The Jewish High Holy Days are the showcase time of year for most synagogues throughout North America. It is one of the few times a year that American Jews fill the pews at their respective synagogues for the holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Some come because of that small still voice of Jewish guilt that begins to speak up around the end of the summer every year. Some come because they love the chance to reconnect with their friends, acquaintances and family all together. Some come because they cherish the familiar melodies that are unique to this auspicious time in the calendar.
No matter what reason they come, one of the highlights on the schedule is the rabbi's sermon. It is questionable whether the emphasis on the sermon exists because people are earnestly seeking to hear words of wisdom or because it represents a break from the hours of prayers and religious music. Rabbis everywhere know this and so we spend an extra amount of time and focus preparing our sermons for this holiday season. We want them to be relevant and exciting. We want them to be inspiring and provide an uplift to those listening. We hope that their message will pierce through the protective shells of apathy and cynicism that surrounds us in our modern culture and move people to make synagogue a regular part of their schedule in the coming months.
Perhaps, most importantly, rabbis all over the world, work hard to make sure that their High Holy Days sermons are uniquely theirs and that they project their unique rabbinic voice to their community. This fact makes it all the more special that this year in Denver, rabbis from synagogues across the city and across the denominations chose to collaborate on a joint sermon. I was privileged to work with my colleagues from Reform and Conservative synagogues to craft a message together that while preserving our distinct voices distilled the same message to our congregants.
What was that message and why was it so important? The topic was Israel and the focus was widening the tent of inclusivity in the American Jewish community on the communal conversation on Israel. The State of Israel is the modern realization of the dreams of so many Jews and the result of a generation of people who survived the horrors of Nazi Germany who not only survived but on the ashes of their destroyed lives built a vibrant democracy. The public discourse in Israel is a symphony of voices and perspectives representing every possible constituency and demographic and a plethora of political ideologies.
We shared with our congregants throughout Denver that it is imperative that we model that symphony of voices within our own Jewish community. We shared the truth that removing a seat at the table for those we disagree with does not silence their voice but only polarizes and divides the community. We shared the truth that the strength of a community is not to be found in its walls and in its fortifications but in its openness.
Some three millennia ago when Moses brought the Jewish people to the cusp of entering the Land of Israel, he ordered scouts be sent to survey the region. It was amongst the questions he asked them to inquire about that he asked them to determine if the residents of the Land of Canaan dwelled in fortified strongholds or open encampments. One would imagine that the former would be the indication of the military might and strength of the residents. Yet, the Midrash, the early era rabbinic homiletic work, teaches that the opposite is true. Moses wanted to know how many of their dwellings were open encampments because if they dwelled in openness, you could tell they were a people to be reckoned with and that they were confident in their communal strength. This is a lesson we ought well to heed to nowadays.
Thus, this past Rosh Hashanah in synagogues throughout Denver, the rabbis gave the same sermon. We dedicated one of our speaking slots at a time when so many of our members are in synagogue to the important topic of Israel and making sure Jews from a wide array of points of view and perspectives can feel welcome at the tables of community leadership. I know that I share the wish with many of my colleagues from all the major denominations of Judaism represented in this city that our members will listen to the message and that we begin as a community to add chairs to our tables of influence and not remove them.