Yom Kippur Day 2023/5784 — Stayin’ Aligned

Yom Kippur Day 2023/5784 — Stayin’ Aligned

By Rabbi Jim Rogozen

If you go north on La Cienega you’ll find chiropractors who can re-align your spine and joints. If you go south you can find places that will re-align your cars’ tires. All of these places provide an important, but often, temporary fix to your body or car.

As humans, it’s inevitable that, we too, will get off track in ways small and large. Getting off track often causes us to drift away from God, and our true selves. When we find ourselves saying, “This is not who I really am!” we know that we are out of alignment.

Our Tradition acknowledges this in the weekday Amida slach lanu aveenu kee hatanu – forgive us, God, for we have sinned. But it also reminds us that God is rotzeh b’tshuva – God welcomes our repentance, our T’shuva.

This idea of drift has a history – both good and bad. Scholars have said that we, the Jews, were first called עברים “ivrim” (Hebrews) based on the Akkadian word Hapiru, which meant those who crossed borders. The ivrim, our ancestors, עברוּ avru, – they crossed over rivers and borders to leave Egypt and eventually go to Eretz Yisrael. When they entered the Land their mission was to be an Am Kadosh, to turn away from a history of slavery and become a faith-aligned community. It was a brave move forward, crossing physical and psychological borders, into something new.

But then reality stepped in. The Israelites faced challenges to their faith, and they often fell out of alignment with God and with one another. These challenges continue in our time as well. So, in a way, it’s not surprising that each year, as we rise for Kol Nidrei, the liturgy declares that we are all עבריינים “Avaryanim” – sinners, or more literally, people who have crossed a line. We come to shul on Yom Kippur as people who have drifted, fallen out of alignment with our own beliefs and actions. This description has been in the Mahzor for centuries; it wasn’t just recently penciled in. So every year, it seems, we need to get re-aligned.

This, I believe, is what Yom Kippur is all about. And that’s what this place on La Cienega is for – spiritual and personal realignment.

So how do we keep from getting so out of alignment each year?

On the one hand, Rabbi Israel Salanter, the founder of the Musar Movement, used to teach, “You shouldn’t say ‘I can’t help myself.’ Of course you can!” In other words, you did this, take ownership!

On the other hand, Rabbi Abraham Twersky, a Chassidic Rabbi and Psychiatrist said, “People have three basic needs: food, shelter, and someone else to blame.”

Maybe they’re both right.

As much as we should take ownership for our individual actions, to be fair, there are times when some of our aveirot – our sins, our drift – are influenced by context.

Sometimes we find ourselves in situations, or with people, who don’t have the same priorities or values that we do. Sometimes, especially in the last few years, we’ve just been overwhelmed.

I think we’ve all come to realize that the storyline or plot of our lives, is neither linear nor clear. It’s interesting that the word for “plot” in Spanish is desenlace, which means to come unraveled. It’s all too easy for us to unravel, and “drift” away from our true selves.

I believe that living in alignment – with ourselves, each other, and God – is not a solo event; it demands more than our own effort. It also requires a scaffolding, an infrastructure – not just inside of us – but a mission-aligned community around us as well.

So how do we make this happen?

First, we start with ourselves. Every one of us – as individuals (young and old), as a couple, or a family – should create a Mission Statement that clearly expresses who we are, what we’re trying to achieve, and how we’re going to get there.

סוֹף מעשה במחשבה תחילה Sof ma’aseh b’mach’shava t’chila– start with the end in mind.

Next, we need to connect -at least some of the time – with people who are like us, who share our goals and values. If we want to be more Shabbat observant or do more Tikkun Olam, or study Jewish texts – we need to find others to make this happen. לא טוֹב היוֹת האדם לבדוֹ lo tov heiyot ha’adam l’vado – we need other people to make us more human.

Rabbi Nehorai raised the bar on this notion in Pirkei Avot: הֱוֵי גוֹלֶה לִמְקוֹם תּוֹרָה

Hevay goleh lim’kom Torah – “Exile yourself to a place of Torah.” In this MIshna, exiling oneself meant actually moving to another city where there were yeshivot. For us, I think “exile” means that we have to make changes in our daily lives in order to more fully become ourselves. It takes courage. Leadership guru Ron Heifetz at Harvard wrote that “people don’t resist change…they resist loss.” But changing some of our behaviors, how and with whom we spend our time, allows us to better pursue our mission, and our way of being in the world.

The third element is something people don’t always think about. Community and organizations.

Arthur Brooks and others have recently addressed people’s sense of drift by explaining “how to build a life.” To do that, says Brooks, you need faith, family, friends, and work. Sounds like good advice.

But while Brooks suggests building a life, he makes no mention of actual buildings, organizations, or intentional communities.

Jewish practice has always stressed the need for structures and organizations: a cemetery, a mikvah, a synagogue, a bet din, a hevra kadisha, a school, and more.

These buildings and organizations have existed for centuries in order to strengthen us and help us live our values. They help us successfully build our lives. To paraphrase the old Club Med commercial: they are an antidote to civilization.

But sometimes organizations, and even communal rituals, aren’t as strong as they should be. Their effectiveness, and sense of purpose, weaken.

We can find an example of how a communal ritual, originally intended to strengthen marriage, needed to be changed because of moral drift. This is the case of the סוֹטה Sotah, the suspected adulteress (adultery being one of the prohibitions listed in today’s Minha Torah reading). Bemidbar chapter five describes two situations: an actual case of adultery, and then a case in which a husband, without proof, suspects that his wife has strayed.

In both cases the woman would drink a special liquid, administered by the Kohen, which would prove her guilt or innocence.

In the first case of actual adultery, it is believed that the harsh ritual (which could cause infertility or even death) was adopted to prevent the woman from being severely punished by her husband, or even publically lynched.

In the second situation, the husband has what Seforno called רוח שטות – ruach shetuta foolish fit of jealousy. In this case, the woman was the only one who actually knew the truth. She could choose to remain silent and refuse the ritual, but then the man could divorce her.

But, she could, instead, choose to go through with it. Why would she do that? Some scholars believe that this version of an ancient ritual was actually intended to be a bit of theater. The wife would go through with the ritual because she knew it would “divinely” prove to her husband that she was innocent, so he could calm down. Nice for the husband, right?

Whatever its intention, though, in both cases a ritual that was meant to re-align a husband and wife, transformed a private matter into a public event, and traumatized everyone involved. Even worse, it was aimed only at women, and because of this, the Mishna states that adultery among men actually increased. The word סוֹטה Sotah comes from the verb סטה sata which means to go astray. If anything went astray here, it was the moral drift involved in this communal ritual.

Which is why it was one of several rituals mentioned by the Mishna that were discontinued by the Rabbis. It’s interesting to note, by the way, that the office of the priesthood – the Kohanim– (the first Jewish nonprofit that relied on donations) experienced their own set of scandals in the time of Ezekiel and then in the 1st and 2nd centuries CE. So it’s not unreasonable to worry about how our current organizations are functioning.

So let’s get back to the institutions we need now to nurture our personal missions. Before I go on I want to make it absolutely clear that I am not commenting on any specific institution, in L.A., or elsewhere.

So why do many Jewish institutions, especially member-based ones, suffer from drift? Why do Jewish organizations sometimes need to ask themselves, “Is this who we really are?”

It’s because they are caught between three very real tensions:

  1. They want to deliver on their mission.
  2. They want to be welcoming to a large portion of the Jewish community (in other words, they want to have an open tent)….and
  3. אין קמח אין תוֹרה Ein Kemach, Ein Torah – they need members and money to keep their doors open, and maintain large buildings.

The result? תפסת מרוּבה, לא תפסת Tafasta merubah, lo tafasta – if you try to grab too much, you end up grabbing nothing. Many organizations find themselves trying to do too many things for too many people, which can leave people feeling less connected or aligned. Which then leads to attrition. Which then leads to changing policies, and spending more money to add staff, and creating more programs in order to retain current members and attract new ones. It’s a vicious cycle.

Ironically, the fear of losing people, leads to actually losing people.

Many Jewish organizations are facing some tough challenges these days, including losing members. Author Tom Robbins, and then singer Dan Fogelberg, asked a great question: “How do we make love stay?” In other words, how can we help our beloved organizations keep us and others connected?

First, we need to encourage their leadership to define their mission in ways that are measurable. Measuring the number of members is illusive – it doesn’t tell the whole story and it drags people into the vicious cycle. What should be measured is what these places do for people and how they impact their lives.

Here are some paraphrased excerpts from a few mission statements that are pretty clear:

We give customers the most compelling shopping experience possible. Nordstrom

We help people own their financial futures. Charles Schwab

We focus on strength and performance; helping you become the strongest version of yourself. Gold’s Gym.

The first provides an experience, the second a service, the third a product.

When you go to these places you know what you’re going to get because they live their mission.

Second, insist that there is transparency about how the organization accomplishes its mission. Are staff qualified to do excellent work? Are they living the mission? Are there clear lines of authority between board members and the lead professional? Do board members make decisions based on domain knowledge and organizational values, or personal preferences? Is the lead professional evaluated regularly, based on agreed upon, mission-related, measurable goals?

Third, encourage organizations to say “yes” to mission aligned things, and “no” to everything else. In Hebrew, the word להגדיר (lahagdir) means to define. It’s root is גדר (geder) or fence. Some things are in and some are out. It takes courage – and knowing who you are – to say no.

I encourage you to pick one place to look into. You may find that everything is great! You may find that your questions are already being addressed there. Or you may find that your questions give them a little zetz and wake them up a bit. That’s good too!

Here’s a real-life history lesson about how all of this can make a real difference, about how mission and vision profoundly impacted two Jewish organizations and, eventually, two synagogue movements.

Back in 1926 there were behind-the-scenes merger discussions between the Conservative Jewish Theological Seminary and the Orthodox Yeshiva University. At the time, these two New York schools were quite similar religiously.

The one hurdle that couldn’t be overcome was one of mission. YU noted that JTS was enrolling students for the purpose of making them scholars or Jewish professionals. YU did some of that, too, but it was equally committed to creating generations of Jews in the pews, people who would have deep Torah knowledge and a commitment to halakha. YU’s program and, later on, K-12 day schools, helped them accomplish that goal.

One result is that, almost 100 years later, the percentage of observant, textually literate Jews in the Orthodox world is much, much larger than in the Conservative world.

This observation isn’t about who is right or better, but the importance of an organization having a clear mission and sticking to it.

But this comparison does raise a question. (Again, I am not referring to any specific organization here): What is the Mission or Vision of the Conservative Movement?

You may have seen a recent Facebook Rosh HaShana ad sponsored by 20 Conservative Movement organizations. They each have goals for their own organization and target audience. What they don’t have is a common mission or vision.

In fact, while they may have some common experiences and services, there is no common identified product, no specific, aspirational goals, no mention of any commitment in their mission statements. How do we perpetuate Conservative Judaism, when we don’t define it and we don’t program for its fullest expression? How do we even know if we’ve succeeded? This is worse than mission drift; it’s mission avoidance.

How did we get here? Rather than starting out with a bedrock mission and pushing it out, many Conservative institutions, beginning with synagogues, chose to invite people in, people who had a wide range of beliefs and practices. It was a very welcoming, American, klal yisrael, approach.

So while JTS and many pulpit Rabbis had a more traditional orientation, it was clear that congregants and board members had their own ideas and priorities. Furthermore, Rabbis and lay leaders (in Conservative shuls, camps, schools, and youth groups) worried that too narrow a focus would drive people away.

That’s why we’re left with this classic definition of Conservative: “We don’t know what we are but we’re definitely not Reform or Orthodox.” I’d like to suggest two new tag lines: “Conservative Judaism: Confusion and Complaining For Over a Century.” And, “We’re just a movement that can’t say no.”

Unfortunately, the murky middle position doesn’t always lead to passion, growth, or commitment. Instead, it often leads to some people feeling less connected, or choosing to drop out, which then encourages the vicious cycle of “we can’t lose people, we need more members, let’s do more programs, let’s change our policies, and on and on and on…”

At a time when affiliation is going down, when people are finding ways to “do Jewish” outside of legacy institutions, this is the perfect time to think about how to align programs and resources based on a clear Mission and Vision.

So my questions for the larger Conservative Movement this year are: Who and what are we? Do we have a product? An aspirational goal? A focus? A request or demand for commitment?

And, to each of the Conservative organizations throughout the country, I would ask: Do you have staff who are living the mission? Do you have the resources to adequately support and respect all of the individual journeys taking place within your institutions? And if not, what are your priorities?

In the Avodah Service later today we will recall how the Kohen Gadol asked God for forgiveness for three groups of people: first, for himself and his family, then for the Kohanim (the Jewish organization of its time), and finally for the people of Israel.

On Yom Kippur, it has been our practice to seek alignment in two of our relationships: our vertical relationship with God and our horizontal relationship with one another.

I think that on Yom Kippur we should also give some thought to our third relationship: our communal and organizational ecosystem.

This diagonal direction, much like the steps and ramps in the Bet HaMikdash, has the potential to elevate us, as well as keep us aligned. Which is why we need to do a yearly חשבוֹן הנפש (Heshbon HaNefesh) on the communities and organizations with whom we interact. We need to check our own Tzitzit, as well as the Tallit surrounding us.

B’chochma yibaneh bayitבחכמה ייבנה בית

Our homes, our personal lives, and our institutions, must be built with wisdom and skill.

Which is why our goal and our theme for this time of the year – my apologies to the Bee Gees – should be Stayin’ Aligned.

May this be a year of עוֹשר Osher (with an Ayin), אוֹשר Osher (with an Aleph), and יישוּר Yishur – financial security, happiness, and personal and communal alignment.

Gmar Hatima Tova


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