October 14th: What Jews Do

The following is a transcript of the sermon given by Austin Zoot on Yom Kippur morning at Temple B’nai Israel in Kokomo, IN.

“You stand this day, all of you, before your God.” All of you. In our Torah portion this morning, we are told that all people, men, women, children, young, old, leaders and strangers are all present at the rededication of the covenant with God. We are in the book of Deuteronomy, toward the end of the book. The Israelites have wandered in the desert and are now finally almost ready to enter the promised land. But before they can enter, they are each brought before God, in order that they may be called back to the covenant.

This makes a lot of sense. The people are about to enter the promised land, and are about to begin the arduous work of creating their society. There will be many distractions, many tasks to busy the people. God wants to ensure that their bond is fresh in their minds when they enter, to ensure that they know that all that they have, all that they will have, is because of God’s deliverance and mercy.

God, in essence, is reminding the people of their identity. Many tribes and peoples were conquering and shifting during this time in history. Conquest was a popular notion in the geopolitics of this age. What made the Israelites distinct, what made them special, was that they were doing so for a purpose. They were in this place at this time because they were God’s chosen people.

Every member of the community was present on that day. There were no exceptions. Nobody was excluded because of their standing in life, nobody left out because of their lineage or wealth. Every single person had a stake in the future, and every single individual was part of that community, about to begin their journey together.

One of the parts about Yom Kippur that I have always found so moving is that Jewish people are in services this morning. All across the country and across the world, Jewish people are gathering together in their houses of worship to pray, to repent, and to gather together. Growing up at a very large congregation in suburban Chicago, this was the day where I would see classmates that I didn’t know were even congregants. Those once-a-year Jews, the ones who never made the time for Judaism in their day-to-day lives, and yet felt some notion of commandedness to attend Yom Kippur services. It felt, somehow, more powerful, more holy, because everyone was brought together.

Yet, this year, I read an article that discussed the notion of skipping High Holiday services. The central thesis of the piece was that for those Jews who attended services once a year, Yom Kippur was not Judaism’s best foot forward. The writer argued that, if you are only going to have a taste of one moment on the Jewish calendar, it should be Simchat Torah, a time for celebration and joy, or Hannukah, full of motifs of miracles and light, or even Pesach, where freedom and redemption are our focus. There was something too sad and depressing about Yom Kippur, something that, for those Jews struggling to attend services, wasn’t worth subjecting themselves to.

This got me thinking. For me, from my childhood, Yom Kippur attendance was one of the few ways that I could identify exactly what Jews do. “It’s what Jews do.” It is that easy reminder, both to one’s self and one’s community, that I am different, that I am somehow special, unique in the ways I go about my day. It was, to me, the same feeling as during Passover, when I would be one of the children at school eating matzah and turning down the pizza that my non-Jewish friends were eating. It was, simply, what Jews do.

But what, exactly, do Jews do? What are the unifying things that all Jews do that makes them unique and expresses their identity? It certainly isn’t weekly service attendance. Congregations all across America are experiencing drop-offs in not only attendance, but also dues. A physical space and regular attendance there clearly is not a singular priority for all Jews, or even for a majority of Jews.

How about a belief in God? Well, not all Jews believe in God. At the very least, we know that the word Israel comes from the Hebrew phrase meaning “one who wrestles with God,” and thus there is a built-in understanding that God may not be a unifying identity for all Jews, as different people may be on different steps of their journey of divine spirituality. In that regard, it may be that a STRUGGLE with God is “what Jews do,” but even then, we know so many who don’t even think about it, don’t even begin to tackle the major ideological issue about what God means to them.

The Pew Research Center released a study in 2013, analyzing the Jewish community in America. One of their questions was “What does it mean to be Jewish?” Of the answers given by Jewish Americans, only three answers received more than 50% of the vote: remembering the Holocaust, leading ethical, moral lives, and working for justice and equality in society. In that regard, none of those things are uniquely Jewish. Anyone, a member of another faith or a secular individual, can remember a historical moment like the Holocaust. All humans, in some way or another, strive for morality and ethical behavior, and most would argue that they, too, work for justice and equality. The results with the lowest response rate were the ones that were most specific to living JEWISH lives: only 19% said observing Jewish law was imperative, 28% acknowledging the significance of being a member of a Jewish community.

We, as a Jewish people, are less sure than ever what it means to be Jewish. We have so many options, so many distractions in our lives. We have jobs, we have families to support, we have social groups and organizations clamoring for our attention. Yet, once again, our Torah portion helps to center us once again. God knew that our lives would be busy. God knew that we would get distracted, that we would get wrapped up in the day-to-day operations. So God brought the entire community together, a reminder that we, as a single community, are meant for something special, meant for something powerful, meant to be chosen.

On this Yom Kippur, my hope is that Jews come together and remember what it is that makes us Jewish. We do things that help us relate to our people, to remember our connection and our culture. It is eating Jewish foods, those things that we know from our heritage and from our childhood. It is going to Jewish places, both for prayer and for social life. It is talking about Jewish issues, keeping in mind that morality and ethical behavior that is so central to Judaism’s message.

What I have come to find is that “what Jews do” are Jewish things. When we approach our lives through a Jewish lens, remembering our faith and our heritage, we bring not only the best of ourselves, but we are truly present within the covenant with God. We cannot turn our backs from what it means to be Jewish, because, at it’s core, what Jews do is Jews do Jewish things. And the more we can do to keep our faith and our people and our culture and our heritage in mind, the closer we get to our own notions of the promised land.

Gamar Chatimah Tova.

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