Rabbi Mark Joel Mahler


Rosh HaShana

My first week of rabbinic school in Jerusalem, the first week of July 1973, I dreamed of June 3, 2018. Not the date next June, but the occasion now scheduled on that date. More accurately, in my dream I was in my home getting ready for that occasion, putting on a tie and a jacket.

When I awoke from the dream that Jerusalem morning in 1973, I realized that I had dreamed about the distant future. I now know that forty-five years would transpire between dreaming the dream in Jerusalem and living the dream here in Pittsburgh.

But before we face the future, first a preface from the past.

I was six or seven years old when I awoke one morning awestruck by a dream. I dreamed that I was riding a bicycle. Graduating from tricycle to bicycle is one of childhood’s great milestones, yet this dream was something much more. In reality, I hadn’t yet learned to ride a bicycle. I was struggling to learn with training wheels. In my dream however, my bicycle had no training wheels, yet I was zooming along. The dream seemed real, in that inexplicable way that dreams can seem as real as this moment. I was riding a bicycle before I actually knew how to ride a bicycle. I had dreamed about the future. Next time I tried, I knew the secret of learning to ride a bicycle: Take off the training wheels and pedal.

A year or so later, while my parents were vacationing in New England, my father dreamed that his family-owned clothing store in New Jersey was on fire. The next morning, my father called one of his brothers and learned that a terrible fire raged in part of the store. My father’s dream about the future made my dream all the more compelling.

Dreaming about the future captured my imagination more than anything I would ever learn in public school. But Hebrew school taught me Torah stories of dreams about the future, with the world’s most famous dreamers, Joseph and Pharaoh, and the world’s most famous dream, Jacob’s dream of the ladder rising up to heaven. If not for them, we would not be here. We are their future. God said to Jacob, “Your descendants shall be as the dust of the earth; you shall spread out to the west and to the east, to the north and to the south.” We today are God’s promise in Jacob’s dream fulfilled.

Still, no straight line led me from a boyhood dream and Hebrew school lessons to becoming a rabbinic student dreaming in Jerusalem in July of 1973. Rather it was a path that meandered through aspirations in political science, biology, psychology, chemistry and medicine with some rock n’roll mixed in. The Six Day War, the fear that preceded it and the elation that followed Israel’s astounding victory, stirred my Yiddishe Neshama, my Jewish soul. Simultaneously that Spring of 1967, the release of “Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” captured my fancy. From the vantage of next June 3, it is clear that above and beyond all my meandering aspirations, God had a plan.

Sometime in 1971, I had a dream. I stood on the floor of a huge cavern made of clouds. Before me was a stairway winding upwards around the cloud cavern. I stepped up on the stairway and began to ascend. Along the way, I saw niches carved into the clouds. In each niche was a bust of a great religious leader, one of Moses, another of Jesus, then of Muhammed and then Krishna and the Buddha. When I reached the top of the stairway, I was greeted by an old man with a long, white flowing beard, dressed in a long, white flowing robe. He was at least a head taller than I am; I was like a bar mitzvah boy standing next to a man. He put his left arm around me. With his right arm, he made a sweeping gesture toward the niches and the great leaders. He then spoke to me. Exactly what he said, I do not know. But I do know that they were words of inspiration, and I was deeply inspired.

I pause to make an essential point. So far you may think that this sermon is about me. But as with every sermon I have ever given, this sermon is about you. In fullness, it is about us, all of us together, and what three-thousand years of Jewish tradition requires of us. Whether we are aware of it or not, whether we cannot quite see it or hear it or sense it because of all of our personal aspirations and passions, and the myriad distractions in this tech-driven, celebrity-worshipping, self-obsessed, stressed-out and sleep-deprived world, God has a plan. Part of its beauty and part of its mystery is that God will only gesture toward that plan. God then leaves it to us to figure out exactly what each one of us can do. Having made us in God’s own image, God trusts us, even with all our faults and frailties which these Days of Awe call upon us to recognize and remedy. For each one of us, the discovery of God’s plan is the true treasure of our lives, not only the fulfillment of God’s promise to Jacob that “Your descendants shall be as the dust of the earth,” but also as God then promised, “All the families of the earth shall bless themselves by you and your descendants.” When we discover our part of the plan to be a blessing to all the families of the earth, we fulfill our portion of the promise God made to Jacob.

Symbolically, we might consider the busts in the niches along the cloud cavern stairway not as busts but as bicycles: one model for Jews, another model for Christians, one for Muslims, then Hindus and Buddhists. The old man’s gesture was enough for me to understand that the Moses model was mine. But for all of my previous aspirations, obsessions and distractions, what had fallen by the wayside ever since my bar mitzvah was Judaism. Consequently, when I first decided to become a rabbi, it was as if I had no training wheels. It seemed so daunting.

This Moses’ model bicycle is Talmud Torah, the study of Torah. The wheels have 613 total spokes, one spoke for each mitzvah. The pedals power the positive commandments, propelling us to do right. The brakes power the negative commandments, stopping us from going wrong. The handle bars are our free will for each one of us to pursue our own unique path. The tires are the most important part, where the rubber meets the road, where we actualize the mitzvot, Shamor v’Zachor, We “guard and keep them.” This is where we bring God’s blessings to all the families of the earth. On top of it all, this Moses model is three-thousand years old. Not only must we maintain it now, we must also pass it on in good working condition to the next generation. Daunting as it all seemed, the only choice I had was to hop on and pedal.

Once I started riding, the first lesson I learned is that Judaism is not the religion of rabbis. Judaism is the religion of the Jewish people. Indeed our tenets and practices overflow with so much humanity and divinity that their superabundance created two more of world’s great religions: Christianity and Islam. But the essence of Judaism itself, now, then and forever, is that you too have to grab hold of the handle bars and jump on and pedal.

Pedal in your home. Pedal with your loved ones. Pedal at work and in the market place. Pedal any- and everywhere you go. God does not give maps as well as training wheels. God does give the inspiration to hop on this Moses model and the ability to pedal.

Duly inspired, I pedaled the very short distance from that dream in 1971 to a Jerusalem dream in 1973. You may think that this Jerusalem dream is about me, but again it’s about us.

The dream took me back to the U.S., driving on the highway that leads to the Lincoln Tunnel, a route as familiar to me as the Fort Pitt and Liberty Tunnels and Bridges. Yet rather than taking the ramp down to the Lincoln Tunnel, I drove up another ramp to the town of Weehawken. I parked the car beside a beautiful Tudor home where I was welcomed to a party by the hosts: a genie and the mother of my classmate, a woman who in fact I wouldn’t meet until the following December. I wound my way through the revelry to the dining room where the Genie approached me and said, “Mark, you will have everything that you want in life.” I was flabbergasted. I replied, “Everything?” “Everything,” he said. He then handed me a cup of punch and encouraged me to drink. I drank. Suddenly decades passed. I was now standing in my bedroom putting on a tie and jacket, getting ready to go to festivities on the occasion of my retiring as rabbi of the congregation. My wife and three sons were with me in the bedroom. Feeling the weight of the decades upon me, I was kvetchy, pensive. My sons kibbitzed with me, trying to lift my spirits and succeeding.

A night dream promising to fulfill my daydreams of one day having a wife and children delighted me. But my daydreams – my aspirations and my inspirations to live in a world that all of us have surely daydreamed about – extended beyond such prospects and promises. Still, the dream faded into the embers of memory until world events rekindled it in March of 2003.

Think back to that uneasy time. 9/11 was a festering wound in the American psyche. Hair raising, front-page, breaking news headlines heaped salt upon that wound: “Weapons of Mass Destruction, Yellowcake Uranium, a Baby Milk Plant actually manufacturing Nerve Gas and Anthrax Warheads, and The Mother of All Battles Redux.” On March 20, Allied forces led by the United States invaded Iraq in what many judge a misbegotten war whose consequences have yet to be tallied in full. That Jewish calendar year of 5763 was a year of fear. That March, as our country ratcheted up to Code Orange, my 1973 Jerusalem dream was rekindled.

Everything about the dream’s finale was familiar and normal. My dream bedroom looked something like my bedroom at 10 Carleton Drive. The clothes we were wearing sometime in the distant future are like the clothes we wore in 1973, like those in 2003, and now. Everything looked normal, reflecting that everything felt normal, reflecting that everything will be normal. The dream portrayed normality, consistency and constancy from 1973 to 2003, with the promise of the same for the literally foreseeable future. The dream was no longer simply about me and my family. It was about all of us. It was about the great American dream to feel safe and secure in our homes and communities with our loved ones, and to have the abiding sense of trust and decency in two-hundred-seventy million anonymous Americans with whom we traveled the highways and byways of America in 2003.

Once this Jerusalem dream embraced all of us, and only because it embraced all of us, did I then present it from the pulpit on Rosh HaShana 2003 to assuage the fear of the old year, 5763, to offer hope and reassurance for the new year, 5764, and indeed well beyond. The pulpit is always a two-way communication. By the looks on the faces of everyone here that Rosh HaShana, the dream accomplished this purpose.

But this Jerusalem dream in 1973 also portrays the eternal Jewish dream of Shalom Bayit, “Peace in the Home.”

The dream of Shalom Bayit began in the Torah with the first generations of Jewish families. They proved that this dream can be very difficult to fulfill. But the Torah also gives shining guidance to achieve Shalom Bayit.

All of you are familiar with the Golden Rule, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” So central is it to Judaism that it offers the final word from the final Torah reading on the High Holy Days, as we’ll hear Yom Kippur afternoon. But there is another translation that I believe is truer to the original Hebrew, V’ahavta l’rei-a-cha chamocha.

V’ahavta you know from the prayer so named: “You shall love.” Chamocha, “like you,” you also know from Mi Chamocha, “Who is like you, O God.” The key word is rei-a-cha. In Song of Songs, the Hebrew root of rei-a-cha also renders ra-ya-ti, “my beloved,” repeatedly, rhapsodically.   Thus the Golden Rule really is “Love your loved ones as yourself.”

Judaism has always acclaimed the nuclear family as the foundation for all relationships. There can be no better maxim to fashion the foundation of Shalom Bayit than “Love your loved ones as yourself.” Nor does this maxim limit itself to mishpacha, to “family” alone. Our dearest of friends are also our ra-ya-teinu, “our beloved,” our loved ones to love as ourself.

Doesn’t the Golden Rule now make much more sense, rather than “Love your neighbor as yourself?” Isn’t it more realistic, more human and more beautiful? I like my neighbors, and I hope you like yours. The Torah teaches us to respect their property, not to pilfer their produce, their vegetable garden or their fruit trees, to return whatever we find that they have lost, not to stand idle if they are in pain or peril, even to help their animals in distress. These are mitzvot of being a good neighbor, some of the spokes on the wheels of our Moses model bicycles. Our ancient sages extolled these ethical dictates, while also cautioning us, “Keep your distance from a bad neighbor.” Surely it follows that loving and being loved by loved ones is the best assurance that we will be mensches on the highways and byways of modern life where we travel with the one-third of a billion American who may be anonymous, yet we trust that they too are mensches.

Our journey through 5777 ended yesterday. In many ways, it was a year similar to 5763, especially the yearning across America to dispel the anxiety gnawing at our marrow. Yet certain things indeed have changed. Unlike Saddam Hussein in 2003, Kim Jong Un really has the most fearsome weapon of mass destruction. In 2003, George W. Bush was the president who once proudly proclaimed, “I’m a uniter, not a divider.” Where our nation arose from the ashes and rubble of 9/11 united, we are now a nation divided against itself, riven with partisan politics, racial and religious prejudice, socio-economics disparity between haves and have-nots, sundered by divergent realities based on alternate facts, where hate has a voice that we thought was stilled a generation ago. The highways and byways we travel with those one-third of a billion anonymous Americans, are fraught with mutual mistrust, as if we’re riding bicycles amid the traffic on Bower Hill and Banksville Roads, on Route 79 and the Pennsylvania Turnpike.

Yet, in so many ways, we still know that it is the best of times, while in so many other ways, we cannot ignore that it is the worst of times.

Thus we come today to the conclusion of the first chapter of my High Holy Day sermon anthology entitled “Tales of Two Cities – The Hopes and Prayers of Pittsburgh, the Hopes and Dreams of Jerusalem.”

For today, Judaism proposes how we can make the best of these confounding, conflicted best of times and worst of times. Love your loved ones as yourself. There is no safer place to jump on our Moses model bicycle than home, hearth and community, especially our spiritual community where your Moses model is best serviced and maintained. Its technology is divine: the more effort you put into pedaling, the more effortless and rewarding it becomes. But do not be blind to the woes of the world beyond. You are here to be a blessing to all the families of the earth. Just be cautious when you venture out into the traffic.

And finally, lest you be concerned that the promises of well-being of this Jerusalem dream will expire come next June 3, we will see on Yom Kippur that this 1973 dream is the “gift that keeps on giving,” even unto eternity.