Rabbi David Greenstein, members of Shomrei’s Park St. Band and some Shomrei congregants attended the Nutley Interfaith Thanksgiving Service on Monday at Vincent United Methodist Church. Photos courtesy Vincent United Methodist Church.
Rabbi Greensteen’s Thanksgiving Speech:
“How good and pleasant it is for all of us to be here together!” (Ps. 133:1)
Shalom – Peace – Welcome!
My name is David Greenstein. I serve as Rabbi of Congregation Shomrei Emunah in Montclair and, over the years, it has been so good and pleasant for me to join with my holy sisters and brothers, the clergy and with Mayor Scarpelli and the leaders of the Nutley community, and with all of you to celebrate this beautiful holiday, conceived and brought forth in this great nation – ever new and ever challenged to continue to grow and renew itself.
This evening it is my honor to be asked to share some words and thoughts. So let’s begin.
“ה’ שפתי תפתח ופי יגיד תהלתך – My God, open my lips so that my mouth can tell Your praises.” (Ps. 51:17)
How grateful we are for the ability to open our lips – to kiss, to taste, to speak, to bless or to curse.
I imagine that too many of us have heard someone open their mouth and say: “I have just two words for you, buddy – and they ain’t ‘Happy Birthday!’”
Just two words – if they are not “Happy Birthday” what could they possibly be? Unfortunately, I think that most of us think we know all too well what two words are meant. Let me guess.
I have just two words for you – “I apologize” – could that be what is meant?
I have just two words for you – “Thank you” – could that be it?
Well, but why not? Why is it so difficult to say those two simple words?
Let’s begin – from the beginning.
We study the image projected on our screen – it is a panel from bronze doors made for a church in Hildesheim, Germany, over a thousand years ago. And it depicts a scene from thousands of years before that:
A figure of authority – God – points an accusing finger at a man – the First Man, Adam. “Where have you been? Why are you hiding from Me? Who told you that you are naked? Did you really eat from the one fruit that I told you to not to?”
And our eyes follow the serpentine path so masterfully created by the artist’s composition – From God we shift our gaze to Adam – who cringes in shame, covers his nakedness with one hand, and, with the other arm circling across, unseeing, he points away, deflecting the blame to her – to his life-partner, the first woman, Eve. And we move over to look at her:
She is bent over in fright and shame, and, with one arm she, also, tries to cover herself, while, with the other, she points downward, to the twisting serpent, hoping to place all the blame there.
How did this loving threesome – God, Adam and Eve – break apart like this – separated from each other by anger, shame, blame and defensive self-enclosure?
Our image shows us human blame and shame entwined together.
Confronted by a shocked and betrayed God, neither Adam nor Eve can say just two words to their Creator – I apologize, I’m sorry.
It was too hard! Better to blame the other than to ask for forgiveness for one’s self.
Why is that?
Perhaps blame is easier because our shame has made asking for forgiveness too hard. Our shame primes us to cast blame.
So let’s begin again. Let’s go back a little earlier in our story. Let’s go back to when it was still good and pleasant for people to dwell together, and for God and people to dwell together and to walk together easily in the verdant Garden.
How did our delighted and happy lovers become creatures consumed with shame? Where did their shame come from? What were they ashamed of?
It wasn’t their nakedness, for they were naked and unashamed at first. Ah, say we righteous ones, it was that they sinned! They were ashamed because they sinned.
So let’s begin again. What was their first – or, to coin a phrase – their “original sin”?
Was it that they disobeyed God’s rule not to eat the fruit of the tree?
Well, then, let’s ask ourselves what was the root cause of that transgression? Because we know all too well that when we sin there is usually something else going on, deeper or behind the scenes – more original – that pushes us or allows us to do what we shouldn’t. There is usually an underlying “issue.”
My tradition teaches that the sin of eating the fruit was only the secondary consequence of a prior sin – prior in the sense of earlier and prior in the sense of more basic.
Let’s begin at the beginning.
God creates a rich and luxuriant world. God then creates human beings and places them gently into that paradise, that Garden of Eden. God introduces the two humans to each other.
At that moment Adam and Eve had just two words to say to God, and they weren’t “Happy Birthday”!
Just two words and we would still be lulling in the Garden. How good and pleasant that could have been. Just two words: “Thank you.”
But they couldn’t say them.
When God confronted Adam, as we see in that bronze relief, Adam’s reply was: “That woman that You gave me – she gave the fruit to me.” Adam finally admits that he has been given gifts, but instead of saying “thank you” he blames Eve for giving him the fruit and he blames God for giving him a partner.
Why was saying “thank you” so impossible? Why were those two words erased by shame and blame?
Perhaps, because saying “thank you” would have meant an acknowledgment that they – that we – are not self-sufficient. It would be an admission that our selves are not sovereign. Our selves are not all-powerful.
No – our selves are dependent – We are dependent on all that is around us, on each other, on God. But Adam and Eve were ashamed to admit that they needed each other.
We try to overcome our false sense of self – by taking. We think this proves our strength. It proves our success – that we are winners and not losers. But we can never take all we want or need. And we are constantly threatened by that failure – and so we become ashamed.
The sin of the first humans was their failure to appreciate that life is not about taking – whether taking fruit or anything else. They failed to appreciate that they were getting so much without having to take, all the time, without even trying – just by being alive.
But if we could understand that there is no shame in saying “thank you” for receiving the abundance of gifts from which we continuously benefit – if we could understand that – then we would never have to be ashamed.
If only we could be proud when we say “thank you”!
If we could have proudly said “thank you” we would not have sinned.
Look at Adam and Eve in our picture. Their arms are crossed over in a tense gesture of defense and attack. They have contorted and constricted their selves into closed and ugly knots of false self-ish-ness.
Can we do better? – We must. I ask you – please – rise if you can – and let’s open up our selves in a physical gesture of welcome and connection. For a moment let’s untie those knots.
Let’s please reach out to another – to your right and to your left – and just hold out your hand and hold onto each other. And let’s be thankful for the warmth of each other’s touch, each other’s presence.
“How good and pleasant it is for all of us to be here together!” (Ps. 133:1)
תודה לא-ל – Thank you, God.
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