High Holy Day Message 5768, Remembering, For Life

The New Year greets us with a combination of joy and solemnity that, in my experience at least, is unmatched at any other point in the Jewish calendar.

Joy: because we are here to celebrate together with family and friends, because we have the precious opportunity to begin again and do things better this time, because we enjoy beloved tastes and melodies. We say the sheheheyanu with special fervor. Hope is abundant and expectancy keen.

Solemnity: because we know at this season of the year, even if we at other times forget or deny it, that life is serious. The world remains unjust and broken. It is still in need of repair. So are we. All too many of our resolutions from new years past remain unfulfilled. But we can turn to them this year. The shofar's blast assures us that turning and return are possible, if only we rouse ourselves to hear its call.

As I sit in shul each Rosh Hashanah, the shofar seems to be calling out to me with one question above all: am I using my time correctly? We don't know how much of it we have. The liturgy insistently reminds us of this. It urges us to consider whether the time we do have is well-spent. We for our part crave assurance that we are walking on a path that leads to good and blessing.  Jewish tradition calls that path to good and blessing, that assurance of right living, mitzvah. In this message I hope to begin a conversation with you about mitzvah. The subject has always been a major focus of Jewish reflection. It has loomed large in my own mind ever since I ventured into adulthood. I believe that discussion of what mitzvah means to us and why may prove of great importance to the vitality and direction of Conservative Judaism.

Three sets of experiences in recent years have propelled the matter of mitzvah to the forefront of my consciousness.

First, while teaching Judaism to undergraduates at Stanford, I was made aware of the degree to which Jews and Christians alike have internalized the age-old dichotomy of law versus love. Their God, according to this way of seeing things, instructs humanity, and does so out of love and elicits love in return. Our God sets forth laws in anger and we obey these commandments in fear of God’s wrath. The Torah (and the gospels!) are of course more complicated than that. But the complexities are lost on all too many Jews who, I fear, are distanced from the life of mitzvah because they see it as mere servitude. Their loss and ours is immense.

Second, while interviewing American Jews along with sociologist Steven M. Cohen for our book The Jew Within, I was confronted time after time with Jews jealously protecting their autonomy, preserving their freedom of movement, defending "the sovereign self." The philosopher Immanuel Kant conceived of our situation two centuries ago in just this dichotomous fashion. Either you are free, adult, autonomous—or you are obedient, childlike, commanded.

All of us carry around notions of this sort to some degree. I know I do. They challenge our commitment to a "pattern for living" (Abraham Joshua Heschel's phrase) such as mitzvah that is not of our invention. How can we at once be autonomous modern individuals and embrace the do's and don'ts of a tradition that has been around for three millennia? The challenge posed to Jewish commitment by this dichotomy is real. It must be squarely faced.

Third, however, discussions I have had with Jews about this matter over the past few years have made it clear to me that many Jews do embrace this tradition and its path of mitzvoth, and do so joyfully. Like the Torah and the sages, they do not conceive of mitzvah merely as "commandment" but engagement; to embrace a broader range of meanings: responsibility, obligation, instruction, discipline, love.

Are we going to shul this year; or listening to the shofar; or fasting on Yom Kippur, or resolving to be better parents to our children or children to our parents; or getting involved in campaigns to stop genocide in Africa; or helping to bring peace to the Middle East; or giving tzedakah to disaster relief efforts; or volunteering at the local homeless shelter; or supporting our local federation? Are we doing these things and others like them, because or only because we believe that God commanded us to do them at Sinai?

For some of us, God does figure as commander of the commandments, whether by means of the revelation to the Israelites at Sinai or through more personal revelations that come to us via conscience, or in the faces of human beings whom we meet and who require our assistance.

For others of us, God may figure only marginally in our sense of commandedness or obligation or responsibility. Other factors are more immediate and consequential.

We may feel responsible to our community, for example. Or to our ancestors. Or to the tradition that the ancestors transmitted to us.

We may be heeding the voice of conscience, trying to do the right thing, to live the right way.

We may have accepted Jewish tradition—or our particular way of living and learning it, as Conservative Jews—as a "package deal,” in the same way that marriage and parenting are package deals. We are grateful for the life as a whole that these afford us. Not every detail or duty pleases us equally. Yet we accept these nonetheless as part of the package, grateful for this life, this responsibility, this love.

And, yes, there are moments when we act in ways that "we are supposed to" not because of that duty but because we love these actions, or love the people who benefit from them, or love life, love the world, love God.

I suspect that upon reflection all of these examples will resonate with each of you to some extent, some more than others, some of them more on certain occasions than on other occasions. That is certainly the case with me, as it has been for Jews throughout the ages.

That, I think, is why the Torah and the sages bequeathed to us a liturgy and holiday cycle that affect heart and soul as well as mind. They address all our senses, lead us to sing and sway, to eat and refrain from eating, to think of God and life and duty in multiple metaphors. The Days of Awe meet us in the solitude of our deepest reflection as well as in the joy and solemnity of family, congregation, and community. The tradition wants to bring us face to face with the key questions and challenges facing us as human beings, and it wants to encourage us to answer these questions and challenges with the complexity required. No one mood or metaphor will do.

We are commanded, to be sure. At this time more than at any other time of year we know that. In case we have forgotten, the liturgy is there to powerfully remind us. But we are far more than commanded. We are obligated, responsible, instructed, engaged, in love. We are Jewish human beings. We learn what is required of us by drawing on all our faculties, our experience, and our communities.

This is a challenging moment for our Movement, for our people, for our country, for the world. May we help one another at this holiday season to ask and answer the questions facing us with honesty and wisdom. 

L’shanah tovah u-metukah,

Arnold Eisen
Chancellor, JTS