Words

Words. We grasp for words. What words can be found to express what has happened? What words can be found to express the meaning of what is happening? Words fail us.

In the beginning the Holy One fashioned a tool for the creation of the world. And that tool was words. “Baruch SheAmar V’Hayah HaOlam – Blessed is the One who spoke and the world came to be.”

Of all that God could have employed to bring the world into being, God chose words. And having formed and shaped our world, in the last act of Creation, the Holy One gave that tool to us. By giving us words, God made us holy, a little lower than the angels, a partner to complete the work of creation.

From the beginning we knew not what we were given. We first used language to come together to build a tower at Babel. Instead of using words to become all we could be as human beings, we sought instead to use words to try to overthrow the Holy One. And so God confounded our language, and scattered us over the face of the globe.

We speak so many different languages. And in each of those languages are different dialects. Language is how we express who we are, what we believe, what we feel and experience. All language is interpretation. Words express what we think we know and what we choose to believe.

Words carry the power of Creation. And the words we utter have the power to transform our world. Words can inspire and motivate. Words can hurt and denigrate. Words can unite hearts in love and understanding. Words can divide in hatred and fear.

Words can bring about death and destruction. Words can bring healing and peace.

We were given such a powerful tool – and we are so careless in how we use it.

We write and speak without thinking. We compose messages for immediate gratification without considering their long-term impact. We deal in calumny and half-truths, we channel conspiracy theories and cheap lies. We turn language into profanity, for we employ it solely for our selfish, gluttonous craving for power.

God used the power of words to create the world. And we are using the power of words to destroy it.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. Just as every time we open our mouths we can choose what comes out, so can we decide, today, that we will use the holy power of words for good.

We can choose to stop using language that insults, demeans, and divides, and instead use language that elevates, uplifts, and heals.

We can choose to stop using language that hides and confuses and twists the truth, and instead use language that clarifies, that illuminates, and that is honest.

We can choose to stop using language that enrages and riles us to hatred, and instead use language that soothes and inspires us to love.

It is time. It is well past time. It is far past the time to be more humane in our language. It far past the time for us to be more humane.

Dear God, don’t let words fail us now. Put the words in our mouths and our hearts that we may do what we must to redeem our hate-filled and broken world. Give us the courage to say what You need us to hear. Give us the wisdom to know when we should say nothing at all.

May God shelter the souls of those slaughtered this Shabbat. May God comfort those who have been made to suffer from the hand of wickedness.

May God help us to find the words to repair the brokenness, and teach us how to speak a message of consolation. May God inspire us to compose the words of a new song – a song of love, of holiness, and peace.

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Sermon for Yom Kippur 5779: So What’s Your Generation Going To Do?

It was Valentine’s Day.  I had started my day early – I wanted to take my daughter Ellie for breakfast before school so we could share a heart-shaped bagel at Einstein’s.  In the afternoon I was signing the card I had bought for my wife Aimee when our youth director came into my office: “There’s been a shooting at Stoneman-Douglas.”

I felt the blood drain from my face as I became awash in fear.  The sense of dread compounded as the news reports came in.  First three, then more, then the fateful number 17.  Seventeen fatalities – with so many more injured.  Fourteen students and three faculty.

The agony of the funerals was beyond description. The lament for young life lost – homes shattered, dreams pulverized. Day after day, thousands poured into churches and synagogues to honor the lives that were robbed, to imagine what these children and servants of children might have accomplished, contributed, shared and experienced in their lives.

The next day, David Hogg, who spent hours locked in a closet interviewing his fellow students, said in an interview: “We’re children. You guys are the adults,” he said. “You need to take some action and play a role. Work together, come over your politics and get something done.”

A group of seventeen of our high school students asked that we take them to Tallahassee to meet with their elected representatives.  Carly Schwamm, our former BOFTY president and regional NFTY-STR president spent her eighteenth birthday on the eight-hour bus ride to Tallahassee.  They met with Florida Senate President Joe Negron, and asked why Florida could not ban assault weapons. When he told them he thought the issue was more about the assailant than the weapon, they politely asked: “Well isn’t it both?  Florida already bans certain kinds of guns.  Why not ban the AR-15 too?”  Could we change the law to allow police to confiscate weapons from people deemed to be a danger to themselves or others?

Within seven weeks of the massacre, the Florida legislature passed the first gun safety legislation in more than two decades, and the student-organized March For Our Lives gathered more than 1 million people in 800 cities in America and around the world, including over 200,000 people who braved the cold in Washington, DC.

Again and again, I heard the same sentiments from my friends and peers.  “Thank God for those young people.”  “They are going to change the world.”

And I was ashamed.  Deeply, deeply ashamed.  And I am still ashamed.  How dare we!  How dare we turn to our children and ask them to repair the world for us!  It is not their responsibility – it is ours.  It was our job to give them a world in which we protect the vulnerable and the weak and guarantee safety, security and peace for all, a world in which we treat each other with kindness, compassion, and respect, a world in which we ensure justice and fairness and dignity no matter who you are or where you came from, a world in which together we grow in knowledge and wisdom, a world that is laden with opportunities to rise as high as you might dare. And we are failing.

In our Torah portion for tomorrow/today, we begin at the end of the book of Deuteronomy:  “Atem Nitzavim Hayom Kulchem Lifnei Adonai Eloheichem – you are standing here today – all of you – before Adonai your God – your tribal heads, officials and elders, all the men of Israel, your children, your women, your stranger in your settlements, from the one who chops your wood to the one who draws your water.” (Deuteronomy 29:9-10)  All are gathered as one to enter into an eternal covenant with God.

A covenant is a statement of mutual commitment.  The text reads: your officials, your elders, your children” because they belong to us: we are mutually responsible for each other. I for you and you for me. God is responsible for guiding us along life’s journey and to show us the way to holiness.  We are responsible for following that guidance in accord with God’s commandments, and so to fashion a world and ourselves as holy.

But then Moses tells us something peculiar.  “I make this covenant … not with you alone, with those who are standing here with us this day before the Eternal our God, but also with those who are NOT with us here this day. (Deuteronomy 29:13-14).  Who were those who were not standing there?  Ibn Ezra teaches it was those who will “one day follow after us.”

We who live today are part of that eternal agreement between us and God, but that circle of responsibility extends beyond to our immediate selves to those who will come after us.  It is our responsibility not simply to create the world in which we want to live, but it is our responsibility to fashion the world we ought to give to our children.

I was born in 1969 – and when I think of what was given to me I am in awe.  I had the privilege of attending outstanding public schools where I was offered the opportunity to play sports, to learn a musical instrument, and to pursue nearly any interest I could imagine.  I grew up in a place where my parents could choose from a variety of vibrant synagogues with a dynamic Jewish Community Center a short bike-ride from the house.  I grew up in a neighborhood where my parents never installed a dead-bolt on the door, where we biked and wandered all over the place, in which new immigrants and old Americans, blacks and whites, Jews and gentiles ate at the same lunch tables, played on the same teams and in the same bands, and enjoyed close and meaningful friendships.  I grew up with the freedom to say what I wanted to say, to print what I wanted to print, to practice my religion as my family and I chose, and with opportunity to work to become anything I might have wanted to be.

The life I inherited was given to me by the conscious sacrifice of generations before me. In Tom Brokaw’s famous book The Greatest Generation, he reflects with awe on what they accomplished.  Collectively as a generation, having weathered the economic despair of the Great Depression, they left “to help save the world from the two most powerful and ruthless military machines ever assembled.”

“When the war was over they transformed industry, science, art, public policy … and built the most powerful peacetime economy in history. They helped their former enemies rebuild and they stood fast against the totalitarianism of their former allies.  Having strayed into McCarthyism and xenophobia, they turned toward decency and realized that America had to live up to its ideals that all are created equal, black and white, man or woman, Jew or gentile.[1]

Twenty years ago, I attended a talk by Israeli thinker Jonny Ariel.  In the aftermath of the Second World War, he said, the Jewish people faced four extraordinary challenges.  First, they had to secure the newly born State of Israel.  Second, they had to memorialize the Holocaust.  Third, they had to free those Jews trapped in exile in dangerous foreign lands.  And fourth, they had to marginalize the pernicious evil of anti-Semitism.  Had they accomplished one of these challenges it would have been incredible.  Two, extraordinary.  Three, unbelievable.  Four, impossible.  But what is so amazing is … they did all four.

The State of Israel today is a marvel of what can be achieved in a developing country.  From the fragile state born from war into war, the State of Israel now boasts the most powerful military in the Middle East.  From a state which only knew light manufacturing and farming has grown a technological marvel toward which the world looks for advances in high-tech engineering, science, agriculture, architecture, and medicine.

Today, nearly every major university in the United States and Europe offers courses in studies of the Holocaust, and hundreds of museums and memorials to preserve the memory of the Shoah can be found in thirty-six different countries around the world.

The millions of Jews who were trapped in the former Soviet Union are free to live where they choose, in Israel, America, and throughout the world.  Israel has embraced Jews exiled from North Africa, Iraq, Iran, South Asia, Europe, Arabia, and Ethiopia.  And despite the recent surge in anti-Semitism, it has never been safer to be a Jew in the world than it is today.

And then he looked at us and took a moment of silence.  And then he asked, “So what’s your generation going to do?”

It is the question that pierces us this day. Given the precious and holy gifts that so many sacrificed so much to give us, what are we going to do?  What will they say of our generation?  When our children and grandchildren write the history of our time, what will they write about what we chose to accomplish?  What do you want to give them?  What do you want them to say?

We can choose how we want to answer this question.  We stand here this day – all of us – before Adonai our God. God places us before us this day a choice – life and death, blessing and curse.  By what each of us individually and collectively chooses to write in the Book of Life, we choose, in turn, what they will write about us.

When they write the story of our generation, I want them to say that we built for our children a world where we turned away from cynicism and greed and instead championed decency and the common good.  I want to build for our children a world where we recognize the truth in Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s admonition that “silence in the face of evil is itself evil. God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.”  I want to build for our children a sense of inner strength borne from knowing what they know to be morally right and good, and from that strength not to be afraid to listen to someone who might beg to disagree.

I want to give our children a government that is focused on serving the common interest and not wringing from it every ounce of partisan advantage or personal gain. I want our generation to render fact-checkers irrelevant because we championed journalistic integrity and because we elected leaders who unfailingly and without exception, simply told the truth.

I want our generation to be the one that ensured the excellence of our public schools, where children don’t have to fear for their safety, where their teachers are paid a living wage, and where they don’t have to graduate from college with thousands of dollars in high-interest debt.  I want it said of our generation that we offered safe harbor and refuge to men, women, and children fleeing the most desperate plights on the planet, and that everyone for whom America is the only home they have ever known will never need to wonder if they will have to find another.

We have been given an incredible gift – a religious tradition of extraordinary richness and depth, of text and law and lore – a ritual framework for constructing a life of meaning and which commands us to build a society that is based on the pursuit of the moral good.  The wisdom to be found in the practice of Jewish life and in the study of Torah and tradition is overwhelming in its power to make for a better life for us and a better world for our children.

I want to give our children a world where we as Jews embrace a passion for Jewish life.  I want ours to be the generation that teaches our children to treasure the gift of Torah and to harness its profound spiritual and ethical wisdom so that we, and they, will be experts in moral decision-making.  I want to give our children a world where we model a commitment to community and peoplehood – where we join synagogues, give enough tzedakah that we need to budget for it, where we support and visit the State of Israel, where we push ourselves to grow in Jewish learning and spirituality, and where we insist on Jewish education for years and years after the last Bar/Bat Mitzvah thank-you note has been written.

This is what I want our generation to be.  This is what collectively we should be fighting for.  This is what our covenant demands we build for ourselves and pass on to our children.  The world we inherited was constructed by the choices of those who built it. And all their sacrifice will be for naught if we do not fight to secure what they have given us, and if we do not build on the foundation they laid.

Conservative commentator Jonah Goldberg writes that “the only victory worth fighting for – because it is the only victory that is achievable – is to hand off this civilization to the next generation and to equip that generation to carry on the fight …”

“When the gravitational hand of nature reclaims objects from the heavens, the term for that in physics is ‘orbital decay’. So it is with our civilization.  Give up fighting for it, … abandon our principles for any reason – selfishness, sloth, forgetfulness, ambition, ingratitude, whatever – and you choose to give in to decay.  Decline is a choice.”[2]  And that is a choice each of us, no matter our age, must never be willing to make.

Sometimes the task seems overwhelming.  But one person can make a difference.  The Talmud teaches us: Lo Alecha HaMelacha Ligmor V’Lo Ata Ben Chorin L’Hibatel Mimena – you are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are we free to desist from it.[3]

Rabbi Israel Salanter wrote: “When I was a young man, I wanted to change the world. But I found it was difficult to change the world, so I tried to change my country. When I found I couldn’t change my country, I began to focus on my town. However, I discovered that I couldn’t change the town, and so as I grew older, I tried to change my family. Now as an old man, I realize the only thing I can change is myself … But I’ve come to recognize that if long ago I had started with myself, then I could have made an impact on my family. And, my family and I could have made an impact on our town. And that, in turn, could have changed the country, and we could all indeed have changed the world.”

Emma Gonzalez, the outspoken young woman who, as a senior at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas helped galvanize support for the March For Our Lives looked at our generation and said: “It’s like they’re saying, I’m sorry I made this mess while continuing to spill soda on the floor.”

To Emma and her generation, my children, and to the families of those massacred and maimed at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School, on this Day of Atonement, I say: I have sinned against you. I admit my failure. I ask your forgiveness.  I promise to do what I can to stop adding to the mess we are giving you and to work as hard as I can to clean it up.  And while today I cannot give you the world we ought to be giving you, I can promise that I will never stop fighting with you so that the world you give your children is the world they deserve, a world that is true to the covenant we share with each other, and is true to the covenant we all share with God.

[1] Tom Brokaw, The Greatest Generation. New York: Random House, 1998, pp. xxvii-xxix.

[2] Jonah Goldberg, Suicide of the West. New York: Crown Forum, 2018, pp. 350-351.

[3] Pirke Avot 2:16

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Sermon For Rosh HaShanah Morning – “The Boundaries We Must Defend”

This past summer, my son Ari worked as a broadcaster for the Duluth Huskies – a minor-league baseball team.  There were lots of reasons to love the Huskies.  First, our beloved Rabbi Emeritus Merle Singer grew up in Duluth, and I’ve always had a soft spot through him for Minnesota.  Second, the team is part of a college development league, and it’s fun to watch these young talented players grow.  And … they did well!  When they made the playoffs, I flew to Minneapolis, rented a car, and drove seven hours to Bismarck, North Dakota to watch their first playoff game.  They won, so we drove another six hours to Willmar, Minnesota where they beat the Stingers too.  I flew home, and Ari jumped on the bus for the seven hour ride to Fond Du Lac, Wisconsin where they faced the Dock Spiders in the Championship series.

They split the first two games, and we anxiously listened to Ari and his partner Mitch call the final game.  It was a tight game, and I hung on every pitch.  I had become a really passionate Huskies fan.  In the later innings, the Huskies fell behind 4-3.  They had a chance to score, but one of the players made a base-running error and got a needless out.  I was SO angry!  I pounded my fist on the table in frustration – my daughters looked at me like I had lost my mind.  They lost the game and I was crushed.

It’s amazing to see how passionate we get for sports teams. They become like family.  We exult when they win, and anguish when they lose.  They evoke deep connections – the city where we grew up, the school we attended, the place we make our home. They represent the tribes to which we belong.

From the very beginning of time, human life and experience was tribal.  Before the dawn of civilization, for thousands of years humanity roamed the land as tribes, working together to eke out an existence.  We learned that if you pull down the branch I can pull off the fruit and we can share the food together.  We learned that if we surround an animal we will be more successful at the hunt and can share in the meal.[1]

As tribes evolved, they began to create symbolic markers to rally group membership. We embraced physical markings, we made standards and flags, we invented songs, we told and retold our stories.  Tribes make for the source of our identity.  They tell us who we are, where we come from, what matters to us, who we need to care about, and who we can trust.[2]

Jonathan Haidt in his monumental work: The Righteous Mind teaches that being part of a tribe makes you feel bigger.  You are not simply one lonely individual but you are part of a group and that group makes you larger. Because other people depend on you, you develop a sense of importance.  Because what you contribute to the group matters, you have a purpose.  Because other people care about you, you are loved.  A veteran of World War II spoke about his experience this way.

Many veterans who are honest with themselves will admit, I believe, that the experience of communal effort in battle … has been the high point of their lives … Their “I” passes insensibly into a “we,” “my” becomes “our,” and individual fate loses its central importance…  I believe that it is nothing less than the assurance of immortality that makes self-sacrifice at these moments so relatively easy … I may fall, but I do not die, for that which is real in me goes forward and lives on in the comrades for whom I gave up my life.[3]

Tomorrow is September 11 – a date that has taken on so much resonant meaning. Seventeen years ago, our nation was attacked in dramatic and vicious fashion, killing nearly 3000 people and injuring more than 6000.  In the aftermath of that attack, we felt an inexorable need to come together.  We called everyone we knew to make sure those closest to us were okay.  We came together in civic gatherings and in synagogue to pray and remember.  We flew our flags on our homes, on our cars, and on ourselves.  We sang national hymns at school and at baseball games.  Thousands joined the military.  Peoples from around the world expressed their care and concern.

Our congregation began the tradition of leaving empty chairs on our bima, draped in the American and Israeli flag. This tradition was formed to remind us that there were those from our people who were spending holy time in harm’s way, to defend and protect the United States of America and the State of Israel.  Even though we who are sitting here are not serving in harm’s way, we care for those who are.  Like a tribe or a sports team, we may not be on the field of battle or play, but we are fully invested – their success is our success, their loss is our loss, their pain is our pain.  Because we share a kinship, be it a fan-base or nationality, they sacrifice for us.  And in turn we honor them because it is for us that they sacrifice.

As Jews part of the power of this ritual of the New Year derives from coming together as a community to reconnect to each other, to our ancestry, to our people and our tradition.  There is a reason that coming together is so powerful.  It is because God is found in that web of relation.  God is found when we come together as one.

In the Book of Exodus, the people of Israel gather together at Mt. Sinai.  The Torah teaches that “A mixed-multitude went up out of Egypt” (Exodus 12:38).  When they lacked for food and water, they turned on each other and on Moses their leader, but now, they came to Mt. Sinai and it was there that God chose to commune with them.  The Torah teaches that the people made camp at the mountain, using the singular verb VaYichan to show the unity they had fashioned.  When Moses gives them instructions, they all answer together as one.  By becoming one with each other, they were able to be one with God as well.

So, if the way we draw nearer to God is to be more one with each other, then perhaps the goal is to erase the tribal divisions we create for ourselves?

That is the goal that novelist Michael Chabon proposed earlier this year in his controversial graduation address at the Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles. Chabon finds the idea of barriers repugnant: “I abhor homogeneity and insularity, exclusion and segregation, the redlining of neighborhoods, the erection of border walls and separation barriers. I am for mongrels and hybrids and creoles, for syncretism and confluence, for jazz and Afrobeat and Thai surf music, for integrated neighborhoods and open borders.”[4] He explains that boundaries and borders are what separates people.  The purpose of walls is to define those on the opposite side as “Other.”  To Chabon, there is no difference between a wall to imprison and a wall to protect. “Security for some,” he said, “means imprisonment for all.”[5]

In some ways, I understand his criticism.  Our country and our world are growing ever more tribal.  The natural impulse to associate with people who are like us and to define everyone else as “other” is growing.  Over the last several decades, Bill Bishop writes in his book The Big Sort that Americans have migrated, moved, and organized themselves into ever more homogeneous groups. College-educated whites move to different cities than the non-college educated.  Different ethnic groups sort into communities where people like them live. Gay individuals and couples move to certain zip codes. More and more our kids go to schools with kids who are mostly just like them, and we congregate with people who are mostly just like us.[6]

Meanwhile, he writes, national institutions have splintered.  “In this new world, there will be greater differences nationally among communities but fewer differences within the smaller groups … missing will be any sense of the whole…. We have created, and are creating, new institutions distinguished by their isolation and single-mindedness.”[7]

Jonah Goldberg writes that “For most of human history, meaning was confined to a very small zone: “us.” Us could be a tribe, a faith, a city-state, or denizens of a specific class.  The rules for us were different from the rules for them, and there was nothing wrong with using force … to arbitrarily enforce the rules in your favor.”  When all of your identity is bound up in a single group or cause, your concern for institutions and people outside your group diminishes or vanishes.”[8]  In essence, your total concern is for your tribe, and everyone else becomes your enemy.

This sense of obsessive self-concern is spreading.  A young woman lamented to me this summer that on her college campus, the drama group she loves has become so preoccupied with promoting identities of color that her own identity as Jewish woman is demeaned and ignored. Campus speech codes and intolerance have rendered her voice meaningless. At a political rally, two men proudly showed off their T-shirts which read: “I would rather be Russian than a Democrat.”  As Israel too becomes more tribal, the deputy mayor of Jerusalem pronounced that Reform leaders and other “quarrel-mongers [should] examine themselves” after a stone spontaneously fell from the Western Wall onto the egalitarian prayer platform.  The President of Israel, after the passage of the Nation-State law, declared: “This law is part of a broader trend, a global one perhaps, that … strives for a reality in which there are two options: Either you are with me, or you are against me. Either you are with me, or you are a traitor, an enemy.”

So maybe Chabon is right. Maybe the key to building a better world is to eradicate boundaries and erase difference, to embrace a radical universalism that says all things are one.

But what Chabon misses is that boundaries and borders matter.  There is enormous value in one’s distinctiveness, and in distinguishing difference.

The Torah begins by describing the world as Tohu VaVohu – messed up and mixed up.  God begins the work of creation by bringing a sense of order to that chaos.  And to do that God needed to make separations, borders, and boundaries.  God separated light from darkness and day from night.  God separated the sky from the earth and land from sea.

But then God made other distinctions.  Humanity was not like other creatures – we were created differently, in God’s image, and with that power and privilege came responsibility and duty.  Not only were we given the earth to conquer and subdue, but also to till and to tend.

God also made distinctions in time – six days are for work, but the seventh day is for holiness.

But then, the Torah introduces us to Abraham and Sarah, the father and mother of a very particular people.  That particular people is asked to make a particular covenant and to become a tribe.  But that tribe is not created simply for tribal sake.  That tribe is created to introduce the world to an idea – and that idea is the pursuit of holiness in human life.  From Abraham and Sarah comes Isaac and Rebecca; and from them come Jacob and Leah and Rachel, and from them come twelve separate tribes.

It is those tribes that God brought together at Mount Sinai.  It is those tribes, separate and distinct, that God sought to fashion into one nation.  God brought those tribes together at that mountain to fashion a nation where moral truths and ethical concerns were more important than tribe.

This is the essence of what makes us Jewish.  As a tribe we celebrate our distinctive culture.  We celebrate holidays with our special foods, we sing our special songs, we don our special garments, we tell our people’s stories.  We welcome children into life with rituals that celebrate their entrance into peoplehood and covenant. We celebrate their coming of age by making sure they can tell and interpret our stories; we wed in accordance with custom and tradition, and look to that tradition in moments of anguish and loss. What makes Judaism so valuable is that it is tribal but not simply for the sake of tribe.  What makes Judaism so valuable is that every facet of its particularity is for a purpose; our ritual, cultural, and textual tradition all serve to fashion a world of holiness in which tribes can dwell together as one.

Elli Fischer responds to Chabon by reminding us of a Mishna in tractate Bava Batra of a beekeeper and a mustard farmer who must keep the bees and plants away from each other.[9] “Honey mustard,” he writes, “is a great flavor, but if you turn the bees loose on the mustard plant you ruin both, because they have to develop independently with their own integrity. Chabon forgets that ‘mashups, pastiche and collage’ require difference.”[10]

We are Americans and we are Jews.  Our identities are formed from what we learn from multiple allegiances to sacred institutions.  We feel a belonging to many tribes. We are loyal to Torah and loyal to the constitution. We are loyal to honor codes of teams and bands and orchestras and studios and schools and neighborhood covenants.  It is these multiple loyalties that remind us that opponents are not enemies.[11]  A football team can fight with all its might to win a game, but they play within the rules and when its over, win or lose, you walk across the field to greet and congratulate your opponent – and in some cases take a knee and pray together.

But among all our allegiances there are principles we all share.  As Americans and Jews we believe and teach that human life is of ultimate value.  If we allow someone to take another person’s life or to trample the dignity of another person’s life our society becomes profane.  We believe in love and that care and compassion are of ultimate value.  If we allow people to act callously toward each other, or to take advantage of those who are weak or vulnerable, our society becomes profane.  We believe that justice and fairness are of ultimate value.  If we allow people to cheat and lie and steal, if we do not apply the law equally, if we allow people in positions of power to take advantage at the expense of those with less, our society becomes profane.

These are the borders and boundaries we must defend.  These are the moral principles we must champion and from which we cannot waver.  These principles, lie at the core of who we are as a people. They come from our tribe but are more important than tribe.  It is to these principles, and not simply to our tribe, that we must pledge our fidelity.

The sounding of the Shofar is a tribal call. It is sounded from the bima, from the top of city walls, the Temple mount, and from Mount Sinai itself. It is our sound – a distinctly Jewish sound.  In some fashion the sounding of the shofar today calls us to return to our tribal roots, its echo reverberates today throughout the entirety of the Jewish world.  But the Shofar must call us to something larger than our trial selves or our identity as Jews.

In ancient times the Shofar called us to defend our walls.  In our time, the Shofar calls us to defend different walls.

The shofar does not call us to embrace chauvinistic pride but instead to celebrate the boundaries that define what is right and good and holy.  We must stand at the boundary of decency, honesty, integrity, kindness and compassion and say these are the borders we will not allow to be breached.  We must stand at the border and banish hatred and greed, oppression and violence, poverty and hunger from our realm.

At Mount Sinai, as we gathered, a mixed multitude of different tribes bound together as one community, Moses admonished the people to set boundaries around them, to keep everyone together as one.  And when the Shofar sounded God told us what a holy society is to look like.  It is to that call that we must return, to fortify the walls of holiness for our people and peoples everywhere.

[1] Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind. New York: Pantheon Books, 2012, p. 203.

[2] Ibid., p. 210.

[3] Ibid., p. 222.

[4] “Those People, Over There” by Michael Chabon. Graudation address at HUC-JIR Los Angeles – May 13, 2018.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Bill Bishop, The Big Sort. Boston: Mariner Books, 2008, pp. 7-8.

[7] Ibid., p. 302.

[8] Jonah Goldberg, Suicide of the West. New York: Crown Forum, 2018, pp. 60-62.

[9] Talmud Bava Batra 25a

[10] “Michael Chabon’s Sacred and Profane Cliché Machine”, by Elli Fischer in Jewish Review of Books, June 13, 2018

[11] Op. Cit. Goldberg, p. 62.

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Sermon for Rosh HaShanah Evening 5779 – “Time Is A Terrible Thing To Waste…”

In my senior year of college, toward the end of January, I was sitting in my room looking down at a pile of papers. On the top was the application for the Wexner Graduate Fellowship. A professor had recommended that I look into the Fellowship: “I think they have some money,” he had said.

He was right. The Fellowship would pay my full tuition, pay me a generous living stipend, cover my health-care expenses, and provide me with an extraordinary program of leadership training. I had written away for the materials, and, like so many important things, I put it on the pile next to my desk.

I looked at the application again. It was Thursday. The application was due the following Wednesday. I had less than a week. So I called: “I was wondering if I could have an extension on the application?” “Sorry … no you can’t,” came the reply.

So – I went to work. I called one of my professors: “Would you be willing to write me a letter for that fellowship?” “It would be my pleasure,” he said. “Would you be willing to Fed-Ex it?” I asked timidly. “It’s due Wednesday.” I cancelled my weekend plans and buried myself in front of the computer to complete the required essays and then I saw the last piece.

I needed to submit the application in triplicate – with passport photos. It was Sunday afternoon. The only place that did passport photos in Hamilton, New York was the bike shop. I called – “Bob’s out fishing,” came the reply. “When’s he getting back?” I asked. Thankfully, Bob opened the shop for me at 10:00 p.m. and I was able to Fed-Ex my application out the next day.

Jewish tradition teaches that to truly perform Teshuva you have to admit your failings out loud. So, I will say it here with you: I procrastinate. It’s gotten better over the years, but it’s still a terrible vice. I procrastinated on working on that application until the last minute. It inconvenienced my teachers, who had to produce recommendations at the last minute. My friends were mad I cancelled on them. And had Bob been out fishing for one more day, I would have missed the deadline.

Thankfully, I got a call in May early on a Friday morning that I had been selected for the Fellowship. I was up – I had just pulled an all-nighter finishing my thesis.

When I told my family I was going to talk about procrastination on Rosh HaShanah, I got a lot of the predictable jokes. “Written your sermon on procrastination yet?” Haha. But procrastination is a really serious problem. Procrastination increases our stress, jeopardizes our capacity for success, and inconveniences the lives of those around us. Procrastination is the most potent form of self-sabotage that keeps us from living the lives we want, the lives we ought to live.

Why do we procrastinate? For most of us, procrastination is simple. There is something we know we have to do, but we really don’t want to do it. Ask any student with homework to do why they are sitting watching television or playing video games and they will tell you – I hate homework. It’s not fun. It’s boring. We put off the things we don’t want to do, even though we know we need to get them done. Who wants to clean out a closet? Who wants to do their tax forms? It’s fine. It can wait. It’s not urgent. It will get done … eventually. Come on – no one’s going to die.

But sometimes it’s bigger than that. Dr. Jane Burka and Dr. Lenora Yuen in their studies of procrastination found that one of the major reasons people procrastinate is fear. Primary among those fears is a fear of failure. “Many people who procrastinate,” Burka and Yuen write, “are apprehensive about being judged by others or by the critic who dwells within.” Deep down, we worry: what if I do my best, and it’s not enough? What if I’m not enough? Internally, so much is riding on what we accomplish that we can’t finish or even start a project – we literally become paralyzed with fear.

It’s worse for perfectionists. A perfectionist sets extremely high standards, sometimes impossibly high standards, and believes you can only be successful if you meet them. You become so concerned with making mistakes, or that your finished product won’t measure up to your expectations that you feel a sense of shame and disappointment in yourself. That fear of failure makes it so you cannot begin or see your way through to the end – you procrastinate.

We see this fear of failure everywhere. Someone decides they want to write a book, but can’t get past the first few pages because they think their writing stinks and that their ideas aren’t smart enough. Someone decides to start exercising, but gets quickly frustrated when they can’t perform at the level they did in high school. Someone decides to take up a hobby, but drops it when they can’t paint like Picasso or hit a golf ball like Tiger Woods.

A second reason people procrastinate ironically comes from a second kind of fear: a fear of success. How can you be afraid to succeed? Sometimes people fear being criticized for being ambitious. Other times people are afraid to compete for a promotion because if they win, someone loses, and you might hurt someone’s feelings, lose a friend, or people won’t like you. A woman was working in a terrible job in an abusive work environment, but kept putting off applying for a better job because she didn’t want to abandon her co-workers.

A third reason people procrastinate is a fear of losing control. No one likes being told what to do, so we put off what others expect or require so we can prove to ourselves that they can’t control us. We use procrastination like a weapon – “This is a ridiculous assignment! Why do we have to do it her way?” If my self-worth comes a sense of autonomy or independence, from feeling like I’m the master of my own destiny, then I procrastinate in order to resist letting someone else have control.

But no matter why we procrastinate, we suffer similar consequences. We miss deadlines and antagonize co-workers or partners or family members who were counting on us. We carry anxiety and dread knowing we are falling behind in our responsibilities and commitments. We feel lousy about ourselves because of the things we leave to the last minute or leave undone forever. And worse – we wasted time.

One of the greatest gifts Judaism gave to the world was the concept that time itself is sacred. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel taught: “Judaism is a religion of time aiming at the sanctification of time… There are no two hours alike. Every hour is unique … exclusive and endlessly precious.”

There is nothing holier or more precious than time. The Holy One has loaned us something incredibly holy and precious – the gift of life. The High Holy days remind us how incredibly fragile and fleeting is that gift. We are loaned something so precious – and when we procrastinate or waste time, we defile the holiness of that gift.

The consequences of wasting time can be catastrophic. We procrastinate too often at our work commitments and we lose a job. We procrastinate too often in our commitments to our families and we lose our marriages. We procrastinate too often in taking care of our well-being that we lose our health – or worse. We procrastinate too long in taking care of our world, and we may lose life as we know it.

Since the Industrial Revolution, the world has warmed more than one degree Celsius. The Paris Climate Accord from which the United States announced its intent to depart sought to limit warming to two degrees – the odds of its success is about five percent. Robert Watson, a former director of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, has argued that at this stage, three-degree warming is the realistic minimum. The overwhelming majority of climate scientists agree that will produce catastrophic consequences around the globe – the extinction of the world’s tropical reefs, sea-level rise of several meters, the loss of most coastal cities, the advance of desertification and severe weather disasters.

And as Nathaniel Rich has reported, “Nearly everything we understand about global warming was understood in 1979. By that year, data collected since 1957 confirmed what had been known since before the turn of the 20th century: Human beings have altered Earth’s atmosphere through the indiscriminate burning of fossil fuels.

In the late 1970s, the CIA and other governmental agencies formed a group of scientists called the Jasons to devise scientific solutions to national security problems. They began to study the effects of carbon dioxide on the earth’s atmosphere. “The Jasons’ report to the Department of Energy, titled ‘The Long-Term Impact of Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide on Climate,’ was written in an understated tone that only enhanced its nightmarish findings. Even a minimal warming “could lead to rapid melting” of the West Antarctic ice sheet. The ice sheet contained enough water to raise the level of the oceans 16 feet.”

In response, a lobbyist and organizer named Rafe Pomerance and a master geophysicist named Gordon MacDonald circled Washington and Capitol Hill to raise awareness among power-brokers and policy-makers. Over the ensuing decade, a growing consensus was built among scientists, leaders in the fossil fuel industry, politicians and policy-makers that something profound needed to be done on a global scale. In 1988, George H.W. Bush campaigned for president and took up the challenge. “Those who think we are powerless to do anything about the greenhouse effect,” he said, “are forgetting about the White House effect.”

But during that first year of his administration, the consensus around meaningful action toward lowering carbon emissions began to unravel. From inside and outside the administration came voices challenging the science, questioning the economic impacts, and looking to postpone an agreement. At an international conference convened in November 1981, in the end no agreement was reached to curb carbon emissions. And in the years since, we have continued to procrastinate, and now the world is beginning to see the horrific effects we have known were coming for forty years.

So why haven’t we acted? Because we’re collectively afraid. We’re afraid of changing our way of life, especially if it costs more. We’re afraid of inconvenience. We’re afraid of giving over control to the science and policy makers to change how we power our lives and transport ourselves, and policy makers in turn are afraid to ask us to change for fear of losing their positions and power. Fear is what leads to procrastination, but procrastination is what leads to self – destruction.

What if we could work this year to overcome our fears – to name them and acknowledge them, but not let them dictate how we live? What if we could realize that our self-worth is defined by our courage to face the challenges and opportunities of our time?

Tomorrow we will return to the central theme of our liturgy – Unetaneh Tokef Kedushat HaYom – Let us proclaim the sacred power of this day. In the midst of this day of reflection and judgment, we are reminded of how fragile is that precious gift of life. “Who shall live and who shall die; who shall see ripe age and who shall not…”

For everyone – there comes that day. One day, you will visit the doctor who will tell you, “You have …” One day you will find you can’t do what you used to do. You can’t remember as well as you once did. The abstract idea that life is short suddenly becomes very real.

We don’t want to arrive at that place and discover, as Henry David Thoreau feared: “that I had not lived.” We can, instead, live deliberately, and be more careful and conscious about how we make best use of the precious time allotted to us.

The Talmud relates a story: “Rabban Yoḥanan ben Zakkai said A king once invited his servants to a feast and did not set a time for them to come. The wise among them adorned themselves and sat at the entrance to the king’s house. They said: Is the king’s house missing anything necessary for the feast? Certainly the king could invite them at any moment. The fools among them went about their work and said: While the feast is being prepared, we will attend to other matters.

“Suddenly, the king requested that his servants come to the feast. The wise among them entered before him adorned in their finest clothes, and the fools entered before him unprepared. The king said: These wise servants who prepared themselves for the feast shall sit and eat and drink, but these fools who did not prepare will not participate.”
None of us knows what time is left to us. So we must endeavor to use our time most wisely. We need to stop putting off the choices we know we need to make, the tasks we know we need to fulfill. We need to make it known to our elected leaders that we demand they stop procrastinating and come together to confront the pressing issues of our time – the soaring national debt, our failing infrastructure, our broken immigration policies, and the challenge of greenhouse emissions, climate change, and sea rise.

In the Mishna in Pirke Avot, Rabbi Eliezer teaches us that we ought repent one day before our death. Since none of us knows when that day will come, we need to always be prepared. Like wise guests, we do not know when we will be summoned to the feast, so we need to live our lives ready to answer that call.

Rabbi Tarfon said: The day is short and the work is much, the workers feel sluggish, but the reward is great, and the Master of the House is pressing.

In this New Year, let us resolve to make best deliberate use of the precious gift of life we are so blessed to enjoy. It’s not easy. It’s scary. But if we can overcome our fears and face the challenge of this moment, then this moment can be truly blessed, our lives can be truly blessed, and our world can be truly blessed, for us, for our children and the generations to come.

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Almost Home

The last morning in Jerusalem – I awaken early. I’ve been doing that a lot in Jerusalem. The light is brighter here, and it floods the apartment. I leave the shades open at night so it will draw me into the day.

I lie in bed contemplating a run. I’ve been doing that a lot in Jerusalem. Some mornings I lace up my shoes and head out into the street. Other mornings I lie in bed and let my mind do the running. This morning I throw on the shoes and down the steps.

My route takes me down a familiar avenue to an intersection where the old Jerusalem rail line once descended from Jerusalem. The municipality has filled the old tracks to make a boardwalk and lined the area as a long public park. It is often filled with runners, walkers, bikers, strollers. There are young fit Jewish men and middle-aged Arab women trying to stay fit. I turn left to take a long climb to the old train station.

For twenty-nine years I have come to Jerusalem to learn. I came for university, for rabbinical school, for seminars, with my congregation, and for the past three years, for intensive study at the Shalom Hartman Institute. The Prophet Isaiah said: Ki Mitzion Tetzei Torah – Torah will go forth from Zion. He was right. It does.

I live on a street called Malal – it’s the acronym for Moshe Leib Lilienblum. He was born in Kovno in 1843. He became enamored with the writings of Jewish enlightenment thinkers and began rejecting his traditional orthodox upbringing and education. He was one of the early organizers of the first Zionist movements, and though he worked most of his life to lay the foundations for building a Jewish state, he lived his life in Odessa where he died in 1910.

Like him I have spent my life wrestling with how to blend the wisdom of our tradition with the insights of modern understanding. I struggle with how to fit that blend into my membership in the Jewish people. Like him I love the Jewish state and work as hard as I can to help build the Jewish homeland. Like him my heart is here but my home is far away.

Running uphill in Jerusalem requires some concentration. As I run I go deeper into myself: I think, I meditate, I write, I learn.

Beginning in the late 19th century, the Jewish people started to run. We ran from persecution and pogrom. We ran from the shtetl into the city. We ran from Europe to North America and to Palestine.  We ran to Jerusalem. It was an uphill climb. We were forced to adapt to new ways and places to live. We had to build homes where we were often unwelcome and unwanted. But as we ran, we thought, we meditated, we wrote, we learned.

At the top of the rise I reach the old Jerusalem train station. It has been renovated and is now a cool public plaza with restaurants, carnival games, shops, and a public theater where there are nightly performances. Many nights there is Israeli dancing. Often on Friday nights there is a public Shabbat Evening service. Last night was an Israeli Beatles cover band – you can only imagine.  Like so much in this city – it is old and new.

Theodor Herzl imagined this place in a novel he called Altneuland – Old/New Land.  My days in Jerusalem are like that.  I start and end my days in the modern city of Jerusalem. The texts I study bring me back to walk the streets with King David, with the priests and zealots who fought with Rome and each other, with sages and mystics and modern Zionists.  I am in dialogue with them all.  They are all my teachers.  I walk and run in their footsteps.

I reach what was the end of the line and turn to head back. Each step brings me closer to home. It’s downhill from here. I think about what I’ve learned these last three weeks. I’ve struggled with how text and tradition guide my individual journey in life, how I can be a better husband and father, brother, and son, what God requires of me as a Jew and as a human being.  I’ve struggled with Jerusalem herself, where I feel at home and yet am often told I am not really welcome. Twenty-four days of wrestling knead me like dough – I am softer and am ready to rise.

I return to my apartment – I live on the fourth floor. Each rise has 18 steps – there are no accidents in Torah or Jerusalem. I ascend. I am tired, but energized. In the apartment my bags are almost packed. My last morning in Jerusalem … I am almost home.

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What Are We Building?

In 2014, the Pew center found that 55 percent of Americans say that they pray every day.  That’s good.  I find myself praying a lot recently too.

But prayer can mean different things.  In Jewish tradition, prayer is not only a petitional exercise, asking God for the things we cannot deliver for ourselves.  Prayer is also a values-clarification exercise, a reminder of what really matters and what doesn’t.

In chapter 19 of the book of Leviticus, each of us are enjoined to strive for holiness in our lives and together to create a holy society.  The commandments here demand of us not simply fastidiousness in our personal behavior, but also describes how we are to interact with each other.  In defining for us what constitutes holy behavior, they also define how we build a good society.

When you reap the harvest of your land, you must leave unharvested the edges of the field and you may not gather in the gleanings that fall to the ground as you reap.  They must be left for the poor and the stranger.

You shall not steal; neither shall you deal falsely or lie to one another.  You shall not swear falsely.

You shall not oppress your neighbor nor rob him; you shall not delay in paying the wages of a hired worker.

You shall not curse the deaf, nor place a stumbling block before the blind.  You shall not commit unrighteousness in judgment, neither favoring the poor or the mighty.

You shall not go around as a gossip or bearer of tales.  You shall not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor.  You shall not hate your brother in your heart, but you shall offer rebuke.

You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself.

And if a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong.  The stranger that sojourns with you shall be as the home-born among you, and you shall love him as yourself. (Lev. 19:9-34)

Essentially, a holy society is one where we care for the poor and the vulnerable.  A holy society is one where we tell each other the truth.  A holy society is one where we are fair and honest, and we do not abuse or take advantage of each other.  A holy society is one where we make it easier for those who have a difficult journey, and see all as equal before the law.

A holy society is one where we guard not simply each other’s physical security, but also our emotional well-being.  A holy society is one where the stranger is made to feel safe and secure.  A holy society is one where we open our hearts to each other, where we feel each other’s pain, and where we suffer when others are suffering.

Think about where we are as a society at the end of 2017.  How wide is the gap between the society we were asked to create and the society we have created for ourselves?  More importantly, as we think about the direction the leaders of our country want to take us, are their proposals leading us toward a holy society or will their proposals make that gap even wider?

These are not partisan questions.  To me these are questions of fundamental morality.  I want our country to be a holy society.  And I am blessed to witness extraordinary acts of holiness by members of our community every day.  Members of my community volunteer to help care for the homeless and feed the hungry and ease the way of the poor.  Members of my community rally to help children coming into adulthood from foster homes.  Members of my community run and march to help find cures to pernicious disease.  Members of my community work to build bonds of understanding and friendship with people of different ethnic backgrounds and religious faiths.

But it is also important to demand that our national leaders ask themselves if each vote they take is helping to build our country into a holier society.  What are the foundational values and principles on which they are building their policies?

Do their proposals help the poor and the vulnerable?  Do they make it easier for the average person to get a quality education?  Do they make it easier for them to get care when they are sick?  Do they champion the humanity of the worker?  Do they make our society more fair and just, more caring and humane?

Do we, as a society, condone those who are not honest with us?  Are we ignoring the suffering of the Other?  Are we welcoming the stranger? Are we, as individuals, carrying hatred for each other in our hearts?

It is up to us to decide what kind of a society we want America to be. We must cultivate enough personal humility to admit where we fall short of our ideals, but we must also demand, of ourselves and of our leaders, that we do everything we can to build a society that is just, compassionate, and holy.

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Two Truths – Sermon For Yom Kippur 5778

In the Midrash, Rabbi Shimon said: When the Holy One was about to create humanity, the ministering angels formed themselves into groups.  Some of them said, “Create humanity!” while others urged, “Don’t create humanity.”

Love said, “Let him be created, because he will perform acts of love”; Truth said, “Let him not be created, because he is full of lies”; Righteousness said, “Let him be created, because he will perform righteous deeds”; Peace said, “Let him not be created, because he is full of strife.”

What did Holy One do? He took Truth and cast it to the ground.[1]

Centuries later, the great Hasidic sage Menachem Mendl of Kotzk – the Kotzker Rebbe – reflected on this teaching.  “Why did God only throw Truth down and not Peace as well, when Peace had also argued that humanity should not be created?”  So he answered: “The source of strife is that each person fights for his own truth.  But if one pushes Truth aside, there is no longer a cause to quarrel, there are no disputes, and no one to denounce Peace.”

Truth is a complicated thing.  Maybe the Kotzker Rebbe is right.  Battles over truth seem to fuel the conflicts that roil the globe. When we look at the great human conflicts in history, they often were not simply contests for land and treasure, but also conflicts of ideas and competing truths.  Fascism vs. democracy.  Communism versus capitalism.  Shiite versus Sunni, Catholic versus Protestant, orthodox versus Reform.  Right versus left.

More and more we see people retreating to their corners, refusing to work to compromise or even talk to people with whom they disagree.  We refuse to accept that the other side might actually have something to teach us.  We become so fixated on our vision of the truth, that not only do we refuse to accept that there is another truth, we demonize those who hold that different truth.  People who take positions opposite to the truth we know are either “useful idiots” or belong in a “basket of deplorables.”

The Psalms teach us that “Truth springs up from the earth (Psalm 85:12).” And sometimes it seems like truths grow like weeds. So perhaps the best things we can do is stop worrying so much about truth.  Maybe if we just stop spending so much time thinking and arguing about who was right and who was wrong, our world would be a much more peaceful place.

At the same time, imagine what would happen if we no longer were willing to fight for what we believe in?  With the dawning of the enlightenment in the 1700’s a new truth sprang forth from earth that changed the world: the idea that all people are created equal. This truth which rose up from the core of our texts and tradition is what gave birth to this nation.  The authors of this nation enshrined that truth in our founding documents, and posited the idea that Government should no longer be determined by the whims of a monarch, but instead government should be “of the people, by the people, and for the people.”

They were willing to stake their lives on those ideas.  Patrick Henry famously said: “Give me liberty or give me death!”  So convinced they were of the rightness of their ideas, they were willing to risk everything to advance their truths.

Similarly, after nearly two thousand years of living in exile from the land of Israel, at the end of the 19th century Theodor Herzl and the early Zionists realized that the Jewish people, like all peoples, had a right to live in peace, safety, and security in our own homeland.  Herzl worked himself into exhaustion fighting for this idea, a truth that had never been extinguished from the Jewish soul.  The proclamation: “Next year in Jerusalem” would no longer be a fantasy, but a reality.  “If you will it,” Herzl said, “then it is no dream.”

The struggle to realize that truth came to fruition just 70 years ago in the UN Partition plan which created the State of Israel, and is a truth thousands of our people have given their lives to secure.

But as committed as many are in fighting for the truth, the fact is that we, as human beings, have fundamental limitations on our ability to understand what is true. Gandhi once said: “What may appear as Truth to one person, will often appear as untruth to another person.”

We ought to fear anyone who claims with any certainty that they possess a monopoly on the truth. At the same time, to abandon a pursuit of the truth, or to shirk our responsibility to fight for what we know to be good and right can be a dangerous and grievous sin.

So what do we do?  I think the answer lies in a profound teaching from our tradition. There is a midrash which teaches that when God created humanity, God fashioned just one human creature, androgynous – male and female together. This first human being was created with two faces and no back.  But to create us as individuals, God sawed us in two – male and female, and suddenly each had a back.

The face is where we encounter and interact with the world. When we are little, our parents teach us – “look at me when I’m talking with you.”  When we want to disengage, we turn our faces away and turn our back to the world.[2]

From the beginning humanity was supposed to be able to look out at the world from all directions.  We had to learn to see in two directions at once, to see the world in 360 degrees, to embrace the full complexity and diversity of life.  We had to appreciate that there was more than one way of looking at a problem, more than one way of seeing the world.

As individuals and we have come to love our backs. We like to believe that there is only one right answer, only one right way, only one truth. And sometimes there is. But our lives are filled with contradictions.  What’s the right thing to do – take on additional responsibility at work or to spend more time at home with our children?  What’s the right thing to do – stretch for a once in a lifetime opportunity to travel and experience the world or to be more conservative and save for a rainy day?  What’s the right thing to do – try one more experimental treatment or let nature take its course?

Our world is filled with contradictions too.  There is a passionate debate going on in our country about the challenge of immigration.  How open should our society be to immigrants or to refugees? What should we do about individuals and families whose residence in America may not have been secured through the legal process?

For example, let’s suppose Hector comes from Honduras, where the menacing violence of the drug cartels make it impossible for his son to go to school without being forced to join a drug gang.  So he takes his son on summer break to visit cousins in America.  During his visit, he tells his family the horrors of everyday life in his home country.  So they encourage him to stay with them.  His cousin helps Hector get a job with his friend’s landscaping company, and his son starts going to school in the fall.  They thrive.  Hector and his cousin eventually start their own landscaping company which employs 20 people, he buys a house, his son becomes a straight-A student and applies to college.  They realize the America dream.

So the truth of the matter is this.  The rule of law is intrinsic to the essence of Judaism and is fundamental to a moral society.  In the midrash, the rabbis teach: “The whole Torah is dependent on the rule of law – that is why the Holy One gave a set of laws that follow the 10 commandments.”[3]  Judaism is about creating a moral and just society that is dependent on the rule of law.  In rendering judgment, the Torah teaches us not to show favor to the rich or the poor, but to adhere simply to the facts of the case and the law.  Hector, like millions of immigrants who did not follow the legal process, broke the law, and so he must be prepared to accept the consequences of his decision to break the law.

And the truth of the matter is this.  The admonition to love the stranger is intrinsic to the essence of Judaism and is fundamental to a moral society.  In the book of Deuteronomy, Moses commands us to: “Cut away, therefore, the thickening about your hearts, and don’t be so stiff-necked. For Adonai your God … upholds the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the stranger, providing him with food and clothing.  You too must love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt (Deuteronomy 10:17-19).”  The command to care for the stranger recurs no less than 36 times in the Torah, more than any other commandment, and demands that we protect the stranger not simply from physical violence, but economic oppression and emotional harm.  As Jews who have wandered the globe for two thousand years, always the people who were “not from here” we know what it is to need safe haven and to have doors slammed in our face, to suffer expulsion, deportation, and xenophobic hatred.  We also know that our people has benefited from the American dream perhaps more than any immigrant community in our nation’s history – how can we not be moved with compassion by those who follow in our footsteps?

The truth of the matter is this:  there is more than one truth. It is right and fair and honest to say that the moral core of our tradition teaches two truths – that the rule of law must be venerated as a primary moral value, AND that our responsibility to protect the vulnerable and welcome the stranger is also a primary moral value.  When we cultivate the ability to hold two truths in tension, we can use the energy that tension generates to find a creative and moral solution.

Yom Kippur – the Day of Atonement – is a day that demands Teshuva which means engaging a process of repentance and return.  But a return to what?  To whom?  Perhaps what we need to return to on this Yom Kippur is the core essence of who we were at the beginning of our human journey.  Perhaps we need to return to a time when we had no back, when we had two faces and could see more than one truth at a time.

Maybe instead of seeing only one truth, and turning our back on the other, perhaps we can open our hearts a little wider to see if we can find room for more than one truth – the truth we know and the truths others know.  Making room for more than one truth does not mean abandoning the truth you know.  But if we can hold more than one truth at a time, we may find that we learn a great deal from simply listening to both.

Parker Palmer, in his book Healing the Heart of Democracy teaches that in a world of competing truths, we need two things: chutzpah and humility.  “By chutzpah I mean knowing that I have a voice that needs to be heard and the right to speak it.  By humility I mean accepting the fact that my truth is always partial and may not be true at all – so I need to listen with openness and respect, especially to ‘the other’ as much as I need to speak my own voice with clarity and conviction.”[4]

The fact is that none of us possesses the entire truth.  In the course of our lifetimes, with education and experience, we can learn to appreciate just a fraction.  We must begin to realize that the way to heal our broken society is not to destroy those whose truth is different from our own, but to expand our hearts to hold the tension of multiple truths. Ultimately, it is when we are willing to hold two different truths together, even contradictory truths, that is when we get closer to understanding the larger truth that only the Holy One possesses.

The Talmud teaches us that in ancient times there was a dispute between the two great academies of Hillel and Shammai that threatened to split the Jewish people itself.  One asserted, the law is in keeping with our view, and the other contended, the law is in keeping with our view.  Then the rabbis suggest something amazing: A voice from the Holy One called out from the heavens saying: “Elu V’Elu Divrei Elohim Chayim – these words and those words are the words of the living God.”[5]

We will begin to heal our fractured world when we can begin to see in the truth others hold an echo of the Holy One’s commanding voice.  Learning to see the world through two sets of eyes will teach us to see the world as God sees it.  Elu V’Elu Divrei Elohim Chayim – these words and those words are the words of the living God. Just as the psalms teach us that “Truth springs up from the earth (Psalm 85:12), so may we endeavor in our lives to cultivate in our world a garden where different truths may take root and grow and thrive.  In this New Year, may we gather from that garden a beautiful bouquet, a larger truth whose fragrance and sprit will inspire us to be more at one with God, and more at one with each other.

[1] Bereishit Rabba 8:5

[2] My deepest thanks to Rabbi Tamar Elad Appelbaum of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem for sharing this insight in her webinar “On The Threshold of a New Year”.

[3] Nachmanides commentary to Exodus 21:1 in The Commentators Bible: Exodus edited by Michael Carasik.  Philadelphia: JPS, 2005 p. 168.

[4] Parker J. Palmer, Healing the Heart of Democracy.  San Francisco:  Jossey-Bass, 2011, p. 43.

[5] Talmud Babli – Eruvin 13b

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