Classic in Your Attic (Rosh Hashanah, 5777, Day One)


Rosh Hashanah, 5777
October 3, 2016—1 Tishri 5777

            Two years ago a family living in southern France had a leaky roof.  Seeking the source of the leak led them to explore their attic—in particular a door in the attic that had been locked for 150 years.  This was a home that had passed from generation to generation in the same family.  If they wanted to access the source of the leak, they had to open this door that had been sealed throughout all of their lifetimes.

            They opened the door, and they discovered two things.

            One was the source of the leak, which they were now able to fix.

            The second was a painting.  The painting was huge. It was violent.  It was gruesome. But it also looked to their untutored eye like a classic.  A gruesome classic.  They reached out to a French art dealer who came running to their house, up the steps, into the attic, behind the sealed door.  He took one look at the painting and said: O my God!  O my God, this is it.  This is the missing masterpiece.  This is the masterpiece that has been missing from the art world for more than 400 years.  This art expert told them that the painting was the work of a Renaissance master, the Italian artist Caravaggio, born 1571, died 1610, and it was the work known  as Judith Beheading Holoferness.  Who is Judith, who is Holoferness, why was she beheading him, and if this painting is such a classic, why was it trapped in the attic for more than 400 years?

            Judith is an ancient Jewish heroine, Yehudit in Hebrew.  Holoferness is an Assyrian general bent on destroying the Jewish town in which Judith lives.   Judith seduces Holoferness, lulls him into her tent, gets him drunk, and then beheads him so that he cannot destroy her home and village. The painting shows the beheading, leaving little to the imagination. It was precisely this gruesome violence that explains why the painting was trapped in the attic.  By the way, this

art expert told the family, the painting is worth more than 136 million dollars.

            There’s only one problem. The art world cannot agree on whether this painting is real or fake.

            Some art experts look at it and say:  The color, the texture, the energy. That’s Caravaggio.

            Other art experts look at it and say: The color, the texture, the energy.  That’s so not Caravaggio.

            The only thing the art experts can agree on is that neither side can ever definitely prove whether this work is a masterpiece or not.  Some will look at it and say: real deal.  Others will look at it and say: not the real deal.

            Now why do I bring you this curious story?  Because this story is not about Caravaggio, it’s not about Judith Beheading Holoferness, and it’s not about the lucky family with the leaky roof.  This is our story.

            We have all got classics trapped in our attics.

            The classics trapped in our attics are the ritual side of Judaism.

            The social justice side of Judaism is not trapped in our attic.  We all love social justice.  We all love tikkun olam.   As we should.  That is a core part of Judaism.

            But Judaism is not only about tikkun olam. Not only about social justice.  It is also Jewish rituals. But for so many of us, those rituals are trapped in our attic.  And when we take them out and look at them in the light of day, we disagree on whether they are masterpieces or not.

            Is prayer a masterpiece?

            Yes, prayer is a masterpiece.  I get so much strength from God, and from the community, when I pray.  

            No, prayer is not a masterpiece. It’s boring.  I don’t connect with prayer. I’m not a God

person.  The best part of shul is Kiddush.

            Is Shabbat a masterpiece?

            Yes, Shabbat is a masterpiece.  I am a slave to my devices, which are always ringing, beeping, buzzing, pinging, giving me no peace.  Only on Shabbat can I be free.

            No, Shabbat is not a masterpiece. It just doesn’t work for me to take 25 hours off.  I can’t

turn my cell off that long.  I like Shabbat Alive well enough, one hour on Friday night once every few weeks is nice, but 25 hours? That’s not me.

            Is Kashrut a masterpiece?

            Yes, the dietary laws are a masterpiece because eating is something I do every day, and they force me to be disciplined, and to show relationship with God by what and how I eat.

            No, the dietary laws are not a masterpiece.  I don’t observe them, and I don’t believe God really cares about what I eat.  Looking at all the pain in the world, all the innocents who suffer from poverty and violence, I want to believe in a God who has more important things to worry about than what I eat.

            That’s the thing about Jewish rituals that we relegate to the attic.  We relegated them for a reason.  We relegated them because we chose to, because we did not find them compelling enough.  What do we do with the things that we don’t use, the things that we don’t live with every day, the things that are not relevant to our day to day lives?  We put them in the attic where we don’t live.  And that is what we do with Jewish rituals that are not relevant to our daily lives.

            Now why am I talking about this just now?  This is my 20th Rosh Hashanah at Temple Emanuel, and I have never before given a High Holiday sermon urging more ritual observance.  It’s not that I don’t believe in Jewish rituals. I do.  But I don’t believe sermons about Jewish rituals make for good sermons.  To the contrary, they make for loser sermons. Ineffective sermons.  Because that’s not the way the world works.  If you don’t do Shabbat, and I give a sermon about keeping Shabbat, for 15 minutes, 20, 25, 27 minutes, it’s not like now you will start doing Shabbat. It doesn’t work that way. Instead you’ll just ignore the sermon.  So for 20 years, I have saved all of us from the experience of my giving, and you hearing, ineffective sermons about Jewish ritual that will not land.

            But this year, for the first time in my life at Temple Emanuel, I am inviting you to reconsider those Jewish rituals you no longer do; those classics trapped in your attic.  Why now?

            Look at the world we live in.  Look at the year we have been through.  It seems like every week brings fresh news stories of violence, of senseless and tragic death.  All of this against the backdrop of our long and bitter political season.  It feels like a dark time, a time when there has been a crisis of values that we can believe in.

            When the world is so turbulent, so tempestuous, we need a booster shot of hope, wholeness, order, peace, humanity, dignity, decency, resilience.  We get all these values precisely from the classics trapped in our attic, the Jewish rituals we long ago let go of.

            This year two different grown men, members of our shul, shared stories of their fathers, and of their relationship with them, that they allowed me to share with you now.  Both fathers had for years put the classics of Judaism in their attics.

            One man related:

My father was an enigma, and I lacked the wisdom to ask the right questions before it was too late.  Both he and my Virginia Protestant mother were rejectionists of all religion, which was replaced by liberal politics, a secular tikkun olam. There were no Shabbat candles, no seder, no Hebrew, no Yiddishkeit, no Jewish education and no bar mitzvah…

Then, my father died in 1994.  In retrospect, I wish Michelle Robinson had been there to recite El Malei Rachamim with the intense beauty she brings to that deathless prayer. I wish there had been a shiva in my home, with prayer leaders whose presence would have signified that my father mattered.  After seven days, I wish I had been escorted back into the embrace of my people.  I wish I had had a minyan.

My father’s body disappeared into a funeral home.  He was alone.  He had no shomer, no one to protect him.  I wish I had been his shomer.  Heartfelt words were spoken at his burial, but they lacked the healing power of the generations.

            This son felt something was missing in his life, a spiritual dimension.  He responded by studying for and becoming an Adult Bar Mitzvah, mastering Hebrew, chanting Torah and Haftarah, giving a Torah interpretation, wrestling with mitzvot like kashrut and holidays and Israel.

            His father, a lovely secular gentleman, never took the Jewish classics out of his attic.  He lived a secular life. He died a secular life with Jewish masterpieces still locked up, but decades later his son went up to his attic and reclaimed the classics.  He writes: “With each step I pick up pieces that were discarded by the roadside decades ago, and am made more whole.”

            Is it possible to unlock the classics in the attic that have been trapped there for so long?  People get set in their ways.  They do not think they are missing anything.  We all tend to be fortified and defended in the decisions that we have made, including the decision to let go of rituals that do not feel relevant.   How can we think and act differently?

            I was speaking recently with a member of our shul who told me a story about his father, age 86, on the eve of open heart surgery.  He needed that heart surgery. But at 86, heart surgery is scary.  Could he survive the surgery?  There was edge, apprehension in his hospital room in New Jersey.   His son, our member, wanted a misheberakh made for his father.   That would prove to be complicated.

            Our member called Rabbi Robinson and asked if she would recite it over the phone.  She

said of course, she would be privileged to.  That was the easy part.  The hart part was getting his

father to receive the misheberakh.

            This father had once been a man of faith.  In fact, he had once been a regular shul goer. 

He had once been a shul president.  But in 1986, his son, our member’s older brother, died of AIDS, at the age of 29.  The devastating loss of his son caused the father to lose his faith.  From 1986, until the eve of his surgery in 2016, the father did not utter a single prayer. Did not attend a single service. Not even on the High Holidays.  Thirty years, not one prayer.  God, prayer, Jewish community, were all locked in his attic.

            Now thirty years later, this father is in his hospital bed in New Jersey, on the eve of a big, scary surgery, and our member asks his father if he would accept a misheberakh over the phone.  His wife angrily said no. We don’t pray. His daughter said no. We don’t pray.  But the father said, okay.  The wife and the daughter moved to the other side of the hospital room.  They wanted no part of this mishaberakh.   Our member put Michelle on speaker, and Michelle started to recite the misheberakh.  As she is praying, the father grabbed his son’s hand hard and held on tight, listening intently to every word, even as other members of the family kept their distance.  When Rabbi Robinson’s prayer for healing was over, father and son said Amen, thanked her and hung up the phone.   The son observed that the father now had a strength, a groundedness, a serenity, a spiritual center, that he had not seen in many years. The father turned to his son and said he felt “protected.”   His son said Dad that’s great.  But it is so interesting.  You feel protected by that prayer, yet you have not prayed in thirty years.  His father said, yes, but that misheberakh cannot hurt.

            Thank God the father survived his surgery and is convalescing nicely. 

            This story was so Caravaggio in the attic.  Same family. Same moment. Same prayer.

Multiple reads.  From: The misheberakh means absolutely nothing. To: It means connecting to something larger. It means protection.  It certainly means you love me enough to pray for me. 

            Today is Rosh Hashanah.   Each of us gets to take a new look at an old ritual.  Each of us gets to reconsider: does the misheberakh mean nothing, or can it mean something beautiful? 

            Can regular prayer put us in touch with people who care about us, whom we care about, and a spiritual dimension that can give us grounding?

            Can learning Torah with our community help us think more deeply about something really important:  the meaning of our lives. 

            Can Shabbat give us the one chance we’ve got to silence our phone and just think and be?           

            Can going to Israel reconnect us to the Jewish people, the Jewish homeland, the Jewish story?

            The son who called Rabbi Robinson to ask for the misheberakh added a coda to the story.  His mother said I know I am 84.  And I know that since your brother died I have stopped praying.  But I think I am going to take a new look at prayer.  Dad got something out of it. Maybe I can too.

            We are never too old, we are never too far gone, it is never too late, to change. The door to the attic may be sealed, but it need not be sealed forever. The classic may be trapped, but it need not be trapped forever. The magic may be lost, but it need not be lost forever.

            Unseal the door. Get the classic out of the attic. Let the magic live again.

            I don’t know whether Judith Beheading Holoferness  is a masterpiece.  But I do know

one thing for sure. The Jewish classics now trapped in your attic, they are the real deal. If you let them, they will decorate your lives. Shana tovah.