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What is 36 About?

Sermon by Rabbi Melanie Aron

September 14, 2015

When a past president of our congregation was celebrating her 60th birthday, she could have chosen to have a big party. She has a lot of friends and they like to go all out. But instead of a party, she did something a little bit different. She took her friends to RAFT, an organization that distributes surplus materials from local corporations to area schools. At RAFT they worked to pack science kits for teachers—and then had a fun lunch.

Another member of the congregation did something similar for her 50th birthday- she took her friends to the Georgia Travis Center which is part of Inn Vision, there they sorted clothes and packed emergency sacks for the homeless, while enjoying birthday cake and snacks.

The question of what is a Jewish way to celebrate is not just theoretical this year. As you know this is a big year for our congregation, a twice chai year, a 36th anniversary, and also a milestone in my time at Shir Hadash and the Cantor’s.

The first thing to note is that Jews do celebrate. Vesamachta bechagecha- and you shall rejoice in your holiday. It’s said about Sukkot, the Jewish thanksgiving, but it holds for all our holidays, including Shabbat. Celebrating is Jewish, not just mourning,  and Jewish celebrating can include material indulgence.

You might be surprised to learn that the rabbis teach that fasting is not necessarily more righteous than feasting. Your holiday dinner before services this evening, your lunch tomorrow after services are as much a religious act as next week’s fast.  In fact the failure to serve God with joy and gladness, is identified in Deuteronomy as a serious sin and the Prophet Isaiah ends the very passionate social justice passage which we will read as our Haftarah on Yom Kippur with a call to make Shabbat an Oneg, literally a time of Delight, of enjoyment.  The Halachah includes specific instructions on how to make Shabbat more enjoyable. Because meat was an exceptional indulgence in earlier centuries, some interpret Jewish law to mean that there is no celebrating without meat- but more exactly the halachah is that we should take pleasure with good food and drink. Most interpret that to mean that you can chose the foods which you enjoy eating. The special challah bread is an example of another way we make Shabbat a delight-yeast. Raisins, even chocolate chips. The rabbis also identify new clothing as an enjoyable indulgence or where that was beyond one’s means, at least washing one’s clothing or wearing it in a different way.

I remember as a kid getting new clothes for the beginning of school and the High Holidays. Today my daughter uses amazon prime to get new things almost instantly whenever she feels like it – but it’s not as exciting.

I remember my experience as a young rabbi in New Jersey, where some of the women in would be decked out in their fur coats for the High Holidays, even though it was 90 degrees--- we would laugh but there was something to it. Seeing everyone wearing something special added to the sense of the awesomeness of the holidays.

Being with family and friends, taking time without a schedule or list of things to accomplish, enjoying physical pleasures, doing something special that you don’t do every day—these are some of the ways we celebrate as Jews.

But Jewish celebrating is not just about doing things for ourselves. It is also about sharing with the community.  Tomorrow morning we will read the Haftarah in which Nehemiah explains to  the exiles returning from Babylon how to celebrate Rosh Hashanah: “Go now, eat of the best and drink sweet wine and send portions to those who have nothing prepared.” It might remind us of Purim, when we send mishloah manot, hamentaschen and treats to our friends, and matanot la’evyonim,  gifts to those in need. The book of Deuteronomy( 16:14) , explains who should rejoice. “You, your wife and your children, your male and female servants, the landless Levite, the widow, the orphan and the stranger who lives within your gates.” It’s not a real celebration unless the whole community benefits.

As we contemplate our congregation’s special celebration, I’ve been thinking about celebrating but also about 36- what is that age about for individuals and for a community?

I remember being 36 as a very active and busy time. Those early adult years can be very full with careers and family--sometimes I think back on what I did and realize how crazy it was.  And yet my experience was very much in keeping with the Jewish sense of the decades- 20 lirdof, for pursuit, for active chasing of our futures, 30 for koach, for strength for that full throttled energy that we put out into all we do, 40 for binah- for understanding, for a little more perspective and 50 for eitzah- for giving advice, for having seen enough to know the territory and begin to guide others.

The Temple is turning 36- an age with some stability, but also a certain kind of koach. There is energy for our own institutional concerns but also I hope energy that can be turned outward towards the greater community. We are a very talented bunch, with a lot of skills that we take for granted but which are a reflection of the blessings we have enjoyed.

Ten years ago we looked around at our world, we looked inside at our community and we said, there are people who are receiving no medical care, and we have a lot of talent in that area. We have physicians and nurses, and those who train physicians and nurses. We have organizational skills and connections- and that assessment of our communal competence prompted our very successful healthy living fairs.  

Over the last 6 months a small group at Temple has looked at the world around us and seen the tremendous gap in educational outcomes in our community. In the  Los Gatos-Saratoga Union High School District , for example  98% of the students will go on to college, while among Latino residents of our county only 70% will even graduate from high school. As Jews we especially know the influence education can have on the rest of a person’s life – it was the excellent public school system and the inexpensive public college system that brought many of our families into the secure middle class. At some level all of the other inequalities we identify in our community, in housing, income, health care, transportation and even criminal justice, are made worse by the lack of educational opportunity.

Our congregation is incredibly rich in educational talent- we have teachers, principals, school psychologists and nurses, speech therapists and guidance counselors, school site council chairs and pta presidents. In addition many of us without formal educational credentials have helped our children through the college application process, and know the turf.

What if the celebration of our simchah, were to also extend out to the community? What it included giving of ourselves as well.?

We are planning to launch two small projects which we hope will take root as the Health Fair did and eventually involve hundreds of our members. One will be sending a pilot group to participate in a program called Cash for College- in which our members will help first generation college families succeed in the application process by correctly filling out the necessary forms. It sounds like a simple thing- and we will provide training, in case you are worried that you are a little rusty, but it makes all the difference. The training will be this December and then in January and February you will have your choice of dates on which to come out to workshops and sit one on one with parents who are filling out the frustrating FAFSA forms.

We have also been invited by the Superintendent of the Campbell school district to adopt one of their schools with a student body 90% of whom qualify for the government’s free lunch program.

As busy as my life was in those hectic years in my 30’s and 40’s with the Temple and the kids, on Wednesday morning, my day off, I used to go into the classroom and volunteer. I helped with MPM math in Jeremy’s classes, and later was a publisher as part of Shifrah’s classes writing programs.  I know that many of you did or are doing the same, whether it’s Project Cornerstone, or other programs that provide enrichment for the students and support for the teachers. At two particular schools in the Campbell School district, which is not far from our Temple, there are no parents able to come in and do Project Cornerstone, a wonderful program that helps children feel valued, respected and know. There is a book to share, and a lesson plan that is taught to the volunteers, all with the goal of helping young people grow into healthy, caring and responsible adults. And it is just an hour a month- we can do that. They need volunteers for other tasks as well, their weekly reading program and special once a year events. If you are doing this for your own children, maybe you can spare an hour a month to do this for children who don’t have an adult in their lives to do this.

If you are in tech , many companies allow you to take the time off for this kind of volunteering. If you are retired, we especially welcome your participation.

At 36 we are poised between koach and bimah- between effort and understanding. We are so rich in talent and experience-it is time that we stepped up our contributions to the community.  I would love to see 36 volunteers in our pilot this year, not only because 36 is our anniversary year, but also because of the Jewish tradition of the lamedvavniks- the idea that the world continues only when there are 36 righteous people in each generation. Look on the Temple’s home page to sign up and join us in this endeavor.

Hebrew has 12 different words for different kinds of joy. Judaism values happiness and celebration. Let us model for our younger generations what celebration and joy are really about. Enjoyment is important but we also grow in happiness when we reach out a hand and help someone else move towards fulfillment in their life.


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