Yom Kippur 5783
September 26, 2023
What’s Next?
Rabbi Alan Cook
Sinai Temple, Champaign, IL


A few weeks ago, Champaign-Urbana Jewish Federation sponsored a preview showing of “Golda,” a new Biopic of Golda Meir starring Helen Mirren and directed by Guy Nattiv. It was nice to see many from our Sinai Temple community at this screening. The film focuses largely on Golda Meir’s actions during the Yom Kippur War in 1973.

During one scene, set about two weeks into the war, Prime Minister Meir welcomes Secretary of State Henry Kissinger into her home as she prepares to speak with him to ask the U.S. to intercede. Before getting down to business, she offers him a bowl of some borscht that her housekeeper, Leah, has prepared. Kissinger initially declines, saying that he is full. Golda admonishes him, saying, “You have to eat it, Henry. She’s a survivor.”[1]

While the visit between the two leaders did indeed occur, it’s likely that the borscht scene was invented or embellished for the movie. But the themes underscored in that moment have long existed within Jewish identity. We are survivors, and we revere our survival. It’s a core part of our narrative that has allowed us to flourish from generation to generation.

Many of you are familiar with the old joke that the story of Jewish history can be summarized as, “They tried to kill us; we won. Let’s eat.” Our Haggadah puts it more prosaically: “For more than one enemy has risen against us to destroy us. But the Holy One, Blessed be God, saved us from their hand.”[2] However one slices it, our understanding of ourselves and what it means to be Jewish seems inextricably tied to celebrating our triumph over the trials and tribulations faced by our ancestors.

But indeed we must ask ourselves how and why we have survived. While we mock Pharaoh at Pesach or Haman at Purim, they and other leaders whom we have faced in our past were not the buffoons we caricature at our Pesach seders or Purim shpiels, but dangerous despots who sought our destruction. Yes, we have persevered, but for what purpose? And how do we ensure our continued renewal and resilience?

The late Rabbi Shimon Maslin wrote:

We Jews have not survived for 4000 years in order to leave to the world a legacy of lox and bagels, nor in order to leave a legacy of ethnic comedy and best-selling fiction, not even to leave a legacy of Nobel Prize winners. We have not survived for 4000 years in order to produce a generation that proudly wears chais around the neck, golfs in the low 80s, reads the New York Times and donates over a billion dollars annually to philanthropy. While condemning none of this and participating in some of it, I do not see any of it as providing a clue to the survival of the Jewish people.[3]

If, as Rabbi Maslin argued, these sociological and cultural touchstones are not responsible for our endurance, the question remains: what is?

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote, “We are a people in whom the past endures, in whom the present is inconceivable
without moments gone by. The stories of Abraham and Sarah
and our other ancient ancestors lasted just a moment, but it was a moment enduring forever. What happened once upon a time happens all the time.”[4] When we reenact stories of our past—by building booths at Sukkot, for instance, or recounting the moment of Revelation during Shavuot, we place ourselves in that context for a brief moment, forming an additional link in shalshelet ha-kabbalah, the chain of received tradition that binds us to the past.

And remembering from whence we came is certainly valuable. This summer, Pixar released its 27th feature film, called Elemental. On its surface, it presents a universe in which the various natural elements– fire, water, air, and earth—are each living families, commingling in one society. The movie did not initially succeed at the box office, but through word of mouth has grown an audience. It was particularly successful in South Korea, where moviegoers recognized and embraced the movie’s secondary plotline about immigrant parents striving to have their children embrace and uphold cultural traditions in order to ensure their preservation for future generations.

Given the emphasis of this theme, we could recognize Elemental as also being a Jewish story. For a key to our people’s continuity is certainly the transmission of Jewish belief and practice mi’dor la-dor—from generation to generation. As Tevye put it, Jewish survival is predicated on our ongoing embrace of tradition, with a capital “T.”[5]

Without revealing too many spoilers, the cultural storyline of Elemental focuses on a young woman from the Fire culture who strives to keep alive the blue flame that her parents brought with them from the “old country.” Her father reminds her, “Our blue flame holds all our traditions and gives us strength to burn bright.”[6] But aside from the family’s traditions literally being embodied in the blue flame, Ember feels them also to be metaphorically ingrained in her parents’ store, which they hope she will continue to operate, thus maintaining their legacy for future generations.

In the climax of the film—apologies again for any spoilers—after an emotional confrontation between Ember and her parents, Ember’s father assures her, “The shop was never the dream. You were the dream. You were always the dream.” In this way, the film reminds us that it is possible to maintain our traditions while being true to ourselves. In the fictional world that Ember inhabits, as in our own world, continuity and survival is not dependent upon objects or places, but on each individual embracing and embodying those tenets of our faith and culture that are meaningful to them.

The late author Amos Oz wrote, “We have inherited a houseful of furniture from the Jewish past. We must decide what goes into the living room, and what goes into the attic.”[7] In every generation, we will engage in the act of rearranging that Oz describes. Each of us will undertake this metaphorical task of interior design in a different manner. But so long as we carry with us something of meaning that we have inherited from the past, we can endure.

Each Pesach in our Haggadot, we read the rabbinic descriptions of the character of four types of children. We look with disdain upon the so-called “wicked” or “rasha” child, who asks, “What does all this mean to you?”[8] Tradition has understood this child’s question as dismissive; because the child asks what the ritual means to their elders, they imply that it bears no meaning or relevance to their own experience. But perhaps all these years we have misjudged the tenor of the rasha’s query. Maybe what they are truly saying is, “Help me to understand what this has meant to previous generations so that I can internalize that and put my own spin on it, in order to proudly be able to say, ‘This is what it now means to ME.’”

If we understand their statement in this manner, then we should celebrate this individual who has been unfairly cast as the rasha and acknowledge that their mode of thinking may indeed unlock a key tool in understanding Jewish continuity. Judaism is not static. It is the responsibility of each generation to stand on the shoulders of those who have come before, taking the foundation that others have constructed and adding their own scaffolding as they draw in the elements of culture and practice that are meaningful to them, and perhaps even innovate in unique ways.

We live in a time that presents significant challenges for organized Judaism. Organizations are consolidating—Hebrew Union College, the Reform seminary, has plans to sunset its rabbinic studies program in Cincinnati, where Rabbi Jody and I studied and met. The Union for Reform Judaism is reimagining its biennial conventions, once robust gatherings that drew thousands of Reform Jews from all across North America for Jewish learning and celebration, in a significantly smaller scale. Synagogues are closing or merging. Institutions are coming to terms with decades of ethical impropriety. Philanthropic giving has seen a decline. Some of these shifts, undoubtedly, come on the heels of COVID; no organization, no matter how worthy, could weather a global pandemic completely unchanged. But many of these shifts come as a result of changing attitudes about how people wish to immerse themselves in Jewish communities.

To be sure, other faiths are grappling with similar challenges; we are certainly not alone in this. And this is not the first generation in which demographers have expressed alarm at trend shifts among the generations. I don’t believe Judaism is endangered in any way—from within. The challenges we face due to antisemitism sadly are myriad in our modern society; entire symposia, let alone sermons, have been devoted to this topic. Yet in the face of threats from these nefarious outside forces, we must not do their work for them. Philosopher Emil Fackenheim spoke of a 614th commandment: that we have the imperative to survive as Jews, lest we give Nazis and other anti-Semites (may their names be blotted out) a posthumous victory by ridding the world of Jews through our own apathy and attrition.[9]

While I’m certainly not ready to write an obituary for organized Judaism, I do believe that as Jews, every individual among us needs to explore the degree of ownership we are willing to take in our Jewish lives. Progressive Judaism affords us the autonomy to discover and determine for ourselves which elements of tradition and culture most fully inspire us. As Amos Oz put it, we are free to rearrange the furniture in a different manner than our parents, our grandparents, our friends, or our neighbors. But we cannot abandon it completely.

Some of you may be familiar with a famous story that is told of Rabbi Israel Ba’al Shem Tov, the founder of Chasidic Judaism, and his students:

When the great Rabbi Israel Baal Shem-Tov saw misfortune threatening the Jews it was his custom to go into a certain part of the forest to meditate. There he would light a fire, say a special prayer, and the miracle would be accomplished and misfortune averted.

Later, when his disciple, the celebrated Magid of Mezritch, had occasion, for the same reason, to intercede with heaven, he would go to the same place in the forest and say: “Master of the Universe, listen! I do not know how to light the fire, but I am still able to say the prayers.” And again the miracle would be accomplished.

Still later, Rabbi Moshe-Leib of Sasov, in order to save his people once more, would go into the forest and say: “I do not know how to light the fire, I do not know the prayer, but I know the place and this must be sufficient.” It was sufficient, and the miracle was accomplished.

Then it fell to Rabbi Israel of Rizhyn to overcome misfortune. Sitting in his armchair, his head in his hands, he spoke to God: “I am unable to light the fire and I do not know the prayer; I cannot even find the place in the forest. All I can do is to tell the story, and that must be sufficient.” And it was sufficient.[10]

Some of us will carry forward all of the same elements of our tradition that previous generations embraced. Others may only embrace those elements that they find elevate their personal sense of belonging. But if we can emulate Rabbi Israel of Rizhyn, so long as we continue to remember, embody, and retell our story, we have faith that this will be sufficient, and the radiant flame of our heritage will continue to shine brightly.

[1] “Golda,” written by Nicholas Martin. Piccadilly Pictures/ Big Entrance/ Embankment Films/ Lipsync Productions/ Qwerty Films, 2023.

[2] From the text of “V’hi She’amda…” a passage in the Passover Haggadah.

[3] Quoted by Rabbi Gary Bretton-Granatoor in a Facebook post. The quote was first spoken at the installation service of Rabbi Jeff Salkin in Port Wahsington, NY in 1996.

[4] Heschel, Abraham Joshua. Israel: An Echo of Eternity (New York: Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux: 1987) p. 128.

[5] Referring to “Fiddler on the Roof,” book by Joseph Stein, lyrics by Sheldon Harnick, music by Jerry Bock

[6] “Elemental,” written by John Hoberg, Kat Likkel, and Brenda Hsueh from a story by Peter Sohn, John Hoberg, Kat Likkel, and Brenda Hsueh.

[7] Oz apparently said variations on this a number of times in his life. This version was cited by Rabbi Jeff Salkin, who paraphrased it from an opinion piece by Yarin Raban in The Jerusalem Post, January 7, 2019.

[8] From the traditional text of the Passover Haggadah, reflecting on Exodus 12:26

[9] Based on Fackenheim, Emil. To Mend the World: Foundations of Post-Holocaust Jewish Thought (Bloomingston, IN: Indiana University Press, 1994).

[10] Elie Wiesel, in The Gates of the Forest (New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1966).