Sermon for Rosh HaShanah Morning – Transcending Blame

 

In the spring of 2006, Lieutenant Commander Jocko Willink led US Navy SEAL Team Three, Task Unit Bruiser into what became known as the “Battle of Ramadi” – the effort to liberate the war-torn capital city of Al Anbar province from the grips of the Iraqi insurgency. The first major operation kicked off before sunrise and within hours, both SEAL team elements were attacked and embroiled in serious gunfights.

Rolling up behind an Abrams tank, Jocko saw its main gun pointed at a building. He asked the gunnery sergeant: “What’s going on?”  The sergeant related that they were engaged with hard-core enemy fighters who were putting up a serious fight.

Jocko looked around. Something didn’t add up. They were close to where one of the other SEAL teams was supposed to be. In the mayhem they hadn’t reported their exact location, but it should have been close. And the group he was with wasn’t supposed to have entered that sector for a few hours.

“Hold what you got, Gunny,” he said. “I’m going to check it out.” The sergeant looked at him like he was crazy or suicidal. They had been engaged in a vicious firefight with enemy fighters who could not be dislodged. With his rifle at the ready, he kicked the door down to find himself face-to-face with one of the SEAL platoon chiefs, who stared at him with wide-eyed surprise.

At that moment it all became clear. In the fog of war, each thought the other was the Iraqi insurgent enemy. It was a blue-on-blue – friendlies attacking one another – the worst thing that could happen.

The next day, the investigation began. There was frustration, anger, and disappointment. How could this have happened? Jocko went back over everything: the list of mistakes was substantial. But something was missing. Who was to blame for this horrible mistake?

“Then it hit me,” he said. “There was only one person to blame for everything that had gone wrong on the operation: me. … I am the commander…. I am responsible for every action that takes place on the battlefield. There is no one to blame but me.”

As painful and difficult as it was to admit that to the troops he led and his superior officers, Jocko learned that the best leaders don’t just take responsibility for their job, they take Extreme Ownership of everything that impacts the mission. As individuals, we often attribute the success of others to luck or circumstances and make excuses for our own failures and the failures of our team. We blame our own poor performance on back luck, circumstances beyond our control, or poorly performing subordinates – anyone but ourselves. Taking ownership when things go wrong requires extraordinary humility and courage. And that humility and courage is often hard to come by.

Jewish tradition posited an extraordinary idea in ancient times – the concept that humanity was created in God’s image. We are reminded of the teaching in the Mishna that God created swarms of every living thing but just one human being to teach that to destroy a single human life is as if one destroyed an entire world, but to save a single life is as if one saved an entire world. The Mishna teaches: one single person was created so that one should not say to another, ‘My father was greater than your father’. … Therefore everyone must say, “For my sake was the world created.”[1]

This idea has finally taken root in modern society. For so many years, groups and individuals suffered persecution, discrimination, and slaughter because of humanity’s inability to see other human beings as holy and divine. People used to believe that a person’s status ought be determined by class or skin color, by gender, or ethnic heritage or religious faith. But over time, western societies came to understand that each and every human life is of equal and infinite value, not by virtue of who they are on the outside, but by virtue of their inherent holiness within.

And the realization that every single life is precious changed the world. In America, the understanding of each person’s inherent inner worth is what inspired Abolitionists to fight for the Emancipation of black slaves. It is what inspired the suffrage movement one hundred years ago that gave women the right to vote. It is what inspired Gandhi to lead a non-violent campaign to liberate the people of India. It is what inspired the Jewish people to claim their right to self-determination, and to return to the land of Israel to rebuild their ancient and modern homeland. It is what inspired Martin Luther King to declare on the National Mall: “I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.”

Because we believe a person has essential infinite worth, when a society nevertheless continues to denigrate or demean or marginalize someone we naturally feel overwhelmed with outrage. “It is not enough,” writes Francis Fukuyama, “that I have a sense of my own worth if other people do not publicly acknowledge it or, worse yet, if they denigrate me or don’t acknowledge my existence. It is not the inner self that has to be made to conform to society’s rules, but society itself that needs to change.”[2]

When black children go to school in a building so neglected that wild mushrooms are growing in the classrooms, where there are no books or materials, and where the teacher cares so little that he arrives in class, writes an assignment on the board, and then proceeds to sit and read the newspaper, they are entitled to outrage at a system that sees them not as individuals of infinite worth, but as people whose futures and education are expendable.

When women go to work and are forced to endure daily comments about their bodies or their dress, or suffer unwanted advances or sexual harassment or assault, they are entitled to outrage at a system that sees them as objects for someone else’s gratification.

And when our blood boils with outrage we produce the greatest soul-destroying toxin in the universe: resentment.

Resentment is the spiritual poison that is released when our needs are not met, when we feel undervalued, belittled, or discounted. Resentment is the number one toxin that destroys relationships. It is not simply the poison produced from experiencing intolerance and hate. It is also the poison that causes intolerance and hate.

Antisemitism is often called “the oldest hatred.” It is a shape-shifting virus that Deborah Lipstadt likens to Herpes – it lies dormant until stress and a hospitable atmosphere awakens the infection.[3]

Eighty years ago, the Nazis were able to combine two perverse theories into an explosive recipe for hate. In the aftermath of World War I, the brutal consequences of the Treaty of Versailles assaulted the German people’s sense of dignity and self-worth. Hitler played on the Germany’s sense of victimization and resentment by pinning blame on the Jews for their misery and misfortune. In addition, theories of eugenics taught that Jews themselves were subhuman, and so not entitled to the same human dignity and respect to which Germans themselves felt entitled. Germany’s emphatic embrace of resentment and hate transformed mechanized murder into a moral good and genocide a moral response.

We see the same profession of victimhood and resentment by today’s modern antisemites. The advent of globalization and the massive disparity of wealth between the elite and most Americans has prompted a wave of resentment and sense of victimization across the right wing. The Neo-Nazis who marched in Charlottesville chanting “Jews will not replace us” subscribe to a perverse theory that white Americans are victims of a global conspiracy by Jews who diabolically pull the world’s to replace them with non-white immigrants. It’s the Jews who are to blame.

Robert Bowers, may his name be blotted out, who killed eleven people and injured seven at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh in the deadliest attack ever on a Jewish community in the United States, was attracted to websites that promoted that same sense of victimhood. He bore deep resentment toward the Hebrew Immigration Aid Society for their work in assisting participants in the Central American caravans moving toward the United States. The day of the attack, he wrote in in a hate-filled internet post: “HIAS likes to bring invaders in that kill our people. I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics, I’m going in.”

Bowers and others on the right cultivate a sense of their own victimhood with Jews as the oppressors. It’s easier to blame the Jews for their grievances than to take responsibility for building a better life.

But antisemitism does not live only among Neo-Nazis, white supremacists, and other dangerous right wing hate groups who nurse their own sense of resentment and victimhood.  It is just as pernicious on the left.

There is a growing sense of a culture of victimhood and resentment that animates groups who claim historical discrimination and marginalization. Both Jewish and black Americans suffered discrimination and hatred. In response, Jews embraced liberal values that called not simply for Jewish liberation but equal rights for everyone, regardless of gender, race, country of origin, or religion. It is no accident that Jews were at the forefront of the fight for civil rights in America.  Among the founders of the NAACP were Henry Moscowitz and Joel and Arthur Springarn. It was Rabbi Dick Hirsch that gave Martin Luther King his first office in Washington at the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism.

But at the same time Jews enjoyed certain privilege that Black Americans did not. Jews, for example, could use the benefits of the GI bill to reap the advantages of a college education while Black GI’s were constrained by being denied admission to most colleges and universities.  As Jews advanced in professional accomplishments and grew more wealthy and powerful, Jews came to be seen as part of the power structure that contributed to a system of racial prejudice and oppression.

In this environment grew the stereotypes of Jewish wealth and conspiracy theories of Jewish power. And into this environment came the resentment of Jewish power not only in America, but in Israel as well.

Despite the precarious circumstance of Israel’s birth, and the persistent threat of violence and war, Israel has grown to be an extraordinarily prosperous and powerful nation. The prism of victimhood sees the power of Israel’s military and the weakness of the Palestinians and automatically confers on the Palestinians the moral purity of the victim without ever asking what responsibility they bear for their own plight.  The natural right of Jews to self-determination in our ancient homeland is instead recast as an illegitimate white colonialist enterprise that supplanted and oppressed the rightful indigenous people.

Criticism of Israel’s policies has morphed into full-blown antisemitism. In the name of progressive rights for the oppressed, Israel is singled out as the only nation in the world whose right to exist is called into question. Bari Weiss in her recent book How To Fight Anti-Semitism notes that Anti-Zionists will say they care about religious minorities, but are curiously silent about the treatment of Uighurs in China, the Rohingya in Myanmar or the forced modern exodus of Christians from the Middle East.[4]  They will say they care about the rights of indigenous people to self-determination but ignore the plight of nearly 30 million Kurdish people scattered in Iran, Iraq, Turkey and Syria who have no country of their own.  And of course, there is no discussion of the continued violence perpetrated against Israel by terrorist groups like Hamas or Hizbullah, or condemnation of Iran’s repeated promises to wipe Israel off the map.

Because Anti-Zionists conflate support for Israel with promoting injustice and oppression, Jews themselves must check their Judaism at the door or risk accusations of dual-loyalties. A UCLA student who applied to the student judicial board was asked at her confirmation interview if her affiliation with a Jewish sorority and Hillel would make her biased and unable to adjudicate student affairs.  At the University of Virginia, Jewish student activists were barred from admission in a minority student coalition to fight white supremacy.[5] Last year, two professors at the University of Michigan professor refused to write letters of recommendation for students applying for study programs in Israel.[6]

Alan Johnson wrote in Fathom Journal: “Antisemitic anti-Zionism bends the meaning of Israel and Zionism out of shape until both become fit receptacles for the tropes, images and ideas of classical antisemitism. In short, that which the demonological Jew once was, demonological Israel now is: uniquely malevolent, full of blood lust, all-controlling, the hidden hand, tricksy, always acting in bad faith, the obstacle to a better, purer, more spiritual world, uniquely deserving of punishment.”[7]

To me, there is no question that people who have suffered displacement, persecution, and discrimination deserve to be outraged, but is resentment the solution? We who have suffered from denigration, hatred, and violence can spend our lifetimes assigning blame for our plight, but what does it get us?

Those who feel left behind by the transformations in the global economy or who feel threatened by the changes in American culture can blame the elites in New York and California or blame immigrants coming from Latin America, but their resentment won’t change their lives for the better.

Those who feel victimized and marginalized by a system built on racism and misogyny can blame the white power structure, or take umbrage at cultural appropriation and micro-aggressions, but stifling rational discourse and freedom of speech won’t make the difference we need.

And for us as Jews, nursing our resentments isn’t the right path either. Certainly we must take antisemitism seriously. We must call out bigotry on the right and say with full voice this cannot stand.  We must call out intolerance on the left and say with full voice that anti-Zionism is antisemitism.

But if we truly want to advance the cause of justice and the eradication of prejudice then we need more than righteous indignation.  Instead, we simply need righteousness.

Righteousness demands that we be truly honest with ourselves and recognize the privileges we enjoy as Jews in America. Righteousness also demands that we work for justice to ensure that marginalized groups are given fair access to opportunities to learn and grow and prosper. Righteousness demands that we not simply fight antisemitism, but all the other “isms” that denigrate, objectify, and oppress.

Righteousness demands that we support law enforcement and honor those who work to keep us safe. Righteousness also demands that we examine our biases and prejudices and insist that we police with fairness, kindness, compassion and restraint.

Righteousness demands that we that we reject chauvinism and xenophobia and work to ease the way of the stranger.  Righteousness also demands that we grow more sensitive to how a changing world impacts those who feel shunted aside though they tried to be honest, and loyal, and play by the rules.

Righteousness demands that we support, protect, and defend the State of Israel and work to promote her security and prosperity. Righteousness also demands that we implore Israel’s leaders to work for the values and principles of equality, fairness, and inclusion for all its inhabitants on which the State itself was founded.

We cannot become trapped in a vortex of victimhood, resentment, and blame. We must instead take Extreme Ownership for the future we want to create.

Let the sounding of the shofar drown out the voices of hate, and call us to renounce a culture of victimhood, resentment and blame. Let the shofar instead call us to righteousness, to come together to take responsibility for what our world has become, and make it our individual and collective mission to remedy injustice, fight intolerance, and eradicate hatred. This is how we must live. This is how we must lead.  This is the fight we must win.

[1] Mishna Sanhedrin 4:5

[2] Francis Fukuyama, Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2018, pp. 9-10.

[3] Deborah Lipstadt in conversation with Yehuda Kurtzer. Shalom Hartman Institute Jerusalem – July 8, 2019

[4] Bari Weiss, How To Fight Anti-Semitism. New York: Crown, 2019, pp. 108-109

[5] Ibid, p. 88.

[6] https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2018/10/10/second-professor-university-michigan-declines-write-recommendation-letter-student

[7] http://fathomjournal.org/the-left-and-the-jews-time-for-a-rethink/

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Sermon for Rosh HaShanah Evening: Parenting Us?

Sermon for Rosh HaShanah Evening

September 29, 2019 – 1 Tishri, 5780

Temple Beth El of Boca Raton

Rabbi Daniel Levin

In 2011, psychologists Richard Eibach and Steven Mock from the University of Waterloo published an odd study in the journal of the Association for Psychological Science. They gathered eighty fathers and mothers with at least one child under the age of 18 and studied whether parents honestly derive real satisfaction and joy from the process of parenting.

What did they find?  When presented with the economic costs of raising children and the inherent sacrifices that come from parenting, they discovered something extraordinary – that the claim of parental happiness is actually a psychological defense. “In other words,” they wrote, “we parents have collectively created the myth of parental joy because otherwise we would have a hard time justifying the huge investment that kids require.”[1]

It was just as fascinating to read the comments from readers at the end of the article.  I was shocked by how many people resonated with the researchers. Many said they chose not to have children and were glad they didn’t become parents. Others talked about how incredibly difficult parenting was – some even expressing regret for having children at all.

At the same time, there were others who talked about how parenthood was the most meaningful thing they ever did. Sure it was “the hardest job you will ever do,” but the satisfaction and joy that came from sharing love with children brought a fulfillment they could never replace.

Can we be real for a moment?  Parenting is hard. Really hard. It’s incredibly demanding to be a parent. From the moment of conception the physical demands of motherhood are literally and figuratively gut-wrenching. Then they give you this amazing, holy, and precious child – and it immediately begins vomiting on you. They shriek at all hours of the day and night. They poop in the tub. You offer them healthy food – they won’t eat it. You ask them to go to sleep, they run around and scream. You ask them to do their homework, to help with the dishes, to pick up their clothes or their toys – they ignore you. You bring them on vacation, they whine that they’re tired or they want ice-cream.

I remember when my kids were very small I was talking with the father of a bat mitzvah girl. “Dan,” he said. “You know how your kids are so cute and delicious you feel like you could just eat them? And then they get to be my kid’s age and you wish you had.”

It can be so frustrating sometimes as a parent. We’ve been around the block a few times and we’ve seen a few things. We know the mistakes we made, and we remember the mistakes our parents made too.  If they would just do what we tell them, if they would just heed our advice, we know they would be so much happier. Why won’t they just listen?!?

Our celebration of Rosh HaShanah asks us to think about parenthood, but in a very different way. Among the most familiar features of the liturgy is the litany we just recited – Avinu Malkeinu. It begins with a story in the Talmud, where the people were suffering a terrible drought. Rabbi Eliezer stood before the open ark on a fast day and recited twenty-four blessings, but he was not answered. Rabbi Akiva then came before the ark after him and said: Avinu Malkeinu, Ayn Lanu Melech Ela Ata – Our Father, our King, we have no king other than You. Avinu Malkeinu, L’Ma-ancha Rachem Aleinu – Our Father, our King, for Your sake, have mercy on us. And rain immediately fell.”[2]

Why refer to God as Avinu Malkeinu – a father and a ruler? The land of Israel was not like Egypt, the rabbis teach, where water flowed easily from the Nile. Instead, the Israelites were like children, completely dependent on their parent for sustenance. Thus Akiva called out to God as a child calls out to a parent – “Hey I’m thirsty. I need you to get me something to drink.”

For some, Avinu Malkeinu can be an alienating construct. Some of us grew up without fathers, or had relationships with our fathers that were traumatic and abusive. For many, the image of God expressed in the masculine amplifies the sense of marginalization for women.  Today we live in a modern democracy, far removed from the experience of a monarch – tyrannical or benevolent.

Imagine, however, what it must be like to be the Holy One. Imagine what it must be like to parent us.

The mystic Isaac Luria taught that at the beginning of time, God’s presence spread from one end of the universe to the other. But then God was overwhelmed with love and decided to create a world. In order for the world to come into being, God had to perform a cosmic act of self-contraction – Tzimtzum – in order to make space for the world. Into the darkness of the vacuum created by God’s receding presence was born the world. But then God was overwhelmed with love a second time and God decided to restore God’s light to the darkened world. The light returned through a ladder of holy vessels filled with God’s essence – first through wisdom, then through understanding, then through compassion, then through strict justice, and further down into the world. The lower vessels could not contain the power of God’s light, and in a massive cataclysm, the vessels shattered, sending shards of broken holiness into the world.

And then God was overwhelmed with love again, and God said: “Let us create humanity in our image after our likeness…” And in creating us, God asked us to be God’s partners in lifting up the broken shards and doing the work of Tikkun – repair of the broken world.

We who are blessed to have become parents know something of the Divine Joy the Holy One experienced in bringing the world into being. Like Hannah, whose story we tell tomorrow, we know what it is to be completely consumed with love and desire to bring a child into the world. Many know the agony and frustration from having that dream thwarted. We know what it is to perform Tzimtzum – sacrificing our own wants and needs to make room for a child. We know the sublime, transcendent, exultant ecstasy that comes from the spiritual bonds we share with our children, and in helping them discover the holiness in our world and the holiness in themselves.

We want to ensure our children have everything – to protect them from pain, to keep them on the right path, to plant them in a Garden of Eden in which they know no want but only tranquility and peace.

But we can’t. And that’s the most difficult part. Our children will wander off. They will know disappointment. They will suffer injuries and pain. They will push us away, reject what we offer, come crying back for reassurance, and drift away again. The world we give our children is shattered and broken. It is filled with opportunity for untold blessing, but also replete with potential for disaster.

How can we teach them to protect themselves from harm, how can we teach them to build a moral core and the spiritual strength to lift up those broken shards and do the work of repair?

So it was that in another extraordinary act of love, God gave us the gift of Torah – the blueprints for the creation of the world.

Our very existence is a product of Divine love. We have been given so many extraordinary gifts – life is an embarrassment of blessings. We are each given the gift of life, the astonishing opportunity to simply live and experience the wonder of being. We are given intellects that can consider and reason, that can invent and innovate – we are given souls that can wonder and adore, that can remember and can dream. And we were given the gift of Torah, a Divine gift of wisdom that can lead us to experience the profound depths of holy experience, to to resolve the inequities and injustices of human life, and to channel the holy gift of love to restore and heal this shattered world.

And like petulant children – we take it all for granted. We say to the Holy One – “What do you know anyways? You think you can tell me what to do? I don’t need you. We live in the 21st century. Fifty years ago we landed a man on the moon. We mapped the human genome. We created artificial intelligence. We have air conditioning and impact glass. We have thousands of channels, cellular phones, Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, and Twitter. We are modern autonomous, liberated, independent, sovereign selves – completely in control of our lives and our destinies. Avinu Malkeinu? – Feh.

The Holy One tells us, “Do not bow down to idols or worship the work of your hands.”  Then we spend our lives in pursuit of material gain and wonder why we still feel empty no matter how much we buy.

The Holy One tells us, “keep Shabbat and make it holy.” Then we spend our lives on the run with our heads in our screens seven days a week and wonder why we feel burned out and why we seem disconnected from the people that matter most to us and why we never seem to have a moment just to stop and think.

The Holy One tells us, “do not steal or deal deceitfully or falsely with one another.” And American businesses lose $652 billion in fraud each and every year, causing enormous suffering for individuals and families.

The Holy One tells us “Justice, justice shall you pursue.” And then we tolerate systems that trap the poor in poverty, that insulate glass ceilings and institutionalize inequality, and then exude surprise when oppressed groups cry out in resentment over the injustices they suffer.

And then, on the flipside, there are other times when we ask God to be a helicopter parent. We ask God to ensure our prosperity, we entreat God to protect us from sickness, from violence, and hunger, and we beseech God to come down and fix it for us when things go wrong. How often have you closed your eyes in prayer and said: “Oh God, let it be okay…”? And when we don’t get the outcome we wanted, we blame God for all our anguish and misfortune.

Can we imagine what it must be like for the Holy One, Avinu Malkeinu – our Divine parent and ruler – to parent us?

Sure we can – because we know what it is to be overwhelmed with love. We see our children make mistakes and poor decisions, behave in ways that self-sabotage and appear self-destructive, and languish in confusion, alienation, and dissatisfaction. And our hearts break for them.

Our hearts break for them not because their behavior is a reflection on us as parents. Our hearts break for them not because they may not achieve whatever society and we have imagined to qualify as success. Our hearts break for them because there is nothing we can do to alleviate their suffering.  We hold our arms open wide, waiting to embrace them, to comfort them, to reassure them and support them. We wait and we wonder … will they come?

A friend of mine has a daughter who became addicted to drugs. While she was in high school he sent her to program after program to help her find recovery. Still she could not become clean. In college, her addiction grew worse, and she eventually dropped out of school. Each successive effort at detox and rehab would eventually result in relapse. Finally, he realized he could not love her out of her addiction. He could not want recovery for her. It had to be her choice. He accepted that the best way to love her was to let her go – to let her figure it out on her own. “I never knew there could be pain like this,” he said. “But my love alone is not enough.”

Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik teaches that when we sin, we don’t just do injury to ourselves – we do injury to God. Just as when our children harm themselves they inflict injury to our souls, so too do we harm the Holy One when we fail to live up to our potential.

But it is when our children find themselves that we realize our mission as parents.

Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook wrote: “The primary role of penitence … is for the person to return to himself, to the root of his soul. Then he will at once return to God, to the Soul of all souls … It is only through the great truth of returning to oneself that the person and the people, the world and all the worlds, the whole of existence, will return to their Creator, to be illumined by the light of life.”

There is no greater joy for a parent than when our children embrace that sense of their own worth, when they realize the best version of themselves, when they find a path in life that gives them meaning and purpose and a sense of fulfillment and peace.

Recently my friend shared with me an amazing call he received from his daughter. After her last stint in rehab she moved up north and started a new life. She got a job, attends her recovery meeting every day, and was living in a halfway house. He hadn’t spoken to her in several months, when the phone rang with a number he didn’t recognize. It was his daughter. “Daddy,” she said. “I’m calling you from my own phone which I just bought this week. I bought it with my own money that I earned from my job. It’s mine. I’m so proud of myself.”

In tears, he told me he had never been more proud of his daughter in her life. After all the years of pain and anguish, the tears this time were tears of sheer joy and happiness.

Tradition teaches throughout the centuries that God too is waiting for us to find ourselves. God too is waiting for us to call. And when we return, we will find love, only love.

So in this New Year, we ought each of us to do what we can to provide that sense of joy to God as our parent.

Avinu Malkeinu, let this be the year when we finally decided to listen to the Divine guidance your Torah and tradition have to offer.

Avinu Malkeinu, let this be the when we cultivate in ourselves a sense of humility and realize that maybe we don’t have all the answers.

Avinu Malkeinu, let this be the year when we turn away from our own selfish cares and concerns and instead embrace the mission to live with gratitude and in service to others.

Avinu Malkeinu, let this be the year when we finally decided to honor our parents, mortal and Divine.

As the legendary prophet of children Fred Rogers once said: “Parents are like shuttles on a loom. They join the threads of the past with threads of the future and weave their own bright patterns as they go.”

Avinu Malkeinu, our holy, nurturing, loving parent, we give thanks for the tapestry of Torah and tradition you have helped our parents and our parents’ parents to weave for us. May we, in this New Year 5780, gather the threads of the future and weave them into a fabric that expresses our gratitude for the gift of life we are given, that represents the very best version of ourselves, and that helps us return to You, embraced by your love for us, our love for each other, and an honest love for ourselves. Inscribe us for blessing in the Book of Life – and give us peace.

[1] https://www.psychologicalscience.org/news/were-only-human/the-myth-of-joyful-parenthood.html

[2] Babylonian Talmud Ta’anit 25b

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Seeing In The Dark

Last summer, I participated in an extraordinary workshop called Na-Laga’at. It literally means – “please touch.”

We were led into a room which was pitch dark – so dark that you could not see your hand in front of your face. We found our way to our seats with our hands on the shoulders of the person ahead of us. It was only the voices across and next to us that told us with whom we sat, and only their touch that revealed their presence.

In the darkness, we were tasked to collaborate on project made from clay. The only way to complete the project was to listen carefully, to explore our imaginations, and to summon the patience and perseverance to work together.

This week’s Torah portion, Parashat Bo, describes the last of the Ten Plagues the Holy One sent to wrest the Israelites free from Egyptian slavery. For the second-to-last plague, God plunges Egypt into thick darkness.

“Then YHVH said to Moses: ‘Hold out your arm toward the sky that there may be darkness upon the land of Egypt, a darkness that can be touched.’ Moses held out his arm toward the sky and thick darkness descended upon all the land of Egypt for three days. People could not see one another, and for three days no one could get up from where he was; but all the Israelites enjoyed light in their dwellings. (Exodus 10:21-23)”

Rabbi Ze’ev Wolf of Zhitomir, reflected on this verse by teaching that “People have eyes, yet they do not see … they are too busy justifying their own ways, whether good or ill. … This is the great darkness in all the Land of Egypt.”

Darkness seems to render us alone. Blinded, we see nothing and no one. And without the awareness of the presence of others, we may choose to focus solely on ourselves.

This is what the darkness taught the Egyptians – That if they focus only on themselves, and refuse to see each other, then in that darkness they will become paralyzed – they will never get up and move from where they are.

The Zhitomir Rebbe explained that because they could not “see” they didn’t consider anyone but themselves … they didn’t take to heart how much they could learn from the goodness of the people around them. … They kept finding fault and lack in others, glorifying their own deeds. This led them to walk about in darkness and to see no light. People like that cannot progress from one rung to the next; no person could rise from where he was.”

In this horrible week, our nation continues to drown in darkness. Our leaders refuse to see. They insist that theirs is the only path. They refuse to collaborate or compromise. And their stubborn arrogance is visiting unwarranted and unnecessary hardship on the most vulnerable in our country.

And yet this week, I also found some rays of light in the midst of the darkness. We began our Civil Discourse Issues Series, learning the techniques to break down the barriers that keep us from truly knowing each other and how we can enter into safe and productive dialogue with those with whom we do not see eye to eye.

Temple Beth El and Boca Raton Synagogue, along with several community partners welcomed a platoon of Israeli soldiers who experienced untold trauma in the midst of their service to the State of Israel and the IDF. In the embrace of our community, they will engage in intensive group therapy, and enjoy some welcome pampering and fun with our host families. They seek to banish the darkness of their service, and learn to truly see each other and themselves.

Each of these initiatives teaches us an extraordinary truth. We have the power to banish darkness from our world. If we are willing to listen to each other with humility and respect, if we are willing to reach out and touch each other irrespective of our difference, if we are willing to collaborate even though we differ, we can move beyond the darkness into a radiant and holy light.

The Zhitomir Rebbe teaches us that we liberate ourselves from darkness by always striving to learn from each other.

We become enlightened when we embrace the light of truth shining from within the Other.

We only move forward when, even in the midst of the deepest darkness, we grasp the hands of those around us, and find our way together.

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Thanksgiving and Interdependence

In 1621, after a brutal winter in which nearly a third of their band succumbed to the harshness of life on new shores, the European pilgrims sat for a three-day feast with their Native neighbors to celebrate a successful harvest. The two different peoples, we are taught, understood their growing interdependence, and how together they could forge a life in which they could dwell together in harmony and peace.

The story of Thanksgiving is one of gratitude for interdependence. It is a celebration of how the cultivation of humility helps us to realize the value of difference, how much we need to rely on the wisdom and experience of the Other.

Jewish tradition teaches us to give thanks throughout every single day. In the very moment of waking each morning, we are taught to say: “Modeh Ani L’Fanecha – I am grateful before You … that you have returned my soul to me.” Our first words of the day express our gratitude for life. Three times a day in prayer we are taught to offer thanks. We don’t need to wait for the fourth Thursday in November.

Each day I give thanks for the blessings of my life – for my good health and the health of my wife, children, and family. I give thanks for our prosperity – for the fact that we have a strong roof over our heads, that we have plenty of food to eat, clothing to wear, safety and security. I give thanks for all the personal blessings I am so fortunate to enjoy. Especially this year, when so many are missing loved ones taken by the scourge of illness and violence, I hold my family close.

But Thanksgiving reminds us to be grateful for the United States of America.

I am grateful for the ideals on which this country was founded – the idea that all are created equal, the idea that we are endowed with certain inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. I am grateful for the freedoms that America made sacrosanct – the freedom to say what I choose, to worship how I choose, to print what I choose, and to gather with whomever I choose.

I am grateful that the American dream rejects autocracy and tyranny, and that our founders fought to ensure that no one person should possess power that cannot be checked. I am grateful that America’s experiment with democracy continues to empower every citizen with the rights and responsibility to elect a government of the people, by the people, and for the people. I am grateful that no matter how contentious our politics, we still transfer power from one party to another without firing a single shot.

But on this Thanksgiving, I give thanks for those who fight for those American ideals. I give thanks for the valor and courage of those who serve our country in uniform, many of whom will spend this Thanksgiving in harm’s way far from home. I give thanks for those who give their lives for public service, who resist the cynicism of selfish gratification to work for a better society for all. I give thanks for those who work to open and grow the minds of our children, who give them the tools they need to understand themselves, to build a moral core, and to find paths to lives of personal meaning and larger purpose. I give thanks for those who fight for justice, who work to protect the vulnerable, the needy, and the weak.

To secure the virtues of the American ideal, we must embrace our collective interdependence with those who are different than we.

No matter whether we are indigenous to this land, came here for new opportunities, fled here from persecution or were brought here in chains – we are interdependent.

No matter what religious faith we embrace, or even if we embrace no religious faith – we are interdependent.

No matter our gender – male or female or somewhere in between – we are interdependent.

No matter whether we are rich or poor – we are interdependent.

No matter whether our skin is dark or light – we are interdependent.

No matter how we build our families or whom we are drawn to love – we are interdependent.

No matter our political philosophy or which party we choose to support – we are interdependent.

That interdependence demands that we harness our collective American spirit to look out for each other, to lift up each other, to work as hard as we can to ensure that the ideals of America become the reality of America. May this Thanksgiving inspire us to gratitude for our individual blessings, and inspire in us a collective resolve to stand up for the values of the American ideal.

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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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