A House of Prayer for All People

September 12, 2015
Rabbi Elliot J. Cosgrove

Erev Rosh Hashanah 5776

One of the oldest, and sweetest, and well-known tales of the High Holiday season is the story of a young Jewish boy, orphaned as a child and adopted into a warm-hearted gentile family. The boy knew himself to be Jewish, although he did not know exactly what that meant. He lived a simple life as a shepherd, going out each day with his flock, playing his flute all along. One fall day, sitting at the side of the road, he noticed person after person traveling to the nearby city of Berdichev. One by one they passed, until the boy’s curiosity got the best of him and he asked the travelers where they were going.

“We are on our way to Berdichev to spend the High Holidays with the great tzaddik, Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berdichev.”

“High Holidays?” the boy asked. “What are they?”

The men laughed, “Silly boy. The Jewish New Year and Yom Kippur! The whole world is being judged; you should not be here with sheep, you belong in the synagogue!”

The words struck a chord in the boy. Not knowing what to do, but knowing he had to do something, and not familiar the new High Holiday ticket policy, the boy took his flute and followed the crowd into the synagogue. Never in his life had he experienced such a thing. The sound of the Hazzan’s voice, the townsfolk engaged in prayer, every iPhone out of sight and set to vibrate. At that moment the boy knew, more than anything else, what he did not know. He could not read Hebrew, and he could not recite a single prayer. More than anything in the world he wanted to join in, but he lacked the tools to do so, and nobody, but nobody, paid him any attention. All through Rosh Hashanah, and then through Kol Nidrei and Yom Kippur, he sat, seeking a way into this holy community. The time for Neilah prayers arrived, the tension in the room mounted, and he understood the sanctity of the waning hour. One by one, the worshippers gathered at the ark, silent and without kibitzing; in his eighth year, the rabbi’s stern warnings seemed finally to have taken effect. So sacred was the moment, some say, they saw the head usher offering prayers of his own, and some say . . . even the executive director.

With tears in his eyes and unable to contain himself any longer, the boy took out his flute and began to play. A joyous flurry of searing notes. All the worshippers froze and stared, “How dare this child create such an outburst? How dare he desecrate our sacred day!” With every darting eye turned against the boy, Rabbi Levi Yitzhak ran off the bimah toward the terrified child and embraced him. “This boy,” announced the Rebbe, “has saved us all. All day long, I saw that our prayers had not ascended to the heavens, and with the gates of Neilah closing, our names were not yet inscribed in the Book of Life. Only by way of this boy’s pure heart and the pure prayer of his flute, more true than any prayer offered by any of us today, have the gates of heaven opened. We owe this boy our gratitude. May each one of us in this sacred hour learn to pray as he does.”

To each and every one here, old friends and new, I welcome you as we usher in the High Holiday season and the Jewish year of 5776. May it be a sweet year, filled with health and happiness, for you, your family, the Jewish people, and all of humanity.

As we open our hearts and souls to the year ahead, I want to talk to you this evening about what we need to do to make our community a more inclusive one. Who among us, I wonder, is that shepherd boy looking to enter, but lacking the tools to do so? Who is it who stands at the periphery so desperate to be a stakeholder in our tradition – but unable to get in? How can we meet those people where they are in order to make their journey shorter, clearer, and more easily traveled?

Let’s begin with the most obvious, the new High Holiday mahzor, Mahzor Lev Shalem, that you hold in your hands. I want to publicly acknowledge and thank Deanna and Bob Adler and family for their generosity in underwriting this project. The prayers are the same – in some cases more traditional than before – but the spirit of this mahzor is one of inclusion: the translation of the prayers, the transliteration of the prayers, the cues on when to bow, the explanatory comments, and the beautiful readings that will accompany us on our journey in these days and in years ahead. Though it lacks a flute, the ethic that this new mahzor embodies is that of our story. It is an egalitarian prayer book with the patriarchs and matriarchs side by side, a Yizkor meditation in memory of a parent who was hurtful, the Hineni prayer for a male or a female hazzan, and instructions for those new to Jewish prayer. Be it your first or fiftieth Rosh Hashanah, this mahzor provides a path for those seeking entry into our tradition. We dedicate this mahzor this evening, we express our gratitude to the Adler family, and we pray that our humble petitions, now and in the years ahead, will be received by the heavens above.

Significant as the mahzor is, it is but the first step towards creating an inclusive community. It is nothing short of remarkable to consider how many “outsiders” we will encounter in the days ahead, alerting us to the inclusive call of the hour. The central figure of tomorrow’s Torah reading is Hagar – whose name literally means “the stranger,” Ha-Ger – she and her son cast out of Abraham’s household, only to be brought back in by God. And then Hannah – a woman whose inability to have children inflicts incalculable mental anguish, her self-worth in the universe called into question as she witnesses the fruit-bearing womb of her husband’s other wife. The haftarah for the second day of Rosh Hashanah tells of the tears of Rachel, whose losses put her in physical and spiritual exile. And perhaps most famously, we have the tortured relationship between Abraham and his son Isaac, who according to numerous commentaries struggled with his own developmental hurdles. On Yom Kippur afternoon, we will encounter the prophet Jonah, who from beginning to end, flees the boundaries of community. The High Holidays are a Rolodex of outsiders looking in; in each and every case, redemption comes by way of a divine act that welcomes that individual back into the fold.

Which brings us to the questions we must ask today: Who is the shepherd boy, the estranged person among us seeking entry? What is it that we must do – God-like – to welcome him in? First and foremost, tonight we open our eyes to those seeking entry into the Jewish community. I have spoken on more than one occasion of the need to reconsider our communal posture towards the prospective convert. The Jewish community and our synagogue in particular must become agents towards creating Jewish families, not gatekeepers preventing that from happening. We must do so because statistically speaking, our children and grandchildren will fall in love with someone who is not Jewish. We must do so because we believe that the spirit and practice of Jewish life is compelling, worthwhile, and worth sharing. We who are committed to the Jewish future must be ever eager to extend a warm embrace to those seeking to enter the Jewish fold.

To be an inclusive community, to make our synagogue reflect Isaiah’s vision of a house of prayer for all people, will involve a soul-searching inventory. There are so many who lack the keys to enter, each different, but each equally viewing the Jewish world from the outside. The story of the shepherd boy is told in a variety of ways: sometimes the boy has been raised in a non-Jewish home, but often the boy is described as being differently abled. Proud as we are of our Matan program for children with different needs, proud as we are that we live stream our services to homebound members, we know there is much more we can do. We need to wire this room and others with hearing loop technologies to assist people with hearing loss. We need to make every part of the building wheelchair accessible including, especially so, this bimah. Lest we forget, some of our greatest biblical heroes faced disabilities. Isaac was blind; Jacob walked with a limp; and Moses, our greatest prophet of all, had a speech impediment. Neither their spiritual potential, nor any of ours, is contingent on being labeled “fully able.” In this area, there is no “us” and “them.” We are all equally endowed with infinite dignity; every soul belongs. As you may know, a sefer Torah is rendered pasul, unfit, if it is missing even a single letter. So, too, the “kashrut” of our entire community depends on each Jew being present, each Jew hearing God’s voice according to his or her capacity.

In the years ahead, our community’s mission must be one of radical welcoming. Whether or not we succeed, however, depends not only on a new mahzor, a bimah refurbishment, a policy from the board, or a sermon from me. Our success depends on each of you. When you greet the person of color walking into this building for the first time, what you say – not what I say – will determine if he or she will come back. Five years ago I announced that the clergy of Park Avenue Synagogue will officiate at same-sex weddings. But how a gay couple is greeted when they walk into this sanctuary hand-in-hand, that only you can determine. What about the congregant whose hearing aid buzzes too loudly? What about the utzedik kid, who, God bless him, has trouble sitting still during services and speaks or sings a bit too loudly? Will your eyes, like those of the congregants in our story, shoot darts at that child and his parents, or will your words and gestures communicate that your prayer, indeed the Jewish people, is more complete when our community is welcoming to everyone? One thing I know about the people at the periphery: They don’t want your pity; in fact, they don’t want special treatment at all. All they want is that here in a synagogue, of all places, they are greeted and received no differently than anyone else, as individuals created in the image of God. What is being Jewish, if not to live with an awareness that we were once strangers in a strange land and have that awareness inform all our interactions? As the prophet Isaiah teaches us on Yom Kippur, the rituals of Judaism are rendered hollow and meaningless if they are not accompanied by a compassionate and eager welcome of the strangers among us.

My beloved teacher, Dr. Eliezer Slomovic, of blessed memory, once shared with me the story of God’s complaint office. One day, three people (of sorts), walked in. The first was the aleinu prayer, the second was geshem, the prayer for rain, and the third was an old man. First, the aleinu prayer spoke up. “God, I am a prayer that affirms your sovereignty, calls for the establishment of your earthly kingdom and speaks to the aspirations of a broken humanity. I am so important, but you, you stuck me at the very end of every service right before mourner’s Kaddish. All anyone thinks about when they sing aleinu is the cookie they will eat at Kiddush to follow. God, I deserve better than that. It is just not right.”

Next, comes geshem, the prayer for rain, mashiv ha-ruah u-morid ha-geshem. “God,” says the prayer, “what could be more important than rain? Our harvest, our wellbeing, our sustenance, our land, our people – they all depend on me, geshem. And yet four words are all I get. A shtikele of mention, and sometimes the cantor even forgets to say me. God, it is just not right.”

Third and finally comes the old man. “God, I am a modest man, and though I am alone in the world, I am content. Every week I come to shul, take my assigned seat at the back and enjoy the words of the rabbi and the prayers of the hazzan. God, please don’t think me vain, but when I come in and I look at everyone with their backs to me, with their beautiful talesim draped over their shoulders, and I see them, and nobody notices me, and nobody greets me . . . God, it is just not right.”

God thinks through the problems and the three complainers are called back in. To the aleinu prayer, God says: “Look, there is not a lot I can do. The prayer books have already been printed, the Adlers made their donation, and the hazzan – well let’s just say he doesn’t handle change well. But this is what I can do. Three times a year – twice on Rosh Hashanah and once on Yom Kippur – I will make a very big deal of you. Right in the middle of the service, when the crowds are largest, we will sing you in your full glory. The rabbi and the cantor will get down on their knees, and everyone will understand the importance of aleinu.” Satisfied, the aleinu smiled and left contented.

And to geshem, the prayer for rain, God replies, “Look, I get it. Rain is important. But you know we live in a time of diminishing attention spans. You know how these new rabbis are: They are pruning the service every chance they get. Besides, with these new desalination plants on the Mediterranean, some are wondering if we even still need a prayer for rain. But this is what I will do: Once a year, at the end of Sukkot, on Shemini Atzeret, when everyone comes to shul for Yizkor, we will pray for geshem to your heart’s delight. The hazzan will set you to evocative music, and you will have your proper due.” Satisfied, the geshem prayer smiled and left contented.

Finally, to the old man, God turns. “I tried and tried. I called the membership director, the executive director, I even put in a call to the rabbi. But the seats just don’t move in the sanctuary and your seat in RR, well that is where you will be for the foreseeable future. But this is what I can do. Every Friday night, in the Kabbalat Shabbat Service there is a beautiful prayer called L’kha Dodi when the Sabbath bride is welcomed. I hereby decree that from this day forward at the conclusion of that prayer, that everyone will stand up, turn around, and face the back of the room with a smile, and everyone will see that you, sir, are there in shul.” And the old man smiled and left contented.

Friends, sometimes spiritual heroics involve nothing more than a kind word, a warm handshake and a generous smile. These are the gestures that demonstrate that we are an inclusive community. In the days ahead, in the years ahead, every Friday night, and every day, may we never be so comfortable that we become inured to the needs of the outsider seeking to come in. After all, are we not, each and every one of us, desperately seeking to stand in God’s presence? May we always be the sort who signal, in spirit and in deed, that our community has been made whole by the presence of another. Kol ha-n’shamah t’hallel Yah. With all of our souls may we praise God. Kol ha-n’shamah t’hallel Yah. May every soul sing God’s praises. And may each and every one of us be blessed with a year of health, happiness and peace.