Searching for Holiness: Rosh Hashanah Day 2 Sermon 5781/2020


Editor’s Note: Rabbi Greenstein originally gave this sermon on the second day of Rosh Hashanah 5781 (Sept 2020).

The Chassidic master, Rabbi Hayyim of Tzanz, told this parable:

A man had been wandering about, lost in a forest for several days, not knowing which was the right way out. Suddenly he saw a person approaching him. His heart was filled with joy. “Now I shall certainly find out which is the right way,“ he thought to himself.

When they neared one another, he asked: “Brother, tell me which is the right way? I have been wandering about in this forest for several days.”

Said the other to him, “Brother, I do not know the way out either. For I, too, have been wandering about here, lost for many, many days. But this I can tell you: do not take the way I have been taking, for that will lead you astray.

And now let us look for a new way out together.”_

And Reb Hayyim Tzanzer added:

“So it is with us. One thing I can tell you: the way we have been following this far we ought follow no further, for that way leads us astray. But now let us look for a new way.”                       [Agnon, Days of Awe]

Yesterday I spoke about how important it is for us to recognize that our old paths have led us astray as a society and that we need to find a new way out of our present predicament. The light that can help us find that new way is our constant commitment to the preciousness of every human being, simply as a human being.

We have tried the approach of selective preciousness, of graduated, hierarchical preciousness of people. So trying to turn back to that path will only lead us more deeply into our forest of darkness and death. That is not the way back and it is not the way out.

I speak of preciousness. That is a word of valuation. Instead of valuing people by criteria such as skin color, or education, or religious group, or income bracket, the ultimate, equalizing criterion is only that we are all human beings.

By that criterion, we all have the same right to eat, to breathe, to speak, to vote (- it is only a 100 years since we understood that women have a right to vote!), to be safe, to have a chance at health and – when we are sick – to have proper care. This is how we would treat anyone we valued, anyone who was precious to us.

Precious. That’s the word I used to speak out against the false weights and measures we presently use to determine each person’s value and the treatment they deserve.

However, there is another word that I avoided using – holiness. I avoided it because it is a term from the realm of religion. Or, rather, it is a term from a certain way of engaging in religion. And that has mostly not been our path.

Our religious path, individually and as a community, has mostly been characterized through values such as “community” and “meaning.” We seek out religious experiences for their promise of granting us an enhanced sense of togetherness and fulfillment.

I am very far from minimizing those values!  Those values sustain us just as much as a chunk of bread and a glass of fresh water. And we need them just as much. But the values of community and fulfillment do not exhaust the potential realities we should be connecting to. And, by themselves, they are inadequate to help us get out of the forest.

The inequities, that we have now started to realize have been plaguing us for so long, cannot be addressed by a set of policies founded on self-interest. That is not the way out.

The “free market” is not an intriguing idea that we need to study. It is a gross historical failure that has proven to be incapable of assigning true value to anything in this world. Ayn Rand is not a courageous, provocative thinker. Her thought seeks to build an architecture of a privileged fortress for the few at the cost of massive suffering for everyone else.

Consumerism is not an innocuous expression of freedom. It is the foundation for manipulating people and for destroying the environment.

Each of these paths trade on an exaggerated and false concept of self-interest. They are some of the pathways we have taken that led us into the thick of this forest. They are not the way out.

We have been on these false pathways for so long we hardly have the strength to consider trying any other pathways. But it is time for us to stop and admit our failures, our questions and confusions.  What have we learned, and what do we need to learn?

If we have learned that consumerism is a false source of prosperity and fulfillment, I suggest that we be wary of spiritual consumerism, as well. Yes, we all need and seek community and fulfillment. But we must be careful lest they become just another means for satisfying our self-interest.

Holiness is not about self-interest. It is about acknowledging realities that stretch beyond the self – realms that are even unattainable by the self. Holiness cannot be “had.” So, how precious can holiness be, then? How much can it be worth? What price should we be willing to pay for it in a free market?

Holiness cannot be “had.” It is about stepping back from trying to have. That is the basis of its value and its preciousness.

How, then, can we, who are lost, find holiness? Our Torah points the way.

Look! Here is a clearing in the forest! Here is Shabbat. Shabbat is holy because God created a space and time of resting from worldly Creation. God made Shabbat holy before there was any community to enjoy Shabbat. And then God gave us Shabbat as a holy gift. Of course Shabbat should be a beautiful time for family and community and spiritual regeneration. But Shabbat is not holy only if it is a meaningful experience. Shabbat is not holy only if it enhances our sense of communal connection. Shabbat is holy, period. Everything else follows from that.

This is a path we have avoided taking for so long. Is it really so unthinkable, now, as we have gotten lost deeper and deeper in the forest, that we reconsider our commitment to the Sabbath as a holy day? As we survey a world brought to shambles by our faith in the value of grasping for everything, all the time, is it so unthinkable to imagine that this day of restraint, of radical forgoing of consumerism and manipulation of the world, might be a path worth exploring?

To apprehend holiness is to learn reverence and humility, two values sorely missing from the contemporary world we have lived in pre-Covid.

But what if we learned to view all people, all creatures, all of Creation, with the reverence due holiness, with the humility that overtakes anyone who encounters holiness?

We have not yet tried to really walk on that path. But we know that the paths we have followed have led us into a forest of doom.

Can the path of holiness be the path leading us safely out of the forest?

After all, wouldn’t that be in our own self-interest?

חג שמח! – Gut Yontif!


Image: “People” by kevin dooley is licensed under CC BY 2.0


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Rabbi David Greenstein

Rabbi David Greenstein

Rabbi David Greenstein arrived at Shomrei Emunah in August 2009 with a rich, broad and deep background as a rabbi, cantor, artist, scholar, and teacher. Being Shomrei’s rabbi, he says, allows him to draw on all of these passions, as well as his lifelong commitment to building Jewish communities.
Rabbi David Greenstein

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