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#348: Jewish Flexibility
A Sermon for the First Day of Rosh Hashanah
Note: This is a version of the sermon I delivered this past Shabbat morning, the first day of Rosh Hashanah 5784.
Gimme Some Torah #348
Welcome to new subscriber Helene!
Shabbat Shalom and Shanah Tovah! May we all be blessed with a new year of health, prosperity and joy. I realize that the joke I’m about to tell you is old. But I’ve got news for you: They’re all old! Moses told this one to Pharaoh and he’d already heard it. So here it goes:
Rabbi Isaac Goldberg and his wife, Sarah, keep a kosher home and have observed Shabbat for many years. No unkosher food has ever crossed their lips. On their fortieth wedding anniversary, Isaac takes Sarah on a trip to Paris. They stroll hand in hand on the Seine, take a tour of the Eiffel Tower, and take in the sights of the Saint-Thomas d’Aquin, the city’s richest neighborhood and home to billionaires.
Then they get hungry, but they quickly find out that there are no reservations to be had at the city’s kosher restaurants. So they find a little hole in the wall called Chez d’Treif. Rabbi Goldberg looks at the menu and asks Sarah, “Are you thinking what I’m thinking?”
Sarah says, “That this could be the last time that we ever have the opportunity to eat roast pork and not get caught?”
Rabbi Goldberg says, “Yes. Let’s get the roast pork, and you know what, God will forgive us on Yom Kippur.” So they order the unkosher banquet and wait with grumbling stomachs. Finally, the servers bring out a roast succulent pig with a big apple in its mouth.
Just then, one of Rabbi Goldberg’s congregants comes up to him and says, “Well imagine meeting you here! Hey, wait a minute, that’s a pig! Why are you eating treif?”
Rabbi Goldberg thought quickly and said, “Oh my God! I asked for an apple and look what they did to it”
Quick thinking is a kind of flexibility, and Rosh Hashanah is a day to think about Jewish flexibility. This crucial trait is a big part of why we’re still around.
First we’ll look at flexibility in Jewish life and law. Then I’ll show you why flexbility is needed for a peaceful and just society. Finally, I’ll explain how flexibility is deeply connected to Rosh Hashanah.
So what is this Jewish flexibility? No, it’s not the ability to hold a Torah scroll and simultaneously touch your toes. Jewish flexibility has much more to do with the soul than the joints and muscles.
I think that senior citizens have to be the most spiritually flexible of all the age groups. It is you who are called upon to provide free babysitting at a moment’s notice. It is you who have to put your lives back together after losing a spouse.
For some, that means a new relationship or even a new marriage. For others, your spiritual flexibility simply grants the ability to stop grieving and start living again.
It is you seniors who, after having a work routine for decades, need to find something else to do, a new purpose and source of meaning.
It is you seniors who, after living in the same house for fifty years or more, often have a need to start over in a new home, and just from watching you guys do it, I know it’s not easy.
The role models for the Jewish active senior citizen is none other than Sarah. At the age of 90, she had a baby. Now that’s spiritual and physical flexibility! Is it possible?
Well, in 2019 a Chinese woman named Xinju Tian gave birth to a daughter at the age of 68 without medical intervention. That really gives new meaning to the saying, “Kids, don’t try this at home.”
I admire senior citizens for the amount of spiritual flexibility they have to have. That’s especially true when you look at what’s going on in this country. Seniors who lived in saner decades have a right to say, “This place is nuts.”
Before I move on to flexibility in Jewish law, let me just wish all the seniors here and on Zoom a yishar koakh, which means “May you get strong” in Hebrew and “Thank you” in Yiddish, pronounced Shkoyakh. I think both thoughts are appropriate on the New Year.
Now let’s talk about flexibility in Halakha, in Jewish law. There are some things that we are flexible about and some that we’re not. When it comes to things like murder, theft, adultery, and talking in shul, we’re not flexible. And there’s not much flexibility when it comes to eating pig and other forbidden animals or mixtures.
But generally speaking, Jewish law is rather flexible by design. The words sh’at had’hak mean an emergency situation, literally a time of pressure. Whenever you see these words in Halakha, you know that you are about to read a leniency for exigent circumstances.
This is not a rare occurrence in Jewish law. That phrase appears thousands of times in halakhic sources for the simple reason that emergency situations are very common. Moreover, the definition of an emergency situation varies from time to time and place to place.
Take, for instance, a legal decision written in 1885 by Rabbi Yehuda Hayim Leib Litvin. In this responsum, Rabbi Litvin comes to a startling conclusion about the shofar and a new device that was called a telephone.
He wrote, “It is clearly obvious that we are not permitted to create stringencies on our own, and in an emergency situation, a person can definitely fulfill the obligation of hearing the shofar by means of this device called a telephone.”
Another example of flexibility in Jewish law can be found in the shofar blasts themselves. The Torah itself only commands us to blow the tekiah, the longer blast, and the teruah, the short, staccato blasts. So why do we have the shevarim and the shevarim-teruah?
Well, that’s Jewish flexibility for you. The Sages had an argument about the nature of the teruah. Was it nine short blasts or was it three medium groans? Or is it actually both of those? As a result, we have the shevarim and the shevarim-teruah to accommodate all of the possible opinions. And that is how legal flexibility is supposed to work.
Flexibility is such a fundamental Jewish value that Rabbi Elazar ben Shimon said in the Talmud: “One should always be as flexible as a reed and not as unyielding as a cedar. This is why a reed merited to have made from it a quill to write a Sefer Torah, tefillin and mezuzot.”
Jewish flexibility is what allows us to have the laws that have defined us as a people but also navigate around them when there is a pressing need. And just as our laws are flexible when a true need arises, we ourselves need to be flexible in order to build a peaceful and just society.
Right now, the dire political situation we find ourselves in is a result of American inflexibility. We have all retreated to our respective corners and we have demonstrated a profound unwillingness to even entertain the notion of compromise.
We were inflexible before COVID, but the pandemic made our inflexibility so much worse. For two years, we were told that mere debate on school closings was an immoral, near-criminal act of disinformation. If you said, “Hey, look, my kids’ education is dying in front of my eyes for no good reason,” you were shouted down as some kind of monster.
Now we know that it wasn’t medically necessary to close the schools for two years, and we’re left with one hell of a cleanup job. The kids in school are years behind of where they were. The college students who had two years of high school instead of four are struggling.
This lack of flexibility has led to some tragic outcomes that would be funny if they weren’t so terribly sad. Opponents of abortion rights in Ohio got themselves so wrapped up in their so-called pro-life fervor that they were about to force a ten year old girl to carry a pregnancy to term. A ten year old!
Never mind that she was obviously raped. Never mind that the pregnancy by definition threatened her life. No, the people in charge in Columbus were inflexible in their opposition to medical care for this girl. So she had to go to Indiana to have the abortion that saved her life.
As a Jew, I personally believe that women should have the right to terminate their pregnancies without government interference. But even if a state is going to make the terrible and unwise decision to strictly limit abortion, would it not make sense to have some flexibility built into the law, some wiggle room so that, oh, I don’t know, so ten-year-old rape victims don’t have to die in childbirth?
We also see the need for flexibility in our immigration laws. We have an intransigent, complete lack of flexibility on this issue. We have those on one side who want to build a wall, a fortress America, and some nutcases are even talking about putting in minefields. They seem to forget that anything built to keep strangers out could one day be used to keep Americans in.
And then we have those on the other side who apparently see no problem with an essentially open border. Mayor Adams of New York says that the flood of migrants coming into the city will destroy it, and I have no reason to doubt him.
There needs to be a third, more flexible option. Maybe we should have real, effective border security, an asylum process that does not punish honest applicants, and—most importantly—a liberal policy for legal immigration. Currently, only 3 percent of those who apply for legal immigration actually get a visa. If we make legal immigration a real possibility then the problem will be at least partially alleviated.
The problem is that flexibility in our political system has come to be seen as a poison pill. Politicians talk about it as if it were a kind of weakness or cowardice. In reality, flexibility is the best kind of strength. When we figure that out, when we figure out that a win-win is better than a win-lose, we’ll be on our way to a society that is not just wealthier but better as well.
Finally, let’s look at the various connections between flexibility and Rosh Hashanah. The first connection is plainly obvious. Rosh Hashanah is also known as Yom HaDin, the Day of Judgment. This is the day that our trials in front of God begin, and we are literally asking God to cut us some slack, to be flexible.
As the liturgy notes, we Jews have an eye-popping amount of hutzpah asking God to be flexible, as we are the original עם קשה ערף (am k’sheh ‘oref, stiff-necked nation). When the Torah calls us stiff-necked, it’s of course not talking about our actual necks. It’s a reference to our spiritual inflexibility.
Lucky for us, Abraham was a very flexible man. He felt bad about Sarah’s demand that he cast Hagar and Ishmael out into the desert, and he could have put his foot down and said, “Look, that’s my first born son and his mother, I can’t just abandon them.”
The reason he didn’t put his foot down is that God said to him “Listen to Sarah’s voice, for it is through Isaac that offspring shall be continued for you.” שמע בקלה כי ביצחק יקרא לך זרע. ִ (Sh’ma b’Kolah, ki v’Yitzḥak yikarei lekha zara)
The flexibility of Rosh Hashanah can also be found in the most famous prayer of the High Holy Day liturgy, the Unetaneh Tokef. That prayer tells us that we have to be flexible, because we really have no idea what the coming year will bring.
Who in our family will live? Who will die? Who will be healthy, and who will be sick, who will remember, and who will forget. We have to be ready for pretty much anything. And we have it easy in this wonderful bubble of Jewish history that we live in.
On how many Rosh Hashanahs in the past did Jews find themselves forced to live in a new country? On how many Rosh Hashanahs in the past did Jews find themselves living nowhere but instead on a journey or in a concentration camp or a gulag.
Jewish flexibility means that we have to sleep with one eye open. I do not believe that we are in imminent danger here in Ameria, but I also don’t think that there is anything inherent about our country that would prevent things from getting bad for the Jews here. I don’t think trouble is likely, but I imagine the people of Berlin didn’t think it was likely, either.
The flexible Jews in our history are also known as the ones who survived, the ones who made it. In 1492, when King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella expelled the Jews from Spain, those who survived were the ones who had the flexibility to pack up and leave everything behind.
The ones who were not flexible had to either convert for real or convert under false pretenses and keep being Jewish quietly. The long term fate for either choice was not a good one. We know better than anyone that, sometimes history tells you that it’s time to go immediately.
Jonathan Goldsmith, The Most Interesting Man in the World, the guy who did the commercials for Dos Equis beer, always used to say, “Stay thirsty, my friends.” I’ll say to all of you, “Stay flexible, my friends.” Always be ready for change, for change is the essence of life.
May we be blessed with a peaceful, quiet year that requires a minimum of abrupt change. Apart from that, I only ask for health and strength. Everything else, we’ll just have to figure out ourselves. Shabbat Shalom and Shanah tovah!