Stock Photosby Rabbi Rachel Ackerman
We stared at the blackboard completely frustrated.
One thing. Let’s get one thing up on the board.
I was in rabbinical school and we were in a Philosophy of Halakhah (Jewish law) class.
The professor had instructed, “Let’s make a list of practices by which Reform Jews feel universally obligated.”
Brit milah? Circumcision?
”Well, people definitely feel strongly about it. Even if you have a negative visceral reaction to circumcision, when a son is born to a family brit milah is often the first Jewish ritual in which a family engages after years of non-observance. Can we put it on the board?”
And, although we agreed that it was something about which, almost universally, Reform Jews held strong feelings, ultimately, no, we couldn’t agree to put it on the board.
Beyond very general ethics and morals, don’t murder, don’t steal, we couldn’t paint a picture of Reform Judaism.
The blackboard was left empty.
It wasn’t that we believed Reform Jews didn’t have strong beliefs: informed choice, an unwavering commitment to tikkun olam, justice, care for the stranger in our midst, the importance of community, observances in the home.
But, at its beginning, American Reform Judaism necessarily, grew into a series of practices, or lack thereof, in order to assimilate into mainstream culture. Reform Jews had a series of “don’ts.”
Reform Jews don’t:
• Keep kosher
• Observe Shabbat
• Have bnei mitzvah
• Wear tallitot
• Wear a yarmulkes
• Wrap tefillin
• Follow ritual mitzvot
• Pray in Hebrew
• Go to the mikvah
But over the decades, we, as Reform Jews, have found ourselves making our way back toward traditions.
And for some of us, our “Don’ts” have morphed into “Don’t have tos.”
And we rely on them:
“Oh, I don’t have to keep kosher. I’m Reform.”
“I don’t have to observe Shabbat this week. I’m Reform.”
“I don’t have to say those prayers. I’m Reform.”
And these statements aren’t necessarily wrong. If arrived at through a study and contemplation, they are completely legitimate practices.
But, blatant statements like this are problematic because when we continue to identify by “don’ts” we relegate the doing to others.
Identifying by negatives paints a picture of who they are, while we are left without a sense of who we are.
The emptiness of the blackboard was profoundly frustrating.
And perhaps there is nothing that we can put up on that that board as an entire movement.
But, each of us, each Reform Jew, by the very nature of what Reform Judaism is, is given a blank blackboard. One to fill with our own individual “dos.”
And, on Rosh HaShanah, we get to start the year, with a pristinely cleaned board. One just waiting to be filled. And this time of year affords us the opportunity to, at least begin to, deeply reflect on and determine what the final product of the upcoming year can be.
Over the summer the Israeli newspaper Haaretz published an article titled “No cease-fire in place when it comes to bashing Reform Jews.”
What caught my attention was not the article itself, which was reporting an incredibly irritating instance of a Knesset member attacking Reform Judaism.
Rather, what caught my attention was the picture that accompanied the article.
It is a stock photo that has been used in many Haaretz articles with headlines including:
Israel’s Religious Services Ministry to allow non-Orthodox, state-funded community rabbis
Women are Jews, too
Why non-Orthodox Judaism is a disaster for Israel
Why Israel desperately needs Reform Judaism
The photo is of a group of women surrounding a Torah, most wearing tallitot, the eldest of the group reaching with her tzitzit to touch the words of the scroll. The caption reads, “Reform Jewish women doing a practice run for a bat mitzvah.”
I recognize the photo because my aunt is in it. She told me that the picture is at least 10 years old, and Mara, the woman placing her tallit on the Torah, has since passed away. None of these women have anything to do with the articles themselves.
But, when Haaretz needs an image to portray Reform Jews in Israel, this is the one they choose. Over and over again. Women preparing for a bat mitzvah, donned in ritual garments, holding siddurim, prayerbooks, focused on the Torah.
It is a beautiful photograph.
It portrays a rich and vibrant image of Reform Jews.
It shows, not the don’ts or don’t’ have tos of Reform Judaism, but rather, it shows these women’s dos.
However, we need to be cautious.
Because this is a stock photo. It is a photo taken by another party, used to illustrate an article’s angle. It co-opts an image and repurposes it to illustrate a point unrelated to these women.
Every Rosh HaShanah, however, we are given the opportunity, to create a new stock photo of ourselves, to determine what of ourselves we want to portray to the world.
This is our opportunity to create a new image.
Tonight begins a new year.
The year 5775.
According to Jewish tradition, the world was created 5775 years and 6 days ago.
Yes. And 6 days ago.
No. We didn’t miss Rosh HaShanah.
Thre is a tradition that teaches us that it was actually on the 25th day of the month of Elul that the heaven and earth were created. Thus, six days later, on the 1st of Tishrei, when we celebrate Rosh HaShanah, that was the day Adam and Eve were created.
It’s fascinating idea. It is not the birthday of the world that we celebrate today, but rather the creation of people, the creation of ourselves. On the day when Jewish tradition commemorates God breathing life into the first person, it is our opportunity to renew our own lives, to breath deeply and think about who we are and who want to be. On the anniversary of when God created people b’tzalmo, in God’s image, we have an opportunity to be our own tzalam, photographer, and create an image for ourselves.
So, in addition to reflecting on the past year, immersing ourselves in ritual practices, meals, and services, tonight, we are also afforded an opportunity to begin to create our own stock photo that we wish to show the world.
The shofar sounds over and over again on Rosh HaShanah, reminding us that this is an opportunity for doing.
Following the sounding of the shofar, three times during the Rosh HaShanah morning service we repeat the words hayom harat olam.
Hayom harat olam, often translated as “today is the birthday of the world,”
But, this translation is not correct. It hardly does justice to the Hebrew words and grammar.
A beautiful exploration of the grammar of the phrase hayom harat olam is taught by Rabbi David Seidenberg:
“‘Harah’ means pregnancy, conception or gestation. Not birth, but the process which leads up to birth. If we wanted to say “the birth of the world” we would say “leidat ha’olam”. ‘Olam’ can mean world, but if we wanted to say “the conception of the world,” we would say “harat ha-olam.” ‘Olam’ really means eternity, from the root that means “hidden,” or more precisely, the infinite that is hidden, that is beyond our limited perception.
So ‘Harat Olam’ means very literally, “pregnant with eternity” or “eternally pregnant.” The day of Rosh Hashanah is pregnant with eternity.
This day is pregnant with infinite possibilities.
Today, on the anniversary of when our tradition teaches humans were created, our lives are filled with infinite possibilities. We are given a blank blackboard to fill.
That blank blackboard can inspire yirah, awe and wonder, and also fear. It is overwhelming. It is easy to want to jot down all the things we don’t do or don’t have to do, but the more difficult, and more rewarding task, is to determine what we want our dos to be.
Sometimes, though, the overwhelming nature of infinity can almost paralyze us.
There is a story of a king who had a beautiful palace and in the palace was a room with empty walls that needed to be painted. Unsure of how to paint it, the king held a contest amongst all the artists in the land to determine who would paint a mural on the walls.
And after seeing what they had to offer, the king chose two of the artists and brought them into the room. He gave each artist a wall, opposite one another, and instructed them, “You have one year to paint your wall and whoever’s mural is most exquisite will receive a pile of gold.”
The artists began to work.
Both were filled with yirah, fear, awe, and wonder at the task ahead.
The first artist spent time contemplating the best design. He knew it must be something exceptional, something unique. He thought about his previous creations and was inspired by what he knew he was capable of. He drafted version after version of the painting, scoured the land for the most beautiful paints and exquisite paintbrushes. He revisited and reevaluated it, tweaked the design, over and over again, relentlessly working on his masterpiece.
The second artist stared at the blank wall. He thought of all the paintings he had already painted and knew that he could never create something greater than what he already had. Deciding that nothing he would create could compare to the first artist, the second artist devised a plan. He purchased a few cans of mysterious looking paint and a large paintbrush, placed them in front of his wall, and left the palace.
The final weeks rolled around and the first artist’s painting was coming alive. One could nearly feel, smell, taste, and hear the images on the wall.
The second artist was nowhere to be seen until the day before the contest’s end. On that day, he opened the cans of paint and brushed broad strokes across the wall.
The day of judgment had arrived.
The king entered the grand room and the first artist revealed his masterpiece. It was unlike anything the world had ever seen. The king wept at its beauty.
He turned around to look at the second wall and when the artist uncovered it the king was taken aback. On the wall was the exact same picture that adorned the first artist’s wall. The only difference was on this wall the king saw himself staring back. The second artist had painted the entire wall with mirrors—reflecting back the first wall.
“Who won?!” everyone wondered.
The king thought and finally said, “Well, it is a tie of course.”
The king had his servants bring in armfuls of gold placing them before the first artist’s mural. The king declared, “Here is your reward.”
The second artist shouted, “Wait! Where is my gold?!”
The king responded, “Turn around, look at your painting,” and reflecting back at the artist he saw his himself as well as the king pointing to the pile of gold in the mirror.
The king said, “That is your reward.”
We stand right now before a blank wall.
We have time right now, several days from Rosh HaShanah until Yom Kippur to scour, to reflect, to design, to imagine the picture that we want to paint. We have time to decide how we want to spend our year, not in comparison to others, but our own self-determined practices. Today, on Rosh HaShanah, we are given a blank wall. And today is pregnant with infinite possibilities.
We can believe that someone else has the correct or better ideas and follow in their footsteps. We can allow them to create a masterpiece while we live in the reflection. It is an easy route to choose. But the reward is hardly there.
We can stare frustrated at an empty board, desperate to find something we can all agree on, or we can take our own individual board and write our own list of dos. When joined back together on the wall with others, these boards helps to create a rich tapestry of practice and observance.
We can select an old photo that others have determined is the essence of who we are. It may be a beautiful photo. It may, in many ways still represent us. But much has changed in the years since it has been taken. Will we allow ourselves to be determined by the stock photo someone else has chosen? Or will we create our own?
Tonight, tomorrow, and the next day, let’s think of all of the possibilities. Let’s truly give ourselves the opportunity to say, “Here’s what I want on my blackboard! Here’s the image I will portray. Here’s the picture I will paint!”
My class stared at that blackboard bothered that we couldn’t determine a single ritual that universally affirms Reform Judaism. But, on the communal blackboard, we all share “informed choice” and “personal autonomy.” And the possibilities of what we write on individual boards are infinite.
This day is pregnant with possibilities and we get to decide what we will paint.
Because, Reform Jews do:
• Have bnei mitzvah
• Study Torah
• Build sukkot
• Attend weekly Shabbat services
• Do havdallah in our homes
• Pray in Hebrew
• Identify as Zionist
• Light Shabbat candles
• Keep kosher
• Give tzedekah
• Don ritual garments
• Engage in teshuvah, repentance
• Study Talmud
• Go on pilgrimage to Israel
• Consider ourselves religious
• Create new and meaningful rituals, prayers, and observances
And these are just a handful of possibilities.
This day is pregnant with infinitely more.
And so, when we decide what our year will look like, what will go up on the board, what photo we want to put out to the world, what painting we will masterfully create, we must think of the “dos.”
On the sixth day of creation, God created people, breathed life into us, completely new with every opportunity imaginable and unimaginable before us.
Today, we celebrate the possibilities.
Hayom harat olam.
This day is pregnant with eternity.