All You Need is Love…
Rosh Hashanah 5782/2021
Sing: ”all you need is love…
So this is the last High Holy Days that I will stand before you as your rabbi. (not exactly how I pictured it – but such is life -”you don’t always get what you want…” I apologize for mixing my musical metaphors) This is the 28th time I have had the privilege to do this.
After 27 years — the obvious question that confronted me as I began to prepare these final High Holy Day sermons was – what would, what should be my parting words to you? What do I want to leave you with?
I looked over my High Holy Day sermons lo’ these many years (I have them all!) and we really have explored a lot together. Do you remember my very first Rosh Hashanah sermon here at TBS, the one I delivered back in 1994? That’s ok — neither did I. I spoke about the challenge of “becoming your rabbi.” Here is a quote from that sermon: “But you already are our rabbi,” some of you might say. No, the truth is that I cannot become your rabbi by election. I will become your rabbi through the day to day encounters where we will learn together, celebrate together and mourn together.. Through these and a myriad of other moments I will become your rabbi..Rabbi is a title that cannot be bestowed, it must be earned.” And then I said “I look forward to the day when you will truly call me your rabbi.” Remember that? I hope over these past 27 years I have indeed become your rabbi! We have shared a lot of special moments – happy and sad, together. Over the years many of you have commented to me about one or another sermon that touched you — and this is a very humbling compliment. Recently one person reminded me of the time I spoke about listening and sounded the shofar during the sermon. There was my sermon right after 9/11 back in 2001 – do you remember my message from that one? I had been in Jerusalem on 9/11 – we all remember where we were – it was one of those moments when the world stopped. And I told you that although I had gone on a mission to comfort Israeli’s and express solidarity with them as they confronted terror – the tables turned and I felt as if the Israelis were trying to comfort me – as if they were putting their arms around me and saying, “Come we will show you how to live in a world of terror…” I spoke of our visit to the Dolphinarium – the site on the beach of Tel Aviv of a discotheque terrorist bombing – and I spoke of the inscription on a makeshift memorial with the words scribbled: lo tafsik lirkod – Don’t stop dancing. That was such a painful moment we shared – and I so wanted to give you a message of hope at a time of danger and despair. Yes, we have shared a lot of moments together these past 27 years and if I hope I have become your rabbi, I know you have become family to me.
I liked to joke that for my very last sermon — I would just stand on the bema — look out at the congregation and say: “As your rabbi for all these years, I know what you have been doing — and I want you to stop!” And then just sit down. Should I do that on YK? Don’t get your hopes up — I don’t think you will get off so easily.
When my kids were growing up, before Rosh Hashanah, they would sometimes ask me what I was speaking about. Once I told them that there are only three High Holy Day sermons that I give. On Shabbat we explore a lot of interesting subjects but all of my High Holy Days sermons are merely variations on these same three themes: “Be good, be Jewish and Buy Bonds!” (For those who are too young, “Buy Bonds” was referring to our annual appeal for Israel Bonds) This became a bit of a family joke as my children would ask me as we walked to shul – “So is today: be good or be Jewish or buy Bonds?” While this is not precisely true – it is not very far from the truth. I believe that much of my rabbinate has been dedicated to trying to get you my beloved community to be better people, to be better Jews and to develop a love of and relationship with Israel. To be a Jew means first and foremost to be a mentsch. But as Jews we have perfected a unique and precious kind of mentschlichkeit – a unique way of walking in the world – that needs to be preserved and transmitted. And that ours is a generation like no other – for 2000 years we dreamed of a return to Israel, for 2000 years we prayed for and toward Israel. For 2000 years we yearned to return; and ours is the first generation in 2000 years to see that dream come true. Israel in all her miraculous messiness – is real, what a privilege to be alive at this moment in history. I don’t want you to miss it. But I can’t stand here and give you all of my sermons again. Many of them you have already
heard more than once. It always bothered me (please excuse my meanderings this morning – I promise I will get back to the point — but I realized that any good stories or insights that I don’t use now will be wasted – and wasting a good story is a rabbi’s greatest sin) But it always used to bother me when politicians or authors would go on a speaking tour. They would develop one stump speech and deliver it over and over again as they spoke to different audiences. As a rabbi – since I am speaking to the same people each week, I am expected to come up with something new and fresh – not only for my sermons but in my classes, a d’var torah at a board meeting. God forbid I should repeat myself. Once someone came up to me and said, “Rabbi, I think you gave that sermon before – I definitely remember hearing it..” To which I responded: “Yes I did, and when you start listening to me and doing what I ask you to do, I’ll stop repeating myself.” OK – time to return to the subject: finding the right words to leave you with.
(Sing again): “All you need is love…”
To be quite honest – -I think it all does come down to that. Twenty-eight years and all I have really wanted was to get you to learn to love yourself, to learn to love others and to learn to love God. It is as simple as that. But of course that is not simple at all.
If a carpenter is any good – by the end of the job – the house is built. If a teacher is any good – by the end of the semester – the material is taught and the students have learned. If a rabbi is any good… Well after 27 years – have you become more loving? More loving of yourself? Of each other? Of God?
God loves you. If you are thinking that that sounds so Christain – well there is an example of how I could have done my job better. Judaism begins and ends with God’s love. The simple fact that there is a world – the simple fact that anything exists at all – the simple fact that you are – is an act of love. Look, I know some of you don’t believe in God, or at the very least have your doubts – that’s ok. I get more worried about the ones who have no doubt. But imagine with me that there is a God.
God does not need us. Need is a very human thing. So if God does not need us then why are we here? Because apparently although God does not need us, God wants us because God loves us. God’s grace (yeah they got that from us as well – but God bless them – they took it and ran with it) – God’s grace – God’s kindness and love – hesed v’rachamim – these sustain existence. I know that there are many who believe it is all a big accident – a random coming together of molecules which after eons of nothing much ended up with all this. But for 28 years now I have tried to teach you what Judaism believes – that the creation of the universe was an act of love. The creation of the first man and woman was an act of love. And since then – in imitation of God – every new life that we create – is created as an act of love.
(Sing:) All you need is love
And this is not just my opinion, Rabbi Akiba — the great sage who lived around the year 120 CE is quoted in Sifre Kedoshim (4:12) saying that the commandment to love your neighbor as yourself (Lev 19:18) is THE most important commandment in the entire torah. And then there was Hillel who lived about 150 years after Akiba who restated this in a slightly different fashion. You remember him, the one who while standing on one foot attempted to summarize all of Judaism by saying: “That which is hateful to you — do not do to your fellow man. All of the rest of the Torah is a commentary on that — now go and learn…”
For both Akiba, and Hillel – and for your humble rabbi today – love is foundational in Judaism. “All you need is love…”
I did a search for the word “love” in the file where I store all my sermons. Do you know how many sermons came up in which I used the word love? 423! And that does not include the ones I wrote by hand before there were computers. (Yes, my young friends, there was a time before computers and yes I am old enough to have been writing sermons during that pre-historic period.)
And now with your permission I would like to review what I said in each of those 423 sermons — just kidding. But here is one I delivered on Shabbat Bereishit in 2006. I spoke about Adam and Eve – the very first man and woman and how they must have felt like God when they created the world’s first child: V’haadam yada et Havah vateled et Kayin “Now, the man knew his wife, Eve and she conceived and bore Cain, in Hebrew, Kayin and she said, knaiti ish et adonai”– They named their first child – Cain – which comes from the Hebrew root – Koneh – which means to own or possess – as if Eve, the very first mother, was saying — look this baby is mine, I own this creature, I created this life.
And that appears to be an understandable reaction to the birth of the first child in human history. A modern Jewish commentator, Cassuto understands it this way. As if Eve was saying – “I am now a creator like God. God created the first man and now I, Eve, made the second.”
Now I suspect that all of us can understand the feelings of the world’s first mother who gave the world’s first child such a name. Eve had gone through nine long months of struggle, fear and expectation. Remember there was no one who had done this before her – no one to tell her that the pains, the discomfort, the vomiting, were… to be expected. Then begins the delivery – can you imagine if you didn’t know that was normal? And finally, when it is all over, and she is left with a beautiful baby in her arms – well it is not hard for anyone who has had the joy of parenting – to understand the sense of ecstasy and achievement that Eve must have felt? She felt so proud and so powerful at this awesome experience of giving birth, that she said, I too am a creator – I am like God. As an aside, the Bible does not record the first husband’s response to the first mother’s statement – but I can’t imagine he was all that pleased with her conclusion.
Eve may have been the first parent to set herself up for major disappointment — but she certainly would not be the last and the name that she gave her child turned out to be a cruel misnomer. The child that she thought that she possessed, grew up to have a character and a spirit that was very different from her own. He grew up to be a criminal. He committed the world’s first crime when he killed his brother. He lived out his years as an outlaw and a fugitive and she never saw him again after he fled the scene of his crime. This child, whom she triumphantly called, “my possession” ended up being lost to her completely. And each year on Shabbat Bereishit, we read this story with a sense of irony and sympathy – as we know how things are going to turn out at the moment in the story when she does not yet know. We know, sadly, that she should not have called him kayin – because as the rabbis will later set forward in a legal principle: ayn kinyan bivanim – there is no such thing as possession with children. You can buy property – and it’s yours. You can make something, create something, and it belongs to you. But when you give birth to a child, he is not and she cannot be your possession – period. You cannot possess a life – it is like trying to grab onto a fistful of sand – there is nothing to hold onto – it’s there when you grab it, but when you open your fist – it is gone and you realize you never really had it in the first place. The first mother in human history had to learn this in a tragic way, and every other mother, and every other father, ever since, has had to learn it in other ways, not tragic, not necessarily as painful, but the lesson must be learned: Our children are not our possessions, they are a miraculous gift. They are granted to us by God, in trust, to raise, and it is part of God’s plan and part of their nature for them to grow up and to grow out and to grow away from us as time goes on. Thus it has been, and thus it must always be. Being a parent is no different in 2021 than it was for Adam and Eve. It is the function of the parents to help rear their offspring so that they can take intelligent charge of their own lives, and to develop into independent, self-reliant worthy people, choosing worthy and meaningful values -if they are to fulfill their destinies as human beings. It is the parents responsibility to love. And the child’s responsibility to become a loving adult – willing to pass that love on to yet another generation. In fact, such is the nature of all relationships – even, say, the one between a rabbi and his congregation. If you are fortunate there is a lot of love. All you need is love. Life is about the loving …but it is also about the letting go. More about that on Yom Kippur, on Yom Kippur we can talk about the art of letting go – today – all you need is love.
So the world exists because of God’s love. And you and I exist because of the love of God – and our parents and their parents and so forth right back to Adam and Eve. All you need is love. But rabbi, if all you need is love — why is there so much pain in the world? Why is there so much hate? Why do we so often hurt each other and disappoint each other? Good question. I’m glad you asked.
Enter into the world – Cain and Abel – brothers, conceived in love made possible by the design of a God dedicated to a world of love. Certainly these brothers – would continue this legacy of
love. Well — not so fast: vayomer kayin el hevel achiv….vayehi bi’yotam basadeh… “And Cain said to his brother Abel…- and it came to pass when they were in the field, Cain set upon his
brother Abel and killed him.” Right at the dawn of creation blood is being shed. And it’s brother against brother, and no one’s even sure why. One of the first human acts is not an act of love but of jealousy and hate. Did you notice that verse I quoted, “And Cain said to his brother Abel … and it came to pass when they were in the field Cain set upon his brother Abel and killed him,” – it is an incomplete sentence – a corrupted verse – the Torah never tells us what Cain actually said to his brother to make him so angry. The Torah never tells us what the basis of their conflict was. Where did the hate, jealousy and pain come from? The Bible does not tell us — but our sages jumped in and were quick to speculate over the possibilities. And they created a lesson for the ages. This is from one of my sermons in 2002. According to Rabbi Yehuda, “The argument was over Eve.” They fought over their mother! Now this one is a little tough to explain with children present but you have to remember – Adam and Eve, the first man and woman had two children – Cain and Abel – both male. So when it came time to produce the next generation – the two boys confronted an interesting dilemma. Calling Dr. Freud! Yep – there were two men and only one woman – and that woman happened to be their mother. And according to Rabbi Yehuda, Cain and Abel were fighting over (now here is where I put in the …)
According to Rabbi Yehuda, sex, which was designed to be the ultimate expression of love – becomes in this telling of the story the ultimate expression of hate and jealousy and violence. The profound truth inherent in Rabbi Yehudah’s comment is undeniable. Open your Newspapers on any given day and see how much of the crime and violence in our society and in our world is propelled by love perverted, by sexual jealousies – desire turned on its head and perverted into something that causes pain rather than love and we come to understand what Rabbi Yehuda was trying to teach us. Like so many of God’s gifts they are a double edged sword. Love has its dark reflection in hate. Harnessing nuclear energy can reap enormous benefits to mankind – or unthinkable destruction. Love can create life or destroy it if it is allowed to become jealousy and hate. So we need love – but maybe that is not all we need. Knowing how to love and when to love and whom to love — well it is not so easy.
A second Talmudic sage offers a very different explanation for the conflict between Cain and Abel when he writes, “What was the argument about? Cain and Abel said, “Look there are two of us and one world – so let us divide the world. One will take the earth and the other will take everything on the earth.” Seems fair. But no sooner had they divided the world between them than they began to quarrel: Abel said: “Hey, Cain, get your sheep off my land – in fact the land you are standing on is mine – get off it – go fly in the air for all I care but GET OFF MY LAND!” And Cain replied: “Oh yeah?! Well those clothes you are wearing come from the wool of my sheep – so take it off. What you are wearing is mine! What you are eating is mine. Abel said: strip! Cain said: get lost! And before you know it, Cain set upon Abel . . .”
If Rabbi Yehuda in our first example was a precursor of Sigmund Freud, we could argue that this is a forerunner of Karl Marx, who saw all conflict as economic! What he saw in the 20th century as the conflict between Communism and Capitalism finds its roots in the Cain and Abel story. They fought over real estate! Over the love of things. They fought over material possessions! So much pain and conflict is the result of desire for things and ambition to possess more and more. As the Talmud states: marbeh n’chasim, marbeh tzarot – “as you increase your possessions, you increase your troubles.” Like love for another person – love, our attachment to things can bring us joy or great sorrow.
All you need is love — it keeps getting more complicated.
But there is a third opinion expressed in the Midrash which might be the most relevant of all. Said Rabbi Joshua of Sikhnin, “What did Cain and Abel fight about? This one said: the temple will be built on my land. That one said: no, on my land.” According to Rabbi Joshua, right at the dawn of creation the first conflict in history is at its core a religious conflict. Sound familiar? Blood was shed back then for the same reason that it is being shed today. The Temple Mount – will it be the home to a Temple or a Mosque? Sunni vs. Shiite. Christian vs. Moslem. How much blood is being shed in our day and in days past over arguments between brothers and sisters about religion – about what they believe, about what they believe the God of love wants them to do? I love God so much I will have to hate you. There are many people today who will quite openly and honestly tell you that they hate – they hate homosexuals, they hate Jews, they hate Moslems – and they do so because they believe God wants them to.
As I say the words it sounds so absurd. To hate because of love? To murder in the name of
religion? Religion is supposed to bring us to love and holiness. Holiness is meant to elevate
us, to make us better people, more loving people. For this you kill? For this you shed blood? It
Well, it can – but it doesn’t have to be. For 27 years I have tried to build a vision of Judaism that was built on a very different foundation. If you think about it – in all of our 27 years together — you have rarely heard a sermon of hate or anger. Frustration and disappointment – yes – but my anger if and when it came out – was reserved for those who could not find it in their hearts to love and to forgive.
Cain and Abel became the story of too many failures of human history. Failures that ended up in so much pain and suffering because of our jealousies, our desires and misguided hatreds. But fortunately the Bible does not end with the Cain and Abel story. Judaism does not end with it either.
Our rabbis just couldn’t let this story of Cain and Abel be the final word on the issue. So there is another story in rabbinic lore regarding where the Temple was to be built. You all know the story – interestingly, it is also about two brothers. And the second story, like the one with Cain and Abel, also a story about trying to share one piece of land. . . but what a difference.
The Midrash tells the story of two brothers who worked together on the family farm, tilling the field. One was married and had a large family, the other was single. At the day’s end, the brothers shared everything equally – produce and profit – split right down the middle as brothers should. Then one day the single brother said to himself, “It’s not right that we should share the produce and profit equally. I’m alone and my needs are simple, my brother has so many mouths to feed.” So each night he took a sack of grain from his bin and secretly crept across the field between their houses dumping it into his brother’s bin. Meanwhile, the married brother said to himself, “It’s not right that we should share the produce and profit equally. After all, I’m married and I have my wife and children to look after me in years to come. My brother has no one and no one to take care of his future.” So each night he took a sack of grain, walked across the field and secretly dumped it into his single brother’s bin. How confused they were the next morning when they each had the same amount as the night before!
One night, in the darkness, their paths converged, the brothers met. And at that moment, each one seeing the sack of grain in his brother’s arms, realizing his brother’s noble intentions, well, they fell into each other’s arms and burst into tears. And according to the Midrash, “God was so impressed by this expression of brotherly love that God said – here, right here on this very spot where these two brothers came together in an act of love and concern – here is where My Temple will be built!” And that is precisely where I want this temple to be built as well – right there – on that same
spot where brothers and sisters come together in love. That is where I want your lives to be built – right there, on that spot where husbands and wives, where parents and children; where friends and strangers come together in love.
So there you have it – 27 years of Torah teaching. God, source of love. Man and woman – created in God’s image with the power to create love – to create life or destroy it; religion with the power to make the world more loving and yet so often accomplishing just the opposite.. Israel, intended to be a place where brothers and sisters come together in love.
And for 27 years — my message to you has really been very simple: the choice is yours. What do you want your life to be about? What do you want your relationships to be about? What do you want your world to be about?
Some of you may feel a bit frustrated — all the sermons you sat through all those years and in the end I was able to summarize them all in one sermon. Think of all the time you could have saved if I would have just started with this sermon 27 years ago.
But it never really was about the destination, was it – it was always about the journey –together. And it was a wonderful journey together.
And I’ll let you in on a secret – I didn’t even need a whole sermon – the prophet Micha – some 2800 years ago — said it all in one sentence:
Higid lecha adam ma tov, u’muh adonai doreysh mimcha…
“God has told you, O’ man, what is good; and what the Lord requires of you, but to do justice and to love kindness and to walk humbly with your God.” Micha 6:8
Sing — “all you need is love…”