Why Jews are like Vampires
Rosh Hashanah 5770 Sermon
So I am talking with my young friend Hannah Elzer, who is having her Bat Mitzvah in a few weeks. And we’re talking about her big day, Judaism, being Bat Mitzvah. And Hannah, like most 12 to 15 year old human girls, doesn’t really want to be 12-15 years old. And for that matter she would rather not even be human.
Let me explain that. It’s not that teenagers are like some non-human species, though it seems that way to us parents. No it’s that most teenagers today would really rather be vampires. And if not vampires themselves, at least dating a vampire.
Yes, it is undeniable that teenagers, and judging by our viewing and reading habits, most adults, have gone vampire crazy the last couple of years.
The Twilight series and HBO’s True Blood are two of the most popular representatives of this genre, but there are literally dozens of bestselling books, other television shows and movies coming soon, or in development.
Its not like vampires have ever gone away. There never seems to be a period when they weren’t around, there was their nemesis Buffy just a few years ago, Anne Rice’s Lestat and friends, a new incarnation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula nearly every decade.
And who can forget our friends Count Chocula, the Count on Sesame Street. But these last few years the vampires are everywhere and they are out every night, and even during the day, if they live up in cloudy parts of Washington State.
Vampires are beyond cool. Yes, Vampires have always been exotic and romantic, sometimes pitied, but always feared. But not anymore, not in their current phase. Now they are accepted, open about their lifestyle and highly sought after as love interests.
So nu, rabbi what does that have to do with us yiddin. You talked about Star Trek a couple of years ago, and now with the vampires.
But I bet some of you figured it out already. As I told my young friend Hannah, you and I, my fellow Jews, are vampires. Now don’t be scared, let me explain. Vampires since their introduction in gothic literature have always been non-Jewish fantasies on what Jews are. The most obvious aspect is that Jews were often seen as a dark exotic tribe feeding on the energy of the gentile populace. There were serious charges of blood libel, of using gentile blood for Passover matzah, that resulted in the real murder of Jews throughout the middle ages, and even as recently as 19th century Syria. Jews were often called “bloodsuckers” by their neighbors.
And further look at what weapons were used against the vampire, crosses and holy water. The imagined amulets that a Jew would be repelled by. And the vampires were destroyed by holy warriors like Van Helsing, doing the holy work of Christendom.
So the most amazing thing about this new gestation of vampirism, is that no longer secretly feared, the vampire is now openly loved. Edward Cullen and Bill Compton are to die for, quite literally. They are hot. Right ladies. And today the human characters in these tales willingly embrace and join the ranks of the tribe.
And doesn’t this mirror the state of being Jewish in 21st century America?
We are accepted, open about our lifestyle and highly sought after as love interests. Just look at the hundreds of thousands of converts, and those who haven’t formally converted, but who share this exotic and passionate ways currently. We live in a world where our gentile neighbors have finally realized that Judaism has something exciting to give back to the world. Which is why humans are feeding on vampires in True Blood. But these, friends, are only part of why I believe that we Jews are vampires, metaphorically speaking. Consistent throughout the lore, is that vampires, while they can be destroyed, are timeless beings.
Time does not have the same effect on them as it does for normal humans. Vampires can live for thousands of years and therefore have memories that stretch back through human history. And this, is the greatest lesson we should be reminded of by our nocturnal substitutes. We Jews are a timeless people, who have witnessed every era, and we have a collective memory that recalls the beginnings of the universe.
Today, on Rosh Hashanah, we sanctify time at the beginning of a new year, as we affirm our ancient history and we reclaim that we are the keepers of those sacred memories. This unique relationship we Jews have with time is such an important quality of our essence. As an eternal community, for us time is both completely meaningless and essentially meaningful.
An ancient people we have no doubt helped shape history, but for a good part of human existence, ironically, history as a study was completely ignored by Jews. That is to say, we didn’t operate in an historical framework. Jews always wrote lots of books, but we didn’t write history books. Dates and dynasties were largely irrelevant. Time periods were not the focal point in our lives, largely because we often were on the move, and the relationship between time and occupying a space is crucial. If you have a homeland these historical milestones are important.
And to some extent in galut, being in exile, time stood still.
Another factor to the meaninglessness of time, or at least history, is that for us, we view the world through the lens of Torah. And Torah, sees through time with no filter. We never saw Abraham as a man who lived 4000 years ago, or 4200 years ago. It was irrelevant. Abraham was our ancestor, and that was all that mattered. And every time his story is told its like he just lived. Open any page of Talmud and you understand Jewish immortality. Here is the Mishna, edited in 200 CE by Yehuda HaNasi in Israel, and here is Gemara, published in 500 CE in Babylonia, and here is Rashi from 11th Century France and the Tosafists, his grandchildren, 12th & 13th Century France and Germany; and from the other side of the world, Alfasi in 11th Century Morocco, Rambam, 12th Century Egypt, Yoseph Karo, 16th Century, Eretz Yisrael, the Vilna Gaon, 18th Century Lithuania.
All debate how the ethics and teachings of the Torah find their way into life, about the meaning and purpose of life. And to read them is for you to join the conversation, in the 21st century.
Rabbi David Hartman, tells a story. When he was a boy in Yeshiva, they came around collecting money for a celebration of the 750th Yartzeit of the Rambam. He looked up from his text, and said, “He’s dead? How can he be dead, we were arguing just this morning!”
The Torah, in its broadest sense, works as a time machine, not carrying us to different periods, like it does in the movies, but collapsing time down on itself so that we grasp the eternal truths that are affirmed in every generation. As we exist in this timeless framework we are not bound by constraints of historicity, it has no relevance. We don’t see years, through the prism of Torah. But that doesn’t mean that time is completely useless. On the contrary, as Jews time is also inherently meaningful.
According to Abraham Joshua Heschel, “Judaism is a religion of time, aiming at the sanctification of time… the Bible senses the diversified character of time. There are no two hours alike. Every hour is unique and the only one given at the moment, exclusive and endlessly precious. Judaism teaches us to be attached to the holiness in time, to be attached to sacred events.”
Most of what we do as Jews, is based not on things, but on time, time of the day, time of the week, month, year. We mark days for remembrance. Shabbat is our weekly affirmation of time. We sanctify the day, make it holy. We literally elevate Shabbat by our refusal to compromise this day as a normal day. And through its sanctity we enhance our lives, especially the other six days of the week by the kedushah of Shabbat. This is not a minor characteristic in Judaism. Think about it, the concept of sanctifying not space, not an object, but time itself. This is a radical idea. Every holy day, especially Rosh Hashanah, is making time special. Kedushat ha yom.
We have to make everyday special, because time isn’t lived in just big moments. Like the movie click, where Adam Sandler has a magic remote controller that skips all the mundane, and goes straight to the highlights. A TIVO of life. What he realizes though is that by missing the majority of time, he has indeed lived a life without meaning. He learns the hard way that life cant be condensed to magic moments.
For a long time, the myth was called “Quality Time.” As long as the time you spent together was really good time, it didn’t matter how much time you spent. But it’s a myth. What if you feed a child 100 calories a day, but really quality calories. What would happen? Your child will starve. And that’s what happens when parents impose a strict diet of quality time on children. Children starve, for love, for attention, for limits, for guidance. They starve.
My guess that today that there are a few us who have come to spend some quality time with G-d. The high holidays become a magic moment, or at least with the expectation that we will have a bright epiphany in one short conversation with G-d today. And so many of us will be disappointed. Prayer doesn’t work that way. It is an ongoing daily conversation with G-d. And like any relationship, the conversation shouldn’t be once or twice a year. We like to think that we can plan these special moments. That we can control the magnitude of time into a big crescendo that happens according to our desire.
We understood this quite clearly this past year as we celebrated Rachel’s Bat Mitzvah. It is one of those special events. We plan for with expectation that day when our child will be transformed magically into an adult. It doesn’t happen that way. But what does happen, at least as a parent, is that you have reached a milestone, one from which you can measure the years. Feel a sense of accomplishment. Feel a sense of how old you are. What you really feel is the accumulated gratification and appreciation of the passage of time. You have heard me speak before about the need to live in the present. I repeat it now again now because it takes work, conscious thought to focus on the blessing of the moment.
It’s difficult not to procrastinate, And it seems natural to want to inhabit some future that will be. But even if the present is the hardest tense to inhabit, it’s the only one we really do. The past is history. The future a dream. The present is here and now. Rosh Hashanah reminds us of the importance of today. Because while we hope for another year, we know that we have to make this day count.
Last night, we said the schehecheyanu, thanking God for helping us reach this day. And any day can be special, has the potential for us to say a schecheyanu. When we try something new, eat a new food for the first of a season, or even wear a garment for the first time. Today this moment, this new opening, the opening of a new year. And that is what gives these days such energy.
We ask ourselves today: Where am I now in this world? What am I going to do now? How can I make a difference today? I say that if you know you love someone, tell them now. If you need to apologize to someone, don’t wait. If there is someone out there waiting to hear a kind word from you, tell them on this day. TODAY. Yesterday is gone— gone forever. Tomorrow may come, but we have no guarantee that we will be here when it does. In order to truly appreciate time, we have to be able present in the moment. We pray for a year of life, but the Machzor talks about a day.
The Machzor is 2000 years old, but the only day it really knows is this day. And that is why today’s service ends with this one key word, repeated over and over and over again: Hayom, Hayom, Hayom…. Today. Hayom, This is our time, ancient brothers and sisters.
Children of the night. As we begin a new year of life—let us commit ourselves to use our time wisely and let us use it well. The time is gone, the song is over, KThought I’d something more to say. Lishana tova tikateyvu. May this be a good and a blessed new year for all of us, and for all those whom we love.