By Rabbi Conover on 10 Tishrei 5778/ September 30, 2017
Gut Yontiv. As this is the time for making confessions, a few quick questions:
Who here has read one of the Harry Potter books? (Show of hands…)
Who has read all of them?
Who has seen the movies?
One last question… and Ok, no judgment, this really is just between you and God…(Well, God and 2000 of your closest friends….)Who here has had nothing to do with Harry Potter?
For those of you who have NOT read the books… Harry Potter, is a young wizard who studies at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry with friends Hermione Granger and Ron Weasley. They must overcome dark forces that threaten to overthrow the wizarding governing body and subjugate all wizards and muggles (or non-magical people).
For a couple of years now, my husband Damien and I have been reading these books to our sons at bedtime. This past spring, while reading Book Five, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, we discovered one of our favorite concepts in all the books—the Room of Requirement.
The Room of Requirement is a room that magically appears when someone most needs it—and it comes replete with what that someone most needs.
As I read and then reread this passage, I pondered: For all our members and all visitors– could Temple Sholom be our room of requirement…?
Not unlike Hogwarts, dark forces crouch at our door (though in different forms), threatening to overthrow our core values. We’ve witnessed this past year and in recent months:
- Neo-Nazis marching in Charlottesville with chants of hate and bigotry;
- Rampant violence in our city’s neighborhoods with the least amount of resources;
- Virulent anti-Zionism on the world stage and on our college campuses;
- Rifts within the Jewish community among lovers of Israel and whether it’s acceptable to critique its government policies;
- The worst global refugee crisis in recorded history with less than a one percent chance for the more than 20 million refugees to find resettlement.
And these are just a few.
So, here, in the heart of Lakeview, in the city of Chicago, on this Yom Kippur 5778, I invite you to imagine that Temple Sholom can be our Room of Requirement—a sanctuary in which we find what we need to feel strong and resolute, brave and brilliant in our world.
Now, a Room of Requirement has the objects that people most need in the moment. In our moment today, what are the objects we most need? Take a moment and contemplate what you need in this Room…[PAUSE]
On this table, I’ve placed some of the objects that I believe we will need— a shofar, a Torah with a mirror, and a sprig of rosemary from the Garden of Faith.
I’ll begin with the Shofar and its counter-intuitive commandment. Anyone familiar with the central mitzvah or commandment regarding the shofar? It’s not to blow the shofar, but lishmoa kol shofar to listen to the voice of the shofar.
According to a Mishnah[i]:
One who blows into a cistern, or into a cellar or into a barrel; if a person heard the voice of the shofar, they have fulfilled [their obligation]; if a person heard the sound of an echo, they have not fulfilled [their obligation].
Let’s pause here for a moment. A person who hears the voice of the shofar has fulfilled the obligation, but a person who only hears the echo, has not. How often in our daily lives do we only hear an echo of what someone is saying, surrounded as we are by our own echo chambers. And what about ourselves, how often do we listen for what we really need to do and say in each moment to be the kind of people we most want to be and how often do we act and speak too quickly—or not speak at all when our voice most needs to be heard? And, how often do we listen for what a person near us is trying to say? In Judaism, we have a mitzvah called hakarat hatov—to seek out the good. I invite us to shift that slightly and in our room of requirement fulfill a mitzvah of hakarat binah—seeking out understanding.
The Mishnah goes on in its description of the commandment to hear the voice of the shofar…
And so [too], a person who was passing behind a synagogue, or whose house was adjacent to a synagogue, and heard the voice of a shofar … if they [had intention to listen for the shofar], they have fulfilled [their obligation], but if not, they have not fulfilled [their obligation]. Even though this person heard and that one heard, one person [had intention], and the other one did not
A person must bring intention to the act of listening. The Hebrew word for this intentional listening is kivein libo—directing one’s heart…
Turning our attention to what someone is trying to say is not easy, especially when we feel defensive or compelled to share our own viewpoint. Too often we half-listen, tallying up the ways we might poke holes in their argument, their view-points, and sometimes even their feelings. Hakarat binah—seeking out understanding requires energy and patience, yet when we get it right it can be life transforming. I have experienced this in intimate conversations with extended family after the elections, with our college students talking about Israel, and in many, many conversations with my sons about when we should get our first family dog.
At Temple Sholom, we embrace difference. We need not agree on everything, but we do need to direct our hearts to seek out understanding. What is the person next to me trying to express? How does listening to them get me out of my usual echo chambers? What can I learn from them in this moment?
The voice of the shofar reminds us of the voices of one another. In this our room of requirement, we direct our hearts toward the best that is within us and the best within others around us and, in so doing, we just may find understanding—binah.
Yet, the Shofar is not the only object needed. This our room of requirement contains a rare gift that that enables us to seek out understanding. In it we find the Torah and a mirror.
At my ordination, my brother Josh—an artist—presented me with a series of artwork inspired by a beautiful text by Rabbi Danny Siegel. My favorite is this piece in which he has hung a Torah scroll (given to me at my consecration!) with a mirror affixed to the top. On a card, he wrote, “Find yourself in Torah and let Torah be the map to finding your way.”
Rabbi Siegel further articulates:
Where holiness hides in shadow, bring the light[of Torah].
Turn and face it…
it walks with you in your own footsteps
when you walk on the way,
and shimmers on your face.
when you lie down and when you rise up.
In your being, be for the sake of Heaven…
We see ourselves in Torah. It brings, light, love and wisdom to our lives. In turn, it urges us to bring that light to others.
As the Mishnah tells us, “Turn [Torah] over and over for everything is in it”[ii]—our heritage, our stories, our moral compass, our very souls… I see this daily in my life as a rabbi, but never as clearly as when I work with our amazing bnai mitzvah. The beauty, the miracle is that this ancient wisdom breathes life into them and they breathe new life into this ancient wisdom.
In my ten years here, every week has brought a new revelation, a new way that their light radiates from Torah—I’ll just give two recent examples. One Bar Mitzvah student’s Torah Portion was Ki Tavo, that portion in Deuteronomy that details the blessings and curses that would befall the community of Israel. The Bar Mitzvah student was perplexed by the theology as it seemed to express that people who do good will be blessed and those who do bad will be cursed. To him, that just didn’t seem to be the case. We discussed this at length in my study and then we looked at a book by Rabbi David Wolpe called Teaching Your Children About God. In it, he found a story that spoke to him as he pointed out in his Dvar Torah:
In Rabbi Wolpe’s book, he tells the story of a man who once stood before God, his heart aching from the pain and injustice in the world. “Dear God” he cried out. “Look at all the suffering in your world. Why don’t you send help?” God responded, “I did send help. I sent you.”
This story helped the Bar Mitzvah student to grapple with big concepts that many adults have yet to resolve. Through it, he better understood the strange promise that God made to Abraham about his descendants: “You shall be a blessing.” This student understood for the first time that he himself is a blessing– and not a passive one either; a blessing that requires work. He must become the light of Torah.
Another Bat Mitzvah student loved her Torah portion from Genesis Chayei Sarah. She was taken by the fact that our matriarch Rebecca could choose her own fate, deciding whether she would go to a new land to meet and marry the man who would become her beloved. This Bat Mitzvah student, like the rest of our students, chose a meaningful mitzvah project. She volunteered at the Self-Help Home for older Jewish adults. Just as she spoke with the elder residents about what she found meaningful in her Torah portion, they let her know what they found meaningful in the Torah of their own lives. One woman told the Bat Mitzvah student that the most important choice she could make in her life was to continue to believe in believing. The Bat Mitzvah student struggled to understand what it meant, to believe in believing. Ultimately, she came to believe it means this as she wrote in her dvar torah:
[While] originally, I questioned what it means to believe in believing… I thought about it more. I remembered when I was little that it was easy for me to believe that everyone was good, every place was safe and life was easy. As we get older it’s harder to believe these things.
I think that she was telling me not to lose hope when things get hard, instead to continue to believe in believing that while not every person is good, not every place is safe and that life isn’t always easy, I need to remember to believe that together we can still make a difference. We can bring out the good in each other, we can make more places safe for people who are vulnerable and we can work together to make the things that are hard in life become a little bit easier. So we need to believe in believing that while life is not always easy, we can make it better for one another.
At Temple Sholom, we hold a mirror in one hand and a Torah in the other, and that is how we find in ourselves the light of Torah. And the magnificence of these Bnai Mitzvah is how they inspire us to do that—in our own community so that we can shine that light out into the world.
The shofar awakens us to listen more carefully, to seek out understanding, thus bringing more light to complex thoughts, emotions and discussions. Our mirror and Torah show us how to be the light. We do this when we act as visionaries in the larger world and we do this when react to personal situations with compassion and love.
Which brings me to a sprig of rosemary from the Garden of Faith.
There is a famous Jewish folktale called “Leaves from the Garden of Eden.” You may have heard it. In it, Shepsel a wealthy stable owner, took in a young orphan named Hayim. The parents of Hayim, whose name means life, died while he was very young and he had roamed the streets before Shepsel had taken him in. Soon, however, he was regarded as a member of the family. And he was especially close to Shepsel’s daughter Leah. They were like brother and sister.
One day Hayim became critically ill. Leah nursed him during his illness and she was deeply grieved when he died as was Shepsel and the rest of the family. Leah, however, did not seem to recover from her grief. One day, while Shepsel was sitting at her bedside, he fell asleep and began to dream. In the dream, Hayim appeared to him.
“Where did you come from?” asked Shepsel, who remembered, even in the dream, that the boy was no longer in this world.
The boy replied, “I earned a place in the Garden of Eden and that is where I make my home.”
Then the boy asked Shepsel about his family. And Shepsel broke into tears and told him about Leah. The boy said: “Don’t worry. There are bushes growing in the Garden of Eden with leaves that can heal. Wait, and I will fetch you some of its leaves.” And a moment later, the boy brought Shepsel a handful of leaves and said, “Boil the leaves in a pot of water and give them to Leah to drink.” And as Shepsel accepted the leaves, he awoke. And scattered all over his bed were leaves that had blown in from the open window. They bore a wonderful fragrance, like that in his dream. He looked outside his window and noticed a bush growing in his garden that looked just like the one in his dream.
Shepsel made the tea. And when Leah drank that water and learned of that miracle, she began to recover.
Soon after that, Leah cultivated her garden and it became known as the Garden of Hayim—the Garden of Life. When people needed comfort, healing, the feeling of community, a sense of hope, they came to that garden.
At Temple Sholom, we do not have a Garden of Life, we have a Garden of Faith. You no doubt have seen it—on the Southeast Lawn—the beautiful butterfly garden. Some of you helped to cultivate it in memory of our beloved Faith Fufang Dremmer. Faith, who brought so much life and love to Temple Sholom on the Board of the Youth Group, as a regular volunteer at the Monday Meal, with the best smile and some of the sharpest comments in the High School program, she was killed at age 17 in a bike accident on March 24, 2010. This was just weeks before her 18th birthday and our Kabbalat Torah graduation from Temple Sholom’s religious school. At the graduation, her best friend Julia who was also injured in the accident said this:
Here’s to an amazing person who made me be a better person every single day. I love you Faith and tonight and always, I walk for both of us.
Taking our cue from Julia, we realized that as a Temple Sholom community we must act as Faith did when she walked among us. Almost immediately, we knew that we wanted to create a garden in her memory. When we learned that there was not enough sunlight to cultivate a food-producing garden to help feed our Monday Meal guests, we settled on a butterfly garden utilizing native plants.
The Talmud tells us, “The butterfly is a sign of wisdom. The right wing enables us to grow wise and learn as much as we wish: the left wing prevents us from forgetting all that we have learned.”[iii]
Under the leadership of Rebecca Unger with consultation from Faith’s mother Michele, we broke ground on the garden a year after her tragic death. Young and old alike dug, and hoed, and planted together. In the garden we placed 18 stepping stones representing qualities of Faith including tzedek – righteousness, chazon – vision, chesed – loving kindness, and tikvah—hope. Months later, the butterflies came. And every year they return as the garden has grown with the loving hands of master gardener Katherine Billingham. They allow us to grow wise, preventing us from forgetting what we have learned. This garden extends our Room of Requirement—from something we access inside this place, to something others can stumble upon outside, when they need it most.
Our Garden of Faith has experienced visits from Gan Shalom children, a ketubah signing, countless guests from the Monday Meal as they line up just beyond its gates, and life, and more life, and love.
Like Leah and Shepsel nurtured their Garden of Life, we cultivate our Garden of Faith and utilize its healing powers showing how much wisdom and memory, love and light matter in our own community and beyond.
You see, this is how we embrace with our shofar—by listening as we strive for understanding with an open heart. We inspire and seek to be inspired with our mirror to the Torah, discovering the best within ourselves through the guide of Torah. And we matter with our sprig of rosemary from the Garden of Faith, spreading our light and love to all who need it as we show them that they matter to us. In truth, Temple Sholom, this sacred community, our Room of Requirement is a Garden of Faith—as it embraces, inspires, and matters.
Yet, let me be clear. This sermon is no mere affirmation. This is a call to action. In these times, our souls and our world sorely need a Room of Requirement. Unfortunately, it will not magically appear. We must work to build it, cultivate it, and utilize it…And then we must use the strength we’ve gathered from it, the inspiration, the healing, the love and the light, and share it with the world…
Temple Sholom, Sholom Justice, the Reform Movement and the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism provide ample opportunities to do just this. I urge you to seek out these opportunities—with all your might this year.
In this year of 5778,
Make Temple Sholom our Room of Requirement, our garden where we find our hearts alight with love and goodness.
May we listen, seeking out understanding—hakarat binah—starting with ourselves, then our family, our friends, our neighbors and beyond.
May we hold a mirror to Torah’s wisdom and let it light our way.
And may we love fiercely, bring healing, and nurture this community so that we may bring more light—the light of justice and compassion in into the dark places in our world.
Let us find what we need in our Room of Requirement, let us cultivate this Garden of Faith, so we may grow
And in peace.
Ken Yehi Ratzon—may this be God’s will.