My Rosh Hashanah Sermon — Building Legacy

“Every individual is born as a result of a grand conspiracy of love.” That is the core message from a speech given recently by the current mayor of Newark, Cory Booker. We are the products of love that our parents give to us, that our grandparents show us, that our ancestors bequest to us. Our parents laid foundations of love for each of us, providing for us so that they too gained something out of it. Each parent provides for his or her child in the spirit of legacy building. We are all the products of grand conspiracies of love.

Mayor Booker’s words are a clarion call for the American body-politic of the 21st Century, and I would argue, for the Jewish community as well. Each and every individual currently stands on a threshold. Perhaps we need to answer the questions that our ancestors answered. The question that each of us must answer, here and now, is a question of identity and a question of action. Who are we at our core? Where do we come from? What is our history? Our great-grandparents worked their way from the Old World to the New World, and then from the tenements of Rivington Street to Westchester County, from Mattapan and Roxbury to Brookline and Newton. Why? Because they wanted their labor to mean something. They labored to create a better life for their children and their grandchildren.

In consideration of that, as we now benefit from the sweat and the conspiracy of love of that those who came before us gave, who are we prepared to be? What are we each personally prepared to add to the next chapter of our people’s story?

This became a large and looming question for me after a visit to a particular museum during my past winter vacation. Last December, I took off on what I called the Great Winter Road Trip of 2010. I loaded up my car, and drove down to Washington DC, and back again, stopping in major cities along the way, spending time with close friends and family. I arrived in Philadelphia on a weekday afternoon, which gave me a few hours before my friends were off from work.

As I was arriving in Philadelphia, I found myself on the phone with my mother. When told her where I was on my trip, that I was in Philadelphia, she told me that I should make my way over to the National Museum of American Jewish History. This museum, she told me, had just opened up. It was supposed to be impressive, having been backed by a number of generous Jewish philanthropists.

“You really have to go see this new museum,” my mother told me.

My snarky response: “Oh great, one more way Jewish philanthropists are building mausoleums to the Jewish past, rather than investing in our Jewish future.”

To this, my mother said, “Don’t be difficult, just go check it out, and enjoy yourself in a museum on your vacation.”

So I went. And you know what, I can admit it, mothers are always right.

I was pleasantly surprised. Walking through this museum, I was taken through the American Jewish historical experience. I learned about how the Jews first came to United States, about our first synagogue in nearby Newport, RI, and about the factories we built on the Lower East Side. There were exhibits about the institutions we built in our suburbs like JCCs, and one of my favorites was about the importance of Jewish camping. We established careers, we built educational experiences for our children, we created community for one another, and we have kept our traditions alive, despite fears over acculturation and assimilation. The National Museum of American Jewish History is all about telling us who we are as a people, and where we have come from. As anyone goes through this museum, it is hard to not recognize and connect our individual stories within our larger communal narrative. I certainly saw my own family story in it.

Somehow still, this museum, about our people’s history, is also about our people’s future, to which each of us individually adds. In the final exhibit room, the curators hammered the point home: The entitled the exhibit “It’s Your Story.” Each visitor is invited to enter into a video booth, and give a short rendition of his or her family story. After that, there are some prompts about what’s in store for us and for our people. Each visitor to the museum can leave having shared his or her perspective on what’s next for our families, for our local communities, and for our people. Such a dialectic is a vibrant sign of life for a community, and uniquely Jewish.

I am struck by the message of this museum. It is not only about memorializing who we once were in bygone times. It is about defining who we are today, and who we want to be tomorrow. It ends up, I did not come to this museum to experience another person’s story, I came to learn about myself! I was being taught that I am born out of a grand conspiracy of love! As Mayor Booker asked his audience: are we satisfied resting on the laurels of past generations, or do we have the drive, the inspiration, and the motivation for ourselves? It’s not about reflecting on the history and staying there. It is about utilizing that history, that stuff that makes us who we are, to be able to push ourselves into the future.

As we ask ourselves now in the spirit of Cheshbon HaNefesh, personal spiritual renewal, on this Rosh Hashanah: What do we want our legacy to be? And, what are we prepared to do to make it a reality?

Our tradition tells a story about a man named Choni. You see, one day Choni was going along the road, and he saw a certain man planting a carob tree. Choni said to him, “How many years does it take for this carob tree here that you are planting to bear fruit?”

“70 years.”

Choni responded, “Is it clear to you that you will live another 70 years?”

The man replied, “I found a world that contained fully grown carob trees. Just as my ancestors planted those trees for me, knowing that they themselves would never live to see them fully grown, so too, I plant these for my children.”

This man who Choni came across was a fellow who was interested in answering our question of legacy. We are gifted legacies that rest upon the shoulders of giants; though, we are defined as well by our own hopes and dreams for what can still be. We define ourselves by our own striving, as we reach for the horizons that we see when we stand on shoulders of our ancestors. Legacy is a twofold enterprise: it is about knowing where you come from, while being able to articulate where you are heading.

I was speaking with a congregant the other day, and I realized that he is fairly clear on the legacy he wants to build. Neil is a former attorney who left his practice, and now he wants spend his time giving back to the community. As he looked around at the community in Newton and in greater Boston, he saw children struggling with obesity, children from low income communities who couldn’t even choose healthy fruits and vegetables because they are not available in the kid’s neighborhoods. So Neil, an avid cyclist, got involved in an organization known as Bikes Not Bombs. Those who have participated in our Mitzvah Day might recognize this organization, as they have been a part of it for the last handful of years.

This past summer, Neil piloted a program over at Bikes Not Bombs for 36 children. The program was called On My Way, On My Bike. The program intended to introduce children to the joys of bike riding, to its physical benefits, as well as starting them off learning about the basics of bike mechanics. Nyriah was a participant in On My Way this past summer. After having gone through the program, her mother wrote the following reflection: “Nyriah has come out a more confident, capable and health conscious individual. ‘Hey mom, I can ride a bike’ were the words shouted to me the second week in, and seeing the look on her face and the excitement in her eyes as she looked forward to waking up the next morning to attend [the] camp was priceless.”

Do you remember what it was like to learn how to ride a bicycle? Better yet, do you remember what it was like to teach your child how to ride his or her own bicycle? Bicycles symbolize individuality and the first flavors of freedom, lessons that last beyond a lifetime. Neil has taught Nyriah something precious the summer, a skill that will extend beyond his relationship with her. Knowing how to ride a bicycle is an ability that pays forward into the next generation. Bikes are the modern day carob trees.

And so I want to leave us with a challenge. I have come to believe that we are quite good about teaching our past, but I’m curious about the future, and I am curious what each and every one of us is prepared to do to affect it.

Therefore, I want to know what you are prepared to do to contribute to the legacy we all want for ourselves, as well as for our community. So, Temple Shalom is now collecting legacy pledges This is not a pledge drive for dollars. This is a pledge for action. Click here to download the pledge sheet, and mail it back in. Submit it with your name on in or anonymously. Or, go to our Temple Shalom twitter feed and post your pledge for 5772 there.

We are standing on the threshold. Now we each get to answer a question: Should we take a step back, living in a diminishing world of nostalgia, or are we prepared each of us individually to make the contributions that make the next great chapter of our American Jewish story?

So go ahead, now you tell me.

Shanah tova u’metukah!

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