In September, Congregation Beth Chaim Senior Rabbi Eric Wisnia delivered his final Yom Kippur sermon. Wisnia retired earlier this year after serving the community for 42 years. Below is a lightly edited version of Wisnia’s sermon.
You remember that Jewish paint contractor? On many jobs, he had for years been watering down his paint to save money. On Yom Kippur, he felt guilty and went to his rabbi to confess. You know what the rabbi said: “Repaint, my son… and thin no more.”
This is it. My last Yom Kippur; the end is near. Judgement day has come, and I must ask myself, “What do I stand for?” I’m ready to meet my end, and as I begin to slowly fade away and evanesce into the future, I want to take account on this, my 42nd Yom Kippur as the senior rabbi of Beth Chaim.
I have tried to be a good rabbi these last 41 years. I have given my heart and soul to Congregation Beth Chaim, as well as all of my days and nights. I don’t know what you will remember of me when you look back, but I hope you will remember me smiling at you. And I hope you will remember what I tried to teach, the ideas that I call the “cardinal principles of Wisnistotelian logic.”
For those who don’t get this inside joke, let me explain. A younger, thinner, more hair suite Eric Wisnia, learned in college at the University of Pennsylvania back in the 60’s that there was a body of knowledge taught by Aristotle, the great Greek pedagogue and tutor of the young Alexander the Great. Scholars have called body of knowledge “Aristotelian Logic.” Now I am, sadly, no Aristotle. But to sav my vanity, I have called the little tidbits of knowledge that I cling to Wisnistotelian logic. I do so to honor the master, Aristotle and laugh at myself.
The first bit of Wisnistotelian logic: We Jews take Torah seriously; we don’t take it literally. I learned this from my colleague, Rabbi Arnie Gluck of Hillsborough—a brilliant and talented Reform rabbi, who learned it from Rabbi Gunther Plaut, editor of the Reform chumash (Five Books of Moses). The Torah is our book, and we Jews are the people of the book. It is the story of our history, our myths, our morality and our holidays. In short, Torah is what we learn from and live from. It tells us how to be good, moral people. It tells us how to organize our year and the right way to live.
The Torah was written down by our ancestors in their ancient language, Hebrew. The several different writings that had been handed down were collected by Ezra the sofer, the scribe, in 450 BCE. The Jews had just returned from Babylonian exile and finished rebuilding Jerusalem and our new, “second” Temple. Ezra edited it all into one big scroll and then read it aloud to the people at that first Rosh HaShanah when we dedicated our new Second Temple. We have been reading and studying it ever since for 2,568 years. You can check out this story in our Bible, as is written in our Ketuvim, in the book of Nehemiah, chapter 8.
As I said, we should take our Torah seriously, but not literally. The Torah speaks to us, the Jews, in our human language. It is written for real people: us, the Jews, to learn from and study. Our Rabbis felt it should be studied and pondered, and only then would we understand it.
One of the best examples: Exodus, chapter 21, and again in Leviticus, the text tells us, “An eye for an eye.” Our Rabbis in later ages commented about this verse that you couldn’t actually observe it literally, and in fact, they go further telling us not to observe it literally. They teach this to us, by saying: “If a blind man destroys your eye, he has no eye to give in return.” This means that the blind man’s eye is not worth the same as the sighted man’s eye. So if we “took” his eye, the loss is not equal.
The Rabbis then comment, “ayin tachat ayin: lo mamash, elah mamoan!” If you damage or take his eye, you must pay monetary compensation to the wounded man equal to the loss of the eye. Eye for an eye, not literally, rather in monetary compensation—this is the Jewish law. “Eye for an eye,” our Rabbis taught us, established the principle that the punishment must be equal to the crime.
In Shariyah, Muslim law, if you steal, your hand is cut off. That is not “the punishment fits the crime.” It is far worse. In Jewish law you pay back threefold what you stole. You pay damages for what you did, equal to the crime.
A second point about not taking the Torah law so literally is the story of Pesach Sheni, or the second Passover told in the book of Numbers, chapter 9, verses 6 and following. Here a story is told that some Jews come before Moses right before Pesach to tell him that their parent died recently and they did the burial. Dealing with dead bodies and burying them is a mitzvah and necessary thing, but it renders one unclean for a month. And—if you are unclean, you cannot make the Passover sacrifice!
So these people are caught in a “Catch 22.” They are unclean because they were doing the mitzvah of burying the dead, and now they can’t do the mitzvah of Passover… so they ask Moses what to do. Like any good rabbi, Mo says, “Let me think about that,” and he asks God. God tells him, “Good question, let me think about it, and I’ll tell ya in the morning.” The next morning, God says that Pesach is so important that the unclean people should wait a month and do Peasach a month late because it is better to do it as properly as they can a month later rather than not do it at all. You try to do it right, but you do the best you can.
We figure out what Torah wants, and we do the best we can to observe it. We take it seriously, but not always literally.
Cardinal principle 2 of Wisnistotelian logic: Prayers don’t change things. Prayers change people and people change things.
I have many favorite prayers, but the one on Page 47 in our Shabbat prayerbook is one of my favorites:
“Prayer invites God’s presence to suffuse out spirits, God’s will to prevail in our lives. Prayer may not bring water to parched fields, nor mend a broken bridge, nor rebuild a ruined city. But prayer can water an arid soul, mend a broken heart, and rebuild a weakened will” (Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel).
We should stop asking God to do things for us. Stop using prayer as a list of wants and demands that we put on God. It doesn’t work, friends, I have tried it! Do you know how many times I have asked God for a million dollars to be left outside my door? Or how many times I asked God not to let my son die in agony? We have to learn that God does not work supernatural miracles just to make us happy.
So what is God? Let’s look at “Wisnia’s Corollary”—God=Good. Just add an ‘O’ in the middle! There is goodness in life, we just have to see it all around us. We want the supernatural, but I assure you, it won’t happen. And because we want the supernatural, sometimes we ignore the beauty all around us.
One of my favorite stories is about old Zeke down in the Louisiana bayous during a flood after some torrential rains. Old Zeke saw the river rising and his friends all started to move out to shelter, but Zeke believed in the Lord and prayed to God for a miracle to save him. He was not going to budge until God sent a miracle, so he sat on his porch, waiting.
The water started to rise slowly, and a cop car came down the street, splashing through the inches-high water as it went. “Sir, we’re here to evacuate you. Now please get in the car.” Old Zeke refused. “I believe in the Lord, and I’m praying for a miracle.” The police could not wait and went on their way.
The water kept rising, and Zeke had to move up to his second floor and was sitting, looking out the window, praying for God to send a miracle. Soon he saw a small motor boat coming up the flooded street. The boat motored over to his window, and the coast guard people yelled up to him, “Sir, please come aboard, we’re evacuating everyone because the water is rising.”
“No”, Zeke said. “I’m waiting for the Lord to send a miracle.” And he waved as the boat went further looking for other stranded people.
The water kept rising and Zeke had to go up on his roof. Once again, he prayed to God to send a miracle and save him. Instead, he saw a helicopter above him, lowering a chain ladder and calling for him to climb up. Once again, he issued his refrain, “No. I am praying to God and He will send a miracle to save me!” The winds picked up, and the helicopter had to pull away.
The water kept rising, and old Zeke drowned. He went up to heaven, of course, and there he met the good Lord. First thing Zeke said was, “Lord, I prayed for a miracle to save me, and where were you?” “Zeke,” the Lord said, “First I sent the cop car, then the coast guard boat and then I sent a helicopter.”
We want the supernatural, but to see God, all you have to do is just add an “O” and see the good. It is always all around you. Just look into the eyes of someone who loves you. Remember, “Prayers don’t change things. Prayers change people, and people change things.”
Number 3 in Wisnistotelian logic: Jewish theology is implicit in Jewish sociology. Or as I’m fond of saying, “To be Jewish, ya do Jewish.” It means that our philosophy is encapsulated in our rituals and holidays. You learn morality and the concept of “mitzvah” by observing Jewish rituals. Our rituals are there to teach us things about morality and communal living.
I remember once when in college I walked into some strange shul, and the gabbai said, “Put on a kippah.” Just to annoy him, I asked, “Why, what does it mean?” He said, “I don’t care, just do it.”
I thought that that was idolatry. Worshipping a form without substance. Meaningless ritual doesn’t make you a Jew. We don’t wear a yarmulke because God doesn’t like to see our heads. We wear a yarmulke because it says that “I go up to here, and I stop. There is a higher authority than me.”
Performing a ritual should teach you something. Celebrating Pesach with your family isn’t just another nice get together. It is a meaningful statement that you are a Jewish family who recognizes that your ancestors were slaves in Egypt and suffered discrimination. We eat the matzah and do the Seder to remember how we suffered oppression and to pledge to never let that happen again to other “strangers,” because we know the heart of the stranger!
Observing the rituals and holidays of our religion teaches us morality. When you stop practicing our rituals, and leave our community, you lose a method of teaching and reinforcing morality to yourself and your family.
A meiseh (story) about a shtetl (small town) in Russian Poland in the old days. One fellow, Leybovitch, who used to attend minyan (prayer service) all the time, had a fight with another fellow over something that somebody said to somebody about another person who did something. Leybovitch left the shul in a huff and didn’t come back for a month! The rebbe and the minyan waited. Fortunately, they still had enough for the minyan, but after a month, the rebbe decided, “Dayeinu: genug is genug” (enough is enough).
He waited until one cold freezing, snowy morning, and the rebbe walked over to the house and shop of Leybovitch. “Shalom aleichem, Panye Leybovitch.” Surprised, the man responded, “Aleichem shalom, Rebbe.” Leybovitch was about to say something, when the rebbe held up his hand, and, eyeing the fire roaring in the fireplace on the side of the room in the hearth, the rebbe said, “It is cold outside, can I warm myself by your fire?” Surprised, Leybovitch pulled up to chairs and they sat and stared at the fire’s burning coals. Neither one said a word.
After a minute, the rebbe picked up the tongs hanging on the side of the hearth and picked out one of the glowing red-hot coals from the middle of the fire. He put in outside the fire, on the bricks that surrounded the outside of the front of the hearth. He put it down and sat back in his chair.
Leybovitch didn’t know what to do, so the two of them sat there, looking at the single burning coal on the bricks outside the hearth. At first, the coal still burned bright red with heat. After a while, the coal, now all by itself, began to dim, slowly turn black and then go out.
The rebbe turned to Leybovitch and said, “Please come back. We need you and you need us.” And he walked out.
To be a Jew, you need to be part of the community, and live a Jewish life. All by itself, a Jewish soul will flicker and fade out.
So my friends, my congregants, my people, my Jews. Please remember your old rebbe. Please forget the bad or stupid things that I did or said. That was not the real me that I want to be. If in the past I have offended you, or neglected you, or not done as well as I should have, please forgive me.
Please do remember the principles that I tried to teach:
-We Jews should take Torah seriously and not take Torah literally.
-2 Prayers don’t change things. Prayers change people, and people change things.
Wisnia’s corollary: To define God, add an ‘o’ and do Good.
-3 Jewish theology is Jewish sociology.
One last story: A young bucher (man) comes to his rebbe right before his Bar Mitzvah and says, “Rebbe, I have been praying all these years for God to make peace, and there are still wars. And I have been praying to God for all these years to feed the hungry, and there is still poverty and hunger. And I have been praying all these years for God to heal the sick, and there are still people who get sick and die. What is the point? Religion is useless and meaningless.”
The rebbe smiled and said, “Y’know, I too, have noticed this. There is still war and strife. People still go hungry, and there is still disease and pain all over the world. But let me ask you a question, my boy. While you were praying to God for world peace, did you go to anyone you might have wronged and ask forgiveness? Did you go to a new person or stranger and do a random act of kindness?”
“Well, not really,” said the kid. “I was asking God to do it.”
“And while you were praying,” said the rebbe, “did you work at the soup kitchen or donate money or food to help any people?”
“Well, not really,” said the kid. “I was asking God to do it.”
“And while you were praying,” said the rebbe, “did you go visit some sick people, or buy them medicine or help out at the hospital?”
“Well, not really,” said the kid. “I was asking God to do it.”
“Yes, my son. Let us ask God to do it, and then let us go do it ourselves. God has no hands, just ours!”
My favorite poem: Pronouns by Karle Wilson Baker. I learned it from my rabbi, Herbert Hendel, so many years ago. I still picture him on the bimah at Temple Shalom in Levittown, quoting this poem to us:
The Lord said,
But I shook my head,
Held my hands tight behind my back, and said,
The Lord Said,
But I looked upon them, grimy and all awry-
Myself in those twisted shapes? Ah, no!
Distastefully I turned my head away
The Lord said,
Richer by a hoard
Of years and tears
Looked in their eyes and found the heavy word
That bent my neck and bowed my head;
Like a shamed schoolboy then I mumbled low’
May God bless you with health and love. Shanah Tovah.