Beth El Learns – Yom Kippur 2012/5773

Rabbi Alexander Davis

Rabbi Alexander Davis
September 27, 2012 / 11 Tishrei 5773

Once there was a man who wanted to build a house. He went to his rebbe and asked for advice. The rebbe who was immersed in his learning put down his Talmud. “This is a most auspicious question,” the rebbe said. “Why, right now I’m studying the tractate of the Talmud about houses. Here take the Talmud and follow the directions.”

The man went home delighted. He followed the Talmud’s directions: four cubits here, six cubits there. A month later he had a beautiful house and he invited the community to a house dedication. But then it came time to put up the mezuzah. He gave it a little tap with the hammer and the entire structure collapsed. Frantic, the man returned to rebbe. “I don’t know what went wrong,” he said.

“The Talmud is a holy book,” replied the rebbe.” It must be studied carefully. Obviously you were careless. Get yourself a friend and have him read the directions to you and follow them exactly to the letter.”

The man went right to work with his friend. This time it took five months as his friend read every direction and he repeated it back. When he finished, again the man invited the entire community to celebrate the dedication of the house. He lifted the hammer to affix the mezuzah and would you know it, again, the entire house fell down.

This time the man was furious. He went to the rebbe’s house and opened the door without knocking. He threw the big volume of the Talmud down on the table in front of the rebbe.
“Again!” the man shouted. “I carefully followed all of the Talmud’s directions and it still fell down.

“Hmm.” The rebbe studied the appropriate page of the Talmud. “Wait a minute,” he finally said. “Rashi asks the same question!”

Haverim, as we enter 5773 we take pride in our beautiful new home. We dedicated phase one. We dedicated phase two. We hung two mezuzzot. Unlike the story, I am not concerned that the physical structure will fall down. But this year, the question we must ask ourselves is, will it remain standing? We completed our Lador Vador campaign for the building. But the goal was never bricks and mortar. Today we must ensure that our community continues midor lador.

And the truth is, the rebbe had it right. Talmud might not help build the house. But it is what will preserve it. For learning is the key to Jewish living. It is the foundation to Jewish community, the fuel for Jewish continuity.

Three years ago I told you our bottle (that is our building) was leaking. We fixed the leaks. Now it’s time to taste the wine, the sweetness of learning.

Some of you are probably saying to yourselves: “Study. Of course he’s excited by it. He’s a rabbi. He just spent four months in Israel. But study is not my thing.”

Well it’s true. In Israel, I felt like a kid in a candy store with so many opportunities to learn. But I wasn’t always this way.  I was the kid who wanted nothing to do with my Temple’s Sunday school. On YK, I confess: “It was me. I had something to do with our fourth grade teacher quitting mid-year in tears.”

I was scarred from religious school days. I think some of you can relate. So I wanted nothing to do with it after my bar mitzvah. But at some point in college, I learned Torah and suddenly, whole new worlds opened up. Torah was not just a window to the past. It was a window on the world, on my life, on my soul. This was the Torah we stay up all night studying on Shavu’ot, the Torah with which we dance on Simhat Torah, the Torah about whom we sing, “ki hem hayeinu v’oreh yameinu. It is our life, the length of our days.”

Unfortunately, that’s not how everyone experiences learning. At some point, many years ago across the United States, the Jewish ideal of life-long learning was reduced to memorizing a bunch of skills. The goal of education became performance. Along the way, we outsourced our studies from parents to teachers, from home to school. And we separated learning about Jewish living from living the very life Judaism tries to cultivate. Like a plant without roots, it was only a short step to the conclusion that at 13, we had learned everything there was to learn. Torah had nothing more to teach.

But Torah is not about information. It is about transformation (Aryeh ben David). Information is trivia that’s easily forgotten. Transformation leaves a mark on our soul.  Educating for information is interesting but it doesn’t inspire. Educating for transformation molds our character. This is the message of a midrash on our Torah reading (Tanchuma Aharei Mot, 10).

“While the Temple exists,” God said, “bring sacrifices for atonement. But when the Temple is gone, busy yourself with words of the Torah and they will atone for you. L’hitasek b’torah hein mikaprin.”

How can Torah study atone for our transgressions? The apologist answers that Torah study eliminates the need for sacrifices because true Torah scholars do not sin. There are some segments of the Jewish world that believe in this notion of rabbinic infallibility. So I tried it at home. Let’s just say it didn’t go over well.

How does learning affect atonement? For Jews, learning is not just about acquiring knowledge. It’s about transforming our lives. Torah is not a scroll, or a trope, or a story, or history. Torah means “instruction.” It is wisdom for living. Being engaged in Torah atones for at its best, learning connects our minds, our hearts and our hands. It moves us to more fully encounter ourselves, each other and God. It strengthens us as a community and inspires us to do our part to repair the world by growing in mitzvot. (based on BJ Mission statement)

On Rosh Hashana, I spoke to you about dreams. And this is my dream- that Beth El becomes a learning and a learned community. We have to become Shavu’ot Jews not just Seder Jews, Simhat Torah-Jews, not just Shabbat-table Jews. For, if we want to be a light unto the nations, the light of learning must burn within. Hebrew, history, halakha. Musar, midrash, mishna. Talmud, Torah, T’shuvot. And on and on. My dream is for our children to love being Jewish. But they can’t love it, unless they know it. And they won’t love it, unless you learn it, you live it, you love it.

Today we are blessed to live in an amazing age when new technology is revolutionizing how we learn. That my sixth grader is doing most of his school work on a ipad is no longer surprising. But this year my Aleph School child will begin using them as well. I keep expecting one day soon as we start singing “v’zot hatorah” to see someone lift aloft an iscroll. In fact, I downloaded this entire d’var Torah from “Help-I-need-a-sermon.com!” Clearly, we have more access to learning at our fingertips (literally) than Rambam could have ever dreamed of. And yet open access means little if we are not Googling. We must reclaim the title, “People of the Book” or perhaps, “People of the Nook.”

And today is the day to begin. We think of Yom Kippur as a time of forgiveness, of apologies and confessions. And it is all of those things. But what really happened on this date? The Israelites received the Torah. Yom Kippur is a second Shavu’ot.  Moshe received the Torah on Shavu’ot and subsequently smashed the tablets. On Yom Kippur, he received the second set of tablets. You might say Moshe upgraded to the Tablet 2.0. What’s the difference between the first and second set of tablets?

Just before we read “adonai adonai el rahum v’hanun,” we read in the Torah: “Moshe carved two tablets vayifsol shnei luhot avanim.” The first set of tablets were carved by God. The second set were carved by Moshe. With the first set, Moshe was a passive recipient. With the second, Yom Kippur-set, he was an active participant.

And that is what we need today. It is not enough to pass the Torah down from generation to generation. It must be received anew, accepted in each generation. And it starts with us. “P’sol lekha carve new tablets for yourself,” God said to Moshe. “Psol lekha- for yourself.” They cannot be for future generations unless they are first and foremost for you. Moshe didn’t drop kids off at Mt Sinai and say, “go learn. I’ll pick you up in 40 days.” He himself went up the mountain.

Let’s say we all agreed that learning is important. Who can afford the time? The truth is, we can’t afford not to make the time. We are busy. Our kids are busy. But we must carve out time. Our future as a community and a people depends on it. In the words of Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, “We are the only nation in history to predicate its survival on education.”

And so this year, as we celebrate the opening of our Learning Center, we launch “Beth El Learns.” The Center is to be more than a repository of books. It is to be a vital area of activity. I invite you to check out the broad range of programs we are offering: Take a class. Teach a class. Let us host your book group. Start a study group. Find a study partner. Receive weekly divrei Torah on line. Watch an on-line class.

Our goal between Simhat Torah and Shavu’ot is that once a week, every person here engages in some kind of Jewish learning. Torah study is broad enough to encompass all of our interests and learning styles as we’ve tried to reflect in the offerings of “Beth El Learns.” And today, it’s more convenient than ever before. This is a dream we can achieve.

Permit me at this point to say a word about our local Jewish education. There are a number of challenges we currently face:

First, we must address how we deliver Jewish education. Every week I read about new, creative ideas: home schuling, on-line Torah trope trainers, b’nai mitzvah merit badges. I even read about a class that has girls paint scenes of the parasha on their nails! Some of these ideas are worth exploring.

Second, we must address changing learning styles and understand the many demands on our students. That’s why I am co-chairing a Minneapolis initiative to reexamine Jewish education for our teen population.

Third, we must address how our teachers are supported and trained. This will be an issue I will raise at the Federation on whose board I now sit.

Finally, of course we must address cost. Did you know that every year we have to find $50k in our synagogue budget for scholarships for the Aleph School? That’s to say nothing of the financial needs of our educational partners- schools, summer camps, college campuses.  We need your help supporting Jewish education whether or not you have kids in school because education is quite simply the future of our community.

All of those issues are crucial. Beth El and the larger community must address them. But none of them should overshadow the most critical piece of them all – the need for life-long learners. For ultimately, the question is not the cost or time commitment. It’s how much we value Jewish education.  I am convinced that our challenges will be resolved when and only if, adults love learning. So I need you to share that dream, the dream of children and adults dancing with the Torah and staying up all night studying, the dream of Torah sweeting our lives throughout our lives.

The sh’ma got it right- b’shivtecha b’veitecha. Learning begins at home; it begins with parents and grandparents who teach by example. It’s not about lecturing; it’s about leading. It’s not about knowing all the answers. It is about prioritizing- about insisting that Jewish education does not end at 13, about insisting that Jewish education is equal if not more important than other extra-curricular activities. For it is our very future.

The word for parent in Hebrew is horeh, which shares a root with moreh, “teacher,” which shares a root with Torah, “instruction.” Horeh. Moreh. Torah. The three are inseparable for parents must transmit the wisdom of Torah. And so, if you carry scars from a religious school that colors your opinion of Jewish education, now is the time, cleanse yourself of them. They not only impoverish you to the beauty of our tradition, they poison your children, the next generation.

“P’sol lekha,” the Torah says. The Torah is “l’kha for you” and must begin with you. It’s not about making you a better Jew. It asks your questions, speaks your language, addresses your interests. It’s about eternal values, timeless wisdom, deep spirituality. “When I pray, I speak to God,” said Professor Finkelstein. “When I study, God speaks to me.”

A few days ago, someone brought me a program from the original dedication of this building. Flipping through it, I recognized many of the names and could picture the excitement they must have felt. But I knew something else. These men and women did more than dedicate an “Activities Building” and later a sanctuary. They dedicated themselves to passing on the traditions of their ancestors to a future generation. And we must do the same. We did not inherit a building nor are we bequeathing a building.  We renovated in order to be renewed.  We built a building in order to build a community, in order to pass on a heritage, in order to build a soul, livnot k’dai l’hibanot. And it begins with learning.

I watched as construction workers poured the foundation of the Learning Center. And do you know what that foundation is made of? Concrete and dirt. But not just dirt. Before they poured the cement, we buried sacred books in a geniza. Our foundation literally is but more importantly figuratively must be Torah.

Throughout these High Holy Days, we pray to be inscribed b’sefer hayim, in the Book of Life. The image is not an accident: a Book of Life. There is no living without learning, in the words of our sages, “Marbeh torah marbeh Hayim – the more Torah, the more life.”

In 5773, we must affirm the words of our Yizkor prayer, avi mori, imi morati, our parents are our teachers. For although at this hour we feel their absence, we sense time fleeting, we also know, that through our learning they will remain ever present as we say, v’hayei olam nata b’toheinu, life eternal is planted within us when we hold fast to the Tree of Life.