Rabbi Hillel Skolnik
Sermon for Rosh HaShanah Day 1 -5777
Southwest Orlando Jewish Congregation
Sharon and I have always had the practice of reading to our children before they go to bed, a practice I’m sure is widespread in this congregation and many others. Recently, as Dafna and Liav have gotten bigger, the books have started to move away from the “Where the Wild Things Are” and “Caps for Sale” genre and into chapter books. (in case you’re concerned, Hadar gets her fair share of all the little kid books – or cooks as she calls them – but by the time Dafna and Liav are going to bed she’s either asleep already or running around the house shouting “GUYS!!!!” “Cookie!!!!!” or “Shoes!!!”) One of the books we’ve been reading recently is one that Sharon and I both remember from our own childhoods called “Sideways Stories from Wayside School” by Newbery Medal winner, Louis Sachar. It is a book about an unusual class where the teacher, Mrs Jewls, and each of her students have quirky characteristics in a building that is thirty stories high with only one classroom on each floor. The other night we read a chapter about a girl named Rondi whom everyone thinks is very funny despite the fact that she does nothing at all to be funny. Urged and urged to tell a joke she finally acquiesces and this is the joke she tells:
“Once upon a time, there was a monkey sitting in a banana tree. The monkey was very hungry and he knew that somewhere in the tree there was a magic banana and that once he ate that magic banana he wouldn’t be hungry anymore. So the monkey ate one banana but that wasn’t it. He was still hungry. So he ate another banana but that wasn’t it either. He was still hungry so he kept right on eating bananas. Finally, after he ate his tenth banana he wasn’t hungry anymore. ‘I knew I’d find it,’ he said. ‘It’s too bad I didn’t eat that one first. I wouldn’t have had to waste my time eating all those other bananas.”
If it makes you feel any better, the reaction you are having – or at least those of you who aren’t laughing – is exactly the same reaction that all the other students in Rondi’s class had. None of them laughed because, frankly, the joke wasn’t funny proving once and for all that Rondi herself isn’t a particularly funny person. I didn’t laugh either when I read it to my children, yet I found myself captured with the experience of the monkey because it sounds so much like real life. I mean how great would it be if there were a magic banana, or any food for that matter, that we could eat and not feel hungry anymore. As a person who spent part of 5776, the year that has now come to an end, changing the way I eat, I can absolutely appreciate the constant quest to find a food that would magically fill me up so that I didn’t feel hungry until it was an appropriate meal-time, not to mention that as part of that quest I ate more than my fair share of bananas.
For me, though, the meaning behind the “joke” was that the monkey missed the point of eating in the first place. He was full from the tenth banana not because it was in some way magical, but because he had finally eaten enough bananas to fill his stomach. And by constantly looking for that magic banana and eating not for the sake of a sense of fulfillment in his food but instead looking for something magical, he missed out on the experience of eating in the first place. Maybe that first banana was delicious. Maybe the sixth was rotten but the seventh really made up for it. We don’t know because all he was trying to do was find something magical and missed every moment leading up to the one when he was finally full. And that is true about the experience of eating as well. What makes a good meal a good meal? Not only the feeling of being full at the end but enjoying the food we eat and appreciating the fact that we’re able to eat in the first place, not to mention appreciating whomever it was that prepared that meal for us.
It’s no surprise that in Jewish tradition we recite blessings before AND after we eat and those b’rachot, those blessings, recognize God’s hand in the creation of the food. In fact, it is a common misconception out there in the world-at-large that the b’rachot we recite are meant to bless the foods we eat. There’s even a kids song I know where we sing “borei p’ri hagafen; we bless the Sabbath wine” and “hamotzi lechem min ha’aretz; we bless the Sabbath bread.” It’s a good song and kids learn the words to the blessing by singing it but we should know that in reality what we are doing is using the wine and challah as vessels both for praising God who creates the food we eat and for sanctifying those holy times. And, even when the moments are not sacred, but regular weekday moments, hamotzi is still recited every time we eat bread, borei pri hagafen is still recited every time we drink wine, and then we are meant to say the proper b’rachot after each in an effort to be thankful to God for the food, not blessing the food itself. We are directing our hearts and minds to be cognizant of the fact that we are not eating a magic piece of challah or cup of wine at the same time as we admire the majesty of God and the world in which we live where bananas grow on a bush so that we can eat them – that’s right – bananas grow on a bush not on a tree and so I point out that the proper b’racha for a banana is not brei pri ha’eitz – praising God who creates the fruit of the tree, but rather borei pri ha’adamah – Who creates the fruit of the ground.
But as I thought more and more about the story, I realized that while the message regarding how we eat is of course important, the lesson behind the story is actually much greater because it teaches us about our spiritual lives as well. If we’re spending all of our time in synagogue, whether you are here one day a year, three-days a year, once a month, once a weekend, or pray every day, if we’re spending all our spiritual moments looking for some kind of magical spiritual banana then we too are missing the point. The true synagogue spiritual moments come not as a one-time thing, but as the culmination of a process that is meant to occur on a regular basis. It means that we should be thinking of Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur not only as the beginning of a year-long spiritual process, which it of course is, but as the culmination of a year-long spiritual process that began one year ago today, when we gathered together in this very room and began a quest together for spiritual fulfillment, a spiritual journey if you will. Beautiful moments happen along a spiritual journey to be sure, and this year we’ve had plenty – we took our services outside one Friday evening to daven under the stars and enhanced our Friday night guitar service over the summer. We marched around the room with our lulavim and etrogim on Sukkot both in services and with our Religious School students. We stayed up late into the night learning together as we celebrated Shavuot and recalled the revelation that our ancestors experienced at Mount Sinai. And lest you think that these spiritual moments only happen here around the building, who could forget how we so proudly and successfully welcomed the Maccabeats and the spirituality that their music brought to us all. All of those moments were beautiful on their own but what made them magical was to look at them as a collective, as an entire tree of spiritual moments that we are meant to eat from over the course of the year.
I heard an interview recently with Academy Award winning writer Aaron Sorkin, who I’m proud to say is an MOT (a Member of the Tribe) who told a story about how in seventh grade, every weekend he was going to another Bar and Bat Mitzvah and found that he really liked it. So he looked up the local rabbi in a phone book and gave him a call. Sorkin said to the Rabbi, “I’m turning thirteen in six weeks, I’d like you to teach me the Torah.” The Rabbi laughed and said “kid, I can’t teach you the Torah in six weeks” to which twelve-year-old Sorkin responded “No, I’ve got a really good ear. If you can just say it into a tape recorder I’m sure I can learn it.” “That is hardly the point of learning the Torah” replied the Rabbi. Now I’ll watch any movie or show written by Aaron Sorkin and chances are good I’ll watch them over and over, but in this instance, I couldn’t agree more with the Rabbi. The Torah wasn’t meant to be learned only by memorization in a finite period of time, it is a lifelong endeavor.
In fact, this story reminded me of the famous episode about the person who wanted to convert to Judaism in ancient times and went to the house of Shammai and said, “teach me the Torah while I’m standing on one foot” to which Shammai replied that it was impossible and dismissed the potential Jew by choice who then went to the House of Hillel with the same request. “Teach me the Torah while I stand on one foot,” he requested. Hillel replied “V’ahavta l’reiacha kamocha – Love your neighbor as yourself. The rest is all commentary. Now go study.” Now go study, he said. Not, you’re done, not poof you’ve magically learned everything, but go and study and study he did.
The t’filot we recite today and on Yom Kippur, the special prayers that make up our High Holiday liturgy are the modern example of precisely this idea. Rosh HaShanah on one foot? Untanek Tokef with “B’rosh HaShanah Yikateivun Uvyom Tzom Kippur Yeichateimun – On Rosh HaShanah it is written and on Yom Kippur it is sealed” and the rest is all commentary. But now, our job is to go study. We have to go on in the prayers and to engage in the process of cheshbon hanefesh, the accounting of our soul and our actions that we do every year and not just leave it at the surface level while we stand on one foot. Our job is to take that special moment and make it magical by doing the rest of the work as instructed by the great sage, Hillel when he said, go study. Our job is to go study, or go pray, or go engage with the prayers on a regular basis or go have a conversation with God so that we are prepared to make the special moments magical instead of just sitting around waiting for the magic to happen.
Truth be told, that work is hard. It takes time, discipline and commitment. But to make it a little easier, I’d like to share with you a trick I picked up somewhere along the way and it’s easy. I promise everyone can do it. Here’s the trick – when you find yourself in one of those spiritual moments, close your eyes. That’s it. Pick a moment during the service, for me it’s usually during the k’dusha, close your eyes and allow yourself to be transported to some other place. It might be the grand-canyon, or Camp Ramah, could be the synagogue you attended as a child. But try it during the davening, because when it works well, which I’ll be honest with you isn’t every single time, but when it does, you’ll open your eyes and you will have forgotten where you are and it will take a minute to reorient yourself. That’s how you’ll know. It’s not a magic spiritual banana, it’s a technique for taking a good spiritual moment and making it magical.
And I’ll tell you a secret, the place that I try to transport myself to is Israel. When I close my eyes during services, that’s where I’m going. And as I said, sometimes I make it there and sometimes I don’t, but that’s always the direction I’m headed, right to Jerusalem – sometimes to Y’min Moshe, a little artists colony outside the Old City of Jerusalem where there is an old windmill and next to the windmill is a platform that overlooks the Old City of Jerusalem where I’ve had some amazing Friday Night services. Or other times I go to a synagogue in Jerusalem to hear the Birkat Kohanim, the priestly blessing recited every day as the Kohanim ascend the bimah and bless our people. I sometimes go to Masada, to the sunrises I’ve watched from the top of that ancient fortress, and from time to time I make it all the way to the kotel, to the Western Wall. That’s where I go, how I make the beautiful and delicious spiritual fruit that we share here together on a weekly basis into magical spiritual moments.
But now I’ll tell you one more secret, the better way to do it, is to actually go there, to actually stand next to that windmill on a Friday Night and look at the old city, to actually go to a synagogue in Jerusalem on a Shabbat morning, to actually stand on the steps of history at the top of Massada and to actually touch the wall that supported the platform on which the Temple stood. Closing my eyes – it’s good, but there’s nothing like the real thing when you don’t want to close your eyes because you’re actually there. And this year, 5777, when we are going to make that happen – we are going to take a congregational trip to Israel and have these experiences that will be the memories we go to when we want to make a spiritual moment magical. This coming June 20th to 30th you are invited to travel with my family and me to the always magical state of Israel where we will make these moments together. We’ll have the chance to visit the Western Wall and explore the tunnels adjacent to the Western Wall. We’ll shop in the Machane Yehuda open Market on Friday afternoon and spend a wonderful Shabbat together in Jerusalem. We’ll go to the Dead Sea and float in its waters, or as the case may be with one interested participant – somehow search for lost treasures on the Dead Sea’s floor (don’t ask because I have honestly no idea how he’s going to do it but I can’t wait to watch him try). We’ll make it up to the northwest-corner of Israel to Rosh Hanikra, head up into the Golan Heights and down again into the Galilee. We’ll spend time in T’veriah/Tiberias that sits on the shores of the Kineret, the Sea of Galilee and cruise its waters. We’ll explore Haifa and Tzfat where we’ll visit the synagogues the mystics prayed in as they created Kabbalat Shabbat and sang L’cha Dodi. We’ll sit in Independence Hall where David Ben Gurion declared Israel to be a sovereign and independent state and we’ll stand in Rabin Square where Yitchak Rabin and Shimon Peres stood together singing Shir LaShalom – a Song of Peace. We’ll have time to shop for shofars and whatever else your heart desires, we’ll eat shwarma and falafel and you better believe that everyone will drink a shoko b’sakit – a chocolate milk in a bag – my treat. And through it all we’ll be creating moments that you’ll return to time and time again when you close your eyes and make a special moment magical. There are packets of information about the trip in the lobby for you to take home with you today, tomorrow, or in the coming weeks and while space is limited, we’ll do everything we can to accommodate anyone who wants to go with us. So bring your children, bring your parents, and bring yourselves with me and my family to Israel.
I don’t begrudge the monkey for looking for that magic banana because the truth is from time to time I look for a magic one as well. When the lottery gets over $500 million I’m looking for that magic lottery ticket that will change my financial future – and even that of the synagogue and don’t worry Jeff, I’ll remember JCC as well. And there was that time I thought I had a great idea that would revolutionize the way we listen to the radio in the car – that I could invent what is essentially a DVR for your radio so that when someone calls you in the middle of your favorite song, or The Dan Patrick Show you could pause the radio, take the call and then keep listening. Of course it ignored that I have no idea whatsoever how to do that and then there came the fact that a car company already had such a thing in its luxury model and my idea went kaput – but for a few minutes there I was excited about my magic banana that I was going to take on Shark Tank. Part of what makes life exciting is the fact that we live with the hope that somewhere up there in the tree is our own magic banana and to give up that hope would be too sad. We deserve that hope and that dream. But until that day comes, let’s not forget to enjoy the rest of the fruit.