fitting that the last sermon of the High Holidays looks not back to the past,
but forward to the future. Today we will have the opportunity to learn from some
of our students in consonance with a different quotation from the Talmud. In
tractate Taanit 7a, Rabbi Chanina says: “I have learned much wisdom from my
teachers and even more from my colleagues. However, from my students I have
learned most of all.” So today we will focus on some teaching by our own Temple
Beth Abraham students, specifically our Confirmation students from last year.
Before we do that, though, it is important to set the context. It is especially
appropriate to quote the tractate Taanit during the Yom Kippur fast, since Taanit
means fasts, and this entire tractate is devoted to the laws surrounding fasting.
The specific context of the quotation is a discussion about fasting for rain, the
subject of my sermon last year, and the rabbinic sages say that the day of fasting
for rain is as important as the day of matan Torah, the day of the giving of Torah.
While on that subject, they compare the Torah to a tree, an etz chaim, a tree of
life. And Rabbi Nachman bar Isaac says that the reason the words of Torah are
likened to a tree is to teach us that “just as a small tree may set on fire a bigger
tree, so too it is with scholars, the younger sharpen the minds of the older.” And
then he quotes Rabbi Chanina about learning most of all from his students.
The metaphor of the trees on fire is especially resonant with me. Teaching
children provides the very fuel that makes my rabbinate burn. One of the main
reasons I became a rabbi was the opportunity to work with children of all ages:
preschool, Bet Sefer, Bar/Bat Mitzvah, and Confirmation. There is a Midrash I
often tell at baby namings, how when God sought someone from the Jewish
people to guarantee the covenant at Mount Sinai, Moses, Aaron, and the elders
offered up themselves as surety but God told them that none of them were good
enough. Who, then, could guarantee the covenant, which is essentially a contract
between God and the Jewish people if not Moses, Aaron, or the elders? The
answer: Only the children were good enough to make that guarantee. And we
know this to be true. It’s why educating our children is such a point of emphasis
here at Temple Beth Abraham, from preschool through Confirmation, and having
the students continue through Confirmation is both the goal and the expectation
here. I have essentially three goals for our students. By the time they leave our
community, I hope they leave here with three things. The first is synagogue skills.
It’s why we emphasize learning prayers, davening, learning to decode Hebrew
reading. I want our children to be able to go to any synagogue in the world of any
denomination and feel comfortable. Secondly, I hope they leave with a positive
Jewish identity. This is a little more difficult to measure and define, since it means
different things to different people. Some identify with the social action aspect,
others with the life cycle, others with the peoplehood, others with a connection
to the land of Israel. Whatever the “hook” may be, we hope our students develop
this positive sense of Jewish identity. Finally, we hope they leave here with
friends. It’s why we have Share-a-Shabbat dinners when they are young, why we
insist that every Bar/Bat Mitzvah student invite their entire class not only to their
service but to their party, and why we offer such strong support to our youth
groups Oakland BBG and Dreidel AZA. They are not as synagogue centered or
religious as I would like them to be, but dayenu. It’s Jewish kids getting together
and building lifelong friendships. All of the teachers here hope that at least a few
sparks have been lit in your children by our teachings here at Temple Beth
Once in a while, you get to see flashes of those sparks, and one such
moment is during the late Spring every year on a Friday night near the holiday of
Shavuot where we hold our Confirmation services. Every year I am moved by
these drashot or “speeches,” but this year I was especially moved, because the
five students who volunteered to speak, all of them female, interestingly enough
(that’s a subject for another time, perhaps) really captured the essence of what it
is we are trying to teach them about Judaism—the struggle, the theology, the
action, it was all in there. What is Confirmation? You may have seen the photos
on the walls. Essentially, it’s a class for 10th graders that meets on Wednesday
evenings from January through May, and even students we haven’t seen since
Bar/Bat Mitzvah days usually come back for the class. The class itself is called the
“Bible Meets Modernity,” and each week we take a different book of the Bible as
well as a contemporary issue which is addressed or hinted at in that book. For
instance, week one is Genesis and God, week two Exodus and Abortion, and there
is a lesson for every book in the entire Tanach. The assignment in the drash was
to give a two-four minute speech about what in Judaism is meaningful or
significant to them, utilizing something they learned in the class. I want to share
excerpts from the five incredible students who chose to speak.
Sonia Aronson talked openly about her struggles of what it means to be Jewish.
Being Jewish has always been very confusing for me because I felt I never knew what
being Jewish truly meant. There were, and are, so many aspects that contradict each
When I started elementary and later middle school, where I was one of the only Jewish
kids. I looked up to my school friends and wanted to be like them, and resented being
Jewish because it made me different. However, as I got older I began to appreciate my
Judaism more because it set me apart from my friends, and, in general, allowed me to
do different things and meet more people.
In Confirmation, we discussed similarities that as Jewish teens we all share. But most of
us all differed in some way—whether it was how we connect with God, how our families
view interfaith marriage, or even which Jewish activities we participate in –which led me
to realize that everyone has a different relationship to Judaism and that our connections
to the religion will constantly change and develop.
Sonia has named the struggle that so many of us have with Judaism, and this idea
of struggle is so Jewish in itself. After all, our name Yisrael literally means to
struggle with God. Judaism really does contradict itself in many ways. Many of us
struggle with our beliefs, our level of observance, how assimilated we want to be
or how much we want to turn inward in our Jewishness. Thank you Sonia, for your
honesty and openness in addressing what so many of us face.
Despite the fact that Judaism can be a struggle and can contradict itself,
Sophie Govert reminded us that Judaism is not a “whatever you want it to be”
religion either. Here are her words:
One of the most important things I learned in confirmation wasn’t exactly in a lesson
plan. It was said in passing, by Rabbi Bloom. It was something like, “Judaism isn’t
whatever you want it to be.” And then something else about “but hey, don’t’ worry,
because there is a lot up for interpretation.”
Sophie then talked about how she had been treating Judaism as whatever she
wanted it to be for most of her life, making it convenient for herself instead of
asking the tough questions. And many of us do the same. We simply state our
beliefs, whatever they are, and say “that’s the Jewish view.” Writers and Jewish
leaders do this all the time as well. Read Tablet or Ha’aretz or The Forward or the
J. The writer will set out his or her political beliefs and then define them as “the
Jewish view.” But Judaism isn’t all things to all people. It’s a religion based on
mitzvoth, specific commandments, and middot, specific values. They are subject
to a wide swath of interpretation, but they don’t simply go with whatever the
prevailing social winds are. So Sophie said:
But we did ask tough questions over the course of the class. How strongly do we believe
in God, if we even believe in God at all? How important do we feel it is for each of us to
raise Jewish children? How do we reconcile who Leviticus says we can’t be with who we
are? So even if Judaism is not exactly what I want it to be, at least I’ll always be
allowed—and encouraged—to ask why that is.
Thank you Sophie. You captured exactly what I believe too, but you put it much
better than I ever could.
Speaking of tough questions, two of our students, Ruby Klein and Aviva
Davis, grappled with one of the most difficult questions of all—God. But they
addressed it head on, and they didn’t fall back upon a generic, God as some sort
of higher power but I can’t say what/ Ruby went straight for one of the greatest
Jewish theologians of all time, Maimonides. Here is what she said:
Maimonides’ idea posited God as a unity that sent power through angels of pure
intellect, which makes our role to strive to achieve intellectual perfection and share that
knowledge with each other. We become God’s angels, which makes Judaism a vehicle to
understand, to ask questions, and learn as much as we can through each other.
In other words, by striving for knowledge and sharing that knowledge with one
another, God’s holiness is present in our world. The discussion of Maimonides,
Ruby said, transported her back to one of the times she felt closest to Judaism,
which was during the congregational trip to Israel.
Throughout the entirety of my time in Israel, I kept asking myself “Where is the holy in
Israel? At which location am I closest to G-d? Is it the holy in the western wall or the
synagogues or the beach?” I didn’t have my answer until one of the last days in Israel,
when I concluded that the holy is within the people, and just as our words are G-d’s
transcended power to Earth, the people that travel the streets of Israel carry its
What beautiful, intellectually profound thoughts from Maimonides via Ruby. As
Maimonides himself said in the Mishneh Torah, “let the honor of your students
should be as dear to you as your own." Indeed it is Ruby.
Aviva also dealt with one of the challenges many of us face regarding God.
Referencing the Akeidah, the binding of Isaac which we read last week on the 2nd
day of Rosh Hashana and presents a very troubling view of God, to say the least,
she asked:
What do we do with God in the Torah who has the power to instill fear, anxiety and
panic among us?
She interviewed a number of her peers, and 3 out of 4 did not believe that God
was present in their lives. She then added, perhaps a little tongue in cheek
Why would they need to when they have parents to provide healthy, organic food,
homes in the hills, and higher education? A decrease in blind faith might be a good
thing, but for those of us whose needs are met, are there other ways to honor the
mystery in our lives? I choose to honor God through observing Shabbat and
communicating with other Jews.
That kind of thinking honors both God and community, Aviva.
Finally, Sarah Weintraub moved us from philosophy to action.
It is not what one says but rather what one does, that makes all the difference in the
She then went on to talk about Tikkun Olam, not in the generic sense that it is
often used today, but explaining the actual Kabbalistic, Jewish mystical view
which presents an alternative view of the creation story. When God created the
world on the first day of creation, there were these vessels of light that became
so intense, they shattered into billions of pieces. It was a cosmic catastrophe. Our
task, in partnership with God, is to pick up the sacred fragments by doing
mitzvoth, whether we are talking about feeding the hungry or lighting Shabbat
The underlying meaning of this value is that the world we are living in today is imperfect
and each of us, meaning you and me, are obligated to do something about this
Sarah, thank you for picking up a fragment through your words.
Five important lessons from five very special students, lessons that
including naming our struggles, that Judaism is not whatever you want to be, but
that there is much room for interpretation, that God is present when we share
our deepest thoughts with one another, that concrete actions of Tikkun Olam are
what each of us must do to make this world a better place. This is exactly what I
want our students to take away from Temple Beth Abraham about Judaism, but
it’s like a mirror. Here are the students reflecting our teaching back at us, but seen
in a newer light, with their own relevance.
In a few hours we will conclude Yom Kippur with our Neilah service. It
opens with a piyut called “El Nora Alila,” written in the 11th Century by Abraham
ibn Ezra, sung here in a tune which I can’t hear without thinking of Sarah
Sheidlower of blessed memory. The final stanza of this poem begins with the
words Tizku l’shanim rabot habanim v’habanot, may we, your sons and daughters
your children, be merited with length of days and with ditzah uvtzohola, joy and
gladness. The joy of children begins our neilah service. Then, as we get to the end
of Neilah, Avinu Malkeinu, one of the last lines is “chamol aleinu v’al olaleinu
v’tapeinu, Merciful One, who gives us life, have compassion for us, our infants,
and our children.” Before the gates close, we refer not to ourselves, but to our
children, who are ultimately both the repository and the source of ultimate
wisdom. And then, the very final line, after reciting the Shema and that Hashem is
God seven times, the very final line is “l’shana haba’ah b’Yerushalayim, next year
in Jerusalem.” Yes, it is a reference to the our sacred land at the crescendo of the
service, an important lesson in and of itself, but I think it’s also symbolic—the idea
that we must look not just to God but to the future itself, to next year, and to the
only ones who can guarantee the covenant and future of the Jewish people—our
children. And, thankfully, as you can see, our future is in excellent hands.