Dana Rudolph, Trustee at Large, TEMV Board of Trustees; Publicity Chair:
Judaism, to me, is about journeys. And Jewish journeys, like much of Jewish culture and thought, are many layered—like a good babka.
Jewish history is rooted in journeying, from the moment God told Sarah and Abraham “Lech l’cha”—go forth, to our flight from oppression in Egypt, to our diaspora throughout the world and many of our parents, grandparents, and other relatives coming to this country seeking a better life.
We each have our own individual Jewish journeys, too. Mine involves being born to culturally Jewish but mostly non-observant parents; spending years in graduate school studying medieval intellectual history that was predominated by Catholic theology (with a dash of Maimonides); and realizing later that what drove my love of this subject, with its textual commentary upon textual commentary, was a really very Jewish instinct. My journey also involved seeking a place to deepen my Jewish knowledge after my father and then my mother passed and I wanted my son to keep ties with this part of his interfaith heritage; and finding that place at TEMV.
Each of us has a personal Jewish journey, I believe, either to or from different levels of observance, or with constant observance but a changing understanding of what it means as we pass through different phases of our lives. And sometimes our Jewish journey involves not being Jewish, but being married or partnered to a Jewish person.
Then there is the journey we all take during these Days of Awe. Rabbi Alan Lew, in his classic book This Is Real and You Are Completely Unprepared, talks of these days as being a journey “of self-discovery, spiritual discipline, self-forgiveness, and spiritual evolution.” He explains:
This is the journey the soul takes to transform itself and to evolve, the journey from boredom and staleness—from deadness—to renewal. It is on the course of this journey that we confront our shadow and come to embrace it, that we come to know our deepest desires and catch a glimpse of where they come from, that we express the paradoxical miracle of our own being and the infinite power of simply being present, simply being who we are…. It is the journey from isolation to a sense of our intimate connection to all being.
Let us not forget, too, that teshuvah, the guiding theme of our High Holy Days, which is sometimes translated as “repentance,” actually means “return”—a very definite travel directive, instructing us to find our way back to the best in ourselves as we also journey along the 10-day path from the open gates to the closing ones.
And despite Judaism’s commitment to social action in the world, this inward journey stands at the beginning of our year across our holiest season. I believe this is because of that traveler’s advice from the sages, “Put on your own oxygen mask before helping others.”
We even have a map for this journey, in Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah, where he explains the path to teshuvah. Now, I’ve seen Maimonides’ steps of teshuvah parsed different ways, which I take to be a Google Maps vs. Apple Maps sort of thing—I think we’ll get there in the end no matter what. But the steps break down something like:
- Recognize that we’ve made a mistake and stop doing it.
- Verbally confess the mistake and ask for forgiveness.
- Try to fix the mistake and appease the person we have hurt.
- Resolve to act differently if the same situation happens again.
After this journey of inner and interpersonal renewal, we are ready to begin the broader journey towards justice and repairing the world. And this journey, too, is tied into the very heart of who we are as Jews. I want to share here some words from Rabbi Angela Buchdahl of Central Synagogue in New York City, who in her Rosh Hashanah sermon last year observed, “God did not permit Abraham and Sarah to begin Judaism from the comfort of their hometown. They had to become immigrants. They had to be the Other in order to create a religion of the Other.”
As Jews, we know what it is to feel vulnerable and powerless. God chose the Jewish people as the archetypal strangers. Why? So that we would never forget that person behind the barbed wire, barricade, or checkpoint. That family forced to hide or run, that couple carrying all their belongings on their backs, or more basically – those people of a different color, faith or philosophy. We are mandated by our tradition to remember, and protect, and, yes, love the stranger – because we are that stranger. This is what we were Chosen for.
This is what we were Chosen for—remembering the stranger—and this is why it makes sense that Judaism has journeys at the heart of its history.
Today, our country has dire need for people who understand what it means to be the stranger—and this is at the center of our Jewish identity, across all of the variations of ritual and belief. Our Jewish heritage of otherness has put us in a position to be empathetic to those who are strangers (another term might be “marginalized”) and our Jewish ethics demand that we help them.
Let me go back to the oxygen mask advice for a moment, though, and observe that it has perhaps been difficult for us as a TEMV community to put as much time and effort into helping others as we would like, when we have to spend our energy making sure that our walls stay up. It is hard to repair the world when we have to be repairing the plumbing. We need to help ourselves before we can help others—and I would even say that it is our obligation to help ourselves so that we can help others.
As a community, we are making a very concrete journey together as we move to a different locale. And while I, too, mourn the loss of our beloved building, I am in fact excited that a building that requires less of our time and money will allow us to put that time and money where it really counts: into welcoming the stranger and being at the forefront of repairing our very broken world—as we have always tried to do with our lunch bags and food collections, for example—and to do this even as we keep our own oxygen flowing with ongoing education and spiritual nourishment for ourselves and our children.
Journeying is what our people have done for thousands of years. It is at the core of who we are, and it gives us an important perspective on ourselves and the world. So put on your oxygen masks now for these Days of Awe, reach out to help your neighbors, and prepare for our manyfold journeys together.
Keep your tray tables ready, though—because we’re Jewish, so you know there’s going to be in-flight food. I hope to see all of you tomorrow for our services and Kiddush.