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Rabbi Berk’s Erev Rosh Hashanah Early Service: Shabbat

Note Regarding the Difference between the Sermons for the Early and Late Services: Our Early Service is designed with children and families in mind and therefore includes a simplified version of the sermon delivered in the Late Service. 

By Rabbi Michael Berk

I would like to begin my message to you this evening with a story. A king was once traveling back to his castle. A storm gathered, and for safety, his advance team decided to have him stop and spend the night with one of his subjects. It happened to be a Friday night, and the home happened to belong to a Jewish family. The king was welcomed at their Shabbat table. The king watched as the family gathered around the table, the mother lit the candles to welcome Shabbat made kiddush and motzi and father blessed and kissed every member of his family. Then came the meal. The food was delicious beyond anything the king had ever tasted. Though the home was poor, the loving family with their warmth and smiles and hospitality, along with the extraordinary food, made the king feel like, well, a king. He was content.

When he returned to the palace he was determined to eat that food in his own palace. So, he summoned his head chef and described the meal, and the chef did his best to reproduce it. A few hours later the king was told dinner was ready. He was hungry, anxious and excited as he sat down; but upon taking the first bite he was so disappointed. He told to the chef where he was off, and the next day the chef tried again.

It went on like that all week. No matter how well the king described the food, and despite the skill of the chef, the food just didn’t match the poor family’s meal. So the king returned to the Jews’ home with his chef and begged the mother to tell them why his chef couldn’t reproduce the fine meal he had with them. The chef carefully described what he made and what spices he used. The wife told the chef and the king that the chef was very good and very close. But there was one ingredient missing. One ingredient the chef couldn’t possibly provide himself. And that ingredient was? What do you think it was? …. Shabbat!

[That’s right! And] I think you know what Shabbat tastes like, and it’s deliciousness is about more than the food. It’s being with the people you meet and those you love. Food tastes better when there’s a little Hebrew thrown in before eating it, Hebrew you may not understand but you know is expressing the gratitude you are feeling for the food and the people with whom you get to share it.

A month ago on two successive Shabbatot something magical happened right here at Beth Israel. On August 14th nearly 200 of you were at shabbes dinner. And the following week, nearly 500 of us gathered as a community at our 9th annual Shabbabaque. Every one of you knows that those meals tasted different than had you gathered with the same people somewhere else on a Tuesday night. And that difference was the sweetness of Shabbat; the warm glow of candles and the embrace of family and friends, the feeling of contentment, the relaxing of muscles and release of stress; songs, connecting deeply with those sharing the Kiddush and challah. The Shabbat ingredient is in the food and those gathered around the table.

What a beautiful texture this kind of Shabbat gives our Judaism. Reform Judaism, if it is to maintain its strength and vitality, needs to recover Shabbat. Shabbat adds something too often missing from our liberal Judaism: touch and smell and song and laughter and people we care about; good food and great conversation, the power of Torah and prayer; a sacred community. When I grew up as a Reform Jew, Judaism was all in our heads and hardly involved our hearts. When I attended my first traditional Shabbat meal, at the home of a friend whose father happened to be my professor, I felt like I had entered an alternate universe. A family that sang and prayed and talked about important things over a leisurely meal? A father who blessed and kissed his wife and children? To the parents I ask: wouldn’t you like your children to remember your Sabbath blessing and kiss?

This is important and why I’m speaking about it tonight at our Family service, with so many of our youth here now. Studies tell us we are in trouble with our young people; that we risk losing you if we don’t give you a Judaism that’s about more than great ideas about being a nice person. Our young people shouldn’t need to find Aish Hatorah or a Kabbalah Center, or a Buddhist temple, to find a spiritual home, which so many of them do or will seek. Nor do they need to live a spiritually empty life endlessly searching for happiness in the wrong places and never quite finding it. We need to teach them that our Reform Judaism gives them access to a rich store of wisdom and spirituality and a life that embraces them with friends and community and traditions.

I am concerned about the Judaism we provide our youth because I’m very worried about the world they’re being raised in. America is all about the pursuit of happiness, but it is a happiness at odds in so many important ways with Judaism, symbolized by Beth Israel’s positioning across the street from the mall. The mall represents a lot about America and its values. Walk in the mall and you’ll see people who look very happy. They are surrounded by the things that are supposed make us happy. The mall is about the individual and looking good and young and hip. Then look at people in the food court studying their iPhones and not talking with the person across the table from them; the people in Starbucks huddled by themselves with their iPads and lap tops. They look happy. Our children are being raised in a society that has serious issues with some of the most important things in life like character building and connecting deeply with people and the world around them. Teenagers send out hundreds of text messages a day and spend nearly 10 hours a day engaging a cold, impersonal screen. They look happy. But what is all that technology doing to their ability to look another human being in the eye.

We learn character and values and how to navigate the complicated world of human beings by interacting with people, not screens. Technology is no substitute for personal interaction. But listen carefully to me. Judaism does not look down on the material things that bring us comfort and happiness. But Judaism says we are not defined by our things; and our worth is not at all dependent on how much cool stuff we have. So, Shabbat is a break from the enslaving pursuit of happiness from acquiring and using material things. Instead, on Shabbat we pursue something entirely different, and of soaringly greater importance. Shabbat reminds you, there’s more to your humanity than being a buyer and consumer of things.

Shabbat is about taking care of the deepest part of your humanity; what we might call your soul. What do our souls need on Shabbat? All our modern appliances and devices have given us a marvelous world at our finger tips. They make us very happy. But, if happiness is all it’s so cracked up to be; how come so many people are wondering: is this all there is? How come so many young people are so cynical and stilted in their relationships with others? You can be very happy and still feel something is missing. I know that sounds funny. But let’s understand just what happiness really is.

Aristotle said that happiness is the ultimate goal that we all aim for. In the bible, happiness is the state of mind of an individual. The author of the Book of Ecclesiastes, known as Kohelet is the Bible’s expert in unhappiness. His book is a series of meditations on the pointlessness of life. He ends his quest for meaning by concluding that the appetites we try to satisfy to make us happy are insatiable. So happiness always leaves us wanting more. His conclusion: “I know that there is nothing better for people than to rejoice and do good while they live.” (3:12)

Kohelet found meaning in life not in happiness, but in joy. What is joy all about? Joy is experienced when you feel really alive and grateful for your life. We do not know what tomorrow may bring; the world is a tough place. But when you are with good friends and family, and dance, sing and give thanks, as we do on Shabbat, when you let go of your separateness and individuality, and put down your iPhones, and join with family and friends at times like Shabbat — that’s what joy is. This is very Jewish. No matter our reality, on Shabbat we are commanded to rejoice and enjoy friends and family, synagogue and food, music and conversation. We savor these things and are grateful for how they bless our lives. For that one day, we feel – dayenu. I actually have enough.

We have lots of cool stuff that make us happy, but they threaten to become our masters. Celebrating Shabbat binds us to our friends and family and with our sacred community. You and I know that the pursuit of happiness can lead, ultimately, to caring only about yourself. Happiness is usually experienced alone. Joy never is. Joy connects us to others and to God. Joy is the ability to celebrate life as such, knowing that whatever tomorrow may bring, we are here today, under God’s heaven, in the universe He made, to which He has invited us as His guests. There is no better way to find this kind of joy than on Shabbat.

So let me tell you what I’d like you to do. Experiment. Try Shabbat on. Commit to something for Shabbat in the months to come. Once a month: have a special dinner and combine it w coming to services. Participate in Shabbat SD on the Weekend of October 22-24. There will be lots to choose from: Community events frame the weekend, beginning with Challah making on Thursday and ending with Havdalah Saturday night. In between, let’s make BI the place to be. We’re starting Friday night with a joyous musical service followed by a dinner at which I want at least 300 people to attend. Shabbat morning and afternoon we welcome an important rabbi from Israel, Uri Regev, who will teach Torah in the morning and engage us after services at a luncheon. Also, sign up for the next 18 Tables, which will be December 4th. Let’s fill at least 18 Tables. And to our youth leaders I say: use your imagination to re-envision how you can make our Teen Shabbat experiences compelling and exciting experiences that bring our teens together and give them something they can’t get across the street at the mall.

Now me ask you a question as I conclude: do you think it’s possible that at the end of your life you may regret working too hard? Not spending enough time with family? Spending too much time in front of the television and not enough time outside? Is it possible you’ll have such a regret? I think you know how possible that is.

But now let me ask this: do you think it possible that at the end of your life you might say: I wish I hadn’t gone to Shabbat services so much? I regret all the time I spent at Shabbat dinner with family and friends?

I doubt it.


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